Song of the Critic

Willa Cather turns her sharp eye on the theater 

HUMANITIES, May/June 2008, Volume 29, Number 3

From The Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The great American novelist Willa Cather, whose life and work have been the subject of numerous NEH-supported projects, paid her way through college by writing theater reviews. These might be furnished as proof, if it were ever needed, that the author of the seemingly quaint novels My Ántonia and O Pioneers! possessed an edge sharpened by the habits of judgment and candor.

The dramatization of a novel is not so easy as it looks. “She” was a very successful book, but it does not even make a fairly successful play. Of course the fact that the dramatization was made by an illiterate man must be considered, but even more offensive than the style of writing is the strained and undramatic tone of the piece. A play that is spread out over several thousand years and several continents is apt to lack unity. A heroine who is several thousand years old and who was the wife of Pericles of Athens is apt to lack human interest. One can read such things in a novel and, if the style is good and the tale well told, not mind them or notice the inconsistencies to any painful degree, but when people see absurdities represented in flesh and blood before their eyes it is another thing. The chief trouble with “She” as a play is that it lacks human feeling. The heroine is not a woman, her passions are not those of a woman. There is no one character to whom one's heart can go out in either love or pity. The only dramatized novel which has been played successfully is Dumas’ “Dame aux Camelias”, and that the author himself dramatized. . . .

. . . . An actor once said: “The very poor professional performance is better than the very best amateur performance.” While this is not exactly true it must be confessed that to one who has neither friends nor acquaintances among the actors an amateur performance is usually a very tame affair. It is rude to make any very harsh criticism upon an amateur, and generally it is bad taste to lavish excessive praise. If an amateur were criticised by the same standards as a professional there would indeed be wailing and gnashing of teeth in town the next morning. An amateur performance should always be handled gently and kindly, like a church concert or sociable, but it cannot expect to be treated very seriously. As a rule the actors in such an entertainment are either very conservative people of the intellectual cult, or very select society blossoms. They step daintily about the dressing room as though they feared they might in some way become contaminated by touching things that had been handled by professional hands, and saunter on the stage as though they were doing the theatre a great honor and it was a very great condescension for them to be there at all. The fact is it is a very great presumption. The gilded youths of society have banished actors and actresses from their sacred circle. They regard them as different and inferior beings; they stare at them on the streets and refuse to dine at the same table with them at hotels. Then when this same gilded youth attempts to step in and do off hand what has cost great men and women years of labor and pain and the renunciation of social recognition, it can scarcely expect to be taken seriously.