The outraged whinnies of indignant bewilderment that greeted the opening of a mild little comedy called "Mr. Sycamore" last week were but one more evidence of a serious fault in the American theatre. That is the slow paralyzing of audience imagination by the increasing perfection of the theatrical technique called Realism.
The Elizabethan theatre had an audience of large poetical vocabulary and ready, colorful imagination, easily capable of creating anything from a magic island to the moonlit garden of the Capulets without any more aid than the word of the actors. Such an audience rendered beautiful and compelling the original bare-staged presentation of "Romeo and Juliet" and would make completely unnecessary the ponderous and expensively over-whelming production last given the play in this country by Laurence Olivier.
From the Restoration to the middle of the nineteenth century, technical advances and an increasing mass audience led slowly toward realistic presentation. Then the gifted Irishman Dion Bouccicault came to this country and put the first real door in a flat, and the first real rug on the floor, to the amazement of both company and audience, and started preaching the jehad of Realism. His ideal was to show everything on the stage, to leave nothing to the imagination. His disciple was David Belasco, who gave tremendous impetus to the movement and at one time put a complete Child's restaurant on the stage. Belasco in turn handed it on to his pupil who taught it to the motion pictures. This man is still with us, and when last seen was engaged in giving the American public a whole wrecked ship under water, complete with octopus. He is Cecil B. deMille.
These men devoted themselves to perfecting the technique of showing everything exactly. They left nothing for the audience to supply. The precise representation of concrete things became a fetish. Unfortunately their holy war was successful; Realism has become the gospel of the American theatre, virtually without a single infidel to preach against it. The result: audiences have become mentally poverty-stricken. They have been taught to believe what they see, and only what they see. If they do not see it or have not seen it, it cannot exist. Imagination is employed only for the uses of obscenity.
It is no wonder then, that Boston audiences were bewildered and outraged when asked to imagine Mr. sycamore turning into a tree. True, the play was imperfectly written and directed. But the important point if that the audience was incapable of fulfilling the basic demand of the play, even had it been well done. Technical advances are not yet great enough to perform the tree trick with sufficient realism. It was an unfamiliar idea, an impossible idea. Therefore they could not imagine it, even for one evening. The play failed because the audience failed.