This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.
Irita Van Doren introduces theater critic Walter Kerr to discuss his book "Pieces at Eight." Kerr charms the audience with his self-deprecating humor (as well as several jokes about his wife). He speaks about the current difficulties of selling low-priced seats - and his thesis that the theater is supported by a relatively small patronage of individuals willing to pay for high priced tickets. He believes that the theater should be made popular to the mass audience, while striving for a high standard.
Kerr strongly believes that a diverse audience - which includes the popular and patron classes will force the production of a masterpiece, a great demand on the playwright. He speaks of the higher standards of his readers, and the many letters he receives that express shock that he enjoyed a show that they found so disagreeable.
The next speaker is Bennett Cerf, author of "Reading for Pleasure." He dismisses the notion that people have stopped reading books in favor of watching television. He jokes about all of the past "menaces" to reading - including trolley cars and bicycles.
The next speaker is Edward A. Weeks, editor of The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine is about to celebrate it's centennial anniversary, and for which a volume of 128 articles will be published, titled Jubilee. Weeks' speech highlights some of the great and unknown authors who had appeared in the magazine over the century.
The final author is Bernard Baruch, who speaks of his autobiography "Baruch: My Own Story."
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection
WNYC archives id: 70960
Municipal archives id: LT7743
This is a machine-generated transcript. Text is unformatted and may contain errors.
Our first think of today. And. I. Think he would like to have you know that he will probably have to leave sharply after speaking as he has a record still coming up. But today he is with us along to her he became prominent critic of The Herald Tribune in nineteen fifty one. Is equipped much as a critic was most unusual he had written and directed a play reason and he had ducked for playwriting and the history of the drama and then your grandfather in the classroom grandmother part went into a working playtime. In other words he had been a number of me on the look out of the theater but was a seven month tested academic opinion given to sprint in its knowing by experience its problems its tragedies and its successes and rewards among his plays perhaps the best known as Sing out Sweet Land starring very Alliance and Alfred grapes you remember. In the line probably touch and go on he and his wife Jean are fixed on the bibles of stage and screen in the happiest national television to has tried as a medium on such programs as on the bus and camera three tried and they say most successfully. A couple of years ago he published his first book how not to write a play. A diagnosis of the policy statement in which he feels that they are out and falling with daring and exhilarating suggestions but its recovery he gives convincing statistics to show that the legitimate B.-A is losing its public not he thinks because it is too good for it but because it is not good enough. And mainly because our playwrights and producers have forgotten that the spectacle of living actors on a stage in the presence of an audience is supposed to be a popular art. SONG IS NEW both pieces at eighty mystic or has selected some of the vigorous in Congress views in articles that he has written during the past six or seven years. He comments on the value function of the critic he discusses that mooted question camera views determine the fate of a place. He points out in reply to the common way that the theatre tickets are so expensive that the cheapest seats in the theater are the ones which are hardest to sell and he analyzes most perceptively But this movie. He gives us brings brilliant discussions of Eugene O'Neill Tennessee Williams From there are Christopher prime and Graham Greene and he has a most appreciative chapter on those delightful clowns his great Beatrice Lily's nasty welcome and Victor Vulcan. And also the silent great ones Buster Keaton's Charlie Chaplin and Marcel months. The little in Greenwich Village Playhouse is just some of the at this point three in the theater all these things and many more I.C.'s in there with excited and exciting words of a critic who has been on both sides of the footlights and whose knowledge of the drama is masterly and his love of the theater is profound. He says of a lot. Of she said things about it. Thank you very much Mrs Van Doren not for the pieces of a but so are these growing remarks that your my soul tell you why a few moments. I think perhaps First of all I ought to explain the remark that I shall be leaving I mean to me after I have finished speaking to you this business about going to her soul of course the camouflage I always leave as soon as I'm through speaking. That's the only safe procedure. But a matter of fact I really have been disconcerted here this afternoon ever since the lights were turned up with. While I was sitting at the table I looked around and saw a lovely darkened room and I thought yes it was all right for me to come out in daylight today. Because the room is suitably mellow I can't be detected at more than thirty paces and therefore I may not be chased as I am leading critics run into this problem from time to time that indeed is right openings take place at night rather than the afternoon. So that the reviewers can get down eighth Avenue for their offices without being assaulted in public. I know you think this is a joke but I was nearly assaulted once I haven't been actually assaulted yet some regulars have been I was saved because I have a very strong like. She's bigger than I am in every way. Fortunately for me we were seated at but we really leading Saudis one evening and before I could quite get my coat from the cloak room I suddenly felt a very very strong arm on mine and I was thrown out into the street and into a taxicab I reclaimed the coat the next day and I didn't realize it or let it happen until my wife explained that an actress whom I had reviewed rather unfavorably a few nights before was seen coming in my direction rather high speed from another location insides and my wife realized what was going to happen and she saved me because I make the coffee get in the morning at our house. And that is why I'm going to leave after I answer speaking. The title of the book is really peace if at eight. And at eight really refers I suppose to the fact that on opening night when reviewers go to the theater the curtain goes up at eight. Of course the title is perhaps inaccurate in some senses that is to say not one of the pieces was written the date some of them were written along about eleven o'clock at night while my wife was sitting in a corner of the press room reading a review of Percy Hammond. My very great predecessor on the Tribune and laughing aloud frequently often enough to keep me from finishing a page of copy and every once in a while sitting back and shortly and saying how you'll never write like this. Micro style hasn't improved in the six or seven years I've been in the Tribune it's because of this. It is difficult to run over these living conditions. Well writing have I bothered to try to put together a number of pieces that were written some of the middle level thirty and some of them at home while I was answering them a telephone calls with. One of my very well have been best for me to allow them to Paris with the daily newspaper or the magazine which they appear to be one of the real advantages of working for a newspaper is that. You can be allowed to forget. That is to say your the things you've written about a given place aren't there to be examined later and that's what's safer it really is you'd be surprised how people do forget what you have said about the show I know I'm always going to cocktail parties and people coming up and saying how could you have liked such and such a play a play which I perhaps had written a very scathing notice that upset the producer seriously at the time and I find that I'm often being called upon to defend positions which under no circumstances I would have it taken and therefore I'd be much better off if I just let these things go why did I do it mostly I think because I wanted to break up the monotony of the mail that I get. That does change things a little bit for instance as a practicing reviewer your mail runs roughly I supposed to three different kinds of letter there is a very long letter that month three or four typewritten single spaced pages are ecstatic credits. Now this letter which comes in very frequently tells you that you are one of the greatest reviewer since Haslett that your prose style is beautiful to behold and worthy of preservation that you yourself must be in the extraordinarily well educated and intelligent man. That you must have a genuinely good soul and would you please read the script that they are sending other separate cover. Then there is a second group which consists largely of solicitations to subscribe to the Journal of the Far East. And there is a third group most of them on postal cards which Well the one postcard I had recently was a picture of a large very red very hairy baboons and on the back it said you think Katherine Hepburn is undernourished this is what you look like. I got another one that Katharine Hepburn's fans are legion and valuable and they have postcards. I got another one about the same time suggesting that if she was undernourished I was a fascist midget. For some reason my wife treasures this phrase go wrong. In any case no matter how fascinating these letters may be you need a break from them you need to change the tone a little bit and so the process of imposing a book on Simon and Schuster if you are really very game about the whole thing. Means that you will get a slightly different male pattern for a while. First of all you will get long ecstatic letters of praise asking if you will read the script which they are sending under separate cover you will get solicitations for the Journal of the east and then you will get a class of letter which says while agreeing with you in the main I do have some small objections to a point you have taken and they write out the thesis of the entire book. Or you get the kind of letter that says I really must disagree with your contention that the narrow with the better played right and Shakespeare and that sent you back to your own book to see where you said that if you did. And gives you a round of a night of reading news and. If I get one serious comment over and over again it goes something like this and I got it again just recently from a producer at home I respect very much. He had this to say said your Arlington campaigning for the popular that you're always saying that the Senate ought to be a mess not just the kind of coterie art that we have in the present time Broadway of course today is a very limited section of the United States of America it's almost a single street. It's very difficult to send shows beyond that street today and make any money at all is furthermore not widely patronized certainly not in the lower income groups because it is true that the cheaper seats the difficulty is to sell now I know all of you will stand up and have my scalp for saying so and I'm always getting letters saying line with the box office and I couldn't get anything but the fact of the matter is not today you can sell a high priced seat or a downstairs seat long before you can sell it up there see this was discovered as not as far back as the production of Mr Roberts when several rows in the top balcony were kept available at lower price patronage in other words if the seats were deliberately down price below Roberts was a tremendous hit there was a great demand for it so that some lower budget income folks could come to the theater but they couldn't sell it and the few that they sold up there got them enormous complaints about the the mustiness of being right up there under the attic and about the bad sightlines how they couldn't hear and so forth so they saw the problem very simply they raised the prices and after that they sold all of these never had a complaint. That's a true story not Joe. That they are today is pretty much under the patronage of a relatively small group of people who are willing to pay fairly high prices as a subsidy to keep this thing going and it takes are pretty narrow as its audience is pretty narrow it isn't a popular art in our time the popular mass audience is going elsewhere now I'm very much in favor of trying to win that mass audience back for the theater but the same time as my producer friend was asking me the other day or a marking the other day he said at the same time you are known as a tough critic according to a variety when you write a review you don't seem to be making allowances of the kind of a perhaps draw the mass audience into the theater you don't seem to be lowering your standard so that we can embrace a much broader base in that that. How can you possibly reconcile these two positions how can you say that the theatre ought to be very popular while you yourself seem to hold it to or try to hold it too terribly strict standards is this consistent now it seems to me although I'm sure I'll never be able to explain it it's entirely consistent because basically I have a tremendous faith in the mass audience I think that the mass audience has literally a better taste than the coterie audience because the coterie audience is a specialized take it tends to go for a certain limited literary economic social logical venue it likes a certain limited kind of play perhaps a play that is rather fragile a play of move a play of literary discussion this so on and so forth and I think that whenever the theater falls into this trap it shrinks itself because it. Really shock teaches the popular audience to shy away from that it can attract them and at the same time we don't have in the theatre a broad enough mass base a big enough combination of kinds of people to give us the universe ality that alone will produce a great play I think that you have to have an enormous audience composed of all segments of the society and all tastes before your playwright is challenge to get all of those people together in a unit to appeal to them all at one of the same moment and in the course of appealing to all of them produce what we call the universal masterpiece in the theatres of the past this is what happened the mass audience went to the Greek Theatre they could go free as far as I thought but they went to the mass audience that is to say the popular audience went also there was a piece and then and they like mug there and well your work better when he was working for them when he was working for them a limited and coterie group at the court and I think we won't return to greatness until we get everybody into the playhouse so that the playwright is faced with the challenge of appealing to all of them and when he can appeal to all of them and wrap them all into a single cohesive unit then I think we may possibly get great plays now this audience this mass audience can go anyplace that the playwright takes it doesn't taste and so it's just as hot as the very best truth of the matter I think is that even today the audience is stricter and tougher and more rigid in its demands and in its taste than the critics and that's not like I'm trying to get off the hook but as a matter of fact I know from the people I meet the people I talk to the people who do write letters that of every fifteen plays that I might find terribly entertaining. The average audience seems to find only six or seven. I was astonished to discover when I first went out of the Herald Tribune that I would get more letters from readers saying how could you possibly have liked such and such a play then how could you have possibly attack such and such like that is to say there are more letters in the negative regarding the theater than there are in the positive not so many defenders as people doubting your sanity because you like this or that play and in any given year it almost always will be two or three plays that will draw it right the line of logic that kind of is to say the audience having read your Perhaps hysterical praise in the morning go to the theatre in a far more critical mood apparently than you have gone the night before I think this is because the audience is look