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Tradition in the sphere of books is relentlessly imperious and will not be denied. The present anthology of one-act plays, in defiance of a keen reluctance on the part of the editors, is condemned at birth to the heritage of a title; for this practice, as is well known, has been the unchallenged punctilio of book-making and book-editing from time immemorial. And yet if the truth be told, the editors have found precisely this to be by far the most embarrassing of the various tasks that have arisen in connection with the project. In the selection of a title, the immediate problem was of course to avoid, so far as possible, the slightest pretense or assumption of categorical standards of choice or even the merest intimation that there existed somewhere, attainable or unattainable, an ideal norm according to which one-act plays could be faultlessly assessed and pigeon-holed.
In point of fact, so many tolerably good one-act plays are being written and acted nowadays, that the editors early concluded that the business of editing a volume of fifty one-act pieces implies, so to speak, inviting the devil or the spirit that denies to the feast. Thus all manner of obstinate ribaldries and mischief began to infest our path of prog
If it were only a naïve question of adjudging a golden apple to one of three lovely women, earthly or divine, the matter would have proved comparatively simple; but the question was more complex: it offered the public a meager book which could never hope to compress within itself the core and quiddity of about a thousand plays, or more, which the editors were privileged to examine from the first moment when they launched upon their task eight months ago, to this. Moreover it frequently happened that when the editors had flattered themselves on having picked a sure winner, the sure winner forthwith
got out of hand and no persuasive cajolings availed to allure it back. In other words, not a few plays which the editors sought to include in the book were found unavailable by reason of previous copyrights. In several cases the copyright had passed entirely out of the control of the author or his accredited representative.
On the whole, however, both authors and those commissioned to act for them have responded most sympathetically to the project and have rendered valuable assistance and support, without which, let me hasten to add, the present collection would not have been possible.
The reader will observe that plays by American authors predominate those of any other single country, and the reason for this is fairly obvious. American plays, besides being most readily available to the anthologist, are beginning to reflect the renascence that is gradually taking place in the American theater. There is growing up in this country a younger generation of dramatists, which is achieving its most notable work outside the beaten path of popular recognition, in small dramatic juntos and in the little theaters. In the main, the form they employ as being most suitable to their needs, is that offered by the concise scaffold of the oneact play. These efforts, we hold, deserve a wider audience.
On the other hand, a mere scrutiny of the table of contents will reveal that the editors have included a number of foreign plays heretofore not accessible to English-speaking readers. This aspect of the task, the effort of pioneer exploration, has indeed been by far the most pleasant, and most pleasant, too, has proved the discovery of several new American writers who have produced original work. Of the foreign writers, such men as Wied and Speenhof, for example, are practically if not totally un
known to American readers, and they, as well as a handful of others, are in the opinion of the editors worthy of an American following.
As concerns the procedure or technic of choice, it goes without saying, surely, that if a congruous method exists at all, it merely embodies a certain permissible viewpoint. This viewpoint will probably find unqualified favor with but a handful of readers; others it will frankly outrage to the extent of their casting it out, lock, stock and barrel. But this is to be looked for in an undertaking of this caliber in which individual bias, after all, plays so leading a part. And titling the volume came to be an arduous process only in virtue of the afore-mentioned viewpoint, cherished but shadowily defined, or to be exact, in virtue of the despair which succeeded upon each persistent attempt to capture what remained perennially elusive. Unfortunately it still remains elusive. If then a rationalization is demanded by the reader-a privilege none will question his right to exercise - he will, I am afraid, have to content himself with something as vague and fantastic as the following:
Imagine a playhouse, perfectly
equipped, plastic and infinitely adaptable. Invite Arthur Hopkins, John Williams, Winthrop Ames, Sam Hume and George Cram Cook to manage it; let them run riot on the stage. Clear the wings and the front of the house of all routineers. Fill the seats at each performance with the usual gallery-haunters of the New York theaters. Do not overlook the hosts of experimental playhouse directors - unleash them in the backyard area with a kammerspielhaus to toy with at pleasure. Let the personnel of the play-reading committee consist of such men as Ludwig Lewisohn, Barrett H. Clark, George Jean Nathan and Francis Hackett. The result will take care of itself. This, in brief, is the theatrical ménage for which, in the main, the plays included in this volume were written.
Is this a hair-brained or a frivolous notion? It may be. But, please note, it expresses, no matter how limpingly, some approach to a viewpoint. At all events it is the only touchstone applied by the editors in their choice of fifty contemporary one-act plays.
PIERRE LOVING. New York City, Sept., 1920.