gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

At the Theatre

Columbia Varsity Editor-in-Chief, Jacques Barzun, also edited the “At the Theatre” column, though whose work he edited is uncertain.  No other name appears.  The opening line suggests the views are primarily his own:  “The present season’s offerings, I am happy to say, have somewhat dissipated the gloom which a memory of last year’s productions had easily kept thickly spread.”  Perhaps the column began as opinions swapped among playgoing friends.  If so, Jacques seems to have done most of the talking, as in “The Wise Youth at the Theatre”.  

Though the column is topical and short, some of its contents betoken Barzun’s later views:  “First in order of importance is the dramatization of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.  I have pointed out elsewhere that this work partakes of the nature of Greek tragedy in its effects; and that these are achieved not by reproducing classic episodes in classic forms (as seventeenth and eighteenth century dramatists tried to do) but by giving us a thoroughly modern message in a definitely modern technique.

“In respect of the latter, it should be said to Mr. Patrick Kearney’s great credit that he made use in his dramatization, consciously or not, of the most valuable contributions of the motion picture art. The rapid passage from one episode or picture to another; the reduction of explanations to the barest essentials; the use of simultaneous scenes; and finally the schematic rendering of a three weeks’ trial scene in twenty minutes by means of non-consecutive climacteric moments, take legitimate advantage both of a technique developed by the cinema and of a public trained to its understanding by the same agency.”

Barzun’s long sentences have embedded within them kernels of acumen like those his current readers discover:  “As to the message,—without which no technique can command attention ….  Without encumbering the action with the social and economic background indispensable to the novel … managed to suggest it by imperceptible touches of which the effect does not rise to the level of consciousness except on reflection.”  The young critic concludes his American Tragedy paragraphs by turning his gaze to the audience:   “When to these fundamentals of matter and form is added that of perfect acting-production, the complete esthetic experience is potentially achieved; its full realization depends then only on the individual beholder.” I should add that Dreiser’s new-fashioned novel had just been published the previous year, 1925.

The year’s first production from New York’s Theatre Guild, characterized as a “proud and prolific mother,” Franz Werfel’s Juarez and Maximilian gets hedging approval, while “The cast is superb,—the advantage of a well-financed repertory.”   The current theatre column concludes by comparing the “high dramatic seriousness” of a flawed uptown production of Tom Barry’s The Immortal Thief with “the absinthe of downtown frivolity”.  

“At the Theatre” edited by Jacques Barzun, The Columbia Varsity, volume VIII [8], number 1 (October 1926), pages 16, 28.

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