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Jessie Bonstelle and the State of Theater in 1931

The fight for the arts to be taken seriously and valued by wider audiences to the same level as they are by those who create art has been going on since time immemorial. Nevertheless it always strikes me to the core when I come across someone from the past expressing the same concerns that many of us do in the present. Recently, I was researching Jessie Bonstelle for a monologue I was writing for the 365 Women a Year’s Women in Theatre History Monologue Collection. Prior to being assigned Ms Bonstelle as a subject, I confess that I was not familiar with her career, but more people should be: it’s fabulous.

Born in 1871, Ms Bonstelle's career included performing as a stage actress (her credits included appearing in The Lady from Oklahoma in New York in 1913), producing, directing, and founding the Detroit Civic Theatre in Michigan. She was so dedicated to the theater that when she died in 1932 a largely-attended memorial service was held for her in the Detroit Civic Theatre prior to her funeral service.

The year before she passed away, Ms Bonstelle responded to a letter from a Miss Josephine Ball of Ann Arbor, Michigan regarding the state of theater and the arts as a whole. I came across this wonderful letter thanks to the Detroit Historical Society (and you can see it for yourself here) and it inspired both the monologue I just submitted to the project and this post.

You see, Miss Ball was concerned about a few things. She wanted to know if the invention of the talkies (talking motion pictures, now usually just called movies or films) would make the stage disappear, why actors and actresses were leaving the stage for the screen, and whether or not the “masses” would ever be “well enough educated to enable producers to make really worthwhile films.” These were all valid questions to ask in a time when how the arts were consumed was changing and they are ones that people might have asked in some variation when television and, later, the internet further altered the landscape of entertainment.

Ms Bonstelle’s answers are clear, her opinions strong, and her words to the point. No, she does not think that the talkies will ever cause the demise of the stage (thank God, says this theater lover.) As for why actors and actresses leave the stage for the screen, she frankly informs Miss Ball that the screen offers something the stage cannot: a hefty paycheck. Thespians may leave the stage for higher salaries, but Ms Bonstelle believes many of them do it so that they can build up a good amount of money and then return to the stage with the ability to pick and choose the plays in which they appear. When one has financial comfort, after all, one has the luxury of being able to be selective without worrying that not taking a job will cause you to be unable to pay your rent or put food on the table.

But the most striking part of Ms Bonstelle’s reply, to me, was her commentary on the type of films and plays produced and their relation to the so-called masses. She believed that both films and theater had an important place but their neither was able to live up to its truest protentional because audiences preferred the "cheap" and "inconsequential" to the "best." (This comment made me think about what constitutes good musical theater - and particularly the debate over the place and value of jukebox musicals and musical adaptations of films compared to musicals based on entirely original concepts.) Ms Bonstelle, goes on to speculate that the problem of "cheap" and "inconsequential" being the major preference of audiences might originate from education, both in schools and at home. She said:

Too much attention is paid to giving young people business educations, to the exclusion of art education. When in reality both are needed. A man who is all business and has no appreciation of music, art or drama, is a dull prodding person with little inspiration and remains, a Prodder unnecessarily.

Upon reading this I could not help but wonder what Ms Bonstelle would think of the current state of arts education and appreciation. Would she say that things have gotten better or have they gotten worse? And how, would she suggest, do we help people shed their status of being dull prodders and open them to the wonders of performance? If it is a question that has never been answered before, can it even be answered now? We can only hope the answer is yes.



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