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AND now for the £ s. d. part of the matter--the most important part of the matter from the majority of people's point of view. Your artist has painted his picture, your poet has sung his song, your cobbler has cobbled his shoes, your preacher has preached his sermon, your organ grinder has ground out his tune, your dramatist has written his play, and the great question with one and all is, what shall I get for it? What is it going to bring me in?
They are all quite right. In the Golden Age, perhaps, men laboured for love, as the foolish birds still sing and the unbusiness-like flowers scent the summer air; but now, in this hard iron age, we only work for gold; and the man that asks for less the world despises as either fool or hypocrite.
So, unless you wish to encourage roguery (and Heaven knows there's enough in the world without your help) by letting others reap the harvest of your brain, by all means see that you get your fair price for your work. But don't keep the question too much in front of you while you are working. If you work merely for money, you'll find you'll make very little money. It is an undoubted fact that, in the long run, and taking things as a whole, it is the best work that pays best, and the best work--nay, no work at all worthy the name, can be done while your mind is filled with the dreamings of a huckster and the cogitations of a cheapjack. When once your work is finished and in your pocket, and you are going about trying to find a customer for it, then be as sharp, aye, and as grasping, and mercenary, and sordid even, as you can be, or you'll be done. But while you are working you must be an artist, and work for Art's sake. Let the hacks, devoid of brain and heart, roll off the rubbish of a day, and snatch the passing coins the careless crowd flings to them for their tumbling. If you are an artist, you will find it the best policy to do only artistic work.
After which little homily we will come to figures.
There are false impressions abroad concerning dramatic authors and their takings. It is popularly supposed that a successful play brings its author in from one to two hundred thousand pounds, and when I was young and used to believe this stuff, I used to wonder why it was that popular dramatists lived so quietly in little houses at St. John's Wood or Brixton, instead of having two or three palaces each in different parts of the country. When I came to understand matters, however, I found that they did not receive such large incomes as I had imagined. Still, a very comfortable living may be earned by playwriting, and the returns to the author are certainly far in excess of those in any other branch of literature.
There are two methods of dealing with plays--one by sale, the other by "royalties," the latter of which is by far the most generally employed.
Indeed, now that the author's share forms so large a proportion of the profits in a piece, it is hardly possible that any out-and-out sale of all his rights could be arranged. A successful play is a property well worth from £20,000 to £30,000; and an author would be foolish to part with all his rights in a piece he had any faith in, for anything under £3,000 to £4,000. On the other hand, the MS. of a play, if a failure, is only worth 1 1/2d??. a lb., so that a speculator would not care to risk so large a sum, especially seeing how impossible it is to say beforehand whether a piece, however good, will take with the public. One thousand pounds would be, I should say, the most that would ever be paid down for a piece; and a manager would need a deal of faith in an author before he parted even with that sum.
As a rule, the only plays that are bought outright are dramas of the transpontine or provincial school, for which £50 or £100 would be considered a handsome price, and plays written specially to suit some artiste, such as My Sweetheart and Hans the Boatman, &c., pieces which would be comparatively valueless if left to stand alone. Young authors also often sell their pieces outright, being only too glad to get it accepted anyhow, and rightly arguing to themselves that it is better for them to get it out, and have the advertisement, even if they have to let it go for an old song, as the saying is, than to lose a chance which may not come again for years.
Still, I would advise them not to part with it too recklessly. Youth has to pay its footing in all trades. Charles Dickens only got £500 for a book that must have brought in £50,000; and Thackeray wrote his best work for the wages of an artizan; and a young dramatist can't expect, with his first play, to take the footing of a Sims or Pinero. But there is a limit to all things, and there is no necessity to give away the labour of months, if not years. A little firmness and tact will often obtain reasonable terms, where an impatient young author is only too eager to give up every advantage. If a man offers to buy your play at all, it means that he wants it, and that there's something in it. A good play is a very rare thing to get hold of, and is worth a price. How to manage in any particular case will, of course, depend upon the circumstances, and you must use your own judgment; I cannot advise you. All I say is, keep your head cool.
The purchase of particular rights in a play, such as the American rights, the Australian rights, the provincial rights, &c., is a common enough thing; but this is after the play has been produced and proved successful. The American rights are of great value--almost as valuable as the English rights. There are special firms in America who make it their business to look after the works of English authors out there, and collect and remit them their fees. Nearly all the successful plays, and especially the melodramas produced in London, are played all through the States, and bring in the English authors very handsome returns. Still, if you can get anything like a reasonable sum, I would strongly advise you to sell the American right out and out as soon as possible. They are an enterprising people across the herring pond, and it is not always easy to obtain your fees.
So also with Australia; £100 at your bankers in London is well worth £200 owing to you in New South Wales.
The provincial rights I hardly see the wisdom of ever parting with. You can never expect to get, in a lump sum down, anything approaching in amount to what "royalties" would, under usual circumstances, bring you in; and, unless you are very hard up for ready money, I should say stick to all British rights, you cannot very easily miss your fees in England, Ireland, or Scotland.
The other system, the "royalty" system of payment, may itself be subdivided into two methods, the one the payment of a stated sum per night, the other the payment of a percentage on the gross takings. The latter system is the one most usually adopted with regard to London, the former as regards the provinces. The payment per night, if a fixed sum, varies from úr up to £9. One pound a night would be fair enough to pay for a country drama--that is, one written for and produced in the country; and £9 would be readily given for a "London success"--that is, a piece that has had a moderate run and tolerable notoriety at some West-end house.
Adaptations are also commonly paid for by a fixed sum--you will come down to adapting very soon. You will start with the high resolve to uphold the dignity of your profession and your country, and scorn the idea of being the mere purveyor of other men's thought. After a few years you will take kindly to Bowdlerising French indecencies, and cooking up German horse play, and terming the result your "new and original play." This was done not many years ago by thieving English playwrights without giving the foreign author one halfpenny. Now, however, the anxiety to get hold of new French and German successes has forced a certain amount of honesty into the matter; for it is a law of nature that nothing can work for any length of time upon a foundation of dishonesty. Managers and authors keep a look out at Paris and Berlin, and the moment a good play shows its head the English rights are bought from the author, and the piece secured to the purchaser in this country under a system of international copyright, which will be explained in the next chapter. Then some native author is given the thing to "adapt," and he is either paid so much down for his work, or he takes so much royalty per night, or the adapter secures the play for himself from the foreign author, and then deals with it as his own.
Adapting, it is fair to add, is not such an easy task as it sounds. To any man of brains I should say writing an original piece would be simpler.
When a play is paid for by percentage, as is the usual method with all leading original plays, five to ten per cent. on the gross receipts is the usual fee, and as a good draw will bring into the box-office an average of £200 per night, and will run for from one to two years, and as a couple of provincial companies will be sent round with the piece at the same time, and bring in the author between them fees almost equal to those received from the London house, and as, in addition to this, there is the American and Colonial rights before referred to, and the piece will very likely be revived and have another long run before it is finally laid by, it may be seen that one play may easily be something like a fortune in itself.
If you can get five per cent. for your early pieces, that is as much as you can expect; ten per cent. is only paid to established popular writers. I have heard of twelve being asked, but that was for a piece that had already been successfully produced, and then they didn't get it. Two authors, of course, share the five or ten per cent., as the case may be, between them.
All the foregoing applies to three or four-act pieces, but curtain raisers are coming to the front just now, and can, if properly worked among the amateurs, be made a very respectable little property. Uncle's Will, I believe, brings in Mr. Theyre Smith a steady income Of £50 per annum; and a friend of mine tells me that a little play of his, written many years ago, has returned him an average of £20 a year ever since. The price paid by theatres for first pieces varies from 30s. to £6 a week, and as such pieces are often revived, and are played constantly round the provinces, they well repay writing. It is from the amateurs, however, that the chief income of a one-act play is derived, there always being a fair demand for such pieces among these ladies and gentlemen.
If your curtain-raiser is successful, when produced, take it to Mr. French, of 89, Strand. He won't say much, being a comfortable-looking old gentleman of few words, but for 3s. a printed page he will publish it, and put it in his list, sending you fifty copies, which you can write pretty dedications in, and send round to all the girls you know. He will also collect your fees from the amateurs, and, after deducting his commission, hand you over the balance each month. As I have said, a good one-act play will be used pretty frequently by the various A.D. clubs and societies about the country, and, for each performance of it, Mr. French will charge them ten or fifteen shillings, or a guinea.
Anything beyond a one-act piece, however, it is not safe to have published, because, under the American copyright laws, a play, published over here in book form, can be sneaked and performed over there for nothing. One-act pieces don't matter. They are rarely used in America, and the American right of them is, consequently, next to nil. Of any big play, likely to be sought after by the amateurs, let Mr. French have two or three neatly-typed copies, which he will loan round when required. But, there, don't listen to me. Go to the shop, and business-like Mr. Hogg, the manager, will advise you the best thing to do, and you can't do better than follow his advice.
Well, there you are. I've told you what you can get for a play, now all you've got to do is to go and get it; and, where you've got it, don't spend it recklessly. Seriously, though, if you do get £10,000 for a play that has taken you three months to write, don't go reckoning your income at £4,000 per annum. for the rest of your life, and start living up to it. This advice might be given, too, to some authors I know who are not exactly beginners, and who ought to know how few and far between successes are.
At present rates, two or three lucky hits are sufficient to set a man up for life if he is prudent. I wonder if the ghosts of the old dramatists who drudged and starved on the paltry pittance their glorious works brought in to them ever feel a pang of envy shoot through their shadowy breasts, when they look down (or maybe up), and see us, their puny descendants, glutted with the fat of the land. The work of Shakespeare's whole life never brought him in what can be won now-a-day by adapting a German farce. Fourpence, I see, from an antiquarian magazine, is what an author was paid in early days for writing a miracle play, the entry running:--
"Itm. Pd. Peter ffor writinge the play, 4d." (I wonder if Peter had much difficulty in getting that play accepted.) Buckstone received from first to last £100 for the Green Bushes, one of the most successful and constantly-played dramas of the last generation; and Cary died with a halfpenny in his pocket, while his pieces were filling the theatre night after night.
For the improvement in our position, we dramatists have principally to thank Scribe in France, and W.S. Gilbert in our own country. Before Scribe's time, authors considered them selves happy with a few pounds for a drama, and what induced them to write plays instead of devoting their time to some more profitable employment is a mystery. Scribe, however, by combining his brethren together, and introducing a sort of trades unionism among them, soon changed all that, much to the disgust and indignation of the Parisian managers, and the good work that Scribe commenced in France, Gilbert completed in England by insisting upon the ten per cent. principle.
We have very little to grumble at now.
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