Contemporary Modern Drama: in American Literature

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      From 1865 to 1900 the American drama occupied a place of so little artistic importance in American life that the literary historians have ignored it. There is no word about it in the substantial volumes by Richardson and Wendell, none in the ordinary run of textbooks, not a mention of playwright, producer, actor, or stage even in the four-hundred-odd pages of Pattee’s “American Literature since 1870.” This silence cannot, of course, be accounted for by any conspiracy among the historians; it must be acknowledged that in itself the period had almost no dramatic significance. Quinn’s collection of twenty-five “Representative American Plays” includes only three produced between these dates. The basic reason for this is that literary conditions did not induce or encourage play-writing in the English-speaking world on either side of the Atlantic. The greatest artistry was expressing itself in poetry, and in America no major poet but Longfellow attempted even “closet drama.” The greatest genius in story-telling was let loose in the channel of fiction, and many of the successful novels were given a second incarnation in play form. The names that stand out in stage history in these years are the names of controlling managers, like Lester Wallack and Augustin Daly, or of players, like Charlotte Cushman, Booth, Barrett, Jefferson, and Mansfield; and the writers of plays—encouraged by stage demands rather than by literary conditions—were the theatrical successors of Dunlap and Payne—men like Dion Boucicault (1822?–1890) with his hundred and twenty-four plays, and Bronson Howard (1842–1908) with his less numerous but no more distinguished array of stage successes. Side by side with these, and quite on a level with them, rose one eminent critic of stagecraft and the drama, William Winter (1836–1917).

With the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, a new generation of playwrights began to win recognition—men who knew literature in its relation to the other arts and who wrote plays out of the fullness of their experience and the depth of their convictions, hoping to reach the public with their plays but not concerned chiefly with immediate “box-office” returns. The movement started in England and on the Continent and—as we can now see—in America as well, but the traditional American neglect of American literature led the first alert critics on this side the Atlantic to lay all their emphasis on writers of other nationalities. Thus in 1905 James Huneker’s “Iconoclasts” discussed Norwegian, French, German, Russian, Italian, Belgian, and English dramatists.
Contemporary American Modern Drama

      With the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, a new generation of playwrights began to win recognition—men who knew literature in its relation to the other arts and who wrote plays out of the fullness of their experience and the depth of their convictions, hoping to reach the public with their plays but not concerned chiefly with immediate “box-office” returns. The movement started in England and on the Continent and—as we can now see—in America as well, but the traditional American neglect of American literature led the first alert critics on this side the Atlantic to lay all their emphasis on writers of other nationalities. Thus in 1905 James Huneker’s “Iconoclasts” discussed Norwegian, French, German, Russian, Italian, Belgian, and English dramatists. E. E. Hale’s “Dramatists of To-day” of the same year dealt with four from Huneker’s list, substituted one Frenchman, and added two Englishmen. This selection was quite defensible, for the significant contemporary plays which reached the stage came from these sources. But by 1910 the drift of things was suggested by the contents of Walter Pritchard Eaton’s “At the New Theatre and Others.” In this book, of twenty-three plays reviewed, ten were by American authors, and in the third section, composed of essays related to the theater, two of the chief units were discussions of Clyde Fitch and William Winter. And the dedication of Eaton’s book is perhaps the single item of greatest historical significance, for it gives due credit to Professor George P. Baker of Harvard as “Founder in that institution of a pioneer course for the study of dramatic composition” and as “inspiring leader in the movement for a better appreciation among educated men of the art of the practical theater.”

      The field into which we are led is so broad and so near that in a brief excursion we can undertake only a rough classification of the main products and the soil in which they are growing. Such a classification may be found if we consider in turn first the better play written for a better theater, which began to appear about 1890, then the various new types of theater which grew from the people’s interest instead of from managerial enterprise, and, finally, the literary drama in poetry or prose which profits from the coöperation of actor and stage-manager, but can survive in print unaided.

      “The movement for a better appreciation among educated men of the art of the practical theatre,” although led by one college professor, was itself a symptom of fresh developments in the art to which he addressed himself. Omitting—but not ignoring—the rise of the modern school of European dramatists in the 1890’s, we must be content for the moment to note that this decade brought into view in America several men who were more than show-makers, even though they were honestly occupied in making plays that the public would care to spend their money for. The significant facts about these playwrights are that they gave over the imitation and adaptation of French plays, returned to American dramatic material, and achieved results that are readable as well as actable. Their immediate forerunners were Steele MacKaye (1842–1894) and James A. Herne (1840–1901)—the former devotedly active as a teacher of budding players and as a student of stage technique, the latter the quiet realist of “Shore Acres” and other less-known plays of simple American life. Coming into their first prominence at this time were Augustus Thomas (1859- ) and Clyde Fitch (1865–1909).

      They both appeared as theatrical craftsmen of the new generation, and like their prototypes in America, Dunlap and Payne, they wrote abundantly, for audiences rather than for readers, and with definite actors and actresses in mind as they devised situations and composed lines. Clyde Fitch in twenty years wrote and produced on the stage thirty-three plays and adapted and staged twenty-three more—an immense output. In the first ten years the most important were all built on historical themes: “Beau Brummel,” “Nathan Hale,” and “Barbara Frietchie.” It is easy to see and to say that in writing these he was carrying on the tradition of Bronson Howard with his Civil War melodramas—a half truth, however, since “Beau Brummel” in no way fits the generalization, and other plays of the decade were on contemporary social life. In the second ten years the keynote was struck with “The Climbers,” a social satire on a shallow city woman and her two daughters whose social ambition deadens them to any fine impulses or natural emotions. In the long roster of Fitch’s successes a few constant traits are obvious. He built his stories well, set them carefully, combined the resources of the playwright who knows how to devise a “situation” with those of the stage-manager who knows how to present it, and cast his stories into simple, rapid-fire, clever dialogue. He took advantage of up-to-date material for the superficial dress of his plays, introducing the background of latest allusion, recently coined turns of phrase, the newest songs, the quips and turns of fashion. And he went beneath the surface to the undercurrents of human motive as in the wifely constancy in “The Stubbornness of Geraldine,” the jealousy of “The Girl with the Green Eyes,” and the weak mendacity of Becky in “The Truth.” Fitch was never profound, never sought to be; but he was deservedly popular, for he combined no little skill with an alert sense of human values in everyday life, and he brought an artistic conscience to his work. Because he was so successful his influence on other dramatists has been far-reaching; and those who have been neither too small nor too great to learn from him have learned no little on how to write a play.

      Mr. Augustus Thomas has lived in the atmosphere of the theater from boyhood. He began writing plays at fourteen, was directing an amateur company at seventeen, and had his first New York success in his twenty-eighth year. Since 1887 he has been a professional playwright; he has nearly fifty productions to his credit, and he is now art director of the Charles Frohman interests. His first widely known works were the plays of states: “Alabama” (1891), “In Mizzoura” (1893), and “Arizona” (1899)—plays which exerted the same general appeal as “Shenandoah” and “Barbara Frietchie.” As a practical man of the theater he adapted and worked over material, dramatizing novels of Mrs. Burnett, Hopkinson Smith, and Townsend. His attractive “Oliver Goldsmith” was built not only around the character of that whimsical man of letters but included as its own best portion an act out of the hero’s play “The Good-Natured Man.” With the kind of adaptability which belongs equally to the practical man of the theater and to the enterprising journalist, he undertook in time the type of play that deals with questions or problems of modern interest. The same current of speculation that led Mark Twain to write his essay on “Mental Telepathy” and Hamlin Garland his book on “The Shadow World” accounts for Thomas’s “The Witching Hour” (1907), which interweaves the strands of hereditary influence and mental suggestion; and he contributed his word on the complex problems of the modern family in “As a Man Thinks” (1911). Up to 1917 he had written and adapted forty-six plays, of which eleven had been published after their production, but his work of real distinction belongs to the period opening with “The Witching Hour.” In his later plays he has coupled his highly developed ability to tell a story with a vital feeling for the positive values in life. In “The Harvest Moon” he makes a playwright-character say, “I would willingly give the rest of my life to go back and take from my plays every word that has made men less happy, less hopeful, less kind.” And in “The Witching Hour” he declares through Jack Brookfield the text of that and succeeding plays, “You’re a child of the everlasting God and nothing on the earth or under it can harm you in the slightest degree”—a text which, said of the soul, is immortally true.

      In a short chapter it is impossible to discuss in detail any other of the play-writers who have done with less applause but with no less devotion the kind of writing represented by the best of Fitch and Thomas; and it would be invidious to attempt a mere list of the others, as if a mention of their names would be a sop to their pride. The case must rest here with the statement that these two men were the leaders of an increasing group and that the desire to compose more skillful and more worthy plays was paralleled by a revival of respect for the modern drama and the modern stage. This leads to the middle section of our survey, and turns from the drama itself to the fifteen-year struggle for possession of the American stage—the actual “boards” on which the plays could be presented. It is as dramatic as any play, this story of the conflict between intelligent idealism—whether in playwright, actor or theatergoer, and commercial greed—and it is far from concluded, though a happy denouement seems to be in sight.

      The first step has already been mentioned: the development of a student attitude toward the contemporary play and its production. Professor Baker at Harvard and Professor Matthews at Columbia were looked at by some with wonder and by others with amused doubt when they began as teachers to divide their attention between the ancient and the modern stage. Yet as the study progressed their students became not only intelligent theatergoers but constructive contributors, as critics and creators, to the literature of the stage; and then in the natural order of events the whole student body came to realize that the older drama should be reduced to its proper place and restored to it; that it was an interesting chapter in literary and social history because it was not a closed chapter, but a preliminary to the events of the present. At the same time modest but important beginnings were being made in the education of the actor, and men like Franklin Sargent, President of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, opened the way to a professional training for actors that would compare with the training demanded of and by the singer, painter, or sculptor. These beginnings were full of promise, but the promise was to be long held in abeyance by the machinations of the theatrical syndicate.

      This commercial trust is the heavy villain of the play, the charge against it being that whereas the business management of the theater was called into being in order to serve the drama, it managed so effectively that by the winter of 1895–1896 it was strong enough to demand that henceforth the drama support the business management. The six men who were able to assume control handled their business according to the approved methods of the trust, trying to get salable goods and to multiply the output of what the public wanted, trying to control all the salesmen (players) and all the distributing points (playhouses) and to put out of business any player or local manager who would not market their choice of goods at their schedule of dates and prices. For nearly fifteen years the syndicate were as effective in their field as the Standard Oil or United Shoe Machinery Companies were in theirs. One actress, Mrs. Fiske, endured every sort of discomfort and, no doubt, heavy losses for the privilege of playing what, when, and where she pleased; but for a while she had her own way only to the extent of appearing in theaters so cheap that they were beneath the contempt of the monopoly. In the meanwhile, however, discontent spread, a rival firm of managers erected rival theaters, and, conducting their business on principles of more enlightened selfishness, in 1910 enlisted twelve hundred of the smaller revolting theaters with them and forced the syndicate to share the field. Since that time the theaters of America have been administered as well, perhaps, as the system will allow; but it is a mistaken system that puts a fine art in the market place and demands that it maintain itself because “business is business.”

      The first really great attempt to ask anything less of the modern drama in America, to demand no more of the play than is demanded of the opera or the symphony, was the founding of the celebrated and short-lived New Theater in New York (1909–1911). That it failed within two years is not half so important as that it was founded, that others on smaller scales have since been founded and have failed, that municipal theaters have sprung up here and there and are being supported according to various plans, that scores upon scores of little theaters, neighborhood playhouses, and people’s country theaters have been founded, that producers like Winthrop Ames and Stuart Walker are established in public favor, that the Drama League of America is a genuine national organization, and that the printing of plays for a reading public is many fold its proportions of twenty years ago. The Napoleonic theatrical managers are still in the saddle in America, and the commercial stage of the country is still managed from Broadway, but the uncommercial stage is coming to be more considerable every season. The leaven of popular intelligence is at work.

      With developments of this sort taking place and gaining in momentum, there is a growing attention to the printed literary drama and an encouraging prospect for it in the theater. As far back as 1891, when Clyde Fitch and Augustus Thomas were coming into their reputations, Richard Hovey (1864–1900) published “The Quest of Merlin,” the first unit in his “Launcelot and Guenevere,” which he described as a poem in dramas. It was a splendidly conceived treatment of the conflict between the claims of individual love and the intruding demands of the outer world. In resorting to the Arthurian legends Hovey “was not primarily interested in them,” according to his friend and expounder, Bliss Carman, “for their historic and picturesque value as poetic material, great as that value undoubtedly is … the problem he felt called upon to deal with is a perennial one, old as the world, yet intensely modern, and it appealed to him as a modern man.… The Arthurian cycle provided Tennyson with the groundwork of a national epic; … to Richard Hovey it afforded a modern instance stripped of modern dress.” It was to have been completed in three parts, each containing a masque, a tragedy, and a romantic drama; but only the first was completed—“The Quest of Merlin” (1891), “The Marriage of Guenevere” (1891), and “The Birth of Galahad” (1898). Shortly after finishing “Taliesin,” the masque for the second part, Hovey died.

      Another and greater cycle of poetic dramas which was interrupted by a premature death was a trilogy on the Promethean theme by William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910). The theme is the unity of God and man and their consequent mutual dependency. “The Fire-Bringer” (1904) presents man’s victory at the supreme cost of disunion from God through the defiant theft of fire from heaven. “The Masque of Judgment” (1900) is a no less fearful triumph of the Creator in dooming part of himself as he overwhelms mankind. The final part, “The Death of Eve,” was to have achieved the final reconciliation, but it was left a fragment at the poet’s death in 1910 and so stands in the posthumous edition of his works. It is significant in the literary history of the day that the culminating product of both these young poets was an uncompleted poetic play-cycle. Moody’s connection with the stage, however, was closer than Hovey’s, for he wrote two prose plays which were successfully produced—“The Great Divide” (1907) and “The Faith Healer” (1909). In “The Great Divide,” produced first under the title of “The Sabine Woman,” Moody wrote a dramatic story on a fundamental, and hence a modern, aspect of life. The problem of the play is stated flippantly yet truly by the heroine’s sister-in-law:

      The play was produced in Chicago, put on for a long run in New York and on tour, and presented in London, and in 1917 was revived for a successful run in New York again. “The Faith Healer,” the idea for which occurred to Moody in 1898, was completed ten years later, after the success of the first play. The theme is not so close to common experience as that of “The Great Divide,” and perhaps because of this as well as the subtler treatment it did not draw such audiences. Both plays end on a high spiritual level, but the second failed to register in the “box office” because the relief scenes are grim rather than amusing and because there is no fleshly element in the love of the hero and the heroine.

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