The Dawn of the American Drama

IN an article on “The Twilight of the Poets,” the sad purport of which was poetically adumbrated in its title, Mr. Edmund Clarence Stedman once remarked, “The time has come for poetry in any form that shall be dramatic. . . . I think that our future efforts will result in dramatic verse, and even in actual dramas for both the closet and the stage.” This he gave forth, not as a prophecy, but as a speculation, founded on certain general tendencies in our life. “We scarcely can forecast next month’s weather from the numberless shifting currents of to-day,” he admitted; and he further safeguarded himself by saying, “I am aware that this belief has been entertained before, and prematurely; it was strong in the time of Taylor, Dunlap, and Payne. Nor would our own experiments be much more significant than theirs, were it not for the recent and encouraging efforts of our younger authors, many of whom are among the poets already named.”

These words were published twentytwo years ago. There have been many generations of “younger authors” since: generations of younger authors are brief. Of all those whom Mr. Stedman, in his catholicity and hopefulness, deemed worthy of mention, only one made his mark in the theatre— Bronson Howard; and for sixteen years now no new piece of his has seen the footlights. Certainly speculation is safer than prophecy.

Yet even a prophet may take courage. Two voices have haunted the drama from its cradle in the cart of Thespis— the cry of its utter degeneracy, and the shout of triumphal acclaim. To take a comparatively modern instance, not without subtle humors: Sir Francis Bacon warned folks from spending much time in the theatres, and stigmatized his age as decadent — and this in the very year, 1605, which marked the culmination of Shakespeare’s powers; whereas the obscure parson-pedagogue, Francis Meres, had already pronounced Shakespeare the successful rival of the mightiest ancients — in 1598, before he had reached his full stature in either comedy or tragedy. The world does move; and the humblest prophet of hope stands the best of chances against the mightiest prophet of despair.

Quite boldly, then, I prophesy the dawn of the American drama; and quite confidently, too, for the drama has already dawned. Several years ago I reminded Mr. Stedman of his ancient speculations. He acknowledged the corn. To-day he is still a familiar figure at first nights of promise, and unless I have misunderstood him, he also has seen the peep o’ day. The present season, I am persuaded, has been the most notable in the history of our stage; and every indication points to a brighter day to come.


The era following the Civil War, as Mr. Stedman pointed out, was one of reaction. That conflict, the mightiest and most momentous of the century, left us in a state of exhaustion, both material and moral. The energy of the men it left us found superabundant scope in political and business development. Intellectually the pendulum swung from exalted ideals and passions to skeptical if graceful dilettanteism. The recent and all but bloodless conflict with Spain has wrought the opposite effect. As happened with England three centuries before, on the easy overthrow of the Armada, it brought to the surface two factors of prime potency — a realization of our greatness among the nations of history, and a realization of the vices that are sapping that greatness. The instinct of self-criticism is no less essential to creative activity than the instinct of self-glorification, and if we have more of it in proportion than our English ancestors, the fact falls in fortunately with the scientific and critical spirit of our time.

More concretely discernible, if not more powerful, is the organization of the business of the theatre. The nature of the theatrical trust, the so-called syndicate, is pretty well known, though I am inclined to think that its character has been somewhat unduly blackened. Its purpose is frankly commercial. To berate it for its lack of altruistic devotion to the art of the drama is as illogical and as perverse as it would be to berate publishers because they do not endow libraries, or picture dealers because they fail to give their wares to the art museums. In a people who, of all moderns, have most stolidly refused to organize in behalf of the greatest of all arts, the cry that private merchants have cast the drama to the dogs is grotesquely comic. Two great services the commercial managers have rendered us; they have raised the calling of playwright and actor to a stable and lucrative vocation, and they have familiarized the entire continent with many of the best works of the dramatists of Europe. It has often been pointed out that the most powerful stimulus to artistic creation has been familiarity with the more advanced products of other lands and peoples. The work of the syndicate in this direction, though partial and unconscious, has been powerful and fruitful.


The result has been to develop a body of playwrights who may be called the syndicate school. In estimating what they have accomplished it is mere justice to remember the difficulties with which they have contended. They had to compete not only against such plays from the Continent as promised to be popular here, but against the output of a large band of playwrights in England, who are now acknowledged to have brought the art of the theatre to a development higher than it has reached since the day of Goldsmith and Sheridan. Moreover, writing for a public numbering thousands of thousands, and living in widely scattered localities, they have been limited to subjects of the most general appeal. Their plays gained no doubt in breadth of interest, but they as certainly lost in intelligence and refinement of art. The result is a good number of deservedly popular pieces, and none of high significance or of even excellence.

The plays of Bronson Howard are still performed on the humble stages of local stock companies. All of them are instinct with broad and wholesome human sympathy and racy masculine humor. One of them, The Henrietta, held the regular stage until the recent death of Stuart Robson. The earliest of our most characteristic genre of plays, the business play, it is still the ablest, excelling alike in its appeal to vigorous emotion and in its grasp of salient, humorous character. When it was first produced it was censured, somewhat academically, perhaps, for presenting on the same stage farcical comedy and melodramatic death. A more valid objection is that its moral values are mixed. We are expected to laugh, and in fact do laugh, with the Wall Street buccaneer who, betraying a widow’s trust in him, deliberately brings financial ruin on her in order to force her to marry him; and at the same time we are called upon to exult, and do exult, in the death of his son, who has been similarly treacherous to his father. Behold the triumph of dexterously manipulated values! The least to be said of this is that the play, in spite of its indubitable power, belongs to a dramatic convention — that of the Victorian era — which is radically false and factitious.

Later playwrights in the syndicate school have come appreciably nearer to actuality. William Gillette, as for example in Secret Service, has raised the melodrama of situation and action to the highest plane of skill and theatric intelligence. Augustus Thomas, as in Alabama and Arizona, has vivified a melodramatic plot with a distinct degree of local atmosphere and racy character; while in The Other Girl, a hybrid of drama and comedy, he has created, in the prize-fighter Kid Garvey, a comedy character of consummate vitality, truth, and humor, Clyde Fitch, the most prolific and versatile of the school, has, as it seems to me, taken the lead in spontaneity, tact, and intelligence. But none of these playwrights has as yet produced a work of large calibre and sustained art.

The deficiency, if in part their own, is largely due to the regime under which they labor. Unimpeachable on the score of art and ethics, the syndicate managers have, or so it seems to me, committed a cardinal commercial blunder. It is the mark of the able merchant that he seeks always to extend his field of operations, not only by anticipating each new taste as it rises, but by actually creating demands. Now, the American public is on the whole the most intelligent and best educated in the world, and at no time has its artistic progress been more rapid than in the past decade. Instead of eagerly watching this advance and fostering it, the syndicate managers have ignored it, even resisted it. Secure, as they thought, in control of the situation, they have consistently refused to back any new author or any new movement until its commercial value has been demonstrated and generally by others. They have not had the foresight to recognize that the merely artistic success of to-day is the commercial success of to-morrow. Their first gains they made by importing plays that had proved themselves popular abroad; and to-day they are not producers but reproducers of the drama.

Ten years ago, when Bernard Shaw was beginning to be read, I suggested to the most artistic of the syndicate managers, Mr. Daniel Frohman, that he produce Candida with Miss Annie Russell in the title part. When brilliant and, as it seemed to me, stimulating plays were to be had, I thought it shameful that an actress of such distinction of personality and art should be wasted in a sentimental tomfoolery by Jerome K. Jerome. A little later Mr. Arnold Daly proposed that Mr. Frohman produce the play, with himself as Marchbanks, and Miss Hilda Spong as Candida. Mr. Frohman was deaf to both proposals. The actress who ultimately played Candida was pitiably unsuited to the part; but the play scored, and paved the way for the entire Shaw repertory,— of which the syndicate itself eventually became chief producer. The incident is only one of a dozen that could be cited. Our national indifference to dramatic art, even our native puritanism, has not been more ruinously conservative than these managers whose sole purpose is avowedly commercial.


If the drama is dawning, the fact is in a large measure due to the organization of independent managers into what is in effect an anti-syndicate; for though the Fafnir of monopoly may lie gorged with possessions, fate will not. allow it to sleep. It is a mistake, I think, to regard this as the sole cause. Shortly before his death, the late Kirke La Shelle, one of the ablest and most intelligent of our managers, remarked that native playwrights were beginning to write in the technique of the European masters, and that the time was at hand when we should have a vigorous drama. On hearing the remark, one of the syndicate dramatists asked somewhat skeptically who these new playwrights were, and where were their plays. It was the wrong time for scoffing. The Shubert brothers had already established a formidable circuit of first, class theatres in the leading American cities, and had secured the coöperation of other independent managers, who had openly revolted against the arbitrary authority and the financial exactions of the syndicate booking agency,— among them Mr. and Mrs. Fiske, David Belasco, and Walter N. Lawrence. Actors, too, and among them the ablest and most prominent, seceded to the anti-syndicate. There was an urgent need of plays.

Meantime another powerful factor had been introduced into the situation. The supply of foreign pieces, by monopolizing which the syndicate had built up its strength, was failing. As for plays from the Continent, two influences combined to invalidate them. The growth of native feeling in our audiences rendered the old method of false and specious adaptation powerless; and, with the growth of realism and the literary sense abroad, the plays themselves were becoming more and more difficult to transpose into terms of American life. The D’Ennery type of melodrama, exploited by Lester Wallack and A. M. Palmer, has long been extinct. Amiable German comedies of the school of Blumenthal and Kudelberg, which Augustin Daly so long lived by importing, became fewer and of less and less appeal. Even the Bisson type of Parisian farce, written in a mood of gayety unhampered by bourgeois morality, soon lost its novelty and no longer attracted a public essentially serious. The newer order of dramatists— Ibsen, Sudermann, Hauptmann, Capus, Brieux, Donnay, Lavedan and others— were on the whole impossible, at once because of their greater intellectuality, their more local and individual presentation of life, and the gloominess or immorality of their themes.

The manners and moods depicted in English plays are more intelligible and sympathetic; but the output is far from copious. The present season, although of more than average richness, has seen only two successful new English plays. His House in Order is more popularly sympathetic than most of Mr. Pinero’s work, and has a full measure of his adroit technique; but it strikes no new note of interest, and in the portrayal of a group of hypocritically righteous middle-class Britons it reverts to the more crudely theatric manner of its author’s youth. In The Hypocrites Mr. Henry Arthur Jones has performed a striking feat of dramatic skill, and has again shown himself supreme among his fellows in portraying deep and sincere passion; but his theme— a trusting maiden betrayed and scorned — harks back through a long list of his plays to his earliest dramatic success, Saints and Sinners; while by a curious coincidence his background of hypocritical Britons are own brothers to Mr. Pinero’s. There is nothing in either piece to controvert the almost unanimous verdict of English critics that for almost a decade drama and comedy have been on the decline — pushed to the wall by music-hall variety shows and musical comedy. The result is all too obvious here. The old Lyceum Theatre, which Daniel Frohman made the home of imported English plays, began to lose prestige even before it was pulled down. The New Lyceum has nothing that can be even miscalled a stock company; it is simply one of several of the better class of Broadway playhouses. More and more every year the staple of the syndicate managers is becoming musical comedy.

Yet all this time theatres have been springing up like mushrooms the entire length of Broadway, from Madison Square to Central Park, and even beyond; and contrary to the fears of the less speculative, it has become evident that there are audiences ready and eager to fill them on the least promise of being interested or amused. How much of the new development in our drama is due to the business crisis, and how much to the playwrights and public, will probably never be determined; but it is obvious that the two forces have met in the most fortunate conjunction.

There has been an attempt to make the public believe that the anti-syndicate is inspired by a lofty devotion to dramatic art; but in part at least this is manifest buncombe. The most powerful factors in the combination, the Shuberts, are quite of the type of the syndicate managers. They have been more daring in their reliance on fresh talent, but there has been nothing to show that this has been the result of anything higher than commercial necessity. Mr. Belasco has extraordinary horse sense in choosing popular themes, and has an ability amounting to genius in the externals of theatric stage management; but his plays have not the slightest pretension to be regarded as literature, and whatever taste he has shown in the drama has been conspicuously bad. Mr. Lawrence’s productions have evidenced a certain gentle right-feeling, much enhanced in his productions by the admirably subtle and realistic stage management of Mr. George Foster Platt; but in vigorous intelligence they have been conspicuously lacking. Of all the anti-syndicate managers, only Mr. and Mrs. Fiske have shown originality and intelligence. In short, the conditions governing the dramatic world continue all but as purely commercial as they have been. I am stating a fact, not preferring a charge. If anyone is to blame for the commercialism of the drama, it is not the merchants who purvey it, but ourselves, who have rested content with no better than the average public demands.


The native syndicate playwrights, meanwhile, have shown a tendency to exhaustion not unlike that of the English school with which their development synchronized. Mr. Gillette’s Clarice, his only original play in a decade, opened with an act of delicious sentimental comedy, but after that declined into unpleasant and incredible melodrama. Mr. Thomas has for two years produced only actor vehicles; they have had a full measure of his racy wit, but have been otherwise without originality or strength. It must be added, however, that his powers have always been subject to lapses of considerable duration.

Mr. Fitch’s case is problematical in the extreme. From the days when, as a youth, he wrote Beau Brummell, it has been evident that he is gifted with a freshness of observation, a spontaneous fecundity of invention, and a skill in the externals of the art of the theatre that are truly phenomenal. Both in drama and in comedy, he has written scenes and characters which are at once more original, more varied, and of a higher quality than the work of any of his competitors. A considerable proportion of his extraordinarily copious output has been ill conceived, though never without touches of originality; but his successes have been equally numerous, and whenever, as not infrequently happens, one of them is revived,— as for example such dissimilar pieces as The Climbers and Captain Jinks, — its vitality and vivacity are found to be unimpaired. And his powers are apparently still in the ascendant.

What he lacks is a feeling for the deeper emotional and spiritual themes of life, and the mental grasp necessary to work his subject out with sustained and symmetrical technique. Twice of late he has given hopeful evidence of an ability to rise above his previous limitations, in The Girl with the Green Eyes, and The Truth. Neither play treats a theme comparable in depth or in scope with the themes of the best plays of the leading English playwrights, to say nothing of the intellectual dramatists of the Continent. Jealousy is the ugliest and least dignified of the passions, and habitual lying is at best a vice. None the less, Jinny, the girl with the green eyes, stands forth as one of the most individual, vivacious, and poignant characters of the contemporary stage; and though the play as a whole turns upon a rather factitious complication and ends in sheer bathos, it has one entire act, the third, of quite masterly salience and power.

The Truth, the most interesting of Mr. Fitch’s four pieces this season, has a character and a history very pertinent to our present discussion. An amiable foible of untruth, a penchant for the wifely taradiddle, is not, in the nature of things, a theme for stirring and heartfelt emotion. No universal appeal was possible. That, as it seems, must have been evident to the humblest dramatic intelligence. Yet as a theme for the subtler comedy of manners, it is as novel as it is amusing. Mr. Fitch wrote his play with admirable simplicity and discretion. On purely technical grounds, it is by far the evenest and most sustained performance of his career. Yet from the point of view of commercial management the result was lacking in power. He gave sanction under pressure to an attempt to “lift" the final scene of the third act by playing it in the bow-wow style. As a result, this crucial moment in the play was rendered at once false and futile. The first-night critics in New York, upon whose verdict much depends, not unnaturally found the piece indifferent or bad. On the second night the defect was remedied. The scene was played simply, naturally. The public responded, and by the end of the week it was evident that the play would net a normal profit. But already, without having been given a chance for its life, it has been ordered off the boards, to make way for a musical comedy star in farce.

The final result thus far is that the anti-syndicate has bought it to produce next year. With it goes Clara Bloodgood, who by her work in this play and in The Girl with the Green Eyes has placed herself at the head of all our feminine exponents of the comedy of manners—an actress whose artistic truth and poignance of feeling have been somewhat tardily recognized. For the good of the stage as a whole it is to be hoped that Mr. Fitch will not be hampered by allegiance to either party; but it is far more needful that he should have managers who recognize the wisdom of aiding rather than hindering his artistic development.


The value of the newer order of playwrights does not lie in their craftsmanship, which is defective, nor in the popularity they have achieved— though, owing partly to a condition of general prosperity, this has been extraordinary. It lies in the nature and the calibre of the themes they have undertaken and the predominant sincerity with which they have handled them. Their work reveals a strong, if subconscious, sense of the importance of our national life, and of the magnitude of the evils that are threatening it. Hitherto, our drama has concerned itself mainly with men and women as individuals. The English drama has a broader outlook upon the social order, but it has almost exclusively limited itself to a single class, the aristocracy. Now, in American life the dominant factors are commercial and political. The Henrietta blazed the way for a type of drama which, so far as the Englishspeaking stage is concerned, was momentous — the play of business and of politics. The younger generation, finding more fortunate themes in our recently quickened moral consciouness, has developed and extended it.

Years ago Charles Klein wrote The District Attorney, but the time and his talents were not ripe. The Lion and the Mouse was made possible by the era of what, by the misapplication of a rightly invented word, is called muckraking. Specifically its inspiration lay in Miss Ida Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil. In all respects the play is as uneven as it has proved popular. A childishly weak first act is followed by a good second and a powerful third act. The means by which the heroine, daughter of a supreme court justice who has been falsely disgraced, is introduced into the household of the commercial magnate who has ruined him, is romantically, melodramatically impossible; but the result is a scene of vivid, vital character and tense, dramatic emotion. And this scene in turn, which is as sincerely felt as it is trickily prepared for, is followed by a conventional “happy ending,” in which a Napoleonic captain of industry is represented as repenting the error of his ways, and welcoming as his daughterin-law the young woman who has exposed his villainy and frustrated his will and his interests. Mr. Klein’s subject is new and vital, and his sincerity of feeling is undoubted; but the morals of the world he has created are as false and factitious as those of The Henrietta.

In The Daughters of Men, produced this season, Mr. Klein has attempted a far more difficult subject, the conflict, of labor and capital. It is possible that no skill could embody the two opposing factors of the dramatic struggle in salient and convincing figures; and it is certain that Mr. Klein has failed to do this. Lacking these, the play lacks action, and welters in a sea of economic discussion. The result was in no wise fortunate. Here also, in the end, Mr. Klein plays the part of the reconciler. Everything turns out for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Doubtless our generation is happy, prosperous, and predominantly moral. Possibly it. is ascending to far greater heights. The last; thing any sane person would ask for is premeditated gloom and despair. Yet tragedy is as essential in all life as sin and death, and without it no dramatic treatment of a great vital theme can sound the depths of passion or reach the heights of art. Much is to be forgiven the man who lives by pleasing the general public; but once a great theme is broached, to sidestep its normal issue is unintelligent and inartistic. It has been said that the American public demands fiction in which the lovemaking is passionate, but pure. Mr. Klein has attempted a not dissimilar combination. He has treated pleasantly deep and vital ills in the body politic. Yet it is much to have treated them at all. As a pioneer he deserves all credit.

In The Man of the Hour, Mr. George H. Broadhurst has risen from his early triumphs in farce to the dramatization of the shame of the cities. When his play was tried out in Philadelphia, his hero was recognized as Mayor Weaver; and in other Pennsylvania cities there were similar local identifications. New York recognized portraits of Mayor McClellan and two prominent Tammany bosses of contrasted types. Almost any city might put on this dramatic coat. Technically the action is ill conceived, being so full of incident as to render quite impossible any convincingly dramatic development. Superficially the play resembles melodrama. Essentially, however, it is a drama, and it presents two or three characters and a vital situation in municipal politics with rare humor and spirit.

Somehow Mr. Broadhurst has the grace to escape the censure Mr. Klein provokes. This may be due in part to the fact that his attitude is detached and impartial — being the attitude of the comedian rather than that of the moralist. It is probably truer and fairer to attribute it to a deficiency of emotional earnestness. A man whose apparent purpose is only to interest and amuse risks none of the dangers of the loftier flight. The difference is of kind rather than of quality. As Mr. Klein has prepared the way for the tragedy of American life, so Mr. Broadhurst has prepared the way for its drama.


If, as has been stated on authority, the quality of fire is to burn and of water to wet, some consideration is due to the comedy that amuses. It would be sad indeed if our new playwrights had hung up the fiddle and the bow when they took down the shovel and the muckrake. The Chorus Lady and The Three of Us, it is true, have each a “ dramatic ” third act, in which the heroine is discovered in the villain’s bachelor quarters, alone with him, at midnight; but this situation is the tribute which young originality pays to ancient managerial convention. Both plays have scored successes that bid fair to outlast the entire season; but their appeal lies in the freshness with which they present the simplest humors and tenderness of life. In The Chorus Lady, James Forbes has presented with extraordinary vivacity the slangy wit and sophisticated shrewdness, the absurdly flashy vices and the homely honesty of the world behind the scenes; and in Miss Rose Stahl he has found a dexterous and refreshing protagonist. Chorus ladies of Broadway are said to have found the play vulgar and commonplace; but women of the avenues and men from everywhere have delighted in it. In The Three of Us Miss Rachel Crothers, like Mr. Forbes a novice, has told a simple story of humble domestic life in a western mining town; and she has shared his good fortune in finding an actress of prime ability, Miss Carlotta Nillson. The dominant impulse in the play is a gentle and sound heart, and the manner is of amusingly if somewhat trivially detailed realism. Except for their stale and largely factitious bedroom scenes, both pieces are absolutely native and sincere.

It is with malice aforethought that I class Mrs. Fiske’s present offering, The New York Idea, by Langdon Mitchell, among the merely amusing plays from novices. Mr. Mitchell made his debut some fifteen years ago, and his treatment of the American divorce question, as he himself impressed upon a newspaper interviewer, was inspired by the most serious moral and artistic purpose. Yet this is his first original play that has succeeded; while to those who found it amusing, — and it has had a fair share of prosperity, — it was a daring and brazen effrontery (some of them called it vulgar), whose only excuse for being was its incessant drollery.

For myself, in spite of half a dozen good lines and one hilarious situation, I did not find it amusing. Perhaps I am overserious; but naturally I prefer to believe that it is Mr. Mitchell who is guilty of levity. From the outset I felt the underlying intention to do a big thing well, and was offended by the constant miscarriage of that intention. The purpose of the play is sincere and true; the play itself is neither.

Divorce is a serious, a vital subject; and to say that, of course, is to say that it stands among the most fruitful themes for comedy; but just because it is serious and vital it demands to be treated with unsophisticated truth. I am not pleading the cause of comedy against farce. Mr. Mitchell dodges that issue by describing The New York Idea merely as a “play.” There have been admirable farces of divorce, as for example the one by Sardou. But extravagant as it was, indecent if you will, it had the virtue of presenting people who were essentially true in a situation that was essentially vital. The manner was exaggerated, but the underlying matter was in no wise falsified.

Mr. Mitchell’s divorcée has left her husband, not because he had been untrue to her or because she was or fancied herself in love with another man. She left, him because he would not abandon important business in town io take her to the races. It may be argued that it is characteristic of American women to seek divorce on almost as trivial grounds, and characteristic of American courts to grant them right. There is truth in this — it is one of the curious phenomena of puritan individualism in decadence. New England leads in such divorces. But in choosing such an instance it is manifest that Mr. Mitchell has minimized and devitalized his theme.

In laying his scene in New York, and among its most fashionable set, he has introduced an element of violent untruth. The divorces of Fifth Avenue have sprung not from trivial individualism, but from the lusts of the flesh. There is no place, moreover, in which divorce is more rigidly disapproved by authority. The law forbids it except for a breach of the seventh commandment, and the church discountenances it altogether. “The Little Church Around the Corner,” famed for its broad humanity, will not remarry a divorced person. All the leading clergymen have preached against divorce in most vigorous terms to the most fashionable audiences. On the very day that recorded the production of The New York Idea, Bishop Doane of Albany was reported as having said that divorced people who marry again flaunt their sin. Yet Mr. Mitchell represents a New York clergyman, in his cloth, as fatuously congratulating himself on a sermon recommending divorce. There is nothing final in life, he had said, and still less is there anything final in death. Why should there be anything final in marriage, which is only a human institution ?

Why did Mr. Mitchell make New York the target of his satire ? It is hard to conceive any other reason than a desire to profit by the curious general interest in metropolitan society, and the equally curious willingness to believe, and to laugh at, the worst of it. Such falsehood pervades the entire play. Its drolleries are attained by a calculated perversion of the facts. It is neither farce nor comedy, but deliberate phantasy. And the very thing that makes divorce fruitful in comedy or well-conceived farce makes it distasteful as a theme for tomfoolery. On moral grounds the play is innocent enough. It is no more likely to pervert any one than to edify him. Its offense is against dramatic art; and as in the case of Mr. Klein, the offense is greater in proportion as the underlying purpose is important and right. It is fortunate for the play that it is presented by Mrs. Fiske and her extraordinarily able company, for without the aid of amusing and illusive acting its falsity must have been patent to all.


No part of Mr. Stedman’s speculation has been more accurately fulfilled than that the great inspiration to our drama would come from our younger poets — though Mr. William Vaughn Moody and Mr. Percy Mackaye are of a very different vintage from the poets he had in mind. Mr. Moody has produced a prose play, and Mr. Mackaye a play in verse, which challenge comparison with the best work of the modern stage in any country.

In the first enthusiasm over The Great Divide, finely, powerfully acted by Henry Miller and Margaret Anglin, the temptation was strong to proclaim it as marking definitely the opening of a new and triumphant epoch. Here was a play on a vital and permanent theme, and wrought out with a skill which, though it was by no means masterly and sometimes fell short of unmistakable clarity, was in the main as strongly dramatic as literary. Beside it the cleverness and mirth of our previous best, its satire, its morality and its sentiment, somehow seemed to shrink. Months have not altered the impression. One swallow, it is true, does not make a drink — and especially from the high Pierian spring. Yet this much is certain, that The Great Divide makes a vital demarcation in the growth of its author. Whether it has any larger significance will, I think, depend upon the finality with which Mr. Moody keeps on the hither side of it.

He has not always been content to distill his own liquor. Body and bouquet both have been under suspicion of alien origin. Of many of his poems it has been said — and with intent to praise—that on internal evidence they could not be distinguished from Browning’s poems. The Fire Bringer is to all intents a Greek drama, though here Mr. Moody is manifestly less than his originals. Quite aside from the question of verse, the great Greeks knew their theatre, wrote for actual presentation on it, and showed workmanlike originality in enlarging its bounds. Mr. Moody’s play, in spite of a certain crude dramatic quality in the fable, is wholly, at times almost ludicrously, unplayable on any stage. His most celebrated poem, “An Ode in Time of Hesitation,” appeared during the Philippine insurrection in the pages of this magazine. Quite clearly it is, on its æsthetic side, an echo of the odes of James Russell Lowell, while its anti-imperialism is derived from the outcry raised by Lowell two generations ago against a radically different war, — the war with Mexico.

Differences of political opinion, it is true, have nothing to do with literary criticism, though it fares ill as the world wags with the poets of lost causes. The significant fact is that in The Great Divide Mr. Moody has found his true self both in his manner and his matter. He writes as only he can write or has written; and his message, as it somewhat strangely happens, is the direct reverse of that of his earlier poems. Without being in the least political, his play is essentially imperialistic ; it is a deep and convincing presentation of the right of sturdy might, however crude and tyrannous, in opposition to the thin and anemic self-righteousness of our traditional puritanism.

The “ great divide ” of the title is the line of demarcation between the West of primitive impulse and the East of refined and conscious propriety. Originally the play was called The Sabine Woman, in reference to the fact that the hero lays hands of violence upon the heroine and forces her to submit to his will. Three drunken roisterers come upon Ruth Jordan, left alone for the night on a ranch. The best of them, an American named Ghent, shoots up one greaser and buys off another with a chain of nuggets from his neck; and as the price of protecting Ruth from outrage he leads her to the nearest magistrate. Here is an analogy so perfect that it walks on all fours. The projectiles we put into the fleet of the Spaniards in Manila Bay and the millions we paid for the Philippines could not have a more fitting symbol than the bullets from Ghent’s shooting iron and the nuggets from his neck. And the result of this bargain of force on the Arizona desert, as Mr. Moody portrays it, was the deepest and most permanent happiness for both parties to it.

For, different to the superficial view as are the drunken miner and the daughter of New England culture, they are one at heart. Mr. Moody has denoted this with fine intuition. Ruth has lived long enough in the West to respond in spirit to its ampler life — to desire at heart to become one with it. And the eye of drunken desire which Ghent casts upon her becomes from the first the eye of a true aspiration. Each has need of the other to evoke the latent powers of his soul. Our anti-imperialistic simile does not here walk on all fours; but until we attempt to assimilate the Filipinos by force there is no need that it should do so. The struggle by which Ghent benevolently assimilates Ruth Mr. Moody denotes somewhat obscurely perhaps. The play has provoked sharp differences of opinion, and among the most intelligent. Yet to me it seems inerrantly fine and right. The final scene of reconciliation is one of consummate divination. It is the man who has perpetrated the sin; but, essentially true and sincere at heart, he has derived only good from it. He has grown to his full stature of spiritual strength. The woman has suffered violence and outrage, and out of it has got only blight to her character and spiritual death. It is the realization of this that reconciles and ennobles her.

It would be hard to overestimate the originality or value of such a treatment of such a theme. The wages of sin, so our preachers and playwrights are accustomed to tell us, are death; the reward of sorrow and wrong new strength to the soul. Here is a dramatist who shows us that the wages of sin may be a purer life, that sorrow and wrong may corrupt. Ruth’s sternly puritan brother, when he learns of the manner in which Ghent won her, has the impulse to kill him. Her mother, who is a model of conventional goodness, says, “You should have killed yourself !” Ruth has learned that either course would have meant the loss of all life has to give.

There has been much question of the seemliness of representing on the stage the initial scene of violence, — in fact, of treating such a subject in any manner. To my mind, and to the mind of the great public which has crowded the theatre throughout an entire season, the frank brutality of the story is its triumph. Where other American playwrights have skirted the edges of a big vital theme, Mr. Moody has drawn its heart’s blood, courageously, intelligently, and has found it pure. If the guardians of conventional propriety were as keen as they are eager, they would find far greater offense in the underlying thought in the play. Stroke by stroke, subtle, quiet, but luminous to the understanding, Mr. Moody slays our most cherished beliefs.

Bernard Shaw at his most irreverent never was more iconoclastic. And Mr. Moody has this supreme advantage, that, whereas the brilliant Irishman has spent his powder when he has flashed a paradox or two in the dramatic pan, he infuses his play with the earthly fires of primal passion and fans the flame with the deepest spiritual breath of men and women. Henry Arthur Jones has the heart of strong feeling and the head of right thinking; but compared with this play all his outcries against puritan hypocrisy seem pale. Pinero has never been keener in psychology, and never half as deep. Those three Britons, it is true, are great playwrights, each with his niche in the hall of dramatic fame won by a life of successful effort, while Mr. Moody is as yet a novice. One swallow, I repeat, does not make a drink. Yet it is all the connoisseur requires to savor the rarest vintage. The Great Divide is a picture painted on a small canvas.

The characters are few and the scenes are three. The technic is not always that of a master. But it is deeply original, inalienably American in origin, and worldwide in its implications. If Mr. Moody has crossed his great divide for good, then all the things one hopes are true.

Mr. Klein’s, Mr. Forbes’s, and Mr. Broadhurst’s managers are affiliated with the syndicate, though loosely; Miss Crothers’s, Mr. Mitchell’s, and Mr. Moody’s belong to the anti-syndicate. Mr. Mackaye’s “Jeanne d’Arc” is produced by Mr. Sothern and Miss Marlowe, who have lately joined the opposition in order to attain the freedom to expand denied them by their former managers.


What Lamartine did for Jeanne d’Arc in biography, and Boutet de Monvel in illustration, Mr. Mackaye has done in the poetic drama. Here for the first time on the stage — and I say this with Schiller’s powerful but theatric and rhetorical Johanna well in mind — we have the maid of voices and visions, the peasant saint in her habit as she lived, nobly patriotic in her rustic girlhood, sweetly intimate, unaffectedly simple in her triumph as in her martyrdom. Many a great actress, and notably Bernhardt, has found the Maid of Orleans a pitfall. Miss Marlowe, thanks to her author, has found in her the means of one of the purest, deepest, and most compelling impersonations of the modern stage. And in the subordinate part of D’Alençon. Jeanne’s skeptical and humanistic yet reverent lover, Mr. Mackaye has written for Mr. Sothern a part in the gentler moods of Hamlet, which gives scope to his finest and loveliest powers.

In one element of success, it seems to me, Mr. Mackaye is lacking. His gift has not yet proved itself essentially dramatic. I use the word advisedly. For the external arts of the theatre he has, as becomes a son of Steele Mackaye, an unfailing instinct. His dialogue is firm and natural. He never fails to visualize, and externally to vitalize, his scenes. His pictorial projection of Jeanne’s visions shows an expert hand in what the profession calls effects. He probably could not if he would write an unactable part. But he has never yet evinced the clear intellect and firm grasp of the conflicts of character and impulse which are essential to the construction of a dynamic stage story.

This is the one great defect of his play. It is, to be sure, a defect that springs from a not inconsiderable virtue. His dominant purpose is to reveal the character and career of his heroine from her girlhood in Domremy to her death in Rouen; and this he has done without exaggeration, without any of the cheap sophistications of the theatre. Yet the fact remains that, fine, true, and moving as is the character of the heroine, the six scenes which portray her career have no informing principle, no single, propulsive development. From the point of view of drama, the effect of the whole is fragmentary. The action is constructed as the Elizabethans built chronicle histories. But their purpose in so writing was primarily educational and patriotic, not artistic. When they felt free to shape their materials, they wrote, at their best, far otherwise. There are no clearer examples of unified development through conflict than Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear.

This defect is not. peculiar to Mr. Mackaye. Cyrano de Bergerac is a character play rather than a drama, and of the works of Stephen Phillips, only one, Herod, is essentially dramatic. This fact, more than aything else, explains why the modern poetic drama lives such a dead-and-alive existence on our stage. From the point of view of the average playgoer, ɭ’homme moyen sensuel, these are slow plays— a thing which dramatic masterpieces never are. Even to the most sympathetic, there are passages in Jeanne d’Arc in which the attention flags.

Mr. Mackaye has, however, as it seems to me, taken an honorable position among modern poetic dramatists. His play has little of the brilliancy of Rostand, little of the dramatic movement and suspense of Stephen Phillips at his best. But it has a quality of its own, which, to me at least, is no less momentous — an unfailing grace of the affections and a sustaining spiritual power. This is the work of a young man finely and characteristically American, who sees life sweetly, with tenderness, depth, and humor, and sees it whole. It is already evident, too, that his talent is as varied as it is fine. The Canterbury Pilgrims, published but as yet unacted, is a brisk and ebullient comedy of Chaucer, and The Wife of Bath full of the childlike gayety and childlike poetry of old England. The Scarecrow, neither published nor acted, is a keen and striking satirical phantasy of puritan New England, founded on Hawthorne’s Feathertop. As yet in his early thirties, the success of Jeanne d’Arc, which is extraordinary, should prove the means of broadening Mr. Maekaye’s talent and giving it scope. The task of creating a poetic drama in the twentieth century is not without difficulties of the gravest; but there is abundant indication that it lies within his powers.


The great need of the American drama, which is the ancient and enduring need of the English-speaking peoples as a whole, is a theatre in which the conditions shall not be primarily commercial. There is danger, no doubt, in cultivating the drama in conventicles. This is a cathedral art. More than any other it draws its inspiration from the life of a nation, of a century, and lives or dies in its universal heart. The great public we have always with us. We cannot escape it, and those of us who are worthy it claims in the end as its own. Yet if the victory is won by the many it is the few who lead. In the phrase of Matthew Arnold, it is essential that the drama be organized—and organized on its highest plane.

This season, so rich in actual accomplishment, has seen the founding of The New Theatre in New York. Plans have been made and adopted, and ground has been broken on a site overlooking the lower end of Central Park toward Fifth Avenue. The venture is radically different from those lately made in Boston and Chicago. There the effort has been made on a small scale, and with insufficient resources. The New Theatre is dedicated not only to the present year, but to the decade, the generation. It is the purpose of the founders, and their means are sufficient, to make it an institution for all time. The project promises well; but of even better augury is the fact that we have already playwrights and a public capable of such excellent things.