Our American Theatre/a History of the American Drama From the Beginning to the Civil War

by Oliver M. Sayler. New York: Brentano’s. 1923. 12mo. Illustrated. xiv+399 pp. $4.00.
by Arthur Hobson Quinn. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1923. 8vo. xvii+486 pp. $4.00.
HERE are two books about the American stage, totally different in subject and intention yet curiously interrelated. Mr. Sayler, who not long ago journeyed to Russia and wrote the first coherent account of the modern Russian theatre, has not yet recovered From the shock of his enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm, added to his normal modernistic tendencies, colors his whole account of our current stage with discontent. Prior to 1908, it seems, we had no real theatre in America, no native drama, no appreciation of foreign artists. All that began to come when Belasco produced The Easiest Way, and flowered when we welcomed the Moscow Art Players. It is not unfair to Mr. Saylor’s book to say that he advocates, for our dramatic salvation, art theatres in America modeled on Mr. Stanislavsky’s Moscow playhouse, and a drama modeled on all the European experiments in dramatic and theatrical technique. If you complain that this programme is a bit vague you have, of course, hit upon one weakness of the book — and, for that matter, of the ‘modern’ movement in the American theatre.
Professor Quinn, on the other hand, has with infinite patient research gone through all the existent American dramas written prior to the Civil War, and produced what is certainly the first, and likely to be the last, work on the subject. No one but students of the stage will read this book entire, just as no one but students of the stage have even guessed that many of the plays catalogued and described by Professor Quinn existed. It is the abiding value of Professor Quinn’s work, not that he has done a neglected research-job, but that by covering the entire field of our native drama up to the Civil War (a second volume will doubtless follow later), he has definitely contributed to a present understanding of our theatrical problems.
There were two main tendencies in the earlier American drama, plainly indicated by the examples Professor Quinn has assembled. One tendency was, from the start, to imitate the European fashions in play-writing: a tendency the more readily fostered because — in spite of Mr. Sayler — our theatre was visited constantly by foreign artists. The other tendency was, however, no less clearly marked. It was a tendency toward an ever increasingly realistic drama, most often comic or satiric in tone, of our native life. The first American comedy was Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, in 1793, and in it appeared the first stage Yankee, ancestor of a long line. Plays about the Revolution, the War of 1812, Indians, frontiersmen. New York’s fashionable society in Manhattan or at Saratoga, Rip Van Winkle, and so on, were written in spite of the discouraging conditions which surrounded authorship, in spite of the ease with which foreign plays, already proved on the stage, could be pirated, in spite of the general preference for the big-bowwow rôles of classic or romantic drama.
These two tendencies ran side by side, and Professor Quinn might well have indicated more clearly which was the more important in our theatre. Professor Quinn’s next book will doubtless show how after the Civil War, in the 80’s and more especially the 90’s, it was this second tendency which actually made twentieth-century Broadway possible and gave Mr. Sayler an audience. In other words, the American ‘ art theatre,’ if it is to come at all, will come — according to all indications of our history — through the further development of our native type of drama, concerned with our own life, told in our own way. It will come through Cohan and Craven, not Shaw and Wedekind.
Mr. Sayler, to be sure, stresses the superior qualities of Eugene O’Neill over all other contemporary American dramatists, with the utmost enthusiasm for this native playwright. Bui he fails to indicate as a reading of Professor Quinn’s book might have helped him to do that The Emperor Jones is, after all, a direct development of our century-old dramatic interest in the American negro; that Beyond the Horizon is the tragic reverse of Shores Acres; that even The Hairy Ape is Mose, the fireman, made socially conscious and treated by a tragic poet.
As a matter of fact, there is too much of Europe on Broadway to-day, and altogether too much critical forgetfulness of the fact that no art, no literature, really touches the lives of the people unless it is in their idiom, and concerns itself with their problems. American art theatres would be very nice things to have — but only if they are really American,
These reviews will be reprinted separately in pamphlet form. Copies may be had by any librarian, without charge, on application to the Atlantic Monthly, 8 Arlington St., Boston. For ten or more copies there is a charge of one cent per copy.