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Winter 1992
Vera Mowry Roberts
Joel Berkowitz
CUNY Graduate School
Managing Editor
Edwin Wilson
Assistant Editors
CASTA Copyright 1992
Number 1
Walter J. Meserve
James Masters
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (ISSN 1044-937X) Is
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University of Missouri
Ruby Cohn
University of California,
Editorial Board
Margaret Wilkerson
University of California,
Don B. Wilmeth
Brown University
Bruce A. McConachie
College of William and Mary
From the Editors
As we enter our fourth year of publication (we began In Spring
1989), we pause for reflection. We have, to date, published thirty-five
essays in eight issues of JADT, from the eighty thus far submitted.
The subject matter has ranged from the 17th to the 20th century, and
the authors, from widespread geographic locations, have ranged
from first-time publishers to established scholars with long lists of
other publications.
As many of you know, we are both long-time laborE'rs in the
field of American drama and theatre, and we are heartened by the
evidence in JADT that the field, so sparse at the beginning of our
careers, is now thriving so vigorously. But we are always keenly
aware of how much there is still to be done, and so we urge our like-
minded colleagues to continue their research and writing with zeal
and passion, and to encourage graduate students to enter this fruitful
On bad days, we deplore what seems to us a less-than-brilliant
writing style evident in too many submissions, but then we are
heartened by a spate of well-conceived and gracefully written essays,
and it all seems worthwhile again.
We are grateful for the support we have received from CAST A
and the Ph.D. Program in Theatre at the City University of New York,
from our subscribers, and most of all from our contributors. We
pledge to continue our sometimes frustrating, sometimes .exhilarating
volunteer endeavor to make JADT an authentic voice for significant
scholarship in American drama and theatre.
Vera Mowry Roberts Walter J. Meserve
Volume IV
Keith Newlin
Gerald Weales
MUiy S. Barranger
Bruce A. McConachie
Karen C. Blansfietd
Table of Contents
Winter 1992 Number 1
Expressionism Takes the Stage:
Dreiser's Laughing Gas ..................... 5
Mike Gold's Theatre ............................. 23
Battle of Angels:
Margaret Webster Directs
Tennessee Williams ..... ...................... 45
Role-Playing and Authenticity
In Midcentury Metodrama ................ 63
Artistic and Social Dimensions of
Black Culture in the
-voodoo .. Macbeth ............... ............. 78
Contributors ....................................................................................... 101
Manuscripts should be prepared in conformity with The Chicago
Manual of Style, 13th ed., and should be submitted in duplicate with
an appropriately stamped, self-addressed envelope. Please allow
three to four months for a response. Our distinguished Editorial
Board will constitute the jury of selection. Address editorial inquiries
and manuscript submissions to the Editors, Journal of American
Drama and Theatre, Ph.D. Program in Theatre, CUNY Graduate
Center, 33 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036.
CASTA Publications are supported by generous grants from the
Lucille Lortel Chair In Theatre and the Sidney E. Cohn Chair In
Theatre Studies in the Ph.D. Program in Theatre at the City University
of New York.
KeHh Newlin
Upon publication of Dreiser's Plays of the Natural and Super-
natural in 1916, Montrose Moses closed his generally laudatory
review in the May Book News Monthly by announcing that the
volume must not be taken too seriously as a contribution to the
theatre .. . . I do not see how [the plays] could be i p ~ within the
confines of the proscenium arch and the footlights. Despite his
authority as one of America's leading dramatic critics and as the
author of the influential The American Dramatist (1911 ), Moses' dis-
missive comment proved remarkably shortsighted. Dreiser's plays
soon interested a number of amateur and semi-professional theatre
groups that promptly performed the plays as part of their campaign
to replace the stale conservatism of the commercial theatre with art-
istic innovation. 2
Though now forgotten by literary and theatrical historians, the
1916 production of "Laughing Gas by the Little Theater Society of
Indiana is of particular historical importance, for it marked the first
effective use in America of expressionistic staging techniques to
portray the unconscious mind, and it inspired other theatre groups
by demonstrating, through methods derived from the new
stagecraft, dramatically effective means of mingling conscious and
dream states. In addition, the play's formal innovations forecast
methods of depicting character psychology that dramatists such as
Eugene O'NeHI, Elmer Rice, and Thornton Wilder would later experi-
ment with in their efforts to convey the Inner conflicts of the mind.3
"Laughing Gas is therefore not only the first of Dreiser's plays to
reach the boards; it is also America's first staged expressionistic
Dreiser's plays, and particularly "Laughing Gas, are also an
important resource for understanding the development of his
aesthetics. As several commentators have noted, after the pub-
lication of The Titan (1914) Dreiser's interests began to shift from fic-
tional representation of life to philosophical speculation about the
meaning of life. As part of his search for an appropriate form through
which to articulate his ideas, Dreiser found dramatic expression an
effective means for showing the operation of forces he later dis-
cussed more abstractly and less coherently in essays collected in
Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub (1920). Dramatic form enabled Dreiser to
express clearty and concretely, without the sometimes obfuscating
detail so characteristic of his fiction, his philosophical Interpretations
of ideas gleaned from Spencer, Haeckel, Huxley, and others. In
these plays, Dreiser grafts a mechanistic explanation of human
behavior onto melodramatic patterns of conflict. He portrays the
conflict between man's will to live and the forces that determine his
actions In what Peter Brooks calls a melodrama of "pure psychic
signs, in which inner conflict is made visible "through the play of
pure, exteriorized signs. "
Unlike most melodramatists of his gener-
ation, however, Dreiser locates the action within the mind rather than
within the external movement of plot and character. Because they
dramatize the mechanical workings of the mind, Dreiser's plays are
among the first attempts to portray a psychology of character
grounded In mechanistic science.
Drelser was uncharacteristically silent about his dramatic
aspirations and left few records--public or private--concerning his
plans. The few letters in which he mentions his plays are typically
cryptic: most are queries to H.L. Mencken soliciting publication in
Smart Set. To discover why Dreiser abruptly turned to drama after fif-
teen years of work exclusively in journalism and fiction, the impor-
tance of two events that occurred in Chicago in 1913 and 1914 must
be recognized: his introduction to Maurice Browne and the Chicago
Little Theatre, and a nearly fatal operation in March 1914 that con-
firmed his belief in the absurd and ephemeral quality of life and sub-
stantially altered his method of expression.
In late December 1912 Dreiser travelled to Chicago to gather
material about Charles Yerkes for The Titan. Accompanied by Edgar
Lee Masters, Floyd Dell, and William Lengel, he went to Maurice
Browne's Chicago Little Theatre in January and saw Euripides' The
Trojan Women, its first production in the United States. He was
greatly impressed by the Theatre's goals and staging methods and
soon became active in promoting it. To Mary Elizabeth Titzel, the
theatre's secretary, he wrote that the Theater and its company seem
to me to be truly leading in dramatic effort in America.6 He
acquainted Mencken with his delight in the theatre and asked him to
help publicize the Theatre's activities in Smart Set and to assist in
arranging playhouses for the Theatre's coming tour to eastern cities.
Dreiser also was on the watch for plays for Browne's troupe to pro-
duce. On 17 February 1913 he wrote to Mencken, enclosed a
program from the Little Theatre, and asked, "If you have a radical one
act play--something remote from the courage of the average stage
send it to me & I'll get Browne to read it. He's the real thing (D-M,
115). Mencken declined, explaining that he was too busy, but he did
help Dreiser and Browne schedule performances in Baltimore for
The Trojan Women when it went on tour.
Dreiser greatly admired Browne's effort to form an art theatre
in rebellion against the usual fare of musical comedies and
melodramas offered at commercial theatres. Founded in the fall of
1912 in response to a recent visit by Dublin's Abbey Players, the
Chicago Little Theater was, in Browne's words,
a repertory and experimental art theatre producing classical
and modern plays, both tragedy and comedy, at popular
prices. Preference is given in its productions to poetic and
imaginative plays, dealing primarily whether as tragedy or
comedy with character in action . . .. The Chicago Little
Theatre has for its object the creation of a new plastic and
rhythmic drama in America.
A poet himself, Browne wanted to foster poetic drama (which in 1912
meant a Maeterlinckian symbolism), for only through poetry, he
believed, could an artist fully engage his audience's emotional and
intellectual attention.
A key player In the rebellion against realism In the theatre,
Browne was one of the first American directors to adopt Gordon
Craig's theories of stagecraft as a. means of creating "a rhythmic
fusion of movement, light, and sound.a Craig argued that realistic
sets prevented the audience from concentrating on the play because
the audience inevitably became distracted by the set's verisimilitude.
To avoid this distraction, the director should offer a unified set design
that would present a rounded and complete emotional interpretation
of a play, analyzing the emotional values established by the
dramatist, interpreting these values in the terms of human actors and
stage atmosphere, in movements, lights, color, line, costume, and
background . ..g The Chicago Little Theatre therefore sought to reveal
the meaning of a play through symbolism and suggestion. The set
of The Trojan Women, for example, consisted of little more than a
wall with a jagged gap in it and two steps leading up to it, faintly lit
with shafts of light illuminating portions of the actors' bodies.
0 This
new impressionism in stagecraft, as articulated by Craig and prac-
ticed by Browne, was thus an early forerunner of the later express-
ionist sets constructed by the Theatre Guild.
According to Edmund Biddle, who interviewed Maurice
Browne's wife Ellen Van Volkenburg Browne about her recollections
of Dreiser for his 1965 dissertation on Dreiser's plays, Dreiser was
enchanted with the simplicity, dignity, sensitivity, and beauty of the
production of The Trojan Women.
Browne's use of suggestive and
symbolic sets, his theories of "plastic and rhythmic drama, and his
encouragement of innovation undoubtedly sparked in Dreiser an
awareness of the possibilities of dramatic form as a means of
Exhilarated by the innovations of the Chicago Little Theatre
Dreiser interrupted his composition of The Titan to write a one-act
study of the conflict between duty and desire entitled -rhe Girl in the
Coffin," completing the play by 18 July 1913, when he sent It to
Mencken for publication in Smart Set (D-M, 120). When It appeared
in the October issue, the play immediately attracted the interest of
several producers eager to stage the plece.13 During these negotia-
tions, Dreiser continued to write plays, and on 29 July 1914 he sent
three more to Mencken for appraisal (D-M, 146).
These three plays--"Laughing Gas," -rhe Blue Sphere" and "In
the Dark"--were markedly different from anything Dreiser had
previously written. Unlike -rhe Girl in the Coffin," the plays Ignore the
dramatic unities of space and time through a cinematic technique of
intercutting. Their characters are abstract representations of the
motive forces of behavior, and their dominant tone Is of mystery,
despair, and wonder at the omnipresence of death. "laughing Gas"
depicts a surgical patient's dream vision In which the leading
characters are The Rhythm of the Universe, the gas nitrous oxide,
and "Alcephoran, an element of physics." "The Blue Sphere" violates
unity of time and place as a mysterious Shadow lures a deformed
child to its death under the wheels of a train; and "In the Dark" con-
veys the melodrama of guilt and vengeance as a murderer is pursued
by spirits and demons. Since Dreiser had enjoyed a measure of
approval with the realism of "The Girl in the Coffin," what prompted
him to risk criticism with the strange form of these plays of the
The answer appears to be a nearly fatal operation for carbun-
cles in March 1914 that reacquainted him with the tenuousness of
life. In early March Dreiser returned to Chicago for additional
research for his third volume on Charles Yerkes. There he rejoined
Kirah Markham, with whom he had been having an affair and who
had left Dreiser in New York after learning that he was still spending
time with his wife. Between March 6 and March 16, Dreiser
underwent surgery while anesthetized with nitrous oxide. Markham's
account of the surgery, although no doubt embellished, both reveals
the source of Dreiser's later treatment of that experience in "Laughing
Gas .. and suggests that this near brush with death reconfirmed his
sense of the transience of man and his essential helplessness before
the "forces" of life. "While we were there," Markham wrote to William
Swanberg, Dreiser's biographer,
he developed a carbuncle on the back of his neck. We were
having tea with the wonderful doctor, Dr. Julia Strong, who
had brought me through all of my childhood diseases, and
when she realized how he was suffering she loaded us into
her little car and took us to Hanniman Hospital, ordered an
operating room, and went to work on him. She said It's triv-
Ial, we' ll just use gas. In the midst of the operation things
grew serious. You may not know, but a carbuncle, unlike a
boll, has roots, and In Theo's case they were wound around
the jugular vein. Working with laughing gas Dr. Julia realized
It was going to take longer than she had anticipated and
ordered oxygen. A nurse went to the store room and found
It locked and no one had a key. In the end it was brought
from another building and by that time Theo was turning
blue and we were all, doctor, nurses and I, chaffing his
hands and feet to restore circulation. When a tank of oxygen
was finally brought and administered he rose up on the
operating table roaring with gargantuan laughter. I've got it,
I've got It on you all, the secret of the universe, the same
thing over and over, God damned rep[et]ition!
It was almost a year later that he handed me the first
draft of the one act play, Laughing Gas. I had never told
him of what happened, of how nearty he had died, yet it is all
in the play.
Readers familiar with Laughing Gas" will readily see that the
foregoing account describes exactly the plot of the play, In which a
patient undergoing surgery for a neck tumor nearly dies when the
oxygen supply runs out. It is, of course, difficult to determine how
accurate Markham's account is, given the 50 years' lapse between
the event and the memoir and the fact that she favored Laughing
Gas over Dreiser's other plays (she also errs by one year in dating
the play's composition). But Dreiser's letters to Mencken also con-
firm the importance of this experience to his Imagination.
Immediately following the operation he acquainted Mencken of his
surgery and mentioned that he was planning a new philosophic
interpretation of Earthly life (16 March 1914; 0-M, 133). Moreover,
his letters are peppered with cryptic references to health and luck--an
indication of his introspection as he pondered his own transience, as
he wrote 22 June 1914: "The ills that affect man are truly mental and
not material. Mostly they are damned theories that blow like dis-
eases on every wind. (D-M, 144).
Drelser may have been drawn to symbolistic rather than
realistic expression because symbolistic staging methods were espe-
cially suitable to his subject of inquiry--the rhythmic cycle of life and
death. The stylized pantomime and the creation of mood through
the rhythmic play of light and shadow, which he had witnessed
employed in Maurice Browne's staging of The Trojan Women, may
also have seemed an effective means through which to dramatize the
psychic forces Dreiser believed responsible for human behavior.
"Laughing Gas" is undoubtedly the most interesting of
Dreiser's plays. Taking the form of a surgical patient's dream vision,
the drama is at once Dreiser's most pessimistic statement of man's
inabUity to guide his destiny and his most articulate expression of his
notion of "equation inevitable." For Dreiser; the universe was com-
posed of conflicting forces that, he believed, ultimately tended
toward balance or "equation." To convey this notion of "equation,"
Dreiser was immensely attracted to Spencer's idea of "rhythm,"
which to Spencer meant, as Donald Pizer summarizes, that
all reality is an expression of force (or energy), though force
may take the corollary shapes of space, time, matter or
motion. Force always exists in "antagonistic .forms, since
"any force manifested, implies an equal antecedent force
from which it is derived, and against which It Is a reaction."
Thus, the persistence of force--in the guise of rhythmic
motion--is the prime mover of all life, since rhythmic motion
causes all change. 15
Spencer's "rhythm .. became for Dreiser a powerful means for
explaining the mechanistic nature of the universe. Since man is part
of the cosmic mechanism, ethical laws could also be explained by
reference to .. equation":
the words "harmony," "justice," "truth," possibly even
"tenderness" and "mercy" ... mean but one thing, if they
mean anything at all: the need of striking a balance or
achieving an equilibrium between plainly restless and con-
flicting elements .... [H]eat is balanced by cold in the
universe; light by no light; matter by force; tenderness by
savagery; lust by asceticism; love by hate; and so on ad
infinitum. No thing is fixed. All tendencies are permitted
apparently. Only a balance is maintained. 16
In fashioning his idea of .. equation," however, Dreiser modified Spen-
cer's concept of rhythm "beyond recognition, .. as Ronald Martin
observes. "Dreiser tended to see his equation theory as a kind of
axiom that every force had its own particular contrariety and there-
fore no change or progress was even metaphysically possible."
But for Spencer, the balance of forces is not static: the "antagonistic"
forces are in continual fluctuation, not stasis ... Complete equilibrium"
to Spencer means that "the end of all evolution has been achieved
and there is no motion at all ... 18
Dreiser's conception of "equation vacHiated continually in his
writings as he strove to express his Ideas. At times he conceived of
"equation as a cosmic scheme of checks and balances that
operated as a cohesive force, ensuring that the welter of forces did
not disintegrate into chaos. At other times he sounded closer to
Spencer's position: .
There is no doubt that life seeks and maintains a rough
equation, but does it seek or ever attain an absolute one? ...
Coeval with a rough balance there is always the tendency to
change in everything, thus preventing an exact equation.19
"Laughing Gas" is Dreiser's first systematic exploration of this
notion of "equation."20 Through a didactic expressionism, the play
suggests that life is nothing more than senseless, cyclical repetition,
with man its helpless victim struggling to live amid Its mechanistic
forces. The play operates on two levels: the physical plane, In which
Dr. Jason Vatabeel undergoes an operation to remove a neck tumor;
and the spiritual plane, in which Vatabeel, anesthetized with nitrous
oxide, participates in a colloquy with personifications of the forces
that determine life. While Vatabeel breathes in the gas, he remem-
bers a former dream experience while under its influence and
wonders whether it will repeat itself. These thoughts both prompt
him to dream and dramatically enact the drama's thesis: all events in
life are endless repetitions.
As Vatabeel hallucinates under the influence of the gas, he
hears the "Rhythm of the Universe"--"Om! Om! Om! Om!"--the regular
pulsations of the anesthesia machine. He becomes aware of voices,
the first of which is Alcephoran, an incarnate force of physics with the
power of "generating and superimposing ideas without let or
hindrance" and who speaks the language of "equation":
Deep, deep and involute are the ways and the substance of
things. Oh, endless reaches! Oh, endless order! Oh, end-
less disorder! Death without life! Life without death! A sink-
ing! A rising! An endless sinking! An endless rising!21
His words matching the pulsation of the anesthesia machine,
Alcephoran voices the rhythmic cycle of life and death, the inevitable
equilibrium "between plainly restless and conflicting elements" that
Dreiser believed characterized all life. On the physical plane the
surgeons conducting the operation soon discover both that the
tumor is more serious than first apparent and that the oxygen supply
is grossly inadequate. While a nurse tracks down the key to the
locked oxygen supply storeroom, Vatabeel's life force begins to ebb.
As it does, Demyaphon, the incarnation of the gas nitrous oxide, who
appears only as thoughts placed in the dreamer's mind," enables
Vatabeel to recognize his Insignificance in the universe:
You puzzle over the phenomena of man. In a vain, critical,
cynical ambitious way you dream. It will all be wiped out and
forgotten. To that which you seek there is no solution. A
tool, a machine, you spin and spin on a given course
through new worlds and old. Vain, vain! For you there is no
great end. (1 00)
In subsequent scenes, while the doctors try to save Vatabeel's
life, Demyaphon continues his discourse about man's purposeless
existence in the rhetoric of equation: "Round and round, operation
upon operation, world upon world, hither and yon, so you come and
go. The same difficulty, the same operation, ages and worlds apart.
Your whole life repeated detail by detail except for slight changes
(1 05). On the brink of death, Vatabeel realizes that only by
deliberately and arbitrarily choosing to live can he survive:
Am I really to die? Oh, no!! What if I do go round and
round! I am a man! Life is sweet, intense, perfect! If I do go
round and round, what of it? Beyond this, what? Nothing! I
[He stirs. His spirit struggles with materiality. The vital
spark is rekindled within the inert frame. With a gigantic
effort, it resumes control and respiration. The effort to
inhale, feeble at the surface of materiality, is immense.]
Demyaphon then tells Vatabeel that his very struggle to live is without
purpose, a cosmic joke: And the humor of it is that it is without
rhyme or reason. Over and over! Eon after eon! What you do now,
you will do again. And there is no explanation. You are so eager to
live--to do it again. Do you not see the humor of that? (112).
Vatabeel's response as he awakens, of course, is to laugh, his face
a mask of sardonic inanity":
Oh, ho! ho! ho--oh, ha! ha! ha! I see it all now! Oh, what a
joke! Oh, what a trick! Over and over! And I can't help
myself! Oh, ho! ho! ho! Oh, ha! ha! ha! . .. I have the ans-
wer! I see the trick. The folly of medicine! The folly of life!
... What fools and tools we are! What pawns! What
numbskulls! (115-16)
Vatabeel is the archetypal Dreiser victim, helplessly buffeted
about by chemical and physical forces that determine his every
thought and action. As Demyaphon tells him, vou are a mere
machine run by forces which you cannot understand (1 03). The
incarnation of these forces--Demyaphon and Alcephoran--are the
motive causes for Vatabeel's thoughts and moods. In the action of
the play, Vatabeel thinks only what these forces plant in his mind; the
play therefore stands as one of Dreiser's most explicit depictions of
the chemical basis of thought. The play Is also an effective
dramatization of Dreiser's notion of equation. As suggested by the
rhythmic pulsation of the anesthesia machine (transformed Into the
Rhythm of the Universe in Vatabeel's dream), Dreiser sees the con-
flict between the desire to live and the tendency to die as fundamen-
tal to life. That the play concludes with Vatabeel restored to life Indi-
cates Dreiser's faith that this conflict ultimately resolves Into an
equilibrium between plainly restless and conflicting elements.
Vatabeel emerges from the anesthetic as he entered it, pondering the
cyclical repetition of the universe. 22
In November 1916 Carl Bernhardt, who had recently taken
over the reins of the Little Theater Society of Indiana, wrote to Dreiser
to enquire about production rights to .. Laughing Gas... Dreiser
agreed, and on 7 December 1916 the Society became the first
theatre to perform a Dreiser play. Founded in 1915 to encourage
.. the experimental and repertory presentation of both approved and
untried dramatic works, .. the Society may have been attracted to
.. Laughing Gas .. in part because it was then promoting the works of
Indiana playwrights and had just concluded a bill of .. dialogued
excerpts .. from local authors. 23
Bernhardt, a theatrical licensing agent for the Bobbs-Merrill
Company, had formerly worked with Arthur Hopkins and Robert
Edmund Jones on their production of The Devil's Garden in Decem-
ber 1915 and from them had learned to incorporate abstract express-
Ion into realistic sets. He undertook .. Laughing Gas, .. he told the
Indianapolis Star in a pre-production Interview, as an experiment in
the new stagecraft: ~ i s play of Dreiser's involves a number of tech-
nical questions, not only of stage lighting, but actually of play con-
struction, for it approaches the dividing line between motion pictures
and the technique of the legitimate stage. The play was something
of a cause celebre, for the presentation of Laughing Gas would
mark the first time in America that a theatre would attempt to per-
sonify simultaneously the workings of both the conscious and the
unconscious mind. Other theatres had staged mental states before--
most notably Arthur Hopkins' production of Eleanor Gates's Poor
Little Rich Girl (1913)--but as Bernhardt pointed out, Hopkins was
able to divide his action into reality in one act and unreality in
another. "
The Little Theater Society would depict both states
simultaneously by employing an impressionistic set, designed by
Donald Dohner and Harrison Brown, and symbolic shades of light-
ing, designed by Piatt Orlopp, to suggest the interplay of the con-
scious and the unconscious.
Reception of the play was mixed. Oliver Sayler, a devotee of
the Russian Art Theatre and an enthusiastic advocate of the new
stagecraft, noted in his review [unsigned) for the Indianapolis News
that "The achievement In the effective production of 'Laughing Gas' Is
nothing less than revolutionary. Uke all great achievements, it seems
easy now that it has been accomplished . ... [The production] Is one
of the three or four creative discoveries of the little theatre movement
the world over. 25 Hector Fuller, writing for the Indianapolis Star,
remarked that the production was a "sensation but he was less
appreciative of the experimental nature of the play. His comment is
perhaps illustrative of the general play-goer in 1916 In Its preference
for more traditional fare that instructs whUe amusing: "Fantasy, I sup-
pose, some may call 'Laughing Gass' [sic], but others wHI place It in
the category of horrors, and will ask themselves what possible useful
purpose can be served by dishing up the tortures of a man on the
operating table. Ugh! .. 26
What created this division of opinion? A production faithful to
Dreiser's intention would require the simultaneous portrayal of two
planes of existence: the .. realistic .. plane, in which the surgical team
carries out the operation, and the "dream plane, in which Vatabeel's
thoughts are lntercut with the comments of the incarnate forces that
control him. The central production problem, then, was how to
depict both states without losing the effect of interconnection, since
the dream characters determine Vatabeel's actions and perceptions,
which in turn are prompted by the actions of the surgical team. In an
extended review for the Boston Evening Transcript (accompanied by
an impressionistic sketch of the set by Donald Dohner; see Fig. 1 ),
Sayler perceptively noted the problem and detailed Bernhardt's
solution. The key, as Sayler saw it, was Dreiser's notion of rhythm,
symbolized by the regular pulsations of the anaesthesia machine (the
incarnation of the Rhythm of the Universe), which unified the conflict-
ing forces of Dreiser's .. equation."
In "Laughing Gas" there is need for the two main rhythms--of
the natural and the supernatural. The natural rhythm is the
rhythm of sheer realism--the casual everydayness of the
group of surgeons and nurses around the operating table.
The supernatural rhythm is taken up and carried forward by
the figures in the shadow world. In close connection with
this is the mechanically contrived rhythm of the universe
which backs up and gives body to the shifting, changing
rhythms of shadow voices and shadow bodies In motion.
Rising, individualized, from the shadow rhythm, are the two
clashing rhythms of the two leading shadow figures--
Demyaphon, the negative spirit, and Alcephoran, the positive
spirit, the conflict of which provides some of the most
intense drama of the play. 27
Bernhardt's successful staging of this conflict between the
material and spiritual plane was, Sayler noted, of signal importance
to American drama. A central premise of the art theatre movement
was that realistic production techniques were passe, for the theatre
could not (and should not) compete with the motion picture, which
excelled at realistic depictions. To succeed as art, Sayler argued,
drama had to move toward symbolic expression to convey what the
film of the time could not: an appeal to the emotions and the
imagination through the abstractions of mood and feeling, and to
portray these moods and feelings as the background for the action
of the play rather than to particularize that background In the guise of
either a literal or symbolic representation of locale. 28 "Laughing
Gas was the first successful integration of this abstraction of mood
and feeling--and America's first expressionistic production--and to
Sayler served to "give encouragement to others to push on through
the breach and enter into the rich possibilities of an entirely new field
of expression through the drama. 29
"Laughinl( Gas" on t ~ Stage
Fig. 1
Bernhardt conveyed the simultaneous interconnection of real
and dream characters that Sayler found so exemplary largely
through the stylized, rhythmic motions of the actors accompanied by
symbolic shadings of light--techniques learned from Mary Gavin, a
former player with the Chicago Little Theatre who had toured with
The Trojan Women and who coached the actors in methods of rhyth-
mic movement.
Because the expressionistic staging of Laughing
Gas anticipated the more famous Provincetown Players' produc-
tions of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape
(1922), Sayler's description of the set is worth extensive quotation.
Of particular interest is the production's attempt to suggest the
ethereal quality of Dreiser's drama through the shrouded characters,
silhouetted forms and simplified, rhythmic movements of the actors-
hallmarks of expressionistic technique.
Laughing Gas was produced in a simple white, boxed-In
setting .... In the middle foreground stood the operating
table, and there it remained, with its group of surgeons and
nurses around it throughout the play. The lighting, con-
tribut[ed] more than any single element, except Miss [Mary)
Gavin's directing, to the illusion of the play .... Starting with
. realistic lighting from overhead at the beginning of the play,
Mr. Ortopp [the lighting director] gradually cut down his light
to a pale but luminous green as the patient went under the
Influence of the gas nitrous oxide. This lighting, with slightly
varying intensity, was retained throughout the play until the
return of consciousness in the patient, when a gradual return
to normal lighting marked the completion of the operation
and the period of unconsciousness. Whenever through the
play the realistic rhythm of the surgeons became uppermost
their forms around the operating table were brilliantly lighted
from directly overhead, while the rest of the stage was left in
the shimmering green of the shadow scenes. On the com-
pletion of the surgeons' conversation this overhead light
would vanish and the stage would be left in Its uncertain
green again. Against it the upper parts of the figures stood
out in a strange kind of silhouette. Their outlines were not
clear-cut, as in the silhouette, but, rather, like the tone out-
lines of a photograph thrown out of focus. Another device
adding a momentary thrill now and then and breaking a pos-
sible monotony was a floor-light of red which would flash up
and illumine the form of Demyaphon whenever he passed
quickly over it. Inasmuch as those who played the shadow
were amateurs in the matter of rhythmic control of the body,
their movements were simplified as greatly as possible.
Long veils shrouded their movements and added grace to
them. Their voices were used much more successfully,
expressing a rise and fall and cadence that fitted the illusion
of the shadow scenes.31
As Sayler prophesied, this experimental production of "Laugh-
ing Gas encouraged others interested in the new stagecraft. Bern-
hardt wrote to Dreiser to inform him that at the last performance (16
Dec. 1916) ~ h director, scenic artist and electrician of The St. Louis
Little Theatre put in their appearance. They seemed to think it inter-
esting enough to have come on from St. Louis to see and asked
about the royalties. I told them I thought you would want a fairly
large royalty now that we had demonstrated that the play could be
put on" (n.d.; UP). Dreiser's royalty may have been too large (or
"Laughing Gas too demanding for their resources), for the St. Louis
Players Club did not stage "Laughing Gas but instead chose the
more manageable -rhe Girl in the Coffin, which they performed one
month later, on 29 January 1917, to favorable reviews. 32
"Laughing Gas" also attracted the attention of Constance
D'Arcy Mackay, who reprinted the Little Theater Society of Indiana's
press release concerning the production and selected a photograph
of the set for inclusion in her 1917 survey of American Little Theaters,
The Little Theatre in the United States (see Fig. 2). Finally, Dreiser
Fig. 2
missed an opportunity to include laughing Gas'! in a 1919 collection
of one-act plays. In January 1919 Margaret Gardner Mayorga
requested permission from Dreiser to include the play in a collection
of "twenty-five of the most significant one-act plays of the Little
Theatre movement in America. 33 Dreiser wrote for advice to
Mencken, who was never sympathetic to Dreiser's theatre interests
and continually urged him to return to his fiction. Mencken replied,
"On general principles, I am opposed to submitting to these
Innumerable anthology grafters . . .. Your appearance in the book wUI
do you little good. A few good dramatists, such as Eugene O'Neill
are to be in it--but don't forget the Kreymborgs and other such vil-
lagers. I have a feeling that a great deal of reserve is the best thing
for you; they always value a man more when he Is sniffish (28 Jan.
1919; D-M, 332-33). 34
The Indianapolis production of t.aughing Gas suggests that
plays offered by the nation's little theatres--and not just the Provin-
cetown and Washington Square Players-have had a more Important
role in educating audiences, actors, and reviewers than is generally
recognized. That these three performances of a Dreiser play, in a
midwestern city not known for its artistic innovation, should have
attracted the interest of so many indicates not only that theatre-goers
were hungry for and receptive to change, but also that the plays of
the little theatres have been a neglected resource in the study of
transitional American drama and theatre. And reviews of other per-
formances by these theatres suggest that the reception of "Laughing
Gas was not atypical: the little theatres helped create a climate of
receptivity that prepared audiences to applaud the arrival of
playwrights like O'Neill, who are usually perceived as single-handedly
creating modern American theatre. We might therefore enrich our
understanding of how audiences learn to appreciate theatrical
innovation--and how taste changes--by examining the work of the
little theatres.
Apt. in Jack Salzman, Theodore Dreiser: The Critical
Reception (New York:. David Lewis, 1972), 267.
2Between 1916 and 1923, "The Girl in the Coffin received
five productions from little theatres in New York, St. Louis, San Fran-
cisco, and Detroit, and was the subject of a lecture at Columbia
University in February 1918. '"Old Ragpicker' .. was staged in New
York and San Francisco. Laughing Gas was produced in
Indianapolis, and "The Blue Sphere was broadcast on New York
radio WABC In 1930. Dreiser also refused permission to one group
to stage "The Ught in the Window, and two other groups planned to
produce eottin and Ragpicker- but failed before they could do so.
3f:lmer Rice attributes Plays of the Natural and Supernatural
as one of the Influences upon The Adding Machine (Minority Report:
An Autobiography [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 198). And
Thornton Wilder was reportedly Influenced by Drelser's express-
ionistic depiction of synchronous movement. Richard Goldstone,
who knew WHder weU, suggests that "The Blue Sphere in particular
provided Wilder with a method for depicting scenes of continuous
and even simultaneous action that Wilder would employ so master-
fully in Our Town. Moreover, Wilder was absorbed by two themes
expressed in "The Spring Recital. and Laughing Gas and developed
them fully in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth: "the ecstasy of
being alive, as seen through the eyes of those who no longer have
life, and the repetitive, cyclical history of mankind (Thornton Wilder:
An Intimate Portrait [New York: Dutton, 1975), 118-19).
4Most accounts of American expressionism ascribe Con-
tinental plays as Its inspiration. While Dreiser had read Strindberg's
A Dream Play {1901), he discounted its influence; He wrote H. L.
Mencken on 14 May 1916 that Strindberg "came too late" to influence
his writing (Dreiser-Mencken Letters, ed. Thomas P. Riggio
[Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986], I, 234;
hereafter abbreviated D-M In the text). And he told Edward H. Smith
that tor the most part I cannot endure him (TD to Smith, 5 Jan.
1921, Letters of Theodore Dreiser, ed. Robert H. Elias [Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959], U, 334). The wave of
German expressionist plays began in 1917 with Georg Kaiser's Von
Morgens bis Mitternachts, first translated into English as From Morn
to Midnight in 1920. Dreiser's expressionism therefore did not stem
from Continental influences but rather, as I shall suggest, from his
fascination with the new stagecraft and from his attempts to work
out in dramatic form his vision of human beings at the mercy of
forces they cannot comprehend.
5Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac,
Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (1976; New
York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 35-36.
6TD to Titzel, 20 Feb. 1913; qtd. in Bernard Dukore, Maurice
Browne and the Chicago Little Theatre, (Ph.D. Diss., Univ. of Illinois,
1957), 1. '
7Qtd. In Constance D'Arcy MacKay, The Little Theatre of the
United States (New York: Holt, 1917), 104. For recent discussions of
the Chicago Little Theatre, see Donald F. Tingley, Ellen Van Volken-
burg, Maurice Browne, and the Chicago Little Theatre, Illinois His-
torical Journal, 80 {1987), 130-46; and Charles Lock, Maurice
Browne and the Chicago Uttle Theatre, Modern Drama, 31 (1988),
8See Maurice Browne, "The New Rhythmic Drama, pt. I, The
Drama, no. 16 (Nov. 1914), 616-30; pt. II, The Drama, no. 17 (Feb.
1915), 146-ro.
9Kenneth Macgowan, The Theatre of Tomorrow (New York:
Boni and Liveright, 1921), 1 01.
1 osee James O'Donnell Bennett, "On a Little Stage Mr.
Browne Does Big Work," Chicago Record-Herald, 2 Feb. 1913, sec.
ii, 2, 7.
11Edmund Biddle, "The Plays of Theodore Dreiser, (Ph.D.
Diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1965), 30.
12Dreiser was also encouraged in his playwriting efforts by
Kirah Markham, who played the role of Andromache in The Trojan
Women, and with whom he began an affair. For Dreiser's fictional
treatment of this affair and its Influence on him, see The Titan {1914),
where Markham appears as Stephanie Platow, and "This Madness:
The Book of Sidonia, Hearst's International Cosmopolitan 86 (June
1929), 166, where Dreiser writes that he helped schedule the
Theatre's eastern visits so he could be near Sidonie (Markham).
13Unpublished correspondence in the Theodore Dreiser Col-
lection, Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania (hereafter
abbreviated uP") reveals that Dixie Hines, an agent for the Interna-
tional Press Bureau and "The Broadway Feuilletonist'' for the Chicago
Saturday-Evening Telegraph, wanted to offer the play to B. lden
Payne, who had recently arrived in Chicago to direct a company of
players sponsered by the Chicago Theater Society. Negotiations
stalled over a dispute about royalties. Emanuel Reicher of The
Modern Stage scheduled the play for production In 1915 but the
theatre collapsed before it could be presented. Permission to con-
sult and quote from Dreiser's papers is due to the courtesy of the
Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, which retains the
14Markham to Swanberg, 23 Aug. 1964, Swanberg Collec-
tion, UP.
15Donald Pizer, The Novels of Theodore Dreiser (Min-
neapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), 11. Dreiser's copy of
Spencer's First Principles (rpt. of 5th ed. [New York: A.L Burt, n.d.];
UP) is heavHy annotated, and the markings in ch. 1 o, "The Rhythm of
Motion, are particularly extensive.
6Dreiser, "Equation Inevitable," Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub (New
York: Bonl and Liveright, 1920), 157, 166).
17 American Literature and the Universe of Force (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1981), 233.
8Martin, 43.
19Suggesting the Possible Substructure of Ethics,"
Theodore Dreiser: A Selection of Uncollected Prose, eel. Donald
Pizer (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), 207.
2</hen Dreiser sent the mss. of Laughing Gas, -rhe Blue
Sphere, and 1n the Dark" to Mencken, he enclosed with them a two-
part article titled Saving the Universe. Thomas Riggio, the editor of
the Dreiser-Mencken Letters, notes that this article has not been
identified (147n1 ). but an mss. titled Saving the Wortd (UP) Is no
doubt a version of at least one part of this article. Although only
three typescript pages in length, the mss. parallels equation
Inevitable in its emphasis on the ethical implications of equation,
and the last two paragraphs of the mss. were expanded into the
close of equation (176, 1'79-80, 181 ), with several sentences
repeated verbatim. _
Piays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916; New York:
Boni and Liveright, 1918), 90. Hereafter cited In the text.
22When Dreiser sent Laughing Gas and the other plays to
Charles DeCamp (corresponding editor of Metropolitan Magazine)
for his opinion (but not for sale), DeCamp responded unfavorably
and noted that WUiiam James had anticipated Dreiser in denoting the
effects of nitrous oxide (DeCamp to TD, 16 Sept. [1914); UP).
Dreiser then looked up James' The Will to Believe, where he discov-
ered a lengthy discussion of the hallucinations inspired by the gas.
Dreiser excerpted James' discussion, together with similar observa-
tions by Benjamin Paul Blood, whom James had cited, and wrote to
Mencken to ask Have you any objection to this as a footnote to
'Laughing Gas (n.d.; UP). The excerpts, together with Dreiser's
comments, appear as a separately paginated_ gathering entitled -rhe
Anaesthetic Revelation, appended to the second issue of the first
impression and to all later editions. For a discussion of the
anesthetic's influence on all three writers, see Lynda S. Boren, -wil-
liam James, Theodore Dreiser, and the 'Anaesthetic Revelation,
American Studies, 24 (1983), 5-18. (Boren, however, mistakenly
attributes Jacques Loeb as Dreiser's source.)
3The Little Theater Society of Indiana became the
Indianapolis Civic Theater and exists today as the oldest
continuously-operated production theatre in the United States:
Housed in the Showalter Pavillion at the Indianapolis Museum of Art,
the Theater holds scrapbooks dating from 1914. Included in the
1914-1919 scrapbook are a program and clippings concerning the
Laughing Gas production. Laughing Gas played at the Masonic
Temple on December 7, 9, and 16; included on the bill were polly of
Pogue's Run, a play written specifically for the Theater by W. 0.
Bates, and the anonymous 13th century -rhe Farce of Pierre Patel in.
While the program also lists Lord Dunsany's The Lost Silk Hat,
newspaper critics fail to mention it In their reviews.
Hector Fuller, tn Front of the House, Indianapolis Star, 26
Nov. 1916.
25"Uttle Theater Marks Epoch in Producing 'Laughing Gas,'"
Indianapolis News, a Dec. 1916.
26"Uttle Theater Bill Unu$ually Pleasing, Indianapolis Star, 8
Dec. 1916.
27"Novel Stage Experiment," Boston Evening Transcript, 22
Dec. 1916,27.
SOur American Theatre (1923; rpt. New York: Blom, 1971),
29Sayler, "Novel Stage ExperimQnt," 27.
30Gavln also co-authored, with Cloyd Head, an article
espousing the principles of rhythmic production and published it as
"The Theatre, The Drama, 7 (Feb. 1917), 1-14.
31Sayler, "Novel Stage Experiment," 27.
32The correct name of the group is the St. Louis Players
Club, which performed "The Girl In the Coffin" in two private show
ings, January 29 at the Artists' Guild, and January 30 at the Knights
of Columbus Hall, St. Louis. Playing with "Coffin" the first night was
Shaw's "The Man of Destiny"; Hall Gibson's "The Bridal" replaced the
Shaw play on the second night. For reviews of the production, see
Carlos F. Hurd, "'Girl in the Coffin' Has Dramatic Power, St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, 30 Jan. 1917; and "Works of Dreiser and Bernard
Shaw Given by Players," St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 30 Jan. 1917.
33Mayorga, Representative One-Act Plays by American
Authors (Boston: Little, Brown, 1919), vii.
34AJthough the preface states that the book includes twenty-
five plays, the volume actually includes twenty-four; one naturally
wonders whether Dreiser's play would have been the twenty-fifth.
"Laughing Gas" would have been in good company, for the volume
includes oft-produced plays by such authors as Percy Mackaye,
Stuart Walker, Alice Gerstenberg, Eugene O'Neut, Alfred Kreymborg,
Ben Hecht and Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, and George Cram Cook
and Susan Glaspell.
Gerald Weales
Mike Gold was still Irwin Granich when he first met George
Cram Cook--ttlat other Socialist and great-hearted adventurer, as
he called him years later in John Reed and the Real Thing (New
Masses, November 1927). He remembered the two men swimming
joyously at Provincetown, although when and whether Gold was ever
in Provincetown Is unclear. The accounts of his life are full of slip-
pery dates and uncertain settings, imprecision that Is hardly helped
by his semi-fictional use of his life (Jews without Money, 1930) and
his habit of recal.ling details that serve an immediate rhetorical pur-
pose. It would have had to have been 1916, the Provincetown
Players last season on the Cape, at the end of the time that Gold
spent in Boston; but, then, John Pyros, in Mike Gold: Dean of
American Proletarian Literature, 1979, places him in Pennsylvania
that summer, working as a section hand on the railroad. In Gold's
account of his meeting with Cook (in The Provincetown, 1931, pp.
41 -2, by Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau), he says, 1 was an
assistant truck driver for the Adams Express Company, which would
have put the meeting in New York and before Gold's Boston hegira.
The Important thing about this recollection by Gold Is not its fac-
tuality but its emotional truth. 1 had a play. It was a very naIVe one-
act play--they produced it later, he begins, but the point of these
paragraphs is not his theatrical debut but his surprise and delight that
he, an ordinary worker, should be greeted by Cook as an intellectual
equal: He made me feef like a god! Not that Gold was your every-
day truck driver by 1916. He had been radicalized by police brutality
at an anarchist rally in Union Square in 1914; had apparently done
some work as a labor organizer; had begun to publish in The Masses
and the New York Call. Still Cook and his dream of a playwright's
theatre stayed with Gold when other friends and colleagues of his
youth--Eugene O'Neill and Lewis Mumford, for instance
banished on ideational grounds. As late as 1952, in an introduction
to Herb Tank's Longitude 49, Gold wrote of Cook: A cosmic demo-
crat like Whitman, a socialist and mystic, this great and good person
inspired me to write plays, as he had so many others.
Irwin Granich had three plays produced by the Provincetown
Players, two of them in 1917--/van's Homecoming and Down the Air-
shaft. Both have disappeared and, since the Provincetown was not
reviewed In those days, not much Is known about them. According
to the minutes of a board meeting, 10 January 1917, it was decided
to make the 7th bill a bill of war plays.
From 16 February to 20 Feb-
ruary, Ivan's Homecoming shared the stage with Rita Wellman's Bar-
barians and Eugene O'Neill's The Sniper. Gold's was a three-
character play (Ivan and two women) and, tf It were anything like
O'Neill's, it must have been the -very nawe one he had shown Cook.
Down the Airshaft, which was presented from 28 December 1917 to 3
January 1918, along with plays by Floyd Dell and Susan Glaspell, Is
somewhat more visible than Ivan's Homecoming. The New York
Times' obituary of Gold (16 May 1967) quotes O'Neill, who
apparently praised Airshaft as ~ h short, simple flannels of the poor.
At least, I think that is pralse;3 the Times does not Indicate the occa-
sion for the remark. In Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players
(1982), Robert Karoly Sar16s, writing almost twenty years after his
1964 interview with Gold, said:
its author recalled a tale from an East Side tenement con-
cerning young Sammy Cohen who lost his job and Is plan-
ning to try his fortune in the West. His mother vainly pleads
with him to stay, music comes down the airshaft, and
Sammy talks of a mysterious call. According to Gold, Jig
Cook's ocarina provided the tune (p. 84).
There is Gold enough in the setting and the events, as Jews without
Money and "The Password to Thought --to Culture (Liberator, Febru-
ary 1922) indicate, but the reconstruction of the plot, remembered
almost fifty years after the play was written, need not be taken as
gospel. The mysterious call" --tf it existed--would probably have
been to revolutionary change in the American system. It is easier to
guess the tone of the two early works. In the forward to 120 Million
(1929), Gold's first collection, he says of the sketches, which were
arranged in the order of composition, Melancholy runs through
them, lifting to militant courage in the last part of the book. Ivan's
Homecoming and Down the Airshaft belong to the melancholy
At about the time that Airshaft reached the stage, Gold left for
Mexico--a principled draft-dodger intent on avoiding World War I
conscription. After his return, the only extant early play--Money--was
produced (9-22 January 1920) on a bill with works by Edna Ferber
and Djuna Barnes. It takes place in a gloomy East Side cellar, a
cobbler's shop that becomes a dormitory at night where four Jews
pay "a dollar a month rent for sleeping space. They are not doing
much sleeping this night because Moisha, the cobbler, is searching
for the missing money that he had slowly accumulated to bring his
wife and children from Poland. Gold creates some intensity early in
the play as Moisha, his thoughts triggered by Yonkel's suggestion
that the money may have been stolen, reconstructs the events,
becomes convinced that one of the four has stolen it, begs each In
turn to give it back, accuses them of working as a group ("Yes, you
have all been plotting against me), threatens to go for a policeman,
attacks the least likely of them and finally collapses, moaning that
suicide is all that remains for him. The hysteria that builds as each
step leads to the next . gives the play whatever dramatic value it has,
but Gold is not really Interested in his characters as characters. It Is
the social implications of the scene that concern him. When Yonkel,
unabie to stand Moisha's tsuris, returns the money, the play shifts to
Yonkel's self-justification. Back In Poland, where, despite the
poverty, there was a sense of community, Yonkel 'Was a poor young
Talmud student ... but happy. I lived on a radish a day. Now, in
America, he has learned to love money: something said to me,
something in this land--get money! He became so infected by his
obsession that he could rob his friend, a man as poor as he is. 1s
not Money to blame," he asks, Money the real God of the wortcJ?
The play's answer is, yes, but Yonkel's mea not so culpa Is cut short
by the arrival of a policeman, who tells them to calm down and go to
sleep. The play remains open-ended, however, for Mendel, the
youngest of the group, recalls a man on a street comer \A Jew. A
working man like ourselves) who insisted ,hat one day there would
be no money, no rich and no poor, only every one working together
like brothers and sisters, and his remarks renew the discussion on
the endless problem of the world's misery and Moneyr Neither this
ending, which nicely converts a potentially painful situation into a
meeting of a leftist discussion group, nor the promise In Moisha's
frenzied hunt for his money can quite save the play from bogging
down in Yonkel's societal analysis. Still, there was something in the
play that appealed to Barrett H. Clark, who at the end of the decade
included it in two of the anthologies that he co-edited--One-Act Plays
(1929) and The American Scene (1930). By that time, Irwin Granich
had long since turned into Michael Gold.
In 1924, Mike Gold went to Russia and discovered Meyerhold.
An unsigned note in the Daily Worker (28 February 1925), almost
certainly written by Gold, praised the Russian director and hoped
that the Workers Drama League might be the beginning of real
workers' theatre In America. A more extended and excited celebra-
tion of this discovery can be found in Theater and Revolution, a
piece he did for Nation (11 November 1925). In My Lite: a brief
autobiography that he wrote for the program of Fiesta (1929), Gold
said, on my return from Mexico, I joined the Communist Party. As
a new Communist visiting the Promised Land, he was lucky to reach
Moscow when theatrical and artistic experimentation ran rampant,
when the new politics and the new aesthetics went hand-in-hand,
before Stalin smothered invention with his Ideational wet blanket.
The Nation article is a lyric outburst, a catalog and a promise rolled
Into one. Gold is dazzled by the sheer volume of theatrical activity
\at least thirty popular experimental theaters in Moscow"), by profes-
sional theatre aimed at an audience of workers with the Ideas that
concern them but wrapped in anti-realistic techniques. And futurism
is the fantastic godmother of this swarm of new theaters. He mar-
veled that a movement that was the cult of a few odd persons In
New o r ~ could be the basis of popular theatre In Russia: ,he mob
wants the best in art. It is highly unlikely that Gold could have had
direct knowledge of so many theatres during a brief visit to Russia.
Some of the material presumably came from Huntly Carter, whom
Gold met In Europe and whose The New Theatre and Cinema of
Soviet Russia was published in 1924.
The marriage of revolutionary politics and revolutionary
theatre was still a happy one when Gold joined John Howard Law-
son, John Dos Passos, Em Jo Basshe, and Francis Edwards
Faragoh to form the New Playwrights' Theatre in 1927. One might
not be able to tell that from Basshe's The Revolt In Fifty-Second
Street In The New York Times (27 February 1927), a plug for the
opening of the company's first production, which was briskly amor-
phous about the project, unspecific aesthetically and politically. Not
so A New Masses Theatre (New Masses, November 1927), Mike
Gold's pitch for the New Playwrights' second season: Aft these are
mass-plays. All of them convey the spirit of workers' revolt. All of
them break with the stodgy tradition of the propaganda play which
has bored so many persons, including revolutionists. He promised
the new free technique of the stage which has been so greatly
proven by Meyerhold and other futurists. The company never found
its working-class audience and certainly did not please the uptown
critics. One of the reasons for the critical coldness toward the new
theater was that it was not all that new. Expressionism had already
invaded the American theatre and Invoking Russia or labeling the
work futuristic could not obscure the essential similarity of anti-
realistic techniques that were familiar to friends and foes alike.
Brooks Atkinson, in his review of Gold's Hoboken Blues (The New
York Times, 18 February 1928), commenting on the '1tights of board
steps [that] flank the stage, said that steps seem now as traditional
to the revolutionary stage as the box-set to the musty realistic
Closer to home, Kenneth Fearing sounded a warning in his
review of Hoboken Blues (New Masses, April 1928): -rhe New
Playwrights cannot go on pretending that revolution and modernist
technique and good plays are, by some curious magic, a Holy Trinity
of which the members are One and the Same. The company could
not go on at all; it dissolved in 1929. The mix of politics and
aesthetics that Informed it dissolved not long afterward. Gold, again
taking his cue from Russia, turned his back on the playful dreams of
the New Playwrights'. Reviewing Stevedore by Paul Peters and
George Sklar (New Masses, 1 May 1934), he congratulated the
Theatre Union for being free of the streak of shoddy liberalism that
stultified such fellow-travelers' ventures as the New Playwright's [sic]
Theatre. The next year (Daily Worker, 6 December 1935), he
admitted that stage experiment might be needed, but Nobody
expects the Theatre Union to dabble in expressionism, futurism, con-
structism [sic], or any other interesting style of stage experiment.
After all, it has set forth to do plays of a dynamic socialist realism.
As late as the Longitude 49 introduction, he was stUI harping on the
terrible load of formalism that wrecked the New Playwrights':
-r echnical innovations and scenery took the place of Marxist clarity
in the plays. It was the time of the Futurists, and our theatre cracked
under the weight of ladders, cubes, platforms and other futurist, con-
structivist fads. The young man who came back from Moscow to
report ,he end of everything--the beginning of everything, as he said
in Nation, was as aesthetically dead as Meyerhold and the New
Playwrights' Theatre were in fact.
When Mike Gold came back from Russia, he brought not only
a theory and a dream, but a vocation ... I'm glad you're going to settle
down to writing plays, .. Eugene O'Neill wrote him (12 February
.. and I hope you'll give us first shot at them: The us, of
course, was the Provincetown Players, run at the time by O'Neill,
Kenneth Macgowan, and Robert Edmond Jones. Gold's new
determination--as so often with his literary plans--did not last long.
He wrote two plays--Fiesta and Hoboken Blues--which brought him
as close as he would ever come to mainstream American theatre, but
by the end otthe decade he was swallowed up in the journalism, the
propaganda, the editorial work that defined him during the 1930's
and after. The two plays share a common violation of stereotype.
Not that his Mexican peons in Fiesta and his Harlem blacks in
Hoboken Blues are free of stereotype, but he simply took for granted
that negative assumptions about the two groups were in fact positive.
Mexicans and ~ c k s alike were presumed to be shiftless, preferring
a song, a dance, a drink to hard work (the Judge finds Sam and the
Angel in Hoboken Blues .. guilty of being lazy and musical.), and both
plays accept that that is the case and cetebrate it as a virtue that
society at large could use. What is presented lightly in his plays had
always existed in his work. Play, sometimes desperate play, is often
the only consolation for an oppressive system. In eoa1 Breaker, .. the
first sketch in 120 Million, a .. melancholy" account of a boy's initiation
into a man's worid, the miners are described on payday: -rhey
danced, they sang, they fought and grew sentimental, they remem-
bered for a moment their human heritage of play. One of the uglier
chapters In Jews without Money--"Summer Toadstools, In which a
pervert is beaten nearly to death by an angry crowd--begins and
ends with the little girls, including the narrator's sister, dancing madly
to the music of the organ grinder: ,he dancers made everyone else
happy. If it were not for this and other Gold ian ideas that mark both
plays, they might be taken for the work of two different playwrights.
They are that dissimilar.
Fiesta-the first of the two plays-was never published. There
are two typescripts in the Performing Arts Ubrary at Uncoln Center,
one called La Fiesta (The Feast), A comedy of the Mexican Revolu-
tion, presumably donated by Federated Press, s (Script A) and the
other called simply Fiesta, A Play, apparently the gift of the typing
service that prepared it (Script B). The plot is the same in both ver-
sions, and both make a similar serious point. Yet, they are very dif-
ferent in detaUs--ln dialogue, in comic business, in subplots. A single
example: Although Rafaela (sometimes Raffaela), the heroine's rival
for the attentions of Chato, is apparently a woman of casual virtue In
both versions, in Script A, she is an attractive 25-year-old who gets to
wrestle with the wicked Don Felipe; in Script B, she is a battered
female of 40, reduced to forming a comic triangle with the two
lecherous old men, Pablo and Santiago. It is clear from the reviews
that Script B is--or is closer to--the version performed at the Garrick
in 1929. In discussing the play, I wUI jump from one to the other as
the spirit (i.e., critical necessity) moves me, in each case indicating
the version I am using. The A and B designations are my own, not
the library's.
'We are the two Mexicos! .. says Don Enrique of himself and his
brother Felipe (Script A), a description that recalls "Two Mexicos--A
Story, which Irwin Granich published in Liberator (May 1920), not
long after his return from Mexico. In it, the narrator--an American in
Mexico--joins Felipe in a ride back to his ranch, a journey that allows
the Mexlcan'aristocrat to illustrate--by deed and word--his cruelty, his
lecherousness, his drunkenness. Only at the end of the story do we
meet Don Enrique and watch the brothers confront each other.
Gold, who tends to tidy even his shortest sketches with a final para-
graph that sums up the significance of the piece, defines the brothers
as Mexico's good and evil, her barbarism and civilization battling
each other and assuring her no peace till the younger shall have
forever slain the elder." Felipe is the elder, of course, although in the
play he becomes the younger brother, perhaps on the assumption
that theatregoers expect younger brothers to be wild and wicked.
Several characters find their way from the story to the stage. The
Judge and the Sheriff, satiric figures easily manipulated by Felipe,
serve a similar if more generalized function in the play. The young
peon whom Felipe killed for attempting revenge for his carrying off
the young man's sweetheart is transformed into Chato, as the girt is
Into Guadaloupe (sometimes Guadalupe), but the victims In the story
become assertive, positive characters In the play. The main borrow-
Ing Is the quarrel between the brothers, but they have undergone a
change. Felipe Is as selfish and casually cruel as he Is In the story,
but he is much more amiable. Enrique has become a comic charac-
ter, his seriousness mocked by events and by everyone around him,
He's making a revolutionary speech! says Pablo. He wants us to
shout (Script A). The real change is the political one that took place
as Granlch turned into Gofd.
In Fiesta, Don Enrique returns from the revolutionary wars,6
disillusioned because after three years of cruel, senseless, dirty
slaughter ... the revolution had fallen Into the hands of the
politicians (Script A). He is determined now to make a small revolu-
tion on the ranch itself, disciplining the peons as a first step toward
preparing them to take over the ranch for themselves. He has
brought with him Guadaloupe, a 16-year-old orphan whom he picked
up on the battlefield. she Is the soul of what I have been fighting for .
. . . . She Is young, she Is Ignorant, she Is pure, she Is Mexico (Script
B). Samuel Spewack (New York Telegram, 18. September 1929)
commented sardonically on Enrique's nubile little symbol, And what
happens to Lupee is what happens to Mexico. Both do get
screwed, but Gold is not as unaware of that parallel as the tone of
Spewack's remark suggests. It is Enrique's plan to make
Guadaloupe over to fit the Image in his head \Some day she will lead
the new revolution ... of education and brothemoocl--script A), but
Guadaloupe is more interested In Chato and the promise of the fiesta
than she is In her books. There is a nice business in Script B in
which her fingers caress a lovely shawl belonging to Dona Luisa, the
brothers' mother, while Enrique lectures her on her mission. She
does go to the fiesta, where she Is seduced by Felipe, an event that
drives Enrique melodrama-mad as he realizes that he does after all
lust for Guadaloupe's flesh Instead of her mind. Earlier, when Dona
Luisa asks him what he would do if the girt turned out ,o be simply
an ordinary peon girt, not the pure Joan of Arc you picture her, he
says, I'd burn my books of Tolstoy, give up everything I love and go
out whoring and boozing with Felipe (Script B). What he actually
does is get drunk, try to shoot Felipe, wound (kill in Script A) an old
peon, call for the fiesta to continue and plan to return to the com-
parative simplicity of the battlefield.
The Tolstoyan presence in the play suggests an ironic self-
awareness that is hardly characteristic of Gold. In Script A, there Is
no indication of any ideational undertay to Enrique's plans to remake
the ranch. Script B reaches back to the story, In which, according to
Felipe, his brother -worships a book written by a mad Russian named
Tolstoy: Enrique, In Script B, says, 1 believe in Tolstoy's God of
love, but what Is a picture of the good Enrique in the story is a sign
of his intellectual posing in the play. "Mike Gold and I were reading
Tolstoi . .. said Dorothy Day in The Long Loneliness (1952), recall-
ing their camaraderie in 1917. "He used to make fun of my religious
spirit, but he himself was in sympathy with the Christianity expressed
by T olstoi, a religion without churches or a priesthood" (p. 71 ), The
Granich who drank and shmoozed with Dorothy Day and who wrote
"Two Mexicos," might have seen Tolstoy's ideas as another positive
element--anarchism, the I.W.W.--in his search for social change.
Gold, having gone on to the Communist Party, can use a youthful
enthusiasm of his as part of the pattern of pomposity In his would-be
reformer rvou must put yourself like clay Into my hands; trust me,
my child-script A). The Ideational point of the play Is that Enrique
and Felipe are not 'he two Mexicos but two sides of the same
oppressor. In Script A, Chato says: "we're sick of both of you; you
masters, you wonderful liberators, you aristocrats. You're both the
same; you both think you're better than the peons. Felipe says the
same thing less flamboyantly in Script 8: "When they're real men,
they'll shoot me, and shoot you and shoot every other tyrant, and
free themselves." Message: The workers' revolution cannot be
brought about by bourgeois reformers.
Given this ideational thrust, the play must find positive force in
the peons. When Pablo says, ''There's no justice in the world" (Script
A) at the beginning of the play, it Is a joke, not a slogan. He and the
other peons are annoyed that the ranch's overseer will not give them
a drink. It is a way of voicing one's own desires instead of having
them chosen by someone who presumes to know what is good for
you. As Chato says, uAII I want is a nice piece of land, a few good
horses, a new guitar, and a woman some daf (Script A). The fiesta
is not simply the setting for the crucial turn in the plot; it Is a sign of
what is best and healthiest among the peons. Although Enrique says
that "fiestas are part of the barbaric past" (Script B) and forbids
anyone from his ranch to attend, in Act Two everyone turns up--
Felipe, Guadaloupe, Chato, the rest of the peons. It is an occasion
for singing and dancing, for drinking and making love. It is a more
extended presentation of the mood set at the beginning of the play
when the peons sit around singing, bragging, quarreling, doing any-
thing to keep from going back to work, using Don Enrique's prom-
ised return as an occasion for holiday. Uncle Pepe, the blind singer,
is given a speech in Script A that suggests that it is not the land-
owners but the power to the North that is the greater enemy of the
Mexican people:
If we Mexicans quarrel hard enough and loud enough, the
gringo will come down upon us. He will break our guitars
and strangle our songs; he will put us in stiff, white collars
and take away our horses and flowers and green fields, and
give us his noisy, smoky factories. . . . He will take away our
souls and make us men of business.
The contrast between nature, beauty, joy on the one hand and fac-
tories and business on the other had been a feature of Gold's work
since the Granich days of coal Breaker. Uncle Pepe's mini-Mike
Gold proclamation may be extraneous to what is going on in the
play, but at least he voices it in terms of the play's positive elements.
He says it better when he takes up his guitar and begins to sing.
Fiesta traveled a rocky road to production. On 18 March
1925, O'Neill wrote an enthusiastic letter to Kenneth Macgowan, call-
ing it "character stuff with the plot negligible--and to me it was
extremely fresh and amusing. Pleading Gold's poverty ("He's broke
and has a mother to support"), O'Neill urged Macgowan to "give him
a decent advance and contract. The advance was paid,7 as a 1928
letter from Mike Gold to Horace Uveright Indicates, but plans for pro-
duction fell through. "Macgowan is my black cat for hard luck," Gold
told Liveright. O'Neill wrote to Macgowan 1 May 1925, saying, "I'm
sorry we lost the Gold play." He blamed "that brother of Brock Pem-
berton" for so bad-mouthing the Provincetown that Gold withdrew. It
is unclear why O'Neill did not mention Murdock Pemberton by name
(the Broadway publicist would have been as familiar to Macgowan as
the producer), but perhaps Brock Pemberton was considering
mounting Fiesta at the time. O'Neill went on to say, "But after all, the
play is no work of any Immense account--only a damn good play--
and I guess we can survive the shock. And he needs the uptown
'jack,' Broadway:a Still later (28 September 1925), O'Neill com-
plained to Macgowan about their choice of plays, Insisting that Max-
well Anderson's Outside Looking In, although well-received, was not
half as possible as Gold's play which has real atmosphere and truth"
(Selected Letters).
The presumed Broadway production, the uptown 'jack' " was
not forthcoming. In the 1928 exchange of letters with Horace
Liveright, Gold tried to interest him in Fiesta, but Liveright, more pub-
lisher than theatrical producer, sensibly chose Jews without Money.
Gold reminded him that "You wanted to buy an option on it about a
year ago, but Kenneth Macgowan intervened, with the usual
indecisive consequences." This suggests that both Provincetown
and Broadway were still possibilities as late as 1927, but that year
New Playwrights' was formed and Fiesta was scheduled for the first
season. "Bob Milton [the director] made a bad botch of it in every-
body's estimation. Gold said in another letter to Liveright, "and it
never got beyond the dress rehearsal." He went on to explain that
Samson Raphaelson, "the wealthy young author (The Jazz Singer
had opened in 1925), was so taken with the play, despite the bungled
production, that he bought "half an interest In the show--for some-
thing like $6000 In hard coin. His plan to take tt to Broadway col-
lapsed, however, and it was the Provincetown, now headed by
James Light, that finally produced it 17 September 1929. A note In
the program thanked Raphaelson for "his generous cooperation with
Before the Provincetown could bring Fiesta to the Garrick,
there was still another production of the play--this one by the Harvard
Dramatic Club. It was scheduled to play three nights in Cambridge
(12-14 December 1928) and one in Boston. The interesting thing
about this production by "the hardened Harvard boys, as Percy
Hammond called them (New York Herald-Tribune, 18 September
1929), was that the final performance was banned because, as the
censor put it, the play "is an unfit presentation to be given In Boston.
It was apparently not Gold's politics but his lubricity--the seduction of
Guadaloupe and its casual acceptance by most of the characters-
that made Fiesta unacceptable. A front-page story In the Boston
Herald (16 December 1928), which took the matter a great deal less
seriously than did the Boston officials, described a protest parade in
which the students playing Don Felipe and Don Romero (Enrique
had suffered a name change) rode in a carriage, pawing a partially
dressed Guadaloupe who sat between them; she was played by a
dressmaker's dummy. Except for Kent Smith, who played Romero
and went on to a substantial career on Broadway and in Hollywood,
the cast contains no familiar names until one reaches the unnamed
peons bunched at the bottom of the program; these included James
Agee and William Howard Met ish, who would make their names and
their notoriety outside the theater. The Harvard adventure was still
fresh in the minds of many reviewers when, on 17 September 1929,
Fiesta was finally produced by the Provincetown to initiate its
ambitious and disastrous move uptown to Broadway. Gold, whose
Ivan's Homecoming had been part of Provincetown's first full New
York season, was now part of its final one.
"The newspapers were kind, but 'Fiesta' perished," said
Deutsch and Hanau in The Provincetown (p. 180). Not that the
reviewers were all that kind: Predictably, they preferred the setting,
the ambiance, the music and the dancing; Samuel Spewack gave the
opening of his review, -before he got to the needles aimed at Gold, to
enthusiastic praise for Tamiris's dances. For the rest, the reviewers
seemed uncertain how to take the melodramatic action and the
reformer's rhetoric. It was Robert Benchley in the New Yorker (28
September 1929) who, as usual, spoke more sensibly than his casual
style suggests. The play, he said:
has a very pretty little piece of "as you know" work in an act
as late as the second. Here we are forced to hear Don Enri-
que take little Guadalupe [sic] aside and say: "As you know,
you are a little girl whom I found in rags on the battlefield.
This does not surprise Guadalupe, for, H he hadn't been tell-
ing her, she would have been telling him.
One of the problems with Fiesta--and with Gold's dramatic work_ln
general--Is that he repeats the obvious and often, as Benchley indi-
cates, in incongruous circumstances. That may be the dramatist's
gift/burden from the propagandist, a conviction that one gets results
by choosing reiteration over suggestion. The repetition In Fiesta
might have been encompassable if the right tone had been achieved.
Reading the play-and seeing it, I presume--one finds it difficult at first
to realize that Enrique is a comic character. Yet, before his entrance
in Script B, the peons arrange themselves in an elaborate attempt to
provide the welcoming tableau that they think he expects, and
shortly after he arrives, his mother undercuts his high seriousness
with 'Well, I see you're the same Enrique still fond of your big words
(Script B). He has lines that are virtually unspeakable except as
comic overstatement. At the end of Act II, when it begins to dawn on
him that his interest in Guadaloupe is not completely platonic, he
cries out, Am I still a sensualist, and not a Tolstoyan? (Script B).
Although there were competent performers in the cast--Carl Benton
Reid (Enrique) and, fresh from musical comedy, Jack La Rue
(Felipe)--one gets the impression from the reviews that James Ught,
who directed, never found a consistent tone that would carry the
satire, the playfulness, and the serious point of Fiesta. Perhaps that
tone is not to be found; the uneasy mix may be the fault of the
playwright not the production. Not as good a play as O'Neill's initial
enthusiasm suggests nor so clumsy and so maladroit as John
Mason Brown thought it was (New York Evening Post, 18 September
1929), Fiesta has its virtues. It is, however, not a lost gem crying out
for a new setting in the 1990's.
If Fiesta was a eroadway show gone wrong, as Gold
described it in a letter to Lewis Mumford in 1928, Hoboken Blues was
more obviously the child of Gold's Moscow visit. rhe stage is set as
a futurist composition, the first stage direction begins, and the play
is packed with song, dance, masks, doubling by the performers to
suggest amorphous character definition, scenes that melt into one
another, and Meyerholdian sets. In the Nation article, 11 November
1925, Gold explained, Intricate structures, like huge machines
created for a function, furnish the scaffolding on which actors race
and leap and walk from plane to plane: In Act Ill of Hoboken Blues,
he not only calls for planes or platforms to cut the scene but desig-
nates the actors who are to sing and dance on them as PLANES.
Eugene O'Neill, who was charmed by the first act, dismissed the play
in a letter to Gold (2 July 1926) as familiar propaganda set in the
familiar Xpressionistic . . . model." Despite his own use of experi-
mental staging in the 1920's, O'Neill never had a taste for playful anti-
realism. In an earlier letter to Gold (12 February 1925), he said that
our organization" thought John Howard Lawson's Processional ,oo
much German patent American goods" and he thought that Law-
son's Roger Bloomer was "an adolescent's Idea of adolescence
(Selected Letters). Given O'NeAl's reaction to Hoboken Blues, there
was never any chance that the Provincetown Players would be Inter-
ested in it. It was published as "Hoboken Blues, or the Black Rip Van
Winkle" in The American Caravan {1927), presumably through Lewis
Mumford, who was co-editor of the volume with VanWyck Brooks,
Alfred Kreymborg, and Paul Rosenfeld. It was subtitled "A Modem
Negro Fantasia on an Old American Theme in the Caravan and "A
White Fantasy on a Black Theme in the program when the New
Playwrights' presented the play 17 February 1928. An elegant,
unsigned promotional pamphlet, which discussed earlier productions
as a way of trying to sell the New Playwrights' third season, said of
Hoboken Blues, "Although somewhat modified, the presentation was
not a startling departure from the original. N. Bryllion Fagin, in
Present-Day American Literature (December 1929), cited for special
praise a hospital scene that was not in the Caravan version, but the
reviews in general give no indication of other major additions or
In "The Education of Michael Gold, Michael Folsom's con-
tribution to David Madden's Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, 1968,
Folsom acknowledges Meyerhold's influence on the style of
Hoboken Blues, but says, "Ridgely Torrence's The Rider of Dreams,
which Gold had seen years earlier, was inspiration for the Negro con-
tent. Gold could certainly have seen the Torrence play; it was per-
formed by the Hapgood Players in New York in April, 1917, before
Gold/Granich headed for Mexico, and was published that year.
There were similarities, the most obvious being that Gold, like Tor-
rence, was a white man writing a black play using black dialect,
which makes one wonder if--as the "hoss says in Rider--"AJI dis heah
is w'ite man talk. "9 That is clearly not what Folsom meant by "Inspira-
tion. There are other similarities--a central dream sequence
{described, not acted in Rider), an attraction to and final rejection of
the white man's idea of success and a chance for Madison in Rider
to make his way in the world with his guitar, which is what Sam Pick-
ens would like to do with his banjo in Hoboken Blues. At the end of
Torrence's play, Madison says, "All I wants Is room to dream my
good dreams an' make my own music." That is a sentiment that both
Sam Pickens and Mike Gold could embrace.
Hoboken Blues is about "de laziest man in Hahlem, who
reluctantly goes in search of a job after his wife, Sally, gives him an
ultimatum--a job or a divorce. At the suggestion of Barney, his
bartender friend, who has heard a rumor of a job for a banjo player In
a circus, Sam goes to Hoboken, where he discovers that tt's de
same here ... as in Noo Yawk--jes hard wuhk and little pay foh de
cullud folk all over de world. After being beaten by the pollee, he
fantasizes a triumph for the ,actory slaves and his election as Presi-
dent of Hoboken, which. by this time has become a paradisiacal land
similar to the Whangdoodle that he promised the children in Act 1
"Everything Is free dere. He goes back to Harlem to get his wife and
daughter, but--because this Is. a Rip Van Winkle play--he gets there
twenty-five years after the opening acts, which were set at the tum of
the century. He hardly recognizes the place. The undertaking parlor
and the revival mission have been turned into rival cabarets, and the
people (the Planes) sing, "Money, money, git de money./ ... /Get
rich quick, or you'll all be dead, as the white chorus girls In Act II
sang, 'Vole love money--money--money. Shades of Yonkel. Kenneth
Fearing in the review quoted earlier said ,he 'negro fantasia' is the
black man's careless, vegetall'e temperament; and the old American
theme is the relentless, many-masked pressure of money that either
breaks or converts him. Sam, who still sees himself as the Presi-
dent, is taken up by the Planes, who find him a monumental joke,
mocking him with their enthusiastic response to his description of
Hoboken: "Ain't no money--everyone shares alike:--ain't no cops--
everyone's his own cop . ... No bosses dere ... dere's music in de
factory all day, and sunflowers round de factory door. He becomes
so popular that the cabarets vie to sign him as a star attraction,
which brings him at last to a balcony overlooking the stage. There,
having come out of his dream, he voices a hope, not a fantasy, and
delivers the play's message before leading the cast in a very fast and
live rendition of "The Hoboken Song," which has run through the
play like theme music.
The message is prepared for at the beginning of the play when
Chill McGregor, the "hoss-cah phHosopher, introduces the work/no
work theme. He abandons the horsecar he drives and retires to the
bar, saying, workin', workin--ain't I worked three hours awready--
an' ain't dat a good full day's work, accordin' to de bes'
philosophers?" Later, he sobers up enough to explain the eleventh
commandment that "Jethro the Ethiopian gave to Moses: "Thou
shalt not work unless absolutely necessary. He adds, "But de white
man cut dat out. He has just explained that "'Nork Is the ruination of
the white race .. . . And wuhk ain't necessary--It's jest a disease.
From his earliest sketches, Gold insisted on the ugliness, the
destructiveness, the pain of work. Presumat>'y the workers' revolu-
tion for which he yearned would rescue the worker from oppression,
from simply feeding capitalist greed, but he often sounded as though
it would bring the worker to Big Rock Candy Mountain--a Whang-
doodle Hoboken. It is a theme that runs through Fiesta too. In
Hoboken Blues, there are alternative suggestions. seems natcheral
somehow to wuhk round yo' own place, says Sam, where you can
control your own time and stop to play the banjo when you get dem
wuhkin' blues. In Act II, when all the events are coming from Sam's
mind, one of the bes' philosophers appears-Plato (really Chill
McGregor)-to counter the call by Spartacus (Barney) to destroy the
Arise, workers of the. world, workers black and white, from
your slavery at the machines. . . . The machines wUI do the
work of the world from this day. In three hours each day
enough can be produced to feed the world, and give it hap-
The Harlem that Sam comes back to in the last act rthe New
Harlem--the new America) is Industrialism rampant. This Is the
world Sam has to conquer and, this being a play, he does It, convert-
ing the mona( song into -rhe Hoboken Song with a final speech:
But, folks, why can't there be a place for de poor man, black
and white, where birds sing sweet, and every house is full of
music, and dare's sunflowers round de factory door? Where
no one is hungry, where no one is lynched, where dere's no
money or bosses, and men are brudders?
In Writers on the Left, 1961, Daniel Aaron quotes from a letter that
Mike Gold wrote to Upton Sinclair, presumably In 1923:
I love humor, joy and happy people; I love big groups at
play, and friends sitting about a table, talking, smoking, and
laughing. I love song and athletics and a lot of other things.
I wish the world were all play and everybody happy and
creative as children. That is Communism; the communism
of the future (p. 89).
Mike Gold as Sam Pickens, and without a banjo.
In discussing the play's themes--the propaganda that so
annoyed O'Neill--1 am not giving any sense of the texture of the
wqrk--at least, as it is suggested on the page. The first act is full of
bright colors, constant movement, the songs of the period, a sense--
half parody, half nostalgia--of Harlem life, of which the revival meet-
ing, where the immense Amelia is going to "jump to Jesus, is the
most flamboyant example. The second act, a composite of all that
goes on in SAM PICKENS' mind," recycles characters, lines, ideas
from the first. The undertaker, a priggish man who is after Sally Pick-
ens in Act I, turns up here, masked, as the Ringmaster, the Judge,
and the man who herds the workers into the factory-cages. Once
there, they tall into machine dance motions. Most of the painful
material of the act is presented as part of the anti-realistic
extravaganza. The police, beating Sam, perform a queer rhythmic
semi-dance, chanting their refrain, a violent passage full of such
lines as Kick In his ribs. And the club lady, one of the establishment
figures who sing their appreciation of the police action, does so to
the tune of Alexander's Ragtime Band: eome on and hear, come
on and hear, how good women rule the land. Of the circus, Gold
suggests, Here, If the director has the patience and the Ingenuity, a
fantastic circus parade of animals and performers may be
improvised, to the accompaniment of wild circus music. Jokes
abound; one of the best comes when the Ringmaster hires Sam to
be a savage and then fires him for being too civUized. When Sam
protests, the Ringmaster asks, Are you a cannibal? Do you eat
human flesh? Sam answers, No, mistuh, but I kin learn. It Is a les-
son that Harlem has learned by the last act, but, even there, where
money fuels the action, there is jazz dancing and singing of which
the theatrical possibilities may be more positive than the occasion
that calls them forth.
There Is many a slip between page and stage. The critical
response was mostly negative and the play ran only a few weeks. It
is clear from the reviews that Edward Massey, the director, and his
associates wanted to approximate what Gold had in mind, but it is
impossible to recreate the production at this distance. One can
guess at some of the things--the quality of the performances aside--
that went wrong. Gold is at fault for so overfilling his play that confu-
sion was inevitable--and for violating audience expectations about
anti-realistic theatre. In a conventional unconventional play, such as
Beggar on Horseback, by GeorgeS. Kaufman and Marc Connelly
(1924), the protagonist gets knocked out or falls asleep and dreams
the expressionist satire that is the heart of the work. The beating of
Sam in Act II might seem such a triggering device, but the whole
long third scene is as fantastic before as after the beating. There is
no reason why a playwright needs to prepare (and comfort) an
audience as Kaufman and Connelly did, but there are dangers in not
giving the playgoers a firm place to stand, as e. e. cummings learned
when the Provincetown staged him a few weeks after the Hoboken
Blues disaster. him Is an infinitely better play than Hoboken Blues,
cummings is a poet in a way that Gold never was, and cummings's
themes are Intricately meshed with the form of his work, but his play
elicited cries of distress and outrage. In Gold's case, the outrage
never became much more than exasperation, but audience (critical)
disorientation hardly comes as a surprise. Gold's theme (i.e. mes-
sage) was carefully set up all through the play, but, as Fearing sug-
gested, It did not demand the form that Gold gave it; the marriage
between revolutionary politics and revolutionary theatre, it turned
out, was not necessarily made in heaven or Hoboken. To make mat-
ters worse, Massey presumably decided that he could best serve
Gold by turning Hoboken Blues Into an audience-participation romp.
Alexander Woollcott reported {New York World, 18 February 1928)
that two girts 1rolicksomely costumed as monkeys passed out suck-
ers to the audience; other reviewers mentioned balloons and
peanuts. Woollcott, who left the theatre early In Act II and gave his
lollipops to a nearby waif, said, sut I went into the night ~ i n g that
the biggest all -day sucker of the lot was Otto Kahn. Kahn, experi-
mental theatre's favorite millionaire in the 1920's, had put up the
money to form the New Playwrights' Theatre. Gold was apparently
no happier than Woollcott; according to Folsom, Gold 'just about
puked' when he discovered the actors directed to mingle with the
crowd {pp. 234-5).
A graver error was the decision to play the piece In blackface.
In oid the New Playwrights' Theatre Fail? John Dos Passos's apol-
ogy jeulogy for the company {New Masses, August 1929), he
blamed the faHure of Hoboken Blues partly on ,he fact that nobody
would take for granted the rather childish but unpretentious black-
face minstrel show method of presentation." This transfers the blame
from the sender to the receivers, inappropriately, I think. When Alan
Dale {New York American, 18 February 1928) said that the actors
were "made up as darkies," his choice of words--hardly surprising at
that date-may say something about him. It also indicates the way in
which audiences saw minstrel shows and makes one wonder why
Massey and company did not understand that they were inviting the
playgoers to see Sam and Chill as Tambo and Bones. Gold had
something much more astringent in mind. Probably the most inven-
tive thing in Hoboken Blues is his injunction: "No white men appear
in this play. Where white men are indicated, they are played by
Negroes in white caricature masks. Gold was thirty years ahead of
It is less easy to guess to what extent the production fell short
of Gold's hope for the design of his piece. He mentioned, as the kind
of "intelligent futurisr he would like to see used, Arthur Dove, Covar-
rubias (misspelled in American Caravan), Charles Demuth, and Hugo
Gellert, his f_riend and co-editor of New Masses, who did a very
strong drawing of Gold for the cover of the Fiesta program. It was
William Gaskin--hardly In the DovejDemuth league--who designed
the sets. The reviews _give little sense of how the show looked,
except for the clutter of platforms and a revolving backdrop ("like a
roller towel: said Woollcott) . In the Performing Arts Library at Un-
coln Center there are some photographs of the show, in black and
white, of course, and too small to give a very clear picture of the sets.
What I could see of the backdrop paintings suggested that they were
amusing glosses on contemporary art, and there was a shot from the
opening of the play-a very charming clown horse sitting lazily beside
its horsecar. The horse and cart were presumably the work of Jack
Tworkov, who, long before he made his reputation as an abstract art-
ist, designed the masks and props for Hoboken Blues. The hint In
these photographs and the happier inventions In the text suggest
that Gold's play might be worth looking at again if someone could be
found to stage it with vitality, wit, and the judicious use of a red pen-
While Gold was flirting with the mainstream theatre with Fiesta
and Hoboken Blues, he was writing and advocating more direct
agitational pieces. "The writer witnessed several examples of the
Mass Recitation In Soviet Russia, where, as in Germany, it is greatly
popular with the workers: he wrote in New Masses (July 1926), by
way of introducing his own Strike! According to Malcolm Goldstein
In The Political Stage {1974, p. 32), Strike/, which he called probably
the first agitprop play to be written, published, or performed In
America: was produced--or at least announced for production--by
an amateur group called Workers' Theater, which Gold helped found
in 1926. Gold reprinted Strike! in 120 Million, as one of the group of
Proletarian Chants and Recitations that make up the last section of
that book. There, too, he offered a very slightly altered version of the
New Masses foreword, in which he identified the form as a valuable
weapon for propaganda and solidarity and pointed to some of its
characteristics: a bare platform for a stage, performers scattered
through the audience, lines chanted in -what Meyerhold calls 'poster-
declamation: Above all, no individualism, because, as he said in
New Masses, Mass recitation is group art."
In Strike/, a gaunt woman in rags confronts Wealth ("I am
Poverty, your sister") and is rejected by him. The Directors, who pro-
vide some obvious satire on capitalists, vote to cut the workers'
salaries, which leads first to defeatist laments, and then to defiance,
and ends in a call for a strike and the singing of the lnternationale.
There is a Young Leader who seems to orchestrate the movement
from defeatism to defiance, but the piece--as a Mass Recitation--calls
for group commitment. Hence the chants of choruses, identified in
some instances in musical terms: bassos, tenors, sopranos, con-
traltos. The final stage direction says, rhere are rhythmic shouts of
Strike, Strike scattered all through the singing, and timed dramati-
cally like a drum beat. In the foreword, Gold says that the actors
and audience should become one, that "before the recitation is over,
every one in the hall should be shouting: Strike! Strike! This
hoped-for ending foreshadows what happened in the first perform-
ances of Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty in 1935. The communal
call of strike!" should not obscure the fact that Odets's play is very
different from Gold's recitation, agitprop having moved much closer
to conventional realism in the decade after Gold's return from Mos
cow. Mass recitation never became as popular with American
workers as Gold thought it was in Russia and Germany.
The only other piece in 120 Million that Is specifically identified
as "A Workers' Recitation" is Vanzetti in the Death House, which was
first published in this volume. When it was reprinted In The Mike
Gold Reader (1954), Gold reduced Vanzetti to a subtitle and named
the recitation "Lynchers in Frock Coats, a title that he borrowed from
an earlier prose piece (New Masses, September 1927), written
before the execution. Vanzetti Is "based on the published speeches
and letters" of the anarchist, according to a note In the text, and the
piece certainly includes the famous lines used later In The Male
Animal (1940) , the conventional liberal comedy by James Thurber
and Elliott Nugent: "I might have lived out my life talking at street
corners to scornful men./1 might have died unmarked, unknown,/ A
failure. Designed for a single performer, Vanzettl presents Its hero,
walking his cell, talking about his present situation, remembering the
natural beauties of his Italian home. At first, he accepts death reluc
tantly, but then embraces it. He says to himself, "They will burn your
body in the electric chair,/But your ideas will live, and to Sacco,
"That last agony Is our triumph--/The workers will never forget--."
The piece ends as he "chants solemnly," as loudly as full caps will
allow: "LONG UVE THE REVOLUTION!" Causes have always found
martyrs useful, and the Communist Party--as Gold's work indicates--
has always co-opted historical figures--Spartacus, Joan of Arc-who
can be made to fit the rhetorical needs of a particular moment.
Another of the chants in 120 Million, the story of a strike leader's
exemplary death, is called "A Great Deed Was Needed." The titular
phrase is repeated throughout as a choral chant. Similarly, the
phrase "America needs a great deed" runs through the scene in John
Brown, Abolitionist (New Masses, June 1929), in which Brown
explains his plans for Harper's Ferry; even Thoreau, who has a small
part, gets to repeat it as a curtain line. The deed, of course, is not
the aborted attack on Harper's Ferry, but John Brown's death, which,
like Vanzetti's, can become a propaganda weapon.
Such works as Vanzetti and Strike! may be the direct result of
Gold's Russian trip, but before he went to Moscow he was already
writing agitational poems with long Whitmanesque lines punctuated
by chant refrains. "The Strange Funeral in Braddock" (Liberator,
June 1924) Is the best example. It is a bizarre piece about a steel
worker who, beguiled by spring, did not notice the molten metal that
engulfed him and became his "great coffin of steel ." When Michael
Folsom reprinted the piece in Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology
(1972), he explained that it was based on a real incident. It was not
the actuality of the event that gave Strange Funeral its point; it was
the lesson that Gold found In the accident. Two of the mourners--a
friend and the widow--choose to turn away from risk, but a third is
called to action: I'll o ~ e some day and make bullets out of Jan's
body, and shoot them Into a tyrant's heartt Neater, less strident
than the later mass recitations, Strange Funeral was probably the
most performed of Gold's chants. During the 1930's, It was set to
music by Elie Siegmeister and turned into a dance by Anna Sokolow.
In describing how the Provincetown decided, reluctantly, to do
Fiesta, Deutsch and Hanau said, -rhe author had turned from art to
politics, and some members of the board felt that this might be a
step toward bringing him back to what they believed was his true
medium (179-180). They were wrong in both their expectations and
their belief, as Gold's post-Fiesta career indicates. There was one
more Gold play produc89 in New York--Battle Hymn, the John Brown
drama that he ~ r o t e with Michael Blankfort--but it was simply a
reworking of a play that dated back to the early 1920's. In his review
of Stevedore, Gold called Blankfort, who had directed the work, a
discovery in the theatre, which may explain the older man's choice
of collaborator (New Masses, 1 May 1934). In Mike Gold, John
Pyros quotes from an interview with Blankfort: Mike had this play
about Brown and couldn't finish it. He ... gave me his makeshift
pages, papers of all sizes, most of it handwritten. It was more
pageant than play and had only two-dimensional characters who
spouted slogans mostly" (p. 74). A nice story, but a little dubious. As
early as 1923, Eugene O'Neill told Gold he would be only too tickled
to read the play and that Brown was one of the few historical
Americans who demanded a real play" (Selected Letters). There is
no published Indication that O'Neill actually saw the Brown play, but
it is obvious that Gold was working on it at the same time he was
preparing his brief biography, The Life of John Brown (1924).
Certainly it must have existed as a play in 1928 when Gold offered It
and Fiesta to Lewis Mumford for possible publication in the third
American Caravan. The scenes of John Brown, Abolitionist pub-
lished in New Masses, although different from the Battle Hymn ver-
sion, are not different in kind. Blankfort told Pyros that Gold did not
much like his draft of the play; he thought It weaker than he hoped
for in Its politics, but nevertheless gave his permission to have It pro-
duced. It was presented by the Experimental Theatre unit of the
Federal Theatre Project on 22 May 1936, and again in San Francisco
the next year.
At heart, Battle Hymn is a realistic history play, using domestic
scenes for the most part, to clock John Brown's development from a
pacifist \We never take guns). to a killer ("And there must be another
kind of terror--one to put the fear of God in the hearts of
scoundrels). A committed anti-slavery man from the beginning, he
learned from the death of his sons to use guns for defense, and then
for attack, and finally for the assault on Harper's Ferry. The members
of his family are sketched in individually, a trait or two In place of full
characterization, but Blankfort and Gold manage to give some sense
of real men In a real time. The acts are Introduced with prologues
that set the larger context for the Brown family scenes, using
speeches from historical figures and choral units, North and South,
chanting their opposition to one another. Morgan Y. Hlmelsteln In
Drama Was a Weapon suggested that the style of the prologues
owed something to the living newspapers (Triple-A Plowed Under
and 1935 had been staged by the Experimental Theatre shortly
before Battle Hymn), but the influence of Gold's mass recitations Is
also obvious. Two points that Gold emphasized In The Life of John
Brown (1963) are central to the play as well--the parallel with the pre-
sent and the triumphant martyrdom. John Mason Brown (New York
Evening Post, 23 May 1936) said that the audience, not the script,
seized upon the parallels between past and present, but the text is
very careful to make the analogy between the slave and the Northern
factory worker; it is August Bondi, the play's theorist, who insists that
Labor, even with a white skin, can never be free as long as labor
with a black skin is enslaved. And perhaps--as Hoboken Blues
could tell you--not even then. There is an ideational flaw in the work.
As Bondi makes clear, individual campaigns--including Brown's--are
not the proper approach to the struggle between progress and reac-
tion, which calls for group action. In fact, it would be possible--and
the play sometimes suggests this--to see Brown as obsessional,
destroying his family and his cause in his quest for justice. Yet,
Battle Hymn has to hold tight to Brown so that it can have its martyr.
our blood will water this land into free earth, he says in the last
scene. America will remember our blood. It will ring in its ears. It
will be a song In the land. In the Epilogue, we get that song: John
Brown's Body.
Battle Hymn was a Blankfortized echo from the past. For the
most part, during the 1930's, Gold was simply a commentator on the
theatre, often intent--as in his notorious attack on John Howard Law-
son, (New Masses, 10 April 1934)--on imposing political purity on the
incompletely converted. He was listed in the playbill for The Young
Go First {1935) as a member of the Advisory Council for the Theatre
of Action, which was the Workers Laboratory Theatre, newly named
to fit the Popular Front line. There is no indication that Gold took an
active part in the theatre; he was one of a group of leftist luminaries,
not all Communists, whose names decorated the Council.
It is possible, given Gold's attraction to the theatre, that he
continued to work at its edges until his death, but the next and the
last public manifestations of that attraction came in the 1950's. In
1950, with Howard Fast, among others, he founded the new New
Playwrights, but the only writing to come from that association was
his introduction to Herb Tank's Longitude 49. Having done an essay
on Peter V. Cacchione--"The 'Honorable Pete, In The Mike Gold
Reader--in 1950, three years after the death of the Brooklyn city
councilman, Gold went on to write--or to begin--a play about the
man. Two scenes from Councilman Pete were printed in Looking
Forward (1954), a collection of works-In-progress by authors of Inter-
national Publishers In honor of the press's thirtieth birthday. One Is a
famUy scene, showing the warmth and closeness of the Cacchiones
about to be pulled apart by the Depression; the other depicts the
attack on the veterans' encampment during the disastrous Bonus
March of 1932. Surface realism manipulated to make specific points,
these scenes indicate that the play--like the essay--was to be an
exempary story about how hard times and Injustice turned a small-
town Catholic into a Communist, "the first to be elected to a major
legislative position In the United States, as the essay put it. in
Jewish Life (June 1954), in a special section remembering the
Rosenbergs on the first anniversary of their execution, Gold had a
piece called The Rosenberg Cantata. It Is a throwback to his 1920's
recitations and another martyrdom drama in which The People
invoke Spartacus, Joan of Arc, Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, and "the
men of Haymarket. Somehow, they forgot John Brown. At the end,
The People command, And remember the sacred Rosen-
bergs/Whose suffering was a seed of brotherhood:
These late works--in fact, all his theatre work--remind us that
Mike Gold was never able and almost certainly did not want to take
the advice that Eugene O'Neill gave him In the letter criticizing
Hoboken Blues:
If you want my most candid dope, I think you ought to keep
the artist, Mike Gold, and the equally O.K. human being, the
Radical editor, rigidly segregated during their respective
working hours (2 June 1926, Selected Letters).
1Gold praised the Theatre Guild for producing John We>dey's
They Shall Not Die after having wasted so much fine talent and tech-
nique on ,he senilities of Shaw and O'Neiu- (Daily Worker, 11 April
1934). In The Hollow Men (1941), he equated Mumford with Hitler.
Unlike these men, Cook, who died in 1924--like Reed, who died in
Moscow in 1920 and was buried at the Kremelin--did not have time to
develop in ways that might offend the Stalinist rigidities that marked
Gold after the 1920's.
2Provincetown materials in the Performing Arts Ubrary at Un-
coln Center, New York.
31t may be a joke. As Nora Magid reminded me when I read
her the quotation, it is a parody of a line from Thomas Gray's Elegy
Written in a Country Churchyard: "The short and simple annals of the
The Eugene O'Neill letters quoted in this article can be
found in Selected Letters {19a8) or The Theatre We Worked Fo,.
{1982). Mike Gold's letters to Lewis Mumford and Horace Uveright
are In the papers of the recipients in the University of Pennsylvania
5Federated Press was a labor news service that issued daHy
reports from three bureaus across the country. The Waldo Frank
Collection at the University of Pennsylvania has several letters to
Frank from Michael Gold written on the stationery of the Eastern
Bureau, the New York office. As usual with Gold's letters, these are
not dated, but internal evidence indicates that they were written dur-
ing the summer of 1925 when, as he says in one of the letters, he
should have been "working at my job in this office. If the typescript
dates from Gold's days at Federated Press, it is clearly the earlier of
the two scripts. As this article indicates, I decided that on other
grounds. NUC lists still another typescript in the Ubrary of Congress,
but I have not seen it.
6Gold is as casual about dating his piay as he is about dating
his letters. Internal evidence indicates that it takes place sometime
between the murder of Madero (1913), an event that sent Don Enri-
que off to the wars, and the death of Zapata (1919), whose forces
Enrique is going to join at the end of the play. If we take Enrique's
"three years of ... slaughter" literally, it is around 1916--after Car-
ranza had made himsetf president. At one point, Pablo suggests that
Enrique has been fighting with Carranza, which may explain his
"politicians remark. Because the play is only peripherally about the
anarchic political situation, Gold may have been right not to make
the time specific.
7Q'Neill presumably put up the money. He reminded Mac-
gowan (7 August 1926) that "the organization still owes me 500
advance of Gold's play. Selected Letters, 1988.
818 March 1925 and 1 May 1925 letters in The Theatre We
Worked For, 1982.
9Gold is a great deal less consistent about the dialect than
Torrence is. As the quotations in my discussion of the play indicate,
he could spell a word differently--work and wuhk, for instance--within
a single speech.
Bruce A. McConachie
Theatre historians have discussed the sensation melodramas
of Dion Boucicault, Augustin Daly, and others as midcentury
advances in stage realism, but none has noted their contribution to
the consolidation of bourgeois hegemony.1 The expansion d capi-
talism after the depression years of the early 1840s led to the
proliferation of new occupations for men and new economic roles for
women, thus creating a more modern and diverse bourgeoisie. By
the Civil War, roughly thirty-five percent of the urban famUies In the
Northeast belonged to this newly emergent class formation. Joining
together the different strata of the bourgeoisie, from the wealthy
manufacturer to the aspiring clerk, was the ideology of respectability,
forged in the class conflicts of the antebellum city. And separating
them from the working-class below was a new, more rigorous dis-
tinction between mental and physical labor. Noted one moralist of
the business class, -rhe man who carries on any business must have
others to carry out his plans. He must contrive, others must execute.
. . . Hence he advertises for hands, not heads - for manual labor,
and not for mental. This distinction structured many aspects of
urban life after midcentury, figuring prominently in class differences
relating to family income, work environment, housing patterns, and
leisure activities - including going to the theatre. 2
From the mid 1850s into the 1870s, the bourgeoisie made
sensation melodrama one of the most popular genres at their
theatres in the urban Northeast. Such playhouses as the new Boston
Theatre, Wallack's in New York, and the refurbished Arch Street in
Philadelphia provided some seats for working-class pocketbooks in
the upper balconies, but reserved their cushioned chairs in the new
orchestra and first balcony for the business class. Among the more
successful of the sensation plays, so called because their technically
difficult climactic scenes were designed to produce the sensations of
suspense anQ terror, were The Poor of New York and The Colleen
Bawn, both by Dion Boucicault, and Under the Gaslight by Augustin
Daly. Boucicault adapted The Poor of New York from Les Pauvres
de Paris and opened it In the city of its new title in 1857. By keeping
the plot Intact and altering its local referents, Boucicault also profited
from its production as The Streets of Philadelphia and The Rich and
Poor of Boston. The Colleen Bawn, or The Brides of Garryowen,
performed initially in 1860, enjoyed greater popularity In America
than any of Boucicault's previous hits; American managers produced
it frequently into the 1890s. Daly's Gaslight played for a thirteen-
week run in New York, four weeks in Boston, and seven In Philadel-
phia In 1867, and enjoyed numerous revivals at Daly's own theatres
and elsewhere for another two decades. 3
Eartier types of melodrama had legitimated traditional patrician
and artisan desires, but the popularity of these plays was already
waning by 1850. Moral reform melodramas like The Drunkard and
Rosina Meadows remained popular at museum theatres and else-
where and advanced the business-class values of industry and self-
control, chiefly by inducing spectators to measure their Individual
success against the norms of men of principle and women of virtue.
But the social effects of moral plays left some unfinished business
and even created some problems for bourgeois domination. Partly
because allegories of moral reform had been produced for
audiences near the class margin, the relations between classes and
within the business class were not clear in these plays. How were
business-class families to be sure that their servants were their
inferiors if mere principled and virtuous behavior were the primary
bases for judgment? And what was the relation between those new
to the business class and the old-moneyed elite? Moral reform
melodrama had forged links of iron between self-control and eco-
nomic success; the drunkard's reformation, for example, guaranteed
his financial as well as his physical health. But what if a capitalist lost
his wealth or a clerk lost his position through no fault of his own --
through the vagaries of the marketplace? Were he and his family still
Perhaps the biggest problem for the bourgeoisie deriving from
many discourses of contemporary ethics was the need to protect
one's respectability and, at the same time, to maintain the moral
transparency of one's actions. Historians of American Victorianism
have noted that bourgeois propriety mandated rigorous self-control
in public but also enjoined its initiates to represent themselves sin-
cerely and naturally. This double-bind led American business-class
men and women Into two parallel difficulties. On the one hand, their
repression and self-control tended to alienate them from their own
feelings. On the other, the need to project an image of sentimental
sincerity clashed with the aggressiveness and duplicity often needed
to succeed in the wortd of business for men and society for women,
thus threatening to reveal them as hypocrites. Both difficulties
enmeshed the American bourgeoisie in the problem of the
authenticity of the self. The codes of business-class respectability,
notes social historian John Kasson, extended deep into the individ-
ual personality. The rituals of polite behavior and interaction helped
to implant a new, more problematic sense of identity -- externally
cool and controlled, Internally anxious and conflicted-- and of social
relationships. By undermining "a sense of personal coherence,
states Kasson, bourgeois society "led the way toward the
'anticipatory self, ' which continually depends upon the products of
the consumer culture for its completion... Business-class audiences
came to their theatres burdened with the psycho-social problem of
Earlier melodramatists, not faced with resolving this difficulty
for their spectators, had generally drawn good characters who expe-
rienced little distance between themselves and their social roles.
Within traditional melodramatic structure, characters of principle and
virtue were transparently legible to others on stage and to the
audience; only villains dissembled. The dramaturgical problem of
depicting moral pretense reflected a larger social difficulty. Ruling
classes, from Renaissance aristocracy through eighteenth-century
gentry, had always been able to separate themselves from their
social masks; the necessary hypocrisy of ritual and role playing had
served a variety of hegemonic uses. How could respectable men
and women intent on demonstrating their transparency - in life and
on the melodramatic stage -- gain sufficient social flexibility to
exercise their considerable power? The solution to resolving this
social-dramaturgical _problem transformed the structure and ideology
of nineteenth-century American melodrama. In the process, sensa-
tion melodrama helped the American Victorian bourgeoisie to con-
solidate and extend Its cultural domination.
As a first step to reassuring bourgeois audiences of their
authenticity, the sensation plays of Boucicault and Daly drew a clear
line separating working- from business-class characters, a line based
on nature, not social respectability. Moral reform melodrama had
insisted on a cause and effect relationship between individual
respectability and social success. In these plays, economic well-
being reflected inner sincerity and sensibility; lose the outer markings
of the bourgeoisie and you descend below the class line. Sensation
melodrama decoupled this linkage by acknowledging that chance
often interferes with the best laid plans of business-class heroes and
heroines to maintain their social position. Accidents, misunderstand-
ings, and circumstances beyond man's control abound in these
melodramas and, in large measure, determine their outcome. A
string of mishaps in The Colleen Bawn, tor example, leads Anne
Chute to believe that Kyrte Daly is already married; hence, she
hesitates to pursue wedlock with the shy collegian. A more serious
problem arises when Danny, the hunchbacked boatman, mistakenly
thinks that Hardress Cregan has given him the signal to kill his secret
wife. Another accident occurs when Myles-na-Coppaleen mistakes
Danny for a swimming otter and wounds him, thus accidentally
saving Eily O'Connor from drowning. More misunderstandings
occur as the major characters bounce from one mishap to another,
never achieving a clear perception of their situation untU the end of
the show.
The implications of this kind of plotting for the class position of
bourgeois characters are best exemplifted in Under the Gaslight and
The Poor of New York. Society brands Laura Courtland an outcast
when it discovers {wrongly, as it turns out) her lowly origins as an
orphan. Between acts one and two, she descends from IMng In an
elegant bourgeois townhouse to a poor basement apartment.
Similar misfortune--at least from within the orientation of sensation
melodrama--strikes the respectable characters of The Poor of New
York when the Panic of 1857 causes them economic hardship.
-rhree months ago, I stood there the fashionable Mark LMngstone,
says the hero, owner of the Waterwitch yacht and one of the original
stock-holders in the Academy of Music. And now, bust up, sold out,
and reduced to breakfast off this coat (II, 1 ). When the Panic hits the
Fairweather family, Paul loses his job as a clerk and Lucy. the
heroine, must take a low paying position as a milliner's apprentice.
But has their economic descent hurt the respectability of these
business-class heroes and heroines? Not at all. Having carefully
established that they had no responsibility for these apparent acts of
God, these melodramas do not blame them for their fall. These
characters deserved their wealth and position, it seems,. but not their
To preserve the class line, all three melodramas shift the
definition of respectabiity from learned qualities of character and
morality to natural attributes resulting from birth and early upbring-
ing. To be sure, most of their heroines, though few of their heroes,
have learned virtue. honesty; and loyalty as well. But language and
ethnicity are the fundamental markers dividing the genteel from the
unrespectable In these plays. Augustin Daly parades a variety of low-
life types, all with distinguishing accents and colors--newsboys, a
colored citizen, a slum hag, an Italian organist from Cork, and
others--across his Gaslight stage and none of them speaks the
standard English of his hero and heroine. When Puffy in The Poor of
New York tells of his descent into poverty, a tale which parallels Mark
Livingstone's rDown in the world, now sir--overspeculated like the
rest on 'em .. :), the audience is in no doubt about the class of each.
The language of class is at the center of The Colleen Bawn, with the
respectable Hardress attempting to teach his peasant-born wife EUy
proper English. I'm gettin' elaine of the brogue, and learnin' to do
nothin--l'm to be changed entirely, says this Irish Eliza Doolittle (1,3).
The melodrama affirms that only suffering can result when represen-
tatives of different language groups fall in love. The language of
one's birth and early life creates apparently natural and nearly
insuperable barriers.
Likewise, the affection that many working-class characters
show toward their betters seems entirely natural, the result of good-
hearted friendliness, not submissiveness or opportunism. Snorkey, a
one-armed veteran from the CivH War, runs messages around New
York City for the villain at the start of Gaslight, but changes his colors
when he sees that the heroine is in danger. Refusing to take Laura's
money, he promises to save her for free: 1 stood up to be shot at for
thirteen dollars a month, and I can take my chances of a lickin' for
nothing (II, 1 ). Similarly, Myles-na-Coppaleen rescues the Colleen
Bawn and hides her from her husband, motivated by his previous
love for the heroine, not by the hope of gain. In The Poor of New
York, the Puffys are lower-class, but for much of the action they have
more money than their business-class boarders, the Fairweathers.
Nonetheless, when Lucy, Paul, and their mother invite Mark Living-
stone to dine at the Puffys, Mrs. Puffy insists on cooking and serving
the meal. 'Wouldn't think of sitting at the same table with them, she
remarks (11,3). These earnest veterans, carefree peasants, and urban
workers-all happily dedicated to manual labor-are permanent mem-
bers of the lower class, with no thought of rising into the bourgeoisie.
And, luckily for the respectable, they not only assist their heroes and
heroines, they genuinely admire them. Lower-class helpers and serv-
ers are business-class wish-fulfillments come to life; there's no ser-
vant problem in sensation melodrama.
The relations within the business class between families of
moderate income and people of great wealth are not as predictable.
These plays assert t h ~ the power of the rich breeds arrogance,
pretentiousness, and exclusivity. In Gaslight, Mrs. Van Dam, her
claim to aristocratic position evident in her name, organizes all the
women in Delmonico's to snub Laura Courtland when she discovers
her lowly origins. This leads the hero to compare high society to a
pack of wolves. Lucy Fairweather in The Poor of New York is victim-
Ized by the daughter of a rich banker who pays off Mark Living-
stone's debts to trap him into marriage. Corrigan, the villain of The
Colleen Bawn, tries the same strategy to m ~ r r y the widowed and
temporarily impoverished Mrs. Cregan.
Despite these intra-class wrangles, however, the plots of all three
plays underline the unity of the business class, often by an alliance
between respectable families of moderate means and the old-
moneyed elite. Anne Chute, a representative of the Protestant
Ascendancy in Ireland, uses her money to save the Cregan estate
from foreclosure, thus joining the Chutes and the Cn3gans to foil Cor-
rigan's villainy.s Saved in the nick of time from a forced alliance with
Alida Bloodgood, the banker's daughter, the elite Mark Livingstone
marries the respectable Lucy Fairweather. Gaslight features no
moderate-income families, but it does seal the division between rich
and poor, ruptured by the lower-class villain's attempts to blackmail
Laura's fiance with the promise of keeping quiet about her humble
birth. Even the villainess, a hag from the slums named Old Judas,
recognizes the "natural difference between the two classes. Ruefully
admitting Laura's stoic nobility after she and Byke, the vUiain, kid-
napped her, she says, "How her blood tells--she wouldn't shed a
tear- (111,3). Blood tells in each of these plays. The pretentious and
wolfish qualities of high society cannot finally divide a bourgeoisie
united by nature.
Chance-ridden plays with the survival of business-class heroes
and heroines weighing in the balance had obvious appeal for mid-
century bourgeois audiences. Many business-class men and women
In the 1850s and '60s believed that their economic and social suc-
cess was due more to luck than to their own self-control and
industry. The popular books of Edwin T. Freedley, Including Practi-
cal Treatise on Business, Leading Pursuits and Leading Men, and
Opportunities for Industry and the Safe Investment of Capital, taught
that the economy did not necessarily reward Individuals for morally
correct behavior. And most Horatio Alger novels, already popular by
the mid '60s, coupled confidence and respectability with ~ h lucky
break as the path for youths eager to rise from newsboy to mil-
lionaire. As social historian Richard Sennett points out,
The businessmen and bureaucrats of the last century had
little sense of participating in an orderly system. The new
principles of making money and directing large organiza-
tions were a mystery even to those who were very success-
ful. . . . [Most pictured] their activities in terms of the gamble,
the game of chance--and the appropriate scene was the
stock exchange.
For the American bourgeoisie, economic "panics," estate fore-
closures, and embarrassing questions about their social origins--the
chance events that structure these sensation melodramas--were
believable accidents of fate that could happen to them. 6
All the more reason, then, to construct a social order based on
nature rather than on the historical contingencies of wealth, environ-
mental conditioning, or traditional social position. This construction
was made easier for bourgeois moralists by the increasing distance
of the business class from the lives of urban workers and the growing
proximity of upper- and moderate-income families of the bourgeoisie.
In their places of business, managers and clerks rarely came into
contact with manual laborers. Many moderate-income, business-
class families lived on the peripheries of Boston, New York, and
Philadelphia by the time of the Civil War, their flight from the inner
city motivated by a desire to own their own homes and enabled by a
rapidly improving commuter system of transportation. Most salaried
clerks, salesmen, and others in the lower ranks of the business class
thought of themselves as businessmen in training, joined many of
the voluntary associations run by the elite, and voted for politicians
who would perpetuate and enhance the power of their class. Social
historian Stuart Blumin speaks of an axis of respectabuity uniting
upper and moderate income families, generated primarily by the
interaction of women and clerks in downtown retail stores. WhNe the
urban elite continued to maintain separate clubs, schools, and places
of amusement, the price of joining the upper ten thousand was
increasingly mere money. Any business-class family, regardless of
past social position or even current financial distress, could aspire to
elite status.
How natural," in these circumstances, to regard manual
laborers as inherently inferior creatures. Historian Robert Weibe
notes the shift in American culture from inner convictions to outward
appearances as the primary means of classifying groups of people.
This shift, he adds, gave the nineteenth century its distinctiveness as
the age of ethnic awareness: Increasingly, the American
bourgeoisie identified poverty with ethnicity and ethnicity with natural
traits of behavior and belief. This was especially true of stereotypes
of Irish-Americans, which gravitated during the antebellum period
from conceptions of lrishness based on environmental factors to dif-
ferences believed to be matters of race. Historian Dale T. Knobel
By mid-century, language had built into American folk cul-
ture a sense that Americans and Irish were innately and
from one another and that
intelligence, morality, religious inclination, political affiliation,
social conduct, and economic behavior were all derivatives
of race.
While this stereotype could never exclude Irish-Americans from
respectable society as thoroughly as it segregated out African-
Americans-passing for the Irish was much easier than for Blacks-it
clearly retarded their assimilation and social progress. a
As for the native-born worker--the real Puffys and Snorkeys of
the 1855-70 period--business-class moralists tended to divide them
between the respectable and the naturally dependent. Abraham
Lincoln had genuine sympathy for poor workers, as did many other
spokesmen for bourgeois hegemony, but it was not unmixed with
condescension: Jt is not the fault of the system [if a man remained a
wage earner], but because of either a dependent nature which pre"
fers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune. singular mis-
fortune could be explained In an economy of chance, but
improvidence and folly were likely to be a part of a man's dependent
nature. Uncoln's remarks echoed hundreds of similar assurances
from the pulpit, from newspapers, and from political halls. Workers
who did not succeed were somehow defective. As Robert Wiebe
notes, by the Civil War many business-class moralists were conclud-
ing that nature had bestowed [morality and respectability] only on
some humans and that society now must reckon with a fundamental
separation between those who did have a moral sense and those
who did not. .g
If nature created such differences between ethnic groups and
classes, perhaps it also divided the sexes along more than biological
lines. The bourgeoisie believed that respectable men could rise
above their selfish natures and act on principle in matters of politics
and economics, but what about women? Their lack of political and
economic power suggested that they might derive their rights and
duties from nature rather than business contracts and civil law. By
1860, most Americans believed that woman's nature produced the
social benefits of child care and domestic virtue; it was a small step
from there to argue that women were incapable of transcending their
biological roles. Medical opinion, eager to replace midwifery with the
new sciences of obstetrics and gynecology, took that step and
others followed. One well-known gynecologist wrote in 1847 that
[woman] is a moral, a sexual, a germiferous, gestative and
parturient creature. The construction of maternal affection, emo-
tional excess, and familial loyalty as natural to women was not
without its.dangers to the dominant culture, however. As John Frost
explained in his Daring and Heroic Deeds of American Women, natu-
ral women could meet any attack on their domestic happiness with
ferocity and violence, sparing neither sex nor age. 10 Merely social-
ized women had tended to be meek and passive; naturalized women
could transcend these social conventions and act with passion.
As the construction of womanhood became more natural In
bourgeois culture, manliness became more self-controlled, less able
to exercise its nature in mixed company. An 1856 article in Harpers
on oomestic Society in Our Country- commented:
No civilized man is so helpless and dependent in certain
respects as an American gentleman and the reason is
obvious: our wives do our thinking in these matters, and we
are perfectly content to follow their lead. A large part of our
social system is under their control and they legislate for our
dress, etiquette, and manners without the fear of a veto . . ..
It is, indeed, the subtlest and most pervasive influence in our
Harpers was exaggerating; numerous other accounts, some in the
same magazine, complained of men putting their boots on the furni-
ture, eating with their knives, and swearing in the parlor. But the
norms of poUte society, as reflected in etiquette books, novels, and
plays, had changed and masculine behavior in the presence of
respectable women was not far behind. In the man's wor1d of
and business, however, rationality and
remained the dominant values. Bourgeois males were Increasingly
pulled in two directions: the sincerity and repression of par1or life, If
practiced in business, hobbled his success; calculating rationality,
pursued in mixed company, turned him into a vulgar boor.11
The heroes and heroines of sensation melodrama helped to
legitimate these new constructions of gender roles. Although
allowed to act defensively, the heroines of romantic and moral reform
melodramas Initiated no action to save themselves or their famHies.
This changes with sensation melodrama. To release their famUy from
having another mouth to feed when they are starving, Lucy
weather and her mother, both unbeknownst to each other, attempt
suicide. Only by discovering and convincing each other of the
futility of death do they deckJe not to go through with their desperate
acts. The Colleen Bawn features no female herolsm, but Anne
Chute's pursuit of Kryle Daley is indicative of the more active role
allowed to natural women in sensation melodrama. Of course the
most dramatic act of heroism in these three plays occurs in the
sensation scene of Gaslight when Laura rescues Snorkey, tied to the
tracks by Byke, from an onrushing train. Although initially emotional
and helpless, Laura steels her determination when Snorkey tells her
that Byke and Judas are on the way to your cottage .. . to rob and
murder. As she batters through the stationhouse door with an axe,
he cries -rhat's a true woman! (IV,3). With her family in danger,
Laura's natural feelings triumph over her socialized reserve.12
The bourgeois heroes of sensation plays are more conflicted
than the heroes of any previous type of melodrama. Caught between
the sentimental urge to behave correctly to their wives or
sweethearts and the competitive need to improve their economic and
social positions, all three heroes float passively through their plays.
Ray Trafford continues to love Laura throughout Gaslight, but
lates between rejecting and pursuing her because of the effect her
questionable past has on his social position. Hardress Cregan has
much the same problem in The Colleen Sawn. If he stays wedded to
Eily, he and his mother will lose their estate and compromise the
family name through his alliance with a peasant. If he voids their
marriage, either through Eily's cooperation or her death, he sacrifices
his true love for opportunistic gain. Trafford and Cregan do careless
and even despicable things during the course of the
is even partly responsible for Eily's near each is sin-
cerely embarrassed and apologizes for his vacillation and moral tur-
pitude. Luckily for them, other characters untangle the accidents
and misunderstandings of the plots and all three heroes get both the
money and the girl. In effect, sensation melodrama winks at the
moral compromises made by the bourgeois hero, allowing him to
maintain his respectability as long as he continues to profess his sin-
cere good intentions. Such hypocritical behavior was the mark of vil-
lainy in earlier melodramas.
In its reconstruction of gender roles, sensation melodrama no
longer demands that the inner reality of respectable men and women
match their outward behavior. Given the right circumstances,
heroines can drop their domestic self-control and fight like tigresses.
Heroes, allowed more latitude, can turn their backs on loved ones as
long as they later repent their folly. Sacrificing the moral transpar-
ency of the self for social role-playing has its price, however. These
business-class characters are sometimes at a loss to know who they
are. Hardress Cregan, aware that his manservant believes he would
kill Eily to preserve his social position, doubts his moral sanity.
"Begone!" he orders Danny:
I have chosen my doom; I must learn to endure it-but, [my]
blood! and _hers! Shall I make cold and still that heart that
beats alone for me? --quench those eyes that look so
tenderly in mine? Monster! am I so vile that you dare to
whisper such a thought (II, 1 ).
Dragged into court by Byke who claims her as his daughter, laura
says, "I am-I dare not say it. I know not who I am, but I feel that he
[i.e., Byke] cannot be my father" (111,1 ).
Business-class nervousness about role-playing scape.goats the
working class in The Poor of New York. Upset that the poor are get-
ting more sympathy after the 1857 Panic than people like himself
who have been forced by society to hide their poverty to preserve
their reputations, Mark Livingstone demands:
The poor! Whom do you call the poor? Do you know them?
Do you see them? They are more frequently found under a
black coat than under a red shirt. The poor man is the artist
who is obliged to pledge the tools of his trade to buy medi-
cines for his sick wife. The lawyer who, craving for employ-
ment, buttons up his thin paletot to hide his shirtless breast.
These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are
obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of con-
tent. Smoking a cigar to disguise their hunger, they drag
from their pockets their last quarter to cast it with studied
carelessness to the beggar whose mattress at home is lined
with gold. These are the most miserable of the poor of New
York. (II, 1).
Such are the demands of keeping up a false mask, that the
business-class players of these roles have a greater claim on public
sympathy than the truly needy. Under1ylng this bourgeois self-pity Is
contempt for and even fear of the red shirts and beggars because,
like the business class itself, they are no longer morally legible-their
mattresses at home may be lined with gold: If the bourgeoisie could
not trust themselves to live morally transparent lives, whom could
they trust?
Having separated hypocrisy from respectability by endorsing
the wearing of social masks, sensation plays cannot treat their vil-
lains with the usual severity of previous types of melodrama. Further,
in a world dominated by chance, circumstances seemingly beyond
anyone's control cause most of the evil in these plays, relegating vil-
lainy to a more benign role. Corrigan still does some nasty things,
but the most dastardly deed in The Colleen Sawn results from a
misunderstanding. Appropriately enough, Corrigan's comeuppance
at the end of the play Is a simple dunking in the horse pond, hardly a
fit fate for a traditional villain. In The Poor of New York, Bloodgood
reforms at the end when Paul Fairweather promises not to put him in
jail if only he will return his father's money; the banker leaves the
stage in tears. And Byke gets off Scot free! Trafford promises not to
prosecute him for robbery and murder as long as Byke keeps silent
about the birth of Laura's half-cousin, Pear1, the real foundling of the
play. The ending of Gaslight endorses the social hypocrisy of the
To separate villainy from happenstance requires careful detec-
tive work in these plays. Myles-na-Coppaleen is the first to unravel
the web of accident and misunderstanding that led to the near
drowning of the Colleen Bawn. He hides Eily in his cottage and then
produces her at the climax of the show, foiling Corrigan's attempt to
arrest Hardress for the murder of his wife. Snorkey dogs Byke's trail
and discovers his Intention of murdering Laura and robbing Pear1 at
their country house--information that eventually results in the vUiain's
capture. The most perceptive and persevering of these proto-
detectives is Tom Badger, the reformed villain of The Poor of New
York. Intent in 1837 on blackmailing the banker Bloodgood for
absconding with Captain Fairweather's deposit in his bank (the Cap-
tain dies and Badger is the only other witness to the transaction),
Badger reforms after befriending Lucy Fairweather in 1857 and joins
the police department to gain justice for the Fairweather family. He
has carefully hidden the receipt proving Bloodgood's crime in a
rooming house. When Bloodgood sets fire to the premises to bum
up the evidence, Badger rushes into the burning building and
appears, receipt in hand, at an upper-story window-the sensation
moment of the play! In the final scene, he Interrupts the wedding of
Alida Bloodgood and Mark Livingstone (much as Myles stops the
marriage of Anne Chute to Hardress Cregan) and arrests the villain.
Significantly, contemporary reviewers singled out the actors
playing the two Boucicault proto-<letectives for special notice. Dion
himself played Myles and won this review from the Tribune: (He] dis-
plays alarming symptoms of a most capital talent for playing
Irishmen--a talent hitherto unsuspected and latent; he is excellent.
Boucicault's Myles-na-Coppaleen was the first of his many shrewd
and whimsical Irishmen to gain popular and critical acclaim.
Although the Herald thought Lester Wallack's Badger too fierce,
gruff, and melodramatic," the Times termed him excellent and fash-
ionable New Yorkers enjoyed the opportunity of watching Mr. Lester,
as he was known, in a role beyond his usual romantic lead line of
Wallack's and Boucicault's success in these roles Is not sur-
prising. Apart from their acting, the roles themselves are the
protagonists of each melodrama, since the heroes of each are too
self-divided and too ignorant to push to resolution the plots which
entangle them. Moreover, these detective-like characters, Snorkey
included, are shrewder than previous heroic protagonists, their suc-
cess depending as much on perceptive reasoning as on a strong will
and a good heart. Myles, Badger, and Snorkey are not Sherlock
Holmes, to be sure, but their vigilance and analytical ability mark
them as precursors of this later theatrical type. The need for a
rational specialist to analyze and bring order to an increasingly
illegible world is a significant departure from previous melodramatic
convention. Yet these plays, like most detective fiction, do not
explore the underlying causes of the social disorder their characters
confront; a specific crime may have an explanation, but the past is
made to seem largely accidental. As cultural historian Stephen
Knight states, "The crime and the resolution [of detective fiction] are
without history, without recurring roots. This powerful and fright-
eningly delusive notion is still with us that desocialized, unhistorical
understanding can, by deciphering isolated problems, resolve
them. 14 In previous types of melodrama, God-given Intuition or
heroic action in history, not an ahistorical skill in reasoning, were
typically more important in resolving the conflicts of the plot.
Since the proto-detectives of these plays are lower-class but
aligned to the bourgeoisie through friendship, their analytical skills
pose no threat to the class system. Indeed, by helping to solve the
mystery at the heart of each of these plays--who stole the Fair-
weather's money in 1837, what happened to the Colleen Bawn, and
who were Laura Courtland's parents?--they restore authenticity to the
hero and heroine. Their trials now over, the business-class couples
can finally relax and behave aqcording to their true feelings. Moral
transparency remains the goal of the bourgeoisie, but it takes role
playing and the assistance of a detective to achieve it.
Daly and Boucicault justified their new dramatic conventions-
the reconstruction of the hero and heroine, the reduction of the role
of the traditional villain, and the centrality of a detective-like character
in the plot--as more "natural" than those of previous plays. In articles
written in the late 1870s and early '80s, Boucicault proclaimed his
allegiance to the "drama of ordinary life" over unreal, poetic ... trans-
cendental drama. Daly, too, used the yardstick of "faithfulness to
nature to measure the "drama of everyday local life" against more
traditional plays like Virginius:
Judged by this standard, where [in nature) are the stilted and
Impossible declamations and allegories, fates, furies, and
divine machinery of the classic tragedies compared with the
easy flow of language, the natural and varied incidents in the
local scenes of modem plays?
In his newspaper reviews written in the 1860s, Daly even allowed that
"it is not impossible that the 'sensational melodrama' may sublime
itself to be tragedy . ... For both playwrights, however, such
bourgeois sublimity could not transcend an imitation of the material
world and remain believabfe.15
Performances of sensation melodramas served many of the
same social purposes for their business-class audiences in the 1850s
and '60s as practicing the new bourgeois code of manners. In mag-
azines, novels, and especially in the many manuals on etiquette pub-
lished after 1830, bourgeois moralists assured their mostly urban
readers that they could acquire, rehearse, and perfect the manners
of polite society. This advice literature was primarily directed at
readers new to business-class status--"for persons who had not the
advantages of polite learning in youth, but. . . (who now] find them-
selves possessed of wealth to command the luxuries and elegances
of society, but have not the polish to make themselves agreeable,
according to the 1856 Guide to Good Behavior. Following the
rationalistic basis of bourgeois culture, most etiquette books justified
the legitimacy of good manners on legalistic, contractual grounds.
Just as "no one questions the right" of people in a nation "to make
laws for themselves, noted an 1868 manual, so those in society have
"a perfect right to make laws which shall be binding upon all of its
members. The analogy was misleading, however: the arbiters of
respectability never intended that working-class men and women
exercise any vote on the "laws of polite society. As in sensation
melodrama, only those above the class line were capable of moral
The code of genteel manners not only kept the poor in their
place; it also relieved the respectable of having to accept
responsibility for social inequality. As Kasson asserts:
[The] apostles of civility battled for far bigger stakes than
how best to eat asparagus. Their enterprise must be viewed
within the larger concern of how to establish order and
authority in a restless, highly mobHe, rapidly urbanlzing and
industrializing democracy. Seeking to avokt overt _conflict,
they turned issues of class and social grievance back upon
the individual. They redefined issues of social conflict to
questions of personal governance, social propriety, and
'good taste.'
Within this framework, lower-class people simply dktn't know how to
behave themselves: They walked boldly and immodestly, used crude
expressions, and even laughed out loud in public. Unrespectable
workers exercised little of the physical and emotional self-control-
. what Kasson terms the psychological defense mechanisms of
repression, displacement, and denlal--of the bourgeoisie. No
wonder such people would never rise in the world! Although eti-
quette books did not define manual laborers as inferior by nature, the
fact that workers could learn proper behavior but didn't certainly sug-
gested some Inherent flaw. Like the division of labor in sensation
melodrama, the bourgeois code of behavior tended to naturalize the
class division in the Gilded Age. Some people were Intended for
head-work and heroics, others for hand-work and comic relief.17
Despite this separation, the mix of classes and the jostlings of
urban life led bourgeois men and women Into frequent embarrassing
situations in public. Further, the mandate of self-control generated
its own sense of social shame, simply because the difficulty of main-
taining it led to frequent lapses. The new advice books helped these
Hardress Cregans to diffuse the problem of an unrespectable spouse
and these Laura Courtlands to avoid the gaze of society Intent on
segregating us from ,hem. Etiquette is the machinery of society,
cooed one Miss Manners; It prevents the agony of uncertainty, and
soothes even when it cannot cure the pains of blushing bashfulness.
If one is certain of being correct, there Is little to be anxious about.
To avoid embarrassing oneself and others, these writers advised tact
and respect for the privacy of others. All rights and the exercise of
true politeness are contained in the homely maxim, ' MIND YOUR
OWN BUSINESS, stated an 1855 manual bluntly. Minding one's
own business conveniently excluded questions of social class from
polite society.
It also heightened anxieties about the authenticity of the self.
Earlier moralists had been concerned that the self-conscious per-
formance of good manners would undermine one's inner sincerity.
The newer writers of etiquette manuals assumed that one's identity
was little more than a succession of social roles and urged the
manipulation of the outer mask to alter inner feelings. Advised one:
An admirable method of controlling feeling is to maintain by effort
the serenity and suavity of the countenance. It Is Impossible for a
man to have a rage In his breast who has a smile on his
countenance. The arbiters of gentility, however, had no suggestions
for defusing the burden of repression necessary to keep the forced
smUe on the lips of the bourgeolsie.19
Sensation melodrama also generated fears about the unity
and cohesiveness of business-class identity, but it eased these bur-
dens by assuring its concerned audience that repression and role
playing would be rewarded in the end with a new alignment of inner
desire and outward repose. In this sense, its performance departed
from the immed late psycho-social consequences of business-class
manners, even as it prepared its spectators to endure the next round
of repression and On the other hand, the plays promised an
authenticity that their rhetoric denied. Male spectators especially
were encouraged to identify with characters who triumphed In the-
end by denying their inner feelings throughout their struggles.
Finally, neither the plays nor the etiquette offered the audience an
imaginative utopian alternative to the social and material realities of
the bourgeois world. In traditional melodrama, an active God had
often to insure a happy ending in the resolution of the plot.
By denying the possibility of such transcendence, sensation
melodrama left its spectators with no justifiable alternative to the
bourgeois construction of nature and propriety.
1 See, for example, Daniel Gerould, '7he Americanization of
Melodrama, in American Melodrama, ed. Daniel Gerould (New York:
Performing Arts Publications, 1983), 7-29; Robert Hogan, Dion
Boucicault (New York: Twayne, 1969), and Don B. Wilmeth and
Rosemary Cullen, Introduction, Plays by Augustin Daly, ed. Don B.
Wilmeth and Rosemary Cullen (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1984), 1-41.
2Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class:
Social Experience in the American City (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989), 74, combines the estimates of several other
historians to arrive at a figure of forty percent, but notes that it was
lower In New York and Philadelphia. Blumin makes a case for a
tripartite class division --working, middle, and upper classes --
emerging around midcentury. Ironically, most of the information he
presents suggests that the division between manual and non-manual
was more fundamental and pervasive by 1850 than the divide
between an elusive middle class and the elite. In this regard,
Michael B. Katz's distinction between class and strata is significant:
Class refers to the social relations deriving from the structures of pro-
duction while strata are distinctions within a class relating to dif-
ferences of income, ideology, etc. See Michael B. Katz, The People
of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in a Mid-Nineteenth
Century City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 44-93.
Also Katz, Michael J. Doucet, and Mark J. Stem, The Social Organi-
zation of Early Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1982). In this sense, clerks, foremen, and salesmen
were in the lower strata of the business class. Moralist quoted in
Blumin, 136.
3See The Poor of New York in American Melodrama, 31-74;
The Collen Bawn in Selected Plays of Dion Boucicault, ed. Andrew
Parkin, Irish Drama Selections, 4 (Washington, D.C. : Catholic
University Press, 1987), 191-255; and Under the Gaslight in American
Melodrama, 135-81. Act and scene citations for these melodramas
are noted in the text.
Some of the other sensation melodramas popular at
bourgeois theatres from 1855 to 1875 include: The Life of an Actress,
Pawrette, Jessie Brown, or the Relief of Lucknow, The Octoroon, or
Life in Louisiana, The Long Strike, After Dark: A Tale of London Life,
Formosa, or the Railroad to Ruin, Flying Scud, all by Boucicault; A
Flash of Lightning and Horizon, by Daly; plus The Sea of Ice
(anonymous), East Lynne, by Tayleure, Rosedale, or The Rifleman's
Ball, by Wallack, and Across the Continent, or Scenes from New
York Life and the Pacific Railroad, by McCloskey.
4See Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted
Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870
(New Haven:. Yale University Press, 1982) and John F. Kasson, Rude-
ness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1990). Kasson, 7.
5Aithough there are no true bourgeoisie in The Colleen
Bawn, the business-class audience would have identified the
Cregans as "one of us" since Hardress and his mother share the
bourgeois values of self-control and rationality, and they are attempt-
ing to preserve their respectability in the midst of hard times.
Boucicault's reading of bourgeois characters and concerns into the
past continued the transformation of history, largely begun by Walter
Scott, into the story of the rise of the bourgeoisie. On Boucicault's
Irish plays, see David Krause, The Profane Book of Irish Comedy
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 181-94.
son Freedley's books, see Rush Welter, The Mind of
America, 1820-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975),
160-62; Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man: On the Social
Psychology of Capitalism (New York: Random House, 1976), 138-39.
7See Blumin, 67-106, 149-86, 238, and 275-84. Rush Welter,
The Mind of America, 182D-1860 (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1975), notes that both political parties shared the national
predisposition to Increase individual wealth by any acceptable means
even if it meant sacrificing some of the scruples of the pasr (p. 129).
Regarding the urban elite, see Frederic Cople Jaher, The Urban
Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Charleston,
Chicago, and Los Angeles (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press,
1982), 44-87, 173-250, 336-99. In Jaher's account, the midcentury
elite of Boston and New York remained relatively open to amvistes in
part because it espoused the same bourgeois values as the rest of
the business class.
8Robert H. Wiebe, The Segmented Society: An Introduction
to the Meaning of America (New York: Oxford University Press,
1975), 66. Dale T. Knobel , Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and
Nationality in Antebellum America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan
University Press, 1986), 100, 68-103. Blumin concludes that -.he
Intensification of ethnic differentiation and Identification reinforced'
class boundaries (251).
9Uncoln quoted in Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free
Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 23. Wiebe, 323.
1 OGynecologist quoted in David G. Pugh, Sons of Liberty:
The Masculine Mind in Nineteenth Century America (Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1983), 72. John Frost, Daring and Heroic Deeds
of American Women (Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley, 1854), iv. On the
naturalization of women in the antebellum North, see Anne Norton,
Alternative Americas: A Reading of Antebellum Political Culture
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 55-58.
Harpers, 12 (1856), 557. On the construction of mas-
culinity in bourgeois culture, see John F. Kasson, Rudeness and
Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York:
Hill and Wang, 1990), and David Levernez, Manhood and the
American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 72-
2Courageous heroines were fairly common in English and
American melodramas after 1850. See Lynn Stiefel Hill, Heroes,
Heroines, and Villains in English and American Melodrama, 1850-
1900 (Ph.D. Diss., CUNY, 1981).

3New York Tribune (30 March 1860); Herald review quoted
in Odell, 7:22; The New Tork Times (10 December 1857). According
to Garff Wilson, A History of American Acting (Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press, 1966), Boucicault's stage Irishmen "mingled
tears and laughter, sentiment and shrewdness, in such a whimsical
engaging manner that his audiences were captivated" (166). Walsh
notes that "Lester Wallack . .. became the prime favorite of the town
through his popular performance of Tom Badger" (53).
14Stephen Knight, Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1980), 44. See also,
John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories
as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1976), 80-105.
15Dion Boucicault, "The Art of Dramatic Composition,
[1878], published posthumously by Arthur Edwin Krows (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1915), 1. Daly's reviews from the Citizen
(24 August 1867), and the Express (23 May 1866), both quoted by
Albert Asermely, "Daly's Initial Decade in the American Theatre, 1860-
1869," (Ph.D. Diss., CUNY, 1972), 148, 157. See also Boucicault, "The
Art of Acting, [1882), published posthumously (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1926). Boucicault's dramatic composition article
was apparently intended for The North American Review, but he
never comP'eted it.
16Kasson, 54, 60. Kasson focuses on the hegemonic results
of bourgeois etiquette: As he notes in his introduction, Codes of
behavior have often served in unacknowledged ways as checks
against a fully democratic order and in support of special interests,
institutions of privilege, and structures of domination" (3).
7Kasson, 62, 165.
18Kasson, 115, 116-17. Kasson notes that the injunction to
'mind your own business' propagated "an ideal of conduct that
bound together propriety, privacy, and property" (117). Sensation
melodrama worshipped this same trinity.
9Kasson, 150.
Milly S. BaiT8nger
In the 1940-41 Broadway season, Margaret Webster directed
Maurice Evans and Helen Hayes in Twelfth Night tor the Theatre
Guild. During rehearsals she received a new script titled Battle of
Angels by an unknown playwright with the "improbable name of
Tennessee Williams.
The Guild's producers, Lawrence Langner
and Theresa Helburn, had agreed to produce the script by the
unknown playwright and had signed film star Miriam Hopkins to play
the leading role of Myra Torrance prior to approaching Margaret -
Webster to direct the new play. They were also prepared to begin
rehearsals as soon as Twelfth Night opened on Broadway and Web-
ster became available.
In her autobiography, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage,
written in 1972, Webster expressed her early reservations about the
Why they [the Guild] should have thought of engaging a
young, English woman director who had never been farther
south than Washington to direct this work, I cannot imagine.
Perhaps it was because they thought (and so did I) that its
emotional, almost mystic quality was more important than
the local color and that the poetic prose in which it was writ-
ten called for a director who was at ease in the medium of
poetry. More probably it was just because I happened to be
on the spot. I read the play, and thought that it wasn't, and
never would be, a very good one, but that there was power
in it and some splendid, multicolored words, and I believed
the author would one day live up to his obvious potential
talent and write a real dazzler. I also thought the Theatre
Guild very brave to do it. So did they (pp. 6 5 ~ .
Thus, in the all too frequent haphazard ways of the American com-
mercial theatre, Margaret Webster became the first director of a full-
length play by Tennessee Williams. The premiere production of
Battle of Angels was a disaster from start to finish.
In the summer of 1939, at agent Audrey Wood's insistence,
Williams applied for a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He had tried to
survive in New York but finances forced him to return to St. Louis
where he corresponded with Wood and completed a "new long play."
He informed Wood that it might be his last since "his nerves could
not sustain the creative agony. 2 In December, Wood informed him
that he had won a Rockefeller Foundation writing fellowship in the
amount of one thousand dollars and by January 1940 Williams was
back in New York with a completed draft of the new script. Audrey
Wocx.J and Molly Day Thacher, a member of the administrative staff
for the Group Theatre who had been responsible for an award to WI-
liams in March of 1939 for a collection of one-act plays called
American Blues, espoused the cause of his new play to the Theatre
Guild. Noted critic and theatre historian, John Gassner, then an
administrator in the Guild's play reading department, liked the play
and offered Williams the opportunity (without charge) to take a
playwriting seminar at the New School for Social Research. There,
Williams studied with Gassner and Theresa HeJbum of the Theatre
Guild. WUiiams' one-act play, The Long Goodbye, was produced In
February of 1940 at the 'New School. At the time he was also revising
his new full-length play whose title he had changed from Something
Wild in the Country to Battle of Angels.
At age twenty-five, Williams submitted Battle of Angels to the
Theatre Guild, regarding it as no more than a 1irst draft." He then left
New York for Mexico but, according to biographer Donald Spoto (p.
85), got only as far as Memphis and his grandparents' house. In
earty May, the Theatre Guild optioned the play for one hundred dol-
lars. In his autobiography, The Magic Curtain, Langner wrote that he
read the play with considerable enthusiasm but hoped that "some
rewriting would straighten out its defects. 3 He and Theresa Helburn
agreed that WUiiams was "the most promising young playwright" they
had come across in a number of years (Langner, 331-32). Once the
option was signed, WUiiams naively thought that the play would be
immediately cast and put into production, so he returned
immediately to New York (Spoto, 87). This was not the case and Wil-
liams again struggled to survive in Manhattan. For one weekend in
June, he was a house guest of Lawrence Langner and his actress-
wife Armina Marshall at their farm in Weston, Connecticut. In his
memoirs Langner recorded that Williams was a "charming guest"
who used their small summer house to complete revisions on Battle
of Angels. He called Williams "a modest young man with a poet's
sensitivity, a gift of imagination and a feeling for trenchant dramatic
dialogue which reminded me of O'Neill .. ."(Langner, 332).
Williams was restless after finishing his "improvements" on the
script and traveled to Manhattan, then to Provincetown, and by mid-
September to Mexico. He later called that summer a "desperate
period ... Knowing almost nothing about the workings of the commer-
cial New York theatre and hearing nothing from the Guild, he
became convinced that the Theatre Guild had dropped its option on
his play (Spoto, 90-91 ). He returned to St. Louis from what he called
one of his vanishing trips to Mexico only to read In The New York
Times that the Guild was putting Battle of Angels Into rehearsal with
Margaret Webster directing and with Miriam Hopkins starring In the
part he had written with Tallulah Bankhead in mind (Spoto, 91). For
ten days Williams was in a panic of Inactivity. He realized that the
script he had sent the Guild was only a completed dratr' and that he
lacked the technical expertise to rewrite on demand for a commercial
production bound for Broadway (Spoto, 91). Five years later In the
preface to the published edition of Battle of Angels he confessed that
no man has ever written for the theatre with less foreknowledge of
it .
I had never been back-stage. I had not seen more than two
or three professional productions: touring companies that
passed through the South and Middle West. My conversion
to the theatre arrived as mysteriously as those Impulses that
enter the flesh at puberty. Suddenly I found that I had a
stage inside me: actors appeared out of nowhere; shaggy,
undisciplined mummers trooped out of the shadowy wings
and took the stage over. This cry of players had a gift for
Improvisation. . . . They could not wait for the lines to be set
Margaret Webster observed years later that everyone was deceived
by the maturity of the play into misjudging the immaturity of its
author (Daughter, 69). When confronted during rehearsals with
desperate demands for rewrites prior to the Boston tryout, according
to Webster's account, Williams would collapse into a routine of lying
down on the nearest piece of furniture, putting his feet up on
cushions and closing his eyes; thus shutting out a world for which he
was, as yet, wholly unprepared (Daughter, 69).
As soon as Twelfth Night opened, Webster, renowned for
staging Broadway productions of Shakespeare that starred Maurice
Evans, began preparations for her new assignment. Williams
undertook to Introduce Webster to the American South. They took a
t w o ~ y tour of the Mississippi Datta, the setting for the play. They
visited country stores and talked to local people. Williams described
her as looking a little punch-drunk, seeing just enough of this
extraordinary country and its people to make them more mysterious
than they were before (Pharos, 115). When they returned to New
York, Webster expressed feelings of dismay and exhaustion over the
experience. The people that Webster met had assumed that Wil-
liams' script would deal with racial issues and present sympathetic
portraits of themselves. The play did neither. Moreover, Webster
was exhausted from her efforts to absorb impressions of the region,
people, and accents within the short amount of time. She returned
with a large number of recordings of bird cries, the humming of cot-
ton mHis, noises of sawmills, the street cries of Southern hucksters,
wheelbarrows rattling around, and so forth (Langner, 332). At the
conclusion of the whirtwlnd trip, Webster recalled, "I had grown very
fond of this strange young man. Also I had acquired a perceptible
Southern accent (Daughter, 70).
At the time the Theatre Guild hired Miriam Hopkins to play
Myra Torrance, Webster had been immersed in rehearsing Twelfth
Night. When she turned to casting the remaining roles for Battle of
Angels, events took the first of many unfortunate turns. It seemed
Impossible to find an actor to play Val Xavier, the sensuous, snake-
jacketed Intruder. (The obvious choice, Marton Branda, would not
be discovered for seven years and then ironically for another Wil-
liams' play.) Ten days before the Boston opening and after three dif-
ferent leading men had been dismissed from the cast, the Guild's
producers decided to use Wesley Addy, who was then playing
Orsino In Twelfth Night; thus complicating matters with the necessity
to discover and rehearse his replacement In the Broadway cast.
To compound matters, Williams' play was technically very
complicated. It called for many sound and musical effects, Including
drums, guns, lightning and thunder, offstage pinball machines, wind,
rain, guitars, songs, and dogs howling. Moreover, the play ended
with what Webster called an apocalyptic blaze" of stage directions
that needed the resources of MGM, Wagner's fire music and Bern-
hardt to play the second (note, second) lead .. (Daughter, 70). Earty
in their collaboration an apocryphal voice in the Guild's offices had
asked, But how in the hell are we going to stage it?.. The question
has been attributed at different times to the director and to the
playwright as well. (Pharos, 114).
The job of staging Battle of Angels belonged to the Anglo-
American director renowned for bringing Shakespeare to Broadway.
Margaret Webster (1905-1972) was born in New York City, while her
parents were on tour, into the Webster family of four generations of
British actors. Her parents were Benjamin Webster Ill and Mary
Louise (Dame May Whitty) Webster. Margaret \Peggy") Webster
studied at London's Etlinger Dramatic School In the 1920s and
began her stage career as a minor actor in Sybil Thorndike and
Lewis Casson's production of The Trojan Women and in John Bar-
rymore's Hamlet in London's West End. She played as a permanent
company member with the Oxford Players, the Ben Greet
Shakespeare Company, and the Old Vic company under the direc-
tion of Harcourt Williams. In 1934 she began her directing career
with Henry VIII and in 1937 made her Broadway debut directing
Maurice Evans in Richard II. In 1938 and 1939, she directed Evans on
Broadway in an uncut version of Hamlet and as Falstaff in Henry N,
Part I; performed in the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne Broadway
production of The Sea Gull with Uta Hagen making her professional
debut; worked briefly for Paramount Pictures; and directed three new
plays on Broadway. By 1940, Twelfth Night with Maurice Evans and
Helen Hayes was another successful Broadway venture for Webster
and her first association with the Theatre Guild as a director. Her
second association was the HI-fated Battle of Angels.
Early in the process of directing the premiere production of a
new play by an author who within five years was to be called the new
Eugene O'NeUI, Webster's frustrations with the Guild's producers, the
playwright, the cast, and the script became clear. She wrote In her
So there we were, the classic Broadway setup: author, direc-
tor, producers, star, all unknown quantities to each other; a
delicate, Intricate, physically complex play; a not very satis-
factory cast; and no time flat In which to blend these ele-
ments together (Daughter, 70).
Williams himself described his play as a mixture of Intense
religiosity and hysterical sexuality."5 Myra Torrance is trapped in a
loveless marriage to an older man who is dying of cancer. Into her
life comes the virile, itinerant poet Val Xavier. He is hired to work in
their dry-goods store and creates havoc in the small Southern town.
All the women of the community are attracted to him; their husbands
are predisposed to dislike sensual intruders. Besides Myra's atten-
tions, Val copes with the sexually-obsessed Cassandra Whiteside,
and with the repressed sexual hysteric Vee Talbot, a painter and reli-
gious eccentric who is also the wife of the local sheriff. Val and Myra
become lovers and she becomes pregnant. Her husband discovers
these twin facts and in an act of revenge announces that he killed
Myra's father years earlier. The play ends in multiple acts of
violence: Jabe Torrance shoots Myra, Val is hanged and his body
set afire by the sheriff's posse, and the store burns down In an
apocalyptic blaze of sacrifice and retribution.
Melodramatic and congested with Christian symbolism,
Dionysian myth, and Freudian motifs, Battle of Angels introduced
Williams' impassioned themes: living as a passionate celebration of
life, the belief that sex and art are expressions of the soul, the
inevitability of sexual tensions and jealousies, the necessity of
sacrifice and atonement, the eternal struggle between truth and
mendacity, and the desire for freedom and constant flight. ("You and
me," says Cassandra Whiteside to the hapless drifter Val Xavier,
"belong to the fugitive kind. We live on motion .. . . Nothing but
motion, motion, mHe after mile, keeping up with the wind, or even
faster. ")6 At the same time, the play contains a recognizable
dramatic method through which these concerns will be more
maturely treated in the later plays: naturalistic dialogue penetrated
with poetic diction, the clashing of impassioned central characters, a
pervasive sense of humor, and technical Innovations. Of Immediate
concern to the producers, director, and cast were the mammoth
technical demands of Williams' script that required a great fire to
consume the entire stage setting at the end.
In the New York rehearsals in November of 1940, prior to the
Boston tryout, chaos reigned. Margaret Webster lacked confidence
in the Theatre Guild's earty decisions. She described the GuUd's offi-
cials as masters of miscasting and their collective Indecision made
auditions a nightmare for director and actors alike (Daughter, 68).
She was also confronting a star, Miriam Hopkins, whom she knew
only from seeing her In films and an unknown playwright whom
none of us had so much as set eyes on (Daughter, 69).
The producers arranged for the three to meet In Miriam Hop-
kins' suite at the Ambassador Hotel in New York City. As Webster
tells the story, she arrived first, introduced herself, and began dis-
cussing the play with the actress. Three-quarters of an hour later, the
author arrived. Webster described him as a short, sturdy young
man with crew-cut hair, pebble-thick glasses and an even thicker
Southern accent, dressed In a shabby corduroy jacket and muddy
riding boots.
He greeted us amiably; Miriam said she hoped he had
enjoyed his ride; he replied that he never went riding but that
he liked the boots. He then sat down on the spotless yellow
satin chaise-lounge and put them up on it. We started to talk
about the play; he didn't seem much interested; once, when
Miriam became a little vehement, he prefaced his reply with
As far as I can gather from all this hysteria . . . (Daughter,
This was not an auspicious beginning for a new playwright with his
key collaborators. What was mistaken as haughtiness and incivility
was, in fact, sheer terror on Williams' part. Webster herself admitted
that "we should have realized that he was, in fact, stupefied by the
maelstrom of the Broadway theatre into which he had been flung
quite suddenly and unexpectedly" (Daughter, 69).
In Boston before opening-night, matters reached new heights
of frustration and nerves. Miriam Hopkins, who had invested in the
show in order to secure her return to Broadway, became increasingly
uncertain about the merits of the script and about her role. Webster
described Hopkins' growing insecurities as she darted about the
General Store, picking up the rehearsal properties, waving them
about, and then putting them down in the wrong places. At certain
points in rehearsal she would stop her frantic movements about the
stage to moan that the ending would never work and the other girt's
(actress Doris Dudley as Cassandra) long speech must be cut. With
only ten rehearsal days, Wesley Addy worried maJnly about leamlng
his lines before opening night. The stage technicians and the direc-
tor worried about the conflagration called for at the end d the last
act. And the playwright worried alternately about his play and his
draft status. Wiliams kept losing his draft card about the theatre and
the janitorial staff kept retrieving It from beneath the theatre seats.
Webster remarked that his concern for his draft status was a -wasted
worry": "His eyesight was such that he couldn't have told an enemy
soldier from a friendly n ~ (Daughter, 71 ). WUIIams eventually con-
fessect to Webster that if he could get away from the "dervish frenzy-
of the rehearsals and Miriam Hopkins' pleas to "do something I, he
could rewrite the script, but not under the current circumstances. At
last I went to Peggy and told her exactly how unable I was to cope
with the emergency. 'It is too late,' I said, 'I c n ~ do anything any
more! If I could get away from all of you for a month--1 could return-
with a new script. But that is not possible, so you wll just have to
take what there Is and do what you can with Itt (Pharos, 117).
Webster's temperament and directorial style ranged from
being outwardly irritated by the playwright's obstinacy to soothingly
maternal with her new cub. Though she later admitted that she was
not wholly convinced by her own words, Webster told Tennessee
Williams at one point "to stop worrying!": -rhe last speech would
work, the store would burn down, and all manner of things would be
well" (Daughter, 71 ). The day before the Boston opening, Williams
wrote a new last scene, but it was too late to incorporate the
changes. In the final dress rehearsal, even the general store
obstinately refused to "catch fire"--a prelude to the audience's fatal
response to the play on opening-night. To make matters worse,
Webster jumped off the stage at one point and caught her ankle in a
folding chair. She cried out and Miriam Hopkins screamed as if the
sky had fallen. The jangled nerves were mere prelude to the emo-
tional trauma of opening-night.
On 30 December 1940 at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, Ten-
nessee Williams' first full-length play opened for a two-week tryout
and closed there on 11 January 1941. The opening-night audience
was made up of the Theatre Guild's Boston subscribers described by
Webster as a "faithful body of supporters heartily detested by the
entire theatrical profession for their stuffy sit-on-your-hands supe-
riority" (Daughter, 72). As the ~ y progressed on that '1ateful open-
ing night, Langner described the staid Bostonian audience as
"shrieking with laughter" whenever Miriam Hopkins, whose "husband
lay paralyzed upstairs and who knocked on the floor with a cane,
said to "her crude lover from the swamps of Louisiana": Meet me in
the back room-- (Langner, 332). In Webster's account of the eve-
ning, the opening-night audience got their just deserts. As the action
concerning the visionary portrait of Jesus Christ with the face of Val
Xavier came to the audience's attention, they began to talk among
themselves in sibilant whispers punctuated by the banging of seats
and the swish of garments hurrying up the aisle. several minutes
before the final curtain, Webster confided, -wisps of evil-smelling
smoke began to drift onto the stage. The audience started to
whisper, to shuffle, to cough (Daughter, 72) . To compensate for
their failure to create a convincing fire during the final dress
rehearsal, the stagehands operating the smoke pots sent billows of
black smoke rolling onto the stage and coOing over the footlights. It
was like the burning of Rome, WUiiams said (Pharos, 120). The dis-
aster of a panicked audience was averted by a sudden outburst of
red spotlights, crashing breakaway beams and billows of sulphurous
fumes, all far too theatrical to be true. The first six rows were
asphyxiated, the rest fainted or fleet, Webster observed (Daughter,
72). '
While the Boston reviewers were not encouraging, they were
not as adamant as the Boston CouncU, which condemned the play
as immoral and threatened to close it. The reviewer for the Boston
Post wrote that atthough New Year's Eve was still some twenty-four
hours away, many in the audience wondered if the happenings on
the stage were not the aftermath of the glorious celebration in the
imaginative brain of a genius who celebrated gaily but a little too well
and was removed for quiet to the famous ward at the Bellevue Hospi-
tat.7 The critic for the Boston Daily Globe felt that the play gave the
audience the sensation of being dunked in mire. a Only Elliot
Norton was persuaded of the writer's merits. In his article, 'Battle of
Angels' A Defeat But No Disaster published in the Boston Sunday
Post on 12 January 1941, Norton remarked:
Mr. Tennessee Williams need not consider his lost battle as a
decisive defeat. It is true that he was guilty of errors in
craftsmanship and was also guilty of errors of taste. . . . If he
can learn more of the practical side of playwriting, can keep
his heart in the right place and his head clear of rubbish; if he
can learn to walk with the theatre's craftsmen, he may find
himself riding the clouds with the theatre's dramatists. His
talent is most interesting.
The Guild's producers decided to close the play after the
Boston run. Langner and Helburn "felt that a continuation of the pro-
duction with the people involved would merely produce further
hysteria without solving problems. Langner added:
We also felt that the play needed some recasting as well as
rewriting, so we reluctantly withdrew it, but I sent the scenery
to Westport where It was stored at my Playhouse pending
Tennessee's revisions. When these revisions finally came In,
they obviously did not solve the problem, and were dis-
carded by him in the printed version of the play (Langner,
Williams' version of events was somewhat different: He was sum-
moned to a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He and Audrey Wood had
breakfast together before the conference, and, as they walked across
the commons, they came upon a small boy with a cap pistol. At the
sudden popping sound from the toy gun, Williams shouted gleefully,
"It's the GuUd. They're after me!..g
Present at the meeting were Margaret Webster, Theresa Hel-
burn, and Lawrence Langner. When he was told that the Guild was
closing the play, WUiiams cried out, "Oh, but you can't do thatl Why,
I put my heart in this play." Webster spoke up after an embarrassed -
pause: "You must not wear your heart on your sleeve for daws to
peck at.10
The Guild apologized to their Boston subscribers In a letter
dated 20 January 1941. Expressing regret at the play's failure and
the unfortunate publicity by the Boston censors, the Guild's pro-
ducers defended their choice of Battle of Angels based on the
playwright' s genuine poetic gifts" and insights into a "particular
American scene." Moreover, they argued, that Williams' treatment of
Myra's religious obsession was a sincere and honest attempt to pre-
sent a true psychological picture" and not deserving of the censors'
outcry. They asked for their subscribers' indulgence of their efforts
to bring new authors into the American theatre and reminded them
that WUiiam Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Time of Your
Life, was also badly received in Boston. Finally, they concluded:
"Battle of Angels turned out badly, but who knows whether the next
one by the same author may not prove a success?" (Dictionary, 45).
Had the GuHd's producers known that the "next one would be The
Glass Menagerie, they might have kept their novice playwright under
contract. Instead, Lawrence Langner gave Tennessee Williams one
hundred dollars and told him to rewrite his play and resubmit it at a
later time. He went to Key West and eventually revised the embattled
script as Orpheus Descending, which was produced on Broadway in
1957 with Maureen Stapleton and again in 1989 with Vanessa
Redgrave. First, he wrote an autobiographical play, called The Glass
Menagerie, about himself, his mother, and sister in St. Louis, which
made him famous at age thirty-three.
Tennessee Williams was not the only "promising young
playwright to slip through the Theatre Guild's fingers during the
1940s. Another of Theresa Helburn's young proteges, Arthur Miller,
discovered through her Bureau of New Plays in 1937, selected other
producers for All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. Lawrence
Langner dismissed the Guild's loss of two major writers, WUiiams and
Miller, as "unfortunate": ... it was left for others to reap the harvest we
had begun to sow" (Langner, 333).
According to Webster's account of the Boston debacle, no
one Involved with Battle of Angels had anticipated the virulent public
response--the outraged Puritan morality-of the Boston audience and
city officials. Williams himself was taken by surprise and shaken. "It
seemed to me; he said, that if Battle of Angels was nothing else, it
was certainly clean, it was certainly idealistic (Pharos, 116). He
I knew, of course, that I had written a play that touched upon
human longings, about the sometimes conflicting desires of
the flesh and spirit. This struggle was thematic; implicit in
the title of the 'play. Why had I never dreamed that such
struggles could strike many people as filthy and seem to
them unfit for articulation? . .. The very experience of writing
it was like taking a bath in snow" (Pharos, 116-117.)
Despite the author's protests, the members of Boston's City Council
denounced the play as "putrid, a crime, and "dirty. Outraged at
the suggestion that she was performing in a "dirty play," Miriam Hop-
kins recommended to the press that the City Council "should be
flung Into your Boston harbor, the way the tea once was:11 The
members of the Council who had seen the play (not all had) detected
only that a middle-aged female religious hysteric painted a picture of
Jesus with the face of "Val" and heard only Miriam Hopkins' lines
spoken to him, "I can feel the weight of your body bearing me back-
wards." In the imaginations of Boston's city fathers, words became
As a compromise to all the sound and fury, the Guild's
management agreed to take a few "objectionable" lines out of the
play (Boston Post, 1 ,8) . Williams continued to defend his play as "a
serious treatment of sex and love.
2 Commenting in a 1978 Partisan
Review interview on the failure of Battle of Angels, Williams said, "The
audience didn't like it, the critics said it was dirty, and at least one
official said that I should have been run out of town for having written
it" (p. 279).
At the play's demise, Margaret Webster expressed concern
over the playwright's future. "Nothing whatever in this whole experi-
ence would have encouraged the author to go on writing for the
stage; and it was that which troubled me most. But Tennessee loved
this play and he had too much guts to abandon it" (Daughter, 72).
With remarkable tenacity in the face of a theatrical flop, Ten-
nessee Williams stuck to the theatre and to writing plays. In 1940,
the success of The Glass Menagerie was five years Into his future
and A Streetcar Named Desire seven years away. However, Webster
brooded over the possible loss of a talented writer to the American
theatre. In an effort to ameliorate the potential personal and artistic
damage to the young writer, she contributed a note to the published
edition of Battle of Angels in 1945. She wrote, 'The American profes-
sional theatre is a hard racket. Some are born to it, some achieve it,
and some young poets from Mississippi have it thrust upon them . ..
. She continued,
It is surely a sign of health that so many people, the most
unexpected people too, were united In their feeling that
Battle of Angels should be seen on the American stage: a
commercial management, a film star ready to leave the
lotuses of Hollywood, a number of distinguished actors with
a living to earn and much easier ways of earning It available.
Looking back I think we made a mess of It between us, and.
that it was nobody's fault and everybody's fault We dk:t not
capture the rainbow and translate it into the exacting terms
of physical stage production .... We had not made the
alchemist's elusive formula work, the ingredients were not
right, or were not rightly blended. I hope this does not mat-
ter. I believe It would only matter if any of us were deterred
fr t
. . 13
om ry1ng agatn. . . . .
In private, Webster concluded that the play in its original ver-
sion could not have been saved. The talent comes winging
through--the hallmarks we all later came to know so well are there,
she said, but the weaknesses are too great and the ending has an
almost endearing absurdity- (Daughter, 74) . She acknowledged that
Tennessee WHiiams was eventually to get all the breaks In the com-
mercial theatre that his talent deserved: the magical Laurette Taylor
for The Glass Menagerie; the ideal director and designer, Ella Kazan
and Jo Mielziner, for A Streetcar Named Desire; and Marion Brando,
the actor born to play Val Xavier and Stanley Kowalski. sut all of
them put together: she concl uded, plus a hundred dedicated
firebugs, couldn't have won that battle of angels (Daughter, 74).
The dosing of the curtain on Battle of Angels was not the end
of the ill-fated story. On 6 January 1941 , Warren Munsell, the Theatre
Guild's business manager, wrote to Margaret Webster suggesting
that in view of the Guild's losses on Battle of Angels and the show's
closing, which made It unnecessary for her to work on a Broadway
opening, that she should forego the final payment of her director's
fee in the amount of five hundred dollars.
Webster responded with an unqualified refusal, pointi ng out
that she had attempted in the initial stages of contract negotiations
with Theresa Hal bum to get the GuUd to agree to a smaller director's
fee and a larger percentage of the gross, which would have been a
more favorable contractual arrangement for the Guild were the play
to have a Broadway run. Webster mollified her stance by suggesting
that she would forego the percentages due her on the two weeks of
the Boston run. It seems that once the disappointing reviews came
out, the Guild's prcx:Jucers abandoned the show In Boston for the
duration of its run. Webster, who had a previous commitment to give
a lecture in Minneapolis had returned to Boston to find that there was
no one from the Guild office to deal with the emerging censorship
issue and with the press. Webster's moral and artistic outrage
emerged In her response to Warren Munsell in which she said that for
the sake of the show's people, someone In authority should have
been present at the play's death.14
Theresa Helburn's response finally ended this battle of
angels. She maintained that the Guild's suggestion to reduce Web-
ster's fee was based on special considerations, among them the
reduction of the amount of time that Webster had originally planned
to spend on the prcx:Juction (since it did not reach Broadway). Hel-
burn also justified the Guild's turning its back on the censorship
crisis. Experiencing censorship problems in Boston before, they had
found, she reasoned, that the less said by the Guild in the press the
less time the repercussions lastec.t.
5 Perhaps more important was
the fact that Langner and Helburn were engaged In opening another
production, Liberty Jones, In New Haven. Helburn instructed
Munsell not to accept Webster's offer to refund her earnings on the
two-week Boston run and this seemed to be the end of the affair,
though not quite.
Theresa Helburn's autobiography, A Wayward Quest, describ-
ing her years with the Theatre Guild, was published in 1960, a year
after her death. Nowhere does she mention Margaret Webster, who
in 1942 directed the Guild's internationally-renowned production of
Othello, starring Paul Robeson, Jose Ferrer, Uta Hagen, and herself.
Nor does Helbum refer to the Guild's producing of the premiere pro-
duction of a full-length play by Tennessee Williams, though by 1960
WUiiams had written twelve plays that had reached Broadway, includ-
ing The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and
Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last
Summer, and Sweet Bird of Youth. There are two passing mentions
of Tennessee Williams as one of fifteen promising new writers discov-
ered by the Guild. Lawrence Langner was not quite so negligent in
his autobiography. Regarding the Guild's employment of Margaret
Webster at a time George Jean Nathan had called her the best
director of the plays of Shakespeare that we have, "
6 Langner wrote,
Margaret Webster was engaged to direct the play. As her knowl-
edge of the South of England was far superior to her knowledge of
the South of the United States, we sent her on a visit to Tennessee
[sic], and she returned brimming over with local color" (Langner,
~ ~ . .
In the season following the Battle of Angels fiasco (1941-42),
the Guild's producers Ignored Margaret Webster and engaged Eva
Le Gallienne, "whose ability and integrity we both admired, Langner
wrote, to direct their revivals of older plays, being no particu-
larly good new plays on the horizon (Langner, 334). They joined a
year later the Webster-Robeson production team to produce Othello
on Broadway with Paul Robeson in a "miraculous performance as the
jealous Moor, opening on 19 October 1943 in the GuUd's twenty-
sixth season (Langner, ~ 1 . Running for 296 performances, Othello
established the American record for a Shakespearean play on Broad-
way. This was Margaret Webster's last association with the Theatre
Guild for eight years and Battle of Angels was her singular out-of-
town failure as a director of a new play scheduled for Broadway.
The battle of angels" over Tennessee Williams' first full-length
play brought out the best and the worst in those associated with the
ill-fated production. Though not to be associated with his work
again, Margaret Webster defended the young author's right to be
heard in the marketplace of the commercial theatre. -rhere must be
a place for poetic drama by a dramatist more recent than
Shakespeare, she wrote, "despite the fact he may not be quite as
good" (Pharos, 122). Within four years Williams was to emerge as
America's premier playwright. The Glass Menagerie followed by A
Streetcar Named Desire thrust him into the annals of American stage
history and Battle of Angels became a mere footnote in the story of
Tennessee Williams' extraordinary career.
Margaret Webster, on the other hand, was nearing the apex of
her career as America's foremost director of Shakespeare. Although
Elliot Norton was critical of her staging of Battle of Angels as
"altogether too arty and consequently confused" (Dictionary, 47),
British director, Peter Hall, was to prove her Instincts correct forty-
nine years later. In 1989, he staged Orpheus Descending with sur-
realistic lighting, erotic choreography, and arias of lyrical dialogue
spoken directly to the audience.
Following the Boston closing of Battle of Angels, Webster
turned next to directing Othello and The Tempest for Broadway
along with two contemporary plays on war themes, Flare Path and
Counterattack, and co-founded the American Repertory Theatre with
Eva Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford. After the fiasco of Battle of
Angels, she was never again to cross paths with the young
playwright from Mississippi with the improbable name of "Tennes-
Sources Cited
Brown, Cecil. "Interview with Tennessee WHiiams. The Partisan
Review 45 (1978): 276-305.
Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Ed. Albert J. Devlin. Jack-
son: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.
Helbum, Theresa. A Wayward Quest: The Autobiography of Theresa
He/burn. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1960.
Langner, Lawrence. The Magic Curtain: The Story of a Life in Two
Fields, Theatre and Invention. New York: Dutton, 1951.
Letters found in the Theatre Guild Collection, The Beinecke Rare
Book and Manuscript Ubrary, Yale University, New Haven.
"Margaret Webster. Current Biography 1950. New York: H.W. WH-
son Company, 1950. 604-ro6.
"Miriam Hopkins at Wilbur: 'Battle of Angels' Is Full of Exciting
Episodes. Boston Post, 31 December 1940.
Norton, Elliot. "'Battle Of Angels' A Defeat But No Disaster. Boston
Sunday Post, 12 January 1941.
"Play Must Have Unes Taken Out. Boston Post, 7 January 1941.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee
Williams. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1985.
Tennessee Williams. Dictionary of Literary Biography:
Documentary Series Vol. 4. Eds. Margaret A. Van Antwerp
and Sally Johns. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984.
Webster, Margaret. Don't Put your Daughter on the Stage. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.
__ . . "A Note on 'Battle of Angels. Pharos, 1-2 (Spring 1945): 122-
Williams, Alexander. "Miriam Hopkins Opens in Theatre Guild's New
Drama: The Boston Herald, 31 December 1940.
Williams, Dakin and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An
Intimate Biography. New York: Arbor House Publishing
Company, 1983.
Williams, Tennessee. Battle of Angels in The Theatre of Tennessee
Williams. Vol. 1. New York: New Directions Books, 1971. 4-
122 .
. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1975.
. "The History of a Play (with Parentheses) ." Pharos, 1-2
1945): 110-120.
-----:-: "The Past, Present, and Perhaps. The New York Times,
. survival Notes: A Journal. Esquire Magazine (Septem-
-----:-ber 1971): 130-35.
Wood, Audrey with Max Wilk. Represented by Audrey Wood. New
York: Doubleday & Company, 1981.
The World of Tennessee Williams. Ed. Richard F. Leavitt. New York:
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.
Margaret Webster, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 64. Subsequent references to
this book are in the text.
2DonaJd Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The LHe of Ten-
nessee Williams (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1985), 85. Sub-
sequent references to this book are in the text.
3L.awrence Langner, The Magic Curtain: The Story of a Lffe
in Two Fields, Theatre and Invention (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1951),
331. Subsequent references to this book are In the text
Tennessee Williams, The History of a Play (with
Parentheses); Pharos, 1-2 (Spring 1945), 110.
scecil Brown, Interview with Tennessee Williams, The
Partisan Review, 45 {1978), 279.
6'fennessee Williams, Battle of Angels In The Theatre of Ten- -
nessee Williams, V ~ 1 (New York: New Directions, 1971), 97.
Miriam Hopkins at Wilbur: 'Battle of Angels' Is Full of Excit-
ing Episodes, Boston Post 31 December 1940,8
8Dictionary of Literary Biography: Documentary Series, Vcj.
4, eds. Margaret A. Van Antwerp and Sally Johns (Detroit: Gale
Research Company, 1984), 42.
9Audrey Wood with Max Wilk, Represented by Audrey Wood
(New York: Doubleday & Company, 1981), 136.
0fennessee Williams, survival Notes: A Journal, Esquire
Magazine (September 1971), 133.
11p1ay Must Have Unes Taken Out, Boston Post 7 January
1941: 8.
12Aibert J. Devlin, Conversations with Tennessee Williams
(Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 7.
13Margaret Webster, A Note on 'Battle of Angels,' Pharos,
1-2 (Spring 1945), 122-23.
14Letter to Warren Munsell (undated), written by Margaret
Webster, In The Theatre Guild Collection, The Beinecke Rare Book
and Manuscript Ubrary, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
5Letter to Margaret Webster, dated 1 January 1941, In The
Theatre Guild Collection, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript
Ubrary, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
16Margaret Webster, Current Biography 1950 (New York:
H.W. Wilson Company, 1950), 605.
Karen C. Blansfield
On the evening of 14 April 1936, thousands of people jammed
the streets around the Lafayette Theatre In New York for the spec-
tacular premiere of Orson Welles's voodoo Macbeth. Elegant
theatre-goers swarmed the entrance while newsreel cameras rolled
and a full-dress brass band blared. In a scene swept by floocllights
and charged with excitement, mounted policemen struggled to keep
order, and traffic ground to a standstill for blocks. This dramatic
opening night has become as legendary as the play Itself, which was
a directorial coup for the nineteen-year-old Welles and a triumph for
the New York Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project.
As the third production of the FTP's Har1em group and its first
classical undertaking, the 'Voodoo Macbeth proved to be one of the
most notable and successful of all Federal Theatre ventures. It also
marked an important episode in black drama, in a movement that
had already generated new opportunities for black theatre. Accord-
ing to John Houseman (and it may be true), the Director of the Negro
Theatre Project and Managing Producer for Macbeth, this was ,he
first full-scale, professional Negro Shakespearean production in
theatrical history.
To launch an all-black version of Shakespeare at
a time when black actors were not seriously regarded and black
drama had not yet come into its own was provocative indeed. But the
voodoo Macbeth did more than that: It undertook a bold experi-
ment integrating black heritage with a revered Western classic,
transplanting the action to a locale more closely akin to Negro
heritage and incorporating artistic elements reflecting black culture.
From its inception and casting, through its stylization and structure,
and even to its national reception, Macbeth was shaped and defined
by its racial spirit. The fact that this was a Negro production
influenced the choice and design of the play, the music and dialect,
and the costuming and lighting, not to mention critical response.
Acknowledging these dimensions is vital to a full appreciation of what
Jean Cocteau once called a strange and wonderful spectacte. 2
According to Federal Theatre director Hallie Flanagan, the
idea of a Negro unit originated with actress Rose McClendon, who
also advised that a white director be appointed to work with her.3
McClendon felt that since Negroes had always been performerS and
had had no previous means of learning direction and design, they
should have some experienced direction, and she recommended
Houseman for the job (Flanagan, 63). McClendon herself though,
sick with cancer, died a few months later, leaving Houseman to head
the Harlem unit alone. At the suggestion of Virgil Thomson,
Houseman divided the theatre Into two sections, one devoted to
plays on contemporary Negro subjects, the other focusing on classi-
cal works. This structure was designed to address the crucial prob-
lem of stereotyping that plagued black performers. They were largely
excluded from Hollywood and Broadway, relegated to the standard
staple of minstrel shows, melodramas, musicals, and vaudevUie. The
lack of decent plays by or about blacks exacerbated this situation,
and Houseman felt that "the old 'stock' pattern of performing recent
Broadway hits with Negro casts was undesirable, if not downright
offensive, as was "the revival of such celebrated Negro successes as
The Emperor Jones, In Abraham's Bosom, All God's Chillun, or even
Porgy, which Har1em audiences had applauded downtown but would
resent on the stage of their own community theatre (Houseman,
183-84). The classical wing of the Harlem unit offered blacks an
opportunity to escape these restrictions and perform serious drama,
to prove they could discard the bandanna and burnt cork casting
and play universal characters. 4
To assist in these productions, Houseman appointed Orson
Welles, whose passion for Shakespeare and theatricality was a
potent and promising mixture. Welles's selection of Macbeth as the
initial offering seems practical, since it is one of Shakespeare's most
popular and accessible as well as shorter tragedies. But it also
reflects his own obsession with the dangers of power and the
ruinous effects of corruption and evH, and in exploiting this fascina-
tion, Welles fashioned an innovative production tailored to the talents
and makeup of his cast
The idea of a Macbeth set in Haiti with
voodoo priestesses--the inspiration of Welles's wife, Virginia--could
hardly have been devised with a white cast in mind, and the jungle
environment and supernatural dimension deepen the sense of Negro
heritage. 6 As scholar La Tourette StockweU points out, Welles seems
to have chosen this locale with the hope of providing a setting to
which the Negro company would appear indigenous and one which
would aid in presenting the supernatural elements of the play as an
integral part of the action rather than as a necessary, but embarrass-
ing, anachronism.
Welles himself described the setting as just a
mythical place which, because our company is composed of
Negroes, may be anywhere in the West Indies . ..a Instead of staging a
conventional production with black actors playing Scottish charac-
ters, Welles transformed it into a jungle tragedy of black ambition
while indulging his own zest for lush spectacle (Flanagan, 74). The
result was a Macbeth that was far more than a Shakespearean per-
formance by a black cast: It was an interpretation shaped and
defined by the Negro spirit. "This is pure theatre--Negro Theatre,"
wrote editor Pierre de Rohan in the Federal Theatre Magazine, "the
kind that is instinctive and inspired."9 Grenville Vernon in The Com-
monweal observed that "Negro actors cannot be made to appear as
Scots, and after all Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' is no more Scotch in
essence than is 'Hamlet' Danish,"
0 while John O'Connor notes that
"this production may have delved more deeply into race revolution
than the white critics perceived.11
Placing the production on a remote island of the West Indies
made the Idea of a voodoo spectacle natural enough. As Virgil Thom-
son, musical director for the production, explained, once Welles had
decided "to play it in a historically black circumstance which was like
Haiti in the time of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the next step s instead
of Scottish blasted heaths for the witches, we had Voodoo in the
jungle".12 But this startling shift In locale posed some problems, art-
istic and cultural. For one thing, the characters of Macbeth, with his
crippled moral sensibility, and his icy, power-hungry wife seem
incongruous in this exotic setting. The mannerisms, values, attitudes,
and even language of a feudal Scotland are not consistent with the
West Indies culture, nor is Macbeth's conscience-haunted outlook.
As Stockwell observes, "There is a stark bleakness about Macbeth
which only a northern climate could produce, while the intellectually
driven ruthless ambition of Lady Macbeth is of a kind which I, at
least, never associate with the Negro character (Stockwell, 183).
Welles of course recognized this dilemma, as his sweeping revisions
and truncations of text prove. He circumvented the difficulty partially
by making Macbeth the pawn of evil forces rather than a man strug-
gling with his conscience, an individual who, like Brutus Jones or
Faustus, surrenders his soul to the powers of darkness. Lady Mac-
beth too becomes more passive and less manipulative, not nearly so
wicked or aggressive as her predecessor.14
These script changes created their own problems, for by
emphasizing the primitive and supernatural aspects of the tale and
stripping it of intellectual content, Welles could be charged with per-
petrating the very image of the exotic Negro that the FTP purported
to reject. Certainly that concern helped provoke the undercurrent of
suspicion that permeated the black community of Harlem in the days
and weeks before the play opened--a community that had only
grudgingly accepted the appointment of a white man as director of
the Negro unit and that now feared that the upcoming production
would lampoon the race with a Macbeth in blackface farce.
5 "The
community was fascinated but wary," Houseman reported; "some
thought this Shakespearean venture a white man's scheme
deliberately hatched to degrade the Negro and bring the Theater
Project into disrepute" (Houseman, 185). The Harlem Communists
were particularty angry, feeling that Welles "had come uptown to do a
black travesty of Macbeth" and charging him with "white
6 Welles reported that they continually picketed the
theatre during rehearsals. -rhey were disturbed at the idea that I was
doing Shakespeare because they were sure It was going to be funny
Shakespeare--and they wouldn't listen when I said we weren't,
Welles recalled. "So the black Communist Party, which was very
strongly organized, hell all the time" (Learning, 104). Given
the widespread unemployment of black actors and their difficulty In
securing respectable roles, such trepidation was warranted, though
the production ultimately dispelled most doubts. Whitman points out
that while "some serious-minded Negroes" derided the 'voodoo'
Macbeth as "no more typical of the Negro race than of
Shakespeare," they acknowledged "it was no real disservice in either
The fear of racism was also reinforced by critics such as
Edward R. Murrow, who evaluated the production as an Insidious
"blackface attitude" burlesquing the "truer emotional roots" of the
Negro people,
8 and Robert Littell, who disparagingly noted that "the
whites came In droves to spread their chilly fingers before the reviv-
ing fires of a warmer, happier simpler race ... (Brady, 89).
Despite these difficulties, clearly dictated by the racial nature
of the production, the artistic and thematic changes make the play a
triumph of black spirit and culture. The shift in locale offers important
artistic possibilities in music, set design, costuming, and lighting, and
the cultural tension was ultimately dispelled by the production's suc-
cess. Despite the false emphasis on "certain mythic undercurrents of
African and Caribbean culture, the production still meant "that
blacks would be seen in Shakespeare for the first time, that blacks
were working with two of the more prestigious new figures of the
American theatre, and It would be demonstrated that blacks could
rise to the heights of cultural achievement" (Higham, 83).
One of the most radical differences between the "voodoo ..
Macbeth and Shakespeare's original is that the witches take center
9 In Welles's version, Hecate Is a prominent character--and a
woman--while the witches become dominant, controlling powers
rather than the peripheral figures of Shakespeare's text. The Haitian
setting validates this supernatural dominance, given its associations
with diabolical magic and ritual, and it also solves the nagging
theatrical problem of how to deal with the weird sisters. As Brooks
Atkinson suggests, they've finally found a place where they belong:
But ship the witches down Into the rank and fever-stricken
jungles of Haiti, dress them in fantastic costumes, crowd the
stage with mad and gabbling throngs of evil worshipers, beat
the voodoo drums, raise the voices until the jungle echoes,
stuff a gleaming naked witch doctor into the caldron, hold up
Negro masks in the baleful light-:-and there you have a
witches' scene that is logical and stunning and a triumph of
theatre art. 20
The setting also permits the portrayal of Macbeth and his wife as vic-
tims rather than morally responsible agents. In Shakespeare's
Christian universe, where men are rational creatures struggling
between virtue and desire, the heavens can influence but not control.
But In the dark, remote jungles. of Haiti, a place of voodoo and tribal
nightmares where a primitive hierarchy still reigns, individuals are not
masters of their own fate. It becomes credible, then, that a black
character indigenous to the region can fall prey to greater forces also
Intrinsic to that culture. Such a presentation does not imply that
blacks are Irrational or inherently superstitious; rather, it suggests
that by virtue of their heritage, they are closer and more responsive
to supernatural forces than the "civilized" northern race. In the world
that Welles creates, witches and occultism are very real ; the
dominance of the voodoo sorceresses and the enlarged role of
Hecate demonstrate this belief, while the locale validates it.
The set design for the voodoo Macbeth dramatized the
ominous tropical atmosphere to full effect. Designer Nat Karson and
lighting director Abe Feder created a lavish, eerie jungle environment
that dazzled audiences and certainly helped make the show such a
hit. In the background stood a three-dimensional palace, and on the
right of the stage, a tower with a practical" roof connected to the
palace by a bridge that served as a ramp over the battlements or a
passageway to the palace entrance. 21 A garishly painted backdrop
separated the forest from the castle, emphasizing the contrast
between savagery and order that shaped the production. Hallie
Flanagan recalled "giant tropic fronds ... architecture from the
dreams of Toussaint I'Ouverture . . . sepia male witches stripped to
the waist against the world's largest skeleton arch; . . . a green jungle
shot with such lights from both heaven and hell as no other stage
has seen (Aanagan, 74). Jean Cocteau, who was in New York visit-
Ing VirgH Thomson, complained about Feder's 'Wagnerian lighting"
but admitted, "I think, perhaps, for a jungle setting it's a perfectly
good idea" (Thomson, 12).
The sound effects and music for Macbeth emphasized these
primitive and mystical dimensions even further. The use of African
drums and rhythms, a fundamental element of voodoo, Is quite
suitable to the setting and reinforces the sense of black heritage.
Thomson set about creating a symphonic background that
would effectively incorporate voodoo drums, (and he] studied the
thudding heartbeat of the drums, which created their own language
(Higham, 82). Welles also employed the talents of Asadata Dafora
Horton and his troupe of African drummers called Kykunkor, which
included a witch doctor named Abdul, a funny little, very little, short
fellow with very sparkling eyes and tons of silver bracelets on his
wrists, and a real leer.
Horton, a native of Sierra Leone who later
became its Minister of Culture, had been in New York for about a
year, playing in such clubs as the Cafe Latino on Barrow Street
(Baird, 3) and organizing Congo dance groups In New York (Thorn-
son, 13). Working with Thomson, Horton and his group orchestrated
the eerie tension of jungle violence with their pulsing voodoo chants
and dances. Thomson recalls that Horton knew the voodoo stuff
extremely wen and -was a highly professional and experienced man,
born and brought up in the Congo [and] thoroughly dependable
(Thomson, 13, 16). These rhythmic sound effects, which were sensa-
tionally successful, also helped to link the voodoo Macbeth to black
tradition. Besides enhancing the mysterious atmosphere and
impending conflict, they provided an aural counterpart to the action
In a style peculiar to African culture, enhancing the presence of
spirits in everyday existence. As Quita Craig explains,
The African universe was a harmony of Interacting rhythms,
permeated and sustained by the continuous creative force of
God-the force vitale. Each rhythm was a manifest quality of
God, and the rhythms were personified by a hierarchy of
spirits . ... In this rhythmic harmony, accident, illness, mis-
fortune, and unusual natural phenomena were considered to
be disruptions of the natural cosmic order, and the entire aim
and efforts of the people were directed toward the restora-
tion of cosmic harmony. There was not, and could not be,
any separation of the visible and invisible (spirit) worlds since
they were both integral parts of the universe and they inter-
acted in the rhythmic harmony.23
A similar kind of universe characterizes the -voodoo Macbeth, where
spirit and human worlds freely interact and where a hierarchy of
spirits--in this case the witches--is embodied by the recurrent
rhythms. But these powers, unlike those Craig describes, are
malevolent: They are directly responsible for upsetting the existing
harmony, and restoring order means repairing the havoc they've
wreaked. The witches function as forces with Godlike powers who
determine Macbeth's fate, and the rest of the plot plays out that
destiny, with the witches, or the drums denoting their power, ever
present. As in the African universe, they interact with the everyday
world, most visibly when Hecate joins with the two murderers in kUl-
ing Banquo and, at the end, when the sorceresses merge into the
crowd surrounding Malcolm. They hold aloft Macbeth's head, chant-
Ing All Hall Malcolm, and are interrupted by ,he thunderous chorus
of the army crying, Hail, King of Scotland (3-4-6).
Uke most Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth Involves a dis-
ruption of the natural order, leading ultimately to a re-establishment
of harmony. In Welles's version, the chanting and drumming
accentuate this upheaval, accompanying the witches throughout the
play. In the opening scene, for example, as the drums pound, Mac-
beth and Banquo come unexpectedly upon the three witches and a
ring of women; after the third witch has spoken, the drums cease. A
moment later when Banquo says to Macbeth, Good sir, why do you
start; and seem to fear /Things that do sound so fair, the voodoo
drums Immediately recommence, as though responding to the fore-
boding quality of Banquo's statement (1-1-1, 1-1-2). In Act I, scene 2,
Macbeth's famous dagger" speech Is framed by the thump of the
drums. After Banquo and Fleance have exited Into the palace, Mac-
beth is left alone in the courtyard. 'Very faintly over the air comes the
throb and wail of the voodoo, startling Macbeth:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me dutch thee
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? ...
I see thee still.
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood.
Which was not before.
(The music and chanting go up, then Macbeth kills it with the
There's no such thing!
(Effect out. Silence.)
Throughout Welles's script, drums highlight such key moments,
functioning almost as commentary on the action. Richard France, in
his discussion of the -voodoo Macbeth, points out how the primitive
violence of the drums is used to add dimension to the images of civi-
lized violence onstage, or as ironic counterpoint when the action of
the play falls Into a momentary calm (p. 55).
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this contrast between
primitive and civilized occurs in the transition from Banquo's murder
to the ball, which In Welles's version replaces the banquet of
Shakespearean tradition. In this elegant waltz scene, music replaces
the drums in accentuating the murderous behavior beneath the mask
of propriety. Having slaughtered Banquo but missed Aeance, the kU-
Iers flee, leaving Hecate standing over the dead man. The three
witches appear and cackle derisively at Hecate; then their chanting
of Fair Is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and fUthy air-
grows dim and -waltz music starts, very faint and weird. As Hecate
drags out the body of Banquo, the light on her dims, the waltz music
grows stronger, and the scene shifts to the ball (2-1-8). The stage full
of murderers Is replaced by a crowd of dancers and dignitaries, and
as the waltz music reaches its high point, the First and Second Mur-
derers appear at the door. When Macbeth learns that Aeance has
escaped, he panics--rhen comes my fit again; ... I am cabln'd,
cribb'd, confined, bound injTo saucy doubts and fears--and the
waltz abruptly stops, as though reflecting his own arrested state of
mind (2-1-9). Then, as soon as the two murderers exit, the Music
starts again, Dance resumed (2-1-10). When the party comes to an
untimely end because of Macbeth's strange visions, the "Lights start
to dim and -rhe voodoo music begins very faintly, followed by dis-
tant thunder and lightning" (2-1-13). The seemingly civilized" world of
the coronation ball has collapsed back into the dark night of violence
and blood, though the primal rhythm in the guise of sedate music
never ceased. Grenville Vernon praised this quick change from the
murders to the wild waltz of the banquet scene [as] one of the most
thrilling moments ever witnessed in the American theatre (p. 328).
Besides these expressionistic tribal sounds, some of the music
In the -voodoo Macbeth also reflects its black influence. Performed
by the Negro unit orchestra under conductor Joe Jordan, the score
includes two intermezzo numbers, Adagio Aframerique and River,
along with an Overture titled vamekraw by James Johnson.
According to the script notes, 'YAMEKRAW' is a genuine Negro
treatise on spiritual, syncopated, and blues melodies expressing the
religious fervor and happy moods of the natives of Yamekraw, a
Negro settlement situated on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. It is
believed to be the first Negro rhapsody- (Complete Working Script).
Taken together, the African chants and dances, the voodoo drum-
ming, and the spiritual/blues music provide Macbeth with a powerful
and emotional dimension that reflects a strong grounding In black
musical tradition.
Another element of the play in which Welles let racial leanings
prevail was dialect. He clearly preferred a natural or local styte over
standard Shakespearean delivery, as his comment to a biographer
illustrates. People auditioning for parts really threw themselves into
it, said Welles. None of them had played Shakespeare or even seen
a Shakespearean play. It was marvelous to hear what they did with it.
They preserved the poetry In a funny way because they found
innately the rhythm of the iambic pentameter and observed it without
any instruction (Learning, 102). To another interviewer, Welles flip-
pantly disparaged the Idea of pure Shakespeare. 'You see, he said,
,hese Negroes have never had the misfortune of hearing Elizabethan
verse spouted by actors strongly flavoring of well-cured Smithfield
[sic). They read their lines just as they would any others. On the
whole, they're no better and no worse than the average white actor
before he discovered the 'red plush curtain' style" (Crowther,4).
Rather than molding his actors into classical Shakespearean orators,
Welles worked with indigenous abHities, a choice that made artistic
sense, since native black speech patterns were certainly more
suitable to a voodoo Macbeth than what Houseman tartly
described as "the glib English Bensonian declamatory tradition of
Shakespearean performance (Houseman, 201 ). StBI, Welles's deci-
sion was probably pragmatic as well: According to biographer Brady,
the director was confronted with a barrage of different black
dialects but chose to concentrate on meaning, delivery, and
action," demanding "absolute pitch and breath control .. to allow ,he
naturally beautiful rhythms of black speech to connect and meld with
the pungent tones of the Elizabethan.
Welles made a conscious artistic effort to eliminate the poetic
delivery of a typical Shakespearean performance in favor of, as
Houseman notes, a return to a simpler, more direct and rapid
delivery of dramatic verse (Brady, 84). Stockwell, a scholar of the
Irish Theatre, believes that Welles's Irish training influenced this
approach. "The theory of acting, as practiced by the Abbey players
of Dublin, is to banish everything in the nature of 'high acting,' .. . to
'familiarize' even the poetic dialogue of Shakespeare," she writes.
"And that is exactly what has been done In this production of Mac-
beth." Stockwell marvels at the actors' abilities "for getting the feeling
of Shakespeare's lines without Intoning or etherealizing them," even
though they were not perfect. "Whether or not one prefers a more
poetic rendering of the play, it must be acknowledged that this is an
important and interesting experiment (Stockwell, 188).
Not surprisingly, many critics were quick to attack this dimen-
sion of the play. Hindered by their social and racial biases as well as
by their own preconceptions, they tended to measure the actors'
performances against traditional elocution rather than to evaluate the
experimental nature and artistic unity of the play. Robert Garland in
the World-Telegram dismissed it as a minstrel show, calling it "color-
ful, exciting, and a good colored show."
Brooks Atkinson faulted
Jack carter's Macbeth for having "no command of poetry or charac-
ter, and said that Edna Thomas's Lady Macbeth, whUe speaking the
lines conscientiously, "has left the poetry out of them (Atkinson, 4).
Percy Hammond, one of the harsher critics, wrote, "What surprised
me last night at the Lafayette was the inability of so melodious a race
to sing the music of Shakespeare, 25 whHe another unfriendly voice,
Burns Mantle, commented, Here Is Macbeth In fancy dress, the
Shakespearean lines falling awkwardly but with a certain defiant natu-
ralness from the lips of the Negro actors unaccustomed to reading
verse and quite satisfied not to try an imitation of their white
brothers. 26 John O'Connor generously excused these criticisms in
the light of historical precedent. For Negroes to play Macbeth was a
significant change from a long line of stereotyped roles and comic
dialect, and it was difficult for critics to view them as Shakespearean
actors rather than awkward Blacks in fancy costumes, he writes (p.
339) . An exception to this attitude is Willson Whitman who, in her
study of the Federal Theatre presentation, responds without the
expectations of most contemporary critics. -rhe rich mouth-filling
speeches in which the play abounds were well suited to be spoken
by soft Negro voices, says Whitman. It was apparent that Negro
actors can still soliloquize with naturalness and dignity in scenes
where white actors are apt to sound like nervous idiots chattering to
themselves (p. 45).
Along with setting, sound effects, and dialect, the costumes
and lighting also reflect the black makeup and mood of the -voodoo
Macbeth. The costumes comprised an array of primitive, military, and
formal garb, gorgeous uniforms, stiff with gold braid, the sheen of
satin ball gowns and the gnarled and hairy horror of the witches'
hides .. . (Houseman, 190). But the military costumes, which suggest
a Napoleonic era that the script does not, are unrelated to the black
aspects of the adaptation; they seem merely decorative and flashy.
Stockwell cites this inconsistency in costuming as a major weakness.
oespite the implied parallelism between Macbeth's career and that
of Christophe's,. she writes, is nothing In the text of the play to
identify the action so closely with the political history of Haiti as to
warrant 'period' costumes in the style of a Davide portrait. To my
notion it would have made for a more compact and unified produc-
t ion if the costumes had either been stylized or Africanized like the
witches (p. 183).
In conceiving the costume and setting designs from a techni-
cal perspective, Karson contemplated what effect the Negro inter-
pretation would have on Macbeth: Would -.he characters in the
accepted version of Macbeth remain the same with a Negro cast or
. . . take on a different form and alter the basic rhythmic patterns of
the play?27 In scenic terms, he decided to create what he called a
chromatic ascension of color, visually reinforcing the mounting ten-
sion generated by the drums, the primitive, irrational elements, and
the conflict with evH forces. Karson's notes in formulating his designs
reflect an attention to the primitive atmosphere as well as to the
sense of spectacle:
Federal Theatre Project Special Collections and Archive
Thus, pictorially Macbeth starts off in an extremely low key In
the first scene (the jungle scene) In muddy reds and blues
with a few accents of yellow and green in the principals'
costumes[,] and as one would draw a chart or graph[,] the
colors in the following scenes mount in intensity and brl-
liance until we come to the ball which is the mathematical
centre of the play, and at which time all the brightest colors
and fabrics are utilized ... from that point we descend in key
untH we reach the sleepwalking scene . .. this is played In a
misty haze of light and then we come to the castle scene In
the last act where Instead of climbing up again In color, I
Intensified this misty haze .... I felt that with the voodoo
scenes so predominant In this version, the actual scenery
should at times have an eerie luminescent quality, which
could be dispensed with at will for certain scenes (p. 1).
Karson found average scenic problems complicated somewhat
more by reason of the skin textures and coloring of the Negro
actors, although the two main characters--Jack Carter and Edna
Thomas--were both light-skinned, so much so that they both used
makeup to darken themselves (Learning, 1 01-Q2). Karson decided
that the scene painting would need to be more absorbent than reflec-
tive, and in the matter of costuming he initially decided to religiously
avoid the use of browns and grays; however, needing the variety that
these neutral colors would give me, I found that a touch of light color
at the wrist line and the collar did a great deal to offset the particular
person's coloring (Karson, 2). Uke any masterful technician, Karson
adjusted his style to the situation demanded by the play and the indi-
viduals Involved, ensuring that costumes and staging would comple-
ment the moody, primitive atmosphere of the production. Ughting of
course posed similar problems, and although lighting director Abe
Feder has said little about his part in the voodoo Macbeth, he
clearfy must have made similar artistic choices. For as Glenda Gill
points out, lighting was one of the problems that black actors always
had to deal with:
As trivial as the problem ... may [seem] to many people,
black actors can be made to appear very, very strange
through the use of colors that do not blend with their skin.
Many make-up artists knew nothing about black make-up,
and lighting technicians who became the best in their field,
such as Abe Feder, knew nothing about lighting black skin.
He invoked the wrath of Orson Welles in lighting the all-black
Macbeth. Edna Thomas's rehearsal notes reflect this diffi-
culty. Even though Mrs. Thomas was light-complexioned,
her appearance could be very much changed for the worse
with inappropriate colors. Feder used blues and pinks which
compelled Orson Welles to write in his prompt book: "Red
on steps typical Feder pink and terrible. 28
The various artistic components of the Welles-Houseman
-voodoo" Macbeth--script changes, setting and sound, design and
dialect, costuming and lighting--were directed and defined by the
black nature of the production. As experimental theatre striving for Its
own stylistic Integrity, the voodoo" Macbeth demands assessment
on that basis, and whHe the production was not without weaknesses,
it did achieve artistic coherence. As Higham says, -rhe intent from
the outset was to make Macbeth an experience of Total Theater,
incorporating every conceivable form of black music and drama Into
its structure (p. 82).
Some critics regarded the flashy production as mere theatrical
contrivance, which of course to some extent it was. Houseman, not
surprisingly, rejects such a charge, arguing that the "voodoo" Mac-
beth offered a perfect solution" to the problem of producing a clas-
sic while allowing black performers to draw upon their own
heritage. 29 He points out that "it would have been another thing if
one had sort of sat in an office and decided it would be a smart -ass
thing to do a voodoo Macbeth. I think that might have been much
more questionable, but this was organic" (Houseman interview, 4-5).
Carlton Moss, the director of the Lafayette unit of the NYC FTP. also
acknowledged that perhaps "the Macbeth stunt was a stunt" but
argued that "it did have enough relation to reality to make it an
acceptable stunt. Because you did have a kingdom. . . . Haiti had
gone through this. And in the heyday of Haiti, they tried to outdo the
French in proving that they could have the same pomp [as] the
French. So there was at least a historical precedent. 30
Tampering with Shakespeare, of course, never sits well with
some critics, and doing so with an all-black cast only intensified the
problems. After all, the "voodoo" Macbeth was not just a rendition
with Negro actors; this was a production which took into account
race and heritage when contemporary social and political prejudice
was strong and Negro credibility in the theatre was weak. The idea of
blacks playing any role besides stereotypical ones, particular1y clas-
sical or Shakespearean parts, was essentially unheard of. Prior to
the Federal Theatre, "there had been virtually no major investments in
black Shakespeareans on American shores" (Gill, 79), and in fact, the
bias against such portrayals was long standing. Discussing the strug-
gle of the Negro to find a place in the theatre, Augustus Smith
recounts how in 1821, a group of Negroes in New York "received a
foretaste of such crippling discrimination. Before an enthusiastic
audience, In a theatre in African Grove at the comer of Bleecker and
Mercer Streets, they performed Shakespearean dramas popular at
the time. A summons to magistrate's court interrupted their
schedule, and upon a promise never again to act Shakespeare they
were dismissed (GUI, 117).
Emmet Lavery, the FTP's National Service Bureau director,
challenged the notion that shakespeare should be reserved for
white actors, and he felt that the Hartem production was a step for-
ward, that It wasn't just [a] reverse blackface or whiteface approach
to Shakespeare, but It was using natural talents In an area where they
hadn't been used too much. Lavery agreed that the paucity of
decent black material no doubt Influenced this selection. He said, 1
think that a lot of the experimentation in the Negro project . . . was
pragmatic, and he found it rather Interesting that at least their Mac-
beth was not a white Macbeth.3
Norman Uoyd, an actor. involved
with FederaJ Theatre productions who later appeared In Welles's pro-
duction of Julius Caesar, suggested that Macbeth was changed by
having blacks in it. Even though you don't touch the dialogue, he
said, ~ h y affect it in such a way that it becomes theirs more than
Shakespeare's . .. . [T]here was a kind of voodoo raciness and black
pulse to it which you never experience when you see Macbeth .. . . 32
Welles, of course, had no qualms about tampering with
Shakespeare. He wrote:
The old way of doing a thing may be the right way but the
old way has a habit of clinging on tenaciously long after it Is
outmoded, and it takes an experimenter to clear away the
cobwebs, restudy the problem, and face it in the light of
modern ideas and modern needs. That is as true outside the
theater as it is in the theater. 33
Another critic displayed even less concern with faithfulness to the
Bard. -rhis is not Shakespeare, in the tradition of Irving and Booth
and Macready, commented Pierre de Rohan. perhaps it isn't even
Shakespeare at all, except for his lines. But it is a rousing, riotous
performance and a genuine joy to see. Critics such as de Rohan and
Grenville Vernon who could cast off preconceptions were able to
appreciate the freshness and innovation of Welles's experimental
venture, and public response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
Vernon felt that Welles's vibrant originality infused new life into a
dead work. He wrote:
Mr. Welles's 'Macbeth' has shown what can still be done with
Shakespeare, as it can be done with any other of the classics
of the past, once the dead hand of use and want, called mis-
takenly 'tradition, ' is lifted from them. For though there are
stretches of boredom ... whenever the director has his
chance, in bits of business, in massed action, in lighting, in
original combinations, the Federal Theatre ' Macbeth' leaps
Into life spontaneous and glowing (p. 328).
Critical response notwithstanding, the '\toodoo" Macbeth was
immensely popular, the most successful of all Federal Theatre pro-
ductions. After its nine-week run at the Lafayette Theatre, followed by
a three-week stint at the Adelphi, the "voodoo" Macbeth toured Fed-
eral Theatre playhouses in other cities, including Bridgeport, Hart-
ford, Dallas, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, amassing
144 performances and a total audience of nearty 120,000. Every-
where it went it received enthusiastic praise, and In many places it
offered blacks their first opportunity to see a live theatrical produc-
tion staged by blacks. 34 The touring crew suffered a good deal of
discrimination; after all, as the production's advance agent John Sil-
vera points out, "this was 1936, when race relations were not all that
we wanted them to be, nor were they what they are today. -35 Still, the
tour did help promote black performers and encourage integration,
goals that the Federal Theatre as a whole tried to accomplish. "I like
to think that maybe Federal Theatre at least opened up the aware-
ness that one doesn't have to have a hard division line in the theatre:
says Lavery, and the black Macbeth provided a satisfying illustration
of that philosophy (Lavery, 29).
For thousands of black artists, the Federal Theatre Project was
a godsend, offering them the chance -.o participate fully in the field
of professional drama" and opening doors for them that had long
been shut. 36 The 1936 production of Macbeth by Orson Welles and
John Houseman, which earned attention and acclaim for the FTP,
was an important venture that dared to integrate black culture into
classical drama. As Orson Welles has written:
Our purpose was not as capricious and foolish as it might
sound. We wanted--indeed, we were anxious--to give to
Negro artists, many of whom are very talented, an
opportunity to play In the sort of thing that is usually denied
them. The parts that fall to Negroes are too often old mam-
mies with bandanas, water-melon-eating (sic] piccaninnies,
Uncle Rastuses and so on" (Bazin, 43).
His legendary '\toodoo" Macbeth reflects that desire, and its success
"encouraged Negro units across the country to adapt previously
'white-only' plays, from Aristophanes' Lysistrata . . . to Gilbert and
Sullivan's Mikado (O'Connor and Brown, 9) . Born of the social
realities of Hartem in the 1930s, shaped artistically by the elements of
black culture and its black participants, and affected by con-
temporary political and racial biases, the "voodoo Macbeth did
much to address social and political realities and was in many ways
one of the most unusual and powerful ventures in black drama.
Sources Cited
Anderson, Thomas. FTP interview by Lorraine Brown, 24 May 1978,
New York City Public Ubrary at Lincoln Center. Transcript,
Federal Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George
Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Macbeth. The New York Times, 15
Baird, Bill . FTP interview by Mae Mallory Krulak, 8 November 1976.
Transcript, Federal Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Library,
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Bazin, Andre. Orson Welles: A Critical View. New York: Harper &
Row, 1972.
Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.
Cocteau, Jean. Profile of Orson Welles. In Orson Welles: A Critical
View. AndreBazin. New York: Harper & Row. 1972:28-32.
Complete Working Script of Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
Arranged and Staged by Orson Welles. Federal Theatre
ject Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University,
fax, Virginia.
Craig, E. Quita. Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era. Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Crowther, Bosley. Article on Macbeth. The New York Times, 5 April
De Rohan, Pierre. sox Score: Cum Not is Variorum. Federal
Theatre Magazine 1 (April1936): Federal Theatre
ject Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fair-
fax, Virginia.
Flanagan, Hallie. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. NP:
Benjamin Blorn, 1940.
France, Richard. The Theater of Orson Welles. Lewisburg, Pennsyl-
vania: Bucknell University Press. 1977.
Garland, Robert. Jazzed-Up 'Macbeth' at the Lafayette. New York
World-Telegram 15 April
Gill, Glenda E. White Grease Paint on Black Performers: A Study of
the Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. American University
Studies, Series IX History, vol. 40. New York: Peter Lang,
Hammond, Percy. A W.P.A. 'Macbeth."' New York Herald Tribune,
16 April 1936.
Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American
Genius. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
John. Run-through. New York: Curtis Books, 1972.
__ . FTP Interview by Mae Mallory Krulak and John O'Connor, 11
May 1976, Lincoln Center, New York. Transcript, Federal
Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason
University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Karson, Nat. Random Thoughts on the Costuming and Setting of
Macbeth. Federal Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick
Ubrary, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Lavery, Emmett. FTP interview #2 by John O'Connor, 17 October
19n, Encino, California. Transcript, Federal Theatre Project
Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fairfax,
Learning, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: VIking, 1985.
Uoyd, Norman. FTP interview by John O'Connor, 5 January 1976,
Los Angeles, California. Transcript, Federal Theatre Project
Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fairfax,
Mantle, Burns. w.P.A. 'Macbeth' in Fancy Dress: New York Daily
News, 15 April 1936.
Moss, Carlton. FTP interview by Lorraine Brown, 6 August 1976,
Holiday Inn, Los Angeles, California. Transcript, Federal
Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason
University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Murrow, Edward R. A letter to (Miss) WUison Whitman: The Stage,
July 1936.
O'Connor, JohnS. But Was It 'Shakespeare?': Welles's Macbeth
and Julius Caesar: Theatre Journal 32 (October 1980): 337-
O'Connor, John S. and Lorraine Brown. Free, Adult, Uncensored:
The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project. Washing-
ton, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1978.
Ross, Ronald. -rhe Role of Blacks in the Federal Theatre, 1935-
1939. Journal of Negro History 59 (January 1974): 38-50.
(Apt. in The Theatre of Black Americans: A Collection of
Critical Essays. Ed. Errol Hill. New York: Applause, 1980:
SHvera, John. FTP interview by Lorraine Brown, 11 July 19n, Fair-
fax, Virginia. Transcript, Federal Theatre Project Archive,
Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Silvera, John. Federal Theatre Revisited. Panel Discussion,
November 1977. Videotape, Federal Theatre Project
Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fairfax,
Stockwell, LaTourette. Macbeth. Opportunity 16 (June 1936): 183-
Thomson, Virgil. FTP interview by Mae Mallory Krulak, 5 November
1976, Chelsea Hotel, New York. Transcript, Federal Theatre
Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University,
Fairfax, Virginia.
Vernon, GrenvHie. -rhe Play and Screen: The Negro 'Macbeth. The
Commonweal, 24 July 1936.
Welles, Orson. experiment. The American Magazine (November
1938), 162.
Whitman, WHison. Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal Theatre.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1937.
1John Houseman, Run-through (New York: Curtis Books,
1972), 190 . . Houseman's memoirs always need to be judged with
some skepticism, because he is notorious for slanting them to favor
himself. Subsequent references to this book are in the text.
2Profile of Orson Welles, in Ande Bazin, Orson Welles: A
Critical View (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 28. Subsequent
references to this book are in the text.
31n addition to its Harlem unit, the Negro theatre had units in
Seattle, Hartford, Philadelphia, Newark, Los Angeles, Boston,
Raleigh, Birmingham, San Francisco, and Chicago. According to
Flanagan, a February 1939 survey showed 851 blacks employed by
the Federal Theatre, 75 plays produced, and 100 productions com-
pleted. See Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal
Theatre (NP: Benjamin BJorn, 1940), 63. Subsequent references to
this book are in the text.
John S. O'Conner and Lorraine Brown, Free, Adult,
Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project
(Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1978), 8. Subsequent
references to this book are in the text.
5Charles Higham, Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An
American Genius (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 81. Sub-
sequent references to this book are in the text.
S"fhe script never actually identifies the setting, though it is
generally acknowledged to be Haiti during the Napoleonic era, based
on the character and career of Henri Christophe, a black emperor of
Haiti. Houseman, who suggests that Welles found distinctive paral-
lels between Macbeth and Christophe, gives the time as -.he early
nineteenth century- (Run-through, 185). Brady notes, -rhe costumes
would be suggestive of those worn by the Haitians in their struggle
against France (Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles [New
York: Char1es Scribner's Sons, 1989], 83). Thomas Anderson, Stage
Manager and Director of the Lafayette Unit and Assistant Director of
the voodoo Macbeth (and also one of the nobles), recalls that
Welles never identified it as any particular place. orson never said
where this thing was located. Everybody wanted to know where it
was located. He said, 'Oh, it's just some warm country.' (FTP inter-
view by Lorraine Brown, 24 May 1978, New York City Public Ubrary
at n c ~ n Center, 21. Transcript, Federal Theatre Project Archive,
Fenwick Ubrary, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virgiia.) Theatre
. historian Richard France, in The Theater of Orson Welles, points out
that Welles -was undoubtedly familiar with W.W. Harvey's Sketches
of Hayti, written in 1827 and still regarded as the principle source of
Welles's information on the life of Christophe (Lewisburg, Pennsyl-
vania: Bucknell University Press, 1977, 56). Subsequent references
to these books are in the text.
7La Tourette Stockwell, Macbeth: Opportunity 16 (June
1936), 183. Subsequent references to this article are in the text.
8Bosley Crowther, Article on Macbeth, The New York
Times, 5 April 1936, 9:1:4. Subsequent references to this article are
in the text.
9De Rohan, Pierre, sox Score: Cum Notis Variorum, Fed-
eral Theatre Magazine 1, no. 5 (April1936), 22. Federal Theatre Pro-
ject Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fairfax, Vir-
ginia. Subsequent references to this article are in the text.
0orfhe Play and Screen: The Negro 'Macbeth,' The Com-
monweal 24 July 1936, 328.
11But Was It 'Shakespeare?': Welles's Macbeth and Julius
Caesar, Theatre Journal32 (October 1980), 339-40.
12Virgil Thomson, FTP interview by Mae Mallory Krulak, 5
November 1976, Chelsea Hotel, New York, 13. Transcript, Federal
Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University,
Fairfax, Virginia. Subsequent references to this interview are in the
13Susan McCloskey, in her article shakespeare, Orson
Welles, and the 'Voodoo' Macbeth" (Shakespeare Quarterly
36[Winter 1985], 406-16), shows what Welles's remaking of Macbeth
reveals about the original play. Her analysis includes an examination
of the problems posed by shifting the locale from Scotland to Haiti,
taking into account the political and social world implicit in
Shakespeare's text. Subsequent references to this article are in the
14AJthough Welles's Lady Macbeth is much more passive
and less wicked than Shakespeare's, it's never really clear whether
that is her nature or her fate. Richard France, in his study, asserts,
Her very urgings are a part of the witches' charm and from the first
she is obviously their tool" (58). But he never specifically indicates
what in the script supports that claim; presumably, he means that the
witches' controls her as well as Macbeth.
5According to Houseman, by the time actress Rose
Mclendon withdrew for health reasons, The project was so far
advanced that no one was willing to risk the delays and confusions
that would have resulted from a change of leadership, and by that
point, he adds in his usual self-serving way, seemed to be
going surprisingly well for the Negro Theater- anyway (Run-through,
16Barbara Learning, Orson Welles (New York: Viking, 1985),
1 04. Subsequent references to this book are In the text.
7WHison Whitman, Bread and Circuses: A Study of Federal
Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937), 44. Subsequent
references to this book are in the text.
8-A letter to (Miss) Willson Whitman, The Stage, July 1936.
9'fhis study Is not concerned with an extensive examination
of the differences between Shakespeare's Macbeth and Welles's ver-
sion. It focuses only on points that help to illuminate the black nature
of the production. John O'Conner makes an in-depth textual com-
parison in his article, analyzing more closely the changes and dele-
tions that Welles makes (see n. 11)
20Review of Macbeth, The New York Times, 15 April1936,
25: 4. Subsequent references to this review are in the text.
21 Complete Working Script of Macbeth by William
Shakespeare. Arranged and Staged by Orson Welles. Federal
Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Ubrary, George Mason University,
Fairfax, Virginia. Subsequent references to this script are In the text.
22BUI Baird, FTP interview by Mae Mallory Krulak, 8 Novem-
ber 1976, 4. Transcript, Federal Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick
Library, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. Subsequent
references to this interview are in the text.
3Biack Drama of the Federal Theatre Era (Amherst:
of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 89.
4Jazzed-Up 'Macbeth' at the Lafayette, New York World-
Telegram, 15 April 1936.
25-A W.P.A. 'Macbeth,' New York Herald Tribune, 16 April
1936. One of the most famous legends from this production is that
Hammond was killed by a voodoo spell cast by Abdul, who was
angry over the disparaging review. Hammond did in fact die sud-
denly of pneumonia a few days later.
26-W.P.A. 'Macbeth' in Fancy Dress, New York Daily News,
15 April 1936.
Nat Karson, Random Thoughts on the Costuming and
Setting of 'Macbeth,' Federal Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick
Library, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, 1. Subsequent
references to this article are In the text.
8White Grease Paint on Black Performers: A Study of the
Federal Theatre, 1935-1939, American University Studies, Series IX
History, vol. 40 (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), 15.
29John Houseman, FTP interview by Mae Mallory Krulak and
John O'Connor, 11 May 1976, Lincoln Center, New York, 4. Trans-
cript, Federal Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George
Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
30Carlton Moss, FTP interview by Lorraine Brown, 6 August
1976, Holiday Inn, Los Angeles, California, 28-29. Transcript, Federal
Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Ubrary, George Mason University,
Fairfax, Virginia.
Emmett Lavery, FTP interview 112 by John O'Connor, 17
October 19n, Encino, California, 28. Transcript, Federal Theatre
Project Archive, Fenwick Library, George Mason University, Fairfax,
32Norman Lloyd, FTP interview by John O'Connor, 5
January 1976, Los Angeles, California, 28. Transcript, Federal
Theatre Project Archive, Fenwick Ubrary, George Mason University,
Fairfax, Virginia.
330rson Welles, experiment, The American Magazine,
November 1938, 162.
John Silvera, FTP interview by Lorraine Brown, 11 July
1977, Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript, Federal Theatre Project Archive,
Fenwick Ubrary, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
35John Silvera, Federal Theatre Revisited, Panel Discus-
sion, November 1977. Videotape, Federal Theatre Project Archive,
Fenwick Ubrary, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
36Ronald Ross, -rhe Role of Blacks In the Federal Theatre,
1935-1939, Journal of Negro History 59 (January 1974), 41.
KEITH NEWUN is a student in the Ph.D. program of the Department
of English of Indiana University.
GERALD WEALES is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, the
University of Pennsylvania.
MILLY S. BARRANGER heads the Department of Theatre of the
University of North Carolina, Chapel HUI.
BRUCE A. McCONACHIE teaches in the Department of Theatre and
Speech of the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.
KAREN BLANSFIELD is a student in the Ph.D. program of the Depart-
ment of English, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.