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Volume 5, Number 3 Fall, 1993
Vera Mowry Roberts judith Milhous
Managing Editor
Edwin Wilson
Assistant Editors
james Masters Nadine Pederson
Editorial Board
Stephen Archer
Ruby Cohn
Margaret Wi I kerson
Don B. Wilmeth
Bruce A. McConachie
The journal of American Drama and Theatre welcomes submissions.
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CASTA Publications are supported by generous grants
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CASTA Copyright 1993
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Volume 5, Number 3
MARK FEARNOW, The Meaning of Pictures: Myth and
American History Plays of the Great Depression,
Fall 1993
or, Lincoln Died (So You and I Might Live) 1
ROSEMARIE K. BANK, Mrs. Trollope Visits the Theatre:
Cultural Diplomacy and Historical Appropriation 16
MICHAEL L. QUINN, Alan Schneider's Entrances:
Autobiography, Theatre, and Style in an
American Frame 28
HARRY W. SMITH, An Air of the Dream: Jo Mielziner,
Innovation and Influence, 1935-1955 42
WILLIAM F. CONDEE, Madame Pace' s Hats:
Architecture and the Creation of Drama 55
journal of American Drama and Theatre 5 (Fall 1993)
The Meaning of Pictures:
Myth and American History Plays
of the Great Depression,
Lincoln Died (So You and I Might Live)
There is no arguing with pictures, and everyone is
impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not.
-Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe came up with this formulation to justify the
seemingly obtuse act of writing a work of fiction in order to persuade
a vast and largely indifferent white population that so profitable an
institution as slavery was evil and-the most amazing of her aspira-
tions-to impel that population toward immediate and decisive action.
Mrs. Stowe's disarmingly simple sentence contains a tremendous
potentiality, the kind of statement that has the power to release one of
those Joycean epiphanies, as when Stephen Dedalus walks into an
empty classroom and sees the word "phoetus" etched in large block
letters on a student desk and a world of meaning opens up to him in
an instant. It is a simple truth: Representational art is dumbly
persuasive. Why is so much critical energy put into trying to disprove
this obvious truth, pursuing, along with major trends of Modern and
Post-Modern hermeneutics, gymnastic and super-subtle searches for
textual subversion on the one hand and entranced (and thus implaca-
ble) perceivers on the other?
"There is no arguing with pictures, and everyone is impressed by
them, whether they mean to be or not." Here is a statement that
addresses both halves of the aesthetic transaction, of object and subject,
is flexible enough to allow that the picture might be telling out-and-out
lies, but simply accepts that a work of representational art impresses the
Quoted by Daniel Gerould in American Melodrama (New York: PAJ
Publications, 1983), 8.
perceiver; though the perceiver may afterward shake off the effect of
the picture, for a moment at least he or she is impressed by it, attracted
by its point of view, convi need of the truth of its story and the reality
of its characters.
And there is no arguing with pictures. Though a picture may seem
to contain a thesis, the picture itself is not a thesis that can be
disproved. The most one can say is that the picture does not reflect a
verifiable reality; but canceled out from consciousness the picture will
not be. Like a victim of the Medusa, one has looked, willing or not,
and one has been impressed.
In addition to its power to enlighten, Mrs. Stowe's simple statement
can offer relief to those who have indulged a hitherto guilty plea-
sure-an addiction . to the power of pictures, such as the pictures
appearing unadorned by interpretive commentary and without analysis
in the popular magazine called American History Illustrated. This
magazine is a pleasure because its shiny pages contain exciting stories
and-most important-glorious color photographs and reproductions of
paintings, spilling out across the pages, like an illuminated Bi ble that
has been rewritten to feature George Washington instead of God-the-
Father and divided up neatly to arrive in one's mailbox every two
months. It is a guilty pleasure because American History Illustrated
contains no footnotes. Some of its articles are written by people who
teach at universities, but in their articles for this magazine writers do
not have to prove anything; they just have to tell good stories that are
apparently true and that provide the opportunity for lots of colorful
illustrations. American History Illustrated is dearer to some than the
most sub I ime of scholarly journals. It makes an impression whether its
readers want it to or not.
A recent issue of the magazine featured a j .L.G. Ferris painting of
George Washington, painted about 1923. As a vehicle for myth-
making, for pictorial persuasion, the painting is a 1920s corollary to the
abundant "historical dramas" that took the stage in the 1930s, when
even greater cultural threats demanded mythic heroes perhaps less
mother-loving but equal in courage and moral resilience. Though the
sentimentality of the Ferris painting will be continued in one thread of
1930s "history" plays-the "Edenic" family dramas that reassure
through nostalgia's beautifying gauze-the dominant movement in
Depression "history" drama will be toward Romantic heroism, the
working of historical figures into myths of enlightenment-through-
suffering. This myth-figure will be personified most elaborately in the
three Depression plays about Abraham Lincoln.
Ferris's painting is titled, "Washington's Farewell to His Mother,
1789." The scene is touching, capturing a narrative of connection with
persons and things from the past. The physical resemblance between
American History Plays
"Washington's Farewell to His Mother, 1789." Painting by j.L.G. Ferris
c. 1923. Reproduced in American History Illustrated 26:3 (1991 ): 45.
mother and son is emphasized, the mighty leader of his country
kneeling before the frail old woman, their affectionate gaze expressing
a silent communication of love. As a document about its subjects,
however, the painting is a complete lie. Washington's letters and
journals show that he greatly disliked Mary Ball Washington. He
depicts her in his correspondence as a grasping old hag, wheedling him
into ever greater expenditures on her behalf despite her more than
adequate income from Ferry Farm. Washington's records of life at
Mount Vernon show that, for more than 30 years, Mary Washington
was not once invited to his home.
What the picture tells a cautious viewer has more to do with
American culture in 1923 than with the eighteenth century. The image
speaks of a culture's need for sentimental reassurance of mother love
and filial devotion in a time of frenzied technological change. George
and Mary Washington take on the roles of ur-figures of the nation,
giving the viewer every assurance that the nation is indeed good, that
it is not rooted in revolution and upheaval as was being preached by
Wobbl ies across the nation, nor in the corruption of the Harding
administration and Tea Pot Dome, nor in the Chicago White Sox and
their ultimate act of national desecration in taking bribes to throw the
World Series. No, the nation's internal self in this image is pure and
good and unsullied. In a natural borrowing of imagery from Judea-
Christianity, American culture assigned Washington the mythic role of
Father-Creator of his country; he is Truth, Goodness, and is devoted to
his mother, Mary. Like the "historical'' plays of the Depression, the
picture makes an impression, whether the viewer wants it to or not.
And what else is American historical drama but American History,
As early as the success of James Barker's Superstition in 1824,
Americans have flocked to see dramatic pictures of their nation's past.
Occasionally a "historical" play has had a major effect on the wider
culture. Such plays as Inherit the Wind, The Crucible, and 7 776 (along
with their film counterparts) have entered into the popular conscious-
ness and contributed significantly to the national mythology.
The urge to mythologize through theatrical picturization was
especially powerful in the Great Depression. If, like Holderlin, we ask
"what are poets for in a destitute time," we may answer that at least
part of a poet's job is to retell and reshape the nation's own story. Like
These facts about Washington are drawn from Frederick Bernays Wiener,
"Washington and His Mother," American History Illustrated, July/August 1991, 71.
Wiener takes the information from the 37 volumes of Writings of Washington, ed.
john C. Fitzpatrick, U.S. Government Printing Office, pub. 1931-1940.
Ameri can History Plays 5
the ancient Hebrew priest reciti ng Exodus in the desert, or Sir Walter
Scott inventing history where fact was absent, authors of American
"history" plays of the 1930s told the nation's story with helpful
Of the 31 historical plays that were produced between 1930 and
1941, several might not be considered historical drama at all . These
are completely fictional works set in an earlier American period.
Remarkable examples of plays in this category are O'Neill's Mourning
Becomes Electra (1931) and Ah, Wilderness! (1933), the former set just
after the Civil War and the latter in 1906. Other examples include
Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938) and The Merchant of Yonkers
(1939), Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939), and Maxwell
Anderson's (the Big Daddy of American historical drama) The Wingless
Victory (1936), set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1800.
The longest-running and most profitable play of the 1930s-Lindsay
and Crouse's Life with Father (1939)-is itself historical drama in that
it is based on Clarence Day's remembrances about life in New York in
the 1880s. Much of the pleasure of the play, as is also true of Our
Town and of Ah Wilderness!, comes from the nostalgic resuscitation
of a recently eclipsed historical moment when people rode in horse-
drawn cars and standards of moral decency were maintained and, in
brief, everything was better. That all three of these hugely popular
plays concern themselves essentially with the innocent romantic
aspirations of adolescents is surely no coincidence. The three plays
offer, in essence, the same pre-war American scene: an Edenic world
in which no one has had sex yet. Clarence Day, Richard Miller,
George Gibbs, and Emily Webb are as innocent as Adam and Eve in
the Garden and are watched over by concerned and mighty parents
perhaps more forgiving than the God of Genesis. Like their Biblical
prototypes, these adolescent characters suffer temptation and fall into
a new maturity that recognizes the existence of evi I. Clarence rejects
deceit and persists in innocence with his sweetheart; Richard Miller of
Ah, Wilderness! is restored to the bosom of his family after his night in
the back-room of a bar; Wilder's George and Emily are separated by a
wall of death, but they, too, find a kind of peace in their cycle of
passion, recognition, and acceptance. These plays are cultural
enactments of a national longing to go back to the way it was before
the Fall from Grace in 1929.
The main theme that Studs TeJkel found in his interviews with
people who had experienced hardship in the Great Depression was that
of guilt. People who had lost their jobs and savings through no fault
of their own nevertheless blamed themselves: They must have done
something wrong in order for this terrible thing to have happened to
them. Only a small minority was able to blame the "Father," the
Life with Father table scene. From Theatre Arts Monthly 24 (1940), 60.

American History Plays 7
"American Way" itself and seek radical solutions. Most Americans had
been taught all their lives that America was the place where things got
better and better, and they chose not to question this dogmatic basis to
their social reality. They must have deserved punishment somehow.
Otherwise, how could any sense be made from this disaster? How
could it mean anything? Human beings are natural meaning-makers,
and the ur-myth of Genesis provided a natural psychic framework in
the minds of many Americans. These four plays of Eden offered the
pleasure of an imagined return.
Seventeen of the historical plays of the period are about actual
historical figures and are at least loosely based on events that actually
took place. They cover a wide range of the American experience,
though there are no plays about life in America before the arrival of
Europeans. Speculation about what led up to that event made up the
action of a play called Christopher Comes Across (1932), a farce about
Christopher Columbus and his sexual antics within the Span ish court.
Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill offered the musical comedy
Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), about the stupid but harmless leaders
of New Amsterdam and the attempted reforms (strangely reminiscent
of the New Deal) of the dictatorial new governor, Peter Stuyvesant.
Anderson's Valley Forge (1934) depicts Washington and his few loyal
officers struggling against a wretched winter and a Continental Congress
almost as stupid as the bumbling Dutch of New Amsterdam (politicians
are uniformly stupid pigs in Anderson's plays). There were two plays
about Aaron Burr: Booth Tarkington's Colonel Satan (1931) and a
musical called Great Lady (1938), about Burr's love affair with Madame
jumel. There were other biographical plays, such as Brittle Heaven
(1934), an attempt to explain Emily Dickinson's love poems by showing
her in a passion for her best friend's husband. There were plays about
Carry Nation (Carry Nation, 1934), Guy Button (Gold Eagle Guy,
produced by the Group Theatre in 1934), and even about jesse james
(Missouri Legend, 1938). But mostly there were plays about the people
and events of the Civil War.
Twelve of the 31 historical plays are about the Civil War. This
statistic in itsel f should not be surprising. Americans have long been
fascinated on some deep level by this conflict. Books about the Civil
War are plentiful now as they were in the 1930's, partly because
publishers know that any book on the subject of the war or on Lincoln
is almost guaranteed to be profitable. Despite this long-standing
American interest in the events of 1860-1865, the 1930's saw this
interest turn -to a virtual cultural obsession. Gone with the Wind, of
course, was the titanic popular work, creating a kind of national frenzy
from the time of the novel's publication in 1936, through the release
of the motion picture in 1939, to the gradual decline of the story's
intense popularity with America's entry into a new and actual war in
Among popular works that were based on factual materials, there
were two plays about John Brown--one simply titled John Brown
(1934), and the other a thinly veiled Communist parable called Battle
Hymn (1936), written by Michael Blankfort and Daily Worker editor
Michael Gold. Other biographical plays were jefferson Davis, which
ran very briefly in 1936, and an almost equally unsuccessful play called
The Man Who Killed Lincoln, which ran for five performances in 1940.
Rivaling Depression America's fascination with Scarlett O'Hara was
a renewed interest in Abraham Lincoln. Robert E. Sherwood's Abe
Lincoln in Illinois had the greatest effect of the three Lincoln plays of
the thirties. Produced by the Playwright's Company in 1938, the play
ran for 472 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize.
It was made
into a popular film in 1940. Sherwood's play had been preceded in
1937 by another Lincoln play, Prologue to Glory, written by a
University of Iowa professor named E.P. Conkle and produced by the
Federal Theatre Project in New York in 1938. The most surprising of
the biographical works was an earlier play that chronicles Lincoln's life-
after-death and is called, peculiarly, If Booth Had Missed (1932).
Both Prologue to Glory and Abe Lincoln in Illinois make elaborate
use of the young and developing Lincoln to stand for more than just
himself. Both plays present a human being of mythic proportions:
gigantic, immensely strong (Conkle has Ann Rutledge refer to Lincoln
as a "monster"), possessed of a romantic spirit (Sherwood shows
Lincoln modeling his life on a tragic poem by John Keats), and
exhibiting a native intelligence. Lincoln stands for America's idea of
itself: enormous, powerful, just, honest, innocent, tortured by
conscience, and suffering great loss.
The plays make much of Lincoln's physical strength and-at the
same time-his reluctance to fight unless provoked. As one reads these
scenes written about Lincoln in 1937 and 1938, it is fascinating to keep
in mind the daily news reports of aggression on the part of the
Germans and Japanese and of the passionate electoral campaigns of
1938 that centered on the question of the role of the United States in
the long-expected world war.
In Conkle's play, Lincoln is touted as the guy who "can lick any
man this si9e-a-th' Wabash."
"Must be a mighty powerful feller," says
All length-of-run statistics are from Samuel Leiter, The Encyclopedia of the
New York Stage, 1930- 1940 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).
E.P. Conkl e, Prologue to Glory (New York: Samuel French, 1938), 19.
American History Plays 9
one observer; "Couldn' t be that powerful!" says another (Conkl e, 19).
Lincoln is challenged to a fight by a gang of good ol' boys who don't
like the fact that he's new in town and is looking so tall. But Abe
doesn't want to "wrastle. " He tells his sponsor, "I don't keer t' wrastle
only when I feel I ike it-an' I don't feel I ike it right now" (Conkle, 24).
But the good ol' boys persist:
ARMSTRONG: Offut's been tellin' us you kin out-wrastle and
throw-down any man within fifty miles-a-here.
ABE: I ain't never said such a thing. I ain't got no cause
t'wrast le nobody.
ARMSTRONG: Us boys ain't foolin' none. Us boys is full-a
b'i led beans and bad whiskey.
DAVE: [to ABE] Life won't be wuth livin' around yur if you
ABE: What does it matter who's strongest-you or me? We
can both live here in peace, can't we? Wrastlin' won't
settle nothin'.
ARMSTRONG: Ain't scairt air yuh?
TIBBS: Ride 'im out-a-town on a rail!
CLARY: G it the tar-an'-feathers, boys!
HOHEIMER: Throw him inter th' hog-waller!
DAVE: [ABE's cousin] Ah, Abe-tear inter him!
0FFUT: You goin't'?
ABE: I kin do anything fer fun-or necessity. All right. I'll
[They "wrastle" around the stage for some minutes,
ABE using his special " Indian holt," until they come
to a point where both men are panting and face one
another again in a stand-off. ABE speaks:]
ABE: [putting out his hand] Look here, feller. We're evenly
matched. Let's quit.
ARMSTRONG: Licked, air yuh?
ABE: No, I ain't licked.
ARMSTRONG: Whoever says you ain't 's a-a liar.
ABE: What-say? .. . Looky here, feller, them's fightin ' words
where I come from.
DENNY: 0-o-oh! Abe's mad!
ARMSTRONG: [Draws line with his foot between ABE and
himself] Liar!
[ABE rushes in, lifts ARMSTRONG, takes a few steps,
throws him down-pins him]
OFFUT: Fair fall! Fair fall! Three cheers for Linkern!
ALL: Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
v ~ ~
~ t ~
Abe standing over defeated Jack Armstrong. Frontispiece from Prologue to Glory, (Samuel French, 1937).
American History Plays 11
Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois also emphasizes this violent
encounter between Lincoln and the so-called "Clary boys," led by Jack
Armstrong. But in Sherwood's version, the scene is even more
politically loaded. As any reader of Sherwood's The Petrified Forest
(1934) and Idiot's Delight (1935) can attest, Sherwood was a playwright
convinced that the end of the world was near. Both of those plays and
their anguished prefaces decried the end of Western civilization and the
coming of a new Dark Ages characterized by brutal dictatorships, anti-
intellectualism, and the complete militarization of society.
However, Abe Lincoln in Illinois marks a turning point in
Sherwood's perspective toward a more optimistic and activist position.
The brutes are still a powerful threat, but they can be beaten. The
Clary boys are of the same crude fabric as the gangsters and vigilantes
of The Petrified Forest and the Fascisti and arms dealers of Idiot's
Delight. Whereas the honest American heroes of Sherwood's earlier
plays can only spit in the face of the brutes without hope of overcom-
ing them, singing hymns as bombs fall all around, Abe Lincoln is a
potent and almost super-human force for good. He embodies
Sherwood's hope in an effective defiance of brutality.
Sherwood's play presents the young Abe not as a newcomer who
must "wrastle" to prove his right to exist, but as the mighty and feared
savior of the good-but-ineffectual. Here, Jack Armstrong and the Clary
boys have none of the folksy charm of the Conkle play, but are crypto-
fascists, harassing Ann Rutledge as she waits table at her father's inn
and setting about beating up Ninian Edwards, a visiting Whig politician
who opposes their FUhrer-Andrew jackson. Lincoln enters this scene
of terror and everything changes; he calmly interposes himself between
Jack and the visitor and insists that if jack and the boys want to fight
somebody it had better be he. They instantly back down and turn
generally doci I e. Jack says to N in ian Edwards: "All right! Abe
Lincoln's saved your hide. I' ll consent to callin' off the fight just
because he' s a friend of mine." Abe says as he sits down, "And also
because I'm the only one around here you can't lick."
The political subtext of the scene is clear: peace through strength.
Linco.ln can afford to be kind because he is the most powerful. As the
forces of Fascism gather, America must arm itself so that it, like Abe,
can be the defender of the weak, the restorer of civilization and justice.
The contemporary political reference of the play did not go unnoticed.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Sherwo.od after seeing the play, "Strange
how fundamentally people seem to have fought on the same issues
Robert E. Sherwood, Abe Lincoln in Illinois (New York: Scribner' s, 1937),
throughout our history!"
Only two years after the opening of Abe
Lincoln in Illinois Sherwood joined the Roosevelt administration,
becoming a kind of minister of propaganda for the war effort.
On a deeper level, both Lincoln plays offer another kind of
meaning to Depression audiences: sanctification through suffering. It's
surely significant that these plays and the other popular Lincoln
document of the thirties-John Ford's 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln, starring
Henry Fonda-emphasize to such an extent the poverty and humilia-
tions of Lincoln and a purgatorial misery at the death of his legendary
first love-Ann Rutledge. In both plays, Abe enters a dark night of the
soul upon the death of Ann; it is for him one of those shattering
experiences that drains all meaning from life but that leads to an
anagnorisis. In Prologue to Glory, Abe rushes out of the room where
he has watched Ann die and resists the comforting abstractions that her
relatives offer him; he bolts alone into the stormy night. In the
Sherwood play, Lincoln returns to Squire Green's house and reports
numbly the news of Ann's death. He stands at the door drenched with
rain, bareheaded, "looking older and grimmer" (Sherwood, 58) . He
has to be told what to do, led to a chair, made to stay indoors.
ABE: I'm making a poor exhibition of myself-and I'm
sorry-but-1 can't stand it. I can't live with myself any
longer. I've got to die and be with her again, or I'll go
crazy! [He goes to the door and opens it. The storm
continues.] I can't bear to think of her out there alone!
(Sherwood, 61)
Squire Green and his wife have to force Abe to go upstairs and try to
sleep. He has been staying up late during Ann' s illness reading
Hamlet. They are cautioned to watch him constantly for fear of what
he might do.
Lincoln recovers from his grief by moving from passion to percep-
tion. In Prologue to Glory this conversion occurs all at once, as Conkle
Quoted in John Mason Brown, Robert E. Sherwood: Mirror to His Times,
7896-7939 (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 385.
Sherwood served first as Deputy Coordinator of Information in the Foreign
Information Service (1941) for the Roosevelt administration, and then as director of
overseas operations for the newly organized Office of War Information (1942-1945) .
Accounts of Sherwood's career as propagandist can be found in John Mason Brown,
The Ordeal of a Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood and the Challenge of War (New
York: Harper and Row, 1970), 23-122; and Walter J. Meserve, Robert E. Sherwood:
Reluctant Moralist (New York: Pegasus, 1970), 172-190.
American History Plays 13
has Lincoln open a law book and, like St. Augustine in his ecstacy of
rebirth, read out the first sentence that catches his eye:
Now as municipal law-is a rule of civil conduct, command-
ing what is right and prohibiting what is wrong, it follows that
the primary and principal object of the law are Rights and
Wrongs (Conkle, 1 06).
Within an instant, Abe has made meaning from his suffering. If he
cannot understand cosmic justice, he will devote his life to enacting an
earthly justice, commanding-in the only way that a human being
can-Rights, and prohibiting Wrongs. Abe sets out to study law in
Springfield, and Conkle's play is over. From the depths of his suffering,
Lincoln here is set upon his path to glory, like an Oedipus triumphant.
Though Sherwood's play is considerably more nuanced in its
depiction of Lincoln's psycho-spiritual transformation, it follows the
same essential pattern from suffering to enlightenment. Sherwood
follows Lincoln to the point of his nomination for the presidency and
his departure from Springfield and thus has more opportunities to study
this Midwestern Hamlet of the 1850s. Lincoln undergoes a second
dark night when-in the midst of a deep depression and on the verge
of a complete mental breakdown-he breaks off his engagement to
Mary Todd and bolts out of the law practice to wander in the
wilderness in search of meaning. There Lincoln recovers his resolve.
He performs a miracle: saving the life of the young son of some
pioneers heading west. Amazed and grateful, they beg him to come
with them, but he declines. He goes back to Springfield, again
proposes to Mary Todd, accepting the ambitious public life that
marriage to her represents. As the next scene opens, a mighty Lincoln
is demolishing Stephen Douglas in an electoral debate.
If Booth Had Missed, written by a Columbia student named Arthur
Goodman, propels the Lincoln myth to the level of the fantastic.
play was first produced by the Morningside Players at Columbia and
proved so successful that it opened with a professional cast on
Broadway and ran for 20 performances in the darkest year of the
One might expect the play to consist of sentimental
wish-fulfillment and show Lincoln steering the nation skillfully through
Reconstruction and into a just and enlightened future. But Goodman
doesn't do that. Instead, he rewrites history entirely. Lincoln is
betrayed by renegade cabinet members who harbor their own
Arthur Goodman, If Booth Had Missed (New York: Samuel French, 1932),
dedication page.
ambitions for the presidency, and-because of a fool ish action by Mary
Todd Lincoln-he is charged with treason and nearly impeached by the
Senate. Again, Lincoln is portrayed as the suffering servant, attacked
from every political angle. AI ready loathed by Southerners, he is
publicly cursed and privately plotted against by Northerners who are
outraged at his generosity toward the defeated South. Through the
effects of a powerful speech in his own defense, lincoln is acquitted by
a margin of one vote. But the hero does not escape his martyrdom.
Crying, "Death is the penalty for treason!" an opposing senator shoots
Lincoln at point blank range." [LINCOLN, his hands clasped to his
heart, sways and falls into the arms of those nearest to him]"
(Goodman, 139). The play concludes with an "Epilogue":
Taps is played and then several patriotic airs are played in a
medley while the curtain is down. The curtain rises. A statue of
Lincoln is revealed in silhouette against an evening sky, with a
lighted city in the distance and a picket fence in the foreground.
"America" is sung-and after a suitable time the curtain descends.
Note: The statue effect is created by the actor standing on a
pedestal. (Goodman, 140)
These Lincoln plays of the 1930s resemble nothing so much as
Biblical narratives and Medieval saint plays. like the Suffering Servant
of Isaiah, I ike jesus Christ, I ike St. Meinrad, Lincoln suffers and dies for
the good of others in a narrative enactment of passion, sacrifice, and
atonement. The transformative power of the Lincoln myth was pursued
with new energy during the 1930s in answer to the acute suffering and
fear of the population. Lincoln was assigned the role in this cultural
theology of the God-man sent forth from the Father, George Washing-
ton. Both the biographical plays make lincoln a devoted reader of
Washington, a cultural progenitor whom Lincoln sees as a source of
guidance and inspiration. By the action of these plays and especially
by the fantasy play that exceeded them, Lincoln is beatified, sanctified,
apotheosized, made an object for meaning-through-identification, and,
at the same time, an icon to be worshiped. As with any Orthodox icon
or weeping statue of the Virgin, Lincoln's is a living presence inhabiting
a picture . .
American History Plays 15
Lincoln in silhouette: the final image from the Columbia University
production of If Booth Had Missed. From Theatre Arts Monthly 18
(1934), 559.
journal of American Drama and Theatre 5 (Fall 1993)
Mrs. Trollope Visits the Theatre:
Cultural Diplomacy
and Historical Appropriation
Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of travel books and
autobiographies describing and critiquing American culture before the
Civil War, Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans
arguably had and continues to have the greatest effect upon theatre
histories of the earlier nineteenth century. Mrs. Trollope left London
in November with one son, two daughters, a manservant, and Auguste
Hervieu (the thirty-three-year-old French emigre artist who would in
time make the twenty-four Hogarthian lithographs published with her
book), and arrived in New Orleans on Christmas Day 1827. The party
made its way to Cincinnati, where Mrs. Trollope took up residence for
about two years, from 10 February 1828 to early March 1830, leaving
that city a bankrupt. Her sojourn in Cincinnati was instrumental in
shaping Mrs. Trollope's views of American culture, views reflected in
her comments about the theatre in Baltimore, Washington, Philadel-
phia, and New York. On 5 August 1831, she embarked for England,
where she completed the "infamous" autobiography of her three years
and nine months in the United States. Published nearly simultaneously
in England and America in March 1832, by the end of the decade,
Domestic Manners of the Americans had seen five editions.
In 1831, Frances Troll ope made a flying five-week visit to New
York City, arriving in late April and leaving 30 May for Niagara Falls
and upstate New York. She describes three theatres in operation in
New York-the Park, the Bowery, and the Chatham. She attended two
of these on three separate occasions during her April-May visit: the
Chatham to see a dramatization of her friend Miss (Mary) Mitford's
novel Rienzi, and the Park, first to see Edwin Forrest as Damon, and,
again, to hear Mrs. Austin sing in Cinderella. She returned to New
York City from the Falls for a fortnight in june or july before departing
' Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Donald Smalley
(New York: Vintage Books, 1960), vii-l xii.
Mrs. Trollope
for England. Her book records no theatre visits during this time
(Trollope, 339-340) .
The significance of Mrs. Trollope's theatre-going in New York City
lies in the use to which her reviews of American audiences have been
put by theatre historians, namely to support a three-tiered class
structure, with one New York theatre in 1831 allocated to each social
stratum. The significance to readings of antebellum American theatre
and culture in that year, readings virtually unsupported by other
contemporaneous evidence, has been the wide licensing of a class
structure, indeed the assignment to these decades of "the emergence
of a middle class." The gender implications of this assignment,
moreover, must be doubly to segregate antebellum women audience
members, first to parts of the theatre based upon "respectability," and
then to a hierarchy of theatres based upon "class." I propose to
examine Mrs. Trollope's assessment of theatre in New York City and in
the United States, an assessment largely informed by her experiences
as a producer and entrepreneur in Cincinnati, and how that assessment
has, in turn, been brought to serve historiographical agendas
concerning the development of class and gender in the early nineteenth
The Trollope party was "too fresh from Europe to care much for
either" the French or English (language) theatres in New Orleans, but
amusements in Cincinnati formed a focus for Mrs. Trollope's attention,
both in her business life, which Domestic Manners carefully elides, and
in her book, in which Cincinnati cultural life is caustically critiqued.
Drawn to the city by its extensive trade and promise of work for
Auguste Hervieu, by this time nearly the family's sole support, Mrs.
Trollope joined with Hervieu in the management of a "Western
Museum." Founded in 1820 as a natural history and archaeological
repository, the Western Museum had expanded to panorama and wax
figures shortly before Mrs. Trollope's arrival in Cincinnati . Under her
inspiration, the show expanded to feature Henry Trollope as an
"Invisible Girl" who would answer patrons' questions, in English or
one of several foreign languages. Hervieu painted transparencies, while
the young American sculptor Hiram Powers (later internationally
renowned for his " Greek Slave") carved new figures in wax. Together,
Trollope, Hervieu, and Powers assembled a "Divine Comedy,"
depicti ng Dante' s inferno, purgatory, and paradise, that featured
mechanical spirits, monsters, mythic and divine characters, and a full
Theatre sources advancing class-specific theatre are cited in the text and
footnote 13.
range of sound and visual effects. "The Divine Comedy" was still
running to morally edified audiences a quarter century later, many
times refurbished and repaired by Powers and his successors and by the
Western Museum's several owners.
Frances Trollope took a dim view of the Museum's amusements,
but a bright view of the economic rewards more refined attractions
might produce. joined by her husband and eldest son in November
1828, Mrs. Trollope expressed in a letter her liking for her "remote but
very pretty nest," and laid plans for her"Bazaar," a sprawling enclosed
building that was part mercantile, part restaurant, coffeehouse, ice
cream parlor, and tavern, and home to an exhibition gallery, large
ballroom, and hall for panoramic displays. By the time her husband
and son left Cincinnati in january 1829, land had been bought and
contracts let to build and supply. The structure erected at Mrs.
Troltope's behest spiraled four stories to a rotunda in imitation of a
Turkish mosque, featured a Greek style colonnade, and was every-
where decorated with Moorish designs, arabesque windows, and
mosaics in imitation of the Alhambra. Hervieu's work included trompe
l'oeil windows and statuary, and a sequence of allegorical designs
brought to brilliant life by the introduction of gas lighting to Cincinnati.
The Bazaar, wholly impractical from a commercial perspective in both
its location and its goods, quickly threw Mrs. Trollope upon her
creditors, from whose clutches she sought to rescue herself with
entertainments, beginning in November 1829. Billed as musical
fantasia with recitations by actors, such as Mr. and Mrs. Alexander
Drake of the city and the touring joe Cowell, the entertainments failed
to become "the fashion." Mrs. Trollope's plan to turn her ballroom
into a resident theatre (probably for the Drakes, then in financial straits
of their own) vanished with the amusements shortly before Christmas
of that year. The indefatigable Hervieu soldiered on with an immense
canvas depicting Lafayette's arrival at Cincinnati in 1825 and featuring
every prominent citizen of the city. It attracted critical and popular
notice, but failed to forestall a sheriff's sale of Mrs. Trollope's
household goods or the escape of the party by steamboat in March
1830, with Hervieu's "Landing of Lafayette" as its major baggage.
The thirteen chapters-roughly a third-of Domestic Manners that
Mrs. Trollope devotes to her two years in Cincinnati focus upon the
See Trollope, 14, for the quote; see Smalley's introduction for the history of
the Western Museum.
The " pretty nest" is described in a letter cited by Smalley, xxxvi; the Bazaar
i s detail ed, xl -xliv.
Mrs. Trollope 19
"American" desire to make money. Significantly, she begins her
account of her residence in Ohio with an entire chapter devoted to the
lack of "refinement" in manners of both American men and women.
Amid complaints of few dinner parties and dull conversation,
independent servants, and the failure of men to read or write with
polish or elegance, "refinement" is described as most lacking in
patronage of the arts and of learning. "They have no concerts/' she
complains, "no public balls." The theatre is poorly attended; "ladies
are rarely seen there, and by far the larger proportion of females deem
it an offence against religion to witness the representation of a play."
Church attendance and dressing for worship is the focus for public
display; indeed Mrs. Trollope depicts American females as priest-ridden,
observing "I never saw, or read, of any country where religion had so
strong a hold upon the women, or a slighter hold upon the men."
Revivals and religious hysteria possess the women, which, when taken
with an over-refinement of manners, proved, in Mrs. Trollope's
judgment, detrimental to every kind of cultural exchange. Worse,
Domestic Manners complains, the multiplication of Christian sects by
"every tinker and tailor who chooses to claim a share in it," means that
"in the smaller cities and towns prayer-meetings take the place of
almost all other amusements."
Mrs. Trollope's sojourn in America coincided with a period of
religious revival. That American religious professions and practices of
this sort formed a great annoyance to her may be judged by the fact
that all or the greater portion of five chapters in Domestic Manners
concerning Cincinnati are devoted to religion. Indeed, hardly any
subject she handles elsewhere in these chapters escapes its
taint-servants using religious services as an excuse to walk out at
night, religion underpinning a populist democracy, antipathy to England
and other church states justified by American religious diversity and
''tolerance," but above all, and repeatedly, the lack of taste and
refinement that a concentration upon religion has produced. For these,
the women are most blamed. Male Americans, on the other hand, are
convinced that "any man's son may become the equal of any other
man's son, and the consciousness of this is a spur to exertion; [but] it
is also a spur to the coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of
respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their inter-
course with the highest and most refined." The cultural effect of these
failings of refinement was to keep Cincinnati's one theatre, the city's
The relevant chapters are 5 through 17. For general complaints see pp. 45,
53, 95, 136-138; for the quotes, see 74, 75, 109, and 110. Mrs. Trollope inveighs
against American religions in chapters 8 (esp. 80-81) and 11 .
sole place of amusement, "not a third full" despite the "excellent"
playing of Mr. and Mrs. Drake.
While Mrs. Trollope's assessment of the Drakes' art istry is
challenged by Joe Cowell, who played with them and for Mrs. Trollope
at the Bazaar, he does report seeing their School for Scandal in the fall
of 1829 play to a house of about a hundred people. Drake decided to
close the theatre, whi ch had a capacity of eight hundred, because "it
wasn't fashionable." Domestic Manners supports Cowell's recollection
that receipts were poor and the theatre "indifferently clean," conditions
that concerned Mrs. Trollope less than the manners of the audience.
Thi s passage is her f irst presentation of a theme she was to reprise with
al l the theatre visits recorded in her book:
Men came into the lower tier of boxes without their coats;
and I have seen shi rt sleeves tucked up to the shoulders; the
spitting was incessant, and the mixed smell of onions and
whiskey was enough to make one feel even the Drakes' acting
dearly bought by the obligation of enduring its accompani-
ments. The bearing and attitudes of the men are perfectly
indescribable; the heels thrown higher than the head, the en-
tire rear of the person presented to the audience, the whole
length supported on the benches, are among the varieties that
these exquisite posture-masters exhibit. The noises were
perpetual, and of the most unpleasant kind; the applause is
expressed by cries and thumping with the feet, instead of
clapping; and when a patriotic fit seized them, and "Yankee
Doodle" was called for, every man seemed to think his
reputation as a citizen depended on the noise he made.
Indeed, a poster of 1 May 1830 remonstrated with Cincinnati men to
be quiet and peaceful in the punchroom; to remove hats and sit in seats
(not on railings) in the auditorium; not to climb into boxes from the pit;
not to crack nuts or shy shells from the gallery; and not to pound on
seats and balustrades with sticks, stamp, scream, or otherwise "disturb
the harmony of the House." Hervieu's wel l-known sketch of the
For the quotes, see Trollope, 121 and 131 . A scholarly history of the Drake
fami ly's managerial career in the Ohio River states has never been written. Their
Cincinnati sojourn appears to extend from 1825 to 1831, at the Columbia Street
Theatre and to end shortly after Al exander Drake's early death in 1830.
Mrs. Trollope
theatre box amply captures many of these "disturbances."
By the summer of 1829, Mrs. Trollope reveals that she had
"become heartily tired of my prolonged residence in a place I cordially
disliked, and which moreover I began to fear would not be attended
with the favorable results we had anticipated." The "remote but pretty
nest" had become a debtor's prison. Confessing her "Cincinnati
speculation for my son" a failure, the bankrupt Mrs. Trollope and her
party left the city in March 1830, having "wasted health, time, and
money there." Domestic Manners, in covering the remaining
seventeen months of her travels in the United States, reports on the
theatre in four more American cities. When she arrived in Baltimore
in March, Mrs. Trollope found the theatre closed. "We were told," she
that it was very far from being a popular or fashionable
amusement. We were, indeed, told this everywhere through-
out the country, and the information was generally accompa-
nied by the observation that the opposition of the clergy was
the cause of it. But I suspect that this is not the principal
cause, especially among the men, who, if they were so
implicit in their obedience to the clergy, would certainly be
more constant in their attendance at the churches; nor would
they, moreover, deem the theatre more righteous because an
Eng I ish actor, or a French dancer, performed there; yet on
such occasions the theatres overflow. The cause, I think, is in
the character of the people. I never saw a population so
totally divested of gaiety; there is no trace of this feeling from
one end of the Union to the other. They have no fetes, no
fairs, no merry-makings, no music iri the streets, no Punch, no
puppet-shows. If they see a comedy or a farce, they may
laugh at it, but they can do very well without it; and the
consciousness of the number of cents that must be paid to
enter a theatre, I am very sure turns more steps from its door
than any rei igious feel ing.
Domestic Manners often depicts sex segregation as a direct cause
of unrefined behavior in activities as diverse as dining and steamboat
joe Coweli, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America
(New York: Harper & Bros., 1944), 87. The quote is Trollope, 133-134; the sketch
faces 329 in this edition, and is widely reproduced.
The quotes are Trollope, 157, 179, and 209, respectively.
travel. Similarly, the failure of the theatre to thrive in male-dominated
Washington "for more than a few weeks at a time" is related to the
absence of the legislators' wives. (Mrs. Trollope lived in the city in
April 1830.) Visiting Philadelphia the following June, Mrs. Trollope
was unconvinced that a large Arch Street Theatre audience, including
many well-dressed women assembled for a lecture by Fanny Wright, in
any way challenged her opinion, drawn in Cinci nnati , that "the
fashionables" did not attend public entertainments. Similarly, at a
performance of King Lear at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theatre by
Junius Brutus Booth and Mrs. Duff on 23 June 1830-Mrs. Trollope
thought it "very bad"-the "prettily decorated" theatre is described as,
once again, given over to unrefined patrons:
It was not the fashionable season for the theatres, which
presume must account for the appearance of the company in
the boxes, which was anything but elegant; nor was there
more decorum of demeanor than I had observed elsewhere;
I saw one man in the lower tier of boxes deliberately take off
his coat that he might enjoy the refreshing coolness of shirt
sleeves; all the gentlemen wore their hats, and the spitting was
Though the behavior indicted is male, Mrs. Trollope suggests that
women are equally culpable for failing to exercise a "fashionable" and
control! i ng cultural presence.
For a year, beginning in April 1830, Mrs. Trollope lived in Stoning-
ton, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, writing her book, recovering
from illness, and wrestling with poverty and isolation. By April,
Hervieu's efforts provided the cash for a final trip, to New York City
and Niagara Falls. The party arrived in the city that month for a five
week stay, during which Mrs. Trollope visited the Park, Bowery, and
Chatham theatres. Because much has been made of her observations
in Domestic Manners, I cite her remarks concerning these theatres in
For segregated dining and travel, see Trol lope, 156 and 183. The comments
about Washington theatre are on 218, Fanny Wright's lecture audience is on 262-
263, the Booth-Duff performance is on 270-271 . The date of the performance is
speci fied in the Appendi x of Engagements in Stephen Archer' s Junius Brutus Booth,
Theatrical Prometheus (Carbondale: Southern Il linois University Press, 1992), 260.
For a characteristic linking of lounging, undress, and spitting by men and the
absence of cul tural influence by women, see 156.
Mrs. Trollope
There are three theatres at New York, all of which we visited.
The Park Theatre is the only one licensed by fashion, but the
Bowery is infinitely superior in beauty; it is indeed as pretty
a theatre as I ever entered, perfect as to size and proportion,
elegantly decorated, and the scenery and machinery equal to
any in London, but it is not the fashion. The Chatham is so
utterly condemned by bon ton, that it requires some courage
to decide upon going there; nor do I think my curiosity would
have penetrated so far, had I not seen Miss Mitford's Rienzi
advertised there. It was the first opportunity I had had of
seeing it played, and spite of very indifferent acting, I was
delighted. The interest must have been great, for till the
curtain fell, I saw not one quarter of the queer things around
me; then I observed in the front row of a dress-box a lady
performing the most maternal office possible; several
gentlemen without their coats, and a general air of contempt
for the decencies of life, certainly more than usually revolting.
At the Park Theatre I again saw the American Roscius, Mr.
Forrest. He played the part of Damon, and roared, I thought,
very unlike a nightingale. I cannot admire this celebrated
Another night we saw Cinderella there; Mrs. Austin was
the prima donna, and much admired. The piece was
extremely well got up, and on this occasion we saw the Park
Theatre to advantage, for it was filled with well-dressed
company; but still we saw many "yet unrazored lips" polluted
with the grim tinge of the hateful tobacco, and heard, without
ceasing, the spitting, which of course is its consequence.
New York newspapers for April-May 1831 verify the productions
that Mrs. Trollope says she saw. La Cenerentola (Rossini's opera of
CinderellaL was sung fifteen times between 19 April and 31 May, and
played as frequently as every other night during the weeks of 3-19 May.
Momentarily overcoming her antipathy to Forrest, whose Hamlet she
left when it played in Cincinnati, Mrs. Trollope had only one chance
Trollope, 339-340. Mrs. Trollope also describes a black theatre in New York
"in which none but negroes perform. At this theatre a gallery is appropriated to
such whites as choose to visit it; and here only are they permitted to sit; following
in this, with nice etiquette, and equal justice, the arrangement of the white theatres,
in all of which is a gallery appropriated solely to the use of the blacks" (350). Mrs.
Trollope observes that the manners of black men, in uncovering for black women
and refraining from tobacco, were superior to those of white men.
to see him star as Damon at the Park-4 May 1831-during his
engagement there. Similarly, Rienzi was acted at the Chatham only
once-16 May 1831 . The Bowery poses a larger puzzle in that Mrs.
Trollope appears to have seen work there, but she does not specify
whether it was the Bowery's famous melodramas, Thomas Hamblin (its
proprietor) as Virgin ius, the spectacular Elephant of Siam, or (perhaps
forgiving his Lear in Philadelphia) any part of a star engagement by
Junius Brutus Booth. Domestic Manners similarly passes by Hackett in
jonathan in England and The Lion of the West at the Park, as well as
Alexina Fisher, Master Burke, and other stars and attractions featured
at New York playhouses. The number of playhouses was reduced to
two when the Chatham closed in April (reopening 3 May), but though
Mrs. Trollope would have had no lack of those amusements for which
she longs throughout Domestic Manners, she confines the balance of
her remarks in the book to admiration of New York's buildings,
asylums, waterworks, and natural setting, to inveighing against the
religiosity of American women and the bad breath (whiskey and
tobacco) of the men, and to dismissing "all the exhibitions in New
York" as inferior in quality to the art works of Europe. Yet in speaking
with longing of New York's aristocracy, of the expense of the fashions
and amenities that the city offers, Mrs. Trollope must conclude, "were
all America like this fair city, and all, no, only a small proportion of its
population like the friends we left there, I should say that the land was
the fairest in the world."
Though her views of culture in the United States, whether well- or
i 11-received, now largely seem remote, they have recently enjoyed a
particular currency among historians. In his 1968 Melodrama
Unveiled, David Grimsted observes that "the class lines dividing box,
pit, and gallery were often transferred to particular theatres. Thus in
New York in the 1830s the Park Theatre was associated with the upper
classes, the Bowery with the middle, and the Chatham with the lower."
Grimsted's assessment authorizes (and has in turn been authorized in)
such accounts as Stuart Blum in's 1989 The Emergence of the Middle
Class, wherein we read that
during the 1830s and 1840s ... entire theaters became
associated with specific classes. In New York the Park
became a fashionable theater, whi le the Chatham served a
1 1
I am indebted to Margaret Knapp for verification of information in
advertisements in the New York Daily Advertiser and the Commercial Advertiser for
April-May 1831. Mrs. Trollope's view of Forrest as Hamlet is given in Domestic
Manners, 132; of New York art, 345; and in praise of the city, 403.
Mrs. Trollope
distinctly working-class audience. The Bowery was superior
to the Chatham, but by the 1840s . . . had become a raucous
center of working-class entertainment.
Here, not only is there a tripartite class containment system, but
slippage at the Bowery over time from the upper-middle to the lower-
middle (the raucous working) class. Lawrence Levine, in 1988, speaks
with confidence of highbrow and lowbrow, following Peter Buckley's
1984 dissertation text in the matter of the emergence of a cultural
hierarchy in ante and postbellum America, and Bruce McConachie's
1992 Melodramatic Formations takes the class triad as an organizing
principle in the triumph of what he terms business-class theatre.
It is r.ot possible to pursue here the ramifications of class in
antebellum America, and indeed I have done so elsewhere.
What I
would like to suggest is a distinction, traceable to Mrs. Trollope,
between "fashion" and "class," without which her views can too
readily become soda-historical "facts." Indeed, the "fact" of class
divisions in antebellum America is itself a discourse among histori-
ans-Arno Mayer's lower middle class, Michael Katz's working class,
and Blumin's blue-collar class, as distinct from the bourgeois, middle
class, or white-collar class, of which, economically, however, these and
other historians have them as part. Those historians who discuss
culture tend to authorize one another as evidence, or to cite
contemporaneous observations concerning fashion or refinement that
directly reflect Frances Trollope's criticisms. Indeed, as early as 1833,
a New York Mirror article credited her with reforming the spitting and
lounging in theatres. That same year, Patrick Shirreff noted in his A
Tour through North America the cries of "Trollope! Trollope!" that
greeted the spectator who turned his back to the stage during Fanny
Kemble's engagement at the Park. Indeed, "Trollope!" was still cried
See David Grimsted, Melodrama Unveiled (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1968), 56; Stuart Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class (Cambridge:
Cambrige University Press, 1989), 144-145; Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow:
The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1988); Peter Buckley," 'To the Opera House': Culture and Society
in New York City, 1820-1860," (Ph.D. diss., SUNY-Stony Brook, 1984); and Bruce
McConachie, Melodramtic Formations (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992).
In Antebellum Stagings: Theatre Culture in the United States, 1825-1860
after mid-century if someone lounged in a theatre.
Domestic Manners of the Americans makes clear that during her
residence in Cincinnati, Frances Trollope found male American
behavior unrefined in its lounging, fumeous breath, noise, spitting, and
casual dress in public, precisely the things of which she and the
Cincinnati poster of 1 May 1830 complained. Concomitantly, male
attention to business and female attention to religion and the home
promoted, in Mrs. Trollope's judgment, sex segregation in public and
suppressed cultural amusements of all kinds. In this, Baltimore and
Washington fare no better than Cincinnati in her book. In Philadelphia,
however, with its larger sex-integrated audiences, Mrs. Trollope's
standard theatre litany of dishabi lie, hat-wearing, and spitting takes a
turn toward fashion. Here, as in New York, the theatre "licensed by
fashion" or "not the fashion" or "condemned by bon ton" does not
signal greater refinement in audience behavior. The breast-feeding
woman and undressed men of the Chatham are rather more revolting
to Mrs. Trollope than the Park audience to advantage dressed, but both
houses vibrated with the ceaseless spitting of tobacco chewing men.
To what, then, should we attribute the "fashion" (or lack of it) of
these New York theatres? All three playhouses were located north of
the commercial district along major promenades and within a few
blocks of one another. Two of the wealthy men who built the Bowery
Theatre lived within a block of it, and all three theatres shared their
blocks with brothels. The family audience that the Chatham sought in
admitting children free, eliminating galleries, and lowering box prices
was the same audience that lived near and patronized the Park and the
Bowery. Repertories and stars were the same at all three theatres and
ticket prices were almost the same. To a foreigner such as Mrs.
Trollope, it was difficult to understand why a badly ornamented, dingy,
and rat-infested playhouse such as the Park......:..for so Joe Cowell and
Fanny Kemble described it in the 1830s-should be popular with the
Arno J. Mayer, "The Lower Middle Class as Historical Problem," journal of
Modern History 47, 3 (1975): 409-436; Michael B. Katz, "Social Class in North
American Urban History," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 11, 4 (Spring 1981 ):
579-605; Stuart Blumin, "The Hypothesis of Middle-Class Formation in Nineteenth-
Century America: A Critique and Some Proposals," American Historical Review
90.2 (April 1985): 299-338. A contemporaneous source frequently cited is George
G. Foster, who used such terms in his books as "middling sorts" and "middling
classes." See George Rogers Taylor, "Gaslight Foster: A New York 'Journeyman
Journalist' at Mid-Century," New York History 58 Ouly 1977): 297-312. For some
of the contemporaneous effects of Mrs. Trollope' s book, see the New York Mirror,
12 January 1833, Shirreff's 1833 book, and Henry T. Tuckermann's America and
Her Commentators (1864) for but a few among the many references to "trolloping."
Mrs. Trollope 27
fashionable, and the newly built and refurbished, brightly gas-lit
Bowery should not be fashionable.
In the absence of the parameters of aristocracy with which she was
familiar, Mrs. Trollope imposed those of containment. Given the lack
of behavioral controls in public places, no American theatre could be
truly refined or fashionable-except to the uncultured masses making
up the American audience. "Fair cities," like "remote but pretty nests"
in Trollope's view, suffered equally from a lack of the refinement
inculcated by the presence of an aristocracy based upon more than a
distinction between mechanic and merchant, for the one spit as readily
as the other took off his coat, and neither read nor conversed.
Moreover, where refinement was measured in terms of familiarity with
arts and letters, Frances Trollope could be, as she was in Europe, a
valued guest and retainer, fashionable despite her penury, welcome
among those whom she could never afford to entertain. As an
ambassador of refinement and fashion thus understood, Mrs. Trollope
could close her embassy to America only on a sour note. It is more
than a little ironic, then, that her brand of cultural diplomacy, so
trenchantly written for antebellum Americans in her Domestic Manners,
should in its creation and recreation of the foreign, partially prompt a
reinscription of European class views within contemporary theatre and
cultural histories.
For the addresses of the Bowery Theatre organizers, see Theodore j. Shank,
" The Bowery Theatre, 1826-1836," (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University; 1956), 5. For
brothels and theatre, see Timothy J. Gilfoyle, "City of Eros: New York City,
Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920," (Ph.D. diss., Columbia
University, 1987), 82-84,100-107, and maps,46-49, published underthesametitle
by W.W. Norton in 1992. For Cowell's impressions of the theatre, see Thirty Years,
56-57; for Fanny Kemble' s impressions, see William C. Young, Documents of
American Theatre History, Vol. 1: Famous American Playhouses, 1716-1899
(Chicago: American Library Association, 1973), Park Theatre entry.
See Trollope, 155, for the American distinction between mechanic and
merchant, a distinction lost on the author of Domestic Manners.
journal of American Drama and Theatre 5 (Fall 19.93)
Alan Schneider's Entrances:
Autobiography, Theater and Style
in an American Frame
Anxious American theater historians sometimes mistake autobiogra-
phy for reliable theater history, despite repeated cautions not to
In Alan Schneider's case the temptation to take report for
fact seems especially great; because of his part in the foundation of the
post-war theatrical avant-garde, his directed work has a legendary
historical status that Entrances, as an autobiography, is called upon to
substantiate. The man who first represented Beckett and Albee in the
American theater must somehow be a figure who represents the best
of American culture, since his tastes were quickly converted into the
orthodoxy of a Theater of the Absurd that would dominate theatrical
experiment throughout the 1960s. As a director, Schneider was acutely
aware of the relation of writing to theatricality; this awareness of
performance i n his memoir pervades the text, and also makes the
memoir extremely interesting as an example of how American artistic
identity is usually forged through a ritual of dissent.
Setting aside any tendency to equate fact with narrative, to place
absolute confidence in the report of memory, the other values of
Entrances soon emerge. If the empirical facts that the book describes
are in doubt, the autobiography is itself still a kind of historical fact, a
document within a tradition of writing that becomes what one critic has
called "a model of I iterate culture itself and the social circumstances in
which individual personality is discovered, asserted and conf irmed (or
The first version of this paper was presented at the University of Wisconsin,
Madison, at a special Alan Schneider conference organized by Robert Skloot and
Barbara Clayton, 9-11 March 1990. Many of the conference' s papers were
concerned with " setting the record straight" on Schneider' s contributions. For a
representative " cautionary tale" about autobiography and methodology see Thomas
Postl ewait, " Autobiography and Theater History," Interpreting the Theatrical Past:
Essays in the Historiography of Performance, eds. Postlewait and Bruce McConach ie
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989).
Alan Schneider's Entrances
denied) and community potentially established."
The stage director's
situation guarantees that, despite the material heaviness of theater in
performance, the "art" of the director's work wi II disappear into the
ephemeral history of the stage. Schneider, who made some films and
tapes, who worked with the scrutiny of a sometimes attentive national
press, who inspires posthumous colloquia, is luckier than most; some
parts of his artistic life will remain. Yet Entrances, too, is an original
Schneider, and so I propose to treat it as such, to look past its historical
report into its artistic structure, to find the values, drama, and artistic
connections embedded in the style of the book as a production made
of words, meant to make a story contemporary for some American
Entrances inscribes the values, associations and individuality of the
man that it identifies, and consequently yields different kinds of
historical information than a more mundane record of facts and events
can provide, information that establishes a place for the book in a
characteristically American tradition of literary expression and the
ideology of dissent.
My commentary on Schneider's book centers around the way this
American tradition, most accurately out I ined by Sacvan Bercovitch, has
provided the pattern from which the fabric of Schneider's life story has
been cut. Bercovitch's description of American authority as a Puritan
"errand," fusing secular life with sacred art, establishes a kind of basic
script, from which specific literary productions can be seen to have
been "conceptualized" in an un-ending proliferation of written
performances. To a certain extent, then, I hope to use Schneider's
"theatrical autobiography" (which is not quite a show-biz memoir) to
trace a set of tropes that extend Bercovitch's arguments about the
mythic structure of the American artistic tradition into an interactive
study of how the stylistics of theatrical dialogue merge with those of
narrative report to create a distinct subjectivity. jean Starobinski notes
how "Every autobiography-even when it limits itself to pure
narrative-is a self-interpretation. Style here assumes the dual function
of establishing the relation between the 'author' and his own past; but
also, in its orientation toward the future, of revealing the author to his
future readers."
Through the orienting form of Bercovitch's
Albert E. Stone, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of
American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 5.
Jean Starobinski, "The Style of Autobiography," in Literary Style: A
Symposium, ed. and trans. Seymour Chatman (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1971 ), 286.
Americanist framework we can see how Schneider not only fulfills a
myth, but reshapes the stylistic habits of his major influences into a
I iterary work that is not only typically American but also. discretely
Starting simply, I considered the title. In a first attempt to place
Entrances in some familiar context, I browsed through the stacks for
some similar books by Schneider's peers. Uta Hagen's book seemed
sure to provide a lead; after all, it's called Sources.
And her collection
of affective memories rightly indicates the role of nature and introspec-
tion in her method acting, even though it lacks much specific reference
to her work as Martha_in Schneider's production of Who's Afraid of
Virginia Woolf. These sources were too personal to provide a context
for comparison, but then, that was their point-that the art was in her,
not in the words on the page. Undeterred, I tried some other
promising memoirs: jed Harris, A Dance on the High Wire-heroic but
risky; Herbert Blau, Take Up the Bodies-an act to follow Harris?;
Cheryl Crawford, One Naked Individual-no pictures; Tyrone Guthrie,
A Life in the Theater-not too painful, considering jose Quintero's
alternative, If You Don't Dance They Beat You. Finally I had to stop
in deference to Harold Clurman's cautionary tale, All People Are Fa-
mous.5 Sometimes the titles were apt, even emblematic, so I was
encouraged to read into Schneider's title a complexity that most of the
books above (Biau's excepted) could not bear: Entrances then becomes
a beginning, an invitation, an attitude, a testimonial and, not too
surprisingly, a play.
The book is structured like a well-made drama (albeit with a few
Brechtian interruptions and quotable I ines), and, as such, it describes
a "rising action" that the curve of history can rarely match, though the
formal gesture works to report the increasing complexity of a busy
career in a small world.
Schneider's situation as a cultural outsider
Uta Hagen, Sources (New York: PAJ Press, 1983).
jed Harris, A Dance on the High Wire (New York: Crown, 1979); Herbert
Blau, Take Up the Bodies (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982);
Cheryl Crawford, One Naked Individual (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977); Tyrone
Guthrie, A Life in the Theater (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959); jose Quintero, If
You Don't Dance They Beat You (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974); Harold Clurman,
All People Are Famous (Instead of an Autobiography) (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
Jovanovich, 1974).
The standard source is Stephen Stanton, "An Introduction to the Well-made
Play," in Camille and Other Plays (New York: Hill & Wang, 1957), while for
Brechtian interrupt ion, it would be Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans.
Anna Bostock (london: NLB, 1973).
Alan Schneider's Entrances 31
gets established in "First Acts," four chapters of juvenile exposition that
hold a drama of their own as they narrate the story of Schneider's
refugee family, but they conclude with the narrator's entrance into the
drama of American theatrical life. The book's rising action ensues
when study, teaching, romance and occasional work form a dozen
unsteadily spiralling movements toward the top of the professional
heap. "Third Acts" includes the obligatory scenes, descriptions of the
work with Albee and Beckett at the Cherry Lane, the spelling out of the
"ABCs of success." And the denouement emphasizes the discovery
that, when the play is done, the work is not likely to be finished; the
next installment still needs to be written, even when the illusion of
progressive self-making is clearly dwindling into accomplishment, and
the narrative itself must close.- Schneider's self-conscious plot-curve
carries the weight of dramatic irony, not only because of what we
know about how his plans for a second book were cut short by his
accidental death, but also through the fabular Brechtian titles of the
framing notes: "What's Prologue is Past," and the closing "Finale: The
Running of the Water." The well-made play of intrigue notoriously
trivialized the great moments of history; like Chekhov, one of his
favorites, Schneider collapses the dependability of coincidence into the
larger design of the world, remarking how the "years have brought me
to a sense that my life in the theater, arrived at so accidentally and
erratically, finally had some shape and meaning."
There is a kind of
predestination at work in Schneider's perspective, though its meaning
also depends upon the theater itself. For the power of the stage, I ike
the American tradition, derives its value at least in some part from its
ability to contain even the action of doubt (which is not quite the same
as a meta-theatrical conceit).
Not coincidentally, Schneider's book has a subtitle: "An American
Director's journey." More genres spring quickly tom ind: quest, travel
book, bildungsroman, or picaresque novel. The quest comes across
clearly, through evidence of a career built sol idly enough that it can
tolerate hindsight; success was sought and attained by Schneider in
both artistic and-important because they can then be dismissed-
commercial terms. The American National Theater is offered as an
illusory grail, but even that ideal object is seen by Schneider to have
been paradoxically attained by the national Regional Theater of the
Alan Schneider, Entrances: An American Director's journey (New York:
Viking Penguin, 1986). For this reading of Chekhov see A. P. Chudakov, Chekhov's
Poetics (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1983).
The travel book is there, too, first in his notes on the escape
from Russia and the qualified pleasures of Ellis Island, and then in the
chapters on adventures in England and the Continent-both romantic
retreat and ritual challenge. Though the picaresque remains largely
repressed, each important place in Schneider's life is dramatized, and
even the tedium of a commuter's daily passages can become an
occasion for courage, not complaint. Yet it is as a_ novel of education,
of hope and disappointment, that the book makes its greatest
impression. In the tradition since Augustine, autobiography has
featured a ritual narrative of sin and subsequent conversion (at least
from its male writers).
Schneider's narrative contains a related, but
reversed, moral charge that demonstrates how the Augustinian line can
be integrated with an American narrative of dissenting naturalization.
Here it becomes necessary to cite an exemplary passage about
"Abram" Schneider's childhood in rural
Some months after we had come, a Pol ish boy of my own
age, eight or nine, and related to the tai lor's family, arrived in
the village. Both outsiders, he and I hit it off. We ate our
sandwiches together, shared secret fantasies, walked the
creek's stones together. One day the boy was ambushed on
his way home by a pack of schoolmates, beaten severely, and
left helpless and crying in a ditch. When Mr. Monahan
questioned him, he said that it was I who had beaten him, no
one else. I couldn't believe he had accused me, but he
would no longer talk to or even look at me.
My parents and Mr. Monahan knew I couldn't have been
guilty. They explained that the boy was complimenting me
by accusing me, but I never recovered from what I considered
a horrible betrayal. Friendship, already not abundant, became
an even more cherished commodity, and betrayal, the
harshest pain of all. My sense of separation from the local
kids grew. When they weren't making fun of my jewishness,
Alan Schneider, " One Theater," National Theater Conference Bulletin 4.3
Oune 1944): 3-10. Schneider also published some notes from an NTC-sponsored
tour of Europe, " Another Part of the Elephant," NTC Bulletin 11.4 (December
1949): 19-28.
John Freccero, "Autobiography and Narrative, " Reconstructing Individualism;
Autonomy, Individuality, and.the Self in Western Thought, eds. Thomas C. Heller
et. al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986). A feminist alternative is
represented by Estelle Jelinek, Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980).
Alan Schneider's Entrances
they would mock me for being a "Rooshian," although most
of them didn't know where or what "Rooshia" was .... So
I concentrated on my schoolwork, improved my mathematical
abilities-we were in the fourth grade just getting into
fractions-and tried to read the entire contents of the Waynes-
boro, Pennsylvania, library seven miles in the other directi on
(Entrances, 28-29).
This episode, as the later chapters progress, takes on the signifi-
cance of a moral paradigm, a parable that conditions and possibly
predicts the dynamics of much more serious later professional conflicts.
As Martin Esslin pointed out, Schneider' s is an "American success story
and, more than that, the record of a working life in an environment that
reproduces more intensely than perhaps any other working milieu the
human involvements, triumphs, disappointments and betrayals that
beset any career."
Edward Albee, too, confirms this characteristic
feature of betrayal and moral conflict in the book's preface, when he
observes that "the number of people who betrayed Alan is staggering.
The number of people who disappointed him is even larger, but, given
his standards, it is not surprising. "
Though the book repeats this
moral lesson-the root of its bildungsroman aspect-in innumerable
variations, the scenario remains remarkably the same; desperate,
unhappy people who lack understanding sacrifice their loyalty to
preserve their self-esteem (or money, which is often the same thing).
The litany of specific wrongs can be left for more empirically minded
historians to evaluate; I will turn instead to some other implications of
the ethical narrative structure, some questions about the book as
cultural narrative that-it is hoped-avoids "the pejorative or adversarial
use of ideological analysis" while still contextualizing its ideas.
When Schneider formulated the paradoxical unity of the nation-
al/regional theater, he described on an institutional level the workings
of Bercovitch's persuasive contemporary theory of American culture, an
account of how a unified nation of unique individuals formulates a
Essl in, " Entrances," New York Times Book Review, 26 January 1986, 14.
Edward Albee, " Preface," in Schneider, Entrances, x.
Sacvan Bercovitch, " Afterword," Ideology and Classic American Literature,
eds. Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986),
closure for the political paradox at its center.
American thought
thrives on an ideology that requires rejection and dissent as a ritual of
membership. The Russian Jew Schneider, because of his differences,
is characteristically American, in the great tradition of national art and
politics. The "natural" environs of his childhood mirror Thoreau's
tenure at Walden Pond, and the scene of the Polish boy's rejection
recalls Thoreau's celebrated night in jail (however self-inflicted), while
the myths of Lincoln, the frontier and the Puritan past echo throughout.
I don't mean to reduce the effect of the real pain and suffering that
Schneider felt, vividly recorded in his descriptions of Russian
persecution, childhood beatings, and anti-Semitic discrimination; he
lived a hard life. But this hard life was won in the context of a culture
that values pioneers most especially, even as it creates them through
injustices, the records of which "center on the paradox of an
antagonistic literature that is somehow also culturally representative."
The flexibility of the cultural situation is clear in the impact of his
childhood report from backwoods America, for when superstitious
schoolmates rejected the young Schneider for having "killed Christ,"
they inadvertently made a martyr of him in the tradition that they value
most, in the spirit of forgiveness and new beginnings, in the image of
the self-made man who might later make himself in autobiography, too.
This American intellectual situation typically finds its expression in
a symbolic action typified by"the rejection of American culture in the
name of American values."
Off-Broadway, too, represents this
tendency on an institutional level; it is yet another New Jerusalem that
artistic voyagers built together (in the process of building themselves).
Entrances, then, corresponds to this emphasis on new beginnings, on
working through betrayal to a triumph made more satisfying by
difficulty. Schneider seems remarkably uncertain about his reasons for
rejecting offers for film direction or large-scale Broadway productions.
He reports after Anastasia that he "didn;t really want to become part
of the Establishment, although some part of me did hanker for that.
See for example Sacvan Bercovitch, The American jeremiad (Madison,
Wise.: Wisconsin University Press, 1978), The Puritan Origins of the American Self
(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975), and Rites of Assent (London:
Routledge, 1993). I doubt that the theory needs significant adjustment for its
application to Jewish Americans.
Bercovitch, "Afterword," Ideology and Classic American Literature, eds.
Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 428.

This quotation is from notes on a class that Bercovitch gave at the School
of Criticism and Theory, Dartmouth College, Summer 1987.
Alan Schneider's Entrances
'Success' actually bothered me a little; accomplishment-however that
might be defined-didn't" (Entrances, 208). In fact, the scenario for
this rejection of conventional success had been formulated succinctly
by Schneider many years before, in much the same context; he
describes this American anxiety clearly in the prologue, when he recalls
that: "When I was in high school, in Baltimore, I wrote a short story
... . about an actor who, at the last moment, walked off the platform
where he was to accept the Academy Award. and vanished into the
Hollywood night, to think" (Entrances, xiv). This confession, again, has
the paradoxical effect of sealing Schneider's conformity through an act
of protest; and he becomes, in the memoir, the director with whom
American mavericks can identify most closely. Scholars, perhaps even
more than others, admire this liminal trope; Schneider even turns up in
Marvin Carlson's study of the semiotics of theater architecture.
One of the other characteristic elements of this symbolic drama of
exclusion is the retrieval of truth through sacrifice; Victor Turner might
call the return from exile with some special, valuable knowledge a
"redressive action."
In Schneider's case, the vision quest brings us
Samuel Beckett, accepted here as a source of genius, and the most
significant of the masters' voices that can be charted in the book. As
a director, Schneider's principal project is to mediate the voice of the
foreign writer in terms that render it relevant and coherent for the
American audience that views the work. To this end, a large portion
of the book's style tends to grapple with Beckett, using the sorts of
strategies for the containment of the "precursor's" style that Harold
Bloom categorized in The Anxiety of Influence, ranging from deliberate
misreading through contradiction to the purgation and absorption of the
master's voice. Such a dramatic pattern mimics and repeats the
conditioning containment of the American tradition and adds a second,
psycho-stylistic level to the ritual of resistance in Schneider's narrative
account of identity.
Beckett writes fiction, particularly drama;
Schneider writes history, a narrative in all but its tense outlines, yet one
that contains drama. In Beckett, place is nowhere in particular,
"placeness"; in Schneider the place is specific, local. Reference to
character is always grounded in concrete particulars for Schneider, not
Marvin Carlson, Places of Performance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play
(New York: PAJ, 1982).
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford
University Press, 1973).
traced in essential outline. Schneider's mode is direct; the painful
question, even if embarrassing, must be breached, e.g. "Why are the
faces red in Endgame?" Beckett speaks through the character,
indirectly; painful questions, known too well, must be avoided, and the
answer is a question, "Why is Werther's coat green?" Not all
influences are oppositions; both men share a love for laconic wit.
Beckett's understatements evoke metaphysical depths, Schneider's the
unspoken moral imp I ications of human relationships-"Scout's honor."
And while Beckett's economy slips into progressive lessness,
Schneider's quips are offered in contrast to a torrent of congenial
The structure of oppositions even implies complementarities.
Wolfgang lser has observed that "Beckett's works are a continual
(though never completed) 'exit,' and each stage exit is only a starting
point for more exiting," contra Entrances.
The reductive implication
of essential absence in Beckett's texts can be supplemented by
Schneider through direction; his literary, interpretive tension with
Beckett surfaces on the stage as a sustained prosopopoeia, in which the
threnody of Beckett's nostalgia resolves through Schneider's concentra-
tion on the presence of performance. Dramatic excesses suture textual
lack through the profusion of meanings in Schneider's theatrical
augmentations of I iterary signs; the Beckett productions close artistic
rivalry into an indiscernible singularity (accessible in Endgame even to
the accidental clanking of radiators).
The almost scriptural authority of Beckett and its theatrical
supplementation can be observed just as clearly, through converse
example, in the story of Schneider's sea voyage with Thornton Wilder,
another (would-be) master. Schneider resisted Wilder on the cruise
because Wilder tried to script his direction for him, tried to interpret
Beckett's Endgame for Schneider while the latter merely played at being
stage director. Schneider's rejection of this Wilder "scenario" for their
relationship was pre-figured in the structure of his first encounter with
the playWright's work, as an actor playing a stage manager in another
man's production of Pullman Car Hiawatha. Such a structure threatens
to spoil the identity of a stage director; an American director can hardly
play at the part and feel like the genuine article, for theatrical identity
in the Puritan tradition is always suspect. Schneider only became
comfortable with Wilder's works later, as a "real" director, when his
supplement to the text included the power to direct yet another
Wolfgang lser, " When is the End Not the End? The Idea of Fiction in
Beckett," in On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York:
Grove, 1986), 47.
Alan Schneider's Entrances 37
person's performance of the "stage manager." Only in the
self-conscious devices of framing or the intimate details of Entrances
does Wilder's influence emerge in Schneider's writing style; his dialect
ski II shows up as an authenticating technique, not too surprisingly,
when Schneider writes the voice of Beckett: "It's ahl wrahng! He's
doing it ahl wrahng!" This stylistic "cacography," using one master's
tricks to record another, contravenes Wilder's impulse to rewrite
Beckett, making graphic Schneider's resistance to being cast in an
unauthentic role. Wilder, like the similarly inflected Russians who also
get dialect treatment, pops in and out of the memoir as if he were a
minor family member in The Long Christmas Dinner.
Another member of this stylistic patrimony is not a father but an
orphan wi th an allegorical temper, Edward Albee. like Beckett, Albee
plays with absence, yet for him absence is rather like the trace of a lost
original. For Albee, a production, like the house in Tiny Alice, is a
"replica," not quite so noble a thing as a play, and far from the quality
of personal artistic imagination, no matter how "essential to stage
truth" the director may seem to be. Albee, who has advertised the
polemical stance that "No performance of a play that is halfway decent
is ever as good as the performance the author saw when he wrote it,"
eventually sutured the formal gap of theatrical translation by working
to become his own director, a strategy that closes a gap of imagination
if not of representation.
Schneider reverses the stage/page dynamic
through historical narrative, containing the memory of both reading the
plays and directing their performances in an authoritative account of
the Albee productions that is laced with amusing-if occasionally
taunting-anecdotes. If the supplement of production can't adequately
cover the anxious gap of interpretation, the return to literature in his
own memoir closes the problematic relationship for Schneider by
reasserting the authority of writing. And once again the use of stylistic
semaphores, like Albee's frequent italic emphasis, returns to refer to
Beckett, as in the quoted speech in which Schneider emphasizes that
he directed, "the first full realization in America (italics mine [A.S.]) of
a work by Samuel Beckett" (Entrances, 276) . Entrances, unlike early
Albee, is never a word game, never a ghosted "child," but it contains
those stylistic tropes through an insider's account that nevertheless
maintains the tone of a report from somewhere above the fray.
If one of the objections to ideological analysis of the sort that
Bercovitch exemplifies is its erasure of free agency-what dissent, after
all, is not dissent of this legitimating type? (or what action, for Victor
See the back cover of Conversations with Edward Albee, ed. Philip C. Kolin
Uackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 1988).
Turner, is not a symbolic drama?)-a consistent, complementary
argument about style is its characterizing quality, the extent to which
it places a personal stamp on texts that uniquely identifies the author.
This apparently Romantic notion, however, has no necessary
disjuncture with the post-modern notion that we are sign-producing
entities; in fact, the .connection of style and semiotic identity is the
special premise of Arthur Danto's theory of art.
Since style is indeed
the man, its study provides a useful corollary to Barthes's autobiograph-
ical dictum that "in the field of the subject, there is no referent."
There is still subjective performance in any ideological framework, and
it is styled in I iterary traces:
Consider Schneider's consistent use of what we wi II call, for conve-
nience, a contradictive (not X but X') structure, since it has several
implicationsY One striking example comes near the end of the book:
I cannot say that I was never tempted. Nor can I deny that
there have been moments since when I have wondered
about-and perhaps even regretted-my basic decision. But
I have always valued the exploration of innate quality over
material rewards. And the years that followed this decision
brought me more such explorations than I ever expected
(Entrances, 388).
One premise of most autobiographies is that the story is already
known, at least in outline. The writer is already famous, with a distinct
reputation that the book plays with and against. The function of the
work, then, particularly in the American tradition (which is against the
grain), is to set the record straight, to correct what are perceived as the
conventional expectations of the readers. Schneider's American
autobiographical attitude is inscribed throughout the book in the way
its structure seems to assume a readerly familiarity that needs some
Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy
of Art (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1981), 205, especially the
reference to C.S. Peirce.
Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hi ll &
Wang, 1977), 56.
Jill Dolan notes a recent emphasis on Brecht' s " not . . . but" mode of
address in feminist criticism, and suggests its relation to a materialist lesbian
subjectivity, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1988), 115.
Because historical strategy rather than logical necessity motivates Dolan's
construction, I have tried to note Schneider's contradictory syntax more formally, to
emphasize the ubiquity of the style.
Alan Schneider's Entrances
further, friendly instruCtion. The form suits a stage director, who lives
a I ife of commentary on character that is supposed to reveal its depths.
Perhaps that is why Schneider's story, despite its corrective tone, has
none of the turgid pomposity that the form otherwise encourages; the
book reads much like conversation, like the backstage disputation that
Schneider might have with an actor assigned to play his part.
The contradictive formula pertains to single sentences and whole
passages, much in the same way that the serial denouement and ironic
brackets demonstrate that formula's influence in the overall shape of
the book. Another passage shows how the structure works to effect
surprise even in a situation where sentimental formula rather than
historical information may shape readerly expectations:
Almost without realizing what I was doing, I decided that I
had to have Helen with me, and that one of those I ittle
Devonshire towns would make a great place for a honey-
moon. Using my last dollar, I sent Helen a steamship ticket.
She was more anxious than ever to get away from her mother
and responded enthusiastically. Peter and Mrs. Elmhirst
offered no objections to Helen joining me, perhaps feeling
that, with proper company, I might stay on longer. The thrill
lasted unti I Helen arrived on the grounds; from that moment,
I knew that the whole thing would never work (Entrances,
The horizon of reader expectations is often, as above, joined with
the pattern of Schneider's expectations as the historical character, so
that reader and writer are drawn closer together by their mutual
disappointment, each seeming to have suffered a surprise. And a
further stylistic consolation is the way in which a sharp disappointment
lends itself to a snappy closing statement, which Schneider's paragraphs
often feature.
Another stylistic gesture that paradoxically reinforces continuity is
the frequent use of indefinite pronouns. In this case, continuity is
expressed in trust; despite the usual grammatical injunctions against
starting sentences with "It" or "This," Schneider assumes that I inks wi II
be made. Anyone who reads the book, despite its frequent railing
against the character and qual ity of popular theater, is immediately
converted by this stylistic gesture into an insider who shares in the
process of voicing dissent. Indefiniteness also blends into the suspense
of the historical report, as in the transitional passage from second to
third "acts":
I went back to holding the small Viveca in my arms, less and
less certain of more and more. Skin had promised so much
and started so well. It had ended with ashes in my mouth.
And I kept wondering why I had ever decided to do it. Little
did I know, then, that its special blend of happy and unhappy
experience was soon to have a most significant effect on my
later life and career. It was to bring me together with Samuel
Beckett (Entrances, 218).
The passage is almost a synecdoche of the book's style, for the
narrator's alignment with the reader, the presence of the bad ending,
the button phrase-this time in the context of a happy surprise-all
focus on the reader as an informed listener, who confirms the valuation
of performance that Schneider's life and its story sought to express in
the context of America's anti-theatrical prejudices.
So despite the historical significance of the book, and its clear
absorption into the cohesive structure of American dissent, Entrances
is perhaps most of all a performative text. Its style is not simply
"dialogic polyphony," nor does it rest content with the notion that as
a "performance" the book depends upon its expectation of a reader's
contributing consciousness; it is also a text that, in the spirit of j.L.
Austin, defines the performative as an unverifiable speech act in which
"our word is our bond."
The "performative" is not quite, in this
philosophical sense, even the "theatrical," though it may promise that
the theatrical work that it describes, and Schneider's part in it, was
worth undertaking, worth making come true. In a letter to a playwright
written while Schneider was a student, Schneider projected how he
would behave "If I ever attain your eminent status in the American
theater." The rest of his career, and the book itself, remains a
confirmation, a performance, of his promise in that letter to take "the
role that our elders could play in shaping youthful consciousness"
(Entrances, 48).
Entrances confronts the force of America's Puritan tradition of
superstition about the value of plays with a different kind of strategy
than Melville uses, for example, in The Confidence Man; Schneider
chooses the equally religious force of testimony, with its weapons of
frankness and detai I. His book has a style that asks each reader to take
a part in his cause and to endorse the project of making the theater a
place where lies may be freely told, yet words can still be kept. This
paradox, of the classic Cretan type, closes with the paradoxes of
J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, eds. J.O. Urmson and M. Sbisa
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), 10.
Alan Schneider's Entrances 41
American cultural history, the rites of cohesion and dissent, into a
contemporary structure that is marked by a nostalgia for hopefulness,
and a hope for the wisdom of nostalgia, a view past mere hoping that
emerges in Entrances as that most sublime theatrical effect, eloquence.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 5 (Fall 1993)
An Air of the Dream:
jo Mielziner,
Innovation, and Influence,
The June 1957 issue of Playboy contained a three-page satire by
Ray Russell entitled "Enter the Handsome Stranger." Clever, sharp,
and topical, it contained elements of Williams's Baby Doll (the film of
which had been released the previous year), Nash's The Rainmaker,
and Shakespeare's Romeo and juliet, with a character out of Erskine
Caldwell tossed in for lagniappe. Here is the author's description of
the set:
Our scene is the drowsy little town of Verona, Tennessee
(population 75). It is raining. The set represents the once
grand, now decaying home of Colonel Capulet-and since it
is designed by Jo Mielziner, or the closest thing to Mielziner
we can get, we simultaneously see the house's exterior,
interior, roof, cellar, attic, porch, every single room, and the
back and front yards, all superimposed on each other.
Jo Mielziner was a powerful force in the American commercial
theatre for half a century. In the course of his career he won nine
consecutive Variety best designer awards, five Donaldson Awards, four
Antoinette Perry awards, and one Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences) Award. His work is well known and has been appropriately
celebrated elsewhere and often; that it was well-known enough and
deeply appreciated enough in 1957 to warrant satire in Playboy is but
another measure of the extent of his success and the breadth of his
renown, in another dimension. This paper concerns one period in
Mielziner's career- a few specific productions in the two decades
between 1935 and 1955. During this time, three developments that
Ray Russell, " Enter the Handsome Stranger," Playboy, June 1957, 57.
Jo Mielziner 43
are taken for granted in today's theatre, but that seemed unusual then,
were revealed in Mielziner's work: The designer became more forceful
in the "production team," new styles and approaches in scenography
stream I i ned the pace of the performance, and open or thrust stages
enjoyed a renaissance.
Mielziner had come to Broadway in 1927, finding a theatre that,
except for an occasional "artistic effort," was steeped in the aesthetic
of "realism." Early in the century, David Belasco had given his name
to a form of realistic stage representation dependent on the appearance
of reality and the accumulation of visual detail. Designers were
employed by the producer, and typically provided whatever "back-
ground" the producer or dramatist thought stylish or appropri ate.
Scenery was intended to convey a surface image of the dramatist's
"truth" in an easily recognizable, tangible, and logical format; the
interior box set was the preferred form of scenery for places in which
characters lived or worked. In describing that era, a recent historian of
New York theatre has lamented that "for generations, Broadway scenic
design consisted mainly of variations on perspective scenery .... The
designer's aim was always to fool the audience into believing the
'reality' created by the scene-painting craft."
The scenery for Tobacco Road, which opened in 1934 and ran for
seven years, emphasized seedy and degraded naturalism, with real dirt
on the stage floor. Dead End (1936) epitomized the visual and
sociological realities of a slum neighborhood of "squalid tenement
houses" near a pier on a river "covered by a swirling scum an inch
thick." The published stage directions describe "the diseased street
below, filthy, strewn with torn newspaper and garbage."
Norman bel
Geddes's scenery for the producti on used real water in the orchestra
Five of the ten "Best Plays" of 1935-36 included in the descriptions
of their settings such phrases as: A hotel lobby that features "a rather
ornate . cocktai I lounge" (Idiot's Delight); a "charmingly furnished
room" (End of Summer); a "cluttered, home-like room" (First Lady); the
"outer hall at Kensington Palace" (Victoria Regina); a "happy
combination of the Regency and Russell Wright periods" (Boy Meets
Lee Allan Morrow, The Tony Award Book (New York: Abbevil le, 1987),
Sidney Kingsley, Dead End (1936), in Sixteen Famous American Plays (New
York: Modern Library, 1941 ), 453 . The playwright was the director; the producer
was the designer.
originally had envisioned. Suppose that Burgess Meredith should have
Now all you silent powers
that make the sleet and dark, and never yet
have spoken, give us a sign, let the throw be ours
this once, on this longest night, when the winter sets
his foot on the threshold leading up to spring
and enters with remembered cold-let fall
some mercy with the rain. We are two lovers
here in your night, and we wish to live-
without looking up to that "great, soaring, bridge." It is clear that
Mielziner's vision, and his ability to articulate it, caused the develop-
ment of this production to veer from a realism-as-usual Broadway
entertainment to an event of more heightened consciousness.
In considering the influence that he had on the production of
Winterset in its total form, structure, and effect, it is important to
reaffirm that Mielziner was working as the designer, and not the
producer, the director, or the playwright.
He worked on a team led
by a director and toward the most effective expression of the author's
intent. From that position, offering a positive contribution above and
beyond the physical environment of the stage itself, he was able to
achieve an expression in theatrical terms of wider scope and deeper
significance than that originally envisioned by the author, and to
synthesize a dramatic concept that makes it difficult for us today to
conceive of the play being presented in any other manner.
In 1940, Mielziner designed Two on an Island, by Elmer Rice, a
simple story of two young small-town hopefuls arriving in New York to
find success. It is nearly plotless. The boy and girl don't even meet
until Act Three, at which point they fall in love in the crown of the
Statue of Liberty. The characterizations are mostly flat, and as drama
it is relatively shallow. Its outstanding quality seems to have been its
insight into the character of the city of New York and its extremely
vivid visual representation of it. The original productions of the play,
which is divided into eleven scenes, used ten settings, among them
busses, taxis, subways, and the crown. The scenery was devised in a
manner that was to become a Mielziner trade mark: the basic unit
delineated skeletally, cabs or subways framed by outlines, seen against
Compare the recent production of The Secret Carden (book by Marsha
Norman, music by Lucy Simon): Heidi Landesman, who designed the spectacular
scenery, was also one of the producers.
Jo Mielziner 47
vast projected backgrounds that reflect the "pulsating life ofthe city."
The production's success undoubtedly owed much to the scenery.
Critical comment ranged from "extremely effective" (Nation) to "sets
steal show" (Life).
Apart from the play, however, the sets are interesting in thei r own
right, from an artistic and theatrical point of view. The most often
reproduced is the opening scene, with two cabs facing the audience,
angled toward center. The two young people enter the cabs on either
side of the street, and the mood and atmosphere of the city is
immediately established by their conversations with their respective
drivers. The cabs are three dimensional cartoons, outlined in bent
metal. The subway car is a series of seats, framed overhead by the
adverti sing panels and the strap-hanging apparatus. The sightseeing bus
is skeletal in construction and the Statue of Liberty crown is a cut-out
drop with cartoon outlines. Aesthetically, the set was whimsical and
charming, and practically, it permitted quick changes and a smooth
flow from scene to scene.
In 1945, Mielziner reopened his studio after a three-year wartime
absence, during which he had served as an Army camouflage officer.
Upon his return, he hit Broadway running-designi ng ten productions
in the calendar year 1945. In addition to being productive quantita-
t ively, 1945 brought another development in Mielziner's style: a
consciousness and concern for pace and "fluidity" in scene-change
technique. He had already devoted considerable attention in his design
work to improving the technology and developing procedures for faster
scene changes to hasten the flow of the dramatic action. Early in 1945,
his design for Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie had
incorporated scrims and lighting effects to "fade" or "dissolve" from
scene to scene, in an almost cinematic manner. The script was
episodic, and this treatment allowed the action to flow smoothly from
one scene to the next. The Glass Menagerie, however, was one basic
set-the tenement apartment, the fire escape, and the alley-and the
scenes merely moved from one area of it to another with changing
emphasis i n the lighting. The "flow" of its many scenes, however, was
a significant element of the production's effectiveness.
Later that season, Mielziner's design for another Elmer Rice "fairy
tale," Dream Girl, was also impressive for its ease of transition between
episodes. The play is about Georgina, a home-town sort of girl who
dreams hersel f into fantastic situations. Her real-life episodes are
lighted naturally, with the many dream sequences in blue. To keep the
pace moving, a series of wagons (one from each wing and one upstage)
Theatre Arts (March 1940), 163.
roll in and out, bearing bits and corners of such dreamy locales as
elegant restaurants, Broadway stages, and bathrooms. In a play of so
many episodes, fluidity of movement was of primary concern, and
Mielziner's design seems to have worked. The scenic approach to
Dream Girl and its effective realization on the stage so impressed the
public and the critics that it seemed to them revolutionary, perhaps
even marvelous. Robert Garland, reviewing the play in the New York
journal American, actually used the term "new-fangled."
Writing in
the New York Sun, Ward Morehouse describes for us the wonder of it
all: "Dream Girl, mingling realism with fantasy, is ingeniously staged
via three moving platforms, dimming of lights and blackouts, with the
scenery changing instantaneously and right before your eyes."
of course, we not only accept scene changes "right before our eyes,"
we expect them.
Perhaps the dominant icon in these two decades of American
scenography is the jo Mielziner setting for Arthur Miller's Death of a
Salesman in 1949. The significance and the effect of this play and this
scenery need not be explained here. Both are well-known, well-
documented, and are a part of theatre history's vernacular. What is
important here is a consideration of the place in theatre history that the
circumstance and process of its achievement occupy. It is at this point
that we begin to consider the Mielziner influence that transcends, even
extends, the principles of theatrical production. Emily Genauer, writing
in Theatre Arts in 1951, said:
When Mielziner thinks a play warrants a more active and, one
might say, more organic contribution from himself, he has
been quick and outspoken in expressing his ideas, and usually
successful in convincing others of their rightness. The
designer, he says, must "play in the same sand lot as the rest
of the team," but he has more than once picked the location
of the sand lot.
By this time, it had been discovered that Mielziner's influence on
production methods often had a decided effect on the play as a whole
far beyond merely setting the mood or providing an efficient and
economical stage geography. Aline B. Loucheim, also in 1951, wrote
Robert Garland, (New York) journal American, 15 December 1945.
Ward Morehouse, New York Sun, 15 December 1945. Emphasis added.
Genauer, 36.
Jo Mielziner 49
For although Mielziner is what he calls the director's "extra
eye," an imaginative theatrical designer often strategically
influences a whole production. Mielziner's techniques of the
revolving stages and center set piece in Dodsworth and the
projections and flexible use of the full stage in Death of a
Salesman not only made the telling of these retrospective
stories possible in the theatre but also played an influential
part in their scripts and direction.
Mielziner's contributions to Death of a Salesman were significant
in that the treatment of the play by author and director, and ultimately
its very form, were affected. The Death of a Salesman manuscript
provided to Mielziner described the scenery in this way: "[The house]
had once been surrounded by open country, but it was now hemmed
in with apartment houses. Trees that used to shade the house against
the open sky and hot summer sun now were for the most part dead or
In an early production conference, Miller had said that he
wanted the "simplest possible scenic solution."
The text of the play,
however, went on to require nine or ten separate settings or locations.
It was originally intended to be realistic in presentation, but Mielziner
realized that so many elaborate scene changes would surely impair the
flow of the action and disrupt the unity of the play. He suggested that
the one basic set be used, not exactly realistic in detail, with a
continuous flow of action in present and past, and that the forestage,
scrim transparencies, and projections be used to indicate the flashback
sequences. The performance pace would not be impeded by
traditional scene-change methods, and the stodgy stage structure of
beginning-middle-end, in that order, would not strain the intricate and
fragile dramatic texture. Mielziner's recommendation was followed,
and the contribution thus made to the organic form of the play was
pivotal. In Mielziner's words: "My major contribution as a designer to
this production was made before I went near my drafting board or paint
A more telling indicator of his influence, however, might be gained
by comparing the description of scenery in the original manuscript, as
Aline B. loucheim, "Script to Stage: Case History of a Set," New York
Times Magazine, 9 December 1951, 24.
Mielziner, Designing for the Theatre, 25.
jo Mielziner, "Death of a Painter," American Artist (November 1949), 34-
Mielziner, "Death of a Painter," 37 ..
quoted earlier, to the description of the set that we are all familiar with,
in the often pub I ished and anthologized versions of the play:
Before us is the Salesman's house. We are aware of towering,
angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides. Only
the blue light of the sky falls upon the house and forestage;
the surrounding area shows an angry glow of orange. As
more light appears, we see a solid vault of apartment houses
around the small, fragile-seeming home. An air of the dream
clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.
. . . On a level raised six and a half feet is the boys'
bedroom, at present barely visible . . . . At the left a stairway
curves up to it from the kitchen.
The entire setting is wholly or, in some places, partially
transparent. The roof-1 ine of the house is one-dimensional;
under and over it we see the apartment buildings. Before the
house lies an apron, curving beyond the forestage into the
orchestra. This forward area serves as the back yard as well as
the locale of all Willy's imaginings and of his city scenes.
Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the
imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door
at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are
broken, and characters enter or leave a room by stepping
"through" a wall onto the forestage.
This lyrical, emotional, and poetic description of the setting was not in
the manuscript that Miller submitted for production. He had not
written it when he had written the play. He is describing to us Jo
Mielziner's scenery.
In 1955, another notable production offered Mielziner the
opportunity for a significant and influential departure. His scenery for
Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof marked an interesting
change in his visual style, particularly the style and imagery so closely
identified with earlier works by Wi II iams. The boldness and audacity
of this play inspired in Mielziner a desire to thrust the play more
directly at the audience than he had in any of his earlier work. While
the use of the fore stage had been an essential component of his Death
of a Salesman concept, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he sought an even
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, in New Voices in the American Theatre,
(New York: Modern Library, 1955), 115.

.2_ Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Scenery and lighting by Jo Mielziner, 1949. Photograph by Graphic House.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams. Scenery and lighting by jo Mielziner, 1954. Photograph by Fred Fehl.
Jo Mielziner 53
more direct performance mode.
The set is a larger-than-life bedroom,
raked, and at a rakish angle, with a corner thrusting over the orchestra
pit toward the audience . . Its appearance is familiar to us all. In
developing this design, Mielziner's consideration of the essential actor-
audience relationship was piqued, and it was shortly after Cat on a Hot
Tin Roof that his theatre design and consulting work began to reflect a
less pictorial, more open aesthetic. In 1965 he wrote:
This design [Cat on a Hot Tin Roon and subsequent studies of
the relationship between audience and actor led me into a
great deal of thinking about the thrust stage in the design of
new theatres. Looking back on the past twenty-five or thirty
years, ! find that I have been repeatedly trying to push the
forestage out in order to break the rigid, restricting straight line
of the aprons of our twentieth-century theatres.
Mielziner subsequently designed two more Williams plays in the
same general form: Sweet Bird of Youth and The Milk Train Doesn't
Stop Here Anymore. He was designer or consultant for the ANTA
Washington Square Theatre and the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre,
both of which featured large thrust stages, and both of which served to
influence the design and construction of other theatres that followed.
His contributions to stage technology and his influence on the form of
plays had grown into an influence on the very shape of the theatre.
This is not to say that Jo Mielziner always walked away a winner
from the production conference skirmishes. In 1947, for example, he
was overruled in his desire to make the set for the musical version of
Street Scene more fanciful and less grittily realistic than the original
1929 production, which he had also designed. The producers insisted
on "journalistic realism," and Mielziner reluctantly but dutifully
provided it.
Furthermore, the Death of a Salesman scenery, hailed as
an instant masterpiece by the majority of critics and audiences, did
elicit one negative response from a serious critic: Eric Bentley, writing
at the time, castigated Miller, Kazan, and Mielziner all, scoffing at the
rhetoric and the politics in the play, the direction, and the scenery.
Jo Mielziner. Interviewed by the author, November 1970.
Mielziner, Designing for the Theatre, 183.
Mielziner, Designing for the Theatre, 148.
Bentley seems to have had trouble understanding the flashbacks, and
proclaimed that "Mielziner helps Miller to be vague."
It is clear, however, that contemporary accounts of Mielziner's
work credit him with leadership and innovation. Furthermore, his
influence is still seen, largely through his distinctive renditions of
historically significant productions and the architectural legacy of his
later years. When we attend mainstream commercial theatre today, we
expect the scenery to change " right before our eyes"; we would be
indeed impatient if we still observed the obsolete convention of a
house curtain descending to mask a squad of sweating stage hands.
Mainstream commercial theatre today-particularly the popular and
influential British Blockbuster Spectacles-is inherently, organically, and
aesthetically dependent on the scenery for fulfillment. The scenery and
lighting are fundamental to the overall composition to an extent seldom
before seen in theatre history, and the work of John Napier, for
example, is as much a part of the creative impetus as that of Andrew
Lloyd Webber or Alain Boublil. Cats, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon
all demonstrate that designers now take for granted that they will have
a strong and formative influence on the shape of the total drama;
audiences now take for granted that the "new-fangled" scenery will
change "right before our eyes."
Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York: Vintage, 1955), 83.
journal of American Drama and Theatre 5 (Fall 1993)
Madame Pace's Hats:
Architecture and
the Creation of Drama
Many American theatre reformers in the twentieth century believed
that creatmg new forms of theatre architecture would engender new
forms of drama. As hats in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an
Author conjure the character of "Madame Pace," so new theatre forms
would engender new plays and dramatic styles. This idea first emerged
early in the twentieth century as part of a wide effort to reform theatre
and drama, and after World War II it can be seen most clearly in
America in the planning for the Vivian Beaumont Theater and the
exhibition and catalog called The Ideal Theatre: Eight Concepts. But
in the late twentieth century, many playwrights believe that, although
architecture might shape certain details, theatre space does not inspire
or lead to particular forms of drama.
The "New Movement" in the first three decades of this century was
in part a reaction to the then-dominant "realistic" theatre and the
architectural form associated with it: the picture-frame proscenium
arch, which enforced an architectural boundary between audience and
performance. The reform movement began in Europe, led by Adolphe
Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, Alexander Bakshy, Huntly Carter and
others, and influenced Americans, including Hiram Moderwell, Sheldon
Cheney, Kenneth Macgowan, Robert Edmond jones, Norman Bel
Geddes and Mordecai Gorelik. The reformers saw nineteenth-century
"realism," "naturalism" and "illusionism" as a "cramp upon art," and
called for the theatre to rid itself of the "chains in the illusionism of
naturalistic settings" and the "evils of representation." The "peephole"
theatre, as the reformers loved to call it, was considered to be a
modern "house of bondage."
(While many today would question the
The quotations can be found in Kenneth Macgowan and Robert Edmond
Jones, Continental Stagecraft (New York: Harcourt, 1922), 7; Alexander Bakshy, The
Theatre Unbound (london: C. Palmer, 1923), 1 5; Huntly Carter, The New Spirit
in Drama and Art (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913), 8; and Edith lssacs, ed.,
Architecture for the New Theatre (New York: Theatre Arts, 1935), 10, respectively.
validity of such words as "realism," "illusionism," etc., these terms
were widely accepted at that time.)
These reformers had a vision of an invigorated, non-commercial
theatre producing non-illusionistic classic and contemporary drama, in
which the theatricality of the performance was frankly acknowledged.
The theatre forms most often proposed were variants of the "open
stage," such as thrust or arena, in which audience and performer
occupy the same architectural volume. Theatrical production was to
be governed by the "New Stagecraft" guidelines of simplicity,
suggestion and synthesis. While the reformers felt that the New
Stagecraft had pointed the way to the theatre of the future, they also
saw that there was not a sufficient body of new drama written in non-
realistic modes. Macgowan admitted that "the new stagecraft has gone
only a small part of the way towards reanimating the theatre, and that
it cannot claim to have done so until playwrights come forward or are
driven forward to stand beside it."
American reformers believed that new dramatic forms had not yet
emerged because the proscenium imposed a straitjacket on their
creativity. The reformers saw the picture-frame as perfectly suited to
nineteenth-century illusionism, but inadequate for all non-illusionistic
drama and production methods-past, present or future. The reformers
contended that this type of theatre building, like any other, largely
determined the nature of the play and its performance style. In defense
of this view, many reformers quoted the eminent theatre historian of
the time, Brander Matthews: "We must always keep in mind the extent
to which the theater has often dictated to the author what he could put
into his play and what he had to leave out, and how he had to present
what he desired to set forth."
Because the American reformers believed that only illusionistic
productions worked in proscenium-arch theatres, and all existing
theatres had proscenium arches, it followed that playwrights would
write only illusionistic drama. The reformers felt that the few forays
into more "non-realistic" drama had flopped in proscenium theatres,
and playwrights had no existing models of more "presentational"
theatre forms to see, experiment in, and be inspired by. Bel Geddes,
the designer and architect, explained this view:
Kenneth Macgowan, The Theatre of Tomorrow (New York: Bani and
Li ver ight, 1921): 217-18.
Brander Matthews, A Study of the Drama (Boston: Houghton, 191 0), 45.
The conventional theater with its proscenium frame is
adaptable only to the peep-show type of play, which has
adapted itself to the peep-show type of theater ... . These
restrictions which are now generally taken for granted impose
very confining limitations on the dramatist, clipping the wings
of inspiration and depriving drama of freedom . . .. A human
being who expresses himself through what we call a creative
medium is most susceptible to his environment, the conditions
and limitations around him, especially to those under which
he is obliged to work.
American reformers believed that building new theatre forms would
engender a body of non-illusionistic drama, freeing playwrights' minds
from the architectural limitations then present. When dramatists had
only the old-fashioned theatre to write for, they wrote old-fashioned
plays; the reformers believed that when playwrights could see plays
produced in the "theatre of tomorrow," their imaginations would be
liberated and they could produce the "drama of tomorrow." Roy
Mitchell, for instance, predicted that "new and nobler forms of building
based on a new theory of the theatre ... could, putting away the tatters
of illusion .. . become so majestic and so moving as to provoke a new
dramaturgy altogether."
Macgowan wrote that the new forms were
"efficient instruments that must attract the playwright and cause him to
write in a style suited to their exigencies."
These reformers believed
that, like spontaneous generation, live art would emerge from inanimate
The reformers never built the new theatre forms, and the new
dramatic forms, when they did emerge, were not engendered by
architecture. By the early 1930s the reform movement in America was
spent. The principal reformist companies were either defunct or
essentially commercial. Moreover, a reaction had set in, led by Lee
Simonson, which is ironic insofar as he was known as one of the New
Stagecraft designers. Simonson directly attacked the causal relationship
of architecture and drama posited by the reformers. According to
Simonson, they had it all backward:
The dramatist of imagination does not write for any particular
theatre. The theatre approximates his world as best it
Norman Bel Geddes, Horizons (Boston: Lit.tle, 1932), 152-53.
Roy Mitchell, Creative Theatre (New York: john Day, 1929), 212- 13.
The Theatre of Tomorrow, 218.
can. . . . It is ludicrous to speak of freeing the playwright's
imagination, which is inherently free, by constructing one type
of theatre bui I ding .... The one thing our experimental play-
houses cannot do is to breed plays to fit them ....
Playwriting is not based on architecture.
The efforts to build new theatre forms failed, in part because of the
disintegration of the New Movement, but also because few theatres of
any form were built during the Depression and World War II. The
goals of the reform movement were no longer part of the active theatre
vocabulary by the 1950s, when several regional and Off Broadway
theatres were built along the lines proposed by the earlier reformers.
The excitement that surrounded these new theatres again revived the
idea that new architectural forms could inspire playwrights. While
there were many expressions of this idea, two are emblematic and
especially revealing: the exhibition in 1962 of The Ideal Theater: Eight
Concepts and the planning, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, for
the Vivian Beaumont Theater at New York's Lincoln Center.
The Ideal Theater was financed by the Ford Foundation and
organized by the American Federation of Arts. It contained projects,
most of which had open stages, by such major architects, consultants
and designers as Eldon Elder, George lzenour, Frederick Kiesler, Jo
Mielziner, Donald Oenslager and Edward Durrell Stone. The concept
and title suggest that there could be an ideal theatre, and implicitly an
ideal theatre would have to house ideal drama. The cast of characters
demonstrates that this was not a notion of the avant-garde; the
progressive establishment recognized the need to spur American theatre
architecture and, along with it, drama. In the catalog, architect Pietro
Belluschi wrote that "playwrights have begun to ask why they cannot
write any sort of play they want to write without having to adapt to
outmoded stage designs."
Arthur Miller, who contributed to the
catalog, commented,
I have no doubt that plays are not being written just because
of the limitations of New York's theaters . ... You just can't
write for these 'shoe boxes' with the same ideas, with the
Lee Simonson, The Stage is Set (New York: Harcourt, 1932), 39-41 .
American Federation of Arts, The Ideal Theatre: Eight Concepts (New York:
n.p., 1962), 8.
same emotional scope, as you would for a (more adaptable)
Lincoln Center was planned in the 1950s to house existi ng opera,
ballet and music institutions, but there was no comparable theatrical
organization to go into the Vivian Beaumont Theater. While other
performing arts had institutions that were establ ished and had
repertoires that could be considered the "best," the American theatre
had few major institutions or widely acknowledged "classics." It was
dominated by the haphazard, hit-or-miss commercial theatre, which
was considered inappropriate for a pub! icly financed arts institution.
The Repertory Theater was therefore created by Lincoln Center to
become a "national" institution producing the " best" in American
theatre. But it also had to do more: Because there were few American
"classics," the first job at the Beaumont was to create a repertoire of
great drama. The program for the Vivian Beaumont clearly indicates
that this theatre was to act as a spur-in concrete and travertine-to
change the nature of Amer ican drama. The planners hoped that this
new theatre form, allowi ng open staging and rotati ng repertory, would
give encouragement to non-realistic drama.
Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan, the intended co-directors of the
Beaumont, showed plans and models to many playwrights with the
hope that the new theatre would inspire them. According to
Whitehead, "I said, 'Let it sink in, think about the freedom you can find
writing for that stage.' I thought it would invite an adventure."
Kazan wrote,
It was gratifying how quickly they understood what we had in
mind and responded to the range the new building gives
them, structurally, mechanically, and in the spirit of its inten-
They responded to a promise of freedom-of freedom from
the box set.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Kazan's optimistic promise
resulted in a blossoming of new dramatic forms. By the late 1960s and
1970s, when many " ideal theatres" were in operation, skeptics de-
Ibid., 11.
Robert Whi tehead, interview with author, 20 February 1985.
El ia Kazan, " Theatre: New Stage, New Plays, New Actors," New York
Times, 23 September 1962, sec. 6, part 2, 18.
60 (ON DEE
nounced the idea that new stages could evoke new drama-just as they
had denounced the idea in the 1930s. The basis of their view was that
drama is independent of theatre architecture, and that the work of the
playwright precedes that of the architect; that a play exists first in the
mind of the author and is independent of an architectural environment.
It is the job of the director and designer to adapt that play to the given
theatre space, and the job of the architect to build theatres for plays
that exist, not for dramatic forms that might come into being. For
instance, George lzenour, a theatre consultant, said, "I do not believe
that a building per se can be of decisive influence in determining a
new force or direction to the drama, but that the new direction or
directions have been determined by the poets."
Robert Brustein
vehemently denounced the premise behind The Ideal Theatre and the
Beaumont, which he described this way: "If the theatre would only
dispense with the proscenium stage, jettison the box set, and get rid of
the curtain, the general spinelessness of American drama would
somehow magically disappear." Brustein cited these two examples and
declared, "Result? No appreciable improvement in the quality of their
productions. . . . What is harmful is the assumption that such reform
wi II solve any internal problems."
The views of Brustein and others have gained acceptance, bolstered
in part by the lack of consistency at the Beaumont, the failure of an
"American National Theatre" to emerge there or elsewhere, and the
general recognition that theatres are better or worse-but never ideal.
Remaining is the more practical, albeit less inspirational, idea that the
theatre space in which a play is performed can affect and influence the
playwright. The architecture will not inspire the play, but the
playwright may choose to mold the original vision to fit a given theatre
Playwrights who write for a specific theatre are especially sensitive
to the nature of the space, as interviews with several whose plays had
been written for the Beaumont, Circle Repertory Theatre and the Public
Theater indicate. While none suggest that the theatre space directly
inspired them, several do describe the ways in which their plays were
altered because of particular aspects of the theatre architecture. It is
ironic that these playwrights also report that, while writing, they think
in terms of the proscenium or end stage, even when other configura-
Quoted on p. 108 in C. R. Smith, " Rehousing the Drama," Progressive
Architecture 43 (1962): 96-109.
Robert Brustein, "Scorn Not the Proscenium, Critic," Theatre Arts 44 (1960):
Architecture 61
tions are available. Even though there are now many open stages in
America, the reformist ideal that playwrights would be inspired by that
form has not been realized. And some playwrights even reject out of
hand the idea that the theatre has anything to do with the process of
Arthur Miller originally wrote his plays with the proscenium theatre
in mind, because, he explains, "one assumes what one sees is
inevitable, that that's the only kind of theatre there could be." He
started writing After the Fall before the Beaumont was designed, but
when he saw the plans for the ANTA Washington Square Theater (the
temporary prototype for the Beaumont), "it added a certain amount of
freedom ... to the spirit of that piece. . . . It did open up the concept
a little bit for me, and . .. reinforced the possibility that I could
successfully pull this off." Miller comments that generally "space does
affect playwriting. It's subtle, but it does."
John Bishop, the author of Cabin 12, The Harvesting and four other
plays produced at Circle Rep, says, "I always think where the play will
be done when I am writing. . . . Space is important to writing." In
particular, Bishop thinks about "the distance between the audience and
the stage-how to use it, how it can help me." At Circle Rep, "I know
I can do very effective things smaller. I can focus on things. I can
create small moments that will read." He contrasts this to Broadway,
which "needs bigger playwriting moments."
Patrick Meyers, the author of K-2 and Dysan, recalls that, for the
latter play, he "had Circle Rep in mind." This method is usual for him:
"I figure things out closely. I know the dimensions of the
stage-height, width and length." For Circle Rep, "I knew I couldn't
go up," because of the low ceiling.
Corinne jacker, the author of Domestic Issues, My Life and four
other plays produced at Circle Rep, refers to the intimacy of Circle Rep
and says that she doesn't like "writing for a large audience" and prefers
to think of her plays in a small theatre. In this flexible theatre, "I felt
free to do what I wanted," and for one play needing complex,
simultaneous staging, Circle Rep "gave me the flexi bi I ity to think of the
play in that way."
Arthur Miller, interview with author, 17 February 1985.
John Bishop, interview with author, 24 April 1985.
Patrick Meyers, interview with author, 22 April 1985.
Corinne Jacker, telephone interview with author, 25 November 1985.
Thirteen of Lanford Wilson's plays have been produced in Circl e
Rep' s flexible theatre, and almost all have used the end-stage configura-
tion. He thinks in terms of the end stage while writing, because " I like
a proscenium stage." Wilson explains that the limitations of Circle Rep
did influence his writing. Because there is no backstage or wing space,
it is unlikely that he would write a play with set changes: "I just think
in my mind if we' re in one place, we stay there." He also cites the
low ceiling height as "an incredible influence." For example, " I
wouldn't write something with an upstairs and a downstairs. I've seen
that at Circle Rep and it's dumb looking. If you're writing about a
family in a house, it forces it all into one room. "
The only play that Wilson wrote for Circle Rep with a set change
was Fifth of july, but the lack of offstage space and the close audience
proximity forced him to eliminate it: "The original concept was for the
second act to happen in the garden . .. the whole thing is about the
garden," but "it was just going to look tacky as hell ... when you're
that close to have obvious plastic plants all over the place. It would
deny everything I am trying to say about living in a garden." Instead,
Wilson moved the scene to a porch "and they talked about the
Other playwrights describe the influence of theatre space as being
general, or even non-existent. Albert lnnaurato, the author of Gemini,
first produced at Circle Rep, and Coming of Age in Soho, first produced
at the Public, says, "If you know where its going to be done, you think
of that. . .. I think generally of space, but not specifically." As for the
audience-performance configuration, " I always write for the prosce-
nium; that's my perspective. It's then easier to adjust to a thrust."
But Larry Kramer, the author of The Normal Heart, which was first
produced at the Public in the LuEsther and moved to the Anspacher,
says emphatically:
I in no way wrote the play for any space at all , and I did not
change it to accommodate LuEsther ... and I in no way
changed anything to accommodate the move to the Anspach-
er, a very different kind of space .... I can't imagine writing
for a space, which seems to me to be a kind of censorship on
the imagination's freedom. . . . My play was written before
we entered the space and it was not adjusted for it at all . I
This quotation and the one that follows are from Lanford Wilson, telephone
interview with author, 2 February 1986.
Albert lnnaurato, telephone interview with author, 23 October 1985.
The Department of English at New York University
of $9000
for the best book on Drama and Theatre
by an American Author.
Publishers are invited to send their nominated submissions
(3 copies of each book)
no later than 31 January 1994
Professor Una Chaudhuri, Department of English
New York University, 19 University Place, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10003
The award will be made by a panel of three distinguished professors
in the fields of drama and theatre.
Books nominated should have been published in 1992 or 1993, and
should treat subjects in drama and theatre, including biography,
criticism, history, and theory.
MARK FEARNOW. is Assistant Professor in the Department of
Theatre Arts at The Pennsylvania State University in University
Park, Pennsylvania. He recently has completed a manuscript on
American theatre of the Great Depression as cultural history and
is working on a book on the plays of Clare Boothe Luce.
ROSEMARIE K. BANK is Associate Professor in the School of
Theatre at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. She is the
Immediate Past President of the American Theatre and Drama
Society and is on the editorial boards of Theatre History Studies,
Theatre Annual, Theatre Studies, and the journal of Dramatic
Theory and Criticism.
MICHAEL L. QUINN is Assistant Professor in the School of Drama
at the University of Washington in Seattle and is the new editor
of Theatre Survey. His articles have appeared in Theatre journal,
New Theatre Quarterly, Modern Drama, and the journal of
Dramatic Theory and Criticism.
HARRY W. SMITH is Professor and Area Coordinator, Research
and Dramaturgy, in the Department of Theatre at the University
of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida.
WILLIAM F. CONDEE is Associate Professor in the School of
Theater at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He is author of
Theatrical Space: A Guide for Directors and Designers,
forthcoming from Scarecrow Press, and articles in Artichtectural
Review, World Architecture, and Theatre Insight.