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An Idea of Theatre History: An Informal Plea

Author(s): David Grimsted

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Dec., 1974), pp. 425-432
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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An Idea of Theatre History:

An Informal Plea

Pirandello has one of his six "characters" warn the theatre manager: "If we have
no other reality beyond the illusion, you too must not count overmuch on your
reality as you feel it today, since, like that of yesterday, it may prove an illusion for you
tomorow." Pirandello's argument here is essentially mine: that the reality-illusion of
theatre takes its vitality and power from its ties to the reality-illusion of the larger
society, and to study the one without seeing its interplay with the other is to miss
something of the meaning of both. From this conviction grows the thesis that the
academic fields of history and theatrical history would be invigorated if the two were
related to each other more closely and more seriously.

The strengths and weaknesses of much theatrical history are apparent, in rather
outlandish proportion, in the central work on American theatre, George C. D. Odell's
Annals of the New York Stage. Odell welds together the immense amount of information
in these volumes with his intelligent and genially opinionated love for the theatre, and
that is perhaps intellectual cement enough in this case. Certainly there is no cohesion in
terms of idea, major theme or question, largely because Odell conceives of theatre as life
itself rather than as telling part of a larger society. Almost nothing outside the theatre
falls under Odell's purview except money; depressions are hard on theatrical folk. And
never does the theatre suggest to Odell anything about the broader society that seeks
confirmation of its visions and illusions within the playhouse. Odell, perfectly aware of
the limitations of his view, called his book "annals," properly connecting it to chronicle
rather than history, but too much theatrical history essentially duplicates Odell's insular
view of the stage. Able scholarship, careful and extensive, often goes unpublished or
receives less attention than it deserves because it is cast in an antiquarian, fact-finding
rather than question-exploring, mold. References to non-theatrical history tend to be
half-hearted-passing invocations of romanticism or existentialism or, on American
projects, a few footnotes to Charles Beard or Vernon Parrington. Lost is any real sense of
the theatre's social role, of what the stage reveals about the human consciousness that it
reflects and shapes.

The problem exists in most academic fields where specialization has encouraged a
progressive narrowing of intellectual significance. In theatrical history this tendency has
been reinforced by a certain wilful isolation growing from theatre people's penchant for
thinking of themselves as torch bearers of a more sensitive, vital and real life than that
beyond the footlights. Yet theatre is the most social of the arts, as George Steiner and

A version of this paper was originally given at the American Theatre Association
Convention in San Francisco in August 1972. David Grimsted is the author of Melodrama
Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800-1850 as well as several other works on
cultural history in the early nineteenth century. He teaches in the History Department of
the University of Maryland.

425 /

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others have pointed out, depending for its success on the immediate acceptance of its
mood by large numbers of people. More than any other art form it has to say clearly what
its audience already knows in its heart of hearts, to reveal pre-existent truths that require
but words to be recognized. Closet drama may be written, not divorced from culture but
not so immediately dependent on it either, just as poetry or novels or history can be
created privately and appreciated whenever social response is ripe. But theatre exists only
with the bond of audience, for whom the "shock of recognition" must be immediate.

These peculiarities of theatre as an art form make it an especially revealing barometer

of culture, or societal consciousness. A common anthropological definition of culture-
"the patterns of behavior and belief that unite all the activities of a given society"-is
readily grasped when applied to those cultures anthropologists commonly study where
relative permanency of belief and action gives them an obvious unity. When the
anthropologist speaks of how patterns of pottery and power, of economics and
child-rearing and religion are unified by a few basic beliefs of the New Guinea
Highlanders, the concept is readily understandable. It is less easy to see wholeness in our
own culture in part because we are so enmeshed in it, in part because in modern western
society many subcultures and speedy modifications in them camouflage what unity
exists. Alexis de Tocqueville, looking in the 1830s at the United States, which he saw as
the prototype of the coming modern world, cautioned of the need to penetrate the
multifarious surface of democracy to see its essential unity, the "common beliefs" on
which depend the functioning and the very existence of society. Alfred North Whitehead
has stated this idea concisely:

The intellectualstrife of an age is mainly concernedwith... questions of secondarygenerality

which conceala generalagreementupon first principlesalmosttoo obviousto need expression,and
almost too generalto be capableof expression.In each periodthereis a generalform of the forms
of thought;and, like the air we breathe,such a form is so translucent,and so pervading,and so
seeminglynecessary,that only by extremeeffort can we becomeawareof it.

Such "forms of thought" are what the cultural historian-and the theatrical historian
who views his task broadly-should attempt to reveal. The effort requires seeing the
covert connections between different aspects and artifacts of a given society in a way that
reveals something of the cultural assumptions undergirding it. It demands a perception of
one's subject not in isolation but as intricately connected with society generally, and a
willingness to seek answers that are never sure but that always deepen even as they clarify
the questions explored. Yet this uncertain journey is worth the effort. Historians have
recently become increasingly concerned with their frequent neglect of those groups in
society who did not leave substantial written records, the great mass of men who remain
historically voiceless. Theatre history offers one way of giving us a glimpse of what they
feared and hoped, what amused and moved them, what in fact were those "forms of
thought" or myth that gave wholeness to their lives and their society.

The plea for a new emphasis in theatrical history is of course a bit abstract. I can think
of no better way to give specific sense to the problems and possibilities of the prescribed
approach than to mention a few instances of my own learning from theatrical history. My
dissertation explored the early nineteenth-century American stage, particularly the

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question of why melodrama, which became the prevalent dramatic form in that period,
gained such preeminence as theatrical mode even when its aesthetic limitations were so
clearly seen. In short, what social myth did melodrama embody and reinforce to which
democratic man so deeply responded? My advisor, a leading Jacksonian political historian,
asked me when I broached the topic, "What does that have to do with Jackson and the
national bank?" I asked why it had to have anything to do with the national bank, a retort
he accepted since he properly prided himself on his genially eclectic interests and his
toleration. But the question rankled in my mind and when I'd given more thought and
work to the topic, it dawned on me that the melodrama offered the explanation of
Jackson and the national bank. Since the bank was a financial institution, historians have
understandably assumed that Jackson's motivation was economic: one group has argued
that Jackson's attack represented the people rising up against capitalist privilege, and
another that it was part of an attempt of laissez-faire capitalists on the make to rid
themselves of the restraints of an older mercantilism. Yet Jackson's own analysis,
couched always in personal and moral terms, seems summed up in his famous statement,
"The bank is trying to kill me but I will kill it." Such a comment and the feelings behind
it are clearly not economic but melodramatic: a sense that the world is divided neatly
between the forces of virtue and those of vice and that, if in your heart you know you're
right, those who oppose you in any serious way must be not only mistaken but vile. I
think for Jackson and many of his sincerest supporters the bank fulfilled precisely the
function of the villain in melodrama; it enabled them to reconcile their contradictory
faith in progress and a good natural order with their nagging sense that virtue and
happiness were declining or endangered in their society. They disliked much that they
saw going on around them, but they clung to a belief that problems grew from no
fundamental flaw in God or nature or American society, but from the machinations of
some evil individual-say Baron Tebaldi or Nicholas Biddle-the destruction of whose
power alone would right the world.

The key to the kind of intellectual history I'm urging depends on making connections
between seemingly disparate aspects of society. I suppose few verbal artifacts of early
nineteenth-century western culture are superficially more different than Immanuel Kant's
Critique of Pure Reason and my favorite nineteenth-century play, Charles Saunders'
melodrama, Rosina Meadows, The Village Maiden; or, Temptations Unveiled. Yet reading
and thinking about them together, one notices how similar are some of their basic
problems and peculiarities. Kant, for instance, argues that true virtue must be wholly
disinterested and uncalculating, an idea illustrated steadily in the melodrama. And both
Kant and Saunders insist on a world embodying two levels of truth, the phenomonal or
everyday if you will, and the noumenal or transcendent that somehow fastens the more
commonplace world safely within a context of moral meaning. Both writers, the complex
metaphysician and the unsophisticated playwright, stressed necessary natural patterns or
categorical imperatives to establish the primacy of a moral order which insures
meaningful human existence beyond the frequent chaos of everyday living. In short, in
their very different media both men constructed a fable to fend off relativism and
purposelessness by encasing messy common experience within a framework of trans-
cendent significance. Having lost the medieval sense of God-given meaning, they
essentially fought to forestall the desperate ambiguity and emptiness that pervade
twentieth-century thought.

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The importance of melodrama lay precisely in its creation of a myth that both
admitted the threatening emptiness of the modern world and asserted the eventual
triumph of justice and pattern. From one perspective it was an "opium of the masses,"
but from another it embodied an "idea of theatre" so profoundly needed, that despite
full realization of its aesthetic limitations, few dramatists could escape the form's
influence. To my mind the most unfortunate aspect of Francis Fergusson's deservedly
influential book was that, despite his anthropological and implicitly historical emphasis,
Fergusson considered his idea of theatre only within the great play syndrome. He moved
from Shakespeare to Ibsen and Chekov, with some consideration of Wagner and Racine in
between but without even mentioning the dramatic form that grew and then
predominated on the western stage for two centuries. The irony of this is that the
melodrama, probably more than Hamlet, embodied Fergusson's criteria for the idea of
theatre: it "focused, at the center of the life of the community, the complementary
insights of the whole culture" in which the dramatist shared with his audience a "ritual of
expectancy . . . celebrating the mystery of human nature and destiny" which included at
once both "individual growth and development and the precarious life of the Human
City." Black-Eyed Susan was not great drama but it illustrated an idea of theatre deeply
needed and widely felt; it was essentially, in H. D. F. Kitto's elaboration of the Fergusson
thesis, "religious drama" where particular and individual detail is carefully subordinated
to the ritual and mythic point. And it is worthy of being understood by anyone
concerned about either the idea of theatre or the cultural dilemma of the nineteenth
century. Fergusson wrote about the need to understand the "temporal" as well as the
"perennial" in drama. I would argue that even the perennial would be better understood
if more attention were paid to the temporal role of drama in a more inclusive way than
the history of great plays allows.

If it is interesting and worthwhile to measure modern drama against the idea of theatre
in Oedipus Rex, it is perhaps more to the point to measure the work of modernists
against the idea of theatre that twentieth-century playwrights both developed from and
rebelled against. A cultural dimension would give vigor not only to theatrical scholarship
but to the historical courses taught in drama departments. One of the major events in
such courses-quite properly-is the resurgence of serious drama from the dark ages of the
melodrama with the growth of "realism" or modernism in the late nineteenth century.
Commonly students learn how Ibsen created realism from the dust of melodrama, that
Ibsen begot Shaw who was English so realism grew more talky, and Chekov got begot,
and they all begot Eugene O'Neill and the twentieth-century theatre, which was a good
thing. This is gross caricature obviously, because the real vitality of such courses exists
not in their historical shell but in what is read and said about particular plays and
playwrights. In a similar course taught from a cultural perspective the approach would be
somewhat different. In the first place melodrama would be taken seriously as vital theatre
that embodied a myth of a good divine or natural order eventually prevailing over the
dangers, terrors and viciousness of everyday life so long as certain universal moral truths
were respected. The melodrama was full of cliches, or of ritual incantations if you like, all
clearly developed from the needs and hopes of their audiences. The person who snorts at
the mortgage money ploy shows little historical sensitivity about what this must have
meant to people with marginal incomes buying property on time in an era with no social
security and where home ownership was the commonest symbol of success and

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protection. And what more graphic symbol of modern man's fear of the machine's threat
to human life and dignity is there than the heroine tied to the railroad tracks? Even as
elements of realism grew within the melodramatic framework in the nineteenth century,
they were hobbled because they threatened the essential melodramatic parable by
substituting an environmental explanation of human responsibility for the melodrama's
moral one.

The full-fledged attack on the melodrama, and on the Victorian or genteel tradition
which it exemplified, was part of a much broader challenge to the older moralism in
thought, politics, and society. In the United States one sees this cultural pattern in such
things as the pragmatism, Progressivism and Bohemianism that flourished in the period
before World War I. In part this "revolt against formalism" or moralism was a liberating
challenge because it permitted greater honesty in perception and discussion of aspects of
life, and in part because it suggested man's potential to control society in order to remove
injustices and hardships. But the change also created problems, for if the old universal
values were unsure and man was only what he chose to be or what society allowed to be
created, there was no necessary meaning or morality in life. Possibly chance, chaos and
power alone ruled individual and social life-the very things the melodrama had tried to
deny. One can see much of this dilemma in the playwrights of the age: in Ibsen's
pilgrimage from attacking genteel dishonesty in Doll's House and Ghosts to his attack on
attacks on false idealism in The Wild Duck, in Shaw's rambunctious reformism and scorn
for gentility in his early plays to the comic tragedy of the crumbling old order in
Heartbreak House, in Chekov's constant poised tension between the false old order and
the vacant new, in O'Neill's search for an idea to explain the modern tragedy of emptiness
ending in his acceptance of personal "pipe dreams" as man's necessary truth. And such
understanding prepares the student for the decline of dramatic realism and the rise of the
theatre of the absurd, a theatre like melodrama of intellectual or moral allegory, although
the modern parable inverts the conclusions of melodrama.

A drama course taught from a cultural perspective would also make clear that the
modern dramatists have honed their art partly by sacrificing or losing much of their
audience. Theatre audiences at the turn of the century experienced the broad changes in
western society which saw the breakdown of the bourgeois consensus of values in favor of
a multiplicity of subcultures which defined themselves in terms of their differences from
other groups. As the theatre audience shrank, groups with intellectual proclivities were
able to give theatrical life to specialized and sometimes superior drama, while film and
later radio and television met the mythic needs of the larger public. In these media the
parable of moral meaning and justice found in the melodrama faded more slowly, despite
continual transformation as modern uncertainties gradually permeated down through
society. This outline is crudely sketched, but perhaps it suggests a cultural dimension
that, without detracting from the seriousness of treatment of particular modern plays,
would highlight some of the dramatist's aesthetic problems, and some of their and our
intellectual dilemmas.

The value of a more culturally-oriented theatrical history might be particularly

substantial for drama majors, whose view of theatre is often parochial. Certainly a
theatrical historian who gauged his subject broadly could suggest how the glorification of

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the theatrical soul as outsider-and thus really insider-is simply a subspecies of a general
twentieth-century intellectual desire to prove status by identification with some group
that defines itself in large part by its scorn of commonplace life. To be "in"-that vaguest
but most honorific of contemporary locations-is to see onself outside the main stream of
society, but within the bosom of one's chosen group of outsiders. In the eighteenth and
nineteenth century, theatrical figures by and large prided themselves on their social
respectability and acceptance, just as did other folk; in the twentieth century they have
preferred to think of themselves as different, as have most people with intellectual
pretensions, a category which includes an increasing majority of the population. In a real
sense the old standards of respectability may be said to have given way to theatrical ones
in the twentieth century. In earlier eras the respectable centered their case against
theatrical people on two charges: their vagabondage that challenged permanent
communal relations, and their role-playing that appeared to threaten fidelity to personal
and universal values. "If people become used to saying what they do not believe," said
one nineteenth-century minister, "what will become of the sanctity of contracts?" In the
twentieth century, instead of theatre people becoming respectable, respectable people
have become theatrical as ties of place bind ever fewer, and life increasingly seems little
more than a series of chosen roles, "the games people play." A theatrical history less
isolate could, in this way and others, suggest the relationship of the general culture to
theatrical work. One might hope that a student's dramatic activities might involve less
self-dramatization and more sense of expression of cultural feelings for which receptivity
to and caring about social realities are essential.

A cultural approach to theatrical history would also be valuable in comparative

studies. In reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, for example, I was struck by
the similarities between the ideology of Soviet "socialist realism" and the unofficial but
pervasive critical perspective of the melodrama. Solzhenitsyn has his spokesman for the
official viewpoint, a glib young party hack, argue exactly as the melodrama implicitly did:
that literature is to lift up man's vision, to fasten his eyes on broader truths, to
subordinate the sordid or threatening to the optimistic world that ought to be. The
similarities suggest a great common denominator of democracy and Communism as world
views. Both ideologies peculiarly promise human happiness through the structuring of
society, so that to be unhappy is in a sense an anti-social action, and artistically to purvey
unhappiness as a necessary part of man's lot becomes vaguely treasonable. The United
States has experienced some of the tensions that grow from Americans' increasing
willingness to admit that their society has really not given them contentment. One
wonders how Communism will handle the intellectual strains certain to grow out of its
even more extravagant promise not only to set up a situation suitable to the pursuit of
happiness but to provide happiness itself.

Another example occurred to me recently when I saw again a series of Marx Brothers
and W. C. Fields films from the 1930s. I wondered if these movies' corrosive attitude
toward social forms and platitudes had some relation to the depression of those years and
the questions it raised about the eternal verities among a broader portion of the
population than before. Perhaps this is why the gentler, more humane comedy of Chaplin
and Keaton seemed less relevant in those years. Of course, more "serious" popular
culture-say, the Shirley Temple movies-upheld traditional values, but certainly it's hard

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to imagine that conventionally pious notions of war, diplomacy, nationalism, and

romance could escape unscathed in people who cheerfully swallowed Duck Soup.1
Perhaps there are better historical explanations for these farces-I hope there are-but I
find it pleasant to think that what large numbers of people could accept in farce in the
thirties came to be what some of their children accepted as sober social truth in the

General historians would benefit at least equally with dramatic historians from theatre
studies which would make clear social connections. I think no one can properly
understand the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s without an awareness of the
influence of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, especially its invocation of extralegal
action as necessary to save old values from pervasive and threatening social change. The
movie's popularizing of the Klan has been recognized, but little attention has been paid to
how it invoked violence as a desperate moral remedy against despoiling change. If
understanding of the Klan is to be serious, to be moral rather than merely moralistic,
there is need to grasp how both idealism and fear contributed to its viciousness,
something the film makes brilliantly clear.

In subtler ways as well, dramatic historians might provide major insights to historians
concerned about wholly non-theatrical questions. I am at work on a study of rioting in
the United States during the Jacksonian period. My interest in the topic grew out of my
study of melodrama; there were many theatrical riots which intrigued me as illustration
of the problem of minority rights in a belligerently majoritarian society. As I began to
develop the topic, the connections with theatre became tenuous, but I grew increasingly
concerned about the psychological element in rioting. Written records reveal a good deal
about what motivated people in the conscious social sense to riot, but are comparatively
silent about the psychological satisfactions of the riotous situation. While mulling this
problem, I happened to see an old William S. Hart movie, Tumbleweeds, and two scenes
in it provided part of the clue I was seeking. Early in the film a boy gives his dog a drink
from the dipper of a public well in a frontier town. A man rushes up to the boy, scolds
him, and gives him a whack. Up strides William S. Hart to ask the man if he's the boy's
father. When the man says no, Hart demands he apologize to the boy. When the man
hesitates, Hart pushes him into a water trough, from which he emerges sputtering and
apologetic. When Hart demands he apologize to the dog, he again hesitates and is
rebaptized in the trough until he's ready to expiate his crime by apology to the dog.
Throughout this scene, Hart looks like a statue of retributive justice while the
townspeople and we in the audience are rather grossly amused by this example of the
extralegal punishment of vice. The point is that we all know that the victim gets his just
desserts: he's fat and not jolly, and we've already seen him leering at the heroine.

SI leave intact this observation even though I have since read that the anarchic Duck Soup was a
commercial failure, from which the career of the Marx Bros. was salvaged by Irving Thalberg who
subsequently encased their antics in the intellectually comforting context of the sentimental love
story. My mistake illustrates a type of error that often grows from studying works of art or mass
culture without secure grounding in the surrounding historical data. Alan Woods speaks convincingly
of this problem in "Theatre Reconstruction: Tentative Steps Toward a Methodology," Theatre
Survey, 12 (May 1971), 46-57.

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A later scene underscores the same idea. Heart captures the bad guys who by this time
have fully proved their vileness by killing a cavalryman and trying to frame our hero.
Most recently they have even tried to steal the land claim of a noble old husband and wife
of about eighty, just after the couple were on their knees thanking God for their chance
to start life over on the land taken back from the Indians. Hart is on horseback and the
villains are on foot with lassos pinioning their arms and preparing to walk back over the
Oklahoma prairie to jail. Before they start, Hart shoots the heels from their boots and
when they arrive they are limping considerably. The attraction of the Western hero is in
part that he represents the promise of democratic life that power belongs to the
people-the good people-and that the authority of the decent individual true to his code
is higher and purer than the authority of the state represented by conventionality and
legalism. The attraction of riot is similar, although there is the added inducement that the
individual will and the social will of the crowd are one, so that participants escape the
loneliness of the mythic hero and experience directly the personal power that democratic
life both promises and frustrates. The moral problem raised by both the Western myth
and the riotous crowd is simple: what are the general results of the strong sense of
self-righteousness that undergirds both in a world not so conveniently divided between
the perfectly good and the wholly wicked as is the classic western? The yet-to-be-written
studies, historically and aesthetically aware, of violence or notions of good and evil in
twentieth-century American films or theatre would tell much about our society and
ourselves that no historian could neglect.

So much for argument and examples. I suppose I should close with some suggestion of
the problems in the approach. Such theatrical history will require a serious grounding in
economic, political, social, religious and intellectual history as well as in theatrical
history. Scholarly competence in dramatic history itself is difficult work, and good work
that would tie it to the larger historical milieu requires broader training, or at least
broader curiosity, combined with the ability to find and use relevant historical sources.
Nor can there be any guarantee of the results of such efforts. Whatever the particular
approach, valuable scholarly work depends primarily on the skill and curiosity of the
writer and the suitability of his chosen approach to his special turn of mind. Despite such
reservations, I have no doubt that greater emphasis on a cultural context in dramatic
history would be invigorating to theatre studies and most helpful to other disciplines. At
the very least, I would urge this emphasis on the grounds that any new approach is
healthful in academic disciplines where intellectual life depends upon constant rebirth.
All approaches to human understanding have serious flaws, but there is wisdom in the
comment of that American pop philosopher, Mae West, who breathed in one of her
movies, "When I have to choose between two evils, I always take the one I haven't tried
yet." A sound academic dictum, that.

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