History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/American Realist
James A Herne edit
James A Herne (1839-1901) "shows a developed sense of realism in Margaret Flemming (1890) and Shore Acres (1892), drawing inspiration from the rough patriarchal life of the colonists in the distant provinces" (Pellizzi, 1935 p 244).
In "Margaret Fleming", "the outstanding realistic play before the advent of O’Neill revealed a well-intentioned weakling embroiled in an extra-marital affair, a girl dying in childbirth, and a hungry infant being suckled by his wife Margaret. In its revised form, which omitted a melodramatic kidnaping of Philip Fleming’s legitimate child, the play even allowed Margaret to take the unconventional step of adopting the illegitimate infant" (Gassner, 1954 p 637). "Margaret Fleming" describes the actions of a dissolute husband and his faithful and morally superior wife, Margaret...The most outstanding feature of the play...was Margaret Fleming: a sensitive and sensible person, sensitive to the social and moral rights and wrongs but buoyed up by the forceful will and moral fiber which gives her a control over her destiny- a control that Philip lacks. The theme of the play, developed through action and symbol, shows Herne's interest in social philosophy, influenced by the social determinism which colored the works of many literary men of this time...Today, critics see Margaret Fleming with its richness of emotion and its truth to human failings and achievements as a play which shows the faint beginnings of modern drama in America" (Meserve, 1964 p 158). “Herne’s portrayal of Margaret Fleming, faced with a moral dilemma, is not unlike [Henry] James’ portrait of Isabel Archer. Both young wives, in the beginning idealistic and romantic, are subjected eventually to much mental anguish and self-sacrifice. Their final decisions symbolize woman’s capacity for growing in tragic consciousness” (Herron, 1969 p 185). "If Margaret is portrayed humanistically, as victorious over circumstances, her husband Philip and the factory girl who bears his natural child are not: Herne is careful to point out that they are the victims, one of his own desires, the other of her environment. The play is, then, a blend of humanism and naturalism" (Waggoner, 1942 p 70). “The realization that a wife might expect of her husband the kind of love and loyalty he assumes from her...moves Fleming to a deeper remorse and justifies Margaret’s insistence that any reconciliation can only be partial and long in coming” (Berkowitz, 1992 p 14). “Herne...is concerned with double standard…American audiences of 1890 were not prepared for...frank discussion of marital fidelity, nor could they tolerate Herne’s disregard for their cherished illusions about the sanctity of marriage” (Vaughan, 1981 p 175). Philip Fleming "is a common, average sensual man, but she is a very uncommon woman. In the end, after cruel suffering, she forgives him; but she no more forgets than a man would forget a wife’s infidelity. He is impossible to her; the last scene closes with his recognition and acceptance of the fact; and they go their different ways through life, friends, but lovers no more (Howells, 1992 p 54). “One might expect [Dr Larkin], as a man of science, to affirm the precepts of realist drama, and to some extent he does, insisting on honesty and pointing out how environment determines character. Yet more than any other character, he also frets over moral contamination and inveighs against sin- refusing a cigar from a man whose conduct he censures, arguing that Margaret’s emotional torment caused her glaucoma” (Robinson, 2009 pp 119-120).
"Shore acres" "was based on three themes. The first, on which the plot principally hangs, is the question of scientific agnosticism versus fundamentalism. In his choice of this theme, Herne was, of course, reflecting his own mental development under the tutelage of his scientific masters. Young Doc Warren, an intellectual and a scientific agnostic who is incautiously outspoken in his advanced views, is driven by the suspicion and hatred of his neighbors to leave the little Maine coast community where he has been practising medicine. The second theme is a condemnation of land speculation (reflecting, of course, Herne's conversion to Henry George's theory of the single tax): a farmer engages in speculation, only to lose all his money and his farm. The third theme is feminism (or, as it may also be interpreted, the revolt from family control): the young girl of the play ringingly asserts her right to live her own life and to marry whom she pleases. The play is, naturally, in view of its central theme, full of references to Spencer, Darwin and The Descent of Man, and the progress of liberal thought in spite of the opposition of the godly...The doctor (who speaks throughout the play for Herne) emphasizes the briefness of life in enforcing his determination to live it fully while he can. One life, he says, i enough for him to think about. This revival of emphasis upon the eternal 'carpe diem' theme was, of course, one of the commonest results of the impact of science upon Herne contemporaries" (Waggoner, 1942 pp 70-71). "Lack of clarity in conflict is the chief fault. But this is a popular affliction with modern structure. His exaggerated character drawing is a remnant of the times. The skill with which the main story is dovetailed into the town lot boom is a plot building model for all time. The fact that the father's brother once loved the former's wife should be etched into the foreground of the play. If the audience knew that he was fighting for the daughter of the woman he once loved, we need not rely entirely on talk when the item is introduced to enhance the situation in the light house scene" (Anthony, 1901 p 223). The play “is rich in local color, realistic detail, and sharp, believable characterizations...Uncle Nat is a fully developed and affecting (albeit overly sentimental) character” (Vaughan, 1981 pp 177-180). “Nat’s deep interest in [Helen]’s emotional problems and his tenderness for her contrasts with Martin’s resentment of his daughter’s independence and youthful intolerance” (Herron, 1969 p 182). Syle (1898) commented that "the first act and the third are, in my opinion, stronger than either the second or the fourth. The first contains an intellectual element lacking in the others. Its presentation of the narrow, provincial, country life of New England stands out in fine dramatic contrast with the wider, freer range of thought and feeling suggested by the mental tone of the young physician. The utter impossibility of life for him in a community whose most advanced thinker believes that Darwinism means that his grandfathers were monkeys, the hopeless attempt of the young scientist to adapt himself to such an environment, the faith of the young girl who longs to believe in the new ideas because he believes in them- all this furnishes a most interesting psychological problem, thoroughly modern and treated in a thoroughly modern way...In the third act...we were shown, swiftly and vividly, the true nobility, the dauntless purpose which lay deep hidden in a nature apparently soft and sympathetic" (pp 136-138). "Very few of us, I fancy, who saw James A Herne's play 'Shore Acres' fifteen years ago have forgotten the final moments of that play. Old Nathan el Berry, his troubles laid, his heart at rest, sent every one to bed, walked to the kitchen window and, scratching off a little frost, peered out into the winter night a mo- ment, then made fast the doors, banked the fire, blew out the lamps, and, his candle held high, climbed with slow, aged steps up the stairs to his chamber. At the landing he turned and paused for a last look at the room below, quite dim save for the glow from the fire and the faint flicker of his candle flame. Everything in the old New England kitchen where so much of joy and tragedy had come to fruition, where his life had been lived and his heart almost broken, rested peaceful and still in the red glow, under the benediction of his eye. Then he passed across the bedroom threshold and the stage grew still darker. Through a mist of cleansing tears you beheld for a hushed moment the deserted kitchen and knew the power of silence, the still soul of an empty room" (Eaton, 1908 pp 11-12).
"Herne’s realism is of a mild sort; in fact the plots of the great majority of his plays are more or less romantic and sentimental. The realism lies in the presentation of character. His men and women are recognizable American people, who think and talk in a familiar way. His realism also lies in the fact that the emotions and situations he dramatizes are of the simpler and less violent kind that are akin to those of the average man" (Coad and Mims, 1929 p 286). "Mr Herne possessed a keen insight into motive, and, no matter how straggling his construction might be, or how many loose ends his action might reveal, his characters rarely went in opposition to understood motive and settled environment. Mr Herne placed his greatest stress and his chief reliance on character. This may seem a surprising statement to those who have been accustomed to much talking about Mr Herne's realism, and who have failed to perceive that this realism was, after all, only the appropriate frame for Mr Herne's characters. Atmosphere, for which Mr Herne sought so persistently and which he obtained with such surety, was a necessity, because it instantly put one in touch with the personages of his plays. It was an important adjunct to Mr Herne's supreme essential, the exposition of character” (Strang, 1903 vol 2 pp 166-167). Moses (1917) emphasized "Herne's inimitable handling of the commonplace...He was able to breathe into his dialogue those small, playful expressions that lighten up the whole character" (pp 97-98).
"As our literary history continues and the importance of the drama in that evolution becomes more and more apparent, the name of Herne will be sure to take an ever securer place; he was, in the strict sense, a creative force in the theatre, ably championing the new doctrine of realism and in his own works furnishing admirable early examples of a faith and method which were to triumph in the efforts of a school now obviously symptomatic of our day. Some twenty years ago, in Boston, his 'Margaret Fleming' was very properly regarded by a select audience as the most significant play using the realistic formula yet seen in America; it is probable that the opinion might still stand, despite the good work we have hailed since, if it were our privilege today to possess the drama in printed form. That vastly liked play, 'Shore Acres', of less importance spiritually than the other, nevertheless stands as easily the best of all the rustic drama of realistic intent" (Burton, 1913 p 62). "In evaluating Herne's contribution to the development of our native drama we reach the inevitable conclusion that his influence was chiefly in the emphasis on the faithful portrayal of the 'common' man whether he be Yankee farmer, New England fisherman, or Southern preacher. And much of the effectiveness of Herne's characterization was due to his own ability and integrity as a character actor. Before the close of the century there had been countless imitations of his plays: 'The county fair', 'Way down East' etc, but none of these possessed the fidelity to life which Herne managed to achieve. He was uniquely able to ennoble the simple and sentimental specimens of humanity whom he chose to depict" (Hughes, 1951 p 289).
"Margaret Fleming" edit
Time: 1890. Place: Canton, Massachusetts, USA.
Called for a consultation during Lena's childbirth, Doctor Larkin discovers that the father of the illegitimate baby is Philip Fleming, who explains he suggested to the girl an abortion and offered to pay her way out of town, but she declined both. A contrite Philip opens a bank account on behalf of his wife, Margaret, for the sum of $5,000 and to his baby girl a further $20,000 when she comes of age. He also gives his puzzled wife the deed to the house and land. Still harboring guilt, Philip tells Larkin he intends to confess his adultery to his wife in a few years, but the doctor does not recommend it, because Margaret suffers from glaucoma, which may lead to blindness should she suffer under a powerful emotion. The Flemings' nurse-maid, Maria, informs Margaret that her sister, Lena, is dying as the result of childbirth and requests to see her. When Margaret arrives, Lena is already dead. A distraught Maria discovers the father's identity because of Lena's letter to her mistress and shows it to Margaret. Maria then waves a gun and threatens to shoot Philip, but Margaret disarms her. Against the doctor's advice, Margaret sends a message to her husband to come over and see the baby boy, and, taking pity on his lack of nourishment, she gives him her breast to suck. A distressed Philip leaves for Boston for a week and throws himself into the river, but is recovered in time and nursed at a local hospital. Meanwhile, Margaret loses her sight. Philip returns and is stunned on discovering his wife's blindness. He asks her whether she can forgive him. Margaret says she can, but when he touches her, she draws back. "The wife-heart has gone out of me," she admits. A despairing Philip proposes to move away, but Margaret convinces him to remain, confident that the two will eventually work it out.
"Shore Acres" edit
Time: 1890s. Place: Lemoine, Maine, USA.
Text at ?
In an attempt to join Martin Berry's land with his own, Josiah Blake suggests that the owner of Shore Acres farm would be richer should he build summer cottages rather than plant potatoes. "I'll take a mortgage on your farm for the money to start you an' you kin sell the lots," Josiah proposes. Although Martin is uncertain about that question, he is certain that he does not want Dr Sam Warren as a son-in-law to his daughter, Helen, but Josiah instead, postmaster and storekeeper. As a result, Sam must head westward, because his advanced views on scientific matters have cost him the confidence of his backward clientele. As Sam and Helen confer about their future, they are interrupted by Martin, who wants him to clear out. "I'm a-bringin' up my family an' I don't want no interference from you, nor Darwin, nor any o' the rest o' the breed," the irate father warns. However, Sam needs to borrow $100 before he can travel. Martin's wife, Ann, as well as his older brother, Nat, are distraught on hearing that Martin intends to cut the farm into building lots, including land where their mother is buried. When Martin mentions that he is tired of lightkeeping, Nat proposes to keep that part of the land for himself and take care of the light-keeping. One day, $100 is stolen from Josiah's store. Josiah accuses Sam of the theft, specifying that he refused to hand over a loan him for that exact sum. Helen angers her father by defending her lover. Nat confesses to Helen that he himself gave $100 to Sam, money belonging to him and his brother to buy a tombstone for their mother. In addition, Nat gives her his mother's wedding ring to sell and requests a sea captain to take the two lovers away with him on his boat. On noticing his daughter's disappearance, Martin confronts Nat inside the lighthouse. Nat admits to helping Helen leave at the moment the lamp goes out during a storm. To prevent him re-lighting it, Martin blocks his way, but is thrown aside by his brother. At first Nat appears too old to climb the stairs and tumbles down, but he gets up and succeeds in emitting a tiny flame to save the occupants of the boat. Fifteen months later, the land company goes broke and Martin is ruined, having lost the farm to Josiah on a $1,500 mortgage and then spending the money for building lots. During a snowstorm on Christmas eve, Nat reveals to his brother that he found a baby at their doorstep. As Josiah eagerly lunges for it, Nat admits it is Helen's, returned along with Sam from out west, at which Martin contritely welcomes them. Josiah reveals that the missing $100 was discovered behind the safe amid a load of papers. Young Nat, Martin's son, confesses that he put it there in a fit of revenge after the hated doctor teased him. On learning about his father-in-law's financial woes, Sam offers to mortgage his house and lend the money to him, but that becomes unnecessary when news arrive by letter that Sam was successful in obtaining an army pension for Uncle Nat. "Well, everythin's all right again," Uncle Nat declares.
Henry James edit
Henry James (1843-1916) provided a notable example of realist drama with "Guy Domville" (1895).
“James opens the play with the date of June, 1780…During the week of June 4, 1780, the Gordon Riots began in Britain and dominated the news for the rest of the month…The Gordon Riots occurred in response to Parliamentʼs passing, in 1778, a bill to remove some of the penal laws against Catholics…Upon the passing of this bill, Lord George Gordon created a Protestant association that, in vigilante fashion, hunted down and attacked Catholic priests, teachers, and businesses beginning the week of June 4. Protestant mobs demolished and burned Catholic chapels and schools in a swath of violence from London west to Bristol. This is precisely the axis that James chooses for his play. Moreover, Guy Domville, a Roman Catholic school teacher, is intent on entering holy orders and is about to inherit an old Catholic manor- and the second and third clauses of the bill bear upon the matter of Catholic inheritance...But despite the play and riots sharing common thematic features, Guy Domville appears devoid of violence...Fear [is the suggested reason as to why] Lord Devenish...’posted night and day’ on an errand [needing] no haste, since he does not know that Guy is about to leave for Bristol, Douai, and holy orders. James emphasizes Devenishʼs hurry by means of the dramatistʼs all-in-all, his intensity. Devenish speaks of having ‘posted till I ached!’ and is seen ‘ruefully feeling his loins’. Armed though he was…he rode fast. What James does, here and elsewhere, then, is to give the play a genuine historical context and his characters various unaccounted-for responses, so that we, doing our half of the work, will logically connect the latter to the former. Thus, James appears to expect us to recognize that rioters make the lord fear for his safety. For his return to London with Guy, when again there is no cause for hurry, apart from the riots, Devenish still plans ‘a long dayʼs run for the Domvilles!” (Bernard, 1996 pp 2-5).
Some 19th century newspaper critics were taken aback at seeing "Guy Domville", partly because Domville’s “behavior did not conform to that expected of a typical romantic hero and his motives were alien to their own beliefs and values. Guy agrees to marry and continue the Domville line, but he breaks off his engagement to Mary Brasier when he discovers that George Round is in love with her. Having understood from the first act that Mrs Peverel is in love with Guy, the audience would now be expecting Guy to marry Mrs Peverel, leading to the happy ending that a nineteenth-century audience would expect for a romantic hero. Instead, knowing that his friend Frank Humber is in love with Mrs Peverel, Guy makes a second sacrifice, going back to a life in service of the church and leaving Frank free to marry Mrs. Peverel...There is an interesting comparison to be made here with Arthur Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893). This play too has no happy ending, and its themes of adultery, prostitution, and suicide treat much more contentious issues than James’s drama. Yet the play’s dark and violent ending, showing Paula Tanqueray’s suicide on stage, did not prevent it being hugely popular with both critics and audience. The key difference between the two plays in terms of characterization is that Pinero’s characters play true to type, that is, their behavior and their fate are exactly what the audience would expect it to be” (MacCormack, 2023 pp 161-162).
Murphy (1987) criticized the play because "mixing the form of comedy, the sentiment of the 'drame bourgeois' and an oversimplified version of his realistic characters and motives, he ended up with a hybrid play that was inadequately comic, sentimental, and realistic" (p 60). But Bernard Shaw (1916) saw "among the qualities, a rare charm of speech. Line after line comes with such a delicate turn and fall that I unhesitatingly challenge any of our popular dramatists to write a scene in verse with half the beauty of Mr James’s prose. I am not now speaking of the verbal fitness, which is a matter of careful workmanship merely. I am speaking of the delicate inflexions of feeling conveyed by the cadences of the line, inflexions and cadences which, after so long a course of the ordinary theatrical splashes and daubs of passion and emphasis, are as grateful to my ear as the music of Mozart’s 'Entfuhrung aus dem Serail' would be after a year of 'Ernani' and 'II Trovatore'. Second, 'Guy Domville' is a story, and not a mere situation hung out on a gallows of plot. And it is a story of fine sentiment and delicate manners, with an entirely worthy and touching ending. Third, it relies on the performers, not for the brute force of their personalities and popularities, but for their finest accomplishments in grace of manner, delicacy of diction, and dignity of style" (pp 9-10).
"James developed with great simplicity and charm of dialogue the dilemma of young Guy, devout and dedicated on the eve of his departure for France, strong in his determination to become a Benedictine monk. He has been tutor to Mrs Peverel’s son; he loves Mrs Peverel; his love for the Church however has not permitted him to recognize his deeper feelings. Mrs Peverel is devoted to him, and thinks of him as an earthly saint. She has accordingly resigned herself to losing him to the Mother Church. Guy is also fond of a neighbouring squire, Frank Humber, who pays courts to Mrs Peverel. Since Guy will not have the widow for him- self, he is prepared- like Miles Standish or Cyrano de Bergerac- to plead his friend’s cause. All this James set forth with considerable charm...Guy Domville’s conflict quickly became, however, much more than that of spiritual love versus the spiritual life. Into the quiet of this garden there enters Lord Devenish, the Mephistopheles of the drama. He brings the news that Guy’s kinsman has just fallen from a horse and been killed-'he was mostly too drunk to ride'. Guy is the last of his line. He must renounce religion, take over the encumbered estates, make an advantageous marriage. The Domvilles must not be allowed to die out...The second act, at the villa of the dowager Mrs Domville, banished all the sympathetic characters of the first act. Only Guy and Lord Devenish were retained. Guy has shed churchly black for the breeches, lace and wig of a man-about-town. He has learned very quickly to play cards and to drink; he is ready to marry his cousin, the dowager’s daughter. Into this act James poured the clichés of the boulevard theatres of Paris: the cousin turns out to be the illegitimate daughter of Lord Devenish and Mrs Domville; she in turn is in love with a naval lieutenant. When Guy learns the truth, he aids in their elopement. In the midst of the act he indulges in a mock drinking scene- borrowed from Emile Augier’s L'Aventuriére- in which the naval lieutenant and Guy pour glass after glass of port into the flower pots while pretending to make each other drunk...At the end, having found nothing but deceit around him, Guy again reverses himself. He has strayed from his true vocation. He must, after all, go into the church. The third act, even though it brought back the sympathetic Mrs Peverel and her suitor, could not repair the damage. Lord Devenish rushes to Mrs Peverel; if he can’t marry off Guy to his illegitimate daughter, he may still save him for worldly things, and his own devices, by marrying him to Mrs Peverel. Guy returns, and in another scene of great delicacy shows a glimmer of awareness of Mrs Peverel’s love. But Lord Devenish has left his gloves in the room; and the sight of these freezes the novice into a sense of the world’s treacheries. All hesitation is gone; he will say good-bye to everything" (Edel, 1977 edition pp 145-147).
Amid James' "greatest enthusiasm for the drama, and his utmost surrender to it, he was never able to forget the advantages of the novel- what the novel could do that drama couldn’t, how much more supple an instrument it was for the modern situation, in how many ways, that is to say, it corresponded better to what he in particular was interested in conveying. Distracted by the polar stresses of the two techniques, he ended by combining them, making them more than ever pull in the same direction. From quite early on he had shown a strong tendency to use certain elements of dramatic technique in his novels. After the experiments in play-writing he developed this tendency to its utmost and produced a ‘drama’ freed from the conditions of the stage. With this he really did find the form that was his. He builds a beautiful arch upon the two supports of drama and narrative and the keystone of the arch is his method of focusing a situation in the mind of one or other of his characters (what is sometimes called, most ambiguously, his ‘indirect method’). This principle enables him to extend at will an architecture, a ‘scenic’ composition', that he derives essentially from drama; and it gives him the novelist’s liberty to elaborate what the playwright can only suggest or refer to. He creates a convention of his own that extends drama and contributes a quite new idea of form to the novel (for this is something different from the early connection of the English novel with the drama)" (Peacock, 1946 p 29).
"Guy Domville" edit
Time: 1780s. Place: Somersetshire countryside, England.
Text at https://archive.org/details/guydomvilleplayi00jame https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.148697 https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.83318 https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.3532 https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.235674
Guy Domville, a poor nobleman and tutor to Mrs Peverel's son, wishes to quit his position to become a priest. Mrs Peverel is disappointed. She loves him and is loved in turn by Frank Humber, who asks Guy to recommend him as her husband. Their talk is interrupted by Lord Devenish, who informs Guy that as a result of a cousin's death he is next in succession as the sole heir and master of the Gaye estate. Guy reluctantly accepts to abandon the priesthood. Although he tries his best to recommend Frank, Mrs Peverel declines the offer, waving away Frank's presence. "Don't speak to me, don't look at me, only leave me," she commands the abashed lover. But she is astonished to hear from Lord Devenish that a plan to marry off Guy is already in the works, to the daughter of a cousin of his. "We've particular need of him in another place to lead a young lady to the altar: Mrs. Domville's daughter by her first marriage," he reveals. "The amiable and virtuous Miss Brasier, a bride in a thousand, a Catholic, a beauty, and a fortune." At her villa, Mrs Domville receives the unwelcome visit of George Round, lieutenant in the king's Navy and her daughter's rejected suitor, aghast on learning from Lord Devenish that the marriage ceremony is due this very night, the result of an agreement between he and Mrs Domville, so that if Guy marries the daughter, she will marry Lord Devilish to become Viscountess Devenish. When George meets Guy, he asks him to deliver a package for Mary Brasier, who receives it in suppressed agitation, a ring she once gave to George. When George meets Mary, he pleads with her to abandon Guy, mystified about George's presence at the villa but agreeing to drink wine with him, in excessive amounts in his case as he suspects the worst. Harassed by George, Mary reluctantly admits that she does not love Guy but hesitates to follow George because such a move would harm Devenish's prospects of marrying to overcome heavy debts. Pushed to the limit, George reveals to the horrified Mary that Devenish is her father. She thereby leaves Guy to follow George. On learning this information, her mother and Devenish are aghast. Yet in Devenish's view, the contract stands. "How does it stand when you've not performed your task?" asks a bewildered Mrs. Domville. "My task, madam, was not to hold Mary, it was to hold Guy," he counters, now endeavoring to marry Guy to the woman they suspect he secretly loves, Mrs Peverel, and thereby beget heirs so that the Domville name can be perpetuated. In Mrs Peverel's white parlor, Frank tells her he is leaving the country. Their talk is interrupted by Devenish, who informs her of the failed marriage. Knowing that she loves Guy, Devenish asks her to convince Guy to forsake his former idea of becoming a priest. He reveals to the stupefied Mrs Peverel that Guy never loved Mary but loves her instead. When Guy comes in, he notices Devenish's white gloves lying about and guesses that the man intends to initiate other plots. After meeting Frank set to go away, Guy once more pleads Mrs Peverel to accept him as her husband, but in her disappointment she is unable to reply. "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles," Guy defiantly announces to Devenish before leaving for France.
Hamlin Garland edit
Still in the realist vein but with a touch of melodrama, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) wrote “Under the wheel” (1890).
"Garland followed The Rise of Boomtown (1889) with his one published play, Under the Wheel (1890)...With both plays now available for comparison, one is able to see Under the Wheel as the sequel to The Rise of Boomtown. Where the earlier play presents Boomtown in the midst of its feverish railroad-induced prosperity, Under the Wheel returns to Boomtown to present the horrifying trials of the Edwards family now that the boom has gone bust. In this sense, the two plays comprise a cycle of native American history, and thus represent one of the very earliest efforts by an American playwright to come to terms with the problem of a nation with no history" (Rocha, 1989 p 70).
The play is “a thought-centered piece with a simple linear structure that expresses its theme both explicitly and through set pieces of dialogue and implicitly through action...The play tends almost toward the didactic as the mimetic mode...Each of the six scenes is built around a social statement” (Murphy, 1987 p 82). The statements may be: 1) it is useless to strive in urban poverty, 2) watch out for hucksters out west, 3) a girl’s first duty is to her parents, 4) it is useless to strive in rural poverty, 5) help arrives in the form of charity, 6) the young get by, the old just lie. Although Murphy (1987) complained of Walter’s ‘stilted stage English’, his manner of speaking seems appropriate when one considers his profession as a newspaper editor.
“Under the wheel” edit
Time: 1880s. Place: Boston and Northwest USA.
The Edwards family has been struggling in Boston since arriving as immigrants from Ireland. Walter Reeves, a newspaper editor, wants to remove Alice Edwards from this home by marrying her, but instead she wants to continue practicing her music to gain an income that will help out her parents and her little sister, Linnie. “I want to show people that I can earn my own living,” Alice affirms. "Dearest girl, all I have is thine!” Walter earnestly exclaims. "No, it ain’t,” she retorts. “I want money all my own...I don't see why poverty is so persistent in this age of invention," she adds. "Come to think of it, it is more absurd to think the abolition of poverty absurd,” he remarks. “I saw men running to and fro like ants, lost in the tumult of life and death struggle. I saw pale girls sewing there in dens reeking with pestilence. I saw myriads of homes where the children could play only in the street or on the sooty roof, colonies of hopeless settlers sixty feet from their mother earth. And over me soared the bridge to testify to the inventive genius of man. And I said then what I say now, that men have invented a thousand ways of producing wealth, but not one for properly distributing it.” The father, Jason, a mechanic, arrives from his shop in a depressed mood. "It's just one eternal grind, not a day off,” he states to his wife. “I'm glad I don't believe in another world- I wouldn't be sure o' rest after I got there." After learning that the rent of their apartment will soon increase in a period where his wages have been declining, he heeds to Alice’s suggestion that they move to a farm out west, having had experience in Ireland about managing one, though in a manner insufficient to provide a living. “We'll go west, where my girl, Linnie, will grow up strong, and sweet as an April rosebush,” he says enthusiastically. “I feel as if a pile-driver had rolled off my neck." After the family settles out west, Walter joins them, first encountering Judge Balser, land-agent, and his henchmen, who try to mislead him into buying land. But they fail to. “I see you're a set o' landsharks,” he says, “and live off the industry of the town.” One of the henchmen, Frank, sympathezises with Walter, offering his team of horses to drive him to the Edwards’ farm, whose occupants have been struggling hard through lack of rain. Walter knows in advance what he is up against. “Edwards is one of these men who'll die in the harness, and go under the wheel before he'll give up,” he affirms, “and she has a good deal of the same spirit." When Walter sees Alice, he offers to marry her again, but she ask for a year’s delay. “I feel that I can't leave my parents,” she declares, “and I won't leave them – now - while they are old, and poor, and need me so.” "What do you hope to do by it?" he asks. "Nothing,” she retorts. “I'm past hope; I'm only enduring." She pleads with Judge Balser for a delay in the mortgage payment on the farm. “I should be very glad to do so, Miss Edwards, if it was possible,” he answers, “but, you see, I've nothing to do with the business. I'm only an agent of the syndicate. There are thousands of other farmers in the same fix, and if I let one go they'd all want-” For all his work, Jason's land winds up with only a handful of blighted wheat. When rain clouds finally accumulate, precipitation occur in the form of hail, causing definite loss of the farm. Pitying their lot, Frank harbors the entire family at his house, where Jason has kept to his bed after suffering a stroke. Walter returns to Alice, his offer of marriage finally accepted. He proposes to shelter the entire family, but Jason refuses to live on charity, wishing instead to return to Ireland, but after trying to get up, he discovers to his horror that his feet are paralyzed as Linnie, unconscious of the trouble, joyfully dances and whistles around the room at the thought of returning eastward.
Alice Emma Ives and Jerome H Eddy edit
Alice Emma Ives (1874-1930) and Jerome H Eddy (1834-1918) raised the level of 19th century American drama with "The village postmaster" (1894).
"The village postmaster" edit
Time: 1852. Bridgewater, New Hampshire, USA.
The village postmaster, Seth, does not wish John, the Methodist parson's son, as a son-in-law for his daughter, Miranda, because he has not proven himself and also because he aims for a man higher in social rank. "I've spent a sight eddicatin' thet girl, an' the man thet marries Mirandy Huggins hez got to be somebody. He's got to be a good clus communion Baptist, too," he concludes. In contrast, when asked by Ben, a lawyer, he shows no objection of his courting her. Ben specifies that a man should court one woman at a time and John has been seen with Mary, a seamstress. Ben has also been courting Mary, but, in view of his improved prospects, he tells her he wants to break off their relation. Mary answers bitterly and pleadingly. "As fer the love that ken stand one side for money," she declares, "it's a poor sort thet I wouldn't own to. It ain't the sort I had for you, Ben. Ye know that well." When John approaches Miranda, she seems uninterested in him, thinking he loves Hattie, though their engagement was broken off. John is easily discouraged, all the more so in thinking Miranda loves Ben. At Seth's farmyard, John tries out an invention of his: a feeder to a threshing machine, while Seth's sister, Samantha, is being courted by the shy sexton, Ebenezer. Out of mischief, Seth's young son, Tom, throws apples on John's head in the midst of his difficulties, then does the same to his aunt, till, bearing too heavily on the tree-limb in his eagerness to listen, he loses his balance and hangs dangling between the two. Samantha grabs him by the collar and walks him in the house, but the interruption is enough to discompose Ebenezer. To be rid of Mary, Ben pretends to desire marrying her out of town and offers her money to travel. Overjoyed, she believes him and takes the money. When John mentions to Miranda news of Hattie's marriage, she is surprised at his cheerful voice, till, to her contentment, he explains he does not love her. Discouraged at his inability to get anywhere with Miranda, Ben tries to push John in the threshing machine, but is knocked down by him. John then leaves town for several months to perfect his invention. When he returns, Ben is at the point of marrying Miranda, who has had no word from John throughout this period, the same as he. Aiming to avenge herself on her forsworn lover, Mary explains to John that while Seth was ill, Ben replaced him at the post-office, insinuating he may have intercepted their letters. When this hypothesis is proven true, Seth announces to John with Miranda consenting: "Take her with my blessin'."
Steele MacKaye edit
Another late-century dramatist of note is Steele MacKaye (1842-1894), mainly for "Hazel Kirke" (1880), partly taken from George Eliot's novel, "The mill on the Floss", in that in both a miller's daughter is prevented from marrying the man she loves because of her father's poverty.
"'Hazel Kirke' bears all the characteristics of the romantic and melodramatic school of Boucicault," except that McKaye "imbibed much of the Boucicault technique without its flexibility, without its humor, without its easy grace and cheerfulness" (Moses, 1917 p 146). "'Hazel Kirke' was hailed as the first native melodrama without a villain; circumstances was woven of normal human motives it was not twisted- as by recipe of all former native melodramas- by the machinations of an inevitable Iago" (MacKaye, 1912 p 155).
Yet the play was also seen as a "harbinger of the realistic movement soon to follow". In particular, Aaron's desistance from pursuing Hazel after learning of her love for Arthur eliminates him from the role of melodramatic villain he could have been (Murphy, 1987 pp 6-7). "MacKaye's major work, however, Hazel Kirke, 1879, boasts the more realistically drawn characters of this time. Although the plot is sentimental and melodramatic, there is a naturalness in Hazel's character and in certain incidents which suggests the direction realism was taking in the drama. MacKaye should be considered a minor playwright who contributed through his characters some suggestion of realism- though, of course much less effective than in the fiction of this time" (Meserve, 1964 pp 155-156).
"Hazel Kirke" edit
Time: 1880s. Place: Blackburn, Lancashire, England.
Seven years ago, Dunstan Kirke, a miller, was saved from financial ruin by Squire Aaron Rodney. In return, Dunstan encouraged his 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, to plight her troth to him, which she did. Aaron paid for her education so that she may do him honor as the lady of Rodney Hall. One day, Dunstan saves Arthur Carringford from drowning near his mill. Unknown to everyone, Arthur is a lord. After his accident, he is nursed back to health by Hazel. To Aaron's grief, a romantic attachment develops between the two. While Hazel distributes flowers to Arthur and a friend, Aaron stares inside her basket and utters: "Emblems of my hopes; nothing but leaves, dead and withered leaves." When Dunstan's wife, Mercy, discovers this attachment, she asks her to forget him, but Aaron, staggering towards a chair, interrupts them: "I know that you love her- that she loves you! Nay, ye need not be afeer'd, lass: I'm not the man to rail at or curse ye- I shall only-". He is more coherent when confronting Arthur: "I have written to your mother, Mr. Carringford, begging her to call you away from here- I know the pride o' your race, sir. Your mother will never consent to your marriage with Hazel, and I warn ye- if ye seek to dishonor her, there is no living power will prevent me from murdering ye." When Dunstan discovers that Hazel wants to marry Arthur instead of Aaron, he disavows her. Hazel marries Arthur in Scotland, or so they think before Arthur's servant discloses that the Scottish ceremony occurred on English ground and is thereby void. While Arthur attempts to set this matter right, his dying mother, Lady Danvers, discovering her son's illegal marriage, implores Hazel to forget Arthur. "My husband had a ward (Lady Maud), whose fortune he wrongfully used and lost," she informs her. "Upon his dying bed, he confessed this to me, and made me promise to hide his shame by marrying our only son to that ward." Feeling betrayed by Arthur, Hazel leaves abruptly. Lady Danvers soon dies. Because of his daughter's treachery, Dunstan is forced to abandon his mill to Aaron to pay for his debts. Worse news yet: he catches a fever in the midst of this unhappiness and after it goes away, he loses his sight. When Aaron beholds Hazel seeking to return to her parents, he shows that he still wants her. "Keep the old promise- become my wife," he pleads. She accepts provided her father consents, but the resentful man refuses. In despair, Hazel throws herself in the water but is rescued by Arthur. He later reveals his wish to do everything he can to make the marriage possible. "Well, I ordered my solicitor to settle my estate and satisfy every claim of Lady Maud's against my grandfather if it took the last penny he had in the world," he reveals. Poor but at least together, Arthur and Hazel prepare to marry again, this time with Dunstan's consent, but this becomes unnecessary because the servant was mistaken as to where the marriage occurred and it is therefore legal after all.
Bret Harte edit
“Sue” (1896) by Bret Harte (1826-1902) and Thomas Edgar Pemberton (1848-1905) is based on Harte’s short story, “The judgment of Bolinas Plain” (1895), eventually published in “Tales of trail and town” (1898).
Time: 1890s. Place: Western USA.
Having travelled on a wagon with his daughter, Sue, Silas Prescott now wants to marry her off to gain more freedom for himself. Tired from their travels, father and daughter obtain shelter on Lone Farm by Ira Beasley, who, though coarse and awkward, has his eye on Sue as a possible wife. However, Sue shows more interest in his farm animals than in him. Another house guest, Parson Davies, encounters Jim Wynd, a circus acrobat who seduced his daughter away from her husband and then abandoned her. The parson warns Jim to leave at once, which he reluctantly accepts. Aware of Ira’s wish, the parson recommends him to marry Sue if he can. “She’ll share everything with me while I live; she’ll have all I’ve got when I die. And when she says she’ll have me, you can see the books,” Ira offers Silas. “As I am a religious man, it’s a deal,” Silas responds. But when Silas informs Sue of his parental wish, she refuses even if Ira’s friends, Will and Anne Olber, make her see a more positive view of the marriage state. “Good gracious, child!" Anne exclaims. “Don’t you know that men are just what women choose to make them?” Sue is especially tempted by the thought of seeing circuses and plays in her husband’s company. But yet she still refuses until Ira intervenes as Silas is about to strike her, shaking him and sending Silas reeling across the room. After three years, Sue is bored with the marriage state, with Ira appearing shabbier and dirtier than ever and also unwilling to take her to the circus or the theater. One day, Jim rushes in front of her house, explaining that he must hide from men chasing him. She accepts to hide him. Sheriff Scott arrives with his constable to arrest Jim for murder but cannot find him. To protect Jim even better, Sue asks her husband to explain how to load his gun, ostensibly for her own protection but actually to hand it over to Jim. She is even more enthused when Jim emerges from the loft wearing spangles of the circus-rider, so that she hides him for the night. A weary Sheriff Scott also stays the night and notices the smell of a pipe from the loft as Jim Wynd appears at the top of the steps, revolver in hand, and shoots him in the leg. Ira, alerted by noise, fires his own gun from the window. Jim takes off and Sue follows him. In a bar-room, a vigilante group has heard the constable’s version of that night, that the sheriff, unheard of since, was murdered by Jim Wynd. Though wounded, Sheriff Scott is also able to leave. The sheriff’s body is missing, but yet the constable is certain that he was killed and informs a vigilante committee of this, a committee already assured of Jim's guilt in advance until Ira shows up to say that he himself killed the sheriff. However, a second surprise follows when Sue walks in to say that her husband could not have done so. “He couldn’t have killed him,” she declares, “for I loaded the gun that day and put no shot in it.” Judge Lynch lets Ira go to face officers of the law formed into a posse. As for Jim's fate, the judge has another idea. “Do you see that tree, with the one straight branch below the window?” he asks. “In ten minutes more, you would have been dangling from it. Now is your one chance for escape. The branch is twenty feet from the ground, the tree fifteen feet from this window.” Despite the difficulty, Jim succeeds in jumping safely and escaping. After the committee disperses, the sheriff arrives, alive after all that. Sue is accepted back to Ira’s house, all the more happily in his view when the parson assures him that he interfered with Jim’s intent. “But before I told her the truth about that scoundrel, she despised him," he relates. "When from his own wicked lips she knew that Wynd, thinking he had killed the sheriff, meant to saddle you with the murder, she hated him.”
Clyde Fitch edit
The historic drama, "Beau Brummell" (1890) by Clyde Fitch (1865-1909) is a neo-Romantic play more typical of the early part of the century. The play is based on a noted friend of the prince regent, later King George IV (1762-1830, reign: 1820-1830). The story reproduces some key aspects of Beau Brummell's life (1778-1840), though diverging at the end, since the prince never forgave Beau, who died in poverty.
“Fitch was primarily a genial entertainer, who rarely hesitated to check the current of a play for the purpose of introducing either an amusing or an amazing scene or a scintillant epigram. His irony, being or no more serious purpose than entertainment, was never mordant” (Andrews, 1913 p 68). "By temperament Mr Fitch was a sentimentalist, and because of temperament he viewed the details of environment in their bearing upon feeling. Mr Fitch was, to a certain degree, also a realist, if by realism we mean the handling of everyday occurrences and of the familiar natural problems of existence; but his realistic data was usually subjected to a high light of what at one moment we might term German romanticism and at another moment French sentimentalism. Much as quite a few of his plays have been discussed from the standpoint of their feminine suggestiveness and from the standpoint of their feminine sensuous interests, in point of morality Mr Fitch was wholly conventional. His cleverness in overcoming this conventional tendency rested on his theatrical employment of the unusual. In other words, in point of visual sense, Mr Fitch's observation of little things was about as sane as that of any other living dramatist, his fault being that he failed to bring his minute observation in relation with any large, vital, or sustained idea" (Moses, 1917 pp 172-173). "Mr Fitch's distinctive contribution to our stage seems to me to lie in his power of seizing upon certain phases of city life which have to do with the prosperous commercialism resulting in a certain kind of domestic menage: the family well-to-do, pleasure-loving, wonted to luxury, touched with the fever of getting and spending. With genuine observation, a sympathetic feeling for these types and an instinct for setting them in novel situations, Mr Fitch has thus, within his limits, been a social historian. He has injured his work again and again by the introduction of forced effects of melodrama, not seldom in bad taste, or by sacrificing psychology for the sake of ending" (Burton, 1913 p 89).
"Beau Brummell" edit
Time: 1810s-1820s. Place: London, England and Calais, France.
Text at http://archive.org/stream/plays00fitcgoog/plays00fitcgoog_djvu.txt https://archive.org/details/playsedited01fitcrich https://archive.org/details/longerplaysbymod00coheuoft https://archive.org/details/longerplaysbymo03cohegoog https://archive.org/details/longerplaysbymo01cohegoog https://archive.org/details/longerplaysbymo00cohegoog https://archive.org/details/longerplaysbymo02cohegoog https://archive.org/details/longerplays00coherich https://archive.org/details/plays00fitcgoog
Because of an excessively stylish life-style, Beau Brummell is pursued by many creditors. To help his case, he orders his servant to write a letter to Oliver Vincent, a rich cloth merchant, concerning his daughter's hand in marriage. Beau's nephew, Reginald, informs him that he loves a woman, but is interrupted before he can mention who. Beau next receives the visit of one of his most determined creditors, Abrahams, who finally desists after hearing that the prince regent is about to come over. Reginald has been pursuing Mariana, Oliver's daughter, with the help of a servant-intermediary, Kathleen, whom he is startled to find in his uncle's house. On his side, Beau has been conducting an amorous relation with Mrs. Horatia St. Aubyn. When Horatia asks him whether he received her last letter, he answers: "And your ambrosial lock of hair." But he received that item from another woman, at which she is at first offended and then laughs it off. When the prince regent enters, he is eager to flirt with Horatia. After his guests leave, Beau receives the visit of Oliver, whom he confuses with his new tailor. He is distracted by his supposed tailor's gait. "Would you be so kind as not to wobble about in that way?" he asks with irritation. Oliver is unable to understand his host's attitude, so that he finally declares: "I came to accept your offer of marriage, but I've altered my intention." However, when he learns that the prince regent has invited Beau to supper, he looks pleadingly at him so that the two may dine together. "Send my polite regrets to his royal highness and say I dine tonight with Mr. Oliver Vincent," announces Beau to his servant. At Carlton House, residence of the prince regent, Beau discovers that Oliver's behavior is unbecoming to the prince. To secure the gratitude of his future father-in-law, he covers Oliver's retreat with self-possession and a look of humorous appeal towards the prince. When alone with Oliver, Beau seeks an immediate reward with ready cash and is immediately accepted. He is then accosted by Lord Manly, a drunken fop who has discovered that one of the guests is cheating at cards. What should he do? "Well, if he has cards up his sleeve, bet on him," Beau answers. When alone together, Horatia accuses Beau of presenting her to the prince as a pleasant way to be rid of her. "You have puffed the prince with the conceit that he is driving you out of my affections against your will. Suppose he were to know the truth?" she asks. Beau is unafraid. He is also quite cool at discovering Lord Manly drunkenly flirting with his intended, Mariana. "At first it was your fortune which allured me," he admits to her, "but now it is yourself." A little later, Beau overhears a conversion between the prince and Horatia in a dark corner, in which she declares that there is too great a difference in their rank for the present relation to continue. Oliver confuses the pair with Beau and his daughter. The prince exclaims to her: "I swear I will marry you," at which Oliver rushes forward and declares: "And so you shall." Once more, Beau interposes to protect Oliver but this time he insults the prince. At the Mall, St. James Park, Beau's servant informs him that two bailiffs are set to arrest him for debts. "You must prevent them by telling them of my marriage to the daughter of Mr. Oliver Vincent," Beau pleads. Meanwhile, Oliver begs his daughter to accept Beau in view of the position he lost in defending him. "With the money your dowry will bring him, he can pay off his creditors and defy the prince. Without it, he can do neither and is utterly ruined," Oliver says. In love with Reginald, Mariana turns her head away and bites her lip in frustration. Intent on obtaining Beau, Horatia proposes an agreement with Mariana. "If you will promise to relinquish Mr Brummel, I will make the prince promise not to cut him, as he has sworn to do publicly today," she says. Mariana is offended and refuses. When Beau asks for Mariana's hand in marriage, she accepts, out of gratitude for her father's sake. To get rid of the bailiffs and unconscious of Horatia's intentions, Beau declares to them: "The prince will be here presently, and I will speak to him." But the prince cuts Beau, now publicly disgraced. Beau nevertheless holds off the bailiffs with the announcement of his upcoming marriage. But when Reginald confronts Mariana, they discover that Kathleen, faithful to Beau's prospects, failed to deliver each other's letters. When Beau discovers their mutual love, he releases her from her promise. Although Reginald protests in view of the threat from the bailiffs, Beau remains adamant. He is forced to retreat to Calais, out of the world's eye, but is finally rescued by the recently crowned king, who forgives him.