American Theatre and Modernism

The selections I read recently in American Stage: Writings on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner covered commentaries on the stage from the 1890s until the 1910s. I was struck by a few things, and although they have little to do with the main themes of this blog, they are interesting enough observations.  The previous sections showed Americans attempting to craft their own national theater.  We saw foreigners struck by the oddity of American theater and moral reformers worked to keep some of the more suspicious aspects of a democratic American culture (the leg shows) from corrupting the art.  We also saw a participatory audience and a mixture of classes.  At the turn of the century new concerns emerge and in many ways it looks like American theater was moving more toward Europe.  Yes, Shakespeare was always being played.  Booth seemed to have made his career from Shakespeare roles, but in the turn of the century the European influence struck me as overwhelming.  Perhaps this is because the turn of the century was an age of globalization and empire and we should not be surprised that Europe was driving the world’s cultural traditions, in the same way American culture acts the hegemon today.  Immigration from Europe also introduced folk stage traditions to the U.S.  It is on this point that I will start.

Ethnic Theater
Hutchins Hapgood write what I found to be the most interesting essay in this part of the collection.  He studied the rise of Yiddish theater companies and a Jewish immigrant stage culture in New York City.  Hapgood describe the Yiddish theater audiences as working class, political radically, and diverse.  “Into these three buildings crowd the Jews of all the Ghetto classes — the sweat-shop women with her baby, the day-laborer, the small Hester Street shopkeeper, the Russian-Jewish anarchist and socialist, the Ghetto rabbi and scholar, the poet, the journalist.  The poor and ignorant are in the great majority, but the learned, the intellectual and the progressive are also represented.” (173)  In the same section, Hapgood points out that even the selections were politically contested, with the radicals and intellectuals desiring a more serious, political tone, but the demands of the mass audience required these themes to be accessible.  Many plays touched directly on the Ghetto life.  The theater was also a cultural center in the Russian-Jewish communities of New York.  “He has not the loafing and porting instincts of the poor Christian, and spends his money for the theatre rather then for drink.  It is not only to see the play that the poor Jew goes to the theatre.  it is to see his friends and the actors.” (175)  This, however, was just one of many European influences of turn-of-the-century American theater.  There was also the influx of modernism.  Productions of the traditional Shakespeare and American burlesque shows do not go away but they are not sharing the stage with A Doll’s House, Joyce’s The Exiles, and Salome, not mention just a few.

The introduction of modernism led Stark Young to write an article “Some American Dramatic Material,” which attempted to look to the U.S. South for American themes for theater.  (I expect this to be prophetic in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance.)  Young’s position (written in 1912) was that American had a rich and untapped reservoir of thematic material, if writers would simply look to the South.  What does the South have?  A history of military defeat (Vicksburg and the Alamo he compared to Marathon).  The struggle between the old and new – the plantation and the railroad.  Their traditional romances.  “He likes sentiment and romance and a touch of heart.  He goes not always in customary suits of solemn black.” (229)  With a traditional gentry (almost an aristocracy), the themes of Southern theater may not be that unlike Shakespeare’s day.

Yet, the impact of European modernism – even if edited to American tastes – was strong in the 1910s.  Ezra Pound worked to bring to American audiences Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and eventually the play Exiles.  Now I have not read Pound in detail (eventually I will if this blog survives) but I do get the sense that he looked to the East and to Europe for inspiration and intellectual companionship.  His “Joyce and the Modern Stage” celebrates European high modernism, in particular Ibsen, but he was frustrated with his country’s hesitance in fully embracing the richness of modernism.  “But we cannot see ‘Ibsen.’ Those of us who were lucky saw Mansfield do the Peer Gynt.  I have seen a half-private resurrection of Hedda.  I think that those are the only two Ibsen plays that I have ever had the opportunity of seeing performed, and many others must be in like case.  Professionals tell us: ‘Oh, they have quickened the tempo.  Ibsen is too slow,’ and the like.  So we have Shaw; that is to say, Ibsen with the sombre reality taken out, a little Nietzsche put in to enliven things, and a technique of dialogue superadded from Wilde.” (260)  He even suggests that Joyce’s play, which Pound is attempting to promote, is almost too rich for American audiences. “So Mr. Joyce’s play is dangerous and unstagable because he is not playing with the subject of adultery, but because he is acturally driving in the mind upon the age-long problem o the rights of personality and of the responsibility of the intelligent individual for the conduct of those about him, upon the age-long question of the relative rights of intellect, and emotion, and sensation, and sentiment.” (265)

However, can a democratic culture ask these questions?


2 responses to “American Theatre and Modernism

  1. One of the issues raised in these blogs is quite relevant, i.e. the ‘local’ and ‘communal’ element in the arts, whether it is the theatre or a painting; however, it seems to me that what is significant is not whether artistic forms of expressison ought to be ‘democratic’ and involve all classes of people, etc. etc. but the fundamental nature of all creativity stems and develops in loco, organically like a plant … globalization cannot take precedence over all of those factors what have to do with the local climate, the fauna, the flora, the oral traditions, the customs, etc. These elements determine not only who we are but what and how we think and create. The sad thing is that today these factors are not any longer considered important and that is one of the reasons, in my opinion, for the medrocrity of literature and other forms of artistic expression.

    • I am not sure if they ever discussed it in terms or “organic” expression, the New Dealers, Federal Writers Project, did see the local, lived experience as the foundation of art. I am just not sure we can get back to anything like that. Can local film-makers for instance, ever compete with the big studios anymore? The capital requirements are simply too high. Sure, they can make films, even films of local interest, but I do not see how they would ever command more than a small share of the market.

      If you look at my life, I have been basically a wanderer for most of my adult life. As such, I have never had much interest in the local arts of the places I have been passing through. And why should I? I have never really been a part of the communities of these places. Maybe if we could restore community, local culture could flourish. As things stand now, the best we can do is mass culture, with all the associated degregation and sentiment.

      Are you going to see “The Hobbit”?

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