Attempt and Failure: Thomas Nelson Page as Playwright

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American audiences in 1915 had opportunity to see Mae Marsh play the title role of murderer-prostitute in a film version of "The Outcast." As undidactic as the work of Crane, Dreiser, or O. Henry, the taut story of the same name from which it was adapted ended with an O. Henry-like punch line. Advertisements proclaimed the "Photodrama" adult entertainment, "daring and powerful in theme and ... written by Thomas Nelson Page," (1) who was then Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to wartime Italy.

Though most literary historians peg Page as the author of "Marse Chan," the nineteenth-century local colorist whose province was plantation Virginia, he was in fact a twentieth-century cosmopolitan who voted in Virginia and lived in Washington and Maine, owned property in Sicily, admired Allen Dulles, journeyed to Europe as regularly as Henry James and Edith Wharton before they expatriated themselves, had his London tailor and his customary suite at Claridge's, spent a winter on the Nile, traveled in Morocco and Algeria, drove a car, worked for a national system of highways a quarter of a century before Dwight David Eisenhower helped demonstrate their practical necessity, fought for conservation of natural resources, flew as observer over the Battle of the Marne, engaged in cloak-and dagger activity with an aviator and former Congressman from New York named Fiorella LaGuardia, and spoke Virginia-accented Italian well enough to address a crowd estimated at 60,000 in the Coliseum. (2)

Page did not see the film, but he read the scenario and did not like it. The experience for him was bitter-sweet: the story from which it was dramatized had been rejected by a succession of editors and published at last in a volume Scribner's did not include in the Plantation Edition of his works (3); more poignant, he had tried for a quarter of a century, alone and in collaboration, to write a produceable play, either original or an adaptation of his fiction, and always without success. Before he had published his fifth short story or Two Little Confederates as a book, he asked Brander Matthews what to do with a play he had written. (4)

(He described it as "a comedy-laid in the South ante-bellum--seven characters--one Old Bachelor, ditto maid, two pretty girls, two lovers--Fools of course, and one African, not the conventional minstrel but a sure enough colored gentleman of the highest type who bosses his master & runs the ranch." Now, at least in theory, a play should need no explanation, but in this case Page felt constrained to declare, "My idea of the characters, in case I have not been able to indicate it by their own words, is that Polly is a mischievous, inconsequential girl, badgering Bob, partly out of mischief and partly because she is in love with him.... I wish her to be alternately melting & fierce, or perhaps I should say self-contained and dignified, as when after Bob kisses Rose, she breaks down when he kisses her and slaps him." (5) Page could have intended this either as farce or, more likely, as comedy of manners after the fashion of Sheridan; for he did not treat Southern subjects slightingly.)

His prolonged struggle to write an effective play in itself merits perhaps a footnote in a literary history. Yet to stop at that point would be to ignore cause and effect, the nineteenth-century roots for the twentieth-century failure, which in the case of Page and presumably others should be designated neither Southern nor American. They are of the times, and the road to understanding leads to London, a big Irish-born American actress named Ada Rehan, and a drama critic--George Bernard Shaw--who had great admiration for her.

In 1890 Page, a widower and practicing Richmond attorney interested in mining options and speculative real estate, had returned to London to continue trying to sell a development in Duluth, Minnesota, to a British syndicate. He also endeavored through a former Harper editor, Mrs. …