The Dawning of American Drama: American Dramatic Criticism, 1746-1915

By Jürgen C. Wolter | Go to book overview

Again some leveled charges of immorality because they foresaw homes corrupted and children stealing in order to obtain the admission fee [456].

The first decade of the twentieth century was especially fertile for the American drama. George Jean Nathan reported about a "play-writing mania" [453], caused, however, not by artistic or literary inspiration but by manifest financial interests, as the theatre was supposed to offer the shortest way to a large fortune. Clayton Hamilton commented upon an undue demand for plays and an "over-production" generated by an excessive number of theatres [454]. In a similar manner John Corbin complained that "with the multiplication of theatres the drama has become a machine-made commodity handled wholesale" [485].

Since this surfeit of plays and productions was solely motivated by commercial interest, it could obviously not lead to a reform of American drama and theatre. Salvation had to be sought outside the established theatre business, as the agents of the numerous theatrical experiments clearly perceived. In a "revolt against Broadway" [485], theatre enthusiasts tried to improve the drama and the theatre by organizing the public and thus ensuring the success of what they conceived to be plays; by a system of recommended patronage the numerous drama leagues throughout the country exercised the public censorship Howells and others had encouraged. The most radical revolt against Broadway, however, was recommended by Howells, who turned his back on all theatrical entertainment, preferring to read a play at home [494].

Critics who closely observed American drama and theatre in the second decade of the twentieth century repeatedly prophesied an imminent and decisive turn away from the theatre as a business and toward drama as an art. In 1913 Clayton Hamilton, an acquaintance of James O'Neill, felt that American drama was "in a state of transition" [484]; in 1910 he had predicted that "the conditions [for a new beginning] are ripe, and all that is needed is the men; and it is one of the miracles of destiny that when great work is ready to be done, the necessary men arise to do it" [459]. Sheldon Cheney, in 1914, also noticed promising signs [488]. The Nation even saw a great chance for the drama in the extremely popular moving-picture shows; they endangered only the profit- seeking theatre and could lead to an ultimate separation of the drama from its greatest enemy, commercialism [496]. The history of American drama proved these prophets right: O'Neill and the Provincetown Players were preparing to pave a new way for American drama and theatre.


NOTES
1.
Walter J. Meserve, An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828 ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 16.
2.
"Theatre," The Friend ( Albany) 1 ( Aug. 1815): 53-54.

-23-

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