Academic journal article American Drama

Grounded Perceptions: Land and Value in Two Plays of the New England Decline

Academic journal article American Drama

Grounded Perceptions: Land and Value in Two Plays of the New England Decline

Article excerpt

In an 1896 piece for Harper's entitled "Among the Trees," Anna C. Brackett wrote of the effect of increasing urbanization and industrialization upon the human perception of nature. As her title indicates, the primary objectification of her sense of loss was the importance of individual trees as woodlands continued to disappear: "In these days of indiscriminate forest-felling and ruthless destruction of the beautiful growths along country roadsides it is a great pleasure to own a tree" (Brackett 601). She recounts the story of two friends who cannot recognize a chestnut tree, and she laments the fact that they would not even know what tree that they were looking at: "Doubtless the Lord might have made a more beautiful thing than a Chestnut leaf, but doubtless he never did; and they did not know it!" (601). In her estimation, these friends had lost the ability to recognize and, as a consequence, to value.

More than a century later, another New Englander (1) would describe what appears to be an opposite phenomenon, but one that is much the same in its personal impact. In her 2004 reflection Clearing Land, Jane Brox would write of her reaction to seeing farmland being reclaimed by the surrounding forests. The boundary, she says, "between the smallest field and woodlands remains a kind of frontier," and for those who have felt a love of cultivated land, "to see a little brush growing into a clearing" can generate "a creeping feeling at the back of the neck" (20).

For Brox, part of the reaction comes from the transitory character of human effort: "You understand how small your own enterprise is, and how temporary" (20). But there is something more: "In today's world a farm isn't often abandoned to woods. Some other human scheme is waiting" (15).

For both observers, human activity is obviously a shaping thing--shaping time as well as space. (2) So, too, of course, are the very acts of observation humans themselves are engaging in. By doing or ceasing to do, consequences follow: some natural, some cultural, some perceptual. To see the world, and then to show the world, through a particular lens provides an opportunity to change individual as well as collective assumptions. For two playwrights using the very soil of New England to build their dramas upon, there was the opportunity not only to show the vulnerability of land in an alternative way but also to provide one answer to the so-called "decline" of the years following the Civil War that was literally beneath one's feet. Through challenging assumptions about both progress and the past, James Herne and Alice Brown would attempt to demonstrate that land itself could be more than a surface to walk upon or to speculate upon financially. It could instead be the basis of re-perceiving and revivifying defeated selves and reassigning value. They would seek to show their audiences what there is to be gained through the recognition of what it is they have lost.

James A. Herne's 1892 play Shore Acres and Alice Brown's Children of Earth in 1915 were strongly influenced by the witnesses of change in New England who flourished during, and as a response to, the regional malaise. Writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman would, during the last quarter of the 1800s, capture in their fiction the plight of those in a region stripped of its inner vitality in the aftermath of economic hardship and a perceived loss of national importance. At the time Herne scripted Shore Awes, when Jewett and Freeman were beginning to produce their finest prose works, the grinding sense of frustration in much of New England still drove many into patterns of behavior putting themselves and others at odds with the potentially redemptive potency of land--and sea--around them. By 1915, one could argue that Brown's award-winning but ultimately unsuccessful play was in some ways a marker for the end of the "decline." As one of those writers so often linked with Jewett and Freeman through her particularly potent short fiction--collections like Meadow-Grass in 1895 and Tiverton Tales four years later--Brown's use of the stage as a place of dramatic announcement was as fascinating as it was destined to its own failure. …

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