Academic journal article Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)

A Society without Soul: The Fear of Modernism in the 1937 Opera the Romance of Robot

Academic journal article Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)

A Society without Soul: The Fear of Modernism in the 1937 Opera the Romance of Robot

Article excerpt

The lowlands have fostered enough of sons, and the

hills, and the sea.

Now a strange mother with nipples of iron gives suck

to a nation.

At her side the young towns take strength on their



The above, taken from MacKnight Black's 1929 poem "New Mother," heralded the birth of a brave new world where organization and efficiency were the keys to the future. The people of these modern times worshipped the positive changes the machine brought to humanity, especially as it eliminated the daily drudgery of many industrial occupations. Shortly after its release, however the economy began to slide and then tumble ushering in an economic and social Depression which challenged America and its citizens. The modern engineers of the free economy, led by Herbert Hoover, had failed, it seemed, to fulfill the promises of a brighter, machine age future.

In 1937 the Federal Music Project, part of the larger work relief program of the Works Progress Administration created in 1935, sponsored a short opera entitled The Romance of Robot, which in many ways is the antithesis of "New Mother." The production appeared during Franklin Roosevelt's New economic recovery plan which championed the positive attributes of organization and efficiency, if tempered with a human understanding of the social realities of the crisis. The opera satirized a society in which machines, and by extension the ideals of a now-suspect modernism, would replace individual initiative and feelings with logical decisions and stress organization over humanity. The new world order of the machine, Romance opined, was in fact a future that had no soul.

In a soliloquy near the end of Romance, Robot rejects the coldness of his machine existence in favor of the human emotion love. His description of who he was defines, in part, the ideals of the machine age and the concept of modernism:

Free from traditions of old,

Called a new mechanist, forced to be hard,

Made to be brutal and cold.

Robot, they called me, the great man of steel.

(The Romance of Robot)

It Is relatively easy to understand what "Machine Age" means, but defining modernism has been a bit more problematic. David Hollinger compares the defining process to entering a room: "each wall is said to be 'modernist" yet each reflects light differently." In literature, modernists sought to break with the Victorian past, especially its middle-class pretensions, and re-create a new, more organic literature based on the experiences of the self. For political scientists, modernism held that science and its intellectuals would provide the cures for social ills. Religious modernism tied the methods of scientific inquiry to the Protestant work ethic in order to meet the needs of the modern world (Hollinger 37-55).

Even more complicated is the relationship between modernism and the idea of modernization. Joseph Singal argues that modernism, especially as a literary avant garde movement, rose up in response to the forces of modernization. The modernists attempted to restore some sense of human order to "the rise of industry, technology, urbanization, and bureaucratic institutions." Using William James and John Dewey as guides, Singal describes two strains of modernism: one, which celebrates the individual consciousness, spontaneity and the new realms of personal experience manifesting itself mainly in art and literature (James), and two, which focuses on the elimination of social barriers and joins reason with emotion to eradicate the social problems of the day (Dewey). However, the problem is complicated by Singal's modernists ambivalence. On one hand, they admired the vitality and progress that modernization and technology brought (in fact they would utilize the new technology in their works) but, on the other, they feared the dehumanization they saw resulting from society's increasing dependence on machines. Daniel Bell argues that this ambivalence led to a modernist culture that was all form, but no content, and based upon the "machine aesthetic," where much of what was created was defined as "functional." Jackson Lears seemingly agrees, arguing that modernists, both inside and out of the avant garde, had "faith in progress through scientific and technological advance" (Singal 7-26; Dewey; Bell 122-32; Lears 133-55).

Modernism, in short, had much to do with modernization and the machine age. The belief in progress through science, especially as it applied to technology and machines, was the foundation of all three. One can examine nearly any aspect of American society before and during the Depression era and find examples of the cross-fertilization of modernism. Several works, including the recent book from the Brooklyn Museum, The Machine Age in America, argue both in prose and with illustrations the close connection between the tenets of modernism and machines. Far from objecting to its encroachment, as Cecilia Tichi argues in Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, and Culture in Modernist America, many authors and poets, like ee cummings and John Dos Passos used the machine as the central focus of their modernist work: "[t]he machine age text does not contain representations of the machine--it too is the machine" (16). Artists used the machine as models for their craft, observing its utilitarianism an aesthetic appeal--clean, fast, with no past to hold it down, only the future. The skyscraper, like the Empire State Building, emphasized both the practical need for taller buildings, and the aesthetic appeal that the structure wrought. The architect became more than just the designer of buildings, but an artist using steel and cement to create public, functional art. Advertisers and Hollywood also fused the artistic with the practical. Graphic artists, advertising artists and copy writers considered themselves within the artistic realm, for they were contributing to American art through their creation. These modern engineers were the preachers of the good news of progress, argues Roland Marchand in Advertising the American Dream. As "Apostles of Modernity," they joined the other engineers in creating a new modern society based upon the efficiency and order of the machine. Even today, when one thinks of films from the early 1930s, especially those by Busby Berkley, the unity of the machine to humanity is impossible to miss (Striner 60-68).

Much of the modernist positivism temporarily evaporated with the Crash and Depression. The failure of both the economic and political systems led many to question the basic foundations of American society, especially as it applied to industrial capitalism. The Depression era encouraged many to rediscover the basic values upon which America was founded. In Alfred Kazin's words, "never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself." Much of this rediscovery focused on the decline of human values in the face of the machine age. The new era promised much, but its calculations seemingly ignored the human toll modernism might have on society. Hoover's seeming lack of sympathy for the plight of the unemployed and the hungry convinced many that the basic tenets of American society had been lost in the rush of technological progress. Some began to question the vision of the Machine Age future, most notably Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in 1932, which describes a future where the human element was replaced by mass production and emotional control. Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times echoed Huxley's fear of a modernist future; even Busby Berkeley, once the propagator of the machine age in his film's dance numbers, revised his position (Striner 67). In the film Gold Diggers of 1935, the climactic production number "The Lullaby of Broadway" reveals the potential evil of a machine-based society. Wini Shaw, the lead character, is forced off a balcony by night club revelers dressed in "totalitarian" black outfits (uniforms ?) and using dance gestures resembling the Nazi salute.

The issue around which most of the criticism to the machine age revolved was the inherent danger of its power. In the world-wide Depression era, technology and the ideals of modernism had helped in the rise of totalitarian states, from Stalin, to Mussolini, to Hitler. Many came to view the powers of technology as something that needed close observation. This view, espoused most eloquently by the sociologists at the Institute of Social Research in Germany, held that the state's power to control the people rested on a much broader foundation than previously believed. The Critical School, as they came to be known, argued that culture, especially music and film, helped to support existing systems. While their critique was aimed at capitalist systems, the same hegemony existed in 'socialist' countries as well. It was well understood by 1933 that the organization of resources, including human, meant control. To better limit the inhuman tendencies of technology, namely economic decline and the social ravages it produces, society must commit itself to, in the words of John Dewey:

organized social planning, put into effect for the creation of an order in which industry and finance are socially directed in behalf of institutions that provide the material basis for the cultural liberation and growth of individuals. (54-55)

Roosevelt's New Deal had much the same logic in mind. Committed to heal pragmatically the wounds of the Crash, Roosevelt and his advisors understood that the social impact of the government programs were as important if not more so than the economic benefits. Through programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Glass-Steagall Act, the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), Roosevelt's administration placed as much emphasis on publicizing and encouraging support as it did on the actual operation of the projects. The basic tenet behind FDR's approach was, as Paul Conkin has argued, to preserve capitalism while promoting social legislation. Well conceived organization was necessary in order to accomplish this task, something John Garraty has labeled " 'corporatist' state planning" (907-44). Much of this coordination involved convincing the people of the positive contributions of the government programs. By the time the welfare state, as it came to be called, came into full swing in 1935 with the creation of Social Security, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Wagner Act, Roosevelt's administration was utilizing propaganda techniques similar to the National Socialists under Hitler. Garraty does not suggest, as others have, that Roosevelt was an incipient dictator, but his use of the media and his symbolic appeal to the people for unity were similar to the tactics used in 1930s Germany (Conkin; Leuchtenberg: Pells; Garraty 907-44).

It was within this intellectual and social climate that the Federal Music Project and The Romance of Robot were created. In the spring of 1935 FDR proposed a new work relief program to Congress in the WPA. Led by Harry Hopkins, who had also directed the temporary but successful Civil Works Administration (CWA) during the winter of 1933-34, the WPA's task was larger than simply work relief. The program hoped to reinforce the "American Way," as William Bremer has argued, by paying men and women for their labor in the hopes of renewing their self-worth and confidence in the government of the United States. For the Federal Music Project, as part of the WPA, the task was to employ musicians, as well as provide valuable community service through live musical performance. From its creation in 1935 until it was transferred to state control in 1939, the FMP gave approximately 250,000 performances before 158 million people. The Music Project reached more people than its sister Projects--Art, Theater and Writing--but received the least attention because of its conservative tendencies and its stress of symphonic or "art" music over popular or folk. It simply did little to capture the people's enthusiasm.

That is not to say the Music Project did nothing of value, in fact the opposite is true. During its tenure many people heard their first live symphony which encouraged many communities to form or re-form their own orchestras afterward. The FMP also provided much needed work relief to musicians, it was one of the first organizations to allow American conductors, men and women, a place at the podium, and gave them the chance to hear their own compositions. Under Project auspices the first sexually integrated orchestras were presented, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and other ethnic groups also were given the chance to present their musical heritage before broader audiences. Toward that end, the Project tried to prove that, according to FMP Director Nikolai Sokoloff, "All of this music belongs to the nation" (Bindas; Sokoloff).

The Project also instigated many activities aimed at capturing the people's support. These included a musical celebration of Washington's Birthday, cowboy singers, African American dance bands, and occasionally, folk festivals. Another attraction the Project hoped would become popular was opera. Not modeled on the old world opera, these 'American' operas would be like the more familiar pageants, featuring one to three acts, simplified plots, and commentators to give explanation throughout. Also, they would be sung in English and the scores would try to incorporate traditional American music or symbols. For example, the Project pinned high hopes on a 1937 opera Gettysburg to be premiered coincidental with the nation's 75th anniversary celebration of the event. Lincoln held great symbolic importance in the 1930s, because of the nation's struggle during his tenure. The opera, which received much pre-premiere publicity, flopped (Bindas 71-85).

In June 1936, the New York City FMP accepted for performance and began rehearsing a one act satirical opera entitled The Romance of Robot. The score was written by Sarah Lawrence Music faculty member Frederic Hart and the libretto by Tillman Breiseth, about whom little today is known. Neither had written anything this ambitious previously, and would not try afterward. But, after ten months of rehearsal, far longer than expected, and the inclusion of several non-Project dancers to spice up the show, Romance opened and closed on Monday, April 12, 1937, at the FMP's facility--the Theater of Music--on West 54th Street. The plot and music were both painfully simplistic, and according to Olin Downes, the reviewer for The New York Times and a ardent supporter of the FMP, "forced and the dances neither original nor very well done." Romance satirized those who worshipped the order of modernist society. When the dictator/scientist Electro creates the "perfect man" in Robot--"a man whose operating costs [are] purely nominal, whose nature is stability itself, and whose energy knows no limits"--the women who were to oil him down daily protest. The "Electro-lyzed" ladies had, it seemed, agreed to forego love and passion for stability; yet when they see that the Robot cannot love, they turn on "Electro's mechanized dominion of the future" in favor of songbirds and love. Dejected, the creator Electro gives the Robot his soul. The Robot then falls is love with a wandering song bird named Philomela who is actually a beautiful woman trapped in a songbird's body until the love of a man could free her. The opera ends as Robot and Philomela become human and pledge their undying love. Electro, now without the ability to love, wanders off regretting that he had put such faith in machinery and science when the answers that mattered existed within.(1)

Overall, Romance pictured the modernist future as cold, heartless, and under the dictatorship of the engineers. Frivolous names like Annabelle, Ruby Mae, Jasminia, and others were replaced by efficient "Electro-lyzed" names like Whistle, Wheel, and Klaxon. The process of electrolyzation involved "renouncing the world of sentimental inefficiency" for the new ideals of modernity:

We have cast off human ills,

Silly pastimes, Paris frills,

Pledged to work without cessation,

Polishing a steel creation. (Romance of Robot)

The description of this future, where the machine would make all problems manageable, sounds amazingly similar to Henry Ford's prophetic 1928 article "Machinery, The New Messiah." Ford argued that society's social, medical, and labor difficulties would be solved by using machine logic--no emotion, no waste, no frivolity. Ford's future taken to its logical conclusion had to lead to a dictatorship, and in Romance, the Master Electro rules his dominion with unquestioning authority and control. At the start of the opera he tells the Electrolyzed ladies to wake and prepare for the perfect man, the future--"Robot the Ruler of our great new world." Designed as a reward for those who had renounced the world of emotion, the women respond by singing

We adore you, man of steel

We admire the way you feel...

Humbly at your feet we kneel;

We adore you, man of steel! (Romance of Robot)

Electro and his creation's ability to control the members of this future concern their infatuation and admiration of the machine. As Oliver Sayer wrote, criticizing the modern age in 1930,

they are like a child with a new toy, beguiled by the obvious and superficial aspects, fascinated by the mere turning of wheels and flattered by their acquisition of something their forefathers considered beyond the realm of possibility.

Robot is the perfect man, free from morality, emotion, and human involvement, which Electro believes to be Robots "greatest asset[s]. Why the wear and tear on him will amount to so little." But the price for putting the machine upon the pedestal is high, or as Electro says when he chastises the ladies when they question his right to dictate to them, "Minds? You gave up your minds when you became Electro-lyzed" (Romance of Robot).

Even love can be made modern, logical, and mechanized. When the Robot refuses the advances of the ladies--"Each one of us is good live bait, it's clear he doesn't want to mate"--Electro tells them that the machines refusal was logical, for as the perfect man, only the perfect woman would be right for him. Electro's version of the perfect woman is Cylindra, another machine that Electro has given someone else's soul in order that she show passion to him. In a test to show the logic of love, or that science can dictate compatibility, Electro asks his love Cylindra to tease the Robot. But the "perfect modern beauty," full with "steel-cut headdress...copper bodice...[and] hydraulic pumps," fails to enamor the Robot.

Robot's failure speaks directly to the limitations of Electro's modern world. Heartless and cold, the lack of stimulation created by people not being allowed to choose had led to an impotent society. When Tiny Tim, described as a passionate believer in the romantic past and President of the Society for the Propagation of Nightingales, first tries to tempt the ladies away from the mechanization of their daily lives, he does so by describing his vision of their world:

Each of you struggling to stifle a yawn;

Though you work without cessation,

You receive no compensation;

You are fed to grow obese,

The ladies ignore the romantic's admonition, continuing to believe in Robot's perfection. But when they try to tempt him and he refuses, they attack this "heartless monster...A man so cold cannot be great." Electro tries to program Robot for love, but finds that his creation lacks passion. To reveal this flaw might mean the overturning of Electro's rule, as the ladies might connect Robot's inadequacies to their entire society. So Electro secretly gives his soul to the machine understanding that "No sacrifice is too great for Robot...I'll show the world I can create a man capable of falling in love" (Romance of Robot).

This vanity is central to the modernist critique in Romance. Robot is described variously as "a product of my [Electro's] mighty skill," or later as a "product of my [Electro's] great mind." The implication that things created by men can be better than the men themselves is part of the machine age ideology. The engineer, as Cecilia Tichi argues, "replaced God as the designer" of civilization and society. His decisions were based on creating something with maximum efficiency and minimal waste. Man, as Frank Lloyd Wright argued in 1927, was still the master of this machine; yet, if the machine became a monster it is because of the man controlling the machine: "the Machine is no better than the mind that drives it or puts it to work or stops it." But Wright views these man-created machines as something "Man has created out of his brain, in his own image." This rejection of metaphysics encourages the belief that anything created by man is equal or superior to those things created by nature. Those things that can be explained in man's terms therefore become more important than those that can only be described in natural or metaphysical terms. But this modernist fallacy is at the core of Romance's critique, for once Electro has given up something he could not explain, he realizes that he has lost something:

My soul is gone, my source of strength;

I must confess, I feel a frightful emptiness.

(Romance of Robot)

Romance could not have ended on this sad note, and in the concluding scenes the opera provides the human corrective necessary to temper the modern impulse. The freedom of choice, Romance argues, is at the center of the human existence and makes them the unique and perplexing individuals they are. Without this choice, which ranges in the opera from clothing other than "non-washable dresses" to open revolt against Electro, man becomes the robot. But even the Robot, when given a soul, learns this lesson.

Although he is supposed to be perfect for Cylindra he does not find her attractive, instead choosing to fall in love with Philomela, a woman trapped by the gods in a nightingale until love liberates her. And, even though she may lose her ability to sing if she is transformed, Robot still professes his love for her. As the opera closes, thankfully, both characters are liberated by their love:

Love's born of sounds that are lush,

Surrounded by satin, laces, and plush,

Love grows on words such as Darling, Honey, Sweetheart,

True love is mentally dense,

(Romance of Robot)

The era in which Romance was conceived had placed much of its faith in progress within the machine, and the opera did not change this. Many contemporary observers continued to believe, as did Michael Pupin in the 1930 book Romance of the Machine, that the machine and America were inseparable. Everything is based on the machine, and to deny its positive influence on America, would be, well un-American. Pupin posits that the growth of America demanded "the aid of machines," and that all the country's great leaders were disciples of positive change through the use of machine technology. These "visionaries" helped establish the unity in America of democracy and technology. Edward A. Filene, author of Successful Living In This Machine Age (1931), concurred, chastising technology's critics as "croakers [who] remind me of a certain type of mother who, in their love for her children, has come to love their childishness, and is therefore dismayed at the discovery that they are growing up." Even Stuart Chase's oft quoted 1929 book Men and Machines views the effects of machines as positive, albeit with some dangerous side effects. The machine's ability to eliminate the drudgery of factory work and to provide people with more free time is good for humanity, but capitalism and the profit motive nullify the possible beneficial nature of this new found free time. Instead, a "commercialized and mechanized recreation with its second-hand rather than first-hand participation" has been created (Tichi, preface, 99, 195; Wright 394; Carnap; Romance of Robot 6, 8, 11, 12).

There is no better proof of the renewed modernist vision than the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. Some 45 million people made the pilgrimage, to borrow from Henry Adams for a moment, to the modernist vision of the future. Created by industrial designers, the Fair promoted a consumer-driven future where machines freed human workers from the factory to spend more time, well, spending. Many of the displays, like General Motors' Futurama or the General Electric World of Tomorrow, put the visitors on moving sidewalks to speed them through the exhibits and to better control their responses. The Fair's vision of the future was predated by Romance's vision--where individual choice was determined by technology, machines, and the modern definition of progress. Left out of both futures however, was how the people felt or saw themselves. This flawed vision would lead to man losing his soul, Romance pointed out, and without it, regardless of intellect, he had nothing:

There was a time you'd have a fit,

Refusing flatly to admit

That from your soul came all your IT;

Your greatness came from brawn and brain.

(Romance of Robot)


(1)Baker's Biographical Dictionary (New York: MacMillan, 1984), 956, Olin Downes, "Chamber Operas Are Given by WPA," New York Times, Apr. 13, 1937, Amusement Section, 3; Romance of the Robot, program, FMP files, George Mason University; Letter, Lee Pattison, Director of New York City FMP to supporter, Jan. 15, 1937, Box 1, Folder 22 Claremont Graduate School, Claremoot, CA. This letter indicates that the opera was to be premiered Feb. 1, 1937, but there is no record that it was performed on that day. Also see, Letter, Mrs. Preston Edwards of the Taxpayers of New York City Professional Artists Group, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, July 16, 1937, President's Official File, Box 444c, file #13, WPA Misc., FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY. The letter indicts several wasteful and poor FMP activities, including Romance of the Robot.


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