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. …