History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/American Realist

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In the late 19th century, melodrama shifted into realism. Though of Irish origin, Dion Boucicault (1820-1890) was celebrated in London and the USA as author and manager. Hughes (1951) says: "There is no playwright of the second half of the nineteenth century who contributed so prolifically or so successfully to the American stage as did Boucicault. Between 1841, when his comedy hit, London Assurance, was produced at Covent Garden, London, and his death in 1890 he is said to have written or adapted a hundred and twenty-four plays. Although many of his successes were based on foreign originals, chiefly French, he was a master at adapting them, and also at the invention of stage business and effects...In 1870 the most talented playwright in America was Dion Boucicault, of whose exploits as actor-producer-playwright we have more than once spoken. Boucicault's playwriting (which began in England in 1841, and in America in 1855) continued until his death in 1890. Among the products of his later period by far the most successful piece was "The Shaughraun" (1874), a powerful drama laid in Ireland at the time of the Fenian insurrection of 1866, with its immensely appealing character of Conn, the Shaughraun (wanderer), played so effectively by Boucicault himself. Subsequent plays, whether original or adapted, either failed or achieved moderate success. The last one to enjoy reasonable popularity was "The Jilt" (1885), a racing comedy laid in England."

James A. Herne[edit]

James A. Herne figures as the leading playwright of late 19th century American theatre

Among American melodramas of the late 19th century, akin to the boulevard theatre of France, James A. Herne (1839-1901) is notable for "Margaret Fleming" (1890) and "Shore Acres" (1893). Of Herne, Burton (1913) states: "As our literary history continues and the importance of the drama in that evolution becomes more and more apparent, the name of Heme will be sure to take an ever securer place; he was, in the strict sense, a creative force in the theatre, ably championing the new doctrine of realism and in his own works furnishing admirable early examples of a faith and method which were to triumph in the efforts of a school now obviously symptomatic of our day. Some twenty years ago, in Boston, his "Margaret Fleming" was very properly regarded by a select audience as the most significant play using the realistic formula yet seen in America; it is probable that the opinion might still stand, despite the good work we have hailed since, if it were our privilege today to possess the drama in printed form. That vastly liked play, "Shore Acres," of less importance spiritually than the other, nevertheless stands as easily the best of all the rustic drama of realistic intent."

Hughes (1951) concludes: "In evaluating Herne's contribution to the development of our native drama we reach the inevitable conclusion that his influence was chiefly in the emphasis on the faithful portrayal of the "common" man whether he be Yankee farmer, New England fisherman, or Southern preacher. And much of the effectiveness of Herne's characterization was due to his own ability and integrity as a character actor. Before the close of the century there had been countless imitations of his plays "The County Fair", "Way Down East", etc. but none of these possessed the fidelity to life which Herne managed to achieve. He was uniquely able to ennoble the simple and sentimental specimens of humanity whom he chose to depict."

"Margaret Fleming"[edit]

Played by Katherine Corcoran, Margaret Fleming is troubled at her husband's infidelity and approaching blindness. Arena Magazine, volume 04 (1891)

Time: 1890. Place: Canton, Massachusetts, USA.

Text at ?

Called for a consultation during Lena's childbirth, Doctor Larkin discovers that the father of the illegitimate baby is Philip Fleming, who explains he suggested to the girl an abortion and offered to pay her way out of town, but she declined both. A contrite Philip opens a bank account to his wife, Margaret, for the sum of $5,000 and to his baby girl a further $20,000 when she comes of age. He also gives his puzzled wife the deed to the house and land. Still full of guilt, Philip tells Larkin he intends to confess to his wife in a few years, but the doctor does not recommend it, because Margaret suffers from glaucoma, which may lead to blindness should she suffer under a powerful emotion. The Flemings' nurse-maid, Maria, tells Margaret that her sister, Lena, is dying of childbirth and requests to see her. When Margaret arrives, Lena is already dead. A distraught Maria discovers the father's identity by means of Lena's letter addressed to her mistress and shows it to her. Maria then waves a gun and threatens to shoot Philip, but is disarmed by Margaret. Against the doctor's advice, Margaret sends a message to her husband to come over and see the baby boy, and, taking pity on his lack of nourishment, she gives him her breast to suck. A distressed Philip leaves for Boston for a week and throws himself into the river, but is picked up in time and nursed at a local hospital. Meanwhile, Margaret loses her sight. Philip returns and is stunned on discovering his wife's blindness. He asks her whether she can forgive him. Margaret says she can, but when he touches her, she draws back. "The wife-heart has gone out of me," she admits. A despairing Philip proposes to move away, but Margaret convinces him to remain, confident that the two will eventually work it out.

"Shore Acres"[edit]

Because her father does not like Sam, Helen and he escape from Shore Acres in a boat. Photograph of Shore Acres, Maine

Time: 1890s. Place: Near Bar Harbor, Maine, USA.

Text at ?

Josiah suggests to Martin Berry, owner of Shore Acres farm that he would become richer if he builds summer cottages rather than plant potatoes, trying to convince him to join his land with his own. "I'll take a mortgage on your farm for the money to start you an' you kin sell the lots," he proposes. Although Martin is uncertain about that question, he is certain about another: he does not want Dr Sam Warren as a son-in-law to his daughter, Helen, but Josiah Blake instead, postmaster and storekeeper. Sam is forced to head westward, because his advanced views on scientific matters have cost him the confidence of his backward clientele. As Sam and Helen confer, they are interrupted by Martin, who wants him to clear out. "I'm a-bringin' up my family an' I don't want no interference from you, nor Darwin, nor any o' the rest o' the breed," says the irate father. However, Sam needs to borrow $100 before he can travel. Martin's wife, Ann, as well as his older brother, Nat, are distraught on hearing that he intends to cut the farm into building lots, including land where their mother is buried. When Martin mentions that he is tired of lightkeeping, Nat proposes to keep that part of the land for himself and take care of the light-keeping. One day, $100 is stolen from Josiah's store. Josiah accuses Sam, specifying that he refused to hand over a loan him for that exact sum. Helen angers her father by defending her lover. Nat confesses to Helen that he himself gave $100 to Sam, money belonging to him and his brother to buy a tombstone for their mother. In addition, Nat gives her his mother's wedding ring to sell and requests a sea captain to take the two lovers away with him on his boat. On noticing his daughter's disappearance, Martin confronts Nat inside the lighthouse. Nat admits to helping Helen leave at the moment the lamp goes out during a storm. To prevent him re-lighting it, Martin blocks his way, but is thrown aside. At first Nat appears too old to climb the stairs and tumbles down, but he gets up and succeeds in emitting a tiny flame to save the occupants of the boat. Fifteen months later, the land company goes broke and Martin is ruined, having lost the farm to Josiah on a $1,500 mortgage and then spending the money for building lots. During a snowstorm on Christmas eve, Nat reveals to his brother that he found a baby at their doorstep. As Josiah eagerly lunges for it, Nat admits it is Helen's, returned along with Sam from out west, at which Martin contritely welcomes them. Josiah reveals that the $100 was discovered behind the safe amid a load of papers. Young Nat, Martin's son, confesses that he put it there in a fit of revenge after the hated doctor teased him. On learning about his father-in-law's financial woes, Sam offers to mortgage his house and lend the money to him, but that becomes unnecessary when news arrive by letter that Sam was successful in obtaining an army pension for Uncle Nat. "Well, everythin's all right again," Uncle Nat declares.

Steele MacKaye[edit]

Steele Mackaye portrayed how the determination to marry sometimes ends in happiness

Another dramatist of note is Steele MacKaye (1842-1894), mainly for "Hazel Kirke" (1880). "Hazel Kirke" resembles George Eliot's novel, "The mill on the Floss" in that in both works a miller's daughter is prevented from marrying the man she loves because of her father's financial situation.

"Hazel Kirke"[edit]

Great troubles befall Hazel Kirke before she can marry Arthur. Poster advertisement for the play

Time: 1880s. Place: Blackburn, Lancashire, England.

Text at http://www.archive.org/details/hazelkirkedomest00mack

Seven years ago, Dunstan Kirke, a miller, was saved from financial ruin by Squire Aaron Rodney. In return, Dunstan encouraged his 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, to plight her troth to him, which she did. Aaron paid for her education so that she may do him honor as the lady of Rodney Hall. One day, Dunstan saves Arthur Carringford from drowning near his mill. Unknown to everyone, Arthur is a lord. After his accident, he is nursed back to health by Hazel. To Aaron's grief, a romantic attachment develops between the two. While Hazel distributes flowers to Arthur and a friend, Aaron stares inside her basket and utters: "Emblems of my hopes; nothing but leaves, dead and withered leaves." When Dunstan's wife, Mercy, discovers this attachment, she asks her to forget him, but Aaron, staggering towards a chair, interrupts them: "I know that you love her- that she loves you! Nay, ye need not be afeer'd, lass: I'm not the man to rail at or curse ye-I shall only-". He is more coherent when confronting Arthur: "I have written to your mother, Mr. Carringford, begging her to call you away from here- I know the pride o' your race, sir. Your mother will never consent to your marriage with Hazel, and I warn ye- if ye seek to dishonor her, there is no living power will prevent me from murdering ye." When Dunstan discovers that Hazel wants to marry Arthur instead of Aaron, he disavows her. Hazel marries Arthur in Scotland, or so they think before Arthur's servant discloses that the Scottish ceremony occurred on English ground and is thereby void. While Arthur attempts to set this matter right, his dying mother, Lady Danvers, discovering her son's illegal marriage, implores Hazel to forget Arthur. "My husband had a ward (Lady Maud), whose fortune he wrongfully used and lost," she informs her. "Upon his dying bed, he confessed this to me, and made me promise to hide his shame by marrying our only son to that ward." Feeling betrayed by Arthur, Hazel leaves abruptly. Lady Danvers soon dies. Because of his daughter's treachery, Dunstan is forced to abandon his mill to Aaron to pay for his debts. Worse news yet: he catches a fever in the midst of this unhappiness and after it goes away, he loses his sight. When Aaron beholds Hazel seeking to return to her parents, he shows that he still wants her. "Keep the old promise- become my wife," he pleads. She accepts provided her father consents, but the resentful man refuses. In despair, Hazel throws herself in the water but is rescued by Arthur. He later reveals his wish to do everything he can to make the marriage possible. "Well, I ordered my solicitor to settle my estate and satisfy every claim of Lady Maud's against my grandfather if it took the last penny he had in the world," he reveals. Poor but at least together, Arthur and Hazel prepare to marry again, this time with Dunstan's consent, but this becomes unnecessary because the servant was mistaken as to where the marriage occurred and it is therefore legal after all.

Alice Emma Ives and Jerome H. Eddy[edit]

Alice Emma Ives (1874-1930) and Jerome H. Eddy (1834-1918) raised the level of 19th century American drama with "The village postmaster" (1894).

"The village postmaster"[edit]

A postmaster's views on whom her daughter should marry differs from her daughter's. Photograph of a United States postmaster of the 1860s

Time: 1852. Bridgewater, New Hampshire, USA.

Text at http://archive.org/details/villagepostmaste00ives

The village postmaster, Seth, does not wish John, the Methodist parson's son, as a son-in-law for his daughter, Miranda, because he has not proven himself and also because he aims for a man higher in social rank. "I've spent a sight eddicatin' thet girl, an' the man thet marries Mirandy Huggins hez got to be somebody. He's got to be a good clus communion Baptist, too," he concludes. In contrast, when asked by Ben, a lawyer, he shows no objection of his courting her. Ben specifies that a man should court one woman at a time and John has been seen with Mary, a seamstress. Ben also has been courting Mary, but, in view of his improved prospects, he tells her he wants to break off their relation. Mary answers bitterly and pleadingly. "As fer the love that ken stand one side for money," she declares, "it's a poor sort thet I wouldn't own to. It ain't the sort I had for you, Ben. Ye know that well." When John approaches Miranda, she shows no sign of being interested in him, thinking he loves Hattie, though their engagement was broken off. John is easily discouraged, all the more so in thinking Miranda loves Ben. At Seth's farmyard, John tries out an invention of his: a feeder to a threshing machine while Seth's sister, Samantha, is being courted by the shy sexton, Ebenezer. Out of mischief, Seth's young son, Tom, throws apples on his head in the midst of his difficulties, then does the same to his aunt, till, bearing too heavily on the tree-limb in his eagerness to listen, he loses his balance and hangs on dangling between the two. Samantha grabs him by the collar and walks him in the house, but the interruption is enough to discompose Ebenezer. To be rid of Mary, Ben pretends to desire marrying her out of town and offers her money to travel. Overjoyed, she believes him and takes the money. When John mentions to Miranda news of Hattie's marriage, she is surprised at his cheerful voice, till, to her contentment, he explains he does not love her. Discouraged at his inability to get anywhere with Miranda, Ben tries to push John in the threshing machine, but is knocked down by him. John then leaves town for several months to perfect his invention. When he returns, Ben is at the point of marrying Miranda, who has had no word from John throughout this period, the same as he. Aiming to avenge herself on her forsworn lover, Mary explains to John that while Seth was ill, Ben replaced him at the post-office, insinuating he may have intercepted their letters. When this is found to be true, Seth announces to John with Miranda consenting: "Take her with my blessin'."

Henry James[edit]

Henry James wrote a compelling drama about Guy Domville, a man who abandons priesthood only to become ensnared in family conflicts. Portrait of the author by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Henry James (1843-1916) provides a notable example of realist drama farther away from melodrama with "Guy Domville" (1895).

"Guy Domville"[edit]

Time: Late 18th century. Place: England.

Text at https://archive.org/details/guydomvilleplayi00jame

Guy Domville, a poor nobleman and tutor to Mrs Peverel's son, wishes to quit his position and become a priest. Mrs Peverel is disappointed. She loves him and is loved in turn by Frank Humber, who asks Guy to recommend him as her husband. Their talk is interrupted by Lord Devenish, who informs Guy that as a result of a cousin's death he is next in succession as the sole heir and master of the Gaye estate. Guy reluctantly accepts to abandon the priesthood. Although he tries his best to recommend Frank, Mrs Peverel declines the offer, waving away Frank's presence. "Don't speak to me, don't look at me, only leave me," she exclaims to the abashed lover. But she is astonished to hear from Lord Devenish that a plan to marry off Guy is already in the works, to the daughter of a cousin of his. "We've particular need of him in another place to lead a young lady to the altar: Mrs. Domville's daughter by her first marriage," he reveals. "The amiable and virtuous Miss Brasier, a bride in a thousand, a Catholic, a beauty, and a fortune." At Mrs Domville's villa, she receives the unwelcome visit of George Round, lieutenant in the king's Navy and her daughter's rejected suitor. He is aghast on learning from Lord Devenish that the marriage ceremony is due this very night, the result of an agreement between he and Mrs Domville, so that if Guy marries her, she will marry him in turn and become Viscountess Devenish. When George meets Guy, he asks him to deliver a package for Mary Brasier. She receives it in suppressed agitation, a ring she once gave to George. When George returns, he pleads with Mary to abandon Guy, mystified about George's presence at the villa but agreeing to drink wine with him, in excessive amounts in his case as he suspects the worst. Harassed by George, Mary reluctantly admits that she does not love Guy but hesitates to follow him because such a move would harm Devenish's prospects of marrying to overcome heavy debts. Pushed to the limit, George reveals to the horrified Mary that Devenish is her father. She thereby leaves Guy to follow George. On learning this, her mother and Denenish are aghast. Yet to Devenish, the contract stands. "How does it stand when you've not performed your task?" asks a bewildered Mrs. Domville. "My task, madam, was not to hold Mary, it was to hold Guy," he counters, now endeavoring to marry Guy to the woman they suspect he secretly loves, Mrs Peverel, and thereby beget heirs so that the Domville name can be continued. In Mrs Peverel's white parlor, Frank tells her he is leaving the country. Their talk is interrupted by Devenish, who informs her of the failed marriage. Knowing that she loves Guy, Devenish asks her to convince him to forsake his former idea of becoming a priest. He reveals to the stupefied Mrs Peverel that Guy never loved Mary but loves her. When Guy comes in, he notices Devenish's white gloves lying about and guesses that he intends to further other plots. After meeting Frank set to go away, Guy once more pleads Mrs Peverel to accept him as her husband, but in her disappointment she is unable to reply. "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles," Guy defiantly announces to Devenish before leaving for France.

Clyde Fitch[edit]

Clyde Fitch showed dramatic flair in depicting the life of Beau Brummel

The historic drama "Beau Brummell" (1890) by Clyde Fitch (1865-1909) is a neo-Romantic type atmosphere more typical of the early part of the century. The play is based on a noted friend of the prince regent, later King George IV (1762-1830, reign: 1820-1830). The story reproduces some key aspects of Beau Brummell's life (1778-1840), though diverging at the end, since the prince never forgave Beau, who died in poverty. Of him Burton (1913) says: "Mr. Fitch's distinctive contribution to our stage seems to me to lie in his power of seizing upon certain phases of city life which have to do with the prosperous commercialism resulting in a certain kind of domestic menage: the family well-to-do, pleasure-loving, wonted to luxury, touched with the fever of getting and spending. With genuine observation, a sympathetic feeling for these types and an instinct for setting them in novel situations, Mr. Fitch has thus, within his limits, been a social historian. He has injured his work again and again by the introduction of forced effects of melodrama, not seldom in bad taste, or by sacrificing psychology for the sake of ending."

"Beau Brummell"[edit]

Beau Brummell had a high-profile social life, then fell. 19th century engraving from an original miniature

Time: 1810s-1820s. Place: London, England and Calais, France.

Text at http://archive.org/stream/plays00fitcgoog/plays00fitcgoog_djvu.txt

Because of an excessively stylish life-style, Beau Brummell is pursued by many creditors. To help his case, he orders his servant to write a letter to Oliver Vincent, a rich cloth merchant, concerning his daughter's hand in marriage. Beau's nephew, Reginald, enters to inform him that he loves a woman, but is interrupted before he can mention who. Beau next receives the visit of one of his most determined creditors, Abrahams, who finally desists after hearing that the prince regent is about to come over. Reginald has been pursuing Mariana, Oliver's daughter, with the help of a servant-intermediary, Kathleen, whom he is startled to find in his uncle's house. On his side, Beau has been conducting an amorous relation with Mrs. Horatia St. Aubyn. When Horatia asks him whether he received her last letter, he responds: "And your ambrosial lock of hair." But he did so to another woman, at which she is at first offended and then laughs it off. When the prince regent enters, he is eager to flirt with Horatia. After his guests leave, Beau receives the visit of Oliver, whom he confuses with his new tailor. He is distracted by his supposed tailor's gait: "Would you be so kind as not to wobble about in that way?" he asks with irritation. Oliver is unable to understand his host's attitude, so that he finally declares: "I came to accept your offer of marriage, but I've altered my intention." However, when he learns that the prince regent has invited Beau to supper, he looks pleadingly at him so that the two may dine together. "Send my polite regrets to his royal highness and say I dine tonight with Mr. Oliver Vincent," announces Beau to his servant. At Carlton House, residence of the prince regent, Beau discovers that Oliver's behavior is unbecoming to the prince. To secure the gratitude of his future father-in-law, he covers Oliver's retreat with self-possession and a look of humorous appeal towards the prince. When alone with Oliver, Beau seeks an immediate reward with ready cash and is immediately accepted. He is then accosted by Lord Manly, a drunken fop who has discovered that one of the guests is cheating at cards. What should he do? "Well, if he has cards up his sleeve, bet on him," answers Beau. When alone together, Horatia accuses Beau of presenting her to the prince as a pleasant way to be rid of her: "You have puffed the prince with the conceit that he is driving you out of my affections against your will. Suppose he were to know the truth?" Beau is unafraid. He is also quite cool at discovering Lord Manly drunkenly flirting with his intended, Mariana. He admits to her: "At first it was your fortune which allured me, but now it is yourself." A little later, Beau overhears a conversion between the prince and Horatia in a dark corner, in which she declares that there is too great a difference in their rank for the present relation to continue. Oliver confuses the pair with Beau and his daughter. The prince exclaims to her: "I swear I will marry you," at which Oliver rushes forward and declares: "And so you shall." Once more, Beau interposes to protect Oliver but this time he insults the prince. At the Mall, St. James Park, Beau's servant informs him that two bailiffs are set to arrest him for debts. "You must prevent them by telling them of my marriage to the daughter of Mr. Oliver Vincent," pleads Beau. Meanwhile, Oliver begs his daughter to accept Beau in view of the position he lost in defending him: "With the money your dowry will bring him, he can pay off his creditors and defy the prince. Without it, he can do neither and is utterly ruined," he says. In love with Reginald, Mariana turns her head away and bites her lip in frustration. Intent on obtaining Beau, Horatia proposes an agreement with Mariana: "If you will promise to relinquish Mr Brummel, I will make the prince promise not to cut him, as he has sworn to do publicly today," she says. Mariana is offended and refuses. When Beau asks for Mariana's hand in marriage, she accepts, out of gratitude for her father's sake. To get rid of the bailiffs and unconscious of Horatia's intentions, Beau declares to them: "The prince will be here presently, and I will speak to him." The prince cuts Beau, who is publicly disgraced. He nevertheless holds off the bailiffs with the announcement of his upcoming marriage. But when Reginald confronts Mariana, they discover that Kathleen, faithful to Beau's prospects, failed to deliver each other's letters. When Beau discovers their mutual love, he releases her from her promise. Although Reginald protests in view of the threat from the bailiffs, Beau remains adamant. He is forced to retreat to Calais, out of the world's eye, but is finally saved by the recently crowned king, who forgives him.