Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 12. Steele MacKaye

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVIII. The Drama, 1860–1918

§ 12. Steele MacKaye

Steele MacKaye (1844–1894) while with the Madison Square management won popularity as a playwright, but none of his pieces is widely known to the theatre now, except by name. Rose Michel (23 November, 1875), Hazel Kirke, Dakolar (6 April, 1885), and Paul Kauvar (24 December, 1887) are among those that linger in memory as examples of picturesque melodrama created for a certain type of stage effect, with emotionalism of the Dumas kind. MacKaye once wrote: “The master playwright combines the constructive faculty of the mechanic and the analytical mind of the philosopher, with the æsthetic instinct of a poet, and the ethical ardour of an apostle.” This is an all-inclusive definition, which MacKaye never encompassed in any of his plays, but which in himself was exemplified by the ardour of his temperament and the visionary character of his imagination. His son Percy might be said to have the same ideal, to which can be added a passion for civic art. He has tried to express this latter element in his pageants, but has never successfully done so. For Percy MacKaye is one of the most aristocratic of writers—farthest removed from a thorough realization of the emotions of the crowd. His poetic drama is academic in its scholarly allusions. One only has to read Sappho and Phaon (21 October, 1907) to realize this. As striking examples of the excellence of his dramatic force there are The Scarecrow (produced 17 January, 1911), Jeanne d’Arc (28 January, 1907), and A Thousand Years Ago (1 December, 1913). The Scarecrow, based on Hawthorne, ranks high among American plays. MacKaye’s political philosophy, earnest but hazy, is seen in his Mater (25 September, 1908); his socio-scientific approach is measured in To-Morrow (31 October, 1913); his imaginative breadth and picturesque enthusiasm are evident in any one of his masques and pageants, The Canterbury Pilgrims (Gloucester, Mass., 3 August, 1909), Sanctuary (12 September, 1913), Saint Louis (St. Louis, 28 May, 1914), and Caliban (New York, 25 May, 1916). But all told, MacKaye has not reached the ideal he emphasizes in his essays on the theatre. If the civic theatre ever becomes a feature of American theatrical history, he will occupy, unless he changes his method of thought and character of technique, the peculiar position of being a pioneer believer in its efficacy, and of being unable in his plays to sound the true democratic note. The sense of American history is uppermost in his mind, but at present his use of materials is distinctly caviare to the popular theatregoer.