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

§ 15. David Belasco

The only manager who, early in the nineties, seems to have had faith in the native product was David Belasco, and his belief was founded on faith in himself. His early training, as secretary to Dion Boucicault, as manager and stock-dramatist at the San Francisco Baldwin’s Theatre; his ability to work over material supplied by others at the Madison Square Theatre—all served him to excellent account when he finally began for himself and fought against the Trust which did not care for his independence and grudged him his success. In his long and useful career we find his interest as a manager prompting his ability as a writer; we find his genius as a trainer of “stars” like Mrs. Leslie Carter, Blanche Bates, David Warfield, and Frances Starr regulating his selection of subjects for treatment as play-wright. The advance from The Heart of Maryland (22 October, 1895) to the adaptation of Zaza (8 January, 1899) represented his discovery of increasing ability in the emotionalism of Mrs. Carter; and his successive presentation of her in such spectacular dramas as Du Barry (25 December, 1901) and Adrea (11 January, 1905) measured his belief in her histrionic power. In the same way, his faith in Blanche Bates prompted him to write many scenes in Madame Butterfly (5 March, 1900), The Darling of the Gods (3 December, 1902), and The Girl of the Golden West (14 November, 1905) for her. Taking Warfield from the Weber and Fields organization (a combination which produced about 1897–1900, by their burlesque of current American successes, a type of humour truly Aristophanean), Belasco had plays cut by himself and Charles Klein to fit Warfield’s personality—and this impulse was back of The Auctioneer (23 September, 1901) and The Music Master (26 September, 1904). But there was something more behind Belasco’s ability to create stage atmosphere by lighting and scene. His love of the West suggested The Girl of the Golden West and prompted his acceptance of Richard Walton Tully’s The Rose of the Rancho (27 November, 1906)—a collaboration which left Tully with a love for the spectacular, apparent in his own independent dramas, The Bird of Paradise (Daly’s Theatre, 8 January, 1912) and Omar, the Tent Maker (Lyric Theatre, 13 January, 1914). In all of his productions, as a manager, Belasco has held the guiding hand. Though John Luther Long gave him the central materials for Madame Butterfly, The Darling of the Gods, and Adrea, the Belasco touch brought them to flower. This has been the invariable result of his collaboration. The one original play of his which best illustrates the mental interest of the man is The Return of Peter Grimm (2 January, 1911), which deals with the presence of the dead. A related subject of interest was dual personality, which prompted his acceptance of The Case of Becky (1 October, 1912) by Edward Locke and The Secret (23 December, 1913) by Henri Bernstein. The latter revealed the expertness of Belasco as an adapter far better than his work on Hermann Bahr’s The Concert (3 October, 1910) or on The Lily (23 December, 1909) by Wolff and Leroux. Had Belasco not been a manager, the effect on his own workmight have been different. As it is, he has sought variety, he has followed the changing times. His interest in emotion, in picturesque situation, in unusual atmosphere, in modern realism, is evident in the long list of plays by himself, and in other dramas he has produced. Sentiment for the past encouraged him to further the career of William C. De Mille, son of his early associate, and while The Warrens of Virginia (Belasco Theatre, 3 December, 1907) and The Woman (Republic Theatre, 19 September, 1911)—both superior to Strongheart—show the younger De Mille an adept at the game of the theatre, there is no doubt that Belasco was an agent in the success of these two dramas.

The entire history of the American theatre within the past quarter of a century has been the continued struggle between the dramatist and the manager, resulting in the complete surrender of the former to the dictates of the latter. The native plays given us have been variously pruned and patched until, like fashion patterns, they have fitted a particular “star,” or until the goods have become salable, dependent on box-office demand. When the play became a reading as well as an acting “thing,” the dramatist first sensed that it was incumbent on him to turn out a literary product, enriched by style, and marked by conviction.