Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 2. Black and Red Americans

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

§ 2. Black and Red Americans

No one dared to take the moral issue of the war and treat it seriously, Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (first played 24 August, 1852) having ante-dated the internecine struggle. Even today, the subject of the negro and his relation with the white is one warily handled by the American dramatist. Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (Winter Garden, 5 December, 1859), was typical of the way that dramatist had of making hay out of the popular sunshine of others. William DeMille wanted to treat of the negro’s social isolation, but compromised when he came to write Strongheart (Hudson Theatre, 30 January, 1905) by making the hero an Indian; and he later fell into the conventional way of treating the war when he wrote The Warrens of Virginia (Belasco Theatre, 3 December, 1907). The more sensational aspects of the negro question, as treated by Thomas Dixon in The Clansman (Liberty Theatre, 8 January, 1906) were wisely softened and made into an elaborate record of the Civil War, in the panoramic moving picture, The Birth of a Nation (New York, 1915). Though Ridgely Torrence, in a series of one-act plays (Granny Maumee, The Rider of Dreams, and Simon the Cyrenian, Garden Theatre, 5 April, 1917), has sought poetically to exploit negro psychology, the only American dramatist who has approached the topic boldly, melo-dramatically, and effectively, thus far, has been Edward Sheldon, in The Nigger (New Theatre, 4 December, 1909).

It will be seen from this enumeration that during the period immediately preceding the Civil War the issues of the coming struggle were not treated for propaganda purposes, as were the issues of the Revolutionary War in our pre-national drama. The fact is, the features of the American theatre, and of the plays on the American stage, preceding the year 1870, were fairly well predetermined by the strong personalities among the managers and actors: by the distinct predilection, among theatre-going peoples, for plays to fit the temperaments of the reigning stage favourites, and by the styles and fashions that emanated from London and Paris. Neither the Wallacks, John Brougham, W. E. Burton, nor Augustin Daly showed, by their actual productions, that their tastes were native, although Brougham was led, through burlesque, to exercise his Irish wit on the land of his adoption, and Daly, as shown by his recent biographer, attempted to turn such literary workers as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Howells to dramatic writing. Men expert in other literary forms have seldom fully grasped the demands of the theatre. Thomas Bailey Aldrich had his Judith of Bethulˆa produced (Boston, Tremont Theatre, 13 October, 1904) and his biographer says that in New York “it failed to take the taste of the large luxurious audiences that throng the Broadway theatres betwixt dinner and bedtime.” But the poetic purple patches of Aldrich’s verse might be another explanation for its short life on the stage.