Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 25. George M. Cohan

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

§ 25. George M. Cohan

In his generous modesty, Ade has always maintained that George M. Cohan, the many-handed wonder of Yankee-doodle-flag farces and Over There music, was more typically American than he. Cohan is the type of manager-playwright who has his pulse on the moment; he grows rich on local allusion. His Little Johnny Jones (7 November, 1904), George Washington, Jr. (12 February, 1906), Forty-five Minutes from Broadway (14 March, 1912), and The Man Who Owns Broadway (11 October, 1909) have the tang of the street about them. There is a quality to his music which has been brought nearer the psycho-state of a nervous crowd by Irving Berlin, with his jazz noises and his syncopated songs. But as a producer, in the sense that Belasco is a dramatist-producer, Cohan shows a genius more serious. His adaptation of Earl Biggers’s story, Seven Keys to Baldpate (22 September, 1913), illustrated the more solid variety of his ability. All told, he reflects a nervousness which, while representative of the times, is not an enviable attribute in a nation, though its flexible humour indicates aliveness of mind and quick realization of national foibles. Mr. Dooley, Ade, and Cohan show, by the success they have had at the hands of the public, that as a people we are capable of enjoying humour, comic and trenchant, at our own expense.

The matter of popularity and permanence has confused the history of playwriting in America. There was a time when Joaquin Miller’s The Danites held audiences spellbound; when Campbell’s My Partner was considered as representative of America as Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp. Way Down East (7 February, 1898) and In Old Kentucky (27 April, 1897), by their extended acceptance, should place Lottie Blair Parker and Charles T. Dazey in the forefront of the theatre. But they are not widely known today. Nor is Martha Morton the significant figure she bid fair to be when she wrote His Wife’s Father (Miner’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, 25 February, 1895). Even the success of Little Lord Fauntleroy (10 September, 1888) did not make Frances Hodgson Burnett a dramatist, though she commanded the stage in several other plays for many years. The allurement held forth by large profits at first attracted the literary worker and then the layman in any field who thought playwriting lucrative. Colleges began offering courses in dramatic technique, and from the classes of Professor George P. Baker at Harvard and Professor Brander Matthews at Columbia commendable graduates have come to the theatre. The consequence is that the number of American writers of drama has increased largely, with not a commensurate increase of typically American plays.