Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 28. The Broadway School

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

§ 28. The Broadway School

For it is this lack of guiding principle, this aloofness of dramatic effort, this isolation of the craft, which is quite as wrong as is the idea of a commercial theatre governing the art product. It is surprising, in view of these limitations, how excellently the American dramatist has progressed. We cannot, at present, put by the side of the school of British playwrights who grew in unity against the Censor, who grew in intellectual feeling under the impulse of Ibsen, who related themselves to a literary movement and to a social evolution, any such school of our own. We may be ashamed to claim that our theatre has produced a Broadway school of playwrights, of whom George Broadhurst (with his Bought and Paid For, Playhouse, 26 September, 1911) and Bayard Veiller (with his Within the Law, Eltinge Theatre, 11 September, 1912) are the typical examples. And the annoying feature of such a tradition is that here and there in the work done by these men there is some real flash, some real creative contribution, showing the inherent ability which purpose would have moulded into distinction. Now and then, out of such workmanship, the theatre gets a whole piece like Eugene Walter’s The Easiest Way 19 January, 1909), which goes to the bone of realistic condition, cruel, ironic, relating it to a morbid type of emotionalism, of which Pinero’s Iris is an example. Walter, by a feeling for character and situation, builds better than his contemporaries. His Paid in Full (25 February, 1908), barring certain evident situations on which uncertain suspense is built, has as much careful reproduction of average American life as Miss Baker’s Chains has of English. And Walter’s melodramatic sense, in The Wolf (Bijou Theatre, 18 April, 1908) and The Knife (Bijou Theatre, 12 April, 1917), is better than Veiller’s trick method of suspense in such a piece of the theatre as The 13th Chair (48th Street Theatre, 20 November, 1917).

The American dramatist has always taken his logic secondhand; he has always allowed his theatrical sense to be a slave to managerial circumstance. The new drama of reality is not based on snap appreciation or judgment. Imagine John Galsworthy writing Justice after reading someone else’s impression of the cell system of prison life. Yet Charles Klein wrote The Lion and the Mouse after reading Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Trust, and Edward Sheldon wrote his one political play, The Boss (30 January, 1911), after reading an editorial in Collier’s Weekly. No drama can be built truly unless one feels deeply the materials used. Sheldon’s The Nigger (New Theatre, 4 December, 1909) shows every evidence—however effective the situation—of the author’s learning of the Southern problem from books read at Harvard University. It has none of the innate sincerity of Moody’s The Great Divide or Alice Brown’s Children of Earth, written out of inherited feeling for spiritual yearnings and ancestral prejudices. Sheldon, cleverly alive to drama,—one of the many men who have come out of university courses specially dedicated to dramatic technique, like Professor Baker’s Workshop at Harvard,—has always been entertaining, with a dexterity which might have gone far had he not, later in his youthful career, been swamped by managerial and actor demands—as when he dramatized Sudermann’s The Song of Songs (Eltinge Theatre, 22 December, 1914). His first play, Salvation Nell (17 November, 1908), showed freshness of atmosphere; but it was brought to distinction y Mrs. Fiske, and it had none of the ironic intent of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Even in the creating of atmosphere, Sheldon has not always been happy. His Romance (10 February, 1913) has none of the real New York flavour of Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (4 February, 1901).