Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 29. Tricks and Farces

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

§ 29. Tricks and Farces

With no philosophic body of ideas moving American drama, it is surprising what an excellent number of plays can be mentioned as illustrative of certain definite types of drama. It is not a dead creative field which can point to the high comedy of A. E. Thomas’s Her Husband’s Wife (9 May, 1910), Thompson Buchanan’s A Woman’s Way (22 February, 1909), Harry James Smith’s Mrs. Bumpstead Leigh (Lyceum Theatre, 3 April, 1911), and Jesse Lynch Williams’s Why Marry? (Astor Theatre, 25 December, 1917). Perhaps these examples are overtopped by Langdon Mitchell’s The New York Idea (Lyric Theatre, 19 November, 1906), which has an irony of universal import—a tang of the Restoration drama, without its blatant vulgarity—a critical sense of manners at once timely and for ever true. This ability shown by Mitchell makes one deplore the time spent by him on dramatizations like Becky Sharp (12 September, 1899) and Pendennis (26 October, 1916).

We may point with just pride to examples of drama of social condition like Charles Kenyon’s Kindling (Daly’s Theatre, 3 December, 1911) and Medill Patterson’s Rebellion (Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, 3 October, 1911). And, even with its excrescences of bad taste, Louis K. Anspacher’s The Unchastened Woman (9 October, 1915) possessed marked distinction of characterization. In the sphere of simple human comedy, Winchell Smith’s The Fortune Hunter (4 September, 1909) and J. Hartley Manners’s Peg o’ My Heart (Cort Theatre, 20 December, 1912), are typical; while Elmer Reizenstein’s On Trial (31 August, 1914), with its “cut back” scenes, showed the direct influence of moving-picture technique on dramatic writing. There are hosts of American farces, true to type, racy with American foibles, like Rupert Hughes’s Excuse Me (Gaiety Theatre, 13 February, 1911), Roi Cooper Megrue’s It Pays to Advertise (Cohan Theatre, 8 September, 1914), Augustin McHugh’s Officer 666 (Gaiety Theatre, 12 August, 1912), Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Seven Days (Astor Theatre, 10 November, 1909).

One may point to Rachel Crothers’s The Three of Us (17 October, 1906) and A Man’s World (8 February, 1910) and say she is example of how a woman, anxious to show unity of purpose in her work, has been forced later into catering to popular demand. One may deplore that Margaret Mayo’s cleverness of technique was used for the creation of such an advertising catch-piece as Twin Beds—which failed even to win the soldiers in cantonment or afield during the past war. One may applaud the theatre atmosphere of James Forbes’s The Chorus Lady (1 September, 1906), and yet see his limitations in the blind way he, like his contemporaries, gropes about for some external novelty.

The unfortunate thing is that the American drama has had many brilliant promises which have finally thinned out and never materialized. At the present moment we have every reason to believe that Clare Kummer (Good Gracious, Annabelle, Republic Theatre, 31 October, 1916, and A Successful Calamity, Booth Theatre, 5 February, 1917), Robert Housam (The Gypsy Trail, Plymouth Theatre, 4 December, 1917), the Hattons, W. J. Hurlbut, and Channing Pollock will contribute something to the future theatre.