Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 32. Secessionist Groups

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

§ 32. Secessionist Groups

This critical attitude is behind the secession which is going on now (1919) in the theatre. Drama groups all through the country have sprung up, and whether it be in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and so on to the Pacific coast, the secession impulse is the same: a little theatre, managed by some radical artist, has sprung up. Apparently there is no compromise: the old theatre must go; the new theatre and the new art must reign instead. These theatres are independent of each other, though they exchange plays; they have no unifying idea which brings them close together; they are working in their separate ways, and upholding their own philosophies, which are not always philosophies in accord with the American spirit. Being secessionists, they fly far afield in their interpretation of American life; they are youthful. But their presence has already pointed a way to a more national unity in the art of the theatre. They have called forth scenic artists of their own, and in Robert Jones the regular manager has found a treasure from the amateur ranks. They have created schools f playwrights, like the Washington Square Players, the Provincetown Players, the Wisconsin Players. But if they ever expect to have real influence on the theatre as an institution they have yet to bring themselves out of amateur execution into the dignified ranks of the professional.

The little theatre, per se, is a misnomer; it has been carried too far. Art has often been cramped in a thimble. The amateur has built a small theatre because the large theatre was unwieldy for him. But the future salvation of the theatre has nothing to do with size. The little theatre has encouraged the one-act play, of which form George Middleton and Percival Wilde have been excellent exponents, and Theodore Dreiser, with his Plays Natural and Supernatural, a surprising one; but though the one-act play has great possibility it is not to be the reforming element in the theatre. What really matters is that the public taste is having a free outlet in its amusement. It is showing the manager that amusement governed by the cost of production is bound to debar from the theatre much that is good, much that the American dramatist would like to do which is of an experimental nature, but for which heretofore there has been no outlet. These little theatres bring to mind the possibilities of regional repertory and regional circuits; they point to less extravagance of material in the theatre, more dependence, in scene, plot, and literary expression, on the imaginative aliveness of audiences. It is in such atmosphere, which must sooner or later be recognized by the theatre at large, that the future American dramatist will work.