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  • Pictorial Illusionism: The Theatre of Steele MacKaye
  • Arnold Aronson (bio)
J.A. Sokalski . Pictorial Illusionism: The Theatre of Steele MacKaye. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2007. xvi, 316. $55.00

Steele MacKaye (1842-94) - actor, director, playwright, producer, technical innovator - was one of the towering figures of American theatre, yet he remains relatively unknown. Part of the problem, of course, is that nineteenth-century American theatre as a whole, a theatre dominated largely by melodrama, spectacle, and popular entertainments, is seldom given the attention it deserves. But it was a dynamic and vibrant theatre at the heart of social and cultural discourse. If one is looking for a serious examination of that theatre, however, this book will be disappointing, but it does provide a wealth of detail about MacKaye and his role as a driving force in the development of modern theatre practice. [End Page 526]

Professor Sokalski suggests that the aesthetic of pictorial illusionism was at the core of almost everything MacKaye undertook, beginning with his early foray into painting. But he was also interested in the science of acting, studying the relation of the musculature to emotion, so it is not surprising that when he met François Delsarte in Paris in 1869 there was an instant rapport. Delsarte, of course, had developed an elaborate system of emotional gesture for orators and actors. MacKaye became his pupil and then his ardent advocate in the United States. Along with extensive lecturing on Delsarte, MacKaye established the first acting schools in the United States, one of which, The Lyceum, ultimately became the still-extant American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He also wished to create a Comédie Française-like institution in the United States, and in 1879 he took over a small theatre that he transformed into the intimate Madison Square Theatre. His most famous innovation there was the double stage, - two complete stages, one above the other, operated by a hydraulic elevator. While one stage was on view, the other could be refitted for the next scene. This meant that scene changes were reduced from the typical twenty to forty minutes at most theatres of the day, to as little as forty seconds, thereby revolutionizing the audience experience in the process. MacKaye also developed significant innovations in lighting; many of the lighting effects now associated with David Belasco were pioneered by MacKaye. (Belasco was a stage manager at the theatre, a point strangely ignored by Sokalski.) There were innovations in seating, ventilation, safety, acoustics, and even the treatment of the audience - free programs, and ice water delivered to the patrons. His play Hazel Kirke, one of some thirty that he wrote, ran for 486 performances in 1880-81, a record held until 1917. Sokalski's highly detailed examination of MacKaye's innovations - including a convincing argument that the well-known Scientific American illustration of the theatre is reversed - is a useful contribution to theatre studies.

The next chapter centres on MacKaye's work with Buffalo Bill Cody. MacKaye took Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and transformed it from a variety entertainment into a narrative production called The Drama of Civilization. The collaboration of MacKaye and Cody cries out for socio-cultural as well as dramatic examination, but despite much factual detail the analytical aspect, as in so much of the book, is simplistic at best. The final chapter is devoted to a meticulous examination of MacKaye's ambitious and visionary project for the Spectatorium, a massive theatre to house The Great Discovery, a pageant-spectacle celebrating Columbus. It was to be built alongside the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, but the economic crisis that year forced the project into bankruptcy and the partially built structure was abandoned; only a greatly reduced version, The World Finder, was ultimately produced in a different venue.

Sokalski provides a wealth of material that has been little examined previously, and his attention to detail is admirable. But the writing can [End Page 527] be tedious and repetitive. More important, there is little contextualization and virtually no scholarly analysis. If one came to this study with no knowledge of American theatre history, the significance of MacKaye would remain vague (even...


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