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  • The Siren Beyond the Self: Henry James and the Popular Arts of the MacKaye Family
  • Marc Bousquet

Maybe you, sitting inside of yourself—let us say you at Centre, are not deaf, dumb and blind, but eagerly alert for a signal. From the very beginning till now, left to ourselves, this urge at Centre never rests. It batters forever at the inner side of our walls, crying “Welcome!” and dragging down bars, wrenching gates, prying at portholes, listening at cracks, reaching everywhere and demanding the utmost and always more of every sense. Thus sense-gates are built because of demand on either side, and they swing both ways, because we want to push out to meet Environment pushing in.

—Emma Sheridan Fry, Educational Dramatics (1913)

This new Community Drama brings us the new form we have been told we ought to want, ever since New York’s Stadium opened with Euripides. This work rings true in expression and intention. Its ideas are easily understood; its emotions those of the Group. And Mr. MacKaye’s introduction of a new dramatic instrument, his Group-Person, helps to get these ideas and emotions—through the eyes and ears of the crowd—to the community brain.

—New York Evening Post (29 November 1919), review of Percy MacKaye, The Will of Song1

Talking about Henry James is really talking about our Henry James, the one Alfred Habegger describes so well, a prominent pillar of the liberal establishment that created him (more so, anyway, than he created it)—the presiding spirit of [End Page 219] early high modernism, the scribal self, the peering, peeping, probing Cartesian in a silk hat. And it is doubtless because we now need an other Henry James that I’m interested in the ways his late work might be viewed as a kind of active illiberalism, democratic but not so thoroughly committed to the ceaseless promotion of subjectivity, more interested in an unfortified consciousness (personal, but not exclusively so, and never grossly proprietary), searching like Henry Adams for an alternative to the accelerated self under modernity (figured in part by the Dynamo) for something like the sheltering cult sensibility of the Virgin. Throughout the late prose, including all of the fiction after The Wings of the Dove, but especially the autobiographical and travel writing and prefaces, James’s deployment of the dramatic analogy tends to indicate anything but the conventional stage. Instead it indexes pageant, procession, masque, and cavalcade—the participatory and ritual arts undergoing an immense and deeply-institutionalized revival at the turn of the century.

James was personally acquainted with a leading figure in the pageant movement—Percy MacKaye, a self-described “Dramatic Engineer” who saw participatory theatre as a “ritual of democratic religion” and who was at the time of this acquaintance actively (though moderately) socialist, counting a “Masque of Labor” among his 1911 efforts (Glassberg 171). This acquaintance came about because of the novelist’s early association with MacKaye’s father, James Morrison Steele MacKaye, William James’s most intimate Newport friend, and evidently the leading figure in their theatrical exploits (MacKaye 70). MacKaye the elder became an internationally known actor-manager, the impresario of a massive failed spectacle-theater that bankrupted a half-million-dollar corporation before the opening of its first show. (Portions of the musical score commissioned from Anton Dvor� ák would later appear as The New World Symphony.) Perhaps most widely influential as the trainer of amateur and professional actors, MacKaye importantly shaped elocution and physical culture in schools as well as cinema semiotics and the festival practices of dance, pantomime, and pageantry by way of introducing and vigorously promoting the Delsarte system of oratory and by inventing related forms of training the body for performance, such as the “Harmonic Gymnastics” system of physical culture (Guthrie; Gordon; Curry 153–65; Naremore 52–67). Henry James was at least a junior member of the boys’ Newport group, though perhaps preferring the companionship of T. S. Perry. In New York that fall, the Jameses enrolled with MacKaye at the Berkeley Institute; during two of the succeeding winters, the James family rented the MacKaye summer house. The high point of the direct influence of the...

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