- Plays in American Periodicals, 1890-1918
In Plays in American Periodicals, Susan Harris Smith examines 125 plays by 70 dramatists that appeared between 1890 and 1918 in 14 "general interest" magazines, such as Harper's Monthly, McClure's, Scribner's, Century, and Arena. In the process, she continues the work that she began in her foundational 1997 study, American Drama: The Bastard Art, making unmistakably clear the importance of U.S. drama. This time, she demonstrates that our understanding of turnof the-century U.S. culture will benefit from taking seriously the dramatic works featured in periodicals. Scholars have increasingly recognized the importance of magazines, but few have considered the plays published in them. Meanwhile, histories of American drama have largely ignored plays in periodicals. Given that magazine literature helped shape the contours of national identity, Smith sets out to account for the role that drama played in advancing this agenda.
One is immediately struck by the sorts of texts examined in Plays in American Periodicals. Smith uses Chapter 1, "Varieties of Dramatic Experience," to prepare her audience for the fact that her study covers a potentially surprising range of material. Smith seems more interested in "dramatic experience" than in literary genre, because not everything examined would fit the conceptions that most scholars have of drama. Smith insists, "the term itself—drama—proves to be slippery" (21). Readers of periodicals encountered "a wide variety of [End Page 257] dramatic styles: plays could be one-act, full-length, or merely a sketch of a page or two; they could be the broadest farce or parody in colloquial prose or the 'highest' tragedy in elevated language; they could be in blank or rhymed verse or prose" (21). Smith's investigation includes drama criticism, theater reviews, and "the monologue," which she says is "a narrative form closest to the character-based short story" (23). The study's findings are also based on "directed readings" or summaries of plays such as Ibsen's Brand. In the case of Brand, Smith proclaims, this summary, by critic Wilbur Cross, "becomes a short story, nothing more" (27). Smith goes on to explain that the magazine in which it appeared, Arena, "presumably would have only been concerned with the social message and not the art, dramatic, literary, or theatrical, of the poem" (23). With this, Smith moves on to another text, as happens frequently because of the sheer number of works she discusses. Still, it is worth noting that some of the study's breadth emerges from its contention that contributions such as Cross's were part of the variety of "dramatic experience" to which periodical readers were accustomed.
Chapter 2, "Cultures of Social Distance and Difference," begins by reminding us that "there are no 'innocent' appearances in periodicals." Every printed item contributed to an editorial mission, which rarely contradicted advertisers' interests (36). Plays surely helped advance a magazine's agenda, but tracing how they did so requires reconstructing the sorts of conversations to which readers at the time would have been privy. Debates could develop in at least three ways: an issue might be discussed in one periodical, with multiple positions represented; several periodicals might contain explicit responses to arguments put forth in others; or responses might be implicit across publications (38). Smith thus offers her work as an example of the kind of extensive reading that must be undertaken if scholars are to do justice to the ways in which plays helped imbue periodicals with the power to shape U.S. culture.
Smith also recovers "cultural literacies" that readers of the period would have had, such as familiarity with the work of Rudyard Kipling, on which some plays rely to develop their themes. Still, this chapter most emphasizes how plays helped to create the "shared social space" of a periodical: "who was welcomed into that space, who was excluded and why" (54). Smith finds that "the work of the drama does not always 'map' neatly onto the work done by the fiction and the essays in periodicals" (54). For instance...