- The Hairy Ape Up in Mabel’s Room
Ronald Wainscott’s The Emergence of Modern American Theater, 1914–1929 is a good stab at something that needs doing: studying “modern” American drama as a cultural artifact. Like a good stage thrust encased in aesthetic conventions, the work draws little intellectual blood, but remains a richly suggestive gesture.
While a flourishing cultural studies industry exists around nineteenth-century American plays, the more highly regarded drama of this century has been handled largely as an object of literary analysis and artistic evaluation. Bruce McConachie, Jeffrey Mason, Robert Toll, Eric Lott, Robert Allen, and others have used the early American stage to explore historical issues, while scholars with other core interests like Alexander Saxton, Jean Baker, and David Roediger have integrated early minstrelsy with grappling with questions of race, class, and politics. Yet drama as indicator/influence of popular mood in the twentieth century remains sparsely developed, despite much cultural interpretation of film and other types of artistic expression.
Wainscott’s argument is that artists in the 1920s “redefined the direction of the American theater for decades to come” in plays “characterized by the violent, the pathetic, the satiric, the outrageous, or the incomprehensible,” the latter term referring to characters’ and even playwrights’ inability to understand “the violent or overwhelming nature of the world being dramatized” (pp. 1–2). This is the result of what Wainscott calls “one supreme irony”: World War I, intended to preserve prevailing values, culture, and democratic principles, in fact “destroyed or enabled the destruction of these social forms and cultural expressions” (pp. 3–4). The problematics of these expansive claims are great. The plays of the 1920s were less violent and pathetic than those of the 1830s, nor were they often outrageous or incomprehensible to their audiences. Both American society and democracy survived the war, while the questioning of the nineteenth-century’s “external verities” was well underway long before that conflict began. [End Page 619]
Happily Wainscott pays no great heed to his own apocalyptic generalities. Statements about the changes the war wrought alternate with ones that it merely accelerated what was already underway, and Wainscott begins his study around 1912, as do most American theater historians. In fact, Wainscott’s big theories bear little relationship to his smaller topics and often interesting details. Four chapters handle play genres: bedroom farces of 1916–1921 and dramas related to the war, to business and to consideration of political radicalism. The two shortest chapters handle well some aspects of the theater’s relation to government: the remarkably successful 1919 campaign against the federal government’s doubling the theater tax, where in eight days almost 9 million Americans signed letters or petitions of protest, and the equally successful 1921 campaign to insure the success of The Demi-Virgin by getting the censors to act against it, actions its author called “a million dollars worth of advertising” (p. 81). The longest chapter, about a quarter of the book and closest to its grand generalities, concentrates on nonrealistic stage design, where visually distorted, highly simplified or symbolically suggestive sets and lighting provided mood or subjective allusion for some Shakespearean plays, several European imports, and about half-dozen American dramas. There’s no doubt that deep interest developed in nonrealistic presentation of plays in the teens, and added flexibility and finesse to 1920s stagecraft. Yet if one looks at photos of play sets in the decade, there’s also no doubt that realistic decor prevailed and that Wainscott is wrong in claiming that 1921 marked the “year that expressionism conquered the American stage.” The writings of leading set designers such as Robert Edmond Jones or Lee Simonson also contradict Wainscott’s claim that they “worked to mystify rather than clarify the action” or “to confuse audiences” (pp. 107–8). Wainscott’s tying this stagecraft to “the shift to a visual focus in American culture” also seems odd, since its leading practitioners saw their new designs as redirecting attention from the visual...