- Plays in American Periodicals, 1890–1918
Venue matters. This is the crucial idea in Susan Harris Smith's Plays in American Periodicals, 1890–1918, which considers 125 largely unknown and unproduced plays that were published in fourteen general-interest magazines during the Progressive Era. Such periodicals appealed to what Richard Ohmann has famously called the PMC (professional-managerial class), who represented 7 percent of the US population in 1880, and 12 percent by 1910. The magazines included the lavishly illustrated Century, the slightly less intellectual Harper's New Monthly, the muckraking McClure's, and the seriously progressive Forum. Smith calls these magazines "more parochial than cosmopolitan, more nativistic than international, and more intent on preserving the status quo than in creating a new world" (11). Since almost none of the people who published plays in these magazines were among the ranks of successful commercial playwrights of the day (only William Dean Howells and Booth Tarkington fit both categories, although Zoë Akins was a player in the Little Theatre movement), Harris wisely looks beyond commercial theatre for the significance of these plays as a body of work, noting that the plays covered a wide variety of styles but a narrow spectrum of social beliefs.
The plays addressed the same contemporary topics as the essays with which they shared space in the magazines. They did so, however, with concern more for reassurance than for potentially incendiary argument (which essays might undertake). Some were not quite what we might today call dramas at all; they might be monologues or simple dialogues—debates, really, that allowed for comfortably conversational airings of differing points of view on contemporary topics—or plot summaries combined with dialogue, or extended précis interspersed with excerpts from an actual drama. Part of what gave the plays' authors credibility was that they also wrote in other genres and often were already-known commodities for their stories or essays. Arguably, the magazines provided a venue for writers who created drama for reasons other than wanting to fit Broadway's (or vaudeville's) needs. Significantly, twenty-seven of the plays were written in verse and 40 percent are by women—statistics that went unremarked in the magazines but would have been unheard of in the commercial theatre.
For readers of these magazines, the plays, which were often illustrated, were understood as informative stories in palatable, albeit sometimes abstract or poetic, form. Smith points out that any differing points of view heard within these plays reflected differences within the proscribed readership, never differences between it and other blocs of political interest. If readers thought at all in terms of the performance of these plays, it would be performance at home with friends or family. Hence, argues Smith, there were no African American characters in this corpus of dramatic work, since it would be too embarrassing to embody such a character in a private reading. On the other hand, ethnic and lower-class whites were fair game for derision and were marked—even when they conveyed a bit of wisdom or were unfair victims of white privilege—as lesser and other via their poor English (64—65). [End Page 352]
Following her introductory chapter ("Varieties of Dramatic Experience") and a chapter on plays that "other" lower-class characters ("Cultures of Social Distance and Difference"), Smith discusses, in "Women as American Citizens," plays that flattered and encouraged middle-class, white women "to uplift the lower and lesser citizenry" via essentialist assumptions that their "domestic virtues" were adequate reasons to justify their authority (86–87). Unsurprisingly, plays discussed in this chapter (which is thoroughly researched but holds little in the way of unanticipated discoveries) support marriage and consumerism while worrying about "race suicide" and miscegenation. The independent women in these dramas are those who are shown "choosing" conservative values, not those who buck the trend. The fascinating fourth chapter, "Cultural Displacement," looks at plays with exotic settings or characters that are used for titillation or recuperation, but that flew under the radar of suspicion...