- Early-Twentieth-Century Frontier Dramas on Broadway: Situating the Western Experience in Performing Arts by Richard Wattenberg
Long before the first filmic Westerns appeared, the myth of the American West was being shaped through a variety of popular art forms, theatre not the least among them. As Richard Wattenberg argues in his new study, depictions of the frontier in American drama date back to colonial times, but the parameters of the myth as we know it today were not established until the turn of the last century. At the heart of his work is a close analysis of eight plays on western themes, all of which premiered on Broadway in the brief period between 1899 and 1906. Although many of the scripts have been treated in previous scholarship, most recently by Roger Hall in his Performing the American Frontier, 1870-1906 (Cambridge 2001), Wattenberg believes these plays require closer study as "the most significant frontier plays ever to appear on the American stage" (2). Whether or not one accepts that valuation, Wattenberg's innovative methodology deserves attention. He situates the plays within the field of literary, academic, and performative expressions that constitute the "frontier western discourse" of the period, but he simultaneously tracks how that discourse was modified when expressed through the attitudes and practices that formed contemporary "theater discourse" (15).
Wattenberg's theoretical approach is a complex one, requiring some explication. He dedicates two opening chapters to that end, outlining first contemporary frontier western discourse and then period theatrical discourse. The author cites a number of popular, literary, and academic texts that shaped American ideas about the frontier, including western tourism, dime novels, Buffalo Bill's Wild West, novels by Owen Wister and Frederic Remington, the writings of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and especially Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 "frontier thesis." In tracing the links between those various interpretations of the western frontier, the author establishes the opposition of "civilization" and "savagery" as the unifying element that governs his subsequent analyses (24). The aspects of turn-of-the-century theatre discourse Wattenberg considers most critical include the turn toward scenic naturalism, the binary oppositions of melodrama, and the rise of combination companies. [End Page 185]
Having established his theoretical framework, Wattenberg proceeds with his analysis of the eight plays, pairing them off into four chapters that shape an evolutionary narrative beginning with largely melodramatic depictions of civilization's triumph over savagery, and ending with more realistic representations of a Turnerian savagery/civilization synthesis. It should be noted that Wattenberg does not claim Turner's thesis had a direct influence on these playwrights; he rather characterizes the academic essay and the plays as parallel expressions of period American thought about the frontier. Wattenberg provides playwright biographies and production histories for each play. He also addresses the representation of gender, race, and class in each work, but subordinates those discussions to explanations of how each play responded and contributed to period frontier discourse. Wattenberg begins his case studies by contrasting Clyde Fitch's The Cowboy and the Lady (1899) with Augustus Thomas's Arizona (1900), claiming that the first celebrates the "victory of eastern civilized discipline over western spontaneity" (95), while the second is more in line with an ascendant synthetic vision of east/west synthesis. Wattenberg next turns to the staging of two popular western novels, Louis Evan Shipman's 1903 adaptation of Frederic Remington's John Ermine of the Yellowstone and the 1904 collaboration of novelist Owen Wister with playwright Kirke La Shelle to theatricalize the former's successful The Virginian. In both plays, claims Wattenberg, "National evolution is . . . presented via character evolution, and melodrama's static idealized approach to characterization is therefore somewhat tempered" (133). That shift in traditional melodramatic characterization is even more pronounced in the next pair of plays Wattenberg examines, Edwin Milton Royle's The Squaw Man (1905) and David Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West (1905), in which "action depends less on the clash of hero and villain than...