- Staging Modern American Life: Popular Culture in the Experimental Theatre of Millay, Cummings, and Dos Passos by Thomas Fahy, and: The Theatre of E. E. Cummings ed. by George Firmage
The argument underlining Thomas Fahy’s excellent study Staging Modern American Life is that notable American literati Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos challenged and, in some cases, integrated many of the prevalent economic and cultural fantasies that held sway in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century in their now largely forgotten plays. Fahy considers how these fantasies, which shaped attitudes regarding gender, race, and class, and, perhaps above all else, encouraged consumption, consumerism, and excess, were promoted by popular culture. In turn, he demonstrates how these three authors were simultaneously enamored with and critical of the mass-entertainment offerings that surrounded them (for example, burlesque, vaudeville, the circus, and movies), as well as other aspects of modern life (restaurant culture, suburbia, and mass transportation). Their complicated responses to those cultural outpourings—and the concomitant fantasies they inspired—led them to create “a hybrid theatre” that joined “the popular with the formal, the mainstream with the experimental” (1).
The study opens with a brief and disappointingly general introduction. Here, Fahy first offers a précis of the fantasies made available through popular theatrical amusements during the first decades of the twentieth century, and then reviews the Little Theatre Movement, highlighting the interest of many associated with that movement in integrating popular and formal arts. Theatre historians will find little new here, but the deficiencies of the introduction are offset in the balance of the study. Comprised of three superb chapters (and a thought-provoking conclusion), Fahy’s study offers nuanced and fresh readings of the dramas of Millay, Cummings, and Dos Passos. Each chapter, focusing [End Page 620] on one of these authors, argues that her or his contributions to US theatre, while perhaps spare, are nonetheless consequential.
In chapter 1, Fahy reasons that, despite her oft-noted connection to the radical/avant-garde culture of Greenwich Village, Millay also participated in and enjoyed mainstream entertainment. Moreover, driven by a desire to reach a wide audience yet still satisfy her desire to create socially significant art, Millay sought “to craft an accessible modernist art.” Fahy contends that her efforts to “strike a balance between her aesthetic sensibility and … political consciousness” is apparent in the recurrent use of food and consumption metaphors and symbols in her plays and poetry (24). He opens the chapter by highlighting the various ways that food was at the forefront of social movements, governmental programs, and cultural projects in the 1910s and ’20s. From the advent of fine dining and restaurant culture to President Woodrow Wilson’s creation of the Food Administration to help support war efforts, “food was on the minds of most Americans” (25). The crux of the opening argument is that during this moment in US history, food became a concern in popular culture; Millay shared in that concern and brought it to bear on her work. Building on this premise, Fahy turns to a consideration of a number of Millay’s dramatic works. While the chapter includes explications of such early work as The Princess Marries the Page, which was written while Millay was a student at Vassar, and later work like The Murder of Lidice, written during World War II, particular focus is given to the formally inventive satire Aria da Capo (1919). Especially satisfying is Fahy’s endeavor to examine these dramatic works in relation to the poems and essays for which Millay is better known. For Fahy, Millay’s presentation of food across her oeuvre is twofold: on the one hand, hunger and eating are often valorized symbols of sexual desire and want of freedom; and on the other, food frequently stands as a symbol of political and...