Sir Geoffrey, Percy Mackaye, and Civic Art

  • Candace Barrington
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


During the spring of 1917, New York’s Metropolitan Opera lavishly launched the premiere performances of Reginald de Koven and Percy MacKaye’s The Canterbury Pilgrims.1 One of the first full-length American grand operas to appear on the Metropolitan’s stage, the opera received primarily lukewarm reviews: it seemed neither very grand nor very American. Sung in English by a largely German cast, the opera was frequently critiqued for being no more intelligible to the audience than an opera in German or Italian.2 The only English words universally recognized by the audience were in Act Two, when the German-accented “Vife of Bat” cried “Shud upp-phh!”3 On the evening of the fifth performance, however, the audience was probably less concerned than before about discerning the fine points of the pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury, preoccupied instead with the news due from the White House at any minute.


American Drama American Audience Canterbury Tale Civic Institution Metropolitan Opus 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Irving Kolodin, The Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1966: A Candid History (New York: Knopf, 1966), 309–13.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492—Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 352–54. Though the war was a boon to commercial interests, the majority of Americans did not support entering the war (T.J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 [June 1985]: 586, n46).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Woodrow Wilson, “War Message,” in War Messages, Senate Doc. No. 5 (Washington, DC: 65th Congress, 1st Session, 1917), Scholar
  4. 8.
    Quaintance Eaton, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1967 (New York: Meredith Press, 1968), 194–95.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Percy MacKaye, lyricist, and Reginald de Koven, composer, The Canterbury Pilgrims, An Opera in Four Acts (Cincinnati and New York: John Church Company, 1916), 54.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Percy MacKaye, The Canterbury Pilgrims: An Opera (Libretto) (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 54; and Scrapbook clipping, unknown source, April 3, 1917, PMacKPapers. Compare this with Metropolitan manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s version: “There was an immense stir in the house. Backstage, in the wings, Mme. Margarete Ober, who was a patriotic German, was so affected by the news that she fainted away, and we had to go through the last act without her” (Memories of the Opera [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], 179–80). According to all sources, Mme. Ober did sing the season’s remaining two performances. Already, the opera was associated with entering the war: the second performance had been attended by Ambassador James Gerard (had he nothing better to do?), and the New York City Times duly noted that he “listened with evident interest to a language which he and his official staff had been hissed for using when attending theatres in Berlin” (Scrapbook clipping, March 17, 1917, PMacKPapers).Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    T J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 142–81. On Chaucer’s emerging middle-class readership in the United States, see my chapters 1 and 4. 13. During the fifteen-year period MacKaye wrote and reconfigured The Canterbury Pilgrims, his theoretical work split American culture into two venues: legitimate art embraced by the genteel tradition and popular entertainment indulged by the masses, what Van Wyck Brooks would sardonically classify as “highbrow” and “lowbrow.” There was no spot in MacKaye’s conceptualization for Brooks’ third category, “middlebrow.” Instead, he sought to create a genial middle ground between serious art and vulgar entertainment, a place where subsidized artists could provide a homogenous, unified culture for all Americans. This middle ground, however, would not borrow the lower entertainments to be refashioned as high art; instead it would make elite culture accessible to the inadequately educated lower classes. MacKaye’s vision was not an anomaly, for it shared assumptions with the self-help movement propelled by educated progressives. For a discussion of the split MacKaye sought to bridge, see Susan Hegeman, Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 69–78.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    I use Jack Poggi’s term “noncommercial theater” to identify organizations whose “motive was usually (though not always) to gain artistic freedom by reducing financial obligations” (Jack Poggi, Theater in America: The Impact of Economic Forces, 1870–1967 [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968], 99–100).Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Russell Lynes, The Lively Audience: A Social History of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, 1890–1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 174.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    Douglas McDermott, “The Theatre and Its Audience: Changing Modes of Social Organization in the American Theatre,” in The American Stage: Social and Economic Issues from the Colonial Period to the Present, ed. Ron Engle and Tice L. Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 12–13.Google Scholar
  11. 26.
    Van Wyck Brooks, An Autobiography (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1965), 111.Google Scholar
  12. 28.
    Arvia MacKaye Ege, The Power of the Impossible: The Life Story of Percy and Marion MacKaye (Falmouth, ME: The Keenebec Paver Press, 1992), 20–35.Google Scholar
  13. 29.
    Gerald Bordman, The Concise Oxford Companion to American Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), q.v. “Steele MacKaye.”Google Scholar
  14. 31.
    Percy MacKaye, A Sketch of His Life, with Bibliograpy of His Works. Reprinted from the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Report of the Class of 1897, Harvard College (Cambridge: Harvard College, 1922).Google Scholar
  15. 33.
    Ronald H. Wainscott, The Emergence of the Modern American Theater, 1914–1929 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 262Google Scholar
  16. Thomas H. Dickinson, Playwrights of the New American Theater (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 2–5.Google Scholar
  17. 37.
    Virginia Reed Colby and James B. Atkinson, Footprints of the Past: Images of Cornish, New Hampshire and the Cornish Colony (Concord, NH: New Hampshire Historical Society, 1996), 259–66, 280–85, and 428–39. MacKaye and his family moved to Cornish in 1904, and MacKaye maintained a home there until his death in 1956.Google Scholar
  18. 40.
    William Pratt, Miami Poets: Percy MacKaye and Ridgely Torrence (Oxford, OH: Friends of the Library Society, Miami University, 1988), 4.Google Scholar
  19. 50.
    The 1381 Uprising is also known as the Peasant’s Revolt and the Great Revolt. For a succinct discussion of Richard’s role in the events, see Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997), 56–82.Google Scholar
  20. 53.
    Ironically, during the 1381 Uprising millers were ambiguously situated, both as targets representing manorial greed and as participants in the violence against seigneurial authority (Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History [Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991], 254–58).Google Scholar
  21. 55.
    J.E. Lighter, ed., Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (New York: Random House, 1994), q.v. “gravy.”Google Scholar
  22. 56.
    Eric Partridge, Macmillan Dictionary of Historical Slang (New York: Macmillan, 1974), q.v. “shirt in the wind,” “flap.”Google Scholar
  23. 57.
    George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 76.Google Scholar
  24. 63.
    Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow /Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 56–81.Google Scholar
  25. 65.
    Garff B. Wilson, Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre: From Ye Bear and Ye Cubb to Hair (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 280.Google Scholar
  26. In later accounts, the play gets commissioned by Sothern and Julia Marlowe, who by 1905 had become the most famous pair of Shakespearean actors in the United States. Of course, this account of the play’s origins is inaccurate. Not only was Cecilia Loftus originally tabbed to be the female lead (not Julia Marlowe), but Marlowe did not join Sothern until September 1904, well after Sothern had dropped the rights to The Canterbury Pilgrims. See Charles Edward Russell, Julia Marlowe, Her Life and Art (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1926), 310–11.Google Scholar
  27. 90.
    Michael J. Mendelsohn, “Percy MacKaye’s Dramatic Theories,” Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 24 (1970): 89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 94.
    D. Heyward Brock and James M. Welsh, “Percy MacKaye: Community Drama and the Masque Tradition,” Comparative Drama 6 (1972): 71–76.Google Scholar
  29. 108.
    Mina Carson, Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), 27–50Google Scholar
  30. Constance D’Arcy MacKay, The Little Theatre in the United States (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1917); Clarence Arthur Perry, The Work of the Little Theatres: The Groups They Include, the Plays They Produce, Their Tournaments, and the Handbooks They Use (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1933)Google Scholar
  31. Ann Larabee, ‘“The Drama of Transformation’: Settlement House Idealism and the Neighborhood Playhouse,” in Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 123–36Google Scholar
  32. Lillian D. Wald, Windows on Henry Street (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1941), 132–74.Google Scholar
  33. 114.
    David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 43. By World War I, American pageantry had been thoroughly professionalized. It had its own association, archivists, professors of pageantry, and numerous books detailing “the organization and effective administration of a pageant” in terms that parallel those of large business (Linwood Taft, The Technique of Pageantry [1921; reprint, New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1930], 1). For a sense of American pageantry’s sudden florescence, see “Inventory of William Chauncy Langdon Papers (1898–1940),” MS.82.1 (John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI).Google Scholar
  34. 117.
    Carson, Settlement Folk, 11–13; and Richard L. McCormick, “Public Life in Industrial America, 1877–1917,” in The New American History, ed. Eric Foner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 106–11.Google Scholar
  35. 121.
    Joseph Garland, Boston’s Gold Coast: The North Shore, 1890–1929 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), 6.Google Scholar
  36. 124.
    MacKaye, “American Pageants and Their Promise,” 28; and Anna de Koven, A Musician and His Wife (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1926), 233–35.Google Scholar
  37. 140.
    “President Taft Will Attend Canterbury Pilgrims Production,” Gloucester Daily Times, May 11, 1909. np. cited in Grover, Annals of an Era, 221. See also, correspondence, EP to PM, April 28, 1909, PMacKPapers, 53:29. In summers prior to his presidency, the Tafts escaped the oppressive heat and humidity of Washington, DC by withdrawing to a home on the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Now, needing to find an American location for the summer White House, the Tafts chose a fourteen-room cottage near Gloucester on Woodbury Point (Garland, Boston’s Gold Coast, 148). Taft’s decision to vacation in the Gloucester area was abetted by his long-time friendship with area booster, John Hays Hammond (John Hays Hammond, The Autobiography of John Hays Hammond [New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1935], 764).Google Scholar
  38. 144.
    Herbert S. Duffy, William Howard Taft (New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1930), 238; “President Greets Family at Beverly,” The New York Times, August 8, 1909, 1.Google Scholar
  39. 152.
    Letter from Susan E. Tracey to Caroline Crawford, undated, William Chaucey Langdon Papers, Box 120, #18; also reproduced in Barry B. Witham, Theatre in the United States: A Documentary History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 305–6; and Ege, Power of the Impossible, 198.Google Scholar
  40. 172.
    MacKaye, Civic Theatre, 42. At the same time Percy MacKaye was attempting to redeem misspent leisure by prescribing theatrical activities, his brother, Benton MacKaye, was developing the Appalachian Trail as an outdoor experience for converting that same wasted leisure time (Kevin Dann, Across the Great Border Fault [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000], 36).Google Scholar
  41. 176.
    Most amous for his 1891 operetta, Robin Hood, the composer had already managed three successful careers: as a Chicago businessman (aided by marriage into a wealthy and prominent family); as a prodigious composer of comic operas for the popular stage; and as a music critic and editor for Chicago Evening Post (1889–90), the New York World (1891–97 and 1907–12), and the New York Journal (1898–1900) (John Tasker Howard, Our American Music: Three Hundred Years of It [New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1954, 3rd edn.], 655).Google Scholar
  42. 181.
    Geoffrey Hindley, ed., The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music (London: Hamlyn Publishing, 1971), 541.Google Scholar
  43. 182.
    Elise K. Kirk, American Opera (Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 99–117.Google Scholar
  44. 183.
    Gilbert Chase, America’s Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present (New York: McGraw Hill, 1955), 617–19.Google Scholar
  45. 185.
    Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 524–29Google Scholar
  46. Patrick J. Smith, Toward an American Opera, 1911–1954, Recorded Anthology of American Music (New York: New World Records, 1978), 2, Scholar
  47. 195.
    Emile H. Serposs, “The Canterbury Pilgrims (1917)” 37, unpublished working manuscript; and Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), 1–3.Google Scholar
  48. Studying at European conservatories was the norm until World War I for American musicians, especially those with financial means (David Nicholls, American Experimental Music, 1890–1940 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 1).Google Scholar
  49. 224.
    Edward Ellsworth Hipsher, American Opera and Its Composers (Philadelphia, PA: Theodore Presser Co., 1927), 154Google Scholar
  50. Johanna Fiedler, Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 22–23.Google Scholar
  51. 228.
    John Erskine, The Memory of Certain Persons (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1947), 388.Google Scholar
  52. 230.
    Irving Sablosky, American Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 135Google Scholar
  53. 236.
    Vilma Raskin Potter, “Percy MacKaye’s Caliban for a Democracy,” Journal of American Culture 19, no. 4 (1996): 1–2, Academic Search Elite, Item #9710253829; and George W. Angell, “Theatre, History, and Myth on the New England Coast,” New England Theatre Journal 1, no. 1 (1990): 79–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 237.
    Philip K. Jason, “Percy MacKaye,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography (1987), 9 of 14, Gale Literary Database.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Candace Barrington 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Candace Barrington

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations