Drama from Novels: John Ermine of the Yellowstone and The Virginian

  • Richard Wattenberg
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


During the 1903–1904 theater season, New York audiences had the opportunity to see plays based on novels by two of the best-known contributors to the turn-of-the-century frontier discourse: Owen Wister and Frederic Remington. John Ermine of the Yellowstone, adapted from Remington’s novel of the same name by Louis Evan Shipman, opened on November 2, 1903, and The Virginian, dramatized by Wister and Kirke La Shelle, on January 5, 1904. Both plays began their New York theater life at the very prestigious Manhattan Theatre, which Harrison Grey Fiske had sublet and renovated in 1901 for the use by his highly respected and talented actor-wife, Minnie Maddern Fiske, and her performing company.1 While the Fiskes produced neither of these plays, the very presence of these plays in the Manhattan Theatre suggests the degree to which Wild West material had become attractive to fashionable New York theater audiences.


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  1. 1.
    Mary C. Henderson, The City and the Theatre: New York Playhouses from Bowling Green to Times Square (Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1973), 163.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ben Merchant Vorpahl, My Dear Mr. Wister: The Frederic Remington—Owen Wister Letters (Palo Alto, CA: American West, 1972), 15–20.Google Scholar
  3. Darwin Payne, Owen Wister: Chronicler of the West, Gentleman of the East (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 77–99.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    H.W Boynton, “Books New and Old,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1902, 277.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Vorpahl, 308; John L. Cobbs, Owen Wister (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 24.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 163. With regard to how Frye’s view of comedy can relate to the frontier myth, see chapter 1.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    This information on the first production of The Virginian is drawn from N. Orwin Rush’s introduction to Owen Wister and Kirke La Shelle, The Virginian: A Play in Four Acts (Tallahassee, FL: n.p., 1958), ii. Darwin Payne provides some of the same information; however, he claims that the Frohman with whom Wister negotiated was Daniel Frohman. In referring to Daniel Frohman as a “powerful producer” (213), I wonder if he was not really referring to Daniel’s brother, Charles.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone (1902; Ridgewood, NJ: Gregg, 1968), 27.Google Scholar
  9. 30.
    Regarding the distinction between manliness and masculinity, see Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 1–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 46.
    Christine Bold, Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860 to 1960 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 41.Google Scholar
  11. 49.
    In regard to the impact on Wister of his Western experience, see G. Edward White, The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1968), 122–44.Google Scholar
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  13. 56.
    In his provocative study of Western novels, The Return of the VanishingAmerican (New York: Stein and Day, 1969).Google Scholar
  14. Leslie Fiedler makes connections between The Virginian and what he calls its “English prototype,” Ivanhoe, and both to the Southern literary tradition. With its “Ivanhoe in chaps,” The Virginian exemplifies what Fiedler refers to as the “southernized Western” (138). The fascination with medievalism was not limited to the South during this period. See T.J. Jackson Lears’s discussion in No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 141–181. As Lears points out, medievalism and the wilderness cult represented two related strategies embraced by late-nineteenth-century intellectuals, who sought to resist what they felt to be the repressive, debilitating impact of late-nineteenth-century producer-oriented industrial culture.Google Scholar
  15. 64.
    Interestingly, Molly’s reservations about lynch justice were shared by many easterners. In fact, La Shelle had originally developed an Act III for the play in which no lynching scene appeared. He was convinced that eastern audiences would find such a scene to be in very poor taste. Indeed, just a few years earlier, Edward Dithmar’s response, “At the Play and with the Players,” New York Times, Dec. 31, 1899, 11–16, to the offstage lynching scene of Fitch’s The Cowboy and the Lady would seem to justify La Shelle’s concerns. After La Shelle’s bout with appendicitis temporarily forced him to withdraw from rehearsals, Wister, sensing that the production of The Virginian was in need of a dramatic boost, introduced a lynching scene. Audiences seemed to approve and La Shelle agreed to let the scene remain. The lynching scene, which begins Act III, is spare in style and is discrete in how it actually represents the death of the two rustlers who are hanged; it is perhaps the most effective scene in the play. In this regard, see Payne, 213–24.Google Scholar
  16. 65.
    The historical events on which the play’s conflict between ranchers and rustlers is based were actually more complex than one would guess from the presentation here. The conflict was less a struggle of law-abiding ranchers against rustlers than one between big ranchers and little ranchers. Richard Slotkin lays out this background in his discussion of Wister’s novel in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 169–183.Google Scholar
  17. 66.
    Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Frontier in American History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986), 4. 67. See Vorpahl, 35–36, and Cobbs, 15–17.Google Scholar
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    Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902; New York: Airmont, 1964), 11.Google Scholar
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    Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, Vol. Ill: (1860–1920), The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America (New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1930), 192. For further discussion on Parrington and the shift toward American dramatic realism, see Chapter 2.Google Scholar
  20. 70.
    Jane Tompkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 144. As a means of exploring Wister’s relation to the larger cultural community, Tompkins gives attention in this book’s chapter on Wister to his relationship with his mother, a very powerful figure in his life.Google Scholar

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© Richard Wattenberg 2011

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  • Richard Wattenberg

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