From Melodrama to Realism: William Vaughn Moody’s The Great Divide and Rachel Crothers’s The Three of Us

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


The appeal of plays dealing with frontier western materials for first-class New York theater audiences an appeal that was evidenced in the 1905–1906 theater season by the outstanding successes of Royle’s The Squaw Man and Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West continued into the 1906–1907 season. Burns Mantle and Garrison Sherwood list more than one hundred productions for the 1906–1907 season, and of these, four of the seven longest-running productions dealt with the frontier West. The four include: William Vaughn Moody’s The Great Divide, which opened at the Princess Theatre on October 3, 1906, and ran for 238 performances; Rachel Crothers’s The Three of Us, which opened at the Madison Square Theatre on October 17, 1906, and had a run of 227 performances; David Belasco and Richard Walton Tully’s The Rose of the Rancho, another of Belasco’s spectacularly mounted productions, which opened at the Belasco Theatre on November 27, 1906, and ran for 240 performances; and Pioneer Days, “a spectacular drama in three scenes by Carroll Fleming,” which opened at the New York Hippodrome on November 28, 1906, for a run of 288 performances.1 The Rose of the Rancho was not meant to be as broad a spectacle as Pioneer Days, but Belasco’s play abounded in the theatrical wizardry that made him such a success at the turn of the century.


Mining Camp Stage Direction Western Individualism Rugged Individualism York Public Library 
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. 1.
    Burns Mantle and Garrison P. Sherwood, The Best Plays of 1899–1909 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1947), 527. Performance numbers are drawn from Mantle, 515–40.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Arthur Hobson Quinn, A History of the American Drama: From the Civil War to the Present Day, vol. II (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1936), 4.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Richard Moody, introduction to The Great Divide, in Dramas from the American Theatre: 1762–1909 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 727.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Maurice F. Brown, Estranging Dawn: The Life and Works of William Vaughn Moody (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973), 245–46.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Lois C. Gottlieb, Rachel Crothers (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 24.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    This Moody-Garland trip received different accounts from the two authors. Garland claimed to cut it short due to Moody’s suffering lumbago [see Garland, Companions on the Trail: A Literary Chronicle (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 92].Google Scholar
  7. On the other hand, Moody wrote in an undated letter from around August 19, 1901, to his future wife, Harriet Brainerd, that the trip was curtailed because of a horse-riding accident in which Garland hurt a foot [William Vaughn Moody, Letters to Harriet, ed. Percy Mackaye (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), 78–79].Google Scholar
  8. It is also interesting to note that there are striking parallels between Garland’s Far West novel, Hesper (New York: Harper, 1903), and Moody’s The Great Divide. Both deal with the relationship of a western cowboy turned miner and an eastern woman who has accompanied her brother to the West. While Garland’s novel is set in the Colorado Rockies and Moody’s play in Arizona, both trace the impact of the two characters on each other. The eastern heroine is liberated by western freedom, and the western hero is “civilized” by the exponent of eastern culture. Both tales end with the promise of a happy marriage between the representatives of East and West.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Quoted in Richard Moody, 722. Moody completed only one act of the third play in the trilogy, The Death of Eve (1907).Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Jerry Pickering, “William Vaughn Moody: The Dramatist as Social Philosopher,” Modern Drama 14.1 (1971), 98–99, writes: “If one accepts the social milieu in which Moody lived as one undergoing a major historical crisis, torn between the static values of a culturally mature East and a raw and expanding West, then the significance of Turner and his interpretation of the frontier in American history becomes of vital interest when filtered through Moody’s dramas… [In The Great Divide] we encounter once again Moody’s prevalent theme of ‘moral unity,’ with Ruth and Stephen dependent on each other if happiness is to be achieved. Furthermore, the image of the West is also revealed in the reconciliation between Stephen and Ruth, who each in their own way, symbolize the promise that the West represents to the American experience. This promise revealed by Moody is the same promise made by both [William] James and Turner…”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 16.
    Even where Turner treated the European/Indian frontier interaction, he always seemed to subsume Indians under the category environment. See Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Frontier in American History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986), 1–38; see chapter 1, note 57.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    William Vaughn Moody, The Great Divide, in Moody, Dramas from the American Theatre: 1762–1909, 730. Further references to this script will appear parenthetically in the text. This version of the play is drawn from William Vaughn Moody, Poems and Plays, vol. II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906).Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    In regard to Ruth’s romantic sentimentality at the start of the play, see James John Koldenhoven’s unpublished dissertation, “A Structuralist Approach to the Realistic Drama of William Vaughn Moody,” diss., University of Minnesota, 1986, 129–32.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Turner’s analysis of the interaction of eastern civilization and western savagery might have its prototype in the captivity tales that can be traced back to the seventeenth century. In this regard, Moody’s The Great Divide might be interpreted as a late version of a captivity tale. I offer a detailed analysis of Moody’s play in terms of the captivity tale structure in “Reworking the Frontier Captivity Narrative: William Vaughn Moody’s The Great DivideAmerican Drama 9.2 (2000), 1–28.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    See Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 99–124.Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    Martin Halpern, William Vaughn Moody (New Haven, CT: College and University Press, 1964), 124.Google Scholar
  17. 29.
    See the Parrington discussion in chapter 2. For the Parrington reference, see Vernon Lewis 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, 1980), 192.Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Thomas Postlewait in his essay “From Melodrama to Realism: The Suspect History of American Drama,” in Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, ed. Michael Hays and Anastasia Nikolopoulou (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 39–60, pointed out that late-nineteenth-century advocates of realism used a similar kind of blending of “evolutionary” scientific thinking and romantic idealism in making their case for a new drama. On the one hand, they argued that realism was a more sophisticated form than melodrama, and thus embracing it meant accepting an evolution from simple to complex. On the other hand, they argued for a simple, true, more natural American drama in the vein of Davy Crockett, Rip Van Winkle, and My Partner that would free the American theater from “melodrama… identified with an overly complex and decadent European culture” (51).Google Scholar
  19. 35.
    Alfred L. Bernheim, The Business of the Theatre: An Economic History of the American Theatre, 1750–1932 (1932; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1964), 31–33.Google Scholar
  20. 37.
    See, Bernheim, 64–75; and Jack Poggi, Theater in America: The Impact of Economic Forces, 1870–1967 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), 15–26.Google Scholar
  21. 42.
    Judith E. Barlow, introduction, Plays by American Women: 1900–1930, ed. Judith E. Barlow (New York: Applause, 1985), xiv.Google Scholar
  22. 43.
    In this regard, see Gottlieb, 146–51; Barlow, xiv-xviii; Yvonne B. Shafer, “The Liberated Woman in American Plays of the Past,” Players 49.3–4 (1974), 95–97.Google Scholar
  23. Doris Abramson, “Rachel Crothers: Broadway Feminist,” in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, ed. June Schlueter (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990), 55–65.Google Scholar
  24. Brenda Murphy, “Feminism and the Marketplace: The Career of Rachel Crothers,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, ed. Brenda Murphy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 82–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Also interesting here is Eleanor Flexner’s late 1930s evaluation of Crothers’s plays. Flexner praised the promise of the playwright’s early plays—a promise Flexner believed Crothers had failed to live up to in her later plays. Flexner believed that Crothers, like most other American playwrights of the early twentieth century, was never able to integrate a critique of the larger social context into her dramatic action. See Eleanor Flexner, American Playwrights: 1918–1938 (New York: Simon, 1938), 239–48.Google Scholar
  26. 48.
    Rachel Crothers, The Three of Us: A Play in Four Acts (New York: Samuel French, 1916), 54–55. All further references to the play will be from this version and cited parenthetically in the text. This version is described as a revision of the play, but scenic and lighting information as well as the included cast list would seem to refer to the 1906 production. In the Billy Rose Theatre Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, there is a typescript version of the play dated 1906. This latter version has the same scenic directions and appended prop list and light information as in the 1916 Samuel French version. Generally the action and dialogue are identical. There are a few phrases added to the 1916 version that do not appear in the 1906 version. More significant is the fact that the Act I and Act IV scenes between Rhy and Steve and the Act II, III, and IV scenes between Rhy and Berresford are much tighter in the later version. It would seem that the revisions were meant to eliminate redundant passages in the above-noted scenes—sharpening but not changing the actions represented. A third version of the play can be found in the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University Thompson Library. This typescript version of the play originally came from the Grand Opera House in Canton, Ohio, and is dated 1906 (though that date may have been appended after the fact—that is, when this version was catalogued). This version has much of the material of the 1906 Lincoln Center version that was cut in the 1916 Samuel French version, but other details and word choices are more similar to the 1916 version.Google Scholar
  27. 52.
    Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 45.Google Scholar
  28. 61.
    For instance, see Parrington, 192. Certainly, in developing their approach to realism, neither Moody nor Crothers were as self-consciously scientific in their approaches as was the French theorist of naturalism and author Emile Zola. In regard to Zola’s naturalism, see Emile Zola, The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, trans. Belle M. Sherman (New York: Haskell House, 1964).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard Wattenberg 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Wattenberg

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations