Spectators, Actors and the American Dramatic Text
Edited By Barbara Ozieblo and María Dolores Narbona-Carrión
Making Middlebrow Theater in America 21
Making Middlebrow Theater in America David SAVRAN City University of New York Historians of American culture routinely consider the 1920s a golden age of the commercial theater. Although they may debate the quality of the ore, they cannot ignore its prodigious quantity. For theater flourished as never before during its long history in the United States. Broadway was the vibrant center of theatrical activities, a “paradise for play- wrights,” in Brenda Murphy’s words (Murphy 289). On the average, more than 200 new productions opened each year on the Great White Way, peaking with 264 during the 1927-28 season. That same year, there were seventy-six theaters in New York City used for so-called legitimate productions, twice as many as had been available only twelve years before (Poggi 47-8). Eugene O’Neill was hailed the inheritor of the mantle of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Ibsen, and Shaw, while dramas like What Price Glory, Show Boat, and Street Scene became certified Broadway hits (Eaton, “The Strangling of Our Theatre” 48). New York’s prosperity could not, however, disguise the fact that commercial theater was in trouble. For the proliferation of offerings was in part the result of increasingly short runs. Moreover, the road had declined pre- cipitously. The number of theatrical companies on tour had dropped from over 300 at the beginning of the twentieth century to a yearly average of about sixty for most of the 1920s (Poggi 30). As one pro- ducer explained, “the motor [automobile], the movie, the radio, and managerial stupidity have all...
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