The Collected Plays of Theodore Dreiser

Edited by Keith Newlin and Frederic E. Rusch

from Appendix III: Productions of Dreiser's Plays

III. Conclusion

The foregoing stage history of Dreiserís plays suggests that, for a while at least, Dreiserís work seemed dramatically compelling to those dedicated to experimental theater. The Girl in the Coffin in particular appealed to those troupes interested in overcoming the artificiality of commercial productions. What most attracted theaters to this play was its evocation of pathos, its realistic characterization, and especially its employment of naturalistic detail in its staging. As one reviewer marveled, "the [Detroit] Arts and Crafts Theatre dallied with disaster . . . in using an honest-to-goodness coffin as one of the Ďpropsí in Theodore Dreiserís play, ĎThe Girl in the Coffin.í. . . [T]he very fact that it was a necessary part of the staging has caused producers of one-act plays to fight shy of this particularly keen and good little drama."64                          

At the same time, the difficulties in securing a production of The Hand of the Potter testify to the resistance of the theater-going public to controversial subjects enacted on the stage. Reviewers tended to fall into two camps: those who condemned the play because they were troubled by its frank portrayal of sexual deviance that did not accord with their sense of stage propriety; and those who welcomed the play as an attempt to enact a new vision of tragic drama. As Ludwig Lewisohn, reviewing the production for The Nation, explained, Dreiser

substitutes the concept of tragic guilt for that of sin; he sees that guilt arises out of the life-process itself and selects its guilty but sinless victim . . . . He alienates the ordinary spectator by repudiating the notions of sin and expiation through punishment. It is Isadore Berchanskyís undeserved punishment that he is what he is. The tragic guilt that he must bear issues from implacable and anterior sources. Why should we strike at him because the hand of the potter slipped?

Reviewers condemned the play, Lewisohn concluded, because Dreiserís conception of tragedy "invalidates their absolute moral judgments; it cracks the foundations of their punitive justice; it shows up the blank folly of hate, war, revenge."65

It is not Dreiserís realistic plays, however, but his supernatural plays that have had the most influence on subsequent playwrights. Elmer Rice attributes Plays of the Natural and Supernatural as one of the influences upon The Adding Machine.66 And Thornton Wilder was reportedly influenced by Dreiserís expressionistic depiction of synchronous movement. Richard Goldstone, who knew Wilder well, suggests that The Blue Sphere in particular provided Wilder with a method for depicting "scenes of continuous and even simultaneous action" that Wilder would employ so masterfully in Our Town. Moreover, Wilder was absorbed by two themes expressed in The Spring Recital and Laughing Gas and developed them fully in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth: "the ecstasy of being alive, as seen through the eyes of those who no longer have life, and the repetitive, cyclical history of mankind."67 Though now largely forgotten by students of American literature and theater, Dreiserís campaign to introduce his work to the theater did affect others, who built upon the path he helped to blaze.


from The Collected Plays of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Keith Newlin and Frederic E. Rusch (Albany: Whitston, 2000)