Current Issue, Vol. 31 No.3

Choreographies of the Great Departure: Building Civic Bodies in the 1914 Masque of St. Louis

by Shilarna Stokes
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 3 (Spring 2019)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Over the course of five evenings in May 1914, more than eight thousand St. Louisans dressed up as Indians, Pioneers, and a host of allegorical figures—Gold, Poverty, and Imagination among them—to perform two versions of their city’s history before over a half million spectators. Hailed by George Pierce Baker as the crowning achievement of the early twentieth-century pageantry movement in the United States, The Pageant and Masque of St. Louis proved “what this drama of the masses may do for the masses.”[1]

As the most prominent Symbolist dramatist in the U.S., the Masque’s creator, Percy MacKaye, enjoyed a well-established reputation for plays in which “time is a dream” and in which “the real and the ideal, the substance and the show, the actor and the audience, the poet and the figment of the poet’s imagination” are all interchangeable.[2] A friend and advocate of modernist theatre pioneer Edward Gordon Craig, he echoed Craig’s attack on realism in his own writings and advocated instead for the use of emblematic design elements, allegorical plots, and figurative choreographies.[3] In his view, these were essential to what he called “rituals of democracy,” mass masques cultivating “the half-desire of the people not merely to remain receptive to a popular art created by specialists but to take part themselves in creating it.”[4] By enjoining his fellow theatre artists “to illumine and body forth the life of the people in perennial symbols of power and beauty,” MacKaye pointed to a convergence of Symbolist aesthetics and nationalist sentiment that distinguished his unique contributions to the pageant movement in the United States.[5]

The Masque was an elaborate work of verse drama, written in an erudite style and meant to be heard as well as seen. Nonetheless, like other pageants of its time, its narrative and its visual impact depended on the collective movement of large numbers of performers. Mass dances, pantomimes, and gestures allowed Masque performers to communicate its complex story to vast audiences that included spectators hundreds of yards from the stage. In U.S. pageantry, all scenes were, in some sense, crowd scenes. Due to their scale—with hundreds or thousands of citizens performing local histories for hundreds or thousands of their fellow citizens—mass pageants claimed an unambiguous correspondence between the actors and characters onstage, and the spectators in the audience. In doing so they were able to generate performative arguments about civic engagement, citizenship, and democracy on a grand scale, to promote certain kinds of collectivities over others, to incorporate communities seen as vital to the development of the social body, and to exclude communities that were regarded as dangerous to its integrity.

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