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

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To date, David Glassberg’s American Pageantry (1990) is the only published work to offer a substantive discussion of The Pageant and Masque of St. Louis.[6] Though he notes the Masque’s significance as a work of theatre, he is mainly interested in how it reflects Progressive Era conceptions of public history. As such, he steers clear of performance-based analytical approaches. By contrast, I offer here a close analysis of the Masque as a multi-layered performance that sought to shape St. Louisans’ conceptions of collectivity through embodied practices of dance, gesture, and pantomime, as well as the embodying practices of casting and puppetry. In what follows, I discuss how MacKaye’s Masque performed processes of civilization and Americanization that were designed to influence the newly expanded white population of the city. I draw on archival materials, MacKaye’s published works, contemporary secondary sources, and the text of the Masque to demonstrate how its three distinct choreographic modes sustained these processes. Its first and second modes of “playing Indian”—the ritualized and the savage—demonstrated for audiences the difference between rational forms of collective self-organization and wild expressions of collective fervor. The third mode, “Playing Pioneer,” gave shape to an ideal civic body that was consistent with the political and economic vision of city officials.

The Pageant and Masque of St. Louis and its audience, courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.

Reaching its peak of influence in 1914, the American Pageantry movement, as it was called by its supporters, sought to achieve the complete transformation of society through the nationwide production of large-scale pageants: vast open-air historical dramas in which hundreds or thousands of local amateur performers participated.[7] Pageants could be fitted to almost any purpose, though they were nearly always associated with Progressive Era causes and themes. Whereas some reformers saw pageants as civic rituals that would, in time, give shape to a genuine democratic social order, others saw them as an efficient means of achieving immediate political reforms and modernization schemes. Given the wide range of aesthetic and social ideals to which pageants aspired, and the variety of communities that created them, it is not surprising that current scholarship concerned with the American Pageantry movement is similarly varied, tending to ground itself in matters specific to locality and history, and to organize itself around discrete social problems.[8]

For MacKaye, pageantry was an antidote to the problem of commercialized leisure and its effect on the white urban working classes. In The Civic Theatre in Relation to the Redemption of Leisure (1911), MacKaye’s sweeping proposal to reform theatre in the United States, he writes that “The use of a nation’s leisure is the test of its civilization. How then does [this gigantic producer America] organize his night leisure? Into what hands of public trust does he commit this most precious engine of national influence? Ignored by the indifference of public spirit, [it] has been left to be organized by private speculation—the amusement business.”[9] For MacKaye, only the symbolist theatre’s refusal to reproduce reality, its utopian insistence on transformation, and its emphasis on universality were powerful enough to redirect the gaze of spectators past motion-pictures, vaudeville, and burlesque shows, and towards a “nobler theatre” existing “not primarily for the boards” but “in the mind of man.”[10] It is on that imaginary stage, MacKaye believed, that human beings may play their proper roles and begin to envision better forms of social organization.

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