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The Epic of the World Finder

ISSUE:  Spring 1928
Epoch, The Life of Steele MacKaye. By Percy MacKaye. New York: Boni & Liveright. 2 vols. $10.00.

It is well that those who walk on level ground should now and then read accounts of mountain climbers, that those who live in towns should follow the Odysseys of World Finders. From such records no conclusion comes more clearly than that genius must have its way. Against the will of genius neither external obstacles, nor the softer domestic promptings, nor the weaknesses of the mortal part can avail.

Percy MacKaye’s story of the life of his father, Steele MacKaye, is the story of a man who is even now. a third of a century after his premature death, getting his will. It will be a long time before the life purposes of Steele MacKaye are complete. And just in the measure that his generated energy persists to this day diffused over the country in countless theatres and in a new philosophy of dramatic art, did Steele MacKaye pay the price in the tortures and ecstasy of his own spirit. It is a great and moving and terrifying story that the son tells. It is great in the masses of fact that the author provides. Strangely enough it is about our own near hinterlands that we are prone to generalize. We leave these to the flip and facile pens of the younger generation with whom catch phrases cover the absence of information and youthful prejudice is substituted for reasoned conviction. But here we have the facts about the yesterdays of the theater that will provide research material for students for years to come.

Great as it is as a compendium of facts this book is even greater in what it implies. Steele MacKaye was the only superman of the theater produced by America up to our times. Whether any has been produced since is yet to be seen. Perhaps Steele MacKaye’s place will be even more clearly distinguished if it is said that, place him beside the supermen of the theater of the past and he will still stand out in his own right by virtue of a conception of the theater all his own. Considering the magnitude of his ideas it is his glory that he failed, that he was never tempted to elude failure by any of the crafts and wiles that lay near to his hand. No sooner was he dead but the theater began to find its way to his levels and to his principles. Take a measure of him to-day and he is a glorious success. There is not an artist of the theater living who does not owe him tribute.

Steele MacKaye was so universal in his enthusiasms that it is difficult to say what he was “first of all.” But as it is easiest to grasp a man on the side that he turns most to the world let us consider him first as a man of the theater. A man of the theater in the old-fashioned sense he never was. He was a master technician. He knew all the tricks of the stage of the Eighties. Lie could himself invent new tricks to confound the trickiest. But he was more than a stage technician. He was an artist inventor, a creator of mediums of artistic expression, a prophet of a new substance and principle in dramatic art. While the theater was a jingle of second-hand sentiments before a flimsy facade Steele MacKaye was dreaming of an art that should be compounded of all the factors of life, aspiring to an absolute beauty instead of the sensationalism of the moment. And he set himself on the way to the goal. Alert to the wonders of invention of his time he followed Edison and Morse but half a step behind, adapting their inventions to the uses of the imagination. As his hand grasped new instruments of expression his imagination soared aloft creating wider plots, constructing ever greater amphitheaters.

It was a life of stupendous effort, crowding into fifty-two short years the creative energies of a millennium and covering efforts in the public eye in two continents. MacKaye tried his hand, not without distinction, in half a dozen arts; he was a mechanical genius; he played Hamlet in England; was associate and collaborator of the most distinguished literary men of England and America; introduced and interpreted Delsarte to America; built three theaters; wrote a score of plays; played a score of parts; and ended his life by making a supreme contribution of vision to America’s four hundredth birthday. What the spirit of the Chicago World’s Fair owes to Steele MacKaye through the illuminating influence exerted on the Commissioners by his imagination and idealism can never be known. But it must have been much.

For such a man the world was not ready. The people accepted him gladly. His followers and disciples could be mentioned by hundreds. But the tragic fact is that during his lifetime the profession of the theater was not ready for him. It was not equal to his demands. So when he came to his majestic syntheses Steele MacKaye had to work alone. And the struggle killed him. But though they were not ready to collaborate with him in his great compositions there were plenty who were ready to steal the products of his brains and adapt his inventions to their own uses. The ruins left by a MacKaye in failure provided the materials for a score of fortunes and a score of reputations.

No review of the life of Steele MacKaye is just that considers him only as a man of the theater. Or if we are to consider him so we must enlarge the meaning of the term. To Steele MacKaye the theater was coextensive with, identical with, man’s common life in the universe. To find the laws of the theater he plumbed all experience. His mind was at the same time philosophic and creative in tendency. In this fact we find, aside from the fact that he was far ahead of his times, the chief reason for his failure as an artist. For between philosophy and art there is a fundamental quarrel. Their dispositions do not agree; they cannot live in the same house. Art accepts measure; it subjects itself to limits, arbitrary if need be. But philosophy knows no stint. Where the clean line of the artist’s “enough” is set the philosopher always goes on. And MacKaye always went on, spilling himself, his expression, his discretion over into the overplus. His art lacked the check of a healthy disgust.

Now for the Book. I consider the book “Epoch” to be a phenomenon only less important than the life it treats. The work was undertaken as a sacred tribute. If I had my wish there would be a little less of the quality of sacred-ness, a little less of the tribute in it. But here again the great man will have his way, and Steele MacKaye handed on more than a little of his forthright qualities to his sons.

It has been held that a modern epic is impossible. Nevertheless Percy MacKaye has drafted a modern prose epic in “Epoch.” For in this work neither the life of the hero, Steele MacKaye, nor the crowded secondary lives that make up the human plot, nor the spirit of the age, the superhuman intrusions of circumstance that brood now malevolent, now benevolent over the aspirations and struggles of men, constitute the real substance. The real substance of the book is identical with the great substance of organic life with which the father wrought and in which his lesser part was submerged. Call this substance what you will, an abstraction, a sentimental concept, the figment of a dramatist’s imagination, or an utopian aspiration, there is still one figure that represents the sum and substance of our time. This figure is The World Finder, hero of Steele MacKaye’s life-long vision and of his son’s book.


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