Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

Open-air performances, combining music and drama and spectacle, which have come to be known as pageants, are of recent and rapidly growing popularity in the United States. To be sure, for a long time past, springtide dances and masques and processions, with a setting of campus greenery and college halls, have been annual features of college life, especially in the women’s colleges such as Vassar and Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. And in recent years, too, the open-air rendering of Greek and Shakespearean drama, familiarized by such troupes as the Ben Greet and Coburn players, has been seized upon by the colleges as at once educational and beautiful; so that now several of our universities possess their outdoor theaters. But the pageant proper, while it has undoubtedly been prepared for and in a way introduced by the colleges, nevertheless has a character and source of its own.

The real source of the pageant and the real cause of its popularity is the nation-wide dawning of our sense of history and national individuality. No doubt the colleges have shown us the way. No doubt, too, the discovery of God’s outdoors, of which the screened porch, the automobile picnic, and the boy scout are so many parallel symptoms, has given an added tug in the direction which the campus spectacle indicated. But under and beyond these lies the fact of an inner discovery, an inner appetite–the discovery that as a people we have an interesting history and that it is one containing incidents that may be made to minister to that hunger for idealization which is the noblest desire of mankind.

Hence it is that all over the country during the past few years the historical and symbolical pageant has appeared to commemorate the past and intimate the future of locality and city and state, creating at once a new poetry and a new patriotism not merely for the youth in college, but for the whole community. The American pageant of today is an expression of the life and the ideals of the people as a whole, each center, in utilizing its own nearer and dearer traditions, contributing its local share to what is fast becoming a deeper and truer national sense than ever we have had before–deeper and truer because more consciously and thoughtfully ideal.

The fact that a pageant is the work of a whole community is perhaps as important as the fact that it is a creative work. To be successfully produced it calls for administrative and executive abilities as well as for musical, literary, dramatic and other artistic powers. It demands the cooperation not merely of the committee members but of many whose names are not printed on the bills, people who contribute ideas, reminiscences, properties in the shape of old-time garbs, and indeed that atmosphere of interest without which the thing is impossible. Money is required, and accommodating merchants are put to unprofitable pains to secure just the goods needed for this color effect or that appurtenance. By the time the whole work is complete a multitude have had a share in it.

No doubt the size of the community interested somewhat affects the generality of the feeling of participation. Such gigantic affairs as the St. Louis pageant or that given by the city of Newark involve a large financial outlay and a more or less professional character in the preparation. Indeed, the business of the “pageant director” has already sprung into existence, while professional poets are engaged to compose for such occasions. At the other extreme is such a performance as the Fourth of July historical pageant where the only bill turned in to the Bertrand Social Center club, which had the spectacle in charge, was for grease-paint for make-up. The pride of such small places is a notable factor in pageant success, which reciprocally increases the pride. Where the pageant does succeed in the community sense, there is surely a richer reward than any possible financial gain. For the art of pageantry is in every sense a popular art. A pageant that is produced by a community not only presents a pleasing aesthetic spectacle, for the enjoyment of all, but it educates the native talent of the place, in the use of color and language, in dramatic acting, in beautiful dancing, in musicianship. It makes education in art significant to the people by promising an opportunity for the display and exercise of every natural gift, and by creating confidence in the community’s power to entertain itself. It has long been our national custom, from New York City to Quimby’s Comers, to receive our theatrical and musical entertainments with a stamp of foreign manufacture and European approval. The American pageant promises not only to develop a native art, but at the same time a native and independent sense of what is good and bad in art.

Calling for so many and such complex talents and appealing not to a private purse but to a public interest, the pageant is not produced simply and easily. It demands a great deal of gratis interest and free work from a great number of persons. A committee must be organized, first of all to insure the finances, which are always precarious and sometimes at the mercy of so uncertain a matter as the weather (for the pageant having few performances runs risks not to be met by entertainments that take the road). Then there must be another committee to supervise the staging–building the scene, training the performers, etc., all requiring abilities of a very special order. The advertising must be looked after, and, as it has become the very appropriate custom to advertise primarily by means of an artistic poster, an artist able to create this must be found. Artistic taste is called for, also, in inventing the figures of the dances and the stage pictures, of which a special phase is the costuming. Last of mention, though its work falls earliest, is the subcommittee having in charge the book and music; it is their task to work out a controlling idea for the piece and give it a suitable text and accompaniment.

The subject or theme of a pageant is commonly and naturally connected with local history. Hardly a community in the United States, large or small, but possesses plenty of material in the way of past events interesting enough and significant enough to form many such themes. Of course the older communities have the richer and more varied past, and it is quite natural that the first and most enthusiastic pageant givers have been the towns of New England with their (for America) old traditions and those of California with their picturesque histories. But human life is a rich mine of dramatic materials, wherever it is lived, and even the young towns of Nebraska have much in their pasts that only needs to be properly expressed to be found full of meaning and inspiration.

For strictly historical events the most interesting form of presentation is the dramatic. Outdoor drama is more difficult to “carry across” than indoor stage performances, for the reason that the illusion of the footlights, stagecraft, cannot be so complete, and for the added reason that the audience will be farther from the actors and less able to follow closely their expression. Pageant drama, accordingly must depend as much as possible upon the grouping and action and as little as may be upon the text. On the other hand, it is greatly helped by the familiarity which the audience may be supposed to possess with the theme treated–just the familiarity which in ancient days made Greek drama possible to outdoor audiences of many thousands.

But in addition to the dramatic scenes allegory is used. Even historical materials are occasionally susceptible of allegorical treatment, or invite that exclusively, but usually the allegorical scenes are symbolical in character. The hopes and aspirations of the community can very properly be represented in this fashion–such themes as the mingling of races, the search for human progress, the dependence of man’s life upon agriculture, all these and many more may be made beautiful by poetry and music, dance and pantomime. And thus it is that allegory forms the very appropriate beginning and end, interlude, too, if desired, for an historical piece.

Everywhere in the country Indian themes have been employed in the pageants presented. Partly, no doubt, this is due to the picturesqueness of the Indian. Partly it is due to the fact that the history of each community harks back to its Indian days. Partly it is just the expression and badge of the instinctive Americanism that inspires the pageant movement; the art of the pageant is an art of America and it demands the Indian as a sign of its authenticity.

But there is a deeper and finer reason which is sure sooner or later to come to the surface why the Indian subject is especially appropriate for pageantry. To begin with the Indian is a human being like the white man; strip off his beads and feathers and get into his thought and it will be found that he thinks and feels, not perhaps as does the white man in his workaday apparel, but as does the white man stripped of weights and measures, his business appointments, and his coins. Human nature has a common fund at the bottom, which all men share, and the big part of this common fund is a love of the poetry of that other and greater nature into which man’s life is made to fit. Somehow the Indian seems to see this world nature–here in America at least, perhaps because it was so long exclusively his America–in a more clear-eyed fashion than his civilized brother; and so it is that his myths and legends abound with the simple and universal truths that appeal to all men. Coupled with the picturesqueness of the Indian, this quality of poetic truth in his thought and imaginings make of his tribal lore an unfailing fount of poetic allegory.

As I have intimated, the growth of the pageant is a phase of that more universal discovery of outdoor nature, which is soon to redeem Americans from the epithet, never quite deserved, of “dollar worshipers.” The pageant is capable of being made one of the great attractions of the social life of the people, and if it be conceived sincerely and nobly it can easily become a most precious part of that social life. If we love beauty in our surroundings, as all do, why should we not use every available means of making life beautiful? Surely, the pageant is such a means, and it is worth remembering that the sense of beauty grows with cultivation, that just in so far as we create beautiful things we increase our powers of appreciating beauty. The great advantage of a community art is that it educates all while it gratifies all.

The outdoor theater, as everyone knows, is Greek in origin. Not everyone is aware that the Greek theater and drama, and thence our modem theater and opera, grew directly out of a type of performance identical in its elements with the modern American pageant. Greek drama sprung up in a generation from a primitive yearly celebration of the legends of heroic days and allegories of the gods. Like our pageants, these were outdoor performances. There were choruses that sang and danced; there were rhapsodes that recited and actors that acted the deeds of old. A little later great artists like Aeschylus and Sophocles seized upon these materials and produced Greek tragedy. Aeschylus added a second actor to the leader of the primitive chorus, says Aristotle, and he introduced scene-painting; Sophocles increased the number of actors to three, and made the performance more dramatic and less choric. It was only after these men that permanent stone theaters were built–built because they had created a drama demanding a permanent stage, and a literature which has been the model and inspiration of Europe ever since.

If ever America is to find that native art which has been so long hoped for and so disappointingly delayed, it will come, I believe, through some such source as the pageant. The pageant is democratic, like the spirit of our institutions; it is kept close to the interests and feelings of all citizens, while it represents those interests and feelings which are least selfish and most ideal; it endeavors to symbolize and so make vivid the spirit of our communities as wholes; and in reclaiming the traditions of the past it is gradually bringing, as it were, to the surface of our aesthetic consciousness those historical materials and ideal themes which must one day form the substance of a national art.