American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

DRAMA OF THE SEA. According to the lyrics of Oklahoma! (1945), Americans supposedly know “the land we belong to is grand.” American drama of the sea sometimes matches such buoyant, national optimism, but many playwrights have turned to the sea as a metaphor to express doubts about the American enterprise as drifting, mutinous, or in danger of sinking altogether. Still others have used the endlessly changing seascape to reflect philosophically on human aspiration and folly, on intimacy and drifting apart, on coming-of-age and wrecked lives, on romantic quest and metaphysical query.

Nautical themes had already permeated the eighteenth-century pantomime, to judge from Robinson Crusoe: or, the Genius of Columbia (1790) and Harlequin Shipwreck* (1795). More substantially, the nineteenth- century tradition of American maritime drama, though not so rich as its English counterpart, presents a mirror of aspiration and adventure reflecting the American face as if from the glassy surface of the sea. Although virtually all sea plays written by Americans during the nineteenth century may be mustered under the flag of nautical melodrama, they form a diverse, even motley crew.

A wave of Barbary Coast pirate* plays, inspired by Susannah Rowson’s* phenomenally popular novel Charlotte Temple (1791), which had 160 printings, rose in the 1790s with Rowson’s own dramatization, A Struggle for Freedom (1794). The Barbary Coast continued to fascinate playwrights and audiences through the 1840s with such popular vehicles as Maria H. Pinckney’s The Young Carolinians; or, Americans in Algiers (1818); The Siege of Tripoli (1820) by Mordechai Noah; Jonathan S. Smith’s The Siege of Algiers; or, The Downfall of Hadgi-Ali-Bashaw, a Political, Historical and Sentimental Tragi-Comedy (1823) and Naval Glory, or Decatur’s Triumph (1844). Less long-lived were plays born of American sea battles during the War of 1812, including William Dunlap’s* Yankee Chronology (1812), celebrating the victory of the Constitution over the Guerriere, or The Triumph of Plattsburgh (1830) by Richard Penn Smith, based on Thomas Macdonough’s victory at Plattsburgh Bay in September 1814. As in English nautical melodrama, the stock character of “Jolly Jack Tar” made numerous appearances in American sea plays, among them American Tars in Tripoli (1805); The Constitution, or American Tars Triumphant (1812); The Naval Frolic, or A Tribute to American Tars (1812). These and/or other presentations of Jack Tar* may have distantly influenced Herman Melville* in his creation of the “Handsome Sailor,” Billy Budd.*

Reputable American authors of the nineteenth century occasionally tried a hand at sea drama. James Nelson Barker wrote two sea plays of topical interest: The Embargo; or, What News? (1808) and The Armourer’s Escape, or Three Years at Nootka Sound (1817), the latter based on the adventure of John Jewitt.* James Fenimore Cooper’s* modern editor Kay Seymour House notes that The Pilot* (1824) had been transformed into a “nautical burletta” as early as 1826 by the Englishman Edward Fitzball. By 1828 Cooper’s The Red Rover* (1827) had already been adapted for the stage and performed in Philadelphia by the English actor Samuel Chapman, just a year after its initial publication. Other adaptations of these two novels held the stage until late in the century. Near the end of the century, William Dean Howells’* A Sea Change, or, Love’s Stowaway (1884) reached the stage, albeit unsuccessfully.

Far more commonly, nautical melodrama ruled the canvas seas in America’s nineteenth-century playhouses. Melodramatists celebrated Jean Lafitte* and John Paul Jones* and other sea captains. By midcentury, potboilers featuring the highly popular Laura Keene included such titles as The Sea of Ice; or, A Mother’s Prayer and Young Bacchus; or, Spirits and Water (18571858). As the century wore on, there appeared lighthouse* plays, sea-monster plays, Commodore Matthew Perry* plays, and plays commemorating Christopher Columbus,* including Steele Mackaye’s The World Finder, intended for performance at his ill-fated Spectatorium at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The popularity of nautical melodrama and farce is testified to in the scores of plays written by George Melville Baker (apparently no relation to Herman Melville) for amateur players in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. Such forgettable efforts as Down by the Sea, Messmates, and My Uncle, the Captain (all c. 1868) feature salty old storytellers, damsels saved from drowning, “darky” cabin stewards, sea chanteys, and roaring gales. Toward the end of the century, James Herne* made tentative moves toward naturalism with Hearts of Oak (1879), Drifting Apart: or, Mary, the Fisherman’s Child (1888), Shore Acres (1892), and Sag Harbor (1899). Herne’s plays bespeak a genuine love of the sea, firsthand knowledge of maritime and fishing lore, and a talent for enlivening melodramatic format with vivid local color.

Eugene O’Neill* both built upon and changed all this with the S.S. Glencairn* plays (first presented together in 1924), The Hairy Ape (1922), Anna Christie (1922), and others where the sea figures centrally or crucially as setting and metaphor. One might say that O’Neill was haunted both by the sea and by the melodramatic tradition virtually incarnated in his famous actor father, James. The sea surely freed O’Neill from the worst of the latter’s effects, and he used it as a marvelously varied theme in his work to explore freedom, coming-of-age, courage, despair, loneliness, death, and transcendence.

Many of the finest American dramatists of the twentieth century have waded in after O’Neill, if none so deeply. Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson (The Buccaneer [1925]), Elmer Rice,* Don Marquis (Out of the Sea [1927], a dramatic retelling of the Tristan and Isolde legend), Robert Sherwood (who wrote the book for the unsuccessful Irving Berlin musical Miss Liberty [1949]), Susan Glaspell,* Paul Green,* S. N. Behrman,* Tennessee Williams,* Arthur Miller, Edward Albee,* John Guare, Israel Horovitz, Terence McNally,* Tina Howe,* Steven Dietz, and David Mamet have all written at least one play suffused with the atmosphere of sea and seashore or set aboard a ship or steeped in maritime lore and legend or simply employing the sea as a convenient metaphor and special effect. For some, the Atlantic crossing symbolized the overcoming of class boundaries. For others the seashore is a version of American pastoral—or antipastoral. For still others the sea is both cradle and grave for the dreams of drifters, misfits, adventurers, and antiheroes.

Other high-water marks for twentieth-century nonmusical plays with nautical settings include Paul Osborn’s adaptation of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica (1929; film adaptation, 1965) as The Innocent Voyage (1943), Mister Roberts* (1948), the dramatization of Billy Budd* (1951), The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954; film 1954), and Robert Lowell’s* adaptation of Benito Cereno* (1965, frequently produced in regional theatres thereafter). Lesser lights have frequently followed O’Neill’s misty and moody models, though various maritime locales have spawned different and quasi-generic dramatic situations. Lighthouses invite tragedy born of isolation, eccentricity, and sexual frustration. Freighters are the scene of melodramatic intrigue. Fishing boats produce tales of American enterprise. Ferry boats are often captained by characters given to unfocused dreaming. Yachts breed farce; ocean liners, romance. Seaside dives inspire philosophical speculation and soul-searching; beaches and seashores incite intimacy.

The sheer volume of such efforts, irrespective of their merit as dramatic literature, may be surprising. Samuel Leiter records sixty-eight plays appearing on Broadway between 1920 and 1950 that use seafaring characters or that take place on boats or ships. Long before the enthusiasm for the Titanic* story, ocean liners were the setting for at least a score of American plays. Just as an early performance of the 1997 Broadway musical was canceled because the ship refused to sink, technical mishaps regularly afflicted ocean liner drama.* During the 1897 Broadway season, Harrison Grey Fiske’s The Privateer was doomed to failure when the canvas “water” refused to operate properly, conveying the impression that the hero was floating on a raft rather than swimming furiously to save his friend’s life.

The Broadway and Hollywood phenomenon Titanic is only the latest in a line that includes shore leave musicals,* vaudevilles, or reviews set on shipboard, musicals and operettas featuring pirates and sailors, and seagoing romances. Among these are such excellent examples of the American musical tradition as Hit the Deck! (1927; films 1930, 1955), Anything Goes (1934; films 1936, 1956), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949; films 1928, 1953), South Pacific* (1949; film 1958), and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1961; film 1964). [See also LAKEBOAT; MELVILLE DRAMATIZATIONS; NANTUCKET CYCLE; TEN NOVEMBER]

FURTHER READING: Bordman, Gerald Martin. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford UP, 1992; Bordman, Gerald Martin. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1869-1914. New York: Oxford UP, 1994; Leiter, Samuel L. The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1920-1950. 3 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985-1992; Meserve, Walter J. An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977; Quinn, Arthur Hobson. A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day. Rev. ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1964.

Attilio Favorini