Augustus Thomas 1857-1934
Famous as a leading American playwright during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Thomas was recognized for using native subjects rooted in regional American settings and for transforming the melodrama of action and plot into a drama of character and theme. Nevertheless, because of the changes in the theater created by post-war modernism, his reputation and his fame sharply declined in his later years, and, since his death in 1934, his plays have been all but forgotten.
Thomas was born in Missouri in 1857. His father, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and a founder of the St. Louis Republican Party, occasionally acted, frequently took Augustus to the theater, and introduced him to theater luminaries. Thomas left school at ten to help support his family. He worked as a railroad clerk, as a union representative for railroad workers, as a page—first in the Missouri State Legislature and then in the United States Congress—and as a ticket-taker in a theater box office. He purchased and lost newspapers and theaters, ran a traveling theater company, and was himself an actor, a producer, and the manager of the actress Julia Marlowe, as well as a playwright. His political ideals, as well as his shrewd business sense, brought him to use his plays as vehicles for arousing emotion and shaping consciousness. He was active in trying to create community theaters and a permanent art theater. In 1914 he was awarded a gold medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his contribution to the theater and for improving the craft of American drama. He was awarded honorary degrees by Williams College (1914) and by Columbia College (1921). Thomas was a prominent social figure and was sought to testify about social issues and to host important dinners. President Woodrow Wilson considered offering him an ambassadorship. In 1925 Thomas suffered a stroke, and after losing the bulk of his fortune the next year producing his own Still Waters, a play opposing prohibition, he ceased writing plays and lived the last years of his life in retirement.
Thomas's career can be divided into three major periods. During the 1890s he wrote regional plays such as Alabama, In Mizzoura, and Arizona, in which he grafted onto the standard melodramatic plot and action a drama of character. In the early 1900s, after meeting George Bernard Shaw and J. M. Barrie and living in Paris, he returned to New York and produced a number of successful farces. In his third phase, from 1907 through 1911, Thomas wrote theme plays—witty drawing room situation dramas of ideas like The Witching Hour, but after the failure of his last play, Still Waters, his career never recovered. Thomas never regained his popularity in the theater, though he remained among his peers, in Hamlin Garland's phrase, a “self-cultured new world intellectual aristocrat.”
Critical response to Thomas was always mixed, and popular response was mercurial. His hit play Arizona, which opened in Chicago in 1889, earned a quarter of a million dollars in royalties during its first five years. Colorado (1901) was a commercial flop. Thomas's plays, which at first were regarded as offering fresh approaches to character and plot, were by the end of his career themselves regarded as stereotypical and mechanical. Although his stage work is not well known, the techniques, psychology, themes, and attitudes he developed, and which he expounded in his copious prefaces, helped to fashion the cinematurgy of the movies. Thomas himself wrote three film scenarios and incorporated his film ideas into his 1914 play The Battle Cry, which presented film and live actors together.
The Burglar (drama) 1889
Alabama (drama) 1891
Colonel Carter of Cartersville (drama) 1892
In Mizzoura (drama) 1893
A Proper Impropriety (drama) 1893
New Blood (drama) 1894
The Capitol (drama) 1895
Colonel George of Mount Vernon (drama) 1898
Arizona (drama) 1899
Oliver Goldsmith (drama) 1900
Champagne Charlie (drama) 1901
Colorado (drama) 1901
The Earl of Pawtucket (drama) 1903
Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots (drama) 1905
The Witching Hour (drama) 1907
The Harvest Moon (drama) 1909
The Member from Ozark (drama) 1910
As a Man Thinks (drama) 1911
Mere Man (drama) 1912
The Battle Cry (drama with motion picture projection) 1914
Rio Grande (drama) 1916
The Copperhead (drama) 1918
Nemesis (drama) 1921
The Print of My Remembrance (autobiography) 1922
Still Waters (drama) 1926
William Dean Howells (essay date 1901)
SOURCE: A review of “Arizona,” in The North American Review, Vol. 122, March, 1901, pp. 472-74.
[In the following excerpt, Howells praises Thomas for his skill as a dramatist, and particularly for his ability to construct plot and to render details authentically.]
If Mr. Thomas could have marked more distinctly his own sense of the fallacious sentimentality which actuates the hero of his Arizona, he would have saved me from much the same discomfort I suffered in seeing Mr. Herne's Sag Harbor. But, apparently, he could not find the moment to take that mistaken young man aside and say to him, in the hearing of the audience, “Now, go on if you must, and sacrifice your good name to save from public dishonor a woman who has dishonored herself by consenting to leave her husband for her lover. Be scorned by her husband as a thief; suffer yourself to be forced out of the army; break the hearts of your friends who see in you the disgrace you will not explain; put to cruel and senseless proof the faith of the good girl who loves you; do all this, if you will, because you are a young, romantic ass; but don't expect me to back you. Any one else would see that this woman who has allowed her heart to be turned from her husband because she finds army-post life dull and has no amusement but flirting, is a fool and worse, and not worth saving from the shame she has consented to at the cost of any shame to others; she is spoiled and lost already, for it is not the adultery, but the adulterous heart that counts in these things. Instead of ‘saving’ her, by throwing dust in her husband's eyes—for that is what it comes to—do the straight, honest, manly thing. Tell the truth; say that you have stopped her from eloping, and that you took from her lover the jewels found on you with a purpose of safeguarding them, and so make me a situation worthy of my skill. Don't load me up with another stage hero, when I am looking for a real hero; give me a chance, and I will make your reputation.”
Probably the young man would have denied any such appeal, but Mr. Thomas would at least have washed his hands of him, if he had made the audience understand that he had no sympathy with his self-sacrifice. It seems not so central, so pivotal, so structural (or destructural), somehow, as the...
(The entire section is 972 words.)
Van Wyck Brooks (essay date 1909)
SOURCE: “Augustus Thomas,” in World's Work, Vol. 18, August, 1909, pp. 11882-85.
[In the following excerpt, Brooks interviews Thomas about his method of dramatic composition and about his idea of what makes a play specifically American.]
Augustus Thomas is the most representative American playwright. He is the author of such plays as Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, In Mizzoura; and The Witching Hour, of last year, a new departure from his previous work, and, in fact, from all traditions of the stage. His plays, which now number more than twenty, are so widely known that probably half the people in the United States who have ever seen...
(The entire section is 2072 words.)
William Winter (essay date 1913)
SOURCE: “The Plays of Augustus Thomas,” in The Wallet of Time, Moffat, Yard and Company, 1913, pp. 529-57.
[In the following excerpt, Winter praises some of Thomas's major hits.]
It is the province of criticism to examine, analyze, classify, and expound, with praise for merit and censure for defect, the productions of artists, to maintain and apply the highest standard of taste, beauty, and morality, to advocate that which is right and to denounce that which is wrong. In the pursuit of that difficult and generally thankless vocation the great privilege sometimes comes to the critic of recognizing, honoring, and perhaps contributing to the advancement of genius....
(The entire section is 6805 words.)
Hiram Kelly Moderwell (essay date 1918)
SOURCE: “A Playwright's Manual,” in The New York Times, Vol. LXVII, No. 21897, January 6, 1918.
[In the following excerpt, The New York Times reprints an article from The Boston Evening Transcript in which Moderwell discusses Thomas's essays about his own methods of dramatic composition.]
An unusually clear insight into practical playwriting methods is being afforded embryo dramatists in a series of articles now being written by Augustus Thomas to accompany an edition of his plays which Samuel French is publishing. To date four plays have been published—In Mizzoura, Oliver Goldsmith, Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots, and The Witching...
(The entire section is 2473 words.)
Augustus Thomas (essay date 1918)
SOURCE: “Advice to Actors,” in The New York Times, Vol. XVII, No. 21981, March 31, 1918.
[In the following excerpt of a talk Thomas delivered to acting students, reprinted in The New York Times, the playwright offers advice to actors and an apologia for the theater.]
It seems to me that one of the most helpful things that anyone could do for you would be to fortify or to increase your respect for the profession you are entering. In all times in the existence of mankind, even before there was a record or almost a tradition, the theater has existed, and that is because there is something in man's constitution that makes the theater necessary. It wasn't always...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
Ludwig Lewisohn (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: “According to Sarcey,” in The Drama and The Stage, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, pp. 89-93.
[In the following excerpt, Lewisohn deplores the kind of mechanical construction of which Thomas's plays, he argues, are a typical example.]
It was during the two decades from 1870 to 1890 that Francisque Sarcey, with an amazing vigor and resourcefulness of mind, established the theory of the theatre as a mechanism, a puzzle, and a game. He abstracted his theory from the practice of Scribe and Sardou, stiffened and tightened it beyond the use of his models, and applied it to Sophocles and Shakespeare, Molière and Ibsen. This thing, he declared, was “of the...
(The entire section is 1121 words.)
George Jean Nathan (essay date 1926)
SOURCE: “The Theatre,” in The American Mercury, Vol. 8, May, 1926, pp. 117–20.
[In the following excerpt, Nathan reviews Thomas's plays and finds them contemptible.]
With Still Waters, Mr. Augustus Thomas has now at length been officially lowered into the grave in which, apparently unbeknownst to the majority of writers on the American theatre, he has been peacefully resting for the last twenty-five years. In other words, it has taken American dramatic criticism just one-quarter of a century to arrive at the conclusion that Mr. Thomas, the so-called dean of our dramatists, is what he always has been: a playwright utterly without any authentic talent save...
(The entire section is 1981 words.)
Hamlin Garland (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: “Augustus Thomas,” in Commemorative Tributes of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1905-1941, Books for Libraries Press, 1942, pp. 317-19.
[In the following excerpt, Garland pays tribute to his deceased friend.]
Augustus Thomas was born in 1857 of a fine St. Louis family of moderate means, and early became a bread-winner for the family. As a page in the state legislature of Missouri and later in the House of Representatives at Washington he earned ninety dollars per month, all of which went to help out the folks back home. Passing from this to newspaper work, he had small opportunity for an academic education. He got his learning as he went along the...
(The entire section is 865 words.)