Bronson Howard Essay - Critical Essays


Bronson Howard came into the theater at an opportune time—a time when American rather than English actors and managers were beginning to control American theaters and were looking for American playwrights. As a writer-journalist rather than an actor or manager, Howard tried new approaches in order to learn about the theater. His subsequent comments reveal that literary dramatists and elitist critics tried his patience. This was a transition period—Howard’s life in the theater—and when it was over, the writing of drama in the United States had undergone a change. Clyde Fitch was making a fortune in New York and elsewhere; Langdon Mitchell and William Vaughn Moody were successful playwrights, while Rachel Crothers and Edward Sheldon were about to appear on the scene. During that transitional period, other dramatists added to the development of an American drama, but no one matched Howard’s accomplishments in social melodrama, dramatic theory, and service to American playwrights.

Howard’s career as a dramatist developed during that period in American drama when playwrights were turning from dramatizing farcical representations of a stereotyped society, portrayed only in the most obvious ways, to a social comedy in which manners might be clearly distinguished. Earlier, the American theater had been dominated by spectacles and amusements created either by a star actor or actress or by the ingenuity of a theater manager and his stage carpenter. The Civil War cast a shadow over the American theater, but amid the struggle of social reconstruction, the dramatic arts bounced back with astonishing vigor, strengthened by the nationalism of Andrew Jackson’s years, stimulated by the social and intellectual revolutions sparked by Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, and tempered by the sorrows of war. By the time Howard stopped writing, the United States had changed, both forcibly and by choice. American society, challenged by the strains on it, developed its own unique and distinctive character, and the United States was recognized as a nation among nations.

To match these changes, American dramatists needed to create a drama that could both amuse and stimulate the emotions and thoughts of the human mind. Howard was a major factor in the development of this American drama—as it grew from amusement to art.

Although Howard collaborated on at least three plays—Baron Rudolph with David Belasco, Knave and Queen with Sir Charles L. Young, and Peter Stuyvesant with Brander Matthews—and adapted Molière’s L’École des maris (pr., pb. 1661, verse play; The School for Husbands, 1732) and L’École des femmes (pr. 1662, verse play; The School for Wives, 1732) as Wives, he is remembered primarily for the originality of his plots and for his sensitivity and insight into American society. Although he was limited by the conventions and requirements of the theater of his time, he was deeply interested in dramatic theory and was particularly concerned with questions of dramatic structure. A well-constructed play, for Howard, was a “satisfactory” play—a play that is satisfactory to the audience. Believing that American and English audiences would not accept the death of a heroine in a play, Howard changed the ending of his original version of The Banker’s Daughter. He made other changes in this play—changes that he claimed were founded on his “laws of dramatic composition.” One of these laws, based on Howard’s theory of what will satisfy an audience, is that those who do wrong (for example, a wife who has soiled her moral character) must always die before the final curtain falls. Similarly, and for the same reason, a love triangle must always bring disaster.

The Banker’s Daughter

In the original version of The Banker’s Daughter, Lillian Westbrook has married an older and wealthy man, John Strebelow, in order to save her father from financial ruin and also as a result of a quarrel with Harold Routledge. Five years later, now living in Paris with her husband and child, Lillian again meets Harold but remains faithful to her husband. The situation is then complicated by the Count de Carojac, who loves Lillian and who forces a duel with Harold. The supposed death of her old lover causes Lillian to reveal her passion and tell Strebelow that she never loved him. As a result, Strebelow takes the child away, and Lillian dies of a broken heart. The revised work...

(The entire section is 1844 words.)