Archibald MacLeish Critical Essays

Archibald MacLeish Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A critic observed in 1910 that “we cannot expect a rebirth of the poetic drama until our poets turn playwrights”; such an extended generic transition is obvious in the career of Archibald MacLeish. After publishing two early volumes of verse, he wrote two embryonic verse plays in the mid-1920’s, The Pot of Earth and Nobodaddy, works often regarded as long poems. MacLeish himself included The Pot of Earth in his first anthology, Poems, 1924-1933 (1933). All of this creative output resulted from his five-year sojourn in Paris.


Nobodaddy, the title of which came from William Blake’s derisory name for the Old Testament God of vengeance and mystery, was written before The Pot of Earth but published a year after it. A short philosophical verse play in three acts, sometimes classed as a poetic essay or closet drama, Nobodaddy treats the Genesis story of the first family and prefigures MacLeish’s use in J. B. of modernized Old Testament material to illuminate universal human dilemmas. In Nobodaddy, Cain and Abel struggle as adversaries, representing the conflict between the independent mind and the dogma of orthodoxy, a theme to which the poet would return in J. B., three decades later.

The Pot of Earth

The Pot of Earth is also significant as a precursor of J. B., for here too MacLeish used ancient myth as a vehicle for suggesting a reinterpretation of values—in this case Sir James Frazer’s description, in The Golden Bough (1890), of fertility rites in the garden of Adonis as a metaphor for the disillusionment of a representative human being. In a series of dramatic scenes, an anonymous modern young girl realizes the lack of meaning and lack of free will in her existence as she, like the mythic symbolic plants, rapidly grows to sexual maturity, marries, reproduces, and dies, sacrificed in the endless pattern of ruthless natural forces directed by an indifferent and invisible Gardener, a figure previously evoked in Nobodaddy. Technically, The Pot of Earth offers evidence of MacLeish’s mastery of a variety of verse patterns and other techniques of prosody such as complex assonance and alliteration, and has often been compared to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was published three years earlier. The two works do resemble each other in their mythic basis, although MacLeish’s work is far more conservative stylistically; each emphasizes, in a manner typical of the 1920’s, the transience of life.


Returning to poetry, including Conquistador, MacLeish did not attempt drama for another decade, when Panic appeared. Together with two half-hour radio scripts provoked by MacLeish’s concern for the seeming indifference of Americans toward the threatening world crisis, these plays were his only dramatic work until 1952, and they demonstrate the poet’s exploration of the “underlying reality” beneath surface events. Shortly before his death, MacLeish recalled that he had “never seen anything that even remotely approached the misery and anguish and horror of the Great Depression”; this dark epoch in U.S. history was the background for Panic, his first play performed in a theater.

As in all of his poetry and prose during this period, MacLeish’s theme in Panic is a warning against mindless acceptance of authoritarianism and a reminder of the threat to personal freedom in time of crisis. Here, the protagonist, McGafferty, a powerful and wealthy New York industrialist and financier, finds himself at the height of the American financial crisis, in February, 1933, elevated beyond his leadership abilities by the blind fear of those who look to him as their savior. These people, including his bank colleagues and the poor unemployed, perish. In the end, in the classical tradition, McGafferty perishes helplessly along with them. The play, which has been seen as a hybrid—both Aristotelian tragedy and proletarian drama—drew heavily on the then voguish expressionist techniques. MacLeish was encouraged by the play’s acceptance: When both workers and the unemployed responded enthusiastically, MacLeish stated, “Now I have found my audience.”

This period piece of the Depression is highly significant in MacLeish’s dramaturgic development, for in Panic, he experimented with a new verse form, accentual meter, responsive to the contemporary American speech rhythms. He continued to use this form, and not the popular blank verse, in all of his subsequent plays, with one exception, the prose Scratch. Briefly, accentual meter is a type of sprung rhythm; rather than counting syllables, one counts the number of stresses or accented syllables in a line. MacLeish’s choice was a combination of five-accent lines (but unlimited syllables) and three-beat lines, both to underline conflict inherent in his plots and to avoid monotony.

The Fall of the City and Air Raid

MacLeish’s two vivid half-hour radio dramas in verse, The Fall of the City and Air Raid, followed his next poetry collection. Along with Panic, all three of his verse plays of the 1930’s were evidence of his “public” poetry, generalizations of philosophical truths about human behavior focused on timely political issues. In the radio plays, which featured a collective protagonist, the seductive dangers of rampant totalitarianism as well as isolationism were presented by expressionist techniques. The Fall of the City, broadcast on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1937, included in its published version a foreword in which the playwright remarked on the effectiveness of radio for the presentation of verse drama to attract large audiences, claiming that “the imagination works better through the ear than through the eye.” Here, MacLeish recalls that poetry is meant primarily to be heard, and thereby to stimulate the undistracted “word-excited imagination” into evocation of the depicted action. The advent of television eclipsed radio presentations of this sort, however, and MacLeish’s advocacy came to little, as graphically visualized action rapidly captured popular taste.

In MacLeish’s play The Fall of the City, the disembodied voice of an Announcer (as in classic expressionism, the characters lack personal names) objectively and dispassionately describes the collapse and destruction of a metropolis. A demoralized and terrified population has mindlessly refused to defend itself against the attack of the Conqueror, who promised a strong leadership for which they are willing to sacrifice personal freedom (“Freedom’s for fools: Force is the certainty!”). The more digressive Air Raid does not exemplify the unity of place evident in the other radio drama, and therefore lacks the total immediacy and impact so vivid there but gains its effect by its topicality: Two years before Air Raid’s presentation on CBS, the ancient Basque town of Guernica had been destroyed by Nazi planes in a cruel demonstration of the blitzkrieg strategy of modern warfare. Again, in this play, MacLeish employed a callous and impersonal Announcer to describe the attack, underlining the grave dangers inherent in refusal by Americans to denounce this massacre of the innocent and the vulnerability of those who refuse to protect themselves against aggression. Ruthless and impersonal technical “progress” is thereby measured ironically against its price in human suffering. Together, these two verse plays, The Fall of the City and Air Raid, constitute American radio’s major contribution to dramatic literature.

The Trojan Horse

Not until the 1950’s did MacLeish turn again to poetic drama. In six years, three plays appeared—The Trojan Horse, This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters, and his masterpiece in the genre, J. B.—each increasingly more complex both poetically and dramaturgically than anything he had previously attempted. The Trojan Horse continued MacLeish’s indictment of mindless collective consent to self-destructive fear, in this case generated by the accusations of Joseph McCarthy. Recognizing that in the age of television, poetic drama written for radio was all but moribund, MacLeish indicated that his new one-act play would be performed on the stage, without scenery or other elements of stagecraft that might detract from the impact of the spoken word, as well as on radio. Indeed, the play was presented in both forms, broadcast by BBC radio and included in a double bill with This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters by the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Trojan Horse continued MacLeish’s use of mythology as a vehicle for social criticism. Here he varied somewhat his use of accentual meter, combining a verse line of three accents with blank verse. MacLeish continued his expressionist technique of de-emphasis on individual characters by using nameless type characters, thereby focusing on the theme rather than on fully rounded characterization.

This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters

MacLeish’s other one-act verse drama of this period, This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters (the title is from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, pr. 1611), uses the more conventional pattern of ten named cast characters to focus on an American proclivity to spoil whatever dreams and...

(The entire section is 3933 words.)