Augustus Thomas Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Augustus Thomas 1857-1934

American playwright.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.