Writing plays like “a freshman writes home for money—as frequently and with as little effort,” Owen Davis became the United States’ most prolific dramatist. He began with melodramas, then moved on to comedy, and psychological drama.
While under the influence of naturalistic drama, Davis wrote one of his finest plays, The Detour. Still using the melodramatic form, Davis varied his approach with a realistic style. The characters are therefore depicted as products of heredity and environment, placed in circumstances in which they struggle physically and psychologically against these forces. Despite their efforts to circumvent their fate, the destiny that shapes their ends prevails.
The central character, Helen Hardy, exemplifies this determination in the face of hardship. For ten years, Helen has scrimped and sacrificed for the sake of her daughter, Kate, who aspires to be a painter. Helen’s dream for Kate is in reality her own unfulfilled dream “to get away and go to New York, or somewheres where bein’ born and bein’ dead wasn’t the only things that ever happened.” Her efforts to escape her environment, however, fail when fate intercedes in the guise of Stephen Hardy. Helen admits that, in her loneliness, “somehow I got to loving him before I knew it.” Married and feeling trapped, Helen doggedly tells Kate, “Your life isn’t going to be like this.” Helen’s struggle against destiny becomes the central conflict of the play.
The struggle focuses on Kate’s suitor, Tom Lane, and takes on larger proportions when Tom, echoing a widely held viewpoint, affirms that “women ought to just cook, and clean, and sew, and maybe chop a little wood, and have the babies. . . . And if a woman sometimes gets to thinkin it ain’t quite fair” and decides to alter the situation, “she’s flyin’ in the face of Providence.” To expedite Kate’s departure to New York, Helen sells her bedroom wardrobe and with the additional money plans for Kate to leave immediately. Again, Stephen Hardy intercedes. Obsessed with owning land, and needing money to buy what he considers a prime section, Stephen takes the money intended for Kate. This makes the men happy: Stephen will get his land, and Tom will get Kate. Stephen’s act is a villainous one, and inasmuch as Tom supports Stephen, he must share that guilt. Thus, the men in The Detour symbolize society and its failure to guarantee equal rights for women. The play ends with the forces of tradition victorious: An art critic seriously questions Kate’s talent, and Kate decides to remain with her family and Tom. Despite this defeat, Helen is undaunted; “she stands, her face glorified, looking out into the future, her heart swelling with eternal hope.”
The influence of naturalism is also apparent in Davis’s prizewinning play Icebound. In this work, despite his intention to move away from melodrama, Davis retained many of the basic elements of that form. Unlike tragedy, which contains highly serious action that probes the nature of good and evil, melodrama generally lacks moral complexity; in melodrama, good and evil are clearly...
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