In an Old Buffalo Castle, Modern Acting Was Born
|The Castle - Later, Part of Old Fort Porter
|Rear of Old fort Porter - Facing Lake Erie
|Col. James MacKaye
Then for the next 20 years Steele MacKaye brought to the stage many artistic and lasting achievements. Early dedicated to art and the culture of idealism, when he entered suddenly, in 1871, the world of theatre, he found it Bohemian, crude, commercial, un-organized-- and except for the art of acting, then brilliantly exemplified by such men as Booth, Wallack, Gilbert, Boucicault--strangely unrelated to the large traditions of art or to civic life.
He returned to Europe to hone his skills as an actor at the Conservatory in Paris. Now better skilled and thoroughly educated, he went to London where he became the first American to play Hamlet. People waited outside 3 hours for admission, MacKaye had 5 rousing calls before curtain, with bravos, cheers and waving hats and handkerchiefs. The London Spectator said, "Mr. MacKaye's Hamlet is by far the best Hamlet of our own time." Mr. MacKaye has real genius." He also played in France (in perfect French). It was natural that his genius should turn to play writing, acting in, directing and managing a series of plays now that he was back in New York in 1875. Many successes were staged during the early period.
As a playwright, he wrote or adapted thirty plays, including three hits: Won at Last (1877), Hazel Kirke (1880), and Paul Kauvar (1887). Hazel Kirke was hailed as the epitome of the new realism, the first native melodrama without a villain; that is, it's chain of tragic circumstances were woven of normal human motives, though it was the staging and the technical aspects of the production that were truly revolutionary. The play itself is a romantic melodrama which is set in a mill and which dealt with middle class characters.
Steele Mackaye wrote Hazel Kirke expressly for the new Madison Square Theatre. In both writing and performance the play was an attempt to move to the principles he was espousing. It became an astonishing success running 486 performances, a record against which future productions were measured for the next fifty years. Within five years the play had been staged in New York at various theaters over thirty-five hundred times, and on many days it was shown three times to clamoring audiences. Utilizing Steele Mackaye's revolutionary concept of multiple companies, it inspired 14, along with dozens of pirated versions.
During this time he wrote and acted in many plays, but the one that interested Buffalo friends was given it's premier at the Academy of Music, under management of the Meech Brothers May 30th 1877. The play was called Anarchy for the Buffalo premiere. However, after it's production, "the Chicago Anarchists were hanged, and to avoid a possible charge of trading on the event, I went back to my first title, Paul Kauvar." A spectacle of the French Revolution, the mob scene that he planned and directed was the most thrilling ever given on the Academy stage. Steele MacKaye played the leading part of Paul Kavar, Genevieve Lytton was the leading lady and the beloved May Irwin was in the cast. Others were Frederic de Belleville and Sydney Drew, brother of John Drew and uncle of the Barrymores of today(1942).
|Academy of Music, Buffalo NY
MacKaye, with his usual enthusiasm and friendships, had rounded up some very famous men and a special train brought to Buffalo a large number of friends to witness the premier of the play. Among them were Lawrence Jerome, grand uncle of the Hon. Winston Churchill, Moses Handy, and the well known wit and story teller, Tom Ochiltree of Texas. The success of the play on its first night was a double triumph, for twelve hundred leading citizens had signed an invitation to have it given in Mackaye's native city, and the evening was a kind of public testimony to his position. This was one of the rare instances of an American dramatist receiving such recognition. After the close of this performance, a grand banquet was held at the old Genesee Hotel.
Buffalo Courier - "It was not as a playwright alone that his friends honor Mr. Mackaye. It may be said of him with strict justice that he is one of the few men of our day who have brought to the much-abused theatre the intelligence, the skill, the learning and the genius that it so much needs in an era of speculators and buffoons. He has always been able and willing to take the pen or the rostrum, whether at Harvard or at Steinway Hall, to expound the principles upon which he has so assiduously worked for the past fifteen years." Later the play ran for several years in New York and on the road.
|The Double Stage System
|Orchestra Above Stage
|Madison Square Theatre
The interior of the house and the "drop curtain" were made by Tiffany. This was apparently an elaborate embroidered tangle of trees and flowers. It was lost in a fire during the run of Hazel Kirke when a careless workman's torch caught it on fire. The smoke was cleared by the fairly sophisticated circulation system and the show went on with only a half-hour delay. The public's fascination with 55 second scene changes of totally realistic three dimensional scenery was sufficient to make the theatre a success. Ultimately, a disastrous deal made with the theatre's owners, the Mallory Brothers, caused Mackaye to lose the theater.
|MacKaye's Folding Theatre Chair not only folded up,
but also backwards to provide an aisle to the rear of
the theatre in case of fire.
Of these playhouses he was also manager. His faith in himself was contagious. He was persuasive, but with the persuasion of complete belief. That thing he advocated he saw, and where his support was of his own temper, he realized his visions. In addition to these possessions, he had amazing capacity for work, and a quality of inspiring in others enthusiasm for the work in hand. Two of his closest friends were Thomas Edison and Oscar Wilde. Edison said in a letter to MacKaye’s son, “He was possessed of great imaginative power, together with an abnormal energy, ever seeking new worlds to conquer.” It was Wilde who told him, “You and I can conquer the world, why not, let’s do it.”Always anxious, MacKaye was looking for another challenge when he met Nate Salsbury the business partner of William F. Cody – “Buffalo Bill.” The Wild West show was a sketchy hodgepodge reenactment of various Indian battles including Custer’s Last Stand, valiant soldiers and cowboys, frightened settlers and miners. Looking for a success but not wanting to succumb to a circus like atmosphere Cody and Salsbury hired MacKaye to stage the performance with the best theatrical coordination. MacKaye chose the only venue large enough to house the show, Madison Square Garden then located on Twenty-Sixth Street.
MacKaye reorganized the Wild West show for the indoor season during the winter 1886/1887. MacKaye created a show titled "The Drama of Civilization.” He invented elaborate special effects to transform the indoor arena into the windswept plains of the West, complete with a tornado. As quoted from the New York Times the show was a hit: “Buffalo Bill’s new ‘Wild West’ is fairly under way in Madison-Square Garden. The performance runs along rapidly and smoothly.
All the ponderous machinery used in the working of Matt Morgan’s grand scenery is in perfect trim and works to a charm. The patent “hurricane raiser” – a huge and complicated apparatus that serves to send a gale of wind across the space devoted to the stage with a velocity of 60 miles an hour, and with a roar as if 100 buildings had simultaneously crashed to the ground – is a feature introduced in the cyclone on the prairie that creates a sensation nightly.” Yes, MacKaye even invented a machine to create a tornado in the arena!
The Spectatorium In 1892-3, backed by capitalists among whom were George M. Pullman, Lyman J. Gage, Benjamin Butterworth, Murray Nelson, and others, to the amount of nearly a million dollars, enthusiastically approved by the artists Charles F. McKim, Daniel J. Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, of the World's Fair Art Commission, there was launched what the press described as a "Great Show for the Fair," intended to recount—through spectacle, pantomime and music—the life-story of Columbus, the ''World Finder." Its inventor, architect and organizer was Steele MacKaye. Associated with the production as musical composers were Dvorak and Victor Herbert, as orchestral director—Anton Seidl.
|A Rendering of The Spectatorium
|World's Columbian Exposition Bird's Eye View
"The aim of its vast mechanism is to create the means for a harmonious blending of nature and art, hitherto unachieved, to illustrate the noblest dramatic conflicts of history. Its conception indeed is on such a scale that as a permanent institution it can never, its supporters believe, be degraded to the presentation of the petty or the vulgar, Therefore its management hope to commence a series of productions, to follow one another in the years to come, which shall by progression reach the loftiest heights of artistic achievement. To this end a free, but strictly professional, school of acting, music, dancing and scenic fine art has been started, with the hope that, as the means of the management may increase, it shall be equipped with every facility which invention and the ablest leaders may insure for the culture of the theatre's art in America."
The plan was started off in a great rush, for there was not too much time to build the Spectatorium, write the scenario, compose the music and gather together a company of artists that would do credit to the idea. Mackaye threw his whole heart and soul into the project as he did in everything he had ever produced. The building was started just outside the Worlds Fair grounds, for plans for the fair did not include space for this great spectacle. With help of many distinguished architects, musicians and others including his son Percy MaKaye, the work went merrily on.
Then the blow fell! In the fall of 1892 things began to totter and early in 1893 the country went into a financial panic. They had sold 500 bonds totaling $500,000 and held 300 back for future sale, figuring there would be no trouble getting the money at any time. The richest men now found it hard to get ready cash. Labor troubles set in. Those men who had subscribed early in 1892 simply could not be persuaded to throw in another dollar. So the skeleton of the greatest project that MacKaye had ever conceived, stood all that summer of the 1893 World's Fair, as a stark and tragic symbol of what was to be a monument to Steele MacKaye's genius and stagecraft. The project was delayed for reorganization and went into the hands of a receiver. The unfinished building was eventually deemed a fire hazard, (though it was not) and fair organizers panicked and had the building razed to the ground.
|View of Chicago World's Fair 1893
Having worked non-stop with little sleep and less food for almost two years, he died three weeks later at the age of 51. (A postmortem showed that he died of stomach cancer.) The funeral of Steele MacKaye was held on that same stage, to choral voices of "The World Finder:"—a simple ritual of the theatre to one whose religion was the theatre's art. There Henry Irving, his friend, sent this greeting to a fellow Hamlet: "Good night, sweet prince."
A Eulogy summed up MacKayes dedication to his art: "He went without sleep and food that he might make a sunrise and a sunset and might make the sea roll and ships sail for us and our children. Nature was so sublime he wished to paint it as never an artist painted it. He wanted to bring nature up close to the human heart. His dream was to surpass the words of literature and the brush of the painters." (from Pictorial Illusionism, The Theatre of Steele MacKaye by J.A. Sokalski)
"In his special field, Steele MacKaye startled and illumined in his own time; he was himself the lightning. He was in his day a pioneer of art, the most richly gifted in the American theatre. When our Theatrical history comes critically to be written, this truth, I believe, will be manifest, and the prophetic import of his astonishing career, tardily acknowledged.
"One such as Steel MacKaye appears seldom in American generations. He was, in his field, "that rare figure—a captain;" he remains, for the theatre, one of its few creative leaders—probably the foremost in versatile powers. In the paths which he blazed single-handed during the last century, the spirit of an age more co-operative moves onward to splendid horizons." Percy MacKaye
MacKayes 10 Commandments of Theatre Fire Safety
In the North American Review - November 1882
In the North American Review - November 1882
To realize this security to the public, laws should
be enacted, and enforced, obliging all proprietors of buildings
constructed for the accommodation of a crowd to conform to the
First. To veneer all the wood-work in the scenic department with some fire-proof composition sure to protect it from any fire that may occur in that inflammable portion of the house.
Second. To construct in the roof above the rigging-loft large
trap-doors, so weighted that they will fall open of themselves
the moment they are unfastened. Their fastenings either to be
automatic, or easily controlled from the prompter's box.
Third. To hang an automatic fire-proof curtain in the pro-
Fourth. To provide an air-tight tank with air-condensing
pump attachment, capable of holding water enough to extinguish
any ordinary fire likely to start during a performance, which
shall be connected with a plentiful supply of pipes, furnished
with automatic sprinklers and hose, on every working, or fly-
Fifth. To keep in working order two fire-extinguishers for
every working or fly-floor.
Sixth. To supply two axes to every working or fly-floor.
Seventh. To organize all the employes of the house into a fire
company to be drilled at least once a week by a competent fire-
man detailed to this duty by the fire department of the city.
Eighth. To adopt a seat that is capable of converting each
floor in the auditorium into a series of aisles at any time.
Ninth. To provide the best known system of ventilation for
Tenth. To allow ten feet of exit room to every two hundred
seats on a floor.
These should be the ten commandments of government to
amusement managers, the breaking of which should entail a
speedier retribution than usually follows the violation of those