Should have stuck to the real world
Of the seven plays in this volume, three of them can be considered “Natural,” meaning they deal with realistic subjects typical of Dreiser’s works: labor strikes, urban poverty, marital troubles. The first selection, The Girl in the Coffin, is the volume’s best entry. A strike organizer wants a local labor leader to appear at a rally, but the latter man is grieving beside the coffin of his recently deceased daughter. The plot is rather predictable, but Dreiser delivers high drama, authentic dialogue, and sharp insight into the labor struggles of the era. “Old Ragpicker” is another play in which Dreiser deals with the reality of his times. The title character is a homeless man, reduced to destitution by a stock market crash, who collects bottles and cans to survive. Though low on plot, it is a fine character study. The last of the realistic plays, The Light in the Window, deals with a wealthy couple on the verge of divorce. As they argue, passers-by imagine how happy life must be inside such an attractive and luxurious home. Dreiser plays up this contrast between expectation and reality rather heavy-handedly, but the marital drama is passable.
The remaining four plays fall into the “Supernatural” category. Of these, The Blue Sphere is the only one that rises to mediocre, while the rest are unilaterally terrible. Each of these plays has a real-world plot taking place while, invisible to the human characters, various supernatural entities, spirits of the dead, or mythical dryads flutter around providing commentary. In the Dark, for example, shows police chasing down a murderer while spirits circle in the air shouting “Murder!” and “Blood!” Laughing Gas is based on the hypothesis that people anesthetized by nitrous oxide are capable of experiencing visions in which they ascend to higher planes of existence and commune with the rhythm of the universe. The Spring Recital, depicting a church concert with ghostly spectators, is pointless.
Though written as plays, most of these dramas could never have been staged because they require sets and perspectives that would have been impossible to produce. They read more like mini-screenplays, but this was before they age of talkies, and they wouldn’t have worked well as silent films either. Laughing Gas, for example, describes both microscopic details of surgery and macroscopic views of extraterrestrial planes of existence. Nevertheless, somehow the play was produced once, in 1916. The most manageable work, The Girl in the Coffin, has been staged a half dozen times and “Old Ragpicker” twice. Other than that, these dramas have never seen the inside of a theatre. For the most part, they are no treat to read on the printed page, either. I’ve always admired Dreiser for his unflinching realism, but the fact that he would go in for this spiritualist nonsense has actually lessened my opinion of the man. To make matters worse, unlike Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Allan Poe, he can’t even manage to make the paranormal fun.
Plays in this collection
The Girl in the Coffin
The Blue Sphere
In the Dark
The Spring Recital
The Light in the Window
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