Friday, August 21, 2020

Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural by Theodore Dreiser

Should have stuck to the real world
Theodore Dreiser is best known for his novels, but he also wrote a dozen plays over the course of his career. All but one of his dramatic works are of the brief, one-act variety. The collection Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural, first published in 1916, contains seven of Dreiser’s one-act plays. As the title indicates, some of these plays are a departure from Dreiser’s typical area of expertise. In his novels, Dreiser is perhaps the realest of American realists; his books are so realistic that at times they venture into the mundane. In more than half of the plays included here, however, Dreiser introduces paranormal phenomena. The results of his supernatural experimentation are far from successful, and he would have been better off sticking to social realism.

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
Laughing Gas
In the Dark
The Spring Recital 
The Light in the Window 
“Old Ragpicker”

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