Chicago Little Theater

I am now trying my hand at play-writing. I rather think I may hit the right vein here eventually. I have written one play which has certain faults; and I am off on another. I think I shall in the end make a success of one or the other. I have been watching their rehearsals at the Little Theatre and I see the kind of thing they want. I have made two beginnings of a story, but neither please me. One is too fantastic and the other too ordinary. I may with your help be able to blend them perhaps. But plays are what interest me just at this moment. (John Cowper Powys, Letters to His Brother Llewelyn, 25 November 1913).
The Chicago Little Theater held an important place in John Cowper's life for a number of years. He knew Maurice Browne well, as well as most of the actors, and often shared their lives when he was in Chicago. Browne was certainly a good friend, he even organised some of his lectures, but he never accepted any of Powys's plays. Powys was well aware of this fact as he wrote to Llewelyn:
I believe Maurice'll make me revise and revise and revise this damned play. I am tired to death of it! and then — the demon! — won't accept it after all. They have their 'merry little ways', these managers. Theodore would lay them bare. But I love Maurice — I long to bring him into the only world you believe in — you know what I mean by that. (Letters to his Brother Llewelyn, 30 November 1913)

Founded in the fall of 1912 by Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg, his wife, who was an actress known as Nelly Van, The Little Theatre became famous for its experimental plays and its influence in the thirties. In Maurice Browne's words this was their aim:
    The Chicago Little Theater is a repertory and experimental art-theatre, producing classical and modern plays, both tragedy and comedy, at popular prices; preference is given in its productions to poetic and imaginative plays, dealing primarily, whether as tragedy or as comedy, with characters in action...The Chicago Little Theater has for its object the creation of a new plastic and rythmic drama in America.
In their Introduction to The Collected Plays of Theodore Dreiser, Keith Newlin and Frederic E. Rusch write:
    Theodore Dreiser, accompanied by Edgar Lee Masters, Floyd Dell and William Lengel, went to Maurice Browne's Chicago Little Theater in January 1912 and saw Euripides' The Trojan Women, its first production in the United States.... He was impressed enough by its goals and staging methods to become active in promoting it. To Mary Elizabeth Titzel, the Theater's secretary, he wrote that the Theater and its company 'seem to me to be truly leading in dramatic effort in America.' He acquainted his friend and champion, the critic H.L. Mencken, with his delight in the theater and asked him for help in publicizing the Theater's activities in Smart Set, of which Mencken was co-editor, and for assistance in arranging playhouses for the Theater's tour to eastern cities.
     The productions of plays at the Chicago Little Theater, and especially The Trojan Women, were characterized by a scenic design that created atmosphere through symbolism and suggestion. The set, for instance, consisted of nothing more than a wall with a jagged gap in it and two steps leading un to it. Browne himself argued that the new stagecraft should be a 'rhythmic fusion of movement, light and sound' and drew his inspiration from the Greek chorus and pantomime. This new impressionism in stagecraft, as articulated by Craig and practiced by Browne, was thus an early forerunner of the later expressionist sets constructed by the Theater Guild.

Around 1917, The Chicago Little Theatre had to cease its activities because of financial and legal problems. It had been five years of poverty and struggle, work and disillusion for Maurice and Nellie Van. The following text is the theatrical advertisement they had put up at what proved to be their last season:

    Life, always insecure, is today perilous; right conduct, always difficult, is today almost impossible; independent thinking, the basis of right conduct, never generally practised, is today generally condemned; and those values which mankind has slowly and painfully built for himself, the eternal verities as they are sometimes called, today are themselves shaken. In such a time service is not lightly to be given, nor to a light cause, nor for profit.
   Among those values is beauty. For five years the group of people gathered round the Chicago Little Theatre has endeavoured to serve beauty, believing it worthy of service. Our theatre has had many vicissitudes, made many mistakes; but through them all the cause which we have served has showed itself continually richer in illumination.
   Knowing these things and remembering always what it is impossible to forget, the great unhappiness of our time, it seems to us that we are bound in all ways, putting aside thoughts of personal gain, to test by all methods the validity of that art which we serve, to scrutinize its nature and function more closely than ever before, to study its principles with constantly increasing attention and unceasingly to search our own hearts for the motives which impel our service. Such examination must neither be influenced by public opinion nor hastily made.
    For these reasons the Chicago Little Theatre through the coming year will be directed toward those ends which have been stated: search, study, scrutiny and test, alike of art and of conduct; but not toward these as ends in themselves: rather as means to an exacter knowledg of excellence and beauty; and so, ultimately perhaps, to right practice in conduct and art, which are their own ends. For, though "beauty is difficult", it may be allowed us, seeing that we are all fellow-travellers on the same road, to hold and preserve the faith, that, "If we are obedient to the word spoken, we shall pass safely over the river of forgetfulness, able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years." (Maurice Browne,Too Late to Lament)
When the Little Theater finally closed down, the famous Harriet Monroe, of Poetry, wrote and praised Miss Van Volkenburg as "wonderful beyond words". She also defined the record of the theatre "as a proud one, fundamental in any consideration of the new dramatic movement."

    As to Emma Goldman, she also offers some comments on Maurice Browne and his experiments:
Harriet Monroe, of the Poetry Magazine, and Maurice Browne, of the Little Theatre, belonged to the same circle (as Margaret Anderson's Little Review). I was particularly interested in the new dramatic experiment of Mr Browne. He had talent and sincerity, but he was too dominated by the past to make the Little Theatre an effective influence. The Greek drama and the classics were certainly of great value, I often told him, but thoughtful people were nowadays seeking dramatic expression of the human problems of our own day. As a matter of fact, no one in Chicago outside of Mr Browne's troupe and their small circle of adherents was aware of the existence of the Little Theatre. Life simply passed it by. The greater the pity, because Maurice Browne was very much in earnest about his efforts. (Emma Goldman, Living my Life, vol.II)