What would it take to cause a riot at the theater these days? Plays that once incited audiences now soothe or bore them. Spring Awakening appears on Broadway; Playboy of the Western World receives the dreary designation of a classic; Ubu Roi is assigned in high schools, while Victor Hugo’s revolt-inducing Hernani isn’t—only because it’s too dull.
But every so often you come across an old play that still has the power to surprise and unsettle. Among them: The Great Divide, William Vaughn Moody’s 1906 drama, now revived at the Metropolitan Playhouse, the East Village theater specializing in American rarities.
In the play’s first scene, Ruth Jordan (Lauren Sowa), an upstanding young woman who has traveled West with her family, is left alone at their Arizona ranch. As she readies herself for sleep, three ruffians break in and attempt to rape her. Disarmed of rifle and knife, she desperately offers herself to the least vicious of her assailants, Stephen Ghent (Timothy Weinert), saying she will go away with him if he saves her from further disgrace. He buys off one of his compatriots and shoots the other, then they ride off together. Now is that a way to start a play or what?
The drama caused a mild scandal when first presented, with many reviewers declaring it immoral, a description that didn’t hurt ticket sales. By the time it arrived in New York, however, critics called it “an extremely interesting play, admirably conceived” and hailed its author, Moody, as “a dramatist worthy to rank with [Arthur Wing] Pinero and [Henry Arthur] Jones.”
Moody, the Indiana-born son of a steamboat captain, was an English professor, a poet, and one of a number of young American men (Clyde Fitch, Bronson Howard, Augustus Thomas, James Herne) turning away from melodrama and toward greater realism. But Moody’s interest in the symbolist poets also lends his plays an otherworldly tinge, in which ordinary settings and objects (in the case of The Great Divide, a string of gold nuggets, the Arizona desert) seem freighted with the abstract and mystical.
Unfortunately, Moody died of brain cancer in 1910, and his theatrical career was over almost before it began. He produced only two prose dramas, The Great Divide, which made his fortune, and The Faith Healer, a commercial failure also revived by the Metropolitan a few years ago.
Even though the Metropolitan’s current production, directed by Michael Hardart, is indifferently acted and seemingly underrehearsed (in the dark before the first scene, you could hear at least two actors bumping into the furniture), it still makes a case for The Great Divide‘s endurance. Like O’Neill, whose plays possess a power in spite of some very rickety dialogue, the structure and themes of Moody’s drama help it resonate.
We may no longer observe the same rift between Eastern propriety and Western wildness. (Indeed, a fellow patron of the Metropolitan’s co-ed restroom didn’t think it necessary to shut the stall door while he urinated—so much for North Atlantic manners!) Yet the oppositions Moody assembles between Puritanism and paganism, between morality and desire still have force, and he borrows just enough tricks from melodrama to keep the play chugging along nicely. Though it runs in excess of two hours, it feels far shorter, even considering all the hamming.
Many of Moody’s lines, particularly those attributed to the Westerners, seem more constructed than inhabited, as if he had to sprinkle in just enough ain’ts per page. But there’s poetry here, too. At the drama’s end, Ruth still resists Stephen’s love, speaking to him of suffering, sacrifice, sin, and death. But he comes toward her and says, “Our law is joy, and selfishness; the curve of your shoulder and the light on your hair as you sit there says that as plain as preaching.” It’s a wonderful speech that continues, distinctly American in its vocabulary and concerns.
In a 1909 interview with the Los Angeles Times, as Moody lolled on a sofa and ate Limburger cheese, he said, “Our stage is just trying to find itself. It is in its infancy.” Though Moody never lived to see it, The Great Divide shows he’s one of the men and women who helped it grow up.