The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

220 East Fourth Street  ~  New York, New York   10009
(212) 995 8410
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Civilization and Discontent in William Vaughn Moody's
 The Great Divide

By 1906, most of the Lower 48 had joined the United States, but the Southwest still included a few, unadmitted “territories.”  So when William Vaughn Moody set his new play in southern Arizona, he was reaching as far into the “uncivilized” West as he could still go. Here he begins a tale that articulates and pursues a foundational American conflict: the spirited independence of the pioneer against the security of orderly, restrictive Society.

19th Century literature took up this opposition with relish: Metropolitan audiences will recall Stone’s Metamora (1825), or Mowatt’s Fashion (1845), while Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Thoreau’s Walden are other familiar incarnations. And whether it expresses itself as a rejection of European values,  a fight between urban and rural interests, a yearning to go back to Nature, or a love for the outlaw, it is a primal and still current tension in American life.

Moody captured this tension at a watershed moment in the country’s history, and he saw in it a spiritual dimension of profound import. In 1906, America had expanded across its own continent, and begun to reckon with the pressures of reaching the frontier’s frontier.  At the same time, with the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, and The Philippines, the populace woke to the new century as a colonial power, and the hegemonic assertion of Establishment values was a thorny issue as much in the popular consciousness as it is today.

The Great Divide figures this conflicted identity in a star-crossed couple. A combination of misfortune and plucky determination lead Ruth Jordan to stay the night alone in a desert cabin, with only the darkness for protection. A transplant from the East, she is enchanted by the “glorious unfulfilled” West, but it is not long before she is discovered—in a scene of striking brutality—by three drunken outlaws, who betray no qualms about taking her for their pleasure or one another’s lives for their pains. But Ruth strikes a bargain with one, Stephen Ghent: she will give herself to him forever, if he will dispatch the other two.

Ruth and Ghent learn one another and discover themselves over the course of their strained union. Struck by her offer as if by revelation, he sees in her a chance for redemption from the selfish life that led to their meeting, and he strives to be worthy her unobtainable acceptance. But, ever conscious of having been bought, she cannot forgive him the transgression that brought them together, and labors doggedly and secretly to earn her freedom. It is only when she does return to the cicrumscribed comforts of New England, and he follows, that they can envision a life that nourishes their (in fact) deeply connected selves.

Originally entitled “The Sabine Woman,” the play asks for a nuanced look at its premise: for all that the Sabines were abducted from their people by Romulus and his companions, they became the co-founders of a new and all-powerful civilization. In re-naming the play The Great Divide for its 1912 revival, Moody emphasized the deep and perhaps continentally enshrined divisions in American culture that the couple must overcome. Still, The Great Divide remains about the hope of creating a new relationship from such an inauspicious beginning. Ruth and Ghent’s journey is across the gap between Eastern and Western sensibilities, between male and female inequalities, between life ruled by convention and life embracing serendipity, between salvation through penance and salvation by revelation, and finally between labors of duty and labors of love.  Figured in an unlikely couple, the journey is not the romantic comedy’s jaunt to the cute life deferred; it is a journey to a new vision of a moral life—neither Eastern nor Western, but American and hopeful.

The Lafayette (LA) Advertiser termed the play “the long awaited great American play,” saying that “no other drama has so well reflected the manhood, the freedom, the honesty and the indomitable spirit characteristic of the people of our great Western country.” Colloquial in its speech, and critical of both Eastern establishment and conventional mores, the play broke with the contemporary trend of drawing room dramas of the middle and upper class life, consciously indicting the very way of life they affirmed. 

Moody anticipates O’Neill in these innovations and his exploration of psychological foible.  Defiant of its period’s conventions in order to explore the larger assumptions of its time, The Great Divide is the third offering in Metropolitan’s Season of Stereotypes.

William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910), poet and verse dramatist, grew up in the mid-West (in Indiana), and schooled in the East (at Harvard), and knew the tensions between pioneer spirit and established civility.  Beginning his career as a teacher at Harvard, and later at the University of Chicago, Moody enjoyed the success of A History of English Literature (co-written in 1892 with Robert Morss Lovett), which gave him some financial security.  His collected verse was published in Gloucester Moors and Other Poems, while his other plays include an unfinished verse trilogy—The Masque of Judgment, The Fire Bringer, and The Death of Eve; and The Faith Healer, produced by Metropolitan in 2002. Married in 1909, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after, and died at the age of 51 in 1910.

-Alex Roe
Artistic Director

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