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Steele Mackaye

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Steel MacKaye

"…tall, spare, emotional and eloquent, looking like a more stalwart Edgar Allan Poe, holding forth to a knot of listeners on some theory destined never to be realized, some dream never to become articulate. He was always magnetic and compelling." Otis Skinner

MacKaye, [James Morrison] Steele (1842-1894) Actor, playwright, teacher, architect and perhaps one of the most important innovators of late 19th century American theatre. He was born in Buffalo, NY where his father was a lawyer and art connoisseur. While still in his teens and with dreams of becoming an actor and an artist and with unlimited support from his family funds, he studied painting with George Innes, William Hunt and then continued his studies with Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. When he returned home, he fought in the Civil War and rose to Major, before illness forced him to resign. Back in Paris in 1869, he became the disciple of Francois Delsarte, who was advocating a naturalistic style of theatre intregrating speech, movement and gesture. When he came back to the US in 1871, he founded a ‘school of expression’ in New York where he promoted the Delsartean method with his lectures. He made his debut as actor, playwright and manager in New York in an adaptation of Allison’s novel Monaldi (1872), which he dramatized in collaboration with Francis Durivage. Although it received some critical praise, it was a commercial failure. He spent some time in London where he played Hamlet (Crystal Palace, 1873); and continued to write. Back in America he achieved some success as a playwright with Rose Michel (1875) translated from a foreign source, and his comedy-drama Won at Last (1877), in which misunderstandings jeopardize the marriage of an innocent young woman to a man-of-the-world. Afterwards he took over the Fifth Avenue Theatre and remolded with the most modern, elaborate equipment ever seen in an American playhouse. His innovations included a lighting system devised by Edison with overhead and indirect lighting, an elevator stage that changed scenes in two minutes, folding seats and an ingenious ventilating system. He reopened it in 1880 as the Madison Square Theatre with possible the best of his plays, Hazel Kirke starring Efie Ellsler. It ran for over a year and was continually revived over the next two decades. In both writing and performance the play was an attempt to move to the principles he was espousing. Centered on a father’s rejection of his daughter who refuses to marry the man of his choosing, it broke the record run for a non-musical play. Despite its success, MacKaye had unwittingly contracted to assign the profits to his financial backers, the Mallory brother, and he ended up loosing the theatre. So in 1885, he opened another technically innovative theatre, the Lyceum, incorporating new stage machinery, firefighting equipment, and an orchestra pit on an elevator. It also had quarters for a school of acting that eventually became the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But in time he lost this theatre too, but continued to write plays. His last durable works was Paul Kauvar; or Anarchy (1887), a romantic drama set during the French Revolution focusing on a Republican, who is dismayed by the excesses of his associates, and who switches garments with a royalist to save that man’s life. Nearly all of his plays enjoyed some commercial success, but of the nearly 30 that he wrote only Won at Last, Hazel Kirk, and Paul Kauvar were regularly revived into the 20th century. Towards the end of his life, MacKaye planned his ultimate theatrical dream, a huge, technically progressive auditorium to house his chronicle of Columbus’s adventures for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, but it was never built. A brilliant, if erratic dreamer, MacKaye’s innovations in stage mechanics and his crusade for realism in acting and ‘true-to-life’ dialogue marked him as ‘the most unsuccessful successful figure in the American theatre. His plays today seem as much of the older school as of the newer ones he fought for, and they are no longer revived. A detailed account of his life was written by his son, playwright Percy MacKaye in 1927.

Steele MacKaye with back to camera-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (88961 bytes) Paul Kauvar Poster-color-Resized.jpg (186525 bytes) Steele MacKaye-Full body shot-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (58189 bytes)
Portrait Paul Kauvar Poster Portrait
Steele MacKaye-Engraving-B&W-Resized.jpg (81490 bytes) Poster for Steele McKaye's Hazel Kirke-Color-Resized.jpg (388888 bytes)  
Engraving Hazel Kirk Poster

Joseph Haworth & Steele Mackaye

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