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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

The New Numbers Poets and the
Chicago Little Theatre (1912-1918)



Wilfrid Gibson had been turned down several times for military service due to defective eyesight, and Edward Marsh managed to keep him out. With the third rejection, Gibson realized he must complete the tentative plans for his reading tour of the United States. His American agent, J. B. Pond, had booked speaking engagements for early 1917 and had guaranteed him at least twenty-five performances at $75 each plus steamship passage and railroad fares in the United States.

Gibson complained that Pond, 'in his shameless prospectus' of his tour, said that he was 'perhaps the most intimate friend of Rupert Brooke.' Gibson denied ever giving him any warrant for such a statement: 'I never mentioned Rupert in any of my letters to him.' Despite these protestations, he was frequently referred to in his appearances as Brooke's 'disciple,' which, Gibson was sure, would have made Brooke smile. His own works were being published in the United States by Macmillan and had been well received. The earlier volumes–The Stonefolds, On the Threshold, Daily Bread, and Fires–were already in print; Borderlands and Thoroughfares were to appear in one volume in 1914 and Livelihood was to be published on both sides of the Atlantic to coincide with his American tour.[1]

Wilfrid's and Geraldine's first child, Audrey Goronway Gibson, arrived 31 May 1916. Eddie Marsh agreed to stand as the godfather. Gibson dreaded leaving wife and daughter for so long but felt obliged to fulfill the contract: 'Out of the frying pan into the fire!,' he wrote Frost. 'I am literally terrified of America. It would be so appalling if I should fizzle, though the money is guaranteed.' He complained to Marsh that

    The prospect of America is already becoming alarming, now that it has become a matter of definite engagements–to read to the Phillips Academy (a girl's school, I suspect), Andover, Massachusetts, on such a date; to the Women's Club,Springfield, Illinois, on such a date, and to dine with the Executive Board of the Browning Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on such a date.[2]

Geraldine was pregnant with their second child, so she could not accompany him, and he was still recovering from a protracted illness following surgery. He was miserable, he said: 'Public entertaining is clean out of my line! And I'll be horribly lonely.' He admitted the money would be useful; he received only his expenses when he read in Glasgow to the English Association, whereas Pond had assured him $150 (minus expenses) for some of the engagements in America. He continued to receive invitations to write another play or to give permission to produce Womenkind:

    It's queer, Eddie, that I, who doesn't feel any very strong impulse to write for the stage, should have these offers, when there are so many chaps with plays written who cannot get them acted![3]

Having moved his family from the Old Nailshop to Journey's End, West Malvern, Gibson faced the inevitable: 'I am terribly frightened now that the time draws near,' he confessed. 'I am hard at it, trying to cultivate a brazen throat and brazen lungs and a brazen face!' On 23 December, he sailed from Liverpool on the SS Laconia–referred to elsewhere as the SS Tuscania–arriving, 'in spite of submarines,' in New York on 1 January 1917.[4]

Gibson travelled by train to Chicago in time to read at the Little Theatre on 18 February and again on 25 February. Besides renewing his friendship with Browne, he carried with him a letter of introduction from Marjory Kennedy-Fraser to Harriet Vaughn Moody, who catered the tearoom at the Theatre.[5]

The widow of the poet and playwright William Vaughn Moody was the friend of poets, opening to them her three-story brick house on Groveland Avenue. Out of her home she established the Home Delicacies Association–a food catering service–that resulted in a very successful cookbook. By the time of his death in 1910, shortly after he and Harriet were married, Vaughn Moody had established himself as a successful playwright with such prose dramas as The Masque of Judgment, The Fire-Bringer, and The Great Divide, and he and his wife were entertaining such literary luminaries as Ridgely Torrence, E. A. Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, John Masefield, Carl Sandburg, Padraic Colum, and Rabindranath Tagore.

The various poets were often accompanied by members of their families and might stay weeks at a time:

    Entering the house, you were aware of considerable space and of an agreeable bareness. At the right was the drawing-room in which stood a piano and some pieces of sculpture. . . . In the room across the hall there was a fireplace and a massive swing, upholstered in black velvet and hung by chains from the ceiling. This latter arrangement was the accustomed seat of the hostess, who, you would have noticed by this time, was slightly lame. The paintings here were Moody's work, including his pleasantly romantic self-portrait. In this, as in most of the other rooms in the house, were shelves crowded with books–enough to supply a reader for a lifetime. . . . At the rear, through wide doors, you entered the dining-room. Here hung Moody's portrait of 'Harriet,' in oils. The bay window in this room supplied an alcove which was large enough for a flat-topped desk and chair and which constituted Mrs. Moody's study and workroom during the hours she spent at home. [6]

The guests and their hostess would sit up very late, sharing poetry and an interest in the poetic theatre. Candles would light them to a landing of the great staircase and a four-posted bed.

Friends would recall that Harriet Moody 'was most completely herself with those who had the gifts of humor and gaiety.' The live elements of companionship–often of whimsy and fantasy–had bonded her friendship with William, and she had found the qualities of 'natural buoyancy' in Padraic Colum and Ridgely Torrence. The appeal soon extended to Robert Frost, 'another poet after her own heart.' [7]

Shortly after Gibson's visit to her home, Mrs. Moody wrote Alice Corbin Henderson at Poetry:

    We have just had a very happy visit with Wilfrid Gibson, who seems to me one of the most real people. . . . I suppose you have had Mr. Gibson's books and maybe you like them and maybe you don't. To me . . . the quality of his thought and the general impartment of his being are in many ways very suggestive of Will. He is coming back here to spend a few weeks.[8]

She wrote also to Mrs. Kennedy-Fraser, to express 'how deeply indebted' she was for the introduction to Gibson 'who stayed with us quite a long time. . . . He became the friend of all of us, and we all loved him and parted with him with great regret.'[9]

William Vaughn Moody's play The Great Divide was having a successful run in New York, and Gibson spoke of being 'much moved' when he attended a performance. Deciding to delay his departure planned for March, Gibson hoped to return to Chicago. However, he wrote Mrs. Moody on 18 June to advise her of his imminent departure, and to reiterate his gratitude and indebtedness to her and other American friends:

    Well, you know just how much your sympathy and understanding has meant to me at this time–and how often and how affectionately I shall think of my Chicago home. . . . And the way you took my wife and baby to your heart means more to me than I can say.[10]

Gibson sailed from New York 8 July on the SS Baltic, accompanied by American forces heading for the Western Front:

    It took the boat just twelve days to zig-zag its way across the Atlantic. Though we escaped attack, we had an anxious time, as we should have been a wonderful prize for the Germans. We carried one of the most valuable cargoes that has ever crossed the Atlantic, and the passengers we carried made the voyage an event in the history of America and England. . . .
    I have been home just a week and America is already a dream–but O! such a wonderful dream–a dream that must influence all the rest of my life.[11]

Back in England, Gibson told his friends that he had had 'a wonderful time, and was just overwhelmed with kindness.'[12] He thanked Harriet Moody for the gifts she had sent with him for his family. 'In her American frocks [Audrey] looks too sweet,' he wrote.

Wilfrid's and Geraldine's son, Michael Dora Gibson, was born in Dublin on 30 May 1918, and Mrs. Moody became the child's godmother. 'Audrey grows more radiantly beautiful,' Gibson wrote her in Chicago,

    and your little blue-eyed godson has developed into a very notable personality. . . . He lies all day in his pram, under an oak-tree (his second name, Dora, means 'strength of the oak') on a hillside.[13]


Maurice Browne, an impoverished British poet with no stage experience, had worked as teacher, poet, and joint proprietor of the avant garde Samurai Press. He had met the American actress Ellen Van Volkenburg in a cafe in Florence in June 1910; they settled in Chicago and soon were married. Something of a literary rebel, Browne gave a series of controversial lectures on such vanguard writers as Wilde, Shaw, and H. G. Wells.

Raised in a middle-class Chicago family, Van Volkenburg attended the University of Michigan where she performed in undergraduate productions and earned a reputation as a mimic with an uncanny memory. Her talent gained her access to the city's well-to-do patrons, such as Mrs. Chauncey Blair and Mrs. Ogden Armour, willing to sponsor an experimental theatre.

The idea for a little theatre was inspired initially by Dublin's Abbey Theatre, which had performed Synge's Playboy of the Western World in Chicago in autumn 1911. Lady Augusta Gregory, W. B. Yeats's friend and a leading playwright with the Abbey Theatre, encouraged the young couple to establish an innovative theatre in Chicago. According to its literature,

    The Chicago Little Theatre 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 character in action. . . . The Chicago Little Theatre has for its object the creation of a new plastic and rhythmic drama in America.[14]

Although associated with the Incorporated Stage Society in London, the Chicago Little Theatre found itself from its inception virtually without capital or significant endowment. It would be forced to depend upon patronage and individual membership for its survival from season to season.

On 12 November 1912, Browne and Van Volkenburg opened the doors of the Chicago Little Theatre in a tiny back room on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. The auditorium held between ninety-one and ninety-nine seats, each with an uninterrupted view of the stage. The small house was simply decorated, devoid of gilt or clutter. The walls were in stone gray, and deep fawn-colored carpets were on the floor. The chairs were upholstered in doeskin-colored leather, and the curtain was in the same tone. At one side was a carved stone balustrade with two pillars marking the entrance. Beyond was a French window overlooking a formal courtyard. At the entrance from the foyer, a table displayed the works of modern European playwrights and poets, as well as a bust of Ellen Van Volkenburg by Kathleen Wheeler. A portrait of Maurice Browne by Jerome Blum hung above the table. Financial constraints dictated the spartan quality of the unrealistic set designs and costumes.

The physical shortcomings of the Little Theatre were turned into strengths by Browne in his disdain for the commercial theatre's exaggerated histrionics. The young artist C. Raymond Johnson worked with Browne to create spare, abstract stage designs, combined with the expressionistic use of theatrical lighting. Van Volkenburg left the dominant role of running the company to her husband but emerged as the company's most acclaimed star.[15]

Looking beyond the play's performance, Browne and Van Volkenburg envisioned the Little Theatre as the centre and focus of Chicago's cultural life. At one side of the chamber a stone arch admitted to a tearoom, decorated in green and gray. It was tastefully adorned with Chinese tapestries and wood carvings. Tea was served (at a charge of twenty-five cents) during intermissions, at the conclusion of each performance, and on weekday afternoons from four to six. The tearoom allowed cast members and staff to meet with writers, artists, critics, and theatre people from Chicago and around the world. 'It was in our tea-room that Chicago's surging mental life was lived most fully,' Browne would recall in his memoirs. Every Tuesday afternoon, a discussion circle for subscribers met there; on Wednesdays, Browne offered public lectures on current productions and related topics; on Sundays, after rehearsals ended at 5:30 P.M., the company hosted receptions for subscribers and friends, frequently in honor of visiting writers, actors, and theatrical producers. Mrs. William Vaughn Moody, wife of the late Chicago poet, delivered the food from her catering service. John Cowper Powys, who championed the Chicago Little Theatre throughout the United States and Europe, spoke on several occasions, as did Granville Barker, Theodore Dreiser, and Mrs. Havelock Ellis; honored guests included Frank Lloyd Wright, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, and, of course, Rupert Brooke.[16]

Producing forty-four plays, of which twenty-five were performed for the first time in America, the Chicago Little Theatre wrote an important chapter in the history of the touring art theatre in America. During its brief five-year existence, and despite many failures and blunders, it became a source of cultural vitality in Chicago.

The cultural life of Chicago was enhanced by the Theatre's innovative combination of experimental productions, public lectures, and the frequent receptions for local and visiting artists. However, Browne's aesthetic tastes distanced him from the principal literary figures of the so-called Chicago Literary Renaissance of the 1910s. Uncomfortable with the rough, realistic portrayals of a Dreiser, Sandburg, or Anderson, Browne gravitated toward the earlier European moderns, such as Yeats, Maeterlinck, Shaw, Strindberg, and Ibsen. Initially his tastes corresponded with those of Harriet Monroe at Poetry and Margaret Anderson at the Little Review (named at its founding in 1914 in honor of the Little Theatre). Gradually, however, these editors and their reviews looked more toward the new literary modernism represented by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Browne's range of dramatic interests was reflected in the company's extensive repertoire. At its opening, the company had been rehearsing The Trojan Women for several months, but put it aside for two shorter verse plays by contemporary European playwrights: Wilfrid Gibson's Womenkind and Yeats's On Baile's Strand, followed by the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler's Anatol. Both programs reflected Browne's penchant for poetic drama but were received with critical coolness. In talking about his own play, The King of the Jews, Browne considered the writing of the play 'a minor part of the work.' He planned to build up plays with the company right on the stage, to encourage spontaneity. He said that when he discussed his philosophy in England with some of the authors of poetic dramas–Monro, Abercrombie, and Gibson–'they held up their hands in horror.'[17] When the company's third bill opened with The Trojan Women, the Chicago Little Theatre was assured an important place in Chicago's–and the nation's–theatre history. Its production coincided with the organization in the nation's capital of the Women's Peace Party against the cruelty and waste of war; in April 1915, the Chicago Branch of the party was represented at the International Congress of Women at the Hague.

In 1917, with the entry of the United States into the conflict, the antiwar sentiment became unpopular, and the Chicago Little Theatre lost support among its audience and benefactors. Bankruptcy and the closing of the theatre quickly followed in the same year. Browne and Van Volkenburg would soon part company, she to go on tour throughout the country as a successful actress, he to return to London and a brilliant career in stage production.

In her editorial piece on 'Little Theatres and Poetic Plays,' Harriet Monroe, at Poetry, lamented the loss. Praising Miss Van Volkenburg as 'wonderful beyond words,' she summed up the the record of the theatre 'as a proud one, and fundamental in any consideration of the new dramatic movement. . . .'[18] Learning of the theatre's closing, Gibson praised Browne for the 'courageous venture,' for holding on 'so bravely so long, that it seemed as if it must win through, but the war seems to end all things.'[19] Gibson had been in touch with Maurice Browne as early as 1905, when Browne sent him several of his own poems for comment. Subsequently, Gibson submitted his works, including Stonefolds and On the Threshold, to the Samurai Press for publication. By 1911 Browne was settled with Ellen Van Volkenburg in Chicago. From there he was able to assist Gibson in 'hawking' Fires round to the American publishers, and both Fires and Daily Bread were published by Macmillan in 1912 to 'ripping notices' in the American press. 'The Boston Transcript gave me the finest notice I have ever had,' Gibson wrote Browne, praising him for his help in finding a publisher willing to sell 'his stuff to American magazines for him.'

In reviewing the poetry of Gibson in The Poetry Review, Browne praised the seventeen one-act poetic dramas in Daily Bread as 'admirably complete in themselves, superbly direct and objective, magnificently restrained, and intensely poignant. . . .' At the same time, he faulted the volume as 'ugly' and 'unpoetic . . . raw chunks of life,' suggesting that they would have been better written in blank verse or prose. Gibson tried to convince Browne that 'there is more art in one of those pieces than in the whole of "The Web of Life" and the earlier work put together.' He defended his decision to discard conventional blank verse 'for a measure more dramatic and more expressive of the rhythm of emotion and the natural cadence of speech.'[20]

Despite these differences, Gibson gave Browne 'full acting rights' on all his plays. 'I'll refer all American inquiries to you,' he assured him; 'I am most anxious to see something of mine acted, before I set about deliberately writing anything for the stage.'[21]

A few months later, David Nutt published Gibson's one-act play Womenkind on its production at Birmingham in February 1912. Gibson soon learned that his play would be the opening fare at the Chicago Little Theatre. 'Long life to it,' he wrote Browne:

    And I am delighted you are doing some of my things, especially 'The Stonefolds.' I have written to the Macmillan Company New York, suggesting that they should publish a cheap edition of 'The Stonefolds' and 'On the Threshold' in one volume, for sale at 'The Little Theatre.'[22]

As promised, on 12 November 1912, Womenkind was performed for the first time in America, together with Yeats's On Baile's Strand. An inaugural reception had been held several days earlier attended by many of the benefactors and cultural elite of Chicago, including Poetry's Harriet Monroe.

The extensive press coverage of the event was not uniformly kind. It celebrated the opening of the theatre itself as a triumph and complimented Browne and his company for its sincere interest in good plays and in the art of acting by essentially amateur actors. Gibson's Womenkind was described as a play 'worth doing,' a 'poignant sketch' of seemingly squalid lives.[23]

The action of Womenkind, one of the short and simple annals of the poor, covers no more than one hour in real time. Eliza is the aging wife of Ezra Barrasford, a 'blind, feeble-minded, and decrepit' old man. All but one of their six sons have left their home at Krindlesyke; the last, Jim, has gone to be married and is expected to return momentarily with his bride. Ezra is confused. Eliza protests:

    Why, man alive, you never meant to tell me
    That you've forgotten Jim's away to wed!
    You're not so dull as that.

Ezra doesn't realize that it is Phoebe Martin their son is to marry rather than his former girlfriend, Judith Ellershaw. The couple discuss Jim's wayward ways and his liaison with Judith, not seen since she was turned out of her home by her father. Eliza says:

    And no one's heard a word of her.
    I never liked the lass . . .
    She'd big cow-eyes . . .
    There's little good in that sort:
    And Jim's well quit of her.

Ezra responds:

    I wish that Jim had married Judith.
    I liked the lass.

Judith turns up with Jim's bastard daughter in arms. She is still there when the newlyweds arrive. Jim notices the fear:

    Have you no word of welcome, mother,
    That you stand like a stock, and gaping–
    And gaping like a foundered ewe?
    I'll have you give my bride the greeting
    That's due to her, my bride . . .
    Poor lass, she's all atremble . . .
    But, we'll soon see who's mistress!

Meanwhile, Ezra is holding the baby:

    Whose brat! Whose brat!
    And who should know but he!
    He's gay . . . he's gay!
    He asks whose brat!

Judith comes forward to claim her child and acknowledge the father:

    I'll speak my shame . . .
    I'll speak my shame right out . . .
    I'll speak my shame right out, before you all.

When Jim claims 'The brat's no child of mine' to his new wife, no one believes him. Because he has lied to her, Phoebe takes Judith and the baby to her home, abandoning her husband and his parents. 'The blasted wench! She's gone!' Jim protests. 'I'm done with women/They're a faithless lot.' His mother agrees and pours the tea for the three of them.[24]

Today the language seems stilted and archaic, the narrative verse unmoving. The reviews praised the actors for 'the skill and rough tenderness with which the exchange of falteringly spoken but complete confidences between the old woman and the young woman are imparted to the audience.' Ellen Van Volkenburg was singled out for her fine portrayal of Eliza, the mother, 'skillfully turning bad poetry into passable prose, and heightening that by her total gift of characterization'; she succeeded in presenting the audience, 'in spite of the author, with some bits of dramatic action.' The reviewer expected the company to do wonderful things in the future: 'Only, please, no more Wilfrid Wilson Gibson!'

While Womenkind would be the only play by Gibson staged at the Chicago Little Theatre, Gibson had sent Browne the manuscripts for The Garret and The Queen's Crag, and had received from Browne permission for a performance of Womenkind in New York. When a question arose concerning the rights to his plays, Gibson asked Browne's permission to submit new work 'through as many channels as possible' while in the United States. He agreed that Browne should be the sole agent of already-published plays at a commission of no more than 20%. He urged him to collect royalties for several performances of Womenkind and Holiday in New York City during his visit: at the Neighborhood Playhouse and at the church of the Reverend John Hayes Holmes. [25]

Besides submitting his own work to Browne, Gibson generously urged his fellow dramatists to pass along their plays, as well:

    I have already told Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater about the Little Theatre; and I expect they will be sending you plays. I cannot understand why Gordon Bottomley's 'The Crier by Night' and 'The Riding to Lithend' have never been staged. They are published in America by Mosher, I believe. [26]

Abercrombie sent Browne two of his plays, Deborah and The End of the World; Browne expressed a desire to stage Deborah but when an issue of rights arose neither drama was performed in Chicago. Van Volkenburg, who shared with Bottomley a mutual interest in the experimental theatre, in the dance and mime, eventually took King Lear's Wife on tour, but none of Bottomley's plays were performed in the Chicago Little Theatre.

With Brooke's death on 23 April 1915, Miss Monroe wrote to Mrs. Brooke, enclosing 2.10 pounds in payment. Mrs. Brooke graciously responded: 'My son told me that he had made your acquaintance. He enjoyed every bit of his American tour. I hear that his play Lithuania is to be acted at the Little Theatre Chicago.'[27]

Hearing of Brooke's death in the Dardanelles, Maurice Browne was among the many who mourned his passing in painfully maudlin verse, as these two stanzas of his tribute demonstrate:

    I give you glory, for you are dead.
    The day lightens above your head;
    The night darkens about your feet;
    Morning and noon and evening meet
    Around and over and under you
    In the world you knew, the world you knew.
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    You will dance no more; you will love no more;
    You are dead and dust on your island shore.
    A little dust are the lips where
    Laughter and song and kisses were.
    And I give you glory, and I am glad
    For the life you had and the death you had,
    For the heaven you knew and the hell you knew,
    And the dust and the dayspring which were you.[28]

To honor the fallen soldier-poet, Browne and Van Volkenburg decided to perform Lithuania–for the first time anywhere–at the beginning of the Little Theatre's 1915-1916 season. The one-act melodrama opened on 12 October 1915, on the same bill with Andreyev's satirical farce Pretty Sabine Women, translated by Thomas Seltzer.

The action of Brooke's play takes place over one evening in a squalid hut in an isolated, rural area of Lithuania. The Stranger, described in the stage instructions as swaggering, 'young middle-age, expensively, rather flashily dressed' and 'excitable,' turns out to be the son who 'ran off at thirteen.' He is returning after many years to boast of great wealth and decides to withold from his family his true identity. The Daughter (played by Ellen Van Volkenburg), the Stranger's sister, is 'just past her youth,' more 'heavy-faced and immobile' than her Mother; her Father (played by Maurice Browne) works in the fields for pittance. The Stranger comments on the family's isolation:

    It must be frightfully lonely here. I should think it would get on one's nerves. To hear the wind in the branches, and watch the night coming on, month after month . . . I expect you'll all be glad when you've saved up a bit and go away and live by some town.

The Father replies: 'That–that'll be when the rams milk,–when God wakes from his snoring and remembers his poor.' He wants to kill the Stranger but he is too tired and sick; he goes into town to get drunk and steel himself to the task. The Daughter's twisted mentality is revealed as she turns on her Mother in a jealous rage and receives a lecherous suitor; she realizes that the Stranger's money will help her live a less sordid life. She gladly seizes a dull but heavy axe and bludgeons the sleeping Stranger to death as he cries out for his Mother. The Mother is horrified to see her Daughter hit the Strnger over and over in an insane rage. 'It's done,' the Daughter replies. 'We can tell [Father] it's done. I'm glad. We can get away. We'll be rich. I'll wear silk.' The Vodka-Shopkeeper brings the drunk and reeling Father back home and, unaware of the murdered man upstairs, laughingly tells Mother and Daughter of the game the Stranger played:

    [The Stranger] said to me, 'I've such a game on. I'll knock and say I'm a rich man who's lost his way in the woods, and I want a night's lodging, and I'll show 'em my money, and I'll watch 'em and see 'em all again, and then in the morning I'll say: 'Behold, your son which was lost and is found!'

The game he played cost the Stranger his life. In the end, the Daughter realizes her crime is uncovered: 'They'll put me in prison!' she cries as the curtain falls.[29]

The Chicago Tribune praised the play for its veracity of detail: 'The dialogue is stark, the action spare and real, and the playing excellent'; Miss Van Volkenburg 'is a morbid study of murderous pathology, so veristic in quiet detail that one can almost see her brandishing the sanguinary adze in the pilgrim's second story chamber.'[30] However, Lithuania proved most unpopular; it ran for three weeks only and was a complete failure financially.

Granville Barker, a famous theatre producer who had praised the work in manuscript, 'disliked [the performance] intensely,' attributing its unpleasant effect, in part, to the convincing portrayal of the Daughter by Miss Van Volkenburg. According to one press account, Barker thought it such a tragedy it should be called Lusitania. Reviewers were apparently shocked by the play's 'sordid side' and its 'brutal' dramatization of a legend which has often had literary treatment. The following extraordinary prose appeared in the Chicago Daily News:

    Something so gruesome, so bitter and intensely frenetic was leveled at the audience as an opening venture with the grave knowledge that this one brief tearing wound in the eternal fitness of things sums up all the work of Rupert Brooke, who died after he had produced this extraordinary storm of dull, addled hearts and foul brains which he called Lithuania.[31]

The reviewer described 'the hideous deed' in which 'the gnarly daughter takes an axe and chops [the wealthy traveler's] head off while shrieks and groans and gurgling freshets of butchered blood attack the listening hearers.' She characterized the acting as having the 'intensely feverish, bleak and low-tone severity' for which the Chicago Little Theatre is known: Browne, as the Father, acts with 'too much vigor and allegro,' while Miss Van Volkenburg, as the Daughter, 'handled this savage contortion of youth beaten into criminal maturity with great suppression and atmosphere.' Brooke's melodrama is memorable, she concluded, 'not only for its shocking integrals but because the players sunk keen fangs in the heart of it and pierced its human preachment.'

Going one step further, an anonymous critic in the Chicago Post psychoanalyzed Brooke's intent:

    Rupert Brooke both loved and feared beauty–feared it when it seemed to threaten virility and the sense of ruggedness of life. This fear is responsible perhaps for the frequent preoccupation with what many people would call the sheer ugliness in his verse, and it was probably in some such mood of reaction against the rose-spectacled view of things that Lithuania was written.[32]

To drive home his point, the reviewer described the 'extremely savage touch of feminine psychology' with which Brooke loads the climax of the melodrama.

According to Browne, a small edition of the play, in paper wrappers, with a cover designed by Raymond Johnson, was published at 35 cents by the Theatre:

    Through sedulously giving copies away, we succeeded in having only three or four dozen left some two years later, when we raised the price of the remainder to $2.50, at which price, and later at $3.50 and $5.00, they were eagerly bought by the Chicago cognoscenti.

Thanks to Marsh, on 16 May 1916, Lithuania would once again be produced at the Haymarket Theatre in London, together with Bottomley's King Lear's Wife and Gibson's Hoops (out of Borderlands).[33]

Commenting in 1927 on the importance of Brooke's single experiment in the theatre, Browne speculated that Brooke would have turned to drama if he had lived:

    Speculation on Brooke's future as a poet, or as a dramatist, can, of course, be only speculation, but he said much to Miss Van Volkenburg and myself which threw light on what he personally held likely. He looked on Lithuania, as, for him, a highly significant experiment, partly because his medium compelled him to work within limitations which admitted of no redundancy or elaboration, partly because in it he was concerned with the expression of character, not of personal feeling, and partly because he felt that it was his first important stepping-stone toward tragedy; he recognized that tragedy was the highest of the arts, and hoped that ultimately he might attain to it. The simplicity, directness, and power of Lithuania are strong evidence for believing that his hope would have been fulfilled. The play is an 'acting' play from the rise of the curtain to its fall: there is no false or unnecessary word in it; the characters, the situation, the intolerable suspense, the horror of the deed, the reversal, and the appalling climax, are the work of a real dramatist–a dramatist not yet of the first order, it is true, and one who has, perhaps too closely, studied Macbeth, but, none the less, of his kind a master- dramatist. For a first play, Lithuania is almost unbelievably compelling. There is no doubt in my own mind that, had Brooke lived, his main work would ultimately have been dramatic. His dominant characteristic was, if I observed him aright, that 'gusto' in people and life, which he shared with Keats and Synge: that gusto is the essence of drama; it is not, I think, the essence, though in youth it often takes the form, of lyrical poetry. The Memoir [by Marsh] shows, and his everyday conversation showed, how large and practical a part the theatre had played in his daily life from boyhood; he had, too, that nostalgia of the theatre. . . . [34]

Noting Brooke's keen sense of a coming rebirth of ritual drama, Browne concluded his remarks by quoting what was probably Brooke's final letter to him: 'In the end,' Brooke had written, 'those of us who come back will start writing great new plays.'[35]

With Brooke's death, Eddie Marsh sought refuge in Gibson's attic at the Old Nailshop, where he wrote his memoir honoring the deceased poet. Gibson's volume Friends was dedicated to Brooke and contained his brief tribute:

    He's gone.
    I do not understand.
    I only know
    That as he turned to go
    And waved his hand
    In his young eyes a sudden glory shone:
    And I was dazzled by a sunset glow,
    And he was gone.
    23rd April, 1915[36]

All three legatees of Brooke's estate–Gibson, Abercrombie, and de la Mare–would be present in March 1919 for the unveiling of the medallion of Brooke at Rugby.


On the fifth try, close to the Armistice, Gibson finally passed the physical and was billeted as a private to Peak Hill Gardens (London) in a staff-clerkship. After four months in the Army, it was 'almost impossible to realize that any other world exists!' He could write little, but the end of the war seemed to be drawing nearer, 'thanks to America.'[37]

Gibson would resume a quiet, somewhat reclusive, literary life, giving an occasional reading and continuing to correspond with Abercrombie, Marsh, and the friends who survived the war. He wrote very seldom to Browne, now a successful stage producer in England. But after the Second World War, he seems to have resumed the writing of plays. In what may have been his last letter to Browne, he expressed a longing to return to the theatre, seeking suggestions for improving one of several new plays, Across the Threshold:

    I have had no experience at all of theatrical production: and it would be too wonderful if at my age (I am in my 67th year) I could develop a new and more effective technique. As a playwright, my chief difficulty has always been that I have not sufficient intellect to plot out the play before beginning to write it. (Even when writing a narrative poem, the story has a way of writing itself, line by line, and I have little or no idea what course the narrative is going to take!) For instance, when the burst of 'inspiration' came for writing these five new plays, they just poured out one after another; and I had to write them down without any notion of the climax. This may sound very absurd; and I am not claiming that my lack of control is any merit: but, as you will understand, this inability to envisage the play as a whole before beginning to write makes it difficult to ensure a theatrical effectiveness.[38]

By 1945, when this letter was written, Gibson had long since been concerned by the fading reputation of the Georgian poets. He had begun to realize, as early as 1914, that the sale of his books had 'fallen very flat.' Despite high praise from Abercrombie, Davies, and others, Gibson was troubled by harsh criticism from 'the Thomas, de la Mare group who,' he said, 'always despised me.' He was disappointed that Marsh did not care for his new poems; 'Frost doesn't care for them either. It's rather daunting.' By 1916, he no longer expected to sell his books.

'I do hope all the Georgian poets are not going to fizzle,' he wrote Marsh. He realized he had little to grumble at; after all, he concluded, 'I have had far more recognition in my time than I had any right to expect.' With the passing years, however, he spoke more and more of a loss of self confidence; he sensed his own failure, and was unable to resign himself to obscurity. He wrote Frost that 'I am one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him; and I have no faith that posterity . . . will be likely to resuscitate them.[39]

We have witnessed the extraordinary activity of these poets in the years up to and during the First World War on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet none of the New Numbers poets is remembered for the quality of his writing. Brooke might well have gone on to have a distinguished writing career, perhaps in prose rather than verse, and perhaps, as Browne argues, in the theatre. His premature passing precludes such an assessment.

Gibson, a prolific poet published extensively in America and widely acclaimed in the years of the Georgian ascendancy, never understood or overcame the limitations of his talent. Seemingly forgotten, his life and verse are little written about. His name is frequently ignored or even misspelled by contemporary critics and biographers. Gibson's reputation, along with that of most of the Georgian poets, clearly 'predeceased' him.

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[*] This essay is the second installment of a two-part study. The first part was published in the Bulletin n.s. 39:2 (April 1999): 66-91.

[1] Gibson to Marsh, [October 1916] and 27 July 1917, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

[2] Gibson to Frost, 2 October 1916, Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Frost 906129, folder 11; Gibson to Marsh, 19 July 1916, Berg Collection.

[3] Gibson to Browne, 19 April 1916; Gibson to Marsh, 10 October and 12 December 1916, Berg Collection.

[4] Gibson to Marsh, 20 August 1916; Gibson to Browne, 9 November and 4 January 1916, Berg Collection

[5] Mrs. Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1932), Scottish musicologist and folksong researcher who helped revive the rich and ancient traditions of music and legend, was known as the 'Sweet Singer of the Hebrides.' Between 1909 and 1927, she published several volumes of the Songs of the Hebrides.

[6] Olivia Howard Dunbar, A House in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), 8-9. The house was located in an unfashionable part of Chicago, at 2970 Groveland (later Ellis) Avenue. Born Harriet Converse Tilden in 1857, Harriet was sent from Ohio to New York to attend the Howland School, a Quaker institution in Union Springs; she later attended Cornell College in Ithaca. She did not complete her medical studies before marrying Edwin Brainard, a marriage that ended in divorce. She met the poet Moody in 1899 when he was a professor at the University of Chicago. Harriet's book, Mrs. William Vaughn Moody's Cook-Book, was published in New York by Scribner's in 1931. She died in 1932. For more about Harriet's life, see Letters to Harriet by William Vaughn Moody, edited by Percy MacKaye (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1935).

[7] Dunbar, A House, 135-136: 'They understood each other at a glance, and Frost's playful extravagances in familiar talk delighted her. The friendship then promptly sealed remained firm through Harriet's lifetime.' Frost liked to tease Harriet about her Anglophile preferences. Miss Moody also maintained an apartment at 107 Waverly Place in New York, which she shared with friends such as Ridgely Torrence, Padraic Colum, and Frost. A farm she owned in West Cummington, Masschusetts, adjacent to the birthplace of William Cullen Bryant, was made available as a home for a succession of artists (Dunbar, A House, 182). On 21 April 1919, Robert wrote Harriet, referring, in all likelihood, to Gibson's visit: 'Enter distinguished Englishman, exit extinguished American. . . . I do love a country that loves itself. . . . Won't we seem poor stuff the way we whoop it up for anything imported in the arts?' Robert Frost, Selected Letters, ed. Lawrance Thompson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 236. On 20 January 1921, he added: 'I should be more pleased with your good opinion if you hadn't told me that time that I might be the best poet in America, but the best in America couldn't hope to come up to the worst in England. Have a little national pride.' Frost, Selected Letters, 262.

[8] Dunbar, A House, 138.

[9] Moody to Kennedy-Fraser, 17 July 1917, quoted in Dunbar, A House, 145.

[10] Gibson to Moody, 9 March and 18 June 1917, Harriet Moody Papers, University of Chicago. Gibson was encouraged to sail home despite the war activity: 'Everyone here advises me that it is just as safe to sail now as it wil be for many months, or even years, to come. It appears that only about one per cent of the boats that sail from America are sunk and that the liners are sailing backward and forward regularly. An English naval officer who was here yesterday said that if I sailed at a time when there was no moon, there was really little risk. . . . I expect I shall be sailing in a fortnight or three weeks.' 18 June 1917, Moody Papers.

[11] Gibson to Moody, 27 July 1917, quoted in Dunbar, A House, 144-145.

[12] Gibson to Marsh, 27 July 1917, Berg Collection. In a letter from Wilfrid's son, Michael Gibson, to the author, 21 November 1996, he acknowledged Harriet Moody as his godmother but knew nothing about her. He said that his shy, introverted father spoke rarely of the past; regarding the visit to America, he remembers only his saying that 'the hospitality was such that he only stayed in a hotel once!'

[13] Gibson to Moody, 10 September 1918, Moody Papers.

[14] Rupert Brooke, Lithuania (Chicago: The Chicago Little Theatre, 1915), [47].

[15] Bernard Frank Dukore, 'Maurice Browne and the Chicago Little Theatre,' (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1957). This thesis contains an extensive bibliography on the Little Theatre.

[16] Douglas Clayton, 'Yesterday's City: Temple of a Living Art,' Chicago History 22:3 (November 1993): 60; Maurice Browne, Too Late to Lament, an Autobiography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956), 133-134.

[17] Interview with Maurice Browne, Christian Science Monitor, 1915, in a scrapbook in the Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection, University of Michigan. References to newspaper clippings, including the reviews of Gibson's Womenkind and Brooke's Lithuania are from the scrapbooks in the Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection; names of newspapers and dates are often unintelligible.

[18] Poetry 11:4 (January 1918): 204, 205.

[19] Gibson to Browne, 4 January 1917, 15 October 1917, and 12 February 1918, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[20] Maurice Browne, 'The Poetry of W.W. Gibson,' The Poetry Review 1:1 (January 1912): 14-18. This was the first volume of the review and it contained, as well, an essay on 'The Function of Poetry in the Drama' by Lascelles Abercrombie [1:3 (March 1912): 107-118], several poems, and an essay on 'Some Thoughts on the Future of Poetic-Drama' [1:3 (March 1912): 119-122] by Gibson.

[21] Gibson to Browne, 23 May 1911, 13 July 1911, 14 March 1912, and 30 March 1912, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[22] Gibson to Browne, 14 March 1912, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[23] Scrapbook, n.d., Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[24] Wilfrid Gibson, Womenkind (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912).

[25] Gibson to Browne, 7 January and 19 February 1914, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection. Gibson thanked Browne for royalties on the performances of Womenkind in Chicago, totalling 8.40 pounds, with additional royalties on the out-of-town performances, and on the performance in New York by the Henry Street Settlement, totalling 26.34 pounds.

[26] Gibson to Browne, 30 March 1912, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection. Before Frost moved to Little Iddens and before publication of North of Boston, Gibson had written the American poet urging him to send along his play�unnamed although probably An Assumed Part: 'I should love to read the play, if you'll trust me with it. And may I send it on to Maurice Browne, The Little Theatre, Chicago, & to Drinkwater (Birmingham Repertory)? or would you rather send it yourself. And may I let Lascelles see it?' Gibson to Frost, 24 January 1914, Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Frost 906129, folder 7. It does not appear that Frost acted on this invitation.

[27] Mrs. Brooke to Harriet Monroe, 25 November 1915, Harriet Monroe Papers, University of Chicago. Mrs. Brooke later gave Miss Monroe permission to sell a photocopy of Brooke's letter to her as part of the war effort; Miss Monroe included a selection of Brooke's poems in her 1917 anthology of New Poetry.

[28] Maurice Browne, Recollections of Rupert Brooke (Chicago: Alexander Greene, 1927), [7-8].

[29] Brooke, Lithuania.

[30] Percy Hammon, Chicago Tribune, 14 October 1915, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[31] Amy Leslie, 'The Little Theater Blossoms in Vigor,' Chicago Daily News, 13 October 1915, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[32] Chicago Post, 22 October 1915, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[33] Browne, Recollections, 51. See also Gibson to Browne, 10 February 1916, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[34] Browne, Recollections, 51-52.

[35] Quoted in Browne, Recollections, 53.

[36] Wilfrid Gibson, Friends (London: Elkin Mathews, 1916), [7].

[37] Gibson to Browne, 12 February 1918, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection; Gibson to Moody, 10 September 1918, Moody Papers.

[38] Gibson to Browne, 14 February 1945, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection.

[39] Gibson to Marsh, 23 August and 12 December 1916, Berg Collection; Gibson to Browne, 1 April 1937, Van Volkenburg-Browne Collection; Gibson to Frost, 4 May 1939, Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections, Ms. Frost 906129, folder 84.

Last Updated: 5/3/12