Caliban by the Yellow Sands

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Caliban by the Yellow Sands is a play by Percy MacKaye, published in 1916.

Production information[edit]

Poster for Caliban at Harvard Stadium June 28 to July 9 [1917].

MacKaye devised this piece in celebration for the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

St. Louis production (1914)[edit]

MacKaye's first technical opportunity to experiment in devising a dramatic structure of Caliban's requirements was in St. Louis in 1914.[1] In this initial production, there were seven thousand citizens who actually took part in the Masque.[2] Audience members would gather in public parks to witness the production, even if it mean they would have to pay! Over the five-day run, Caliban by the Yellow Sands was witnessed by half a million people (Kilmer 313). The following productions, although still influential and thriving, were much smaller in comparison.

New York production (1916)[edit]

After the St Louis production, MacKaye began to look to Central Park for an appropriate site to produce the community festival. The idea was to now have his Masque as the central popular piece in the festival, along with the hundreds of other Shakespearean celebrations. However, there were far too many people who opposed this idea of using Central Park and did not think that it was an appropriate setting for the production. This debate ended in the disapproval of the use of Central Park, which MacKaye was very disappointed about. He strongly believed that the ones who were against the idea were simply unaware of the impact and significance the initial production had on the citizens of St. Louis, and the potential affect it could have on the citizens of New York City. He finally received approval to produce the play in New York two years later, at the Lewisohn Stadium. The New York production had an audience of 20,000 a night, with 2,000-3,000 people actually performing. Although still high in number, MacKaye desired more of what had been produced in St. Louis and longed to grow the piece in New York just as rapidly. The total audience of 135,000 covered the costs of around $100,000. However attempts to turn the enthusiasm for the production by having an annual event came to nothing with the US entry into the First World War.[2] The passion MacKaye had for expanding and growing the Masque rooted from his passion for mankind, which was the basis for the play as a whole as it resulted in the piece being titled a "Community Masque".

Play information[edit]

The play is loosely based on Shakespeare's play The Tempest, and centers on the character Caliban, the monster son of Sycorax, and his desire for knowledge. The passage taken from The Tempest, which is the inspiration for the masque, is when Prospero says,

It was mine art
When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape
The pine and let thee out. (I.i.)

The character of Caliban is meant to represent the "passionate child-curious part of us all": Caliban is depicted as a much more primitive character than Prospero or Ariel, in his pursuit of the art of Prospero. These are not meant to be direct characters from Shakespeare's play but rather symbolic representations of what these characters mean in the context of his play. MacKaye was less worried about telling the journey of these characters in a story rather than present to the audience a piece of poetry meant to resonate with them on a deeper level. The play is constructed in a way which includes scenes concerning Caliban's story as well as anachronistic vignette-like scenes which take place in a separate performance area. A scene could occur between Caliban and Miranda and then immediately switch to a scene between Brutus and Lucius.

Play's literature[edit]

The language used by MacKaye is only one of many elements in the work meant to cultivate the idea he is trying to present. "If no word of the Masque be heard by the audience, the plot, action, and symbolism will still remain understandable". The symbolic structure to include pageantry, poetry, and dance in one play is MacKaye's attempt at forming a new genre of theatre meant to affect the masses of people who saw his performances. In his first production of Caliban by the Yellow Sands in St. Louis, his emphasis was on making all the elements of the theatre work synchronously. No single aspect of the Masque was meant to overpower another. The technical would work with the artistic and even the different artistic styles, which included elements of opera, song, dance, and various other performance styles, worked in one cohesive unit. While spectacle was a large part of the production, the poetry and literature were equally as important. Mackaye worked with a number of activists from New York's various linguistic communities; the socialist labor leader and poet Arturo Giovannitti translated the play into Italian.[1]

MacKaye's ideals[edit]

Caliban was meant to bring together a community not just civically but also intellectually. Mackaye's theoretiucal views could be seen in hisconcept of "Civic Theatre" which outlined before Caliban by the Yellow Sands was even a thought. MacKaye's Civic Theater was one which, "resembles the harmonious mind of a man whose splendid passions and imaginations are controlled and directed by his enlightened reason to the service of his race". His theatre was not that of the money hungry producer but that of the artist wanting to enlighten his fellow man. Caliban achieves this thought in the sense of the story MacKaye tries to tell. He presents the journey of mankind and its quest for art. It is a simple enough idea with many implications and interpretations making the audience a necessity. With an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the conversations stirring around Caliban by the Yellow Sands would lead to debate, agreement, and mass intelligent thought accomplishing his goal of unifying a community.

Critical commentary[edit]

Thomas Cartelli has characterised MacKaye's depiction of the struggle between Prospero and Caliban as being reductively displayed as a manichean struggle between dark and light. He suggests that the scenes interposed from other works of Shakespeare are those least linked to social and political issues, rather focusing on unproblematic scenes from the romantic tragedies and festive comedies. The "Community Masque" places MacKaye in the position which he dramatises as that of Prospero/Shakespeare, who uses the theatre to uplift Caliban from the material world of Setebos. Cartelli discusses the implications this has in the context of Jewish immigration to New York and suggests that Mackaye is asserting the values of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in a way comparable to Senator Albert Beveridge's concerns raised at the turn of the century. Cartelli thus considers MacKaye's work as an example of neocolonialism, which asserts Shakespeare as providing the peak experience of western civilisation.[3]


  1. ^ a b Mackaye, Percy (1916). Caliban by the Yellow Sands. New York: Doubleday Page & Co. p. 153. 
  2. ^ a b Shattuck, Charles Harlen (1987). Shakespeare on the American Stage: From Booth and Barrett to Sothern and Marlowe. London: Associated University Presses. ISBN 9780918016775. 
  3. ^ Cartelli, Thomas (2013). Repositioning Shakespeare: National Formations, Postcolonial Appropriations. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 9781134647323. 

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