The Canterbury Pilgrims and the US entry into the Great War

A century ago, the United States declared war against Germany and its allies.  The same week, Chaucer was making his first (and perhaps) only appearance on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s English-language opera,  The Canterbury Pilgrims. To mark this double centennial, we’re reproducing Candace’s account in her  American Chaucers (2007) of the fifth performance when the evening was interrupted by news that the United States would be entering the Great War in Europe.

costume design canterbury pilgrims


During the spring of 1917, New York’s Metropolitan Opera lavishly mounted the premiere performances of Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s The Canterbury Pilgrims.[1] One of the first full-length American grand operas to appear on the Metropolitan’s stage, the opera received primarily lukewarm reviews: it seemed neither very grand nor very American. Sung in English by a largely German cast, the opera was frequently critiqued for being no more intelligible to the audience than an opera in German or Italian.[2] The only English words universally recognized by the audience were in Act Two, when the German-accented “Vife of Bat” cried “Shud upp-phh!”[3] On the evening of the fifth performance, however, the audience was probably less concerned than before about discerning the fine points of the pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury, preoccupied instead with the news due from the White House at any minute.

CanterburyPilgrimsOperaProgram

For months, the captains of American commerce and industry, many of whom were at the Metropolitan on that evening of April 2, were eager for President Wilson to declare the nation at war against Germany and its allies.[4] At the end of the third act, word arrived that President Wilson had advised Congress to accept “the status of belligerent” that the behavior of the Imperial German Government had thrust upon the American people.[5] As the New York Herald reported, the news spread as “the blackface typed extras” were passed from the lobby “to the orchestra seats and then to the boxes.”[6] Within five minutes, patrons had abandoned all decorum and newspapers were spread out over the box railings. The American audience was jubilant at the news. Whereas the librettist had once hoped the Chaucerian opera would “[restore] old merry England to the imaginations of men” and turn their minds to the woos of England under assault, this night the war in Europe captured American imaginations and turned their minds away from The Canterbury Pilgrims.[7] When it came time to begin the fourth and final act, Maestro Bodanzky soberly entered the orchestra pit and conducted the musicians in the national anthem, while the audience stood up and sang. James W. Gerard, the United States ambassador recalled from Germany, marshaled three cheers for President Wilson, and the house of 3,500 roared with approval for the President’s war message.[8] After the cheering died down, Bodanzky led the orchestra in “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a second time before finally starting Act Four.

The final act began in front of Canterbury Cathedral’s impressive west entrance, with the Canterbury Girls chorus hawking their wares. Then entered the Wife of Bath (German alto Margrete Ober), dressed “gorgeously as a bride,” ready to claim husband number six, and gloating about her newly-won “pot of honey.”[9] In the middle of a phrase, unable any longer to control her anxiety about the United State’s impending entry into hostilities against her native land, Mme. Ober fell back in a dead faint. “In that condition, she was lifted and dragged off with some difficulty, not to reappear, while the other stars made the best they could of the closing act without her.”[10] Offstage, Robert Leonhardt, the German baritone singing the role of the Knight, also fainted but was revived in time to join the final chorus.[11]

Despite the episode of the fainting Wife of Bath, ticket receipts for the Metropolitan’s seven productions of The Canterbury Pilgrims merited extending the opera company’s contract with deKoven for another season. But before the next season began, not only the fainting Germans but all German nationals were sent home, forcing the cancellation of The Canterbury Pilgrims’ second season and allowing its chances to join the Metropolitan’s repertory to slip away. The opera, however, had faced a Sisyphean task: it sought to bring a vernacular libretto and music to an audience that distinguished itself from the rabble precisely by dismissing the American vernacular in favor of European standards of verse and music. As much as the opera was undermined by the repatriated Germans, ultimately the opera was undermined by the production conditions, in particular the decision to use German soloists to sing the principle parts in English, a decision neither the composer nor the librettist could control.

[1]. The opera had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on March 8, 1917.

[2]. Irving Kolodin, The Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1966: A Candid History (New York: Knopf, 1966), 309–13.

[3]. Scrapbook Clipping, New York Evening Journal, March 9, 1917, MacKaye Family Archives, “Percy MacKaye Papers,” Collection housed at Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire, ML 5.

[4]. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 352–54. Though the war was a boon to commercial interests, the majority of Americans did not support entering the war (T. J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 [June 1985]: 586, fn 46).

[5]. Woodrow Wilson, “War Message,” in War Messages, Senate Doc. No. 5 (Washington, D.C.: 65th Congress, 1st Session, 1917), http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/1917/wilswarm.html.

[6]. Scrapbook clipping, New York Herald, April 8, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers.”

[7]. Correspondence, PM to RdK, July 19, 1915, “Percy MacKaye Papers”.

[8]. Quaintance Eaton, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1967 (New York: Meredith Press, 1968), 194–95.

[9]. Percy MacKaye, lyricist, and Reginald deKoven, composer, The Canterbury Pilgrims, An Opera in Four Acts (Cincinnati and New York: John Church Company, 1916), 54.

[10]. Percy MacKaye, The Canterbury Pilgrims: An Opera (Libretto) (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 54; and, Scrapbook clipping, unknown source, April 3, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”. Compare this with Metropolitan manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s version: “There was an immense stir in the house. Backstage, in the wings, Mme. Margarete Ober, who was a patriotic German, was so affected by the news that she fainted away, and we had to go through the last act without her” (Memories of the Opera [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], 179–80). According to all sources, Mme. Ober did sing the season’s remaining two performances.

Already, the opera was associated with entering the war: the second performance had been attended by Ambassador James Gerard (had he nothing better to do?), and the New York City Times duly noted that he “listened with evident interest to a language which he and his official staff had been hissed for using when attending theatres in Berlin” (Scrapbook clipping, March 17, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”).

[11]. Eaton, The Miracle of the Met, 193–95.

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