In November 2019 I won an eBay auction for an extensive archive of material about the Progressive Stage Society and its President Julius Hopp. This unbound scrapbook collection of theater programs, circulars, internal society memoranda, and newspaper clippings was formed by either Mr. Eugene Smith or by his wife, both of whom were members of the Society. For brevity’s sake, however, I will designate Eugene Smith as the preparer of this archive. The archive itself provides a history of the rise and fall of the Progressive Stage Society and its President, Julius Hopp. It also provides an insight into the use of the stage by Socialist activists to promote the Socialist movement.
In the summer of 1904, Eugene Smith received an invitation from Julius Hopp to join a “movement” whose purpose would be to produce plays on Sunday afternoons. The circular contained tell-tale words and phrases which left no doubt about the Socialist tendencies of the movement: “the progressive proletariat; the masses; the working people; educate the poor; a higher state of society.” What Edward Bellamy accomplished with his book Looking Backward, Julius Hopp hoped to accomplish with his drama.
On Smith’s copy of the circular, Hopp wrote the time, date and location of the first private meeting of the organization.
After the June 5th meeting, Julius Hopp sent out a memo announcing a public conference about the Society on June 30th.
Hopp had an interesting set of speakers for the conference. Hopp himself was a Socialist activist, as was the real estate mogul Gaylord Wilshire, and the theater critic Courtenay Lemon. Mrs. Richard Hovey was a disciple of Delsartism (a unique form of training for dancers and actors). Mrs. Vera Johnston was the niece of Madam Blavatsky, and deeply involved in theosophy herself. Alexi C. Ferm was a pioneer in education who had met his wife Elizabeth Battle at a theosophy meeting in the 1890s.
Information about the Progressive Stage Society appeared in several New York newspapers during the summer and early fall of 1904, including an article by Mrs. Richard Hovey in the Oct 2, 1904 issue of The Sun. Hovey reported that the Progressive Stage Society already had between 200 and 300 members. She expected they’d have 1,000 members when they produced their first play in the middle of November. Mrs. Hovey identified the second part of Bjornson’s Beyond Human Power as the first play the Progressive Stage would produce, and that it was already under rehearsal. The first part had recently been played on Broadway by Mrs. Patrick Campbell. The second part had been translated into English by Mrs. Mary Hanford Ford especially for the Progressive Stage Society. The play would be the first production of the second part of the play on an English Stage. Mrs. Hovey figured that each performance of a play would cost $500. And that 1,000 members would pay 50 cents for each performance. The Progressive Stage Society, however, never had more than 450 members. Moreover, Beyond Human Power was not the first play produced by the Progressive Stage Society. It would not be produced until March 1905.
Julius Hopp was busy promoting the Progressive Stage Society himself. He got Horace Traubel to write about the Progressive Stage Society in the “Play Things” column of the July 1904 issue of Traubel’s popular monthly periodical, The Conservator. Traubel praised Hopp in the article for getting rid of the star; for proposing that the play is more important than the players; for proposing a free stage by and for the people; for performing plays about the problems of the people. Traubel writes:
This does not mean that we propose to turn the theater into a nursery for the propagandist. Though I do not think that as bad as making it a huckstery. But that is not the idea. The idea is not that it should be deadly with the dullness of a doctrine. The idea is that it should be vivid with the activity of immediate life. The stage cannot be interesting because it is not free. It does not dare. It skulks and apologizes. Our age is up against the most poignant experiences of history. The stage passes these experiences by. It would like to say: How are you! But it must pass on without salutation. Hopp and his group are striking out for fresh conditions…They will do what can be done to give a voice through the theater….
Hopp then had the Socialist-leaning printing firm, The Co-Operative Press, print Traubel’s “Play Things” article together with Courtenay Lemon’s address that was delivered at the June 30th first public meeting of the Progressive Stage Society.
If Traubel’s article hinted at Socialism, Lemon’s address brought it out into the open. He argued that Broadway theaters were owned by capitalists whose only concern was profit. And whose patrons were the idle rich. The purpose of the Progressive Stage Society, on the other hand, was “to produce dramas of artistic and educational value in order to awaken progressive ideas and appreciation of art in the minds of the masses.”
Hopp distributed the pamphlet throughout New York City, and included a note written in script, as well as a membership application.
The Progressive Stage Society held a business meeting and sociable half hour on Saturday evening, October 8, 1904. On Sunday October 16th they held a public rehearsal to increase the membership and obtain funds for the Society. None of the plays rehearsed were plays the Progressive Stage Society afterwards produced. I suspect they were plays the actors in the rehearsals were familiar with.
On October 26, 1904, Eugene Smith received a postcard from Julius Hopp informing him of a committee meeting on October 28th. Writing a constitution for the Progressive Stage Society was on the agenda.
Pasted next to the postcard in the scrapbook were the membership cards of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Smith.
Shortly after the October 28th meeting, the Progressive Stage Society announced that its first production would be on Sunday, Nov. 27, 1904 at the Carnegie Lyceum. The program would contain three one-act plays that were never presented on stage in the United States: The Scab, The Broken Pitcher, and Miner and Soldier. The Broken Pitcher had a special meaning for Eugene Smith, the archive’s owner, because he translated it from the German of Heinrich von Kleist.
Mr. Smith fantasized about the production of his translation of the play, and doodled a drawing of the interior of the Carnegie Lyceum.
Here is the theater program of The Scab and Miner and Soldier, the first production of the Progressive Stage Society:
Noticeably absent in the program is any mention of The Broken Pitcher!
The Progressive Stage Society originally wanted to perform The Broken Pitcher between The Scab and Miner and Soldier because it was a comedy; the other two plays were dramas about striking workers. By having a comedy in the middle of the program, the Society thought the first production of the Progressive Stage Society would not come off as overly Socialist. It dropped the comedy and came off as overly Socialist.
The Scab is about the family of a mill worker who are starving because the father and mother are on strike and they don’t have any money to buy food. The wife’s brother comes to the rescue saying he found a dollar in the street and bought food for the family. While they’re eating the father sees a bobbin in his brother-in-law’s pocket, and realizes that he was working in the mill. He throws his brother-in-law out of the house and says, “We want honest food in this house, or none.” The strike is finally won, the mother and father go back to work, and there is food on the table every night. The daughter is unhappy because her mother has to go back to work and can’t play with her every day. The daughter says, “I don’t see why you are so glad.”
Miner and Soldier is a morbid tale of mine workers on strike who decide to blow up the mine. But the mine is guarded by the military. The soldier who is guarding the mine is the son of the mine worker who was chosen to blow up the mine. The soldier points a fixed bayonet at his father and prevents him from entering the mine. His father disowns him on the spot. The son resolves his internal conflict between military duty and family honor; he puts the muzzle of the gun in his mouth and commits suicide in front of his father. The father then sorrowfully enters the mine as the curtain falls.
Both plays received good reviews in The New York Times and the two Socialist newspapers, The Worker and Volkszeitung. The critic for The Worker wrote, “The Scab by Elsa Barker, is the first labor play of literary merit and dramatic excellence by a Socialist author in America.” The critic, however, reported that the play lost some of its power because of the defective acting of the actor playing John, the striking workingman, who flubbed two scenes.
I like the way the critic of The Worker described the cast:
The plays were acted by experienced amateurs, dramatic students, and a number of professionals who are so in sympathy with the purposes of the society that they are willing to freely give their services until the society has achieved sufficient success to warrant the regular engagement of its actors.
In December the Progressive Stage Society announced that its second production Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People would be performed on Sunday afternoon, January 1st, 1905 at Berkeley Lyceum Theatre.
Here is the theater program of An Enemy of the People, the second production of the Progressive Stage Society:
In Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a coastal town in Norway is about to become a health resort when a doctor discovers that the town’s spa is contaminated and several people have gotten sick. The doctor’s findings are brushed aside because it would cost too much to correct the problem. When the doctor raises the issue again at a town meeting, he is shouted down and declared to be “an enemy of the people.”
The December circular also mentioned a Discussion Meeting of the Progressive Stage Society that would be held on January 8th at the same time that a lecture on Ibsen’s works would be given. My first thought was that it would be a discussion about Ibsen’s works. However, Eugene Smith had a sheet dated January 1905 that contained a list of plays, many of which were performed in the coming months. Therefore, I surmise that the January 8th “Discussion Meeting of the Society” was to discuss which plays the Society wanted to perform. Mr. Eugene Smith was a member of the Dramatic Committee, and I believe this list of plays was written by his hand.
The Progressive Stage Society got added publicity when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an extensive article about the Society on January 8, 1905. The title of the article was “Teaching Socialism by the Drama as Tried in New York Proves Popular.” You can read the complete article via this hyperlink.
The Society gave a benefit performance of An Enemy of the People at the Berkeley Lyceum Theatre on Friday afternoon, February 10, 1905. The profits from the performance went to the New York Society of the Friends of Russian Freedom to aid the victims of oppressive and brutal rule in Russia.
All was not well with the Progressive Stage Society. There were some people who were not satisfied with the direction the Society was heading, and they decided to form their own society. It was originally named the National Dramatic Guild, but soon changed its name to the American Dramatic Guild. Eugene Smith’s marginalia in the circular reads, “a counter move of the first disaffected.”
Here is the theater program of Flirtation, the third production of the Progressive Stage Society:
The Feb. 19, 1905 performance of Flirtation was the first performance in English of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1895 play Liebelei. It was the first performance of an Arthur Schnitzler play in New York City. This English version was translated by Grace Isabel Colbron. It was a romantic play about a young woman from the lower middle class who falls in love with a man from an aristocratic family. The play, translated by other playwrights, appeared under the title of The Reckoning in New York City in 1908 and as Light O’ Love as a 1912 book in Chicago. The play was adapted into a movie in 1933, 1958, 1986 and 2010.
The Progressive Stage Society distributed a circular announcing its programs for March 1905, including its next production, the second part of Bjornstjerne Bjornson’s four-act drama, Beyond Human Power. The Society received permission from Bjornson to translate and produce the second part of the play. It had never before been translated into English and had never been produced on an English or American stage.
Here is the theater program of Beyond Human Power, the fourth production of the Progressive Stage Society:
Eugene Smith was one of the stage directors of this play. He preserved three reviews of this play, one from the New York Sun, and another from the New York Herald, and the third from The Morning Telegraph. The headline of the first newspaper was “A Socialist Speech-Drama: Progressive Stage Society Struggles With Bjornson.” The headline of the second newspaper was “Bjornson Play Proves Surprise: Beyond Human Power, Part Two, Never Before Seen Here, Creates a Sensation.” The headline of the third newspaper was “Bjornson Play Weights Actors: Progressive Stage Society Struggles Nobly With the Second Part of Beyond Human Power.”
Something not quite right was going on behind the scenes in the rehearsals of Beyond Human Power. The entire cast quit less than a week before the scheduled performance. The play was produced without a rehearsal. Some of the cast couldn’t remember their lines. But the orations in the play, and the scene where capitalists were blown up, were so powerful that, as one critic wrote, the play was “one of the most thrilling, effective performances seen in New York in many a day.”
In addition to the three reviews, Smith preserved the following news clip of Julius Hopp claim that the Society had no problems with the Actors’ Church Alliance (no plays on Sundays) or with the Gerry Society (no one under 16 could perform in a play).
The monthly announcement for April 1905 revealed that Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder would be the fifth production of the Progressive Stage Society. The play would be performed at the Murray Hill Theatre on Sunday April 30th at 8 o’clock. Of note, and for the first time ever, the names of the Dramatic Committee members were included in the Society’s letterhead.
Pasted to the bottom of the circular were the membership tickets purchased for the performance by Mr. & Mrs. Eugene Smith.
Here is the theater program of The Master Builder, the fifth production of the Progressive Stage Society:
Printed in the program was an extract about Ibsen’s play from James Huneker’s book, Iconoclasts: A Book of Dramatists. This book was just published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York in March, 1905.
Every seat in the Murray Hill Theatre was taken, and some people were even turned away as the Progressive Stage Society gave its last performance of the season. That’s what the critics were saying….
The Progressive Stage Society decided to perform two matinees of The Master Builder as well at the Berkeley Lyceum Theatre on May 2nd and May 4th.
Julius Hopp scheduled a private conference for the 9th of May. He wanted to expand the scope of the Progressive Stage Society from giving monthly performances to giving daily performances.
He followed up with a notice that the Progressive Stage Society was planning to give a series of open air performances in order to create a fund for the next season. The first performance would be the Sanskrit drama, Sakuntala, in full Indian costumes. The notice said that the play would be performed at a place in Staten Island. But the location was later changed to the Madison Square Roof Garden.
Here is a circular announcing the first presentation of Sakuntala to be performed in America, on the Roof Garden of Madison Square Garden. The circular was pasted together with an admission ticket and the the first of many newspaper reviews. In small print on the circular were the words, “in case of unfavorable weather the performance will be given in the Concert Hall of Madison Square Garden.” It rained….
Here is the theater program of Sakuntala, the sixth performance of the Progressive Stage Society:
Yes. It started raining right before the curtain went up and the show had to be moved inside to the Concert Hall and the sweltering June heat. The performance garnered lots of publicity, not all of which was good. The headline for The Morning Telegraph read, “Gross Realism Disgusts Audience at the Performance of Sakuntala: Half Naked Negroes Act as Ushers and Many Women Leave the Hall. Fat, Ungainly and Partially Clothed Edmund Russell Adds to the General Dramatic Fiasco.”
Sakuntala was a Sanscrit drama that was written by Kalidasa in the 4th Century. The two main characters are Dushyanta, Marharajah of India, and Sakuntala, the daughter of a nymph. While out hunting, the Marharajah happens upon a beautiful hermitage where Sakuntala is a flower girl. It is love at first sight and they marry on the spot. The Maharajah gives Sakuntala his signet ring and he returns to the Court of Vikrama. A jealous goddess puts a curse on the Maharajah which makes him lose all memory of his wife. After a few months Sakuntala goes to the Court but the Maharajah still doesn’t remember her. Moreover, she has lost the ring. A few years later someone discovers the ring in a fish. When the ring is returned to the Maharajah, the spell is broken, and he remembers Sakuntala. He goes back and finds her at the hermitage. And surprise! surprise! She has a son!
Eugene Smith received the ominous notice below on July 5th, 1905. The Progressive Stage Society was in dire straits. It did not have enough money to pay its bills. Julius Hopp asked members to contribute however much they could give. On the top of the notice, Smith wrote, “The debts of the Society – amount $268.00
Most of the material in the Progressive Stage Society archive was in chronological order. That’s why the next sheet containing a mimeographed memo and a printed circular had me scratching my head for a few minutes. Both the memo and the circular announced an upcoming society meeting on September 10th, but at different locations. At first I thought the meeting place had changed, but then I realized that the memo cited the date as Saturday, September 10th, while the circular cited the date as Sunday September 10th. In short, the memo was from September 1904, and was not filed in chronological order.
The next circular gave details for the first production of the second season. The Society would give two matinee performances of Henrik Ibsen’s comedy, The Young Men’s League. Included in the circular were a brief description of the play, and applications for tickets, for membership, and one to get on the Society’s mailing list.
Here is the theater program of The Young Men’s League, the seventh production of the Progressive Stage Society:
Eugene Smith preserved only one review of this play in the archive, and it was not a good one.
The next archive sheet contains a personal note to Eugene Smith from Julius Hopp, and a memo about an upcoming important business meeting.
The next two circulars announce the first performance in America of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome. Two other one-act plays, The Revolt and On the Road, would be performed together with Salome, beginning on November 12 and continuing every night up to and including the 18th of November.
The Progressive Stage Society received advance publicity for its production of Salome in The World on November 7, 1905. The article refers to Messrs McAdoo and Comstock, and that Mrs. Mercedes Leigh would defy them while performing the starring role in Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome. Anthony Comstock was an American Social Purity leader, and Walter McAdoo was the Police Commissioner of New York City. Earlier that year they had shut down George Bernard Shaw’s play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, because of indecency. Mrs. Leigh argued that Salome was shut down in Berlin, not because of indecency, but because John the Baptist was in the cast, and was beheaded in the play. The writer of the article reported that Mrs. Leigh would be wrapped in seven veils. Seven slaves would dance around her until the veils no longer covered her. Even more enticing, the reporter mentioned that Mrs. Leigh “was a handsome woman.” The play was performed every night the entire week without any stoppage. Interestingly, however, in January 1907, McAdoo and Comstock managed to stop Richard Strauss’s production of Salome at the Met after only one performance.
Here is the theater program of The Revolt, On the Road, and Salome, the eighth production of the Progressive Stage Society:
Eugene Smith preserved two review news clips. And Anthony Comstock is mentioned in one of them!
Here is the theater program for The Right to Love, the ninth production of the Progressive Stage Society:
Eugene Smith preserved a handwritten memo which detailed the attendance and money collected for the day’s performance. There were 130 tickets turned in (130 patrons bought tickets at 50 cents each). There was $46.00 collected at the door for the Dec. 10th show (92 patrons paid at the door). $19 was received from patrons who bought tickets in advance (38 patrons bought tickets in advance). One patron bought a ticket for the next day’s performance (fifty cents). $46.50 was the total amount of money collected on Dec. 10th.
Eugene Smith preserved three reviews of the play. All of them were bad. The first reviewer said the play aroused a feeling of nausea. The second reviewer said that passages in The Right to Love made Mrs. Warren’s Profession look like the memoirs of a child convert. The third reviewer called the play “moral malaria.”
Julius Hopp. it seems, may have been a better writer about the stage than a director of the stage. His article, “The Social Drama and Its Purpose,” was published in the January 1906 issue of The Eclectic Magazine.
The next circular announced multiple benefit performances of The Death of Tintagiles to be performed with The Escape and The Revolt. The profits of the performances would go to the organizations for whose benefit the performances were given.
Here is the theater program of The Death of Tintagiles and The Revolt, the tenth production of the Progressive Stage Society. The Escape was not performed until the next month.
Eugene Smith did not preserve a theater program of The Scab, Peer Gynt, and The Escape, the eleventh production of the Progressive Stage Society. The two scenes performed from Peer Gynt were the first time the play was performed in America.
Eugene Smith did not preserve a review of the eleventh production either. But he preserved a news clip of a special performance the Progressive Stage Society put on for the Associated Building Trades on Tuesday February 6, 1906. Two labor plays, On the Road and The Scab were re-performed for the trade union, which bought tickets and sent its executive committee, one of whom was a steamfitter. Julius Hopp made a speech when the play was over. And then the steamfitter put in his two cents. The steamfitter’s speech is recorded in the last four paragraphs of the news clip.
Eugene Smith did not preserve a theater program of Poor People, The Brotherhood of Men, and The Choice of Princess Dainty, the twelfth production of the Progressive Stage Society. But he preserved two circulars about the last official production of the Progressive Stage Society. Julius Hopp was the playwright of the first two plays, and Ashley Miller the other. The plays would be performed on Saturday March 17, 1906. The second circular also mentioned that the plays would be reproduced on Tuesday March 27th for The Theatre of Labor, a new offshoot of the Progressive Stage Society. As will be seen shortly, Julius Hopp’s days as President of the Progressive Stage Society were numbered, and he was already planning his next career move.
The next archive sheet contained a review that was dated March 19, ’06. The reviewer dubbed Hopp’s first play, Poor People, “a one-act drama of the nothing-doing school.” During the intermission between the second and third play Hopp laments that they have collected only thirty-one dollars for the night’s production, but they need sixty-four dollars. He asked for a collection to make up the difference.
Tucked in the right corner of the archive sheet containing the review above was a news clip that Smith dated 03-26-06. Julius Hopp had asked the Executive Committee of the Central Federated Union for the union’s cooperation in helping to make the Theatre of Labor a permanent institution. Hopp proposed producing plays dealing with the hard conditions of working people. However, some of the members of the Committee thought the working people needed something more cheerful to see. The Executive Committee appointed a committee to see a sample performance of the Theatre of Labor. That performance was on the very next night, March 27, 1906 previously mentioned in the second circular.
Eugene Smith preserved a news clip dated March 28, 06, which was a review of the sample performance of the Theatre of Labor that the committee of the Central Federated Union attended. The critic happened to mention that Julius Hopp “was” the President of the Progressive Stage Society, and “is” Chairman of the Theatre of Labor – more on that shortly! In the review, the critic lambasted Hopp’s play, Poor People. The play ends with one of the cast members saying, “Oh! It is awful to be poor.” The critic responds, “It certainly is, especially to be as poor as Mr. Hopp’s play.”
On March 22nd, 1906 a committee that had been appointed by the Progressive Society to find a way to put the Society on a sound financial basis met for the first time. The committee hoped to raise $4000 by issuing subscription blanks to its members. Members would pledge to pay the subscribed sum, not less than $3. The committee estimated that $4000 would be enough to produce five plays, provide a headquarters for the Society, and provide salaries for a stage manager and for Julius Hopp as the Society’s paid secretary.
The committee added the following statement:
It was the sense of the committee that these subscription blanks should be issued only after the annual election, on condition that representative men, commanding the confidence of the community, were elected to the offices of president and treasurer; as the committee does not consider it possible to raise the money with Mr. Hopp continuing as president of the Society….
The Progressive Stage Society simply folded after receiving the committee’s report in March 1906. There were no other circulars, internal Society memoranda, or theater programs that Eugene Smith preserved in the archive. Smith did preserve a draft of an invitation to create another society, but nothing came of it.
From reading the draft, it appears that Eugene Smith was thoroughly displeased with Julius Hopp’s management of the Progressive Stage Society. It make me wonder that there were no theater programs of the last two productions because Eugene Smith was fed up with Hopp and did not attend the last two productions.
As for Julius Hopp, he had already planted himself as the Chairman of his newly created Theatre of Labor. He suffered a setback when the Central Federated Union directed its delegates to withdraw from supporting the Theatre of Labor. Hopp had registered the Theatre of Labor as a permanent institution just a week earlier.
The Theatre of Labor folded a few months later. So Julius Hopp formed the Socialist Stage Society! By 1911, Hopp was the director of the Theatre Center for Schools, offering free open-air professional theatre on the rooftop of P. S. 64 in New York. By 1921, Hopp was the concert manager of Madison Square Garden, and working for Tex Ricard, the famous boxing promoter. In the early 1930s, he was Managing Director of the Shakespeare Theater of New York.
Julius Hopp’s biggest claim to fame was that it was his idea to broadcast the July 2, 1921 Jack Dempsey vs George Carpentier fight on the radio, the first radio broadcast of a fight in the world. Hopp was an amateur radio enthusiast, and claimed that he suggested the idea of broadcasting the fight to Tex Rickard. His boss allegedly told him to run with it. Hopp then arranged for J. Andrew White to organize the technical aspects of setting up the broadcast, while he handled organizing where the patrons would go to hear the broadcast. White, however, managed to squeeze Hopp out of the picture, and took credit for suggesting the broadcast of the fight himself. Nevertheless, Hopp’s signature is included in the letter of appreciation along with those of White, Rickard and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Roosevelt procured a radio antenna from the Navy for the broadcast).
Hopp sued Rickard, White, and White’s boss David Sarnoff in 1927, but lost the case. Hopp died on September 3, 1937.
Eugene Smith added one more item to the archive: an extensive newspaper article that appeared in The Sun on July 16, 1911. The title of the article was “The End of the Free Stages: Passing of a Historic Phase of the Drama.”
The article tracked the progress of the free stage in Germany, London, and Paris. As for the free stage in New York, there was no mention whatsoever of the Progressive Stage Society. The article summed up New York’s experience with the free stage as follows: “Beyond a few sporadic attempts to form a free stage society here, (sic) New York has never had the same experience in its cultivation of the drama that the other large cities enjoyed.”
I beg to disagree. Under better leadership, the Society might have thrived in New York City. Yet, in in its brief lifetime, the Progressive Stage Society produced the following plays which were performed for the first time in America:
Oscar Wilde’s Salome
Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt
Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei translated as Flirtation
Bjornsterne Bjornnson’s Second Part of Beyond Human Power
Dr. Max Nordau’s The Right to Love
Elsa Barker’s The Scab
Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Pitcher
Madame Tols Dorian’s Miner and Soldier