Thursday, September 24, 2015


Unusual is the word that comes to my mind whenever I think about this play and the playwright.  Ednah Aiken (1872-1960) was not known as a playwright, but she was, in 1916, a nationally recognized short story author and novelist with a then current best-selling novel titled The River. It was unusual for Bobbs-Merrill Books to publish a play, but the topic must have resonated with the publisher since the company had six other war related books written by men.  Those books plus The Hate Breeders were advertised together under the heading of BOBBS-MERRILL BOOKS “Bearing on the World War.” 

It was unusual to have a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize write an introduction for a published version of a play. The Hate Breeders has an Introduction by Henri La Fontaine (1854-1943) a citizen of Belgium who was awarded in 1913 the Nobel Peace Prize. La Fontaine was President of the International Bureau of Peace, Professor of International Law and a Senator in the Belgium Legislature.  La Fontaine stated: “the unusual and suggestive work before us, enriching American and world literature alike, new in the form adopted, new in its crude realism, it avoids a declamatory tone, and remains human throughout.  A nightmare of despair!”

I have found no record that this play received a professional New York theatre production.  It may have had a large readership given all the publicity sponsored by Bobbs-Merrill in major American newspapers, but I have found little evidence regarding the reception for this stirring drama.  While I read announcements about Aiken’s novel’s in British newspapers, I found nothing about this play.

The Hate Breeders is categorized as “a drama of war and peace in one act and five scenes”.  It is dedicated to Douglas Sedgwick Aiken, the playwright’s son. The First and Fifth Scenes take place in the play’s present time of 1914 during the German invasion of Belgium, while the Second and Third Scenes are flash-backs into the protagonist’s life prior to his induction into the German army. The Fourth Scene is a flashback representing his conduct in Belgium during the early days of the campaign. Max, the protagonist, is wounded and brought into the chateau/hospital during the first scene and prepared for surgery. Scene five is when the surgery is completed and Max regains consciousness. The location of the chateau is near the town of Louvain, Belgium about thirty kilometers southeast of Brussels—an area that was devastated in the early days of the war.  

The fact that Max is not a coward is immediately established as soon as he is visible since he “has three Heidelberg scars across his cheeks, long purple welts.” These scars symbolize that he displayed valor through stoic endurance of an opponent’s blows during academic duels. These duels were considered a competitive sport and the facial scars also reflected the participant’s educational status as well as upper-class social standing. 

The manner in which Aiken envisioned this play for the stage strikes me as being cinematic, another unusual feature.  Not cinematic in the style of a 1916 film, but in a more 1930s/1940s mode.  It was never made into a film. The play is filled with long speeches particularly in the fourth scene between the dying Belgium soldier and wounded Max.  This scene was the focus of a review in The Drama, Volume 6, Issues 23-34, 1916, 658. The unnamed reviewer, became harsh in the comments about the play claiming “It is anemic and unconvincing drama.” The reviewer felt that wounded Max should never have been allowed to present a “logical presentation of how nations could avoid war by preliminary periods of arbitration,  . . .”  While the fourth scene is lengthy, Max has been articulate throughout the play about his pacifist beliefs. Two dying soldiers lying on a battlefield may be more dramatically interpreted in a film rather than on a stage.
It was unusual for an American, in 1916, to write a strong antiwar drama that illustrated the cruel sacrifices and horrors of World War One at its onset.  The play sets up the acts of war as crimes against innocent people who have done nothing to incite it. It sets up the perpetrators as breeders of hate. This play does not extol the nationalistic ideology of heroism, love of country and might as a virtue. Aiken’s uses Max to show readers that once he was a staunch advocate for not engaging in war. However, once Max is in uniform and placed in battle situations he becomes a criminal that rapes and kills. 
La Fountaine concludes his Introduction with the thought that Aiken captures this cursed war “with its rapid and striking scenes.  May it arouse ideas, and awaken hearts and brains, and instill in men the definite and peremptory will to wipe out forever the crime made of crimes, the breeder of crimes, the crime war is!”

No comments:

Post a Comment