Saturday, January 30, 2016


Across the Border by Beulah Marie Dix (1876-1970) is one of the earliest American anti-war plays to be produced in New York City following the start of World War One.  According to the newspapers of the day, it opened on November 24, 1914 at the Princess Theatre. However, the Internet Broadway Data Base lists the opening as October 17, 1914. The Princess was a small, new theatre that seated 299. It opened in early 1913.  It was an unusual theatre venture dedicated to the production of one and two-act plays considered to be thrillers. The Princess Players, the resident acting company, was headed by actor Holbrook Blinn (1872-1928).

Across the Border, a one-act play in four scenes, was on the Princess Theatre’s bill with three other short plays, but the reviewers praised it as the most impressive. Beulah Marie Dix was not an unknown playwright when Across the Border opened. Several of her plays had been produced in New York City starting as early as 1902. She was also a novelist. 

When Across the Border was written, it was different from the majority of plays that depicted war as a noble cause.  Earlier dramas portrayed individual heroic acts and military valor that related to one on one battle. Newer weapons of war changed World War One’s type of military engagement. Also in 1914, the “War is War” philosophy was preached and practiced.  With the invasion of Belgium, it was apparent that war was brutal for everyone including innocent civilians.  This play depicts war without heroics and valor, thus Across the Border protests against the barbarities of war.

Following the title of the script in the printed copy, is a descriptor: “A Play of the Present.”  Dix further explains “The people in the play speak English, but they are no more meant to be English than they are meant to be Austrian, French, German or Russian.”  Dix clearly wanted the aggressor in her war drama not to be specifically named.

 Scene One takes place in a hut in the woods. There are a number of soldiers trapped in the hut and many of them are wounded. “The men wear a modern cavalry uniform, but not the distinctive uniform, in cut or color, of any one of the nations now at war.”  These soldiers have neither food, water nor enough cartridges.  The character named “Junior Lieutenant” volunteers to run through enemy lines to his army’s headquarters located twenty miles away.  If he covers the first three minutes undetected, there is a chance for him to succeed. A single rife shot is hear in the final seconds of the three minutes.

Scene Two is titled “The Place of Quiet.” The interior of a cottage is revealed once the darkness slowly fades. It appears as a peaceful peasant’s home with Junior Lieutenant being the only desperate person. Junior Lieutenant demands a horse from the Master of the House.  This scene evolves from a realistic situation where Junior Lieutenant is in command, to a feeling of “other worldliness” where his ability to intimidate is dismantled.  He is drawn into discussion with the Master of House about why and how to make war.  Near the end of the scene, Junior Lieutenant asks “Where am I?”  The response is “You’ve crossed the border.”

The location for Scene Three is “The Place of Winds”—an ice-bound location on top of a mountain with burned-out cottages below. Junior Lieutenant begins to realize even though he obeyed the rules of war, what he did was wrong.  He begs to return to life so he can try to convince Senior Lieutenant that war is a waste.

Scene Four is “A Field Hospital” that was originally a peasant’s cottage. Junior Lieutenant is a patient near death. In a moment of lucidity, he tries to convince Senior Lieutenant that war is a waste, but he does not succeed with him or anyone else. Death claims Junior Lieutenant. 

Before the New York production closed, Across the Border was produced by other companies in Boston and Chicago.  It became a popular selection for readings across the country as well since the New York reviews of the play had been positive. Henry Holt and Company, the publisher of the script as a book (February, 1915), used statements from two reviews to market the book:
New York Times: A voice raised in the theatre against the monstrous horror
 and infamy of war.”  
 New York Tribune: One of the few pleas for peace that touch both the heart and
 the intelligence. It is well nigh impossible to rid one’s mind of its stirring effect.”

The above quotes were not the only positive statements made about this play and its production. David Powell, a Welsh born actor, played the role of Junior Lieutenant.  The New York Times reviewer on November 29, 1914 states: “. . . he is responsible for the deep effectiveness of that play.”  Evidently Powell was able to capture Dix’s intent for the character that she described as “A nice likeable young fellow.  You would cheerfully ask him to dinner or let him marry your daughter.”

I found newspaper articles from 1916 documenting public readings of this play that occurred in cities across the United States. Across the Border’s message takes the moral high ground against war.  Thus once the United States became actively involved in World War One, this play’s popularity faded.   A review that appeared in a Melbourne, Australia newspaper, The Age, dated February 3, 1917 states why this play’s message diminished once a country is engaged in war.  “The play is a powerful presentment of one side of warfare, but it is not the side that at present most controls the minds of men.”  

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