Saturday, July 2, 2016


William Chauncy Langdon (1871-1947) was a prolific American pageant and masque author.  He was also founding President of the American Pageant Association (1913), a Pageant-master (Executive head of a masque) and director. A pageant and/or masque usually focused on the history of a particular American city or region. By 1917 Langdon recognized the need to develop a masque that would help audiences understand why the Congress of the United States of America enacted the declaration of war and actively engaged in World War One. 

The Sword of America: A Masque of the War was his contribution. This masque was also produced for the financial benefit of the American Red Cross. The Sword of America was directed by Langdon and premiered at the University of Illinois on November 29, 1917—Thanksgiving night. 

The script for The Sword of America was published November, 1917. A second edition appeared in March, 1918 and a third in April, 1918. On January 1, 1918 the New York Times ran a two column-wide segment on page 10 of one brief scene from the masque.  The scene is when France comes on stage to speak with Mother Nature. The character of America is on stage during this scene and she becomes motivated to assist France in her present war struggle. There was no commentary with this story in the newspaper. The scene tells the story of why it was necessary for the United States to join the war effort.

The masque commences with a Prologue spoken by a character named Vision. As this character appears before the audience, the music heard is the opening passages of Edvard Grieg’s Aase’s Death, Peer Gynt Suite No 1. Vision speaks directly to the audience and states that she will tell “in Truth” how America came into this war and why.  Vision at the conclusion of her speech invites the audience to sing America. After the song, Vision invites the audience to behold America entering into the labor and the suffering of the war.  Then the plot of the Masque begins.

The setting is an open glade on high ground during the setting of the sun. A giant oak spreads its shade to the ground putting it in deep gloom, while its upper branches are still golden in the light of the sun. The orchestra repeats the opening passages of Edvard Grieg’s Aase’s Death and shadowy figures dressed in flowing, cool color gowns dance across the terrain.   Mother Nature, old and bent with white hair, enters with “an imperishable stateliness.”  Soon America appears carrying the American Flag and the Shield of the United States. She discusses with Mother Nature the fact that America has forsworn the sword.

Then Britain arrives, she too carries her nation’s flag and wears her oval shield.  Britain appeals to Mother Nature for assistance with the war, but Mother Nature gestures toward America. Eventually France arrives and “throws herself on the ground at Mother Nature’s feet.” France’s plight and her passion moves America to agree to wear the Red Cross! Belgium also appears and gradually America agrees to join the war:
I choose to die, so may I serve the right,
And help to save the loveliness of earth
To future days!

After many American men march forth to join the war, Sacrifice, another character, enters from the direction where the men have exited.  Vision re-enters and America kneels before her and Sacrifice.  America gives a prayer of thanksgiving. Following Sacrifice’s last speech, The Star Spangled Banner is sung by everyone.

This masque is a spectacle with a very large cast. It is emotionally moving and one can understand how it was persuasive to the cause. An article in the Pantagraph, the Bloomington, Illinois newspaper, dated March 15, 1918 noted that The Sword of America “was presented several weeks ago and met such success that its repetition has been demanded.” This special performance would take place the first week in April. .  Langdon was also responsible for another production to benefit the Red Cross held in Springfield, Illinois on April 24th and 25th, 1918. I do not know the locations for all the performances of The Sword of America.

Masques and pageants were at their height of popularity in the United States from 1910 to 1917. They were usually performed by local citizens, but directed by professional individuals with experience in the medium. The cast was always large and once the war effort was undertaken by the United States, the opportunities for this type of theatre dwindled. The 1918 performances of “The Sword” cast consisted of members of the University of Illinois faculty and student body.

The Sword of America fits the criterion for a masque. It employs words, songs, and dances.  The poet used the pomp and the splendor of Allegory including symbolic characters. This masque’s purpose was primarily educational and it strove to present the truth of the war situation in the broadest sense. Truth was important element in both pageants and masques so The Sword of America was striving to rally support from the citizenry by helping to illustrate the need to enter the war. 

There were numerous pageants and masques during the war years that portrayed a particular aspect related to the history of the United States such as the Boston Tea Party, Lincoln at Gettysburg or Lafayette’s Visit to America. The original 1913 guidelines for these public entertainments changed and creators were advised to avoid long speeches and most of the dancing.  The manner in which Langdon used the public sing-along became the norm and it represented the significance of group participation just as everyone had to join the war effort in one way or another.

The Sword of America represented an active type of didactic theatre that assisted the citizenry of the United States to accept its role in the war. These presentations also helped to emphasize the historical events of the past that represented the American spirit. 

1. I read The Sword of America Springfield Edition, 1918.  Photograph above was taken from this script. The production was staged at the University of Illinois on November 29, 1917.
2. If you are interested in reading more about American pageants and masques, the book to consult is American Historical Pageantry by David Glassberg. This book was published by The University of North Carolina Press in 1990. 

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