Sunday, August 14, 2016


April 2, 1917 was a cherry blossom scented spring day in Washington, D.C.  Five thousand individuals stood in front of the American Capitol.  These people were delegates of the Emergency Peace Federation who were there to lobby against the United States entry into World War One. Among pacifists was Tracy D. Mygatt (1885-1973), a devoted member of the Women’s Peace Party and the playwright of Watchfires (1917).

Shortly after her graduation in 1908 from Bryn Mawr College, Tracy D. Mygatt became active in organizing the Women’s Suffrage Party in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1913 she moved to New York City and joined the Socialist Party. When the Women’s Peace Party (WPP) was established in January 1915, Mygatt became active for its cause and served as one of the editors of the Four Lights, the WPP’s periodical. 

From 1915 to 1917 Mygatt was a dedicated activist for peace organizing the Anti-Enlistment League in 1915, demonstrating on behalf of the American Committee Against Militarism and serving on the committee of the Emergency Peace Federation.  Mygatt was also a prolific author who wrote stories, plays, poems and articles that addressed her political position.

 Mygatt had written plays prior to Watchfires. One of her earlier plays was published by Walter H. Baker Company, Publishers. The House of the Flashing Light: or the Devil’s Eye was published in 1911 and was written with Joseph Carl Mullen and Lillian Rickaly. Baker published at least five other plays by Mygatt between 1919 and 1922.

David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) had served as the President of Indiana University (1884-1891) and as the Founding President of Stanford University (1891-1913). Jordan wrote the Introduction to Watchfires, which is dated March 20, 1917. He states in the opening paragraph of his piece: “Watchfires teaches the most needed lesson of the day, that humanity knows no national lines, and that all those who suffer the cruelties of war, suffer alike and together.” In the closing sentences of his piece, Jordan wished all Americans might read this play since he believed the play presents a clear sense of international understanding.

Jordan was a peace activist and served as President of the World Peace Foundation from 1910-1914.  He presided over the World Peace Conference in 1915 and opposed the United States involvement in World War One. He was obviously highly recognized and a leading voice for world peace.

Watchfires is dedicated to Fannie M. Witherspoon (1886-1973). Witherspoon was Mygatt’s partner in suffragists and pacifists activities from the time of their college graduation in 1908 until their deaths, within three weeks of each other, in 1973. Mygatt’s dedication for Watchfires claims Witherspoon’s “fearless scrutiny and creative faith have helped me to believe that wars shall cease.”

In a review titled Homopathic Literature that appeared in the New York Times “Review of Books” dated May 14, 1911 there is a description for the term watchfires that speaks to the title of this play. “For the watchfires, then, were scattered beacons, far apart, and to be reached by much baffled striving.” 

Watchfires is a play in four acts.  Act One is set in Mrs. Neville’s upper West Side, New York apartment.  The time is June 1916.  Mrs. Neville’s son, Ned, joined the United States Army and is about to be posted to the Mexican border.  Mrs. Neville’s brother, Sidney Stevenson an active pacifist, presents his beliefs about the war in Europe and the United States conflict with Mexico.

Act Two takes place November 1916.  This act is set in Frieda’s home in Berlin, Germany. Twenty-five year old Frieda, is a Socialist and a pacifist. She is preparing to participate in a demonstration against the war. Three of her brothers have died in battle and a fourth is fighting in Galicia.  As an advocate for peace Frieda, before she leaves her home for a street demonstration, is arrested as a traitor by German Police.

Act Three is one week later, but it is set in an East End London Tea shop. The initial conversation is between a wounded soldier and his young wife.  The war has disabled him for life and altered his view of war. Seated at another table near the wounded soldier and his wife is Mary. Jim arrives at the shop to meet Mary.  A group of individuals followed Jim since he was wearing a white feather denoting his refusal to enlist. Mary tries to talk to the gathering crowd about how the war is making certain individuals extremely rich—particularly munition manufacturers. Policemen arrive on the scene to stop the demonstration. Many members of the crowd end the act shouting “We want peace!”

Act Four takes place in December 1916 just before Christmas.  It is set in a large living room of a private house in New York City. An advocates for peace meeting attended by men and women is in session. Frieda arrives in New York to attend this meeting.  Her health has been destroyed while in prison and she is dying. She pleads for the Americans to make peace. Mary from London arrives to beg the Americans to help England achieve peace. The last speech of the play: “To light our Watchfires upon the waters that sweep around the world!”  Sidney from Act One, who makes this closing speech, is referring to lighting Watchfires for Peace not watchfires denoting war.

This play presents diverse antiwar sentiments in a moving and bold manner. It dramatizes the thoughts of many citizens from several countries involved at the time when antiwar demonstrations were taking place in Europe, as well as in the United States. The script also refers to a letter smuggled to President Wilson on December 23, 1916 from Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) British philosopher, pleading for the United States “to bring us peace.” It gives a snapshot of a brief time during World War One when the people of the war torn nations, as well as those in the United States, demonstrated for immediate peace negotiations.

Tracy Mygatt self-published two editions of Watchfires in early 1917. This book drama appeared on the market around the time Mygatt was standing in front of the Capitol. Once the United States formally entered the war, Watchfires message urging the United States to become the broker for an immediate peace was no longer viable.

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