Friday, March 1st, 2013...9:30 am

Auspicious Debuts: The Great Discovery

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Photograph of Childe Hassam’s painting of the MacKaye Spectatorium. bMS Thr 412, Box 49Late in 1891 Steele MacKaye embarked on one of the most outlandish enterprises in theatrical history. Without as much as a prop or a single penny, he had wooed the president of the World’s Columbian Exposition into adopting his proposal to erect the largest theatre ever built and to reenact on its colossal stage Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Frederick Law Olmstead claimed it would be the Fair’s “crowning glory” and “the noblest artist scheme” ever realized. The Chicago capitalists backing the 1893 Fair, too, were spellbound and eagerly fronted the initial capital for the ten-thousand-seat playhouse. Both the production and the theatre, which MacKaye christened the “Spectatorium,” were masterminded by MacKaye, who invented over seventy mechanisms to give them life.

Theatre Arts Magazine, April 1923. TS 30.8

Three Spanish caravels with fifty-foot masts were to sail on a ground plane of water six feet deep, which, when called for, could be churned into a tempest by wave, cyclone, and rain machines—all engineered to MacKaye’s specifications. Twenty-five telescopic stages running on over six miles of submerged railroad track could be moved and staggered in such way as to bring whole continents into view of the audience and have distant shores fold believably into the horizon.

By far the most ambitious part of the spectacle hinged on MacKaye’s novel use of incandescent light. The harsh glare of gas lamps had long frustrated theatre practitioners who aimed, like MacKaye, at an almost clinical imitation of reality. Limelight moons, so popular in the last decades of the 19th century, if not expertly handled, were often so transparently staged they drew laughter from the audience. So to pull off the wizardry intended for “The Great Discovery,” MacKaye devised an electric “sun” and “moon” to arc across the stage’s firmament. These would, in concert with other devices of his own invention, rise and set, wax and wane as credibly as in any natural day, or so MacKaye promised investors. The night sky of the southern hemisphere was also strewn with stars, each bulb wired and wrapped in orange-colored paper, each well meticulously sized relative to a star’s intensity, and each located on the set’s linoleum panorama with exacting care. The cumulative effect was to be, well, electric.

Photograph of Childe Hassam’s painting of the MacKaye Spectatorium. bMS Thr 412, Box 49

With $500,000 spent before the Fair opened, funds dried up, and construction on the Spectatorium was halted, never to resume again. The structure’s “gaunt frame,” MacKaye’s son later recalled, “loom[ed] Dantesque over the fairy porticoes of the White City,” puzzling fairgoers and earning its share of scorn in the press. Undeterred, MacKaye moved his play to a nearby cyclorama; and while the splendor of the resurrected production was checked in the smaller venue, its effects were qualitatively the same. Regrettably for MacKaye, it opened late, to audiences wearied of tributes to Columbus. But most agreed that the spectacle was “startling and beautiful,” that it “feasted the eyes,” even if, as one reviewer quipped, it “starved the imagination.” Another dwelt on “the wonderful way in which the day dawned and bloomed like a full-blown rose, and . . . the way that the glow of the sunset deepened into night.”

MacKaye died a few short weeks after the show closed. His remarkable achievements—the least of which was an early patent for the now-ubiquitous folding theater seat—were in large part eclipsed by the Spectatorium’s foundering. Even so, none other than Edward Gordon Craig called MacKaye “the finest influence in the American theatre” and praised his “indomitable tenacity to the vision of the theatre’s art, even at the cost of death.”

The papers of Percy MacKaye, Steele MacKaye’s son and biographer, and himself a playwright, are part of the Harvard Theatre Collection.

This post is part of a series called “Auspicious Debuts.” On the first of each month, Houghton staff members will feature “firsts” from the Library’s collections ranging from first editions and first appearances in print and on stage to novelties, innovations, and the unprecedented. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the AuspiciousDebuts tag.

[Thanks to Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, for contributing this post.]


  • An amazing feat! I’ve never heard if the Spectatorio before and so wish it was still around! Cool article.

  • The Columbian Expo also included full-size replicas of Columbus’s ships and after the fair closed they were kept at anchor in one of the lagoons near the presentday LaRabida Sanitarium, also named in honor of Columus. I remember seeing the ships many times slowly deteriorating. I’m not sure when they were removed but I think it was after World War II. Very good piece on the Spectatorium.

  • Dale Stinchcomb
    March 5th, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    I agree, Andrew. Oh, to have visited the fair!

    Prof. Cawelti, that is a fun afterword. I’m glad Andrea shared this with you.

  • Sharon McKinley
    March 7th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Wonderful post. What an incredible feat the Columbian Exposition was–even the failed parts!