Musical of the Month: Golden Dawn

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
September 4, 2015
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

A guest post by Kate Edney.

Page from the original souvenir program of Golden Dawn

Page from the original souvenir program of Golden Dawn 

Golden Dawn (1927) is one of those musicals that has been almost completely erased from histories of musical theater. Those who are just familiar with the title will generally know it from the 1930 Warner Brothers film adaptation—available on DVD—of the same name. On the surface, the obscurity of this musical is quite puzzling. Oscar Hammerstein II co-wrote the libretto with Otto Harbach. It premiered a month before Hammerstein’s seminal work Show Boat and falls in the middle of Harbach’s prolific body of work from the 1920s. The musical was selected to open the new Hammerstein Theater, built by Oscar in honor of his father, and its premiere was a gala New York City affair. Golden Dawn also had its share of scandal. According to the New York Times, as part of a long-standing dispute with Hammerstein, ticket vendors were discouraging potential buyers from the show and directing them to other plays. And, for those enamored of film star trivia, a young Archie Leach—later known as Cary Grant—had a small role, his second on Broadway, as the character Anzac, an Australian soldier.

In terms of where it falls within the careers of its creators and the economic history of Broadway, Golden Dawn surely qualifies as something to remember. However, there is a reason the show has been shoved into the closet, and that reason is its plot and its deeply troubling depictions of race. Whereas Show Boat is distinctively American, tracing out a history of entertainment in the United States and using race relations as one of its frames, Golden Dawn displaces American concerns about race by situating the plot in eastern Africa—presumably Kenya—and focusing on World War I-era British and German soldiers as they relate to the native population.

Neither the script nor the plot outline available at the Billy Rose Theater Collection at The New York Public Library specifically states where the action in Golden Dawn takes place. East Africa is the extent of the precise information given. However, since the city of Mombasa, the capital of Kenya until 1905, is mentioned as a place with which several different characters in the musical are quite familiar, that the action of the musical is set in Kenya is a reasonable guess.

The first act of Golden Dawn is set in 1917, when the British navy blockaded German-controlled Tanganyika and when German and British land forces engaged in a series of incursions and counter-incursions across the region. The second act takes place in 1919, just after the Treaty of Versailles had assigned the German colonies in Africa to the victorious British and French, permitting those imperial powers to further configure the territories of their colonial administrations.

The plot for Golden Dawn is as follows: The time is 1917 and the German army is currently in control of East Africa; they use English prisoners of war to work on rubber plantations. Relationships between the two groups, however, are civilized and mutually respectful, as a newcomer to the camp, Lt. Steve Allen (played by Paul Gregory), quickly learns. Indeed, the prisoners of war are allowed to frequent a local bar, run by a native woman by the name of Mooda (portrayed by Marguerite Sylva, in blackface). Her daughter, Dawn (played by soprano Louise Hunter), is light-skinned, which, it is argued, signifies the presence of some Arab blood in her ancestral past. Dawn, one character argues, must be a genetic throwback. To the local witch doctor, however, her light skin means that the god Mulunghu has selected her for his virgin bride. Mooda embraces this idea, as it will keep her daughter safe from men forever. But Dawn and Steve are drawn to each other; Dawn becomes caught between her duty to her people and her love for Steve. For his part, Steve must overlook the fact that although Dawn looks white, she is African. As various characters make plain, African women are for dalliances, not love and marriage.

Shep Keyes (played by Robert Chisholm wearing dark makeup) is the fourth major character in this drama; described in the script as “an Askari Sergeant,” Askari being a generic term applied to local East Africans who served in European colonial armies, he and his whip—and there is an entire song dedicated to his whip—serve as overseers to the native workers. Shep believes himself to be stronger and better than any white man and he too desires Dawn. He also knows Mooda’s secret (which will be revealed in act two). After Steve and Dawn spend a night together, the German commanding officer sends Steve back to England in a prisoner exchange in the hopes that he will come to his senses about loving an African woman. Crushed, Dawn commits herself to Mulunghu, Shep is left frustrated, and the curtain comes down on the first act. 

When act two opens, it is 1919. A devastating drought is ruining the crops and the native population blames Dawn. Shepreveals to everyone that two years ago he spied on Steve and Dawn: he knows that she did not keep her promise of virginity to the god and now Mulunghu is punishing everyone as a result. Shep hopes that Dawn, fearing for her life, will pledge herself to him, but she refuses to do so. In the meanwhile, Steve has made his way back from England. He has also discovered Mooda's secret: Dawn is not her biological daughter, but actually the child of her lover and his wife, both of whom were white. After her lover abandoned her for his wife, Mooda had kidnapped their baby in revenge At the last moment, with Shep threatening to rape and kill Dawn as she continues to refuse him, Mooda kills him with a crucifix, a clap of thunder is heard signifying the end of the drought, and Steve arrives on the scene in time for Dawn to run into his arms. The curtain falls.

Though the action takes place entirely in Africa and none of the characters are American, Golden Dawn clearly reflects and reinforces racial stereotypes and racist fears representative of America in the 1920s.  There are two major examples in the play. The first racist trope is that a black man who considers himself equal is white men is villainous--a trope or archetype  embodied by the character of Shep Keyes.  In the plot and character outline for the musical, the description of Shepis worth quoting at length. He is “a negro of dominating force with some little education. His cleverness, his shrewdness, his fists and his whip have made him the leader of the colored workers. He arrived about a year ago, from nowhere. He seems to know a great deal about America and has been known to utter such words as ‘Harlem,’ ‘135th street,’ ‘Pullman Porter’ words quite beyond the intelligence of the native African negro.” The libretto is not quite so explicit, but clues are dropped. Hammerstein and Harbach write Shep's lines in dialect, a la Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example saying “come on here honey” and regularly replacing words such as “that” with “dats.” Further, he mentions having traveled across the world, "learning as he goes." While these elements are all problematic individually, combined, the character's attitude, actions, and words, position Shep as a caricature of Marcus Garvey. The Jamaican-born Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem in the 1920s. He vehemently critiqued and linked together European colonialism in Africa and racism in America.  Indeed, his criticisms of the United States were so highly charged that the US federal government took a keen interest in him. In 1922 Garvey was indicted for mail fraud, sentenced in 1923 to prison, and began serving his sentence in 1925. In November 1927, his sentence was commuted and Garvey was deported to Jamaica. Golden Dawn opened on Broadway on November 30, 1927, which, while obviously coincidental, helps reinforce the parallel. The contrast between the characters of Shep Keyes and Joe from Show Boat is useful here. Joe, based in the rural South, poignantly acknowledges the pain of racism in “Ol’ Man River,” but he never threatens the social fabric. Shep, with his hinted-at urban roots, attempts a direct assault against accepted social norms and is clearly the villain as a result. 

The second major example of how Golden Dawn reflects the racial attitudes and fears of some white audiences during its time  is central to the entire narrative: the play’s dramatic tension relies on the scandal, according to the mores of the time, that a black woman could possibly be chaste, loyal, beautiful, and therefore loved by a white man. There are multiple conversations involving Steve, and about Steve, regarding the impossibility of him truly loving an African woman, although the word miscegenation is never mentioned. Yet the musical is very careful to lay clues to Dawn’s true heritage—Shep Keyes and Mooda have an early conversation about a secret involving Dawn—so the complication of a mixed-race romance is neatly resolved when it is revealed that Dawn is no tragic mulatto or devious black Jezebel, but is instead a white woman born of white parents. Any “African” mannerisms she has exhibited were learned, and not reflective of her "true" heritage. In the racist world of Golden Dawn, the races will remain forever separate as long as white Americans remember their European colonial heritage and black Americans are—forcibly, like the character of Shep Keyes—reminded of their destiny to be colonized. Again, a comparison to Show Boat is instructive. Dawn anticipates the tragic, mixed-race character of Julie from Show Boat. But, as a white woman, Dawn is allowed the happy ending forbidden to Julie, who can only pass as white. Even so, the audience of Show Boat is encouraged to feel sorry for Julie and to understand her sorrow in ways that are not encouraged with Shep Keyes in Golden Dawn.

Golden Dawn, while subsequently overshadowed by Show Boat, was no flop. Nonetheless, considered today, the musical  is obviously problematic on multiple levels, and the lack of any revivals of the show is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the study of non-canonical musicals like Golden Dawn remains crucial to how we understand the genre as a whole. Such shows not only demonstrate the ways in which artists like Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach evolved in terms of their craft, they also help to reveal the complex and often contradictory ways in which Americans in the twentieth century attempted to understand a changing social landscape.

About the author

 Dr. Kate Edney is the Graduate Program Director for the MA in Heritage Studies Program, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts.

A note on the libretto from Doug:

The images of the libretto are provided with the kind permission of the rights holders FOR RESEARCH USE ONLY.  You may not use this historical script for any kind of performance. Unlike most of the images in our Digital Collections which are taken by professional photographers with equipment specially selected for archival digitization, these images were taken by Doug Reside with a Canon T3 camera.

Read the Libretto