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Essay

Backstory: Dreaming of New Worlds

By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

The Light Years, The Debate Society’s tender poem to man’s indomitable spirit of invention, is set in Chicago against the backdrop of the 1893 and 1933 World’s Fairs. Take a peek back into the visionary landscapes of place and imagination that animate their luminous new play.

The World’s Columbian Exposition
May 1, 1893–October 30, 1893

Just two decades after a devastating fire burned much of the city to the ground, Chicago outbid St. Louis; Washington, DC; and New York City to host the 1893 World’s Fair: The World’s Columbian Exposition, so named to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the new world. Nicknamed “The White City” for the fair’s landmark use of electricity, most of its buildings were neoclassical in their architecture and with facades painted white, making them gleam. The 600-acre fairground included 200 buildings exhibiting art, food, technological advances, and entertainment for millions of visitors. By the time it closed, it is estimated that one in four Americans had visited the fair.

One prominent feature of the Columbian Exposition’s skyline was the original Ferris Wheel, built to rival the Eiffel Tower, which had made its debut just a few years earlier at the 1889 Paris Exposition. A number of notable commercial products made their public debuts, including Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum and Cracker Jack, as well early prototypes of technological inventions such as the fluorescent light bulb, the dishwasher, and the zipper. The US government issued the country’s first commemorative postal cards and commemorative stamps, and a commemorative quarter and half-dollar. (The former, which featured Queen Isabella of Spain, who funded Christopher Columbus’s voyages, was the first US coin to honor a woman.) And hipsters, rejoice: Pabst’s Best Select beer won the fair’s top beer award, in commemoration of which it changed its name forevermore to Pabst Blue Ribbon. 

James Morrison, Steele MacKaye, and the Spectatorium

Steele MacKaye (1842-1894) was an American playwright, actor, theater manager, and inventor. Born in Buffalo, New York to an abolitionist attorney father, he studied art at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris as a teenager before returning to the United States, where he served in the Union Army in the American Civil War. (He later modeled in uniform for John Quincy Adams Ward’s Seventh Regiment Memorial statue, which still stands in Central Park.) After studying acting under François Delsarte in Paris, a young MacKaye returned again to the States, and the breadth of his impact on the American theater in the years that followed is difficult to overstate. 

MacKaye authored 30 plays and helped establish the first school of acting in the United States. In 1873, he became the first American actor to play Hamlet in London. He invented flame-proof curtains, folding theater seats, and a multi-step protocol for fire safety in theaters. (His folding seats folded not only up but also backward, to create an aisle to the rear of the theater in case of emergency.) He invented a machine for making clouds onstage called the “nebulator” and a wind machine called the “hurricane raiser.” He conceived of, and attempted to build, the “photo-sculpture,” a machine meant to take photographs and render the resulting image in clay that could be cast in bronze. (To a 21st-century ear, that sounds a lot like a 3D printer.) He established the St. James, Madison Square, and Lyceum Theatres in New York City and, with the help of Thomas Edison, made the Lyceum the first entirely electric-lit theater. He devised for it a system of air conditioning out of ice and fans — a precursor to the air conditioning used in some of the buildings at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 

You’ll hear more about his most ambitious theatrical project, the Spectatorium, in The Light Years and, as improbable as it sounds, all of it is true. Though ultimately the endeavor proved a catastrophic failure — poor planning, insufficient funds, never completed — to read about MacKaye’s vision is to stand in awe at the scope of his imagination and the sheer force of his creative will. The Spectatorium was to be a wonder: 12,000 seats, 25 moving stages, and special lighting to create the effect of the sun rising and setting and stars twinkling over the audience. An eight-foot deep concrete tank beneath the stage, complete with wave and wind machines and holding in excess of five million gallons of water, would create an indoor ocean, upon which replicas of Christopher Columbus’s ships would sail, in an elaborate production called The World Finder.  

When an exhausted MacKaye died in 1894 at the age of 51 -— just three weeks after directing the first performance of a dramatically scaled-down version of his glorious boondoggle — the Chicago Tribune eulogized him thusly: “He was governed entirely by his imagination, and once started nothing could daunt him. He was reckless in using his own money and other people’s money when once a scheme had fashioned itself in his mind. He would work upon such a scheme with prodigious industry and with such a strain upon his nervous resources as would have broken him down long ago had it not been for his robust physique. That Steele MacKaye was thoroughly honest in his schemes no one ever will doubt. Most extraordinary of all was his power to convince others of the reality of his imaginings. The dead actor had culture, learning, imagination, hope, self-conviction, honesty, courage, eloquence, industry, everything, in fact, in his favor except practicality.”

A Century of Progress International Exhibition
May 27, 1933–November 1, 1933

The theme of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was technological innovation; its motto, “Science finds, Industry applies, Man adapts.” Designed in contrast to the “White City” of the 1893 Fair, the 1933 Fair buildings made a multi-colored “Rainbow City.” One highlight of the Century of Progress International Exhibition was the Sky Ride, a transporter bridge running perpendicular to the shore that carried visitors from one side of the fair to the other. The “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibition showcased innovative modern home conveniences and building material, while automakers like Cadillac and Lincoln showed off exhibitions of “dream cars,” and the Union Pacific Railroad and Burlington Route both displayed streamlined trains, the M-10000 and the Zephyr. In October, as the Fair neared its end, the German airship Graf Zeppelin arrived, landing at a nearby airport after circling Lake Michigan for two hours. The US Post Office Department issued a special Air Mail postage stamp to commemorate its visit. 

Notably, the fair opened in May with a nod to outer space: lights at the fairground were automatically activated by the rays of the star Arcturus, which were focused on photoelectric cells in a series of astronomical observatories, transformed into electrical energy, and transmitted to Chicago. The star was chosen based in its position in the sky, which was estimated to be about 40 light years from Earth — meaning the light arriving in 1933 would have left Arcturus at about the time of the previous Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893.