Illinois is now celebrating its bicentennial year. With over 200 years of history to remember, it’s easy to overlook our first centennial in 1918. One notable if not infamous work produced during that time was the Masque of Illinois.
Written by Wallace Rice, a prolific writer of plays, pageants, and poetry particularly on state history, many of his works appeared in anthologies all across the country. He was a tireless historian with an active membership in the Illinois State Historical Society and the Chicago Historical Society and produced many histories both on Chicago and the state at large. Incidentally, he was also the designer of the flag of Chicago. There could not have been a better writer to, in his own words, “interpret by means of symbol and allegory the 245 years (1673-1918) of the history of the Illinois Country.” He may have bitten off more than he could chew. This three act monster with over 800 cast members where “no event having marked influence upon the development of the State and its people being omitted” was only ever performed a handful of times. The cover, assuming a level of acclaim this work would never receive, states it’s appropriate “for the use of High Schools, Colleges, and Communities.”
A complete performance of the masque includes:
- A full dance troupe to each represent the Trees, Flowers, Prairies, and Rivers of the state.
- A very culturally insensitive Indian war dance
- The expulsion of the Mormons
- And the Great Chicago Fire portrayed through interpretive dance between fire and water sprites.
The final act takes things up a notch, a feat when the baseline is Citizen Kane levels of theatrical extravagance. It climax begins with:
“the throne of Illinois, with the Altar of War and Hope embellished with the insignia of the great American War Charities, upon it the great seven Lights of Battle ready for lighting”
The titular character, Illinois herself played by the governor’s wife, is seen fretting over joining the then looming World War I. She calls Justice, Love, and Peace, who in turn call the Ghosts of War’s Pasts from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Blackhawk War, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, and the War with Spain, each in turn lighting a flame. The spirits of France, Italy, Belgium, and Britain join in for good measure along with anyone else from the Allies who happened to show up that day. Illinois, now feeling very pressured to commit, lights the final flame, bringing in the final musical number shamelessly stolen from Aeschylus’ The Persians. Anyone still awake in the audience is then forced to sing the Star Spangled Banner and allowed to leave. How they expected high school students to sit through this I will never know.