Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 09: BIOGRAPHY – Visitors
Percy Mackaye, Visiting Poet and Dramatist, 1921
Percy Wallace Mackaye (1875-1956)


Percy MacKaye as Alwyn the poet in MacKaye’s play, “Sanctuary: A Bird Masque.” Photographed in 1913 by Arnold Genthe. []

Visiting Poet and Dramatist, Summer 1921

TAGS: Percy MacKaye, Percy Wallace MacKaye, playwrights, poets, Appalachia language and culture, Marion Homer (Morse) MacKaye, James Morrison MacKaye, Mary Keith Medbery MacKaye, James Medbery MacKaye, Emile Benton MacKaye, Hazel MacKaye, Arthur Loring MacKaye, James Steele MacKaye, symbolism, realism, Harvard College, Edward MacDowell, University of Leipzig, Craigie School, Cornish, NH, civic theaters, masques, pageants, artists-in-residence, Miami University

Percy MacKaye 001

Percy MacKaye, 1907. Anonymous. (Source: The Independent Vol.63 (Jul–Dec 1907), New York, via Wikimedia Commons – public domain image). [Percy_MacKaye_001.jpg]

In 1921, Percy Wallace MacKaye, a playwright and poet, and his wife, Marion, stayed at Pine Mountain Settlement School while the two of them traveled about the surrounding Appalachian region to study and record the traditional tales and songs of the mountain people. By the time the MacKayes returned home, Percy had written plays, narrative poems, and short stories that he hoped would preserve the language and culture of Appalachia before all was gone forever in the face of increasing mechanization and standardization. This was a mantra shared by the founders of Pine Mountain Settlement and many of those who passed through the School and valley.

Percy MacKaye: HIS FAMILY

MacKaye was born into a family of talented and intellectual women and men on March 16, 1875, in New York City. He died on August 31, 1956, in Cornish, New Hampshire. According to Willard Cook’s 1913 book, Our Poets of Today,

[His] paternal grandfather came to United States from Scotland about 1800 and his grandfather, Colonel James Morrison MacKaye, a staunch adherent of anti-slavery doctrines, was an intimate friend of Clay, Webster, Garrison, and Lincoln. On his mother’s side, Percy MacKaye [was] of New England Puritan descent. His maternal grandmother was president of one of the earliest women’s colleges, and his mother [Mary Keith Medbery] was the author of a published dramatization of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

He had five siblings, including Arthur Loring MacKaye (1863–1939), an author and journalist and sibling from James Steele MacKaye’s first marriage; Harold (Hal) Steele MacKaye (1866–1928); William Payson MacKaye (1868–1889); James Medbery MacKaye (1872–1935) a philosopher and engineer; Hazel MacKaye (1880–1944), designer, director and writer of many pageants; and Emile Benton MacKaye, a conservationist, planner, and founder of The Wilderness Society and the Appalachian Trail.


Percy first learned about the theater while growing up in New York City and working alongside his father, James Steele MacKaye, a prominent dramatist, actor, theater director, and inventor. After Steele MacKaye died, Percy was intent on continuing his father’s lifetime goal of providing “a fine art for the people.” He also began a biography of his father.

MacKaye engaged formal training in playwriting at Harvard University, but, as biographer David Glassberg observed, the younger MacKaye was more interested in “abstract symbolism” and not the “thrilling realism” preferred by his father.

Following graduation from Harvard College in 1897, he married Marion Homer Morse of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Marion was a first cousin of artist Winslow Homer and a piano student of Edward MacDowell, the composer and pianist. During the early years of 1898 to 1900, the MacKayes traveled abroad and lived in Rome, Italy, and Germany, where he studied at the University of Leipzig.

Upon their return to the States in late 1900, the MacKayes took up residence in New York where Percy taught for three years at the Craigie School, a private boys’ school in New York City. Following his tenure at the Craigie School, he remained in New York City where he continued to teach and lecture at a variety of colleges and universities, including Columbia. In the first decade of the century he also made contact with the artist and writer’s colony in Cornish, New Hampshire, and eventually moved near to the colony with his wife. New Hampshire became the main residence of the couple.


The philosophical base of MacKaye’s work was in “civic theater.” This particular form of theater outlined in his 1912 book, The Civic Theatre in Relation to the Redemption of Leisure: A Book of Suggestions, advocates a theater in which the audience is not just spectator, but is actively engaged in their leisure activities, whether theater, art, poetry or other creative activity. He particularly emphasized the need for people and their arts programs to rely on endowments and private donations rather than on commercial entities for support of leisure activities.

During 1912, he wrote many masques, pageants, and outdoor performances for civic celebrations to promote and demonstrate his central ideas and concepts surrounding the “Civic Theatre.” It was at Miami University that he put his ideas to work and from 1920 to 1924, he worked off and on as an artist-in-residence at Miami University in southern Ohio. His position was the first such “civic” position in writing at an American university. He was at Miami University at the same time as August Angel was a student at the college in the 1930s and later a teacher at Pine Mountain School.


While at Miami University and most likely through visits to nearby Oberlin, he became increasingly interested in “Appalachia as an example of the nation’s folk culture. ” According to David Glassberg, one of his biographers, there may have been legacy influences, as well: “MacKaye’s interest in the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic heritage of the [Appalachian] region over that of other ethnic groups might have been stimulated by his exploration of his own Scottish background.” During the 1920s he continued to prepare the biography of his father and to research his European legacy.

Glassberg’s, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century, 1990, provides a well-thought-through analysis of MacKaye’s motivations for work in Appalachia. Glassberg reveals that following a trip to Europe in 1869, Steele MacKaye had changed the spelling of the family name from McKay to MacKaye to remind acquaintances that he pronounced his name in the Scottish manner to rhyme with sky, not hay. Apparently, the family had a special affection for the Celtic and Scottish roots of the Appalachian people.


While the direct influence that brought MacKaye to Pine Mountain in the summer of 1921, may not be fully known, Percy and Marion, his wife, were at Pine Mountain Settlement School using it as  a base for their exploration of the region. While there they immersed themselves in the community studying the traditional music and stories of the surrounding area and soaking up the dialect.

Using his research in the Pine Mountain valley, MacKaye produced a variety of literary writings that reflected his beliefs. Kevin Dann in his book Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America (2000) suggests that MacKaye felt that modern technology “truly threatened to destroy the indigenous culture, the virile, archaic dialect and the homespun genius of southern Appalachia.” It was a sentiment shared by Pine Mountains founders, Katherine Pettit and Ethel de Long Zande, and echoed in the environmentalism of Percy’s brother, Benton MacKaye.

Among Percy MacKaye’s creative works influenced by Appalachia was a cycle of five plays about Kentucky mountain life, beginning with “This Fine, Pretty World.” The May 1924 issue of Notes from the Pine Mountain Settlement School reported that four mountain plays of MacKaye “who spent a summer in our own valley,” were currently popular in New York City, including the popular “This Fine Pretty World.” The article in Notes responded to readers who questioned the accuracy of MacKaye’s image of Kentucky and who feared a possible negative impact on the School:

“O much has been written about the mountains this winter, in verse and fiction and drama and short articles, that we have wondered if people are not beginning to tire of us a bit. An echo of this is heard in the remark of a New York dramatic critic, who wrote for his paper this past season, “At last a play about Kentucky has been produced which is not laid in the Cumberlands and does not have for its plot moonshine and shootings.” This winter there have been four mountain plays all drawing full houses in New York. Sun Up has run since August, and is chiefly distinguished by the splendid interpretation of an old mountain woman given by Lucile LaVerne; The Shame Woman is by the same author. Of Hell-Bent Fer Heaven, one friend writes us that it is a splendid mountain play, while another, equally discriminating and well-informed, says it is “pure New York melodrama.” This Fine Pretty World was written by Percy MacKaye, who spent a summer in our own valley. 

We cannot defend Mr. MacKaye’s overloading of the dialect with idiom, nor the Irish cast he has given to both plot and characters. Nevertheless, there is inherent truth to mountain characteristics in his development of one episode in one little valley in the mountains. To quote a critic, “It has the feel of authenticity and the smell of the soil.” On the other hand, it has aroused regret and even indignation among some of our friends, and one letter written to us said that it was “a disgrace to the mountain people and ought never to have been produced. Nobody will ever give to a mountain school again who has seen it.” 

The literary man does not try to give a complete picture in a story or a play, any more than a painter tries to tell you all about the valley he paints from this or that hillside, seeing it differently in every light and from every angle. Truth wears many guises; there are as many different types in the mountains as there are anywhere else. We should like to commend to those friends of the mountains who feel that pictures of an Elizabethan society like This Fine Pretty World treated with Elizabethan freedom, may hurt the mountain cause, the remark of
Old Mrs. Kagel in Sun Up; “Whar you haint afeard, thar haint no danger.” No one of these plays and no one of the stories or articles you read will give you the mountains complete, though they will all add to your knowledge of our country. 


Many of MacKaye’s creations were patriotic and optimistic, sentiments not unusual following the difficult years of WWI, just ended. The plays often celebrated notable events in history, historical celebration and well-known American leaders and civic champions. These often found a favorable audience, but some of his work raised questions and sometimes harsh criticism from the thespian circle.

In the Warner Library: The World’s Best Literature (1917), vol. 16, MacKaye is described in the following manner:

It would be easy to criticize any of Mr. MacKay’s productions from the point of view of dramaturgy; but the remarkable fact is that in so many ways he has succeeded in bringing so varied and so fresh an invention to the service of the state. Within the same period, other men have written more successful plays, and other men have sustained their fancy in more certain flights. No other man, however, has so persistently and ingeniously wooed the stage with poetry and fantasy.

MacKaye continued to follow his own muse but found his values challenged when his wife Marion died while she was visiting friends in France in June of 1939. Following the death of his wife, MacKaye’s production slowed and he spent more time with his children, Robert Keith, Arvia, and Christy, all of whom had careers in the arts.

His daughter, Arvia MacKaye Ege, who died in 1989, is particularly interesting in relation to Pine Mountain Settlement. A poet, she was also the founder of the Rudolph Steiner Educational and Farming Association, which was both an umbrella organization and a community that supported a farm school, an environmental center, an artist colony and a student education program. Born in 1903, Arvia would have been eighteen when her parents were at Pine Mountain Settlement School in the summer of 1921. The Power of the Impossible: A Life Story of Percy and Marion MacKaye (Ghent, NY: Adonis Press, 1992. 750 pp. Book is very rare.) is Arvia’s tribute to her parents. Published after her mother’s death and after her own death, it is testimony to the journey the family all took together. The Pine Mountain valley clearly played a significant role in the family journeys.


The play, written in verse, told of a hunter’s redemption by his prey, the Bird Spirit. At a time when demand for feathers in hats and other products was harming entire species, the play helped promote the wild bird conservation movement.

Above: Percy MacKaye as Alwyn the poet, a character in Percy MacKaye’s play “Sanctuary: A Bird Masque,” in rehearsal for the first performance at the Meriden Bird Club Sanctuary, New Hampshire.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-17569 (digital file from original), archival TIFF version (72 MB), cropped, with color balance, brightness, and contrast adjusted, and converted to JPEG, all with the GIMP 2.4.5, image quality 88. Photographed in 1913 by Arnold Genthe (1869–1942). No known restriction on publication. [Wikimedia Commons].



PERCY MACKAYE Napoleon Crossing the Rockies 



Percy MacKaye

Alt. Title

Percy Wallace MacKaye




Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY

Alt. Creator

Ann Angel Eberhardt ; Helen Hayes Wykle ;

Subject Keyword

Percy MacKaye ; Pine Mountain Settlement School ; Percy Wallace MacKaye ; Marion Homer Morse MacKaye ; Appalachia ; folktales ; folksongs ; mountain people ; James Morrison MacKaye ; anti-slavery ; New England Puritan ; Mary Keith Medbery MacKaye ; James Medbery MacKaye ; Emile Benton MacKaye ; Hazel MacKaye ; Arthur Loring MacKaye ; theaters ; New York City ; James Steele MacKaye ; symbolism ; realism ; Harvard College ; dramas ; actors ; directors ; Marion Homer Morse ; Cambridge, MA ; Winslow Homer ; Edward MacDowell ; Rome ; Italy ; Germany ; University of Leipzig ; Craigie School ; Cornish, NH ; civic theaters ; masques ; pageants ; artists-in-residence ; Miami University ; folk culture ; Anglo-Saxon heritage ; Celtic heritage ; Scottish heritage ; fantasy ; Robert Keith (Robin) MacKaye ; Arvia MacKaye Ege ; 

Subject LCSH

MacKaye, Percy, — 1875 – 1956.
Pine Mountain Settlement School (Pine Mountain, Ky.) — History.
Harlan County (Ky.) — History.
Education — Kentucky — Harlan County.
Rural schools — Kentucky — History.
Schools — Appalachian Region, Southern.




Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY




Collections ; text ; image ; video cassette ; audio cassette ;


Original and copies of documents and correspondence in file folders in filing cabinet.


Series 09: Biography – Visitors in Residence




Is related to: Pine Mountain Settlement School Collections, Series 09: Biography – Visitors in Residence.

Coverage Temporal

1875 – 1956

Coverage Spatial

Pine Mountain, KY ; Harlan County, KY ;

Appalachia ; New York City ; Harvard College ; Cambridge, MA ; Rome ; Italy ; Germany ; University of Leipzig ; Craigie School ; Cornish, NH ; Miami University ; 


Any display, publication, or public use must credit the Pine Mountain Settlement School. Copyright retained by the creators of certain items in the collection, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.




Core documents, correspondence, writings, and administrative papers created by or addressed to Percy MacKaye clippings, photographs, publications, illustrations by or about Percy MacKaye.


1930s and early 1940s.


“[Identification of Item],” [Collection Name] [Series Number, if applicable]. Pine Mountain Settlement School Institutional Papers. Pine Mountain Settlement School, Pine Mountain, KY.

Processed By

Helen Hayes Wykle ; Ann Angel Eberhardt ;

Last Updated

2007-07-12 hw ; 2018-09-19 aae ; 2019-08-10 hhw



“Percy MacKaye.” Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-17569 (digital file from original). (accessed 2018-09-19).

Botkin, Benjamin Albert, “Folk Speech in the Kentucky Mountain Cycle of Percy MacKaye” in American Speech, v. 6, no. 4, 264-276, April 1931. 13 pp.

Clark, Barrett Harper, Speak the Speech: Reflections on Good English and the Reformers. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Chapbooks. 1930. 31 pp. Dedicated to Percy MacKaye.

Cook, Howard Willard, Our Poets of Today. New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1918. 252 pp.

Dann, Kevin T., Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 294 pp.

Glassberg, David, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990. 381 pp.

MacKaye, Arvia and Marion MacKaye. The Power of the Impossible: A Life Story of Percy and Marion MacKaye (Ghent, NY: Adonis Press, 1992. 750 pp.

Notes from the Pine Mountain Settlement School, (author unknown). May 1924, v. II, No. 2. “Percy MacKaye Collection 1920-1953”.

Oxford, OH: Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University Libraries. Warner, Charles Dudley, et al., The Warner Library: The World’s Best Literature, v. 16. New York: Warner Library Co., 1917. 625 pp.


MacKaye’s works were many and diverse, including poetic dramas, prose comedies and fantasies, plays, poems, short stories, essays, pageants, masques, books, librettos for operas, and essays and articles for periodicals. Listed below are writings that reflected his impressions of Appalachia.

MacKaye, Percy, Washington: The Man Who Made Us. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919. 311 pp.

MacKaye, Percy, “Untamed America: A Comment on a Sojourn in the Kentucky Mountains”. Survey 51, Jan 1, 1924. 7 pp.

MacKaye, Percy, This Fine, Pretty World: A Comedy of the Kentucky Mountains. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924. 197 pp.

MacKaye, Percy, Tall Tales of the Kentucky Mountains. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926. 185 pp. Twelve stories told in the mountain vernacular by Solomon Shell, a legendary figure.

MacKaye, Percy, “The Gobbler of God: A Poem of the Southern Appalachians”. Longmans, Green and Co., 1928. 91 pp.

MacKaye, Percy, Weathergoose-woo! Longmans, Green and Co., 1929. 189 pp.

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