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Journal of American Drama and Theatre

Volume II
Vera Mowry Roberts
Spring 1990
CUNY Graduate School
Managing Editor
Edwin Wilson
Editorial Assistant
Eileen Berkon
CAST A Copyright 1 990
Number 2
Walter J. Meserve
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (ISSN 1044-937X) is
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Stephen Archer
University of Missouri
Ruby Cohn
University of California,
Linda Jenkins
Editorial Board
Bruce A. McConachie
College of William and Mary
Margaret Wilkerson
University of California,
Don B. Wilmeth
Brown University
From the Editors
With this issue we expand a little the inclusion of informational
notes regarding resources for scholarship in American drama and
We would be pleased to receive from our readers similar short
notices of special holdings in libraries or elsewhere which are avail-
able to scholars in the field. They will be published as space permits.
Vera Mowry Roberts Walter J. Meserve
Volume II
Warren Kliewer
Serena Anderlini
Lewis E. Shelton
Mary Maddock
Edward Wagenknecht
Table of Cohtents
Spring 1990 Number2
Schools of One .......................................... 5
"colored girls"; A Reaction
to Black Machismo, or Hues
of Erotic Tension in New
Feminist Solidarity? ............ ....... .... ....... 33
Mr. Ben Teal : America's
Abusive Director ................................... . 55
Social Darwinism in the
Powder Room: Clare Boothe's
The Women ... ............................. ....... ...... 81
Random Recollections and
Reflections of an Old
Playgoer .... ....... ........ ............ ..... ....... : ..... 99
Contributors ...... ..... .... .... ....... ........................................... ..... ........... .. 1 05
Manuscripts should be prepared in conformity with The Chicago
Manual of Style, 13th ed., and should be submitted in duplicate with
an appropriately stamped, self-addressed envelope. Please allow
three to four months for a response. Our distinguished Editorial
Board will constitute the jury of selection. Address editorial inquiries
and manuscript submissions to the Editors, Journal of American
Drama and Theatre, Ph.D. Program in Theatre, Graduate School,
CUNY, 33 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036.
Warren Kliewer
The American theatre has, of course, a history which con-
tinues to be studied diligently by a respectable body of scholars
producing a more than respectable body of published play texts, his-
tories, biographies, studies, and bibliographies . . At the same time,
we have a vast and growing body of theatre professionals
playwrights, directors, actors, and other artistic and managerial
professionals--most of whom have no idea that an American theatre
worth discussing existed prior to Eugene O'Neill's earliest New York
efforts in the 1920s, and have certainly never heard of the prolific
American theatre history scholars.
It would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to think of any
other profession in which the practitioners have elected to learn so
little about the past from scholars. Even politicians, not renowned for
their intellectual rigor, all claim to have heard of Woodrow Wilson,
Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Yet
theatre professionals in our time seem to feel no obligation to learn
from the history of their own discipline.
Arthur Miller might serve as an illustration. In describing the
genesis of The Crucible in his recently published autobiography,
he reveals not a hint of a suggestion that his dramatic
treatment of the Salem witch trials was preceded by artistically suc-
cessful plays on the same subject by James Nelson Barker, Mary
Wilkins Freeman, Cornelius Mathews, and Henry Wadsworth Longfel-
low, and that another one was being written at the same time by
Lyon Phelps.3 Whether Mr. Miller is unaware of these predecessors
or has chosen not to regard them as ancestors, his seeming not to
have studied the artistic past reveals a condition of cultural discontin-
uity which is both surprising and alarming.
I must hasten to add that Mr. Miller did do substantial historical
research for his play and that I am commenting only on his sepa-
ration from the artistic past. Most other theatre professionals share
his condition. They can go through an entire adult career without
seeing the work or on reading or hearing about Robert Montgomery
Bird, George Henry Boker, James A Herne, or the dozens of other
excellent writers, designers, and performers who created a major
theatrical tradition. In the contemporary theatre we seem to serve a
"tradition of the new." It became common in the 1980s for institu-
tional theatres to announce as company policy, "We do premieres
here, no second productions." Not even second productions of new
plays! This frenzied mind-set is like that of a Don Juan who has a
fixation on virgins and can't remember the ones he ravished the
week before last.
Outlining the problem is easier than finding the elusive root
causes. Possibly, weaknesses in our educational system have con-
tributed to this desperate search for the new. Quite probably the way
in which modern audiences have drifted away from large-crowd
social activities (such as the weekly band concert in the village
square) to more dispersed forms of social behavior (such as televi-
sion viewing) has contributed to our forgetting traditions. But con-
tributing causes, if that is what these are, can do no more than stimu-
late an artistic-social tendency which was probably set in motion at
the very beginning of this democratic experiment.
I would propose that certain qualities inherent in the theatre as
an art form and certain other qualities inherent in the democratic
society in which American theatre conducts its business clash and
make this discontinuity inevitable. For, on the one hand, theatre is a
traditional art using procedures, crafts, and arts which for centuries
have been passed on from master to apprentice in the manner of a
folk art. Further, the internal structure of each company or produc-
tion is normally hierarchical with all economic and artistic decision-
making power concentrated in the one or few individuals at the top of
the pyramid. But on the other hand, a technologically advanced,
democratic society has to find the presence of an archaic social
structure offensive and has to attempt to assimilate the theatre into
the larger society.
The theatre, therefore, is an Old World hierarchy transplanted
into a New World democracy. Young people entering the profession,
having been brought up in the American faith that "I'm as good as the
next man," suddenly confront the shocking reality of a system that
does not recognize equality. These newcomers are certain to com-
plain about the unfeeling rigidity of the system, and old-timers have,
since the first British-born theatre managers began reluctantly to hire
American-born actors, complained about the youngsters' lack of dis-
cipline. When this hierarchical art form and its democratic social
context meet, it is probably inevitable that the contact is mutually
This necessarily destructive process of interaction need not be
entirely harmful. Theatre people are used to the clash of bodies and
the conflict of emotions, and know that such turbulent interactions
can cause chaos or bring about creative discovery. What is
inevitably harmful, however, is that in the negotiation between a
traditional-hierarchical art form on the one hand and one's demo-
cratic upbringing on the other, theatre artists find that an additional
burden has been placed on the creative process. Not only must they
create the art, but they must also create a new means for creating,
sometimes having to invent a new vocabulary, and new set of cir-
cumstances in which to work, or a new method of training and study.
The problem is intensified by the fact that we Americans have
always had mixed feelings, a love-hate relationship, as it were, with
the products of the imagination, and that the theatre has been a spe-
cial object of this ambivalence. The theatre has been excessively
adored and outrageously condemned. The nation which hand-
somely rewarded Edwin Forrest and revered Edwin Booth also
closed all theatres in times of crisis such as during the Revolutionary
War and immediately after the assassination of President Lincoln.
Theatre people, themselves, experienced the ambivalence. Many a
nineteenth century actor published his memoirs in which he con-
fessed that his art was not "mere amusement" but that in service of
an extrinsic purpose it accomplished some moral, instructive, or
social good.
And yet, imaginations will not give up. They insist on trying to
navigate among all these hidden reefs and rocks. Those who
succeed have to be individuals who do not submit totally to the rigid
rules of the tradition-bound theatre, for in that case their work would
be mere repetition; who do not insist too much on their democratic
presuppositions, for in that case they would lack the specific dis-
cipline of the theatre; and who do not succumb totally to the
society's ambivalence toward the theatre, for in this case they would
fail to achieve the concentration of imagination needed to fuse the
traditional with the innovations upon which the creation of new art
Among the most effective of these resourceful and daring art-
ists have been self-taught experimenters--"autodidacts," in Thornton
Wilder's usage in American Characteristics. 5 After describing the
painter John Marin as one "who takes his place in the line of
authentic American autodidacts," Wilder goes on to describe the
education of such self-taught masters.
The bolder the individual vision, the more slowly it is
formed. Self-knowledge comes first through an uneasy
repudiation of the contemporary performance: there is
no precocious brilliance; each step must be taken in
alternations of courage and self-doubt. Such was the
early progress of Whitman and Melville and Thoreau. In
their accounts of their development it is precisely the
word "courage" which returns most frequently, and it is
often accompanied by a smiling and unfrightened allu-
sion to their work as "crazy."6
To Wilder's list of literary figures one could add Emily Dickinson, Wil-
liam Carlos Williams, and many more literary figures. The thumbnail
sketch applies so well to so many of our writers in so many periods
of literary history that we might say we have a "tradition" of
autodidacticism. But that is a contradiction in terms, for normally a
tradition is learned and then transmitted. Ours is not. In the
American tradition artistic work is carried on by people who appear
as if out of nowhere, who are not well-taught, and who make artistic
discoveries which can be transmitted to followers only with great dif-
ficulty. Unlike European artistic schools, in which the disciples carry
on the work learned at the feet of masters, it is the American way to
have artistic schools of one.
Though I iterary examples can be documented with relative
ease, the autodidacts are there in our theatre history as well : profes-
sionals who stretched beyond the areas of their training (if they had
any at all) into new areas where they were novices, and there they
made unexpected breakthroughs. If these major achievements
sometimes seemed accidental or motivated by personal problems,
they were still resourceful ways to deal with our cultural ambivalence
about the imagination and with the tension created by the clash
between the theatrical and democratic social systems.
Of the many self-taught masters in our theatre's history, I have
chosen six to outline a case study of an American artistic meth-
odology . They are presented here in an ascending order of the
complexity of the artistic process needed to accomplish their
ultimate goals. The first of the six was a failing alcoholic actor, John
Bartholomew Gough, who found the Temperance movement and
became a star, delivering "lectures" that were dazzling one-man
shows. There was the playwright and actress, Anna Cora Mowatt,
who overcame troubles and illnesses by delving into her own psyche
so deeply that her artistic work surpassed what could be expected
from her token girlhood middle-class educati on. There was the
actor-playwright, James A. Herne, who attempted to account for
what he had done, as his plays came ever closer to his vision and his
audiences dwindled, and he wrote a seminal essay which might well
be the first major contribution to American dramatic theory. There
was the public speaker (now usually remembered as essayist) Ralph
Waldo Emerson, whose performance career on the lecture circuit
drew him into speculating deeply on what it is that makes Americans
laugh. There was the actress, Mrs. John Drew, who outgrew her
apprentice training, became the actress-manager of the Arch Street
Theatre in Philadelphia, and brought it to the point where it was con-
sidered the finest example of a well-run theatre in America. And
there was the actor looking for a role that would fit him comfortably,
Joseph Jefferson Ill, who created a dramatic masterpiece with a
script that had been patched and pasted and pieced together and
had defeated all previous attempts at dramatization, Rip Van Winkle.
Take them all together, and these six American originals can become
an outline of a boundary, defining the way in which American theatri-
cal imagination does its most innovative work.
John B. Gough
does not appear in the theatre histories--
partly, of course, because theatre histories still emphasize dramatic
literature, and Gough never wrote a play. In fact, his "lectures" were
not even written but were improvised, and they have come down to
us only because his admirers copied them in shorthand and pub-
lished them as temperance tracts. Yet his performances were
certainly theatrical. In our time the one-person show has gained in
popularity. Perhaps this new appreciation might direct us backward
to a new appreciation of Gough as an earlier practitioner.
The "theatre" in which Gough operated was not the commer-
cial one: It was the circuit of tents and community rooms and lecture
halls where Temperance meetings took place. It was the world of
reformers, not of people openly seeking entertainment, with shows
presented by the Hutchinson Family Singers and all sorts of other
Fill-in-the-Blank Family singers, concerning themselves mainly with
Abolition or women's rights or temperance and only secondarily with
show business. And in the audiences were people insisting that they
never attended the wicked, godless, sin-ridden playhouse, Heaven
help us!
And yet Gough's work was unquestionably theatrical. He has
provided us in his Autobiography of John B. Gough with a con-
temporary description of his first British appearance at the age of
thirty-five, when he was at the height of his powers. The unnamed
critic, having set the stage, gives the performer his entrance.
Well, popular enthusiasm has toned down; the audience
has re-seated itself; a song of welcome has been sung;
and there stands up a man of middle size and middle-age
. . . He is dressed in sober black; his hair is dark, and so
is his face; but there is a muscular vigor in his frame, for
which we were not prepared.a
The performance grows, and so does the astonishment of the
Gough does not speak like . .. any other living man.
Gough is no servile copy, but a real original. We have no
one in England we can compare him to. He seems to
speak by inspiration--as the apostles spoke, who were
commanded not to think beforehand what they should
say. The spoken word seems to come naturally--as air
bubbles up from the bottom of the well . . . . As he spoke
an immense audience grew hushed and still, and hearts
were melted, and tears glistened in female eyes, and that
great human mass became knit together by a common
spell . . . . At his bidding, stern, strong men, as well as
sensitive women, wept or laughed,--they swelled with
indignation or desire ... . He seemed to ride upon the
audience,--to have mastered it completely to his will. He
seemed to bestride it, as we could imagine Alexander
bestriding Bucephal us. 9
And the unnamed critic even goes on to write a post-performance
review, emphasizing Gough's ability to play a cast of dozens in a
single performance:
In his delineation of American manners, he proved him-
self almost an equal of Silsbee. Off the stage we have
nowhere seen a better mimic than Gough .... 10
Indeed, this quick-change technique, the nucleus of his art, was what
caught everyone's attention. In The Life and Times of the Late
Demon Rum,
J. C. Furnas quotes the assessment of the much
more sober reformer Frances Willard who described him as:
An actor rather than an orator . . . that sallow, bearded
face, framed in a shock of gray hair, was of protean
aspect , now personating the drunkard, then the
hypocrite, anon the saint.12
Since he performed on lecture platforms rather than in theatres, he
made no costume changes. But he did have his hair:
Those restless, eager hands .. . always busy, flinging the
hair forward in one character, back in another, or stand-
ing it straight up in a third.13
Even "Charles Mathews, the greatest lightning-change monologist of
the century," was invoked, according to Furnas, by spectators seek-
ing to describe Gough's talent.
If we take this praise of Gough's theatrical talent at face value,
as I'm sure we must, then we must also credit Gough with bringing
theatrical imagination to the center of the mighty fortress that had
been erected for the protection of the pious from the imagination. In
America, religiously motivated social reform movements do have a
way of becoming drab and humorless, but Gough brought humor
and theatrical splendor into the gray world of reformers. Here's an
example from the "lecture" on HABIT:
I may be so discursive as to remind you of a man who
was constantly astonishing his employer, a farmer, by
doing strange and unexpected things. One day the
farmer went into the barn, and found his man had hung
himself. Looking at the dangling body a few minutes, he
exclaimed, "What on earth will that fellow do next?"
A bit like this, one should remember, was probably not narrated but
rather done in the mixture of narration and dramatization that we now
call Story Theatre. Performed in that way, this is still a good gag and
it still works. Such rich performance opportunities, not only comic
but the whole range of emotions, abound in Gough's surviving "lec-
These lectures were performed not solely for their entertain-
ment value but for a goal beyond themselves. I am sure that this had
a great deal to do with making his work acceptable within
Temperance circles. May not the same reasoning have been true for
Gough himself? Might it not be true that his early attempts at an
acting career failed so miserable because his talent served nothing
outside itself? If one lives in a culture that doubts the value of
imagination, one must resolve a fundamental conflict before the
imagination can function.
. Anna Cora Mowatt
also had her share of personal tragedy to
contend with, and no doubt these private disasters propelled her
from her protected middle-class life into. a life in the theatre. These
causes, however, make a story which is much less compelling than
the drama of her consistently energetic responses to the difficulties.
The financial disasters which she and her husband suffered, then his
illness, then her physical ailments and mental crises, and finally her
husband's early death--each of these could have been the end of her
courage, but instead each became the occasion for her rising to a
higher level of artistic achievement. The first decision to perform on
the lecture platform arose from the young couple's financial prob-
lems; out of the first illness and continuing financial problems came
the decision to become a full-fledged legitimate actress; out of a
recurrence of a more profound form of illness came her experiments
with mesmerism and her religious quest, leading to Sweden-
borgianism and a period of restful calm.
Necessity obviously figured in all this. For Anna Cora Mowatt,
as for John B. Gough and for many Americans, the exercise of the
imagination is justified not on its own merits but through its service to
a cause beyond itself. The "Introduction" to her autobiography,
6 for
example, begins with the assertion that "My autobiography needs no
preface." And then she provides this preface:
If one struggling sister in the great human family, while
listening to the history of my life, gain courage to meet
and brave severest trials; if she learn to look upon them
as blessings in disguise; if she be strengthened in the
performance of "daily duties," however "hardly paid"; if
she be inspired with faith in the power imported to a
strong will, whose end is good,--then I am amply
rewarded for my labor.
The autobiography concludes with a literary justification of the
theatre in general and actors in particular, quoting an enormous
array of writers who said something--anything--favorable about the
This labored argumentation is markedly different from the act
itself. Her language when describing her actual creative process is
remarkable for its airy lightness. The chapter describing the adven-
tures surrounding Fashion begins: "Why do you not write a play:'
said E. S----- to me one morning." After he spells out the suggestion
and specifies that it should be comedy, she concludes: "E. S-----'s
suggestion appeared to me good, and I commenced Fashion."
That's the whole story. There' s not a word more about her creative
process. I am not suggesting, of course, that the writing of Fashion
cost no effort but rather that the effortlessness of the description, as
compared with the labored prose of her apologia, reveals how mar-
velously well this remarkable artist's imagination worked all by itself.
For unexplained reasons, imagination needed to be justified. Once
her justification was proved, her freed imagination floated.
Perhaps one might even say that her artistic work was
dependent on the suffering for the opportunity it provided. It was not
that the suffering was good in intself, but rather that the energy sum-
moned up to take action against the suffering would then charge up
the creative work. Her investigation of mesmerism is a good exam-
ple.19 It began in 1842 when she collapsed from overwork. Though
she did not get caught up in the mesmerism craze of the time, as did
some of her contemporary experimenters, her hypnosis therapy was
frequent and profound enough that she developed a second hyp-
notic personality, which called itself "the gypsy" and which made dis-
paraging comments about "the simpleton, " her fragile waking per-
sonality. "The gypsy" was bold, prescient, religiously mystical, and
life-affirming. It rushed in, it took over, it solved problems in an
assertive manner. Eight years later "the gypsy" came back to save
her from another illness diagnosed as "brain fever" in the language of
the time. In this instance the external cause was the scandalous cir-
cumstances surrounding the collapse of the Marylebone Theatre,
coming at a time when she was already weakened and tottering on
the edge of a nervous collapse. But the cure was Mrs. Mowatt's
inner resource, brought to the surface this time by her fellow-actor E.
L. Davenport, who had been coached in the techniques of mes-
merism by her former therapist, Epes Sargent.
Hypnosis is not one of the normal techniques an actor
chooses to do the acting homework, and I doubt that any
responsible acting coach would ever recommend hypnosis as a part
of an actor' s traini ng.
0 Hypnosis as a method of training or
research would be risky at best, perhaps even destructive. That is to
say, this part of Mrs. Mowatt's training is not capable of being trans-
mitted to subsequent generations of actors. For that matter, she her-
self did not choose hypnosis. Her illnesses forced it upon her. And
yet it did feed into her work and was incorporated into her perform-
ances. In The Lady of Fashion Eric Wollencott Barnes quotes a most
revealing review of her mature work published in the 29 September
1849, issue of The London Illustrated News:
This lady's acting is not be judged by the ordinary rules
of art, or by comparison with other artists. We must take
it as it proceeds from her own idiosyncrasy which is both
peculiar and pleasing.21
The results as well as her "training," therefore, could not be repeated
or imitated. 2
The esthetic theory with which most Americans have been
most comfortable became explicit with James A. Herne, much to his
astonishment. When the fates chose him to be the first major
American theatre esthetician, he accepted the task reluctantly. His
essay "Art for Truth's Sake in the Drama"
begins with one dis-
claimer after another; "I approach the task set me with extreme dif-
fidence." "I doubt whether I shall be able to explain to you what con-
stitutes art." "I know what constitutes truth in my own work ... but I
do not believe I can explain how I know all this." And, indeed, the
essay never does become a closely reasoned exposition of an
extended theory.
But the theory is there all the same, often embodied in
autobiographical details or buried in production histories, Herne
begins his treatment in the same place his career began--his acting
in the stock companies. Although he has quite unkind things to say
about most of the playscripts available to actors in the commercial
productions, it is significant that he is full of praise for the actors who
make the work come to life.
We had some marvelous actors in those days, when you
consider the material they had to work with. In many
instances they actually made those artificial characters
human, and those plotty plays real. 24
He is particularly impressed with Edwin Booth who:
... suppressed or simplified that in them which was
obvious or theatric. It is told of him that being asked
what in Shakespeare impressed him most, he replied,
'The level lines. '"
At this early point in his essay, then, Herne treats "truth" as a quality
inherent in whatever an actor performs. Truth is within the work (or is
lacking); it is not an outside ideal or a criterion by which to judge, but
rather is a characteristic which a viewer perceives almost
The essay's perception of truth progresses by the same steps
as Herne's career did, and the next stage of his understanding came
about when he began to play what he calls "the "Dickens drama."
This experience changed everything because:
... the author was human, and the character real, and I
did not act it from the conventional actor standpoint, but
from the Charles Dickens standpoint. 26
A whole repertoire of Dickens characters followed, "not always typi-
cal, and some of them grotesque, but, oh! so representative, so full
of humanity .... "
His notion of truth, then, began to emphasize
the human. Literary Naturalism, with its emphasis on scientific or
philosophical varieties of truth, seems to have passed Herne by. For
him the "human" became the central meaning of "truth," which in turn
became the raison d'etre of "art." At this stage he still thought as an
actor, according to the essay.
His perception of truth progressed another step when he
came to realize that "truth" is a "force," and this came about with the
advent of his playwriting. He describes his Drifting Apart as "a
tremendous potentiality let loose."28 Margaret Fleming he calls "the
epitome of a powerful but savage truth," and though the play did not
succeed financially, its "silent potentiality is working slowly and
surely."29 With regard to his later play, Shore Acres, which he des-
cribes with organic metaphors, he makes explicit his view of "truth"
as a power larger than and outside the artist:
I have been autobiographical because I wanted to show
how persistent a force truth is, and how it compels the
unconscious medium to express it. I did not set myself
the task of writing "Shore Acres" as it now stands; it
grew, and I grew with it; and while I did not realize all its
spirituality until its stage presentation set that spirituality
free, still it must have had possession of me while writing,
or I could not so have written. 30
In general this view of truth-as-force is neither unique to Herne nor
uniquely American. For example, it is not unlike the views of many
German nineteenth and eighteenth century estheticians, and in this
context Herne quotes Goethe: "As soon as we are born the world
begins to Work upon us, and this goes on to the end."3
But Herne
takes his final step and radically transforms the European notion of a
world-spirit into a populist form of expression.
I stand for art for truth's sake because it perpetuates the
everyday life of its time, because it develops the latent
beauty of the so-called commonplaces of life, because it
dignifies labor and reveals the dignity of the common
The "truth" in art has become democratic, then, as Herne finds
a common bond between himself as artist and the ordinary human
beings in his audience. It was the culmination of his career as actor-
playwright that prompted this furthest development in his thinking
about truth on stage. From an identification of truth with the human in
general, he had progressed to a notion of truth as force and then to a
view of the divinity of ordinary people--an esthetic based on the same
faith as the one which gave rise to a belief in political equality. This
political dimension is a faith, of course, not a fact: one believes that
"all men are created equal," but there are no scientific data to prove
it. Herne acknowledges this, and in his passionate peroration he
reaffirms the hopeful faith underlying his discoveries, as he makes
great claims for "truth in the drama."
It strikes at unequal standards and unjust systems. It is
as unyielding as it is honest. It is as tender as it is
inflexible. It has supreme faith in man.33
His odyssey was a long one, and Herne learned as Odysseus
navigated--with no proper guides. Herne worked out his faith
through his discoveries during many years of acting and through
many attempts at discovering exactly what play he wanted to write.
The work itself taught him.
As is always the case with the work of an autodidact, the
results of his work were not easy to transmit through the tradition.
The realistic surfaces of his acting and his plays were available for
imitation, but subsequent actors and playwrights had to rediscover
the underlying faith all by themselves. For like the insights of any
other self-taught master, Herne's "supreme faith in man" is not self-
evident, either before or after a playwright discerns it. In a letter to
Arthur Hobson Quinn, Eugene O'Neill emphasizes the loneliness of
this faith.
But where I feel myself most neglected is just where I set
most store by myself--as a bit of a poet, who has labored
with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty
where beauty apparently isn't--Jones, Ape, God's Chillun,
Desire, etc.--and to see the transfiguring nobility of trag-
edy, in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in
seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives. 3
It is not easy to have evolved the faith of Herne or the hope of O'Neill
and then to have it go unnoticed by critics and general audiences.
But one must add that the uniqueness, even privacy, of such an
insight is inherent in the autodidactic method by which it was
In an essay about American theatre, it may seem shocking to
pay our respects to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom we now generally
regard as sage, poet, essayist, man of letters. And yet he was a per-
former, not in the legitimate theatre but on the lyceum circuit, and his
performances were capable of eliciting rave reviews, such as this
comment by Nathaniel Parker Willis in Hurrygraphs:
His voice is up to his reputation .. . in delivery, his
cadences tell you that the meaning is given . .. when--
flash!--comes a single word or phrase, like lightning after
listened out thunder, and illuminates, with astonishing
vividness, the cloud you have striven to see into.35
We would be well-advised, therefore, to pay attention to this wise
man who dealt regularly with live audiences eager to be entertained.
He recorded his observations on "The Comic"36 in 1843. In the essay
he not only speculates generally on the nature of comedy but also
provides specific insights into a peculiarly American difficulty with
It is indeed true, I think, that in America we regard comedy as
a second-class activity. In intensely religious periods we have found
it impossible to speak light-heartedly about religious topics. As eth-
ni c groups gain social and political power, we find that the ethnic
jokes which formerly enlivened American theatre and popular litera-
ture become tabu. And formal education seems to make us not
more sophisticated but less. High school students sometimes write
successfully funny English themes, but as these same students pro-
gress through their college and graduate work, humor vanis.hes from
their prose.
We seem to assume that whatever is comic deals frivolously
with reality. Comedy is escape, we seem to believe, not cognition.
Our culture's denigration of the comic should be regarded as a
specific aspect of our general distrust of imagination. Since Emer-
son's analysis of comedy directly addresses our ambivalence toward
comic perception, his exposition of the subject might well be the best
in our tradition.
His argument begins with a definition. Reason is a faculty
capable of perceiving "a whole and a part. Reason is the whole and
whatsoever is not that is a part. "3
Separating the part from the
whole, in his view, leads to the perception of the part in a ludicrous
relation to the whole. Discrepancy, this "break of continuity in the
intell ect, " is what he calls comedy, "and it announces itself physically
in the pleasant spasms we calllaughter."38
So far his definition is not unique. It is not unlike, for example,
Kierkegaard's remark, quoted by Wylie Sypher in "The Meanings of
Comedy," that "wherever there is life there i s contradiction, and
wherever there is contradiction the comical is present".39 But Emer-
son's argument takes a peculiarly American turn.
Reason does not joke, and men of reason do not; a
prophet, in whom the moral sentiment predominates, or a
philosopher, in whom the love of truth predominates,
these do not joke, but they bring the standard, the ideal
whole, exposing all actual defect.40
This description of "men of reason" sounds stern enough to have
been written by Cotton Mather himself. Emerson' s wry view is
revealed in his description of the more complex, less perfect person:
who knows the world, and who, sympathizing with the
philosopher's scrutiny, sympathizes also with the confu-
sion and indignation of the detected, skulking institutions.
His perception of disparity, his eye wandering perpetually
from the rule to the crooked, lying, thieving fact, makes
the eyes run over with laughter.41
Those among us who are committed to "the standard, the ideal
whole," therefore, are likely to become indignant rather than amused
in the presence of discrepancy.
Even satire requires sympathy with the object of laughter,
according to Emerson. Indignation is not enough. Thus, if one sets
out to satirize political corruption, one must condemn without hatred
and sympathize without becoming immersed--a difficult and complex
stance, to say the least. It is a measure of Emerson's genius that he
showed us how, in the presence of moral imperfection, to tell genial
What may be the most remarkable aspect of Emerson's
remarks on the comic is that as esthetician he, too, was an
autodidact. There was nothing in his impoverished youth, in his New
England heritage, in his Unitarian theological training, or in his art-
istically restricted experience that would have shown him the way to
a genial theory of the comic. What he knew about comedy he taught
himself, and he did so in the manner of a nightclub comedian, stand-
ing up there in front of a paying audience. Like all of the best things
that have been said about performance, Emerson's comic esthetic
was discovered in the excitement of performance, and in retrospect
mulled over profoundly. This is a method that cannot be built upon,
but only re-enacted.
A nineteenth-century actor-manager was not merely an admin-
istrator. In our time many theatres are managed by M.B.A.s or "arts
managers," who place the emphasis on "management." But the
actor-manager was an extraordinarily skilled and versatile artist who
bore an astonishing array or responsibilities. This was especially true
of Mrs. John Drew, who reached the pinnacle of her profession in her
thirty-one years as the actress-manager of the Arch Street Theatre in
Philadelphia. The range of her abilities has been elegantly docu-
mented by C. Lee Jenner in "The Duchess of Arch Street."
3 At the
height of her career, according to Ms. Jenner:
Mrs. Drew was a one-woman script department, purchas-
ing agent, head accountant, and publicity officer as well
as chief stage director, scenic consultant, and supervisor
of building and grounds. Although she had a stage
manager, a set designer, a treasurer, a backstage crew,
and, sometimes, a general manager, she closely
monitored each of them on a daily basis. 4
And in addition, of course, "Most nights she was on stage," giving
one of her remarkable performances.
Exactly how she developed her extraordinary abilities remains
something of a mystery. Possibly her abilities grew by simple
addition--observing how things were done by this manager and the
next one and the next one, and adding all this together. She
certainly had plenty of opportunities to do things that way, having
begun her acting career as an infant and continuing throughout her
life. Actors in general are astute observers of good and bad
managers, being constantly grateful for the one or at the mercy of
the other. No doubt young Louisa did the same. She could have
learned from her stepfather, John Kinloch, who had made the transi-
tion from acting to management. But his managerial career was cut
short by yellow fever. And Louisa urged her husband, John Drew, to
accept co-management responsibilities for the Arch Street Theatre.
But this opportunity for apprenticeship also proved inadequate, for
John Drew was not especially devoted to a career in management,
and he left home from time to time to tour California, Australia, or
Ireland, thus leaving his co-manager William Wheatley in the lurch. It
would appear, then, that if Mrs. Drew learned anything from her
mentors, it was how not to do it, and that she was another of the
great American theatrical autodidacts. For in every way her manage-
ment of the Arch surpassed what she had learned from her sources.
But how the apprentice took the great leap forward to become the
master has not been adequately documented. Mrs. Drew did not
reveal the details of her process of educating herself.
There are some things that can be inferred from her mental
qualities and her circumstances. For example, she was capable of
paying attention to small details, as good administrators must do.
James Kotsilibas-Davis notes in Great Times Good Times:
She was skilled in every detail of her trade, from the
direction of actors to the building of a set. "Why, sir,"
admitted her principal carpenter to critic Allston Brown,
"there ain't a carpenter in the theatre whom she can't
sometimes teach how to do a thing. "46
In addition, she inherited a well -defined and flexible way of
doing business in the theatre. This was the stock company system,
in which there was a company of actors employed by a local actor-
manager and augmented from time to time by a visiting star. In
1861 , when she took over the Arch Street Theatre, the stock com-
pany system was going out of favor. She was a conservative
manager, however, and these customs, centuries old and passed
down like the well-polished rules of folk tradition, were no hindrance.
Instead, they sustained her apprenticeship through the first half of
her management of the Arch.
Her fondness for the old customs could not stop the changes,
of course. The coming of the railroads had made it possible for an
entire production and cast to be transported from city to city, and the
stock company system could not survive. It is a mark of the com-
petence of this woman that in 1875, much as she loved the old way
of doing things, she responded to the changes and switched to
booking in "combination theatre" productions. She worked within
this new system until her retirement in 1892, a total of thirty-one
years. She was now seventy-two years old.
No doubt her age had something to do with her decision, but
her professional acumen was a more important factor. (She
celebrated her "retirement" by learning a new role and going out on
tour.) It is a mark of a professional to know the right moment to
close a show or a theatre. In retrospect we can see that she did
choose the right moment. Just three years later Klaw and Erlanger
came to their agreements which created the Syndicate's tour-
booking franchise system, and this virtually did away with the locally
based resident theatre system.
And so Mrs. Drew was not giving
up: Even her decision to retire was an incisive professional choice.
Even more remarkable was the way in which she began her
management career. She did not seek it: She was chosen by the
stockholders' Board. If this Board had any doubts about her
because of her husband's restlessness during his tenure as manager
from 1853 to 1855, during which he left to go on his global tours, this
seems not to have been a major issue. Even the fact that Louisa was
a woman seems to have entered into the Board's decision only
slightly, for this worry was convincingly answered by citing as a
precedent the managerial success of Laura Keene and other actress-
managers. Rather, the question was whether to ask Mrs. Drew to
accept a position she had not asked for. The decision went in her
favor when the Board president's son, Adam Everly, persuasively
cited her "experience, ability, good taste, and judgment."48 And so
she was given the challenge of a deteriorating theatre and a twenty-
thousand-dollar mortgage.
Beginning with a disadvantage, she took over and within a few
years paid off the mortgage, redecorated the theatre, brought up the
value of the investors' stock, made the theatre eminently fashionable
and respectable, and instituted enlightened and meticulous employ-
ment practices. James Kotsilibas-Davis cites Rose Eytinge's judg-
ment: "It was, without exception, the best-conducted, cleanest, most
orderly, and most all-around comfortable theatre that I ever acted
in"49 Though it may appear that she had "greatness thrust upon her,"
it would be more precise to say that in responding to great dis-
advantages thrust upon her, she created her own vision of greatness,
and did so with few good models and no adequate mentors.
We often distinguish nowadays between "playwriting" and
"playwrighting." The former carries the implication of literary work
done privately and then brought forth publicly by non-literary individ-
uals who "interpret" or "convey the author's intent." "Playwrighting,"
which blurs the distinction between literary artist and interpreter and
between the senses of sight and hearing, implies that things are
worked out on stage, not in the study. And the individual who writes
the words follows through and influences performance and produc-
tion values as well. This modern distinction is helpful in understand-
ing Joseph Jefferson's mid-nineteenth century working method in
creating his major artistic contribution, Rip Van Winkle.
Jefferson was not the first to attempt to make a play out of
Washington Irving's story. 50 Irving himself was not one of those who
tried to dramatize the tale, though he had had a hand in several suc-
cessful plays. But John Kerr did try to put Rip on stage, and so did
James H. Hackett and Jefferson's step-brother Charles Burke, who
played the role as well . All met with some success and much failure,
and no one seemed to have figured out the mystery when Jefferson
happened upon the story. More specifically, while reading a selec-
tion from Irving's diaries during a summer vacation in 1859, he ran
across a reference to himself. This delightful surprise led to a re-
reading of Irving's short story, but he was forced to the disappointing
conclusion that the tale was "interesting but not dramatic."5
But something about the character would not let go, and he
could not get the story out of his mind. He set to work in an "out-of
the-way, upside-down manner," he tells in his Autobiography.
Nothing gave him the "slightest encouragement that I could get a
good play out of the existing materials," and yet he got together "old
leather and mildewed cloth" and personally supervised the making of
the wigs--"and all this too before I had written a line of the play or
studied a word of the part."
I need hardly add that this is not the
method recommended in college playwriting courses.
The next step--also not recommended in these days of
copyright protection--was to select portions of the story itself plus
scenes from the three printed stage adaptations, and these were
arranged into a three-act play. "By far the most alteration," he tells
us, "was in the alteration with spirits." He removed their dialogue and
left them merely to "gesticulate" in a "deathlike stillness . . . as they
glided about the stage in solemn silence." Doing this was necessary,
he felt, to "separate the poetical from the domestic side of the
story. "53 This was in itself a brilliant idea, and anyone who has
worked on or seen a revival production can attest to the gripping
power of that scene in which Hendrik Hudson's men answer only in
After a first production, which he found "both satisfactory and
disappointing, II he concluded that "the character was what I had
been seeking, and . . . the play was not."5
The needed rewriting had
to wait for five years until Jefferson happened to meet Dion
Boucicault and asked him for a revision. Montrose J. Moses in Rep-
resentative Plays by American Dramatists, Vol. 3, gives Boucicault's
side of that significant negotiation. On re-reading the original story,
Boucicault found it "hopelessly undramatic" and found the character
to be an old sot. .. not a pleasant figure, II lacking in "romance," and
an "old Beast" with "no interest in him."55 It was the playwright's idea
to turn him into a:
young scamp, thoughtless, gay, just such a curly-head,
good-humored fellow as all the village girls would love
and the children and dogs would run after.
Boucicault got his way, and Rip became a lovable drunk.
Boucicault had no great praise for his own work. His account
in Moses' introduction states that:
It was not much of a literary production, and it was with
some apology that it was handed to him .... "It is a poor
thing, Joe." "Well," he replied, "it is good enough for
But actually it was not good enough, and the completion of the work
took place over the next thirty years. In referring to the many authors
whose work went into the play, Jefferson in his autobiography care-
fully differentiates the contributions of the last two writers:
Added to this, Dion Boucicault brought his dramatic skill
to bear, and by important additions made a better play
and a more interesting character of the hero than had as
yet been reached. This adaptation, in my turn, I inter-
preted and enlarged upon. 58
It is very likely that this continual rewriting took place between per-
formances on trains and in hotels, and probably even during per-
formances, And the final acting version was not published until 1895,
thirty-six years after the summer vacation when Jefferson casually
picked up the copy of Washington Irving's diaries for a little light
reading. The amount of time it took to complete the task bears out
Thornton Wilder's observation about the work of self-taught masters:
"The bolder the individual vision the more slowly it is formed."59 In
this case boldness was a part of the venture right from the start. For
the material had defeated all previous attempts at dramatization.
Of the six individuals just cited, all of whom could be regarded
as major figures in some aspect of American cultural history, two
(Gough and Emerson) do not appear in conventional dramatic his-
tories at all, and the other four are remembered for achievements
that are remarkable but not especially bold. That is, modern histories
are likely to cite Mowatt for one early play, Fashion, and Herne for a
couple of late plays, Jefferson for the longevity of his acting career,
and Mrs. Drew for her skilled character work and for being the
progenitor of a dynasty of actors.
It is my hypothesis, however, that these six should be viewed
in the context of the struggle of American theatre artists to live by
means of the imagination within the context of a democratic society.
For then these six emerge as major leaders in the American theatre's
never-ending search for ways to strengthen the imagination in an
indifferent or hostile environment. The significance of these leaders,
while not apparent on the surface, can be found in the slowly-
growing tendencies of their life-long careers. Each of these artists
took a long artistic and spiritual journey. For each, the point of
departure was conventional, usually ordinary apprenticeship, but the
apex of the artistic work was exceptional.
The working methods of these six, seemingly with nothing in
common, have a paradoxical similarity: These six autodidacts,
though prepared for conventional repetition of prevailing taste, were
unprepared for their most demanding work, for which they had to
evolve idiosyncratic and unorthodox working methods. They all did
things the way they were not supposed to be done. For example, it
was not W. R. Crisp, the acting coach Anna Cora Mowatt hired for
her debut, who made her a first-rate actress. He had only three
weeks, barely enough t ime to teach her the basic tricks of the
trade. so Instead, when her various ailments and afflictions forced her
to resort to mesmerism in order to survive, she also uncovered a
relationship between depth psychology and her acting--long before
that twentieth century approach became fashionable, by the way.
And the other five, similarly stumbling along in their searches, made
unorthodox discoveries that became the bases of significant artistic
or theoretical work, and they did so without adequate mentors.
The most accessible of these discoveries is embodied in
Herne's slogan "art for truth's sake," that is, the view that art serves a
purpose beyond itself. As the artistic descendants of James A.
Herne, we are likely to feel comfortable with his kind of realism, and
as the spiritual descendants of Jonathan Edwards, we are likely to be
comforted by the view that art (which is probably frivolous) serves a
higher purpose, truth (which is most likely noble). But there is more
to Herne's rendition of "truth." He hammered out his views over a
lifetime of practical theatre work, and therefore was continuously
concerned with establishing a connection between the ideal and the
real, the abstraction and the practical concerns of his profession. He
found this connection in his humanizing the notion of truth. In effect,
he healed an old wound in the American psyche.
Another kind of healing predominated in John Bartholomew
Gough's performances--the healing of men and women suffering
from alcoholism. But like Herne's his art effected another variety of
reconciliation as well. Gough created a kind of "theatre for the
pious." To that vast, grim, gray, reformist, evangelistic audience of
American sobersides, Gough brought grace, wit, humane humor,
and dazzling theatricality. His non-commercial form of theatre,
modified enough to make it acceptable, brought imagination to those
committed to its eradication.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's investigation of "The Comic" carried
the cause of the imagination even more deeply into the camp of the
humorless. Beginning his essay with the impudent assertion that "A
taste for fun is all but universal in our species, which is the only joker
in Nature," he went on to make comedy worthy of respect, to estab-
lish that the comic imagination is not frivolous but rather a mode of
cognition as trustworthy as any other way of knowing the world we
inhabit. Just as Herne found a way to reconcile "art" and "truth," so
Emerson found a way to bring together "comic" and "serious" ways
of viewing the discrepancies between what is real and what ought to
The achievements of Mrs. John Drew and Joseph Jefferson Ill
were the result of an even more ambitious unifying action. Theatre is
a multi-faceted art form, the parts of which are highly departmental-
ized in our time and were rarely brought together well even in the
nineteenth century. But Drew and Jefferson, in their idiosyncratic
and self-taught ways, succeeded in drawing together acting, direct-
ing (called "stage managing" at the time), costume design, set design
and construction, playwriting in the case of Jefferson, and artistic
management in both cases--and succeeded, furthermore, in fusing
these departments into a single act of creation, illuminated by the
imaginations of these two extraordinary talents. A lifetime of self-
teaching, a lifelong career, three decades of careful attention to a
huge problem--these were focused by these autodidacts on a single,
ambitious act of creation: Mrs. Drew's Arch Street Theatre, Jeffer-
son's version of Rip Van Winkle, both major cultural achievements.
The six figures whom I have been considering had yet another
characteristic in common: They had no followers, at least not in the
European sense. To be sure, Herne had daughters who became
major actresses, and the talents of the Drew and Barrymore
descendants of Mrs. Drew have astonished the world. 5
But on care-
ful examination it becomes clear that neither Herne nor Mrs. Drew
made any attempt to found a school of artistic disciples. One can
speak of schools of Moliere or Shakespeare or Stanislavsky or
Grotowski. But that's not the American way. Here we do not will-
ingly accept mentors or artistic disciples. Just as our democratic
predilections make us uncomfortable within the hierarchy of a tradi-
tional theatrical troupe, so our democratic sentiments make it difficult
for Americans to submit mind, body, style, and soul in the con-
centrated manner required by, say, a Noh master.
But if these six did not set out to make converts, we can now
see with the benefit of hindsight that they were prescient, more so
than they or their contemporaries could appreciate. Gough's kind of
one-person theatrical event dropped out of sight during the first half
of this century (except for the monologues of a few brave souls, such
as Ruth Draper), but has in recent years become quite popular again.
And one might add that Mowatt's drawing on depth psychology for
acting support did not have parallels in American acting theory until
the emergence of "The Method," inspired in the 1940s and 1950s by
the Russian director, Stanislavsky; that Emerson's intelligent theory
of humane comedy seems to have re-emerged in the work of Charlie
Chapl in and the current "New Vaudevillians"; that Herne predated
major expressions of the theory of dramatic realism such as those of
Stark Young by about a quarter-century; that Jefferson wrote a play
by a method which has become the norm in the 1980s under the
rubric of "New Play Development"; and that Drew' s vision of the
theatre was al l but lost until the advent of not-for-profit theatres
twenty-five years ago, at which time there began the evolution of
what we now call "institutional theatres."
These accomplishments were achieved by these six individu-
als who had received a conventional sort of apprenticeship training
and are justly renowned for certain accomplishments, but who had
little or no training upon which to base their most original theatrical
insights. Further, they did not recruit or accept disciples to whom
these imaginative insights could be transmitted. The circumstances
of creation were so unique and the artistic responses so idiosyncratic
that it would be unethical to recommend them to a younger gener-
ation. Who would dare to recommend that as a method of actor-
training an actress plunge into hypnosis and uncover a second per-
sonality, as Mowatt did; that a widowed mother and actress take
over a weakened, debt-ridden theatre, as Drew did; that a character
actor, dissatisfied with the roles available to him, risk his career in the
unknown territory of scriptmaking, and then push even beyond that
into theoretical inquiry, as Herne did? It is true that Emerson's
inquiry into comic theory entailed no risks to his career, but in the
context of his work his yoking together jokes and philosophy could
be seen as absurd. Jefferson himself was the first to point out the
absurdity of his method--building a costume and rehearsing the
character's movement before one line of the play had been written.
And I need hardly add that one must not recommend the frightening
motivation for Gough's one-man theatre--his failed battle against
alcoholism and his painfully personal subject matter.
It is said that one learns from history. But from these six one
learns that American cultural history may not want to teach. Instead,
they developed artistic methods which cannot or should not or must
not be passed on. It may be self-evident that a master's brilliance
and subtleties cannot be imitated by the apprentice, but if even the
working methods cannot be passed down to the next generation,
then American theatrical history is necessarily discontinuous.
The careers of these six illustrate a continuing dilemma. There
is no question that we have a rich theatrical past. But since
American civilization has chosen not to value the imagination as a
way of perceiving the world, and since our major cultural achieve-
ments are of a kind that does not nurture the training of following
generations, we are always having to start over, do the work of past
generations all over again, create something astonishingly new by
way of a process that begins in ignorance. Unlike the European or
Oriental theatres, which live through a slow, steady, passing down
from master to disciple, American theatre is always having to
explode and subside and vanish and begin again. There is nothing in
our theatrical history to suggest that the cycle can be broken. It may
be that we are doomed to participate in a continuing progression of
unrelated masterworks from which we cannot learn.
1. As a way of comprehending the size of this "vast and growing
body," consider the membership figures for the three largest unions
with jurisdiction over live theatre as of mid-1989:
The Actor's Equity Association: ca. 40,000 members
The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers: ca. 1 ,040
The Dramatists Guild: ca. 7,660.
The total of 48,700 might be adjusted downward somewhat, since
there is considerable joint membership. Whatever the total number
of persons may be, one must add to it the members of the other six-
teen theatrical unions, the much larger number of people who work
through other unions in film and television, the incalculable numbers
of people who are "non-union professionals," and a vast and chang-
ing population of leisure-time artists who are joined by thousands,
possibly tens of thousands, of college drama majors, whose formal
education included at most a glance at American theatre history. To
estimate the total number of American theatre artists as 350,000
would be conservative. The American Society for Theatre Research,
which includes scholars in all disciplines of theatre study, not only
American theatre history, has fewer than seven hundred members.
That is a small number of rabbis to serve such a large congregation.
2. Timebends: A Lite (New York: Grove Press, 1987). See
especially 330-332 and 335-352.
3. James Nelson Barker, Superstition (1824), reprinted in Arthur
Hobson Quinn, Representative American Plays (New York:
Appleton-Century Crofts, 1917 and ff.) and in John Gassner, Best
Plays of the the Early American Theatre (New York: Crown, 1967);
Mary E. Wilkins, Giles Corey, Yeoman (New York: Harper, 1893);
Cornelius Mathews, Witchcraft (New York: S. French, 1852) and in
The Various Writings of Cornelius Mathews (New York: Harper,
1843); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Giles Corey of the Salem
Farms (1868), now reprinted in Selected Poems, Lawrence Buell, ed.
(New York: Penguin, 1988); Lyon Phelps, The Gospel Witch (1952) ,
in Religious Drama 3, Marvin Halverson, ed. (New York: Meridian,
1959). Of the five, Barker's is the most ambitious, and it should
surely have been considered required reading for any modern writer
hoping to tackle the mysterious events of the Salem witch trials.
4. It is quite possible that the urge to recant was induced by the
publishers, not the actors. In the introduction to George Handel
("Yankee") Hill's Scenes from the Life of an Actor {1853; rpt. New
York: Benjamin Blom, 1969), it is the unacknowledged editor who
quotes: "Sweet are the uses of adversity 1 And this, our life,/ Finds ...
Sermons in stones, and good in everything," presumably in comedy
as well as in stones.
5. Thornton Wilder, American Characteristics and Other
Essays, Donald Gallup, ed. (New York: Harper, 1979).
6. Wilder, 236.
7. Primary sources are Autobiography and Personal Recollec-
tions of John B. Gough (Springfield, MA: Bill, Nichols & Co., 1869)
and Platform Echoes: or, Living Truths for Head and Heart (Hartford:
A D. Worthington & Co., 1881).
8. Autobiography, 292.
9. Autobiography, 293.
10. Autobiography, 293, Josh Silsbee was a popular American
actor best known for his Yankee roles.
11 . J. C. Furnas, The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum
(New York: Capricorn Books, 1973).
12. Furnas, 148.
13. Furnas, 148.
14. Platform Echoes, 72.
15. Anna Cora Mowatt, Autobiography of an Actress; or, Eight
Years on the Stage (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1984) is the
basic source, though the author was understandably reluctant to
describe her illnesses in great detail. There is much more medical
evidence in Eric Wollencott Barnes, The Lady of Fashion: The Life
and the Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1954). See especially chapters Seven and Eighteen.
16. Autobiography . .. Actress, 3ft.
17. Autobiography . .. Actress, 428-448.
18. Autobiography. .. Actress, 202. E. S. was Epes Sargent.
19. Autobiography ... Actress, 158-183; Barnes, 69-80.
20. This is not to say that acting teachers or coaches never
attempt bizarre methods. But reactions against such methods con-
tinue to be intense. It would seem that the theatre community has an
instinctual, if not wholly conscious, ethical code, based on the view
that acting is an art form not to be confused with personal emotions
or therapy.
21. Barnes, 218.
22. It is worth noting that the critic who described Gough as "a
real original" and the one who said Mowatt's work "proceeds from
her own idiosyncrasy" were both British, unsullied by contact with
American democratic attitudes. To this day it is still the conventional
wisdom that though there are brill iant exceptions on both sides of the
Atlantic, British actors tend to be proficient, correct, and shallow, and
Americans are rough and energetic. One American cynic has com-
mented that for British actors "the word travels from the eye and the
ear to the mouth without passing through the brain."
23. The Arena, 17 (February, 1897), 361 -370. There is a fine
summary of the document in John Perry, James A. Herne: The
American Ibsen (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1978), 130-132.
24. "Art for Truth's Sake," 364.
25. "Art for Truth's Sake," 364.
26. "Art for Truth's Sake," 365.
27. "Art for Truth's Sake," 365-366.
28. "Art for Truth's Sake," 366.
29. "Art for Truth's Sake," 367.
30. "Art for Truth's Sake," 368.
31. "Art for Truth's Sake," 369.
32. "Art for Truth's Sake," 369.
33. "Art for Truth's Sake," 370.
34. Printed in A History of the American Drama from the Civil
War to the Present Day, II, third ed., rev. (New York: Crofts, 1936),
35. Nathaniel Parker Willis, Hurrygraphs (New York: Scribners,
1851), 172.
36. "The Comic" is included in the Harvard Edition of Emerson's
Complete Works, Letters and Social Aims (New York: Houghton Mif-
fli n, 1929), 155-174; but it is more conveniently reprinted in Paul
Lauter, ed., Theories of Comedy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday,
1964), 378-387.
37. Lauter, 378.
38. Lauter, 378.
39. Comedy (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 196. "The Mean-
ings of Comedy," which is the appendix to the volume, is an excellent
summary of comic theories.
40. Lauter, 379.
41. Lauter, 379.
42. After making the point that "we must learn by laughter,"
Emerson provides an example of his humane notion of humor:
"When Carl ini was convulsing Naples with laughter, a patient waited
on a physician in that city, to obtain some remedy for excessive
melancholy, which was rapidly consuming his life. The physician
endeavored to cheer his spirits, and advised him to go to the theatre
and see Carlini. He (the patient) replied, 'I am Carlini. ' " Lauter, 387.
43. C. Lee Jenner, "The Duchess of Arch Street: An Overview of
Mrs. John Drew's Managerial Career, " The Drews and the Bar-
rymores: A Dynasty of Actors. Performing Arts Resources. Vol. 13
(New York: Theatre Library Association, 1988), 29-43.
44. Jenner, 33.
45. James Kotsilibas-Davis, Great Times Good Times: The
Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore (New York: Doubleday, 1978),
provides an excellent summary of Mrs. Drew's career. Her own
Autobiographical Sketch (New York: Scribner's, 1899), however, is a
chronicle. It does not explain, analyze, or account for her
extraordinary abilities. It is quite possible that she did not regard her-
self as the extraordinary individual whom we, in retrospect, can see
she was.
46. Kotsilibas-Davis, 102.
47. It i s t rue that Mrs. Drew survived the shift from local
repertory companies to the touring "combination" productions. But
the signing in 1896 of the cont racts which created the "Theatrical
Syndicate" marked the beginning of a far more radical shift in theatre
economics. Its result was the transfer of power from artist-managers
to entrepreneurs and investors. No artist-managers survived the
1896 revolution except those who, like Mrs. Fiske, spent their time
fighting the Syndicate. But that is another essay.
48. Kostilibas-Davis, 97.
49. Kostilibas-Davis, 101.
50. Readers wishing to study the complicated evolution of the
text of Jefferson's version of the Rip story would do well to consult
Montrose J. Moses, ed. , Representative Plays by American
Dramatists. Vol. 3, 1856-1917 (1921; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom,
1964), 17-26. A clear implication of this extended revision project is
that other actors, such as James H. Hackett, may have given finer
performances, but Jefferson's script was stronger.
51. The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (New York:
Century, 1889), 225.
52. Jefferson, 226.
53. Jefferson, 226-227.
54. Jefferson, 229.
55. Moses, 25.
56. Moses, 25.
57. Moses, 25.
58. Jefferson, 461.
59. Wilder, 236.
60. Barnes' Chapter Thirteen, 137-150, is a much more detailed
treatment of the Crisp story; Mowatt, well-mannered lady that she
was, became evasive. But both make it clear that Crisp, even when
sober, was not a competent coach.
61. In "American Acting Dynasties," the lead essay in The
Drews and the Barrymores, 1-15 Don B. Wilmeth provides a broad
survey of the phenomenon of multi-generational acting families, and
emphasizes that "Many actors in the nineteenth century in fact dis-
couraged their children from a dramatic career, aware of their voca-
tion's failing ... None of the three famous Barrymores truly desired
theatrical careers ... Similar stories are common." Thus is set in
motion a curious cycle: Actor-parents advise their children to
become something else; the children, after making an effort to do
so, become actors anyway, and then try to discourage their own chil-
dren from doing likewise, and so on and so on. This wasteful cycle is
yet another version of the effects of the bumpy road which artistic
traditions in America must travel.
The East Lynne Company, Inc.
Warren Kliewer, Artistic Director
Office: 281 Lincoln Avenue
Secaucus, NJ07094
(201) 863-6436
A theatrical producing organization founded in 1980, the East
Lynne Company is dedicated to reviving earlier American plays and
other entertainments and to the exploration of American theatrical
traditions. Notable productions have included Samuel Low's The
Politician Outwitted (1788), Nathaniel Parker Willis's Tortesa, the
Usurer (1838-9), Rip Van Winkle (publ. 1895), and William Dean
Howells's The Impossible (1910). In residence during the summers
in Cape May, NJ, the Company tours eight small-cast shows to
campuses and museums throughout the country and presents
annual symposia on topics ranging from the Drew and Barrymore
family of actors to the Federal Theatre to Samuel Low's stage treat-
ment of the Constitutional ratification debates.
Serena Anderlini
In the seventies, when one of the economic recessions in the
capitalistic production system came about, the liberated
heterosexual life style that a large number of people had adopted in
the sixties, also due to the availability of contraception and illegal
abortion, was transformed into a reflection of the violence of the
society. The temporary suspension of race, class and national bar-
riers among new feminist activists generated strong currents of
homoerotic desire which nourished the creation of a counterculture
that challenged the traditional male centrality. While most women
were not denying heterosexuality altogether, an erotic pluralism was
created: female artists began to express their homoerotic desires
openly. Mainly through the medium of performance theatre, a new
artistic form that attracted a number of original dramatists, the literary
ambitions of a number of female writers were realized.
Self-portraiture manifested women's desirability to each other,
and generated a gender-based complicity that seriously threatened
the order of the dominant culture. Homoeroticism was now viewed
as the source of gender solidarity. For instance, in an
extemporaneous performance piece of 1975, avant-garde filmmaker
Carolee Schneemann stood naked in front of an almost all female
audience and read a text which she was "scrolling out" of her vagina;
her feminine voice reports the arrogance of a masculine voice and
his refusal to be supportive of her artistic efforts:
I met a happy man
he said ......
you are charming
but don't ask us
to look at your films
we cannot look at
the personal clutter
the persistence of feelings
the hand-touch sensibility
the diaristic indulgence
the dense gestalt
Interior Scroll symbolizes an urge to express openly gender dif-
ferences. This was typical of most new feminist performance artists.
Shortly after Scheemann's performance, this urge was to be fully
expressed in for colored girls who considered suicide/when the
rainbow is enuf. A choral drama with an entirely black female cast,
this play was first performed in 1975 at the Bacchanal, a poetry read-
ing center outside Berkeley. Ntozake Shange, the author, is a black
poet and performer who appeared on the literary scene at this time,
while she was working in a group of exclusively female artists. The
play dramatizes the homoeroticism that was implied in the relation-
ships among straight and gay women of color who participated in
consciousness-raising groups. Participants in this experience recog-
nized their reciprocal desirability, and therefore constituted them-
selves as feminine/feminist desiring subjects.2
niggah wanna kill vietnamese children more n stay
home & raise his own is sicker than a rabid dog/
-colored girls
Afro-American women writers affirmed their specific sub-
jectivity during the seventies, a militant period in the feminist move-
ment. Afro-American male critics and writers perceived this affirma-
tion as an attack on their centrality in the Black Arts Movement. They
contended that, regardless of gender, representations of Afro-
Americans by Afro-American authors should be positive images of
Afro-American life.
Compared to most non-white Europeans, and also to north
Africans, Asian and South American immigrant groups, blacks of
African origin had been in the United States for a long time--since the
slave trade in the Colonial period. In the seventies, at the beginning
of a new economic crisis, they were the bulk of the national working
class, and they had a clear economic advantage over a new wave of
immigrants from third world countries. However, they were also
quite involved in the neo-colonial enterprises of the American army,
such as the Vietnam War. Since the society turned veterans into
social outcasts, usually unemployed, blacks who had been drafted to
Vietnam, or those who were closely related to them, were paying a
heavy toll in that defeat. But as citizens, blacks were also in a posi-
tion to become the major promoters of the movement for 'affirmative
action,' which demanded that minority people and women be offered
jobs at all levels proportionally to their percentage in the population. 3
A misogynist legacy of the fifties and the privilege entailed in
being a national of a developed country caused machismo to
become quite common in most working-class strata of American
society. After the acquisition of societal respect for the civil rights of
the black portion of the population, workplaces and other public
spaces were desegregated. Blacks were consequently expected to
rise in social status: but the defeat of the army was turning veterans
into social outcasts, and the economic recession was cutting
employment among men in the national working class to favor the
employment of women or non-nationals, who accepted lower
The competition of blacks and women over the benefits com-
ing from the status of a minority pitted these two partially overlapping
groups against each other. The contention that non-black women
should not be placed in the pool of affirmative action was the typical
posture of lower-class black men, who were accused of 'machismo,'
a form of sexism typical of this time. Black women were in the mid-
dle of a tension which created a solidarity between themselves and
other non-black women in America.
In a narrowmindedness similar to that of the typical black
macho, a perceived male centrality nailed black American aesthetics
to a binary black/white antagonism. Criticism about works by black
Americans was still controlled by black men, whose imagination was
characterized by the absence of a female creator. This need to
assert a male centrality is exemplified in the following passage by
black American critic Larry Neal:
The Black Arts theatre . . . is a radical alternative to the
sterility of American theatre. It is a theatre ... confronting
the Black man in his interaction with his brothers and
with the white ... . [Its typical hero] can acquire the
oppressor's power by acquiring his symbols, one of
which is the white woman.
(Emphasis added)
The erosion of class and racial hierarchies by the social move-
ments of the sixties was parallel to the abrasive rhetorical strategies
utilized by left-wing radical men who sometimes appeared to pro-
mote these movements in order to project their own desires. Women
in these groups countered these strategies by claiming the right to
self-representation and by portraying their own desires: the new
feminist predicament that the personal is political, or public, served
the aesthetic purpose of performance art, as it liberated feminine
creative impulses from the fixed gender posture in which they were
Female performance artists were motivated by the desire to
represent the experience of being a woman of their times. They were
not content with being regarded as objects of heterosexual desire no
matter how charming, as Scheemann put it, male artists found
them. They acted upon the impulse to ask men to look at their
desires. Some female performers were more capable than others of
giving dramatic form to the erotic tension shaped by gender
solidarity. In the process of writing colored girls, Shange also
learned how to dance and how to act, so as to be a performer
among others. She worked very closely with other women artists,
and presented her work in progress to a sympathetic audience. But
its printed version suggested also that she was a talented author,
capable of capturing the intense homoeroticism of new feminist
activism. In this experience she realized that blacks who accepted
employment in the army were complicitous with the imperialistic war
efforts in Vietnam.
bein alive & bein a woman & bein
colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent
conquered yet/
-colored girls
[C]olored girls started as the avant-garde effort of a group of
west-coast performance artists, among whom the main poet, Not-
zake Shange, was also a performer and a choreographer. It is a
choreopoem that dramatizes the recognition of a reciprocal
desirability among women of color. Feminine voices in the process
of rejecting the white cultural constructs speak of themselves as if of
others, narrating episodes from a past of endogamic monosexuality
with black male partners. The dance movements performed by black
female actors choreograph their ability to recognize and desire each
other. A number of women artists of color such as Paula Moss, Elvia
Marta, Jessica Hagedorn, and Joanna Griffin participated in the effort
of developing the play that we have now from largely improvised
poetry readings performed at the Bacchanal, a women's bar in the
San Francisco Bay area. The main poet Ntozake Shange, appeared
on the literary scene at this time. She was a performer and a dancer
who had symbolized her personal erasure of a patriarchal and slave
past by changing her birth name Paulette Williams to a Zulu con-
struct that means "she who comes with her own things," and "she
who walks like a lion."5
A rapid itinerary took colored girls from the rags of an
obscure Berkeley hang-out, to the riches of a major Broadway
playhouse. However, on the great white way Shange abandoned
her creation to the other female actors and left New York City,
affected by a neurosis from celebrity status.6 In the climactic years
of new feminist activism, the play was produced off-off Broadway by
Woodie King, Jr. at the Studio Rivbea, off-Broadway at the New York
Shakespeare Festival and on Broadway at the Booth Theatre by
Joseph Papp. The production toured the United States afterwards.
In the subsequent years it became a popular success in many other
American countries, and was also given a videotape production by
One of the most important literary offsprings of performance
art, this s p l ~ n i verse drama is about the development of an inter-
subjective violence between black women and black men in America
during the economic recession of the seventies. This violence
reflects the aggression with which minority groups were confronted
in the society. The new feminist predicament is captured in the
play's metonymical and metaphorical title: "colored girls" alone are
in distress and darkness, but as hues in a rainbow they become the
spectrum of light. The drama that represents their collective anxiety
is thus called for colored girls who have considered suicide/when
the rainbow is enuf. The metonymy that leads down to suicide is
rescued by the metaphor of the rainbow, which stands for the arch of
life. This is at the same time symbolic of the mosaic of races that
constitute American society. Homoeroticism binds the hues to one
another and carries the girls on to their own lives.
In its theatrical version, the play used seven black female per-
formers who danced and acted on a bare stage attired in long, sum-
mery solid colors. The poems that constitute the dram a are about
their love relationships with black heterosexual partners, arranged in
a choreographic sequence divided into three cycles, corresponding
to a dramatic exposition, complication, and denouement. The
actresses speak to themselves as they recite autobiographical
poems about episodes from their past, but they find that similarly dis-
appointing episodes have been crucial in their heterosexual lives.
Hence they start directly addressing the other actresses, and they
also develop a homoerotic interest in each other. The drama is an
abrasive critique of masculinity which exposes the black macho as
a social type who imitates the constructs of gender of white
American society. It also demonstrates that in American society the
common recognition of a latent Sapphism was a necessary basis of
new feminist solidarity. To a larger extent than in most western Euro-
pean societies, however, in the United States this solidarity bypassed
racial and ethnic barriers.
[C]olored girls made its way from avant-garde poetry reading
hang-outs to mainstream success on Broadway thanks to the sup-
port of a racially mixed female public sympathetic to new feminist
activism. The off-off-Broadway colored girls production was mostly
viewed by an avant-garde public, probably as racially mixed and
minority dominated as the Californian one, and as supportive of per-
formance art. But the Broadway production was regarded as an
attack on black machismo. This disturbed black American critics,
practically all male at that time, who would not see the poetic value of
the play. Other reviews reflected racism and latent misogynism con-
cealed under liberal masks. For instance, the reviewer of The New
Republic saw white supremacy endangered by the array of black
actresses and thought the show exceedingly overrated, due to a per-
ceived fashion of "overprais[ing] black artists." In contrast, Harold
Clurman of The Nation wrote a lyrical article about it and proposed a
tour of the play around the country. Clurman captured the gendered
response of the public: he suggested that "part of the joy [of viewing
the Papp show} was the ecstatic response of the women in the
audience." His opinion was indicative of a liberalism capable of look-
ing beyond racial pride. Men who regarded themselves as radicals
were now accepting what Schneemann's poem had put down as
personal clutter, persistence of feeling, hand-touch sensibility and
dense gestalt. Clurman was so fascinated with the representation of
women's sol idarity that the show offered, that he compared the
superb acting to the ways in which "Shakespeare and Euripides
should be acted."a
& get raped in our own houses
by invitation
a friend
-colored girls.
In 1979 colored girls was attacked on the pages of a major
journal for black culture, The Black Scholar, by critics who main-
tained that the play was "a sell-out" to white American culture. In a
curious put down of his own race, Robert Staples implied that black
women should refrain from developing interracial or homoerotic
desires, although he also suggested that the liberalized climate of the
sixties had caused the best and brightest of black men to "marry
white." In his view, a more appropriate interest for a female black
writer should be the scarcity of black heterosexual partners, which
was to be blamed on the Vietnam War, drugs, and homosexuality.
The question of self-representation, homoeroticism, and gender
solidarity was thus reduced to female "anger" over the scarcity of
marriageable partners. The attack reflected the narcissism of the
male culture and the centrality of male desire which the collective
unconscious of the national working class had absorbed from the
dominant culture. 9
In an article entitled "Some Tragic Propensities of Ourselves:
The Occasion of Ntozake Shange's Colored Girls, "black American
critic Erskine Peters somehow defended Shange by admitting that
the reality of private and sexual life in black America was perhaps as
violent as the play presented it. However, he also contended that the
main concern of black artists should be to create "positive images" of
black people, which was a way of putting Shange's frankness in a
negative light.
A number of black women had given voice to a new feminist
black consciousness in America--academicians like Angela Davis
and writers like Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Adrienne Ken-
nedy, and Alice Walker, respectively, authors of A Raisin in the Sun
and Wine in the Wilderness, two nee-realistic plays of the sixties; The
Funnyhouse of a Negro, a play modeled on the post-modern
psychodrama; and Meridien, a novel about black women' s life.
However, as Walker herself has cogently suggested in commenting
on colored girls, this play broke the circle of silence that made black
women accomplices of the subordination in which they were kept by
their black companions. 11
At the time, The Black Scholar refused to publish Alice
Walker's response to the attack upon Shange, but Walkers defense
of Shange's aesthetic appeared four years later in a collection of
essays. Walker contended that confronting the violence that exists in
society is the appropriate role of the artist. Negative images may be
unflattering, but such work reflects the tensions that shape collective
life in a particular historical reality. In her response to Staples and
Peters, Walker captured the myopic point of view expressed in the
It will not do any good--and it is a waste of time--to attack
Ntozake Shange .. . since [she is] not, in fact, attacking
you. [She is) affirming [herself] and remarking on the
general condition of black life as [she] know[s] it, which
[she] is entitled to do .... 12
This episode suggested that through the new feminism black
women made an effort to establish a solidarity with women of other
races and minority groups, so as to reach out of the isolation of the
black community. Before the new feminism, the centrality of men in
the black arts movement had also contributed to this isolation. But
the solidarity among women helped minority men see their own
machismo as an imitation of white American cultural standards.
i'm a poet
who writes in english
come to share the worlds witchu
-colored girls
we must kill the king's english
-Judy Grahn and Ntozake Shange
The all-woman cast was a common device in new feminist drama:
among others it was used in American plays like Susan Griffin s
Voices, Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and her Friends, and Jane Cham-
bers Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, as well as in European plays
like Franca Rame s Tutta casa, letto e chiesa (Female Parts) and
Caryl Churchill s Top Girls.
But in its rhythm and style, colored
girls embodied the recognition of an erotic pluralism created by the
mutual attraction that women of different races had for each other.
The all-female cast is undoubtedly a form conducive to female
solidarity but posits the problem of generating erotic tension without
the traditional male-female antagonism. While Jane Chambers
portrayed lesbian love and created lesbian characters, the other
writers limited homoeroticism to a latent Sapphism. The female
voices were structurally in a position to communicate with each other
even at erotic levels, but instead of allowing this to happen, most of
these dramas are substantially concerned with philosophical allegory
and feminist didacticism. Contrary to its contemporary works,
colored girls captured the vast emotional gamut entailed in the trans-
formation that enabled women to represent themselves as collec-
tively cemented by homoerotic desire. Shange created an aestheti-
cally unified and balanced drama in which the choric form success-
fully blends with the content of gender solidarity. The polarization of
the contemporary audience according to gender rather than racial
lines demonstrates that the object represented in the drama is gen-
der difference in the whole of American society and not just in the
black community. The homoeroticism that Schneemann's nude body
inspired to the all-womaen audience was now dramatized.
Although performance pieces were meant to be unique and to
a certain extent improvised, for a number of poets and dramatists the
performance art movement became a haven from cinema, television,
and even from commercial theatre. This haven also gave a new
impulse to some literary aspirations. At the Bachanal, Shange was
only one among a group of female performers, but the celebration of
the erotic tensions that shape gender solidarity in powerful lyrical
lines attest to her strong preference for assertion and for self-
portraiture as an artist.
In a recent interview, Shange explained why in the perform-
ance art movement the freedom of the author was enhanced:
It is theatre, but I have the right to change it. Before per-
formance theatre we had the same thing every night. The
same lines. I don't like that. {C]olored girls was never
the same at any reading that I did in California. They
were all different. I thought it was important that I had to
have something changed or something new every time
because I had the same people coming night after
In colored girls the characters take turns speaking of episodes
that come to their individual memories, and talk first to themselves
rather than to the others. Between successive poems the stage
directions suggest movements that have a ritualistic or magic value
and allow the actresses to take turns speaking. In the first cycle of
poems the gestures are symbolic and static, until they reach a peak
of rigidity at the end of the second cycle. The voices bring up
memories of various forms of violent heterosexual intersubjectivity
between black partners. In the episodes of the second cycle women
are either objects of male desire or subjects who desire men, but the
poems describe the failure of heterosexuality to inspire the nurturing
and the communality that a homoerotic intimacy requires. The expe-
rience that women share with each other is essentially that inter-
subjectivity with heterosexual partners is conflictive, because men
respond to women's desire for artistic expression by enhancing their
own narcissism. The women thus retreat from the male heterosexual
economy and shelter from its violence in a nurturing female
homoeroticism which allows them to recover, collectively, the posi-
tion of subject, a generator of history and culture.
The elective affinities between a female author and her female
audience are based on streams of eroticism generated by a solidarity
of gender in the new feminist audience. Performance art allowed
these affinities to define the form of the drama. A reduction of props,
settings and characters had been promoted by the minimalist
theatres of the off-off-Broadway avant-garde, but performance artists
reduced stage machinery to a few portable items and transformed
spaces of urban life into the settings of performance art. Their
logistic move to the settings of real life tore down remaining walls,
(such as the fourth wall, for instance) between actress and
audience. With the border between fiction and reality wiped out, the
support of the female public for dramatic performances about cur-
rent feminist issues like contraception, rape, abortion, and sexual
equality was revealed in all its power.
In a recent interview Shange described the atmosphere of col-
laboration in the group she worked in at the time. As in a number of
other groups, most of which were located on the Pacific Coast,
suspension of social barriers in a women's community surrounded
the creation of new feminist art:
The collective effort was that of twenty to thirty feminist
writers ... to remedy and explain, explicate and extrapo-
late our situation as women. The stamina and the
courage .. . to tackle issues that might be painful or
unattractive comes from that collective effort . . . . It
would be impossible today . ... Those of us who are my
age group, in their late 30s, are .. . involved with families
and relationships of some sort, and we are not as avail-
able to one another as we used to be. We all used to be
single and free. Free to do whatever, and that's no longer
true. It is also no longer true that there haven't been
great fr ict ions in the feminist movement, between gay
women and straight women, for instance.
When the new feminism came into focus a dire view of the
future was permeating the collective unconscious of western society.
This apocalypticism was founded on the arms race and the menace
of the nuclear holocaust, as well as the awareness that the jeopardy
of the ecological equilibrium had become substantial, However, this
fear that, beyond the present generation, there would be no posterity
at all, was discouraging for authors who had literary ambitions,
because the very idea of a future readership was in doubt. But
Shange firmly believed in the power of her own words. For her, lan-
guage often imitates oral sounds. As she says:
subliminally language, whether you understand it or not,
hits certain nerves, as if somebody touches you, and you
feel better, or you feel pain . . .. I do bilingual or trilingual
work. I am trying to get to that point where the force of
the language itself will move you. Not the dictionary
explanation of what this word means, but simply the force
of the language itself .... There is power in simple sound;
language is no more than sounds that we give meaning
Shange's poetic concern with oral sounds helps underline the
extent to which American English has been transformed by African
sounds. And her calligraphic use of the page points to the sensorial-
pantheism that Shange absorbed from African culture. In the first
part of colored girls misspelled words suggest a pre-school "sound-
ing out": common expressions like "sort of, out of, with them, was,
wasn't, because" and others form visual images like sorta, outta,
witem, waz, waznt and cuz. These spellings evoke the auditory
image that these words have acquired in America.
The adjectives used in the play help express a wide gamut of
emotions. In the sarcastic poems that attack men's narcissism
words like "ethical," "latent," or "art ensemble" deride the affected
intellectualism of some black radicals. But a sensorial world is
evoked in poems about would-be black female artists who are frus-
trated and marginalized, like dance-hall girls or prostitutes. Pure
immersion in this world is obtained through the adjectives in Jines like
"her splendid red garters/gin-stained n itchy on her thigh/blk-
diamond stockings darned wit yellow threads" (p. 24) or "orange but-
terflies and aqua sequins/ensconced tween slight bosoms/silk roses
dartin from behind her ears" (p. 32). The sporadic use of digits and
other note-like abbreviations such as & or yr functions as a constant
reminder of the performative origin of the drama, and the consistent
non-capitalized spelling of personal names, family names and per-
sonal pronouns encodes Shange's challenge to the phallic image of
the first person subject pronoun in standard English. A gendered
literary language that bridges the gap between oral and written
American English replaces Schneemann's scroll, an umbilical chord
symbolic of a gendered orality. As a performer, Shange also
exploited the complicity that her own autobiographical image gener-
ated with other minority women in the audience.
my spirit is too ancient to
understand the separation of soul & gender
-colored girls.
The author's personal history during the time in which she
worked at this piece, like that of the piece itself, is an endeavor to find
inner motivation strong enough to desire immortality through art
despite the apocalypticism and the violence surrounding Shange.
Concerns with the permanence of one's writing were only possible
for authors who believed that representation has the power to gener-
ate reality. A loss of coherence of the narrative subject is the theme
of the death-wish poem that opens the drama. As Shange suggests,
the subject is incapable of self-representation and still imagines itself
as other, or as the object of somebody else's desire:
'dark phrases of womanhood
of never havin been a girl
half notes scattred
without rhythm/no tune
i can't hear anythin
but maddening screams
& the soft strains of death
& you promised me
you promised me . .. (pp. 1-2.)
But the ability to represent oneself is what transforms a mere
object into a thinking and desiring subject, namely a reality: thenar-
rative voice presents herself to the audience as "some-
body ;anybody" who sees herself as capable of representing black
women because she has experienced their existence and is also
endowed with a poetic talent. Listen to the female voice's self-
sing a black girl's song
bring her out
to know herself
she's been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn't know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty .... (p. 3)
The episodes of the first part are about rites of initiation to
heterosexuality common to most women of the baby-boom gener-
ation, regardless of their racial or national background. In "gradu-
ation nite," for instance, a young woman tells the story of her deflora-
tion in the back-seat of a Buick at a high school graduation party.
The episode is symbolic of her commencement to heterosexuality,
but also of the violent forms that sexual liberation took in western
societies. "[N]o assistance" is about gender-related inequality in a
love relationship. A female voice tells about a crush she had on a
man who, claiming to love her, used to take whatever attention he
could get from her. But he did not feel any need to reciprocate this
attention, nor any commitment to the relationship. "[L]atent rapist" is
about casual heterosexual intercourse that the woman does not
encourage or enjoy, but which gives the man a sense of power. The
voice reports her imprudence in inviting a male guest for dinner; he
responded to her offer of friendship with an exploit of rapist bravado.
The abortion couch is evidently the subsequent violent stage in the
process of learning how to escape the economy of heterosexual
desire. "[A]bortion cycle" describes the solitude and the physical
and mental violence a woman withstands when given an illegal abor-
tion. These poems summarize the experience shared by most
women who, independently of race and nationality, were to bring the
new feminism into being.
In the second cycle, the interpoem passages are more com-
plex than in the first one. The visual symbolism works in conjunction
with the verbal text to underline the crescendo of stage interaction
among the actresses. For instance, a number of lines are collectiv.ely
recited, or the actresses dance to popular music, symbolic of a par-
ticular time. The choreography suggests collective gestures in
between the lines that cast the actresses in an array that is provoca-
tive and defiant. The four poems entitled "no more love poems" (nos.
1, 2, 3, and 4) are phases of a passage during which the voices real-
ize that they must seek liberation outside of the monogamous
heterosexual intersubjectivity among people of the black community
which the dominant culture proposes as optimal. The voices over-
come heterosexual desire, and put heterosexuality on hold for a time,
in order to develop a plurality of desires that serve as an alternative
to the structurally conflictual male/female partnership.
The poems of the second cycle celebrate feminine beauty as a
source of power. In most of them the page layout is used calligraphi-
cally. For instance, the lines form a harmonious shape on the page
or an angular one according to the mood expressed by the subject
of the page, or a reported speech laden with violence in the charac-
ter's memory is printed on the page in capitalized characters. A
poem about a girl who is infatuated with a black young man named
after Toussaint L"Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary hero, contains
a visual evocation of the auditive violence which the man's utterance
produced in the past:
when dis ol young boy jumped out at me sayin
In the poem about a black dance-hall girl who entertains an
audience of deriding men during the New Orleans feast of the Mardi
Gras, the female performer is named "Sechita," after the Egyptian
goddess of harmony. Despite her marginal position in society, she
briefly feels in control of things from the pedestal where she is
placed, like a magician or an artist. Anonymity is maintained instead
for the frustrated writer in the poem "one." This woman acts as an
easy lay and, as a surrogate of a literary fame that she cannot obtain,
she seduces men, sleeps with them, and then kicks them out of her
room, sneering at the control which they presume to have gained
over her:
silk roses darting behind her ears
the passion flower ....
meandered down hoover street
& the rhinestones etch in the corners of
her mouth
suggested tears
fresh kisses that had done no good
& she wanted to be unforgettable
she wanted to be a memory
a wound to every man
arrogant enough to want her
you'll have to go now
i cdnt possibly wake upjwith
a strange man in my bed (pp. 33-34, 36)
But as this self-conscious dame aux camelias remains alone,
the poem concentrates on her act of writing out her own life in
she stored her silk roses by her bed
& when she finished writin
the account of her exploit in a diary
she placed the rose behind her ear
& cried herself to sleep. (p. 37)
The last poem of this cycle, "pyramid," is about three female
friends who became infatuated with the same man. To compete for
his sexual favors, he pitted them against each other. But as they vied
to take him away from their rivals, they understood that
heterosexuality stood "between" the feelings they had for one
another, which were stronger than their desire for him. The poem
ends in a splendid metonymy and metaphor in which the word "love"
is used at the same time as signifier of the homoerotic feelings that,
in the heterosexual game with him, they are discovered to have for
one another. The friendship among the women is reconstituted and
the man is excluded from their desires:
she held her head on her lap
understand in how much love stood
between them
how much love between them
love between them
love like sisters (p. 44)
The third cycle of poems, and choreographic passages in
between the episodes narrated in the poems, brings forth to an even
larger extent than the former two cycles do the aesthetic influence of
the multi-racial, minority-dominated group of women artists who sup-
ported Shange. All the symbolic leverage is utilized at the moment of
apparent defeat when each actress is alone with herself on a dark
stage and, as the title anticipates, "considers suicide." One of the
voices, the "lady in yellow, " concludes the poem entitled "no more
love poems #4" by suggesting that "bein alive & bein a woman &
bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/[ she hasn't] conquered yet,"
but, although she cannot understand "the separation of soul & gen-
der," she thinks that "love is too delicate to have thrown back on [the
lover's] face" (p. 48). Incapable of self-portraiture, the isolated selves
wish to put an end to their existence; but in a choreographed poem
about this "love," the performers begin to perceive themselves and
each other as desirable and as desiring subjects. The love which in
heterosexual intersubjectivity was "thrown back on [the lover's] face,"
is now celebrated as "beautiful," "sanctified," "magic," and also con-
nected to the phrases "saturday nite," "complicated," and "music." A
song is slowly followed by rhythmic movements, and the voices soar
away into a cathartic fusion of colors, voices, and dance that turns
blackness into the spectrum of light. The "girls of color," namely non-
white women in America, form a rainbow symbolic of their collective
A pressing, autobiographical voice concludes this part by
asserting Shange's right to reappropriate a culture which belongs to
women and had been "stolen" by male artists. As the poet suggests,
women's self-representation cannot be replaced by the representa-
tion of women which is proposed by male artists:
manjwhere are you going wid alia my stuff/ this is a
woman's trip & i need my stuff
almost run off with alia my stuff/& didnt bring anythin
none of this is theirs this is minejntozake 'her own
things /that's my name/now give me my stuff/
i want my stuff backjmy rhymes & my voice;. ..
the anonymous ripped off
treasure of the year; ... ....................... .. ... ... ... .. ..... ....................... ..
.......... ... ........... .... .... .. ..... ... .... ...... ........... ...................... ...... ... .... .... .
...... .. ............ jhey manjthis is not your
prerogativeji gotta have me in my pocket/to get
round .. . & make the poem
... what i got to do/
i gotta have my stuff to do it to/why dont ya find
yr own things/& leave this package of me for my
destiny (pp. 52-54)
The theme of self-representation establishes a homoerotic complicity
among the performers. A high level of intimacy between the per-
formers/voices has been built by the long-standing verbal and physi-
cal interaction. Now a tragic episode buried inside can be told
without betraying racial solidarity: "crystal" has been the victim of a
war-related violence perpetrated by the father of her children when
he returned from Vietnam. "beau" is an unemployed veteran whom
all treat as a social outcast. He cannot speak to anyone of the
genocidal violence he has witnessed and perhaps perpetrated in
Vietnam. His lover, "crystal," a non-educated black single mother,
has provided for herself and for the two children by him, "naomi," a
girl, and "kwame," a boy. She lives with them in a dingy fifth story
apartment. "beau" wants to threaten the equilibrium that she and the
children have found. When he arrives, the two get into a fight. The
children cling to "crystal," but he amuses them til they run towards
him. When he has them in his hands, he snatches them and holds
them out the window to extort from "crystal" a promise to marry him.
As in a torture scene that could have happened in Vietnam, the
mother can only whisper as the father lets the children down. The
episode was the target of the attack by black male critics. The image
of the black male character is unflattering, but the poem emphasized
the collective responsibility for the war. Defeated imperialistic
violence turned self-destructive.
The tragic note of this poem is twisted around when the voices
soar again in a chorus. Women of color can be positive forces in
society because through the process of consciousness-raising they
have learned how to trust and love each other. As the poet suggests,
women's intersubjectivity is homoerotic, but precisely because it
refrains from being lesbian, it is not as violent as heterosexuality.
Based on a mutual respect and on the recognition of women's
desirability to each other, it provides instead a nurturing environment
for female artists. The woman of color seeking herself has found
the ghost of another woman
who waz missin what i waz missin.
This presence has dispelled her desire to commit suicide,
i wanted to jump up outta my bones
& be done wit myself
leave me alone
& go on in the wind
it waz too much
and has turned self-destructiveness into a desire to accept the gift of
a collective, gendered life:
& endlessly weavin garments for the moon
wit my tears
i found god in myself
& i loved her /i loved her fiercely (p. 66)
The performers recoil from heterosexual violence by placing a
temporary hold on heterosexuality. They inhabit a homoerotic inter-
subjectivity from which they speak as feminist/feminine subjects.
This is a nurturing environment for female artists who can now
represent homoerotic bonding independently of sexual drives. The
voice seeking herself has "found god in [her-]self & [she] loved
herj[she] loved her fiercely." (p. 67) The image of the she-god is
multiplied when all the performing voices repeat the last line. As
Shange suggests,
All of the ladies repeat to themselves softly the
lines 'i found god in myself and i loved her.' It soon
becomes a song of joy .. . (p. 67)
The envoi explicates the metaphor of the title. Being part of a
consciousness-raising group of women of color is a confessional and
self-representational experience. This experience is offered as a
paradigm of how being woman of color is being a hue in a collec-
tive arch of life
& this is for colored girls who have considered
suicide/ but are mavin to the ends of their own
rainbow (p. 67)
The feminine pantheism that the chorus celebrates is an
immersion into a homoerotic collective life. It allows the women of
color to represent themselves as desiring feminist/feminine subjects.
They continue together, hues of erotic tension in new feminist
solidarity who stay alive for one another.
1. Myra Roth, The Amazing Decade, 1983, 14. Schneemann
had been a performance artist since 1960. In Interior Scroll she per-
formed to "an almost all-women audience radical in political orienta-
tion and avant-garde in aesthetic taste." This historical situation pro-
tected her body from voyeuristic exploitation by male desire.
2. Regardless of sexual preference, many women subcon-
sciously experienced homoeroticism while participating in
consciousness-raising groups. As Sue-Ellen Case has suggested,
straight women reacted in a homophobic way to this recognition of
the desirability of the other women. Case suggests that straight
women claimed that they were "just learning how to be friends with
other women" when gay women felt an urge to "go and sexualize
[these friendships]." "Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic," Feminine
Focus, Enoch Barter, ed., 1989, 285. In a number of cultures, includ-
ing Afro-American cultures, friendship and homoeroticism are inter-
changeable to a large extent and not mutually exclusive.
3. On the history and on the representation of the participation
of blacks in the Vietnam War, see John Hellmann, American Myth
and the Legacy of Vietnam, 1986, and Norman Harris, Connecting
Times: the Sixties in Afro-American Fiction, 1988. It is commonly
understood that the percentage of non-white soldiers in Vietnam was
disproportionate to the percentage of non-whites in the civil popula-
tion of the United States. This disproportion, however, is not reflected
in the Memorial Monument to Vietnam veterans that has been
erected in Washington, whose statuary group has only one black fig-
ure in a group of whites.
4. Larry Neal, "The Black Arts Movement," The Drama Review,
12(4): 33, 34. Neal is commenting on Clay, a black character in the
play Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). This character is
killed by a white female character, Lula, in a subway. The irony of the
play, and of N ~ a l s commentary, is that--perhaps beyond the author
s intention--Lula clearly represents the white woman who is rebelling
against the same power structure against whi ch both Neal and
Baraka would like to see the black man rebel. In the play, Lula kills
Clay because he is a conformist who imitates white middle-class
behavioural models. On Richard Wright's posture of marrying a
white woman as a revolutionary act, see Margaret Walker, Richard
Wright: Daemonic Genius. 1988, a biography by the black woman
who was closest to him as a poet and as a writer.
5. For biographical sources on Shange see the following:
"Trying to be Nice," Time, 19 July 1976, 44-45; "The Talk of the
Town," The New Yorker, 2 August 1976, 17-19; Claudia Tate, ed.,
Black Women Writers at Work, 1983; "Ntozake Shange," Publishers
Weekly, 3 May 1985, 74; "Ntozake Shange," talks with Marcia Ann
Gill espie," Essence, May, 1985; Kathleen Betsko and Rachel
Koenig, eds., Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights,
1987, 365-376. Shange wrote about the adolescence of a black girl
during "integration" in an autobiographical novel , Betsey Brown,
6. For information about the genesis of the poems that later
formed the text of the play I am discussing I am indebted to my inter-
view with Shange (endnote 14), to the preface to the play by Shange
herself, and to t he oral testimony of participants in the Women's
Studies Program at Sonoma State College (endnote 16).
7. For the history of t he productions of the play see: James
Haskins, Black Theatre in America, 1982, 158; Christopher Bigsby, A
Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, volume
3, 1985, 411 ; Introduction, colored girls, passim.
8. Some of the reviews of the Papp production are: Harold
Clurman, "Theatre," The Nation, 1 May 1976, 541-2; Clive Barnes,
"Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Opens at Papp's Anspacher
Theater," The New York Times, 2 June 1976, 44:4; Walter Kerr,
"From Brilliance to Bewilderment to a Blunder," The New York Times,
13 June 1976, 11 :5:1; "Theatre Off Broadway," The New Yorker, 14
June 1976, 77; "Women's Rites," Newsweek, 14 June 1976, 99; Mel
Gussow, "For Colored Girls, " The New York Times, 16 September
1976, 53: 1; The New Republic, 3-10 July 1976, 20-21; Richard Eder,
"Papp Proves Less is More, " The New York Times, 2 April 1978,
11:11 :1:1.
9. Robert Staples, 'The Myth of the Black Macho: a Response
to Angry Black Feminists," The Black Scholar, 12 (March/April1979) :
10. Erskine Peters, "Some Tragic Propensities of Ourselves: the
Occasion of Ntozake Shange' s for colored girls who have con-
sidered sui cide/ when the rainbow is enuf," Journal of Ethnic
Studies, 6 (Spring 1978): 79-85.
11. Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, 1958, the first play
by a black American woman to be produced on Broadway in 1959;
Alice Childr.ess, Wine in the Wilderness, in Plays by and about
Women, Sullivan and Hatch, eds., 1973, 379-421, a radio play pro-
duced in 1969; Adrienne Kennedy, The Funnyhouse of a Negro,
1969, a one-act about identity in a mulatto girl.
12. Alice Walker, "To the Black Scholar," in In Search of our
Mother's Gardens, 1983, 320. Walker reported that the editors of the
Blach Scholar had found her article "both too personal and too
hysterical," to publish.
13. Susan Griffin, Voices, 1979 , is a play about a
consciousness-raising group of white women in America; Maria
Irene Fornes, Fefu and her Friends, in Word Plays, 1980, is a
theological and a philosophical play about gender; Jane Chambers,
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, 1982, is a satire on the butch-femme
couple but also a play about lesbian love; Franca Rame and Dario
Fo, Tutta casa letto e chiesa, 1978, is a play about the womens
movement recovery of the position of historical subject; Caryl Chur-
chill, Top Girls, 1984, is a play about career women and society.
14. Serena Anderlini, "Interview with Ntozake Shange," "Gender
and Desire in Contemporary Drama," unpublished Ph. D. diss.
University of California, Riverside, 1987, 332. All further references to
this work will be included parenthetically in the text.
15. In its not yet very long life as an artistic product, the play
has been given a number of different interpretations: as mimetic of
the experience of a consciousness-raising group, in Phyllis Mael, "A
Rainbow of Voices," Women in American Theatre, Helen Chinoy and
Jenkins, eds., 1981; as an innovative and promising work that may
prepare for a new "great age" in black American drama, James Has-
kins, Black Theatre in America, 158; as a powerful verse drama that
embodies the sense of community in black culture, Christopher
Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth- Century American
Drama, volume 3, 414. Two recent essays have placed the play in a
feminist tradition and in the historical context of women's drama:
Deborah R. Geis, "Distraught Laughter: Monologue in Ntozake
Shange's Theater Pieces," in Feminine Focus, Enoch Barter, .ed.,
1989, 21 0-25; and Mary K. DeShazer, "Rejecting Necrophilia:
Ntozake Shange and the Warrior Re-visioned," in Making a Spec-
tacle, Lynda Hart, ed., 1989. The two interpretive strategies respec-
tively assume that the play is structured along a narrative of self-
discovery, and on the trope of "women warriors," which reflects the
specific reality of black, Asian and third world women engaged in a
"resistance" battle for survival. In the first perspective the play comes
across as substantially autobiographical, a "monologue" about
Shange's personal growth as an artist; the second outlines a hierar-
chy of categories for women, which is what the play, as a cultural
event, had at least momentarily undone. By analyzing its sig-
nificance as a cultural event, one can recognize the homoerotic basis
of its dramatic "action," and its strategic recovery for women of the
collective place of "subject," or generator of history and culture.
16. Anderlini, 320-1.
17. Anderlini, 318-9.
18. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered
suicidejwhen the rainbow is enuf, 1977. All further references to this
work will be included paranthetically in the text.
Special Collections-Box A
John Hay Library
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island 02912
The most recent addition to collections with a theatrical inter-
est at Brown University is the H. Adrian Smith Collection (1988)
begun in 1924 and now numbering over 10,000 items on the art,
theory, and history of magic as a performing art (books, serials,
pamphlets, posters/broadsides, a few museum pieces, etc.). The
focus of the collection is on antiquarian books (the oldest books are
16th-century works). This exceptional collection complements other
existing Brown collections, such as the History of Science Collection
and the Damon Occult Collection. More significantly for the theatre
scholar is its relationship to the Harris Collection (at Brown since
1884) which contains 200,000 volumes, including 27,000 plays and
the William Chauncey Langdon Pageant Collection. The Harris is
particularly strong in texts and music associated with 19th century
minstrel shows and Yiddish-American theatre. Also of interest is
Brown's Sheet Music Collection (approximately 500.000 pieces) with
some 35,000 songs from Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals
and 1,000 from Yiddish-American theatre.
Lewis E. Shelton
Ben Teal, the first American to adopt stage directing as a full-
time vocation, sustained a thirty-four year career that lasted through
the dramatic changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, when he was both well know and considered by many to
be the most representative member of his field. Nonetheless, Teal
has become only a footnote in theatrical history. If remembered at
all, he is cited for staging Ben Hur and perhaps for being the most
abusive director of his day, as a poem by one of his actors suggests:
"Soliloquy during Rehearsal"
Who makes me feel I need a nurse,
A padded cell, or even worse,
A ride, face upward in a hearse?
Whose eyes of steel-blue penetrate
Ben Teal
Me through and through, and thus debate:
"You're rotten, but your nerve is great"?
Ben Teal
Who says, "Of course, you're no Bernhardt
And this is no La Tosca part,
But use intelligence to start"?
Ben Teal
Teal began his work in the early 1880s at the precise moment
of the transition of the stage manager into the stage director. In fact,
Teal appears to have been the prototype of the first "model" for stage
directors: an authoritarian, dictatorial taskmaster. Teal was colorful
and successful; he had a rich and varied career. Yet, he has not
retained much standing in theatre history. When viewed as a whole,
historic documents suggest possible explanations for why time has
been so unkind. The most probable reason is that Teal's greatest
strength became his greatest flaw. An interesting possibility,
however, is that Teal had the misfortune to be a contemporary and
rival of that master of self-promotion, the renowned directorial
pioneer David Belasco. 2
Teal's career basically fell into three parts: learning his craft in
California, staging farces, melodramas and spectacles that cul-
minated with his production of Ben Hur, and directing highly suc-
cessful musical comedies and comedy acts through the turn of the
Little is know about Teal's life in California. There is some sup-
position that he and Belasco were "boys together in San Francisco"3
and that Teal may have begun his theatrical career as an actor under
Belasco's direction. At any rate, Teal claimed to have learned direct-
ing in California: "At different times he filled the office of stage direc-
tor at all the leading California theatres, making several great produc-
tions among them." In addition it is known that Teal staged
Belasco's The Red Pocketbook at the California Theatre on 11 March
1883--a year after Belasco had left for New York.
Teal soon arrived in New York as well and started his directing
career in the 1883-84 season at the New Park Theatre, where he
staged four plays.
In each of the next two seasons, he directed only
two plays. The years 1886-89 were, however, very full, for Teal
staged seventeen plays during that three-season period.
These early plays were farces and melodramas filled with such
spectacular effects as racing horse-drawn fire engines (e. g., The Still
Alarm, 1887), and Teal was adept at staging them On 7 September
1889, in a Dramatic Mirror review of Teal's production of The Great
Metropolis, critic Nym Crinkle noted how difficult it was to create a
realistic impression of a rescue at sea during a storm. He praised
Teal's solution:
Mr. Ben Teal gets over the difficulty with great ingenuity.
He shows us the illusion by intermittent electric flashes,
and that which we get only by glimpses appears much
more like an illusion than that which is badly and nakedly
set forth in a steady glare. He converts the stage into an
enormous modern camera with a shutter and flashlight,
and the result is a series of instantaneous photographs
that are indelible.
Teal's most noteworthy associations for this segment of his
career came during the same three-season period. In 1888, he
staged a production of Hamlet as a single performance benefit for
Lester Wallack. Edwin Booth played the title role, and the all-star
cast included Lawrence Barrett as Ghost and Helen Modjeska as
Ophelia. One has to wonder how much direction Teal could have
given Booth in his most famous role. Nevertheless, Broadway Maga-
zine claimed that Teal ' s work on Hamlet was a "conspicuous
Teal began the shift to musicals in 1893 with his production of
The Algerian. Even so, the peak of his career as a director of
melodramas and spectacles was still ahead, with the production of
Ben Hur. After a year in preparation at a reported cost of
$60,000,6 Teal in 1899 staged the first production of Lew Wallace's
Ben Hur, as adapted by William Young. It was his fiftieth New York
production, and reviews claimed that it was the most stupendous
stage production in America.
In fact, the scope and scale were
enormous. With fourteen scenes in six acts, the play called for hun-
dreds of performers and many animals.
Teal already had directed plays that included horse races (The
Country Fair, 1889, and In Old Kentucky, 1893). He, therefore, was
well prepared for supervising and coordinating the chariot race that
became the most famous aspect of Ben Hur. Claude Hagen,
the machinist, worked out the device for the race with the moving
panorama and a treadmill for the h-orses. The chariot wheels,
irregularly shaped so as to produce a "bumpy" effect, were equipped
to rotate via electric motors. Blowers raised dust and blew across
the charioteers, rustling their clothing to help create the illusion of
motion. At the right moment, the actor portraying Ben Hur's rival,
Messala, could trip a device that caused a wheel to fall off his chariot.
The treadmills also could be slid back and forth so that Ben Hur's
horses could finally pull ahead and win. a
The reviewer for the New York Herald was ecstatic about the
The chariot race was more than realistic, it was real.
The were seemingly a part of the throng which
sat in the great ampitheatre at Antioch. The spirited
horses raced as truly as did ever horses in the dust of the
The straining necks, the swiftly moving legs, the foam
flecked beasts were no illusions of the sense. The rock-
ing chariots, the rumbling of the wheels, the clouds of
dust, caused those who witnessed that race to lean for-
ward and almost cry out with the multitude.
The breaking of an axle, the loss of a wheel, the fall and
ruin of Messala, amazed and enthralled. Then when Ben
Hur, driver, had won, and the populace lifted up a
tumultuous cry, those who were in the theatre joined in
the cheers.
In fact, the reviews for the opening night performance were
generally laudatory. Even those reviewers who found fault with the
production recognized that it would be popular. They also were
nearly unanimous in recognizing that spectacle was the play's chief
The New York Times reviewer, however, was not impressed:
But there are a few mature playgoers to whom mechan-
ical devices of this sort no longer appeal. So far from
being dramatic, such stage pictures are essentially the
reverse. They destroy the very illusion they are intended
to create in the minds of the sincere dramatic student.
Horses galloping from nowhere to nowhere on sliding
platforms in front of a quickly rolling panorama; painted
canvas shaken from beneath, do not satisfy the imagina-
tton that receives the greatest enjoyment from the actor's
art. But the multitude is always pleased with toys.
The strongest statement praising the director was in the
Dramatic News: 'The stage management of Ben Teal could not be
excelled. With the hundreds on the stage, the ponderous scenery
and the marvelous mechanical effects, everything moved smoothly
and the curtain went down on the final act at half past eleven on a
play which might have been taken beyond midnight in anyone else's
hands." The Mail and Express also praised the effectiveness of the
staging: "Time and space are nothing to Klaw & Erlanger and their
stage manager Mr. Ben Teal."
Unfortunately, reviews of the acting were not as positive. The
Dramatic Mirror observed that Edward Morgan (Ben Hur) seemed
unable to keep his legs from shaking. That publication and The Mail
and Express both noted that Wil liam S. Hart (Messala) was not
always understandable. The Mail and Express also stated the case
best for the near unanimous agreement that Henry Lee, in the impor-
tant role of Simonides, gave an exhibition of the "Flannel-mouth rant-
ing of the 'old school."'
In the New York Herald, British playwright and critic Clement
Scott summarized the acting problem: "The old school and the
young, or new method, came, of course, into conflict . The old
school, accordingly, and in the majority of instances, overacted; the
young school as conscientiously underacted. What the modern and
natural actor does not understand is that there are certain plays that
require new style and method."
Despite the mixed reviews, Teal's work on Ben Hur exhibited
him as an accomplished director by the midpoint of his career. An
1896 article in the Dramatic Mirror had already called Teal "one of the
leading and best qualified stage directors in the country."9 By 1900,
however, the success of Ben Hur had stamped Teal as the ablest
stage director in America." During this period, Teal also started a
string of hits with two "Dutch" comics, the Rogers Brothers. He
staged six of their nine productions, ranging from A Reign of Error in
1899 to The Rogers Brothers in Panama in 1908.
After 1900 Teal primarily directed musicals and rose to the
front ranks in that arena. His biggest success was a 1901 production
of The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, which ran for 241 perform-
ances. From 1899 to 1903, Teal staged fifteen productions and
appears to have worked almost exclusively for the prominent pro-
ducers Klaw and Erlanger. In the 1903-04 season, he directed for
Weber and Fields, staging three productions. Between 1904 and
1909 he directed eight plays (six musicals) for Charles Frohman.
After that, there were seasons in which Teal had no New York
productions: 1910-11, 1912-13, 1914-15. There were some years in
which he directed only one or two plays. He did have a busy and
successful season in 1913-14 with four productions, two of which
were hits: Adele, 196 performances and The Midnight Girl, 104 per-
formances. Nonetheless, Teal's career as a director apparently was
on the decline at his death in 1917.
A clue to understanding Teal as a director and a man may be
hidden in the fact that he was known as Mr. Ben Teal. All things con-
sidered, Mr. Ben Teal's personality may have been as important an
element of directorial approach as any of his ideas.
Teal was described as a forceful person: "He is rather under
the medium height, but squarely built, and almost always, except in
the evenings, he wears a short double breasted sack coat, baggy
trousers that seem on unfriendly terms with his boots, and a derby
hat set negligently over one ear. But, if there is little attraction in
Teal's attire, there is force and character in his face."
0 Another
description indicates an extraordinary energy level: "He is short in
stature, but very wiry and of an extremely high strung temperament,
and displays an amount of energy previous to a big production
which it is hard to imagine could be contained in a single individ-
Teal's caustic and acid qualities were legendary. Lionel Bar-
rymore vividly recalled working with him: "I ran afoul of the toughest
stage manager in the world, Mr. Ben Teal. He frightened everybody,
lashed us, derided us, and was particularly astute with cutting
remarks about my acting abilities. Some of the people couldn't take
it and dropped out, but I reasoned that this experience couldn't be
worse than starvation so I endured."12
Evidently, Teal was strict, abrupt and demanding with every-
one from stars to chorus members. A reporter once accompanied
him to brush-up rehearsals of A Sleeping Beauty and the Beast and
The Rogers Brothers in Washington. The reporter later recalled
Teal's directions to the musical's leading lady: '"You are becoming a
little too declamatory, Miss Moore,' said Mr. Teal. 'Get yourself
together. A little of the conversational tone, without a loss of
strength, if you please. For instance, speak this last speech this
way,' and Mr. Teal proceeded to dish out a foolish line of talk, trip-
pingly on the tongue." Teal also reprimanded the Rogers Brothers,
his biggest stars, for overlooking a bit of business. '"That's all right,
Mr. Teal.' neatly said Max Rogers. 'We do not overlook that at per-
formances.' 'Then don't overlook it at rehearsals,' said Mr. Teal.
'What are we here for?"'
Photographs accompanying the
reporter's story show Teal as animated, thoughtful and sometimes
exasperated. The reporter concluded that Teal deserved his reputa-
tion as a czar. In some way, however, Teal's approach could pay off:
"On the first night of a production which he has staged, things run as
smoothly as though the opera has played for weeks."14
Women, in particular, seemed to feel Teal's ire. He is said to
have cast aspersions once on a particular actress' profession. When
she asked for an apology, he replied that he would apologize only
when she proved she was not what he called her. The next day the
woman appeared with a notarized statement from her doctor, attest-
ing to her virginity. Teal was unruffled. "That's no good," he said.
"It's dated yesterday."15
One chorus woman got a bit of revenge, though, by writing an
ode that subsequently was published.ln addition to the verses
quoted earlier, her "soliloquy" included the following:
Who says, "You're acting like a stick,
When you should 'Frenchy' be and slick"';
Then, if I breathe, pulls me up quick?
Ben Teal
Who has me riled and gets my goat?
Who keeps my heart up in my throat
Until my words in mid-air float?
Who'd like to star me as a treat
And bill my name in every street?
Who could this choice sarcasm beat?
Ben Teal
Ben Teal
Teal's bad relationships with women apparently extended into
his personal life. He had been unsuccessfully married twice and
become known for his disdainful view of marriage when he surprised
the theatrical world in 1906 by marrying Margaret Busby, a divorcee
and aspiring actress.
6 Two years later, Mrs. Teal was indicted for
attempting to bribe a woman to testify that the woman had seen
Frank Gould, the New York millionaire, in the rooms of a female who
was not his wife. At that time, Gould's wife was suing him for a
divorce. Mrs. Teal's cohorts testified against her, and she was con-
victed and sentenced to a year in prison.1
A gossip columnist of the time was not sympathetic:
All the girls are just tickled to death to think Simon
Legree Teal is at last getting his at the hands of his erring
spouse. It really seems sort of a just fate after all that this
stage director, who has gone on his way so long
unmolested cursing and howling at poor over-worked
chorus girls, should have a little retribution occurring right
on his own family hearth. The only trouble is that instead
of chastening the Teal stage managing methods, I fear
the more his domestic bliss becomes curdled the more
he will take his peevishness out on poor Tessie Montres-
sor when she loses a step or stumbles over her spear.
No evidence exists to show that the columnist's fears were
well founded, but there is ample evidence that Teal may have con-
tinued to .. get his ... For example, Teal declared bankruptcy in 1909,
soon after his wife was released from jail. Mrs. Teal had debt prob-
lems in 1912 and 1913. Four years later, Teal sued the head waiter at
the Astor Hotel (where the Teals lived) for alienation of his wife's
affections. At the time of his death, he was seeking a divorce.19
It would be surprising if Teal's third marriage did not affect his
disposition. Documentation of his approach to directing indicates a
man with a near-obsession for order and organization. At the same
time, it indicates someone who had little sensibility about or perhaps
little interest in the dramatic aspects of the human condition. Teal
was a practical, discipl ined director. Almost everything he did
reflected a systematic approach and showed that he obviously had a
sense of the theatrical. He was, for example, creative in planning and
accomplishing the effects necessary for an appropriate. stage illu-
sion. He strongly believed in preparation and preblocked every pro-
duction. He made diagrams with sketches of the groups of charac-
ters and of the movement of each character from entrance to exit.
Somewhat enigmatically he once pointed out, "By diagramming I
mean marking down all the exact proportions of parts to each spe-
ciality, the color schemes as they develop in the ensemble, and so
Teal often demonstrated what he wanted from actors in the
way of gestures and movements and line readings. Visualizing this is
fairly easy when reading the reporter's account, mentioned earlier, or
when finding the following directions for Ben Hur: "This whole scene
played vigorously, quickly and with great emotion. "22 One would
have to marvel at his evocative powers, however, if Teal was able to
demonstrate his direction for Ben Hur' s single-word line: "Messala."
Teal's instructions were: "in a tone in which anger contends with
affection. "
With regard to staging, photographs of Ben Hur indicate that
Teal relied on creating effective stage pictures.
Interestingly, there
were few set pieces, but Teal knew conventional staging. His com-
positions were not very dynamic: they consisted of straight, diagonal
lines with emphasis on center stage. Even so, he could arrange
many people on stage and emphasize the principal characters or
ones involved in the dialogue.
A typewritten prompt script in the Shubert Archives25 suggests
that Teal used a minimum of movement in Ben Hur. On the pages
opposite the text, the script includes penciled notes and sketches
which do not appear to be in Teal's handwriting, but do outline block-
ing that matches the photographs printed in a souvenir program of
Teal's production. This blocking called for little, if any, psychologi-
cally motivated movement. There also was little natural activity.
(However, the text did not call for it; the play was mainly a pageant, a
spectacle.) For most of the scenes, the characters were to stand in
formal, static postures, leaving the stage space fairly open.
Teal usually rehearsed for four to six week, setting a schedule
in which each actor knew when he would rehearse. Teal evidently
instituted the practice of dividing rehearsals into component parts,
for he rehearsed the principals and the chorus separately, until each
was perfect, and then brought them together.
6 Further, he would
rehearse a particular group of actors for no more than four hours at a
time, believing that if he went longer, the actors would not absorb
much and he would have to repeat the work the next day. He con-
fined rehearsals to an act per day and did not go on to another until
the actors had a good sense of the act at hand. 27
Philosophically, at least, Teal's directorial approach may have
shifted somewhat when he began devoting himself to musicals. He
believed that musicals should have the best of drama and poetry and
music. He also thought the same honest attempt should be made in
musical productions as are make in serious drama.
8 As time
passed, however, James Cochran's notes ( 67-69) on the consistent
and recurring comments that Teal's work in musicals engendered
suggest the director's overall approach did not change much: His
productions had taste in costuming. They were sumptuous. The
color schemes were generally pleasing. The groupings and stagings
were beautiful. The choruses were carefully trained. The stage was
excellently managed. Vivacity, color, harmony and humor were all
part of his work.
For Teal the story was the most important part of any
entertainment. The characters should be people who resemble
human beings, not caricatures.29 Consequently, he decried the
growing trend toward more risque qualities: "What we want in the
musicals is more humanity, more sanity, and less sensuality!' He
thought musicals "Tenderloin" (risque, sensual) elements omitted
story: "It is full of bad manners, bad lingerie and good physical
form."30 For Teal, "sanity, character, good taste--that is the trinity of
musical comedy."3
It is somewhat ironic that Teal took credit for some minor
innovations that benefited women in the field of musical production.
Among these was a change in the age-old rule of making women pay
for t heir stockings, tights, wigs, shoes and related apparel. Teal
claimed he was the first to have the producer pay for such items. 3
For all his excellence at stagecraft, however,it would appear
that Teal always had difficulty in molding a cast into a unified whole
and in coaching individual actors. As a review of one of his produc-
tions pointed out, there was "more attention paid to scenery and
ot her effects than to the acting."33 Barrymore, himself, admitted
remaining cavalier about his acting responsibilities, despite the direc-
tor's caustic instructions.
As a result, uneven acting was a recurring theme in Teal's
work. Actually, his greatest strength seems to have been his major
limitation, partly defined by the fact that he viewed "the players
merely [as] units to be assembled at the proper time and place for
the purpose of securing the desired effect. oo34
Fate may have created the ultimate irony in Teal's life. His
career ran a course with interesting, sometimes sad parallels to that
of the well remembered director, David Belasco. Roughly the same
age, both claimed to have gone on stage as children with Julia Dean
in East Lynne.35 They also worked together while learning their craft
in California. Beyond that, as a young man, Belasco served as Dion
Boucicault's amanuensis while Teal was his literary associate in the
last three years of Boucicault's life and in 1890 directed his last play,
The Tale of a Coat. Belasco left California in 1882 to establish him-
self in New York where he took on the stage management of the
Madison Square Theatre. Teal arrived from California a year later
and started his directing career in New York's New Park Theatre.
Teal eventually tried his hand at producing and writing, but
remained essentially a stage director. In contrast, Belasco--as did
the others who preceded Teal as American directors--had divided
interests.36 Belasco's first fame came as a playwright; he later was a
stage manager and finally was a noted producer-director with his
own theatre and stars. Both Teal and Belasco also belonged to the
school of pictorial literalism, which has become most closely associ-
ated with Belasco's name. Neither attempted Shaw, Ibsen, Strind-
berg or other modern playwrights. By 1916, both even had
Mamaroneck addresses.
Yet, they appear to have had almost no
professional contact in New York. Until shortly before Teal's death,
the only documented collaboration came in 1888, when Belasco
revised (uncredited) the script for Teal's staging of The Kaffir
As Teal's reputation for abuse grew, Belasco was becoming
known as the actors' director. Early in Belasco's New York
career, Georgia Cayvan, an actress at the Madison Square Theatre,
praised his work: "I like the high purpose which pervades this estab-
lishment. It is really a school for acting. Between Frank Sargent and
David Belasco, the stage work has a tone and a finish that is not
equalled."38 Beyond that, Belasco was becoming known for a
sensibility that his theatre was yielding truth and beauty. Teal, on the
other hand, seems mostly to have been exhibiting pragmatic "ideals"
concerned with taste, professional competency, and perhaps beauty
for beauty's sake. Albeit he did stage Hamlet and Twelfth Night, Teal
made abundantly clear that his work was strictly commerciaJ.39
Ben Hur brought Teal praise in 1900 as the "ablest stage direc-
tor in America." Nevertheless, by 1906, according to an article called
"The Men Who Direct the Destiny of Our Stage," Belasco had "no
peer in the staging of a play," as both "friend and foe" admitted.
The same article mentioned Teal as one of ten or so "other" promi-
nent directors. Belasco had become the "Wizard" and the "Bishop of
Broadway." Essentially a freelance director, Teal remained "Mr. Ben
While Belasco's reputation prospered, Teal's declined. As the
ranks of directors swelled through the early twentieth century, such
directors as Hugh Ford, Herbert Gresham, Julian Mitchell, Ned
Wayburn, and others became equally, if not better known than Teal.
Once again, however, in his last production, Teal came into direct
contact--perhaps more precisely viewed as a final conflict--with David
Two of the producers for the 1917 production of The
Wanderer were William Elliott and Morris Gest, Belasco's son-in-law.
The program for that play's premiere states, "Staged by Ben Teal."
A week after the play opened, however, the producers published an
open letter in New York newspapers, thanking David Belasco for the
overall supervision of the production. 42 They placed a similar note in
subsequent programs: "William Elliott, F. Ray Comstock, and Morris
Gest desire to acknowledge the deep debt of gratitude due to Mr.
David Belasco for his kindly and sympathetic interest and his
unselfish devotion in supervising the production of 'The Wanderer."'
Despite such attribution, The Wanderer was not included in Plays
Produced Under the Direction of David Belasco (New York, 1925).
In later biographies of Belasco, it has never been included in the list
of plays he directed.
3 Nonetheless, ten days after Teal died of
complications from gall stones, Teal's name no longer was on the
program of The Wanderer. The producers' note about Belasco
Was Teal's emphasis on stagecraft, rather than acting, simply
symptomatic of an approach that could not stand the test of time?
Or, did Teal's abrasive directing, which was such a contrast to
Belasco's engaging ways, insure his historic anonymity? Did the
theatre, in fact, get its ultimate revenge by "dropping him from the
A small , anonymous acknowledgement at Teal's death indi-
cates the explanation probably is not simple:
Ben Teal made his final exit. His standards were high,
and to reach them he employed stern discipline. 'Tis a
time to place the rosemary of grateful memory on his
grave. To some he spoke the encouraging word. I was
one of these. I lay my sprig of remembrance upon the
tomb of one who worked well, who established standards
and who suffered much. Would that his passing had
been a happier one. 44
The Dramatic Mirror obituary concluded: "Mr. Teal was a hard
worker, and in spite of his strict work with players at rehearsals, he
made hosts of friends. His domestic affairs impaired his health, but
he was always cheerful, and his homes at Larchmont and Long
Branch were always open to those who needed aid" (28 April 1917).
Although little remembered now, Mr. Ben Teal was the first
American to become a full-time stage director. He had a substantial
directing career that lasted thirty-four years and embraced at least
eighty-two New York productions. These plays encompassed
almost every style of the day: melodrama, spectacle, tragedy, trav-
esty, farce, comedy, comic opera and musical comedy. He began
directing in an era when there was emphasis on effects and
novelties. Pictorial realism was to dominate the stage during Teal's
career, and he mastered the techniques of the form.
A martinet who was castigated for his style of working with
actors, Teal was also an excellent stagewright. Reflective of his
superb organizational capabilities and also his view of actors as
"units," Teal's aesthetic was pragmatic. His skill in mechanics,
smooth staging, chorus work and dances (although he often had a
choreographer) was frequently praised, and he instituted useful
rehearsal practices and furthered the standards of musical produc-
As Teal's professional life increasingly fell under the shadow of
such theatre giants as David Belasco, his personal life increasingly
approached the pathetic. Even so, Teal helped establish the viability
of the profession of directing. He was so successful at this career
that in 1910, Robert Grau called him "the representative general
stage director of the county." 45
1. 19 October 1907 clipping, Ben Teal file, Billy Rose Theatre
Collection of the Performing Arts Research Center, The New York
Public Library at Lincoln Center.
2. For David Belasco's career see Craig Timberlake, The
Bishop of Broadway: David Belasco. New York: Library Publisher,
1954. A study of Ben Teal appears in James P. Cochran, The Devel-
opment of the Professional Stage Director: A Critical-Historical
Examination of Representative Professional Directors on the New
York Stage, 1896-1916. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, State
University of Iowa, 1958. I am indebted to Cochran's study.
Othersources for Teal's career are in the clipping files located
in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Important in reconstructing
Teal's career were the following articles: James B. Fillmore, "Ben
Teal, Stage Manager," Broadway Magazine,(4 Nov. 1900): 116-7.
This piece seems to have been based on what appears to be a press
agent's release, "Dramatic News Notes from W. M. Bates," and,
therefore, may be suspect. "The Alphabetical Record," n. d., no
source. Obituaries: "Ben Teal," New York Star, 2 May 1917; "Ben
Teal Passes Away," New York Mirror, 28 April 1917. Robert Grau,
The Business Man in the Amusement World, (New York: Broadway
Publishing Co., 1910), 166-167, contains an evaluation of Teal. Sub-
sequent citations of clippings and articles are from the clipping files
at Lincoln Center unless otherwise indicated.
3. Leavitt, M. B. Fifty Years in Theatrical Management. (New
York: Broadway Publishing, 1912), 590. Leavitt cites Teal as one of
the most capable of the prominent stage directors and gives him a
few paragraphs. He claims that Teal and Belasco were boys
together in San Francisco, but I could find no other sources to verify
his statement. Belasco does not mention Teal in any of his reminis-
4. Fillmore, 116-7; New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 March 1883,
5. Teal claimed to have started in New York as an assistant
stage manager at Niblo's Gardens. "Staging a Production by
Diagrams," Chicago Inter-Ocean, 1 November 1908.
I can place Teal in California or Oregon for most of 1883. (New
York Mirror, 9 June 1883, 4; New York Mirror, 20 October 1883, 4.)
His first New York production was in December, 1883. I can find no
evidence of Teal's association with Niblo's Gardens. Several plays
listed in articles about him were produced at Niblo's Gardens in the
early 1880's, but I could not verify that Teal directed them. If Teal
were in New York prior to the 1883-84 season, then he may have
actually preceded Belasco to New York; I doubt that he did.
6. "Plays and Players of the Week," New York World, 30 Novem-
ber 1899.
7. The Dramatic News, 29 November 1899. Other reviews con-
sulted are the New York Dramatic Mirror, 29 November 1899; "Plays
and Players of the Week," New York World, 30 November 1899; "Ben
Hur a Splendid Sight; A Banquet for the Eyes." New York World, 30
November 1899; New York Herald, 30 November 1899; New York
Times, 3 December 1899; The Mail and Express, 1 December 1899;
"Clement Scott Sees the Wallace Drama," New York Herald, 30
November 1899; The Evening Post, 1 December 1899; and "The
Staging of Ben Hur," New York Herald, 5 November 1899.
8. Richard L. Arnold, "The Great Chariot Race," Theatre Design
and Technology, (23 November 1970): 13-15.
9. George J. Manson, "The Stage Director." New York Dramatic
Mirror, 11 July 1896, 4.
10. "How Ben Teal 'Realizes' a Burlesque."
11. 6 June 1898 clipping file, no source.
12. We Barrymores. (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, Inc.,
1951), 62. The play was The Brixton Burglary in 1901, and Teal was
not the director but was helping Sam Shubert in the preparatory
phases of rehearsal (letter, Sam Shubert to Ben Teal, 29 May 1901,
Shubert Archives, The Brixton Burglary) .
13. Mique O'Brian, "Ben Teal: Who Must Be Obeyed," New
York Telegraph, 4 May 1902.
14. June 5, 1889 clipping file.
15. Cochran, 102.
16. "Ben Teal Reported Married," 11 October 1905, no source;
and clipping dated 13 October 1906.
17. Clippings on Mrs. Teal's case: Cleveland Plain Dealer, 24
July 1908; New York Daily Tribune, 27 July 1908; New York
Telegraph, 23 November 1909. See also New York Times, 25 Feb-
ruary 1909, 27 February 1909 and 9 December 1909.
18. "The Petticoat Club," The Standard and Vanity Fair, 14
August 1908.
19. New York Sun, 7 April 1909; New York Telegram, 13 Sep-
tember 1913; "Ben Teal Sues a Head Waiter," New York Telegraph,
27 March 1917.
Teal's third wife was known as "Margaret" when she married
Teal , as "Eleanor" during one jail term, and as "Mrs. Genieve McKin-
ney Tommey Teal Paddleford Howells Facett" at the time of her death
in 1941 . She died in Washington State Penitentiary after marrying
three more times and being sent to jail three more times (for fraud
and bad checks). Her obituary called her a "one-time Broadway
beauty and international adventuress." ("Adventuress Dies in Western
Prison." 22 September 1941. Clipping).
20. "Staging a Production by Diagrams," clipping file.
21 . "How Ben Teal 'Realizes" a Burlesque," (c1903-1904,] clip-
ping file.
22. Ben Hur, V-11, Shubert Archives.
23. Ben Hur, 1-13, Shubert Archives.
24. Ben Hur, souvenir program, Research Collection, Lincoln
25. Prompt script, Shubert Archives, Box 147. This set contains
a leather bound volume for each act. "Property of Klaw and
Erlanger" is printed on the cover. "Under the direction of Joseph
Brooks. Arranged for the stage by W. M. Young, Vocal and
Instrumental Music composed for the production by Edgar Stillman
Kelley. Entire production under the stage direction of Ben Teal."
26. "How Ben Teal 'Realizes' a Burlesque," clipping file.
27. Ben Teal, "How a Musical Play is Staged." New York Com-
mercial, 13 October 1906, and Manson, "The Stage Director," 4.
28. Boston Globe, 4 May 1912.
29. Ben Teal , "Chorus Girls Who Became Stage Stars Have
Hard Work to Thank for Success," Philadelphia Evening Times, April,
30. "Less Sensuality in Musical Comedy," Toledo Blade, 8 May
31. Boston Globe, 4 May 1912.
32. "The Chorus Girl of Today. Ben Teal, Who Knows Her,
Rises in Her Defense," New York Times, 20 March 1910.
33. A Dark Secret, New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 September
1887, 2.
34. "Staging a Production by Diagrams," clipping file.
35. Ada Patterson, "David Belasco Reviews His Life Work,"
Theatre Magazine, September 19, 1906 [?];"Alphabetical Record."
36. The 1906 article, "The Men Who Direct the Destinies of the
Stage," lists thirty-six people, several of whom were primarily actors.
Of the people on the list only David Belasco. William Seymour, and
Max Freeman directed prior to Teal, but only by a few years.
However, Belasco's first fame came as a playwright, and he was later
a manager. William Seymour claimed to have started directing in
1872 (Boston Evening Transcript, 1 0 January 1931), but was also an
actor who alternated between acting and directing. Teal was the
first, then, to.choose stage directing as a vocation.
37. New York Star, 10 February 1915 for Teal ; clipping for
Belasco, Lincoln Center.
38. New York Dramatic Mirror, 17 November 1883, 7.
39. "The Art of Pray Making," n. d., clipping file.
40. Edward Fales Coward, The Theatre (July 1906): 187.
41. Program, The Wanderer, 5 February 1917. Research Collec-
tion, Lincoln Center.
42. Quoted in The Wanderer program, Metropolitan Opera.
43. William Winter, The Life of David Belasco, val. 2. (New
York: Jefferson Winter, 1925), 537-38. Timberlake, 455.
44. New York Star, 2 May 1917.
45. Grau, 167.
Play & Author Theatre & Producer Date
Passion's Slave New Park Theatre 24 December
John A. Stevens Stevens & Murtha 1883
That Man! New Park Theatre 28 January
Celia Logan Stevens & Murtha 1884
Her Sacrifice New Park Theatre 24 March
J. V. Pritchard Stevens & Murtha 1884
Adapted by John A.
Justine New Park Theatre 21 April
Selina Dolero Stevens & Murtha 1884
#*Sieba Niblo's Gardens 18 August
Edwin F. de Nyse 1884
Arcadia Mlle. Rhea
V. Sardou
Trans., Walter
*Woman Against People's Theatre 12 October
Woman Effie Ellsler 1885
Frank Harvey
One of the Bravest People's Theatre 7 June
Edward E. Price 1886
*Fairy Fingers Mlle. Rhea
Ernest Legouve
*The Widow Mlle. Rhea
Henry Meilhac & Ludovic
Adapted by Walter Brooks &
Ben Teal
Held by the Enemy Madison Square Theatre 16 August
William Gillette A.M. Palmer 1886
*Sybil, A Romance Pooles Theatre 7 February
of Dublin Lights 1887
Clay M. Greens
*A Fair Bohemian Madison Square Theatre 10 May
Mrs. Charles A. 1887
*Fashion Madison Square Theatre 19 May
Selina Dolaro 1887
The Still Alarm Fourteenth Street Theatre 30 August
Joseph Arthur 1887
A Dark Secret Academy of Music; Jeffer- 30 August
James Willing Jr. & John son, Taylor & Nugen 1887
A Possible Case Standard Theatre 9 April
Sydney Rosenfeld 1888
Hamlet (1) Metropolitan Opera House. 21 May
William Shakespeare A. Daly & A. M. Palmer 1888
(Benefit, Lester Wallack)
*Among the Pines Peoples Theatre 11 June
W. R. & J. P. Wilson
Ray Maggie Mitchell
C. Wallace Walters
The Keepsake Madison Square Theatre 2 July
Clinton Stuart A.M. Palmer 1888
Judge Not Madison Square Theatre 30 July
Frank Harvey Effie Ellsler 1888
The Katfir Diamond Broadway Theatre 11 September
Edward J. Swartz 1888
The Stowaway Niblo's Garden 15 October
Tom Craven 1888
The Country Fair Producer's Twenty-Third 5 March
Charles Barnard Street Theatre 1889
TheGreat Metropolis Proctor's Twenty-Third 31 August
George Jessop & Ben Teal Street Theatre 1889
Klaw & Erlanger
Twelfth Night Marie Wainright 21 September
William Shakespeare 1889
Arr. by Ben Teal
A Tale of a Coat Daly's Theatre 14 August
Dion Boucicault 1890
Blue Jeans Fourteenth Street Theatre 6 October
Joseph Arthur 1890
Niobe Bijou Theatre 31 August
Harry & Edward Paulton Abbot & Teal's Comedy 1891
The Prodigal Father Broadway Theatre 12 December
Glen Mac Donough Jefferson, Klaw & Erlanger 1893
In Old Kentucky People's Theatre 11 September
C. T. Dazey 1893
The Algerian Garden Theatre 14 October
Glen MacDonough 1893
Music--Reginald deKoven
Delmonico's At Six Bijou Theatre 6 November
Glen ManDonough 1893
Miss Innocence Abroad(3) Bijou Theatre 5 November
F. C. Philips & Charles 1894
Brookfield, Arranged by
Edward Paulton
Miss Dynamite(16) Bijou Theatre 5 November
Glen MacDonough 1894
The Brownies Fourteenth Street Theatre 12 November
Palmer Cox, Jefferson, Klaw & Erlanger 1894
Music--Malcolm Douglas
The Great Diamond Robbery American Theatre 4 September
(69), Edward M. Alfriend & A. M. Palmer, Edwin Knowles 1895
A. C. Wheeler
*The War of Wealth (48) Star Theatre 10 February
C. T. Dazey 1896
Sunshine of Paradise Alley Fourteenth Street Theatre 11 May
(40), Denham Thompson & 1896
George W. Ryer
Lost, Strayed or Stolen (77) Fifth Avenue Theatre 16 September
J. Cheever Goodwin 1896
Music--Woolson Morse
On Broadway (8) Grand Opera House 12 October
Clay M. Greene & 1896
Ben Teal
Jack and the Beanstalk {65) Casino Theatre 2 November
R. A. Barnet, Klaw & Erlanger 1896
Music--A. B. Sloane
A Round of Pleasure {48) Knickerbocker Theatre 24May
Sydney Rosenfield, Klaw & Erlanger 1897
Music-Ludwig Englander
The Bride Elect {64) Knickerbocker Theatre 11 April
John Philip Sousa, Book Klaw & Erlanger & 1898
& Music B. D. Stevens
The Sorrows of Satin {9) Broadway Theatre 19 December
Creagh Henry 1898
A Reign of Error Hammerstein's Victoria 6 March
John J . Macnally, Klaw & Erlanger 1899
Music--Maurice Levy
In Gay Paree {48) Casino Theatre 20 March
Adapt. by Clay M. Greene, George Leaderer 1899
Lyrics--Grant Stewart,
Music--Ludwig Englander
The Rogers Brothers in Wall Hammerstein's Victoria 18 September
Street Klaw & Erlanger 1899
John McNally
Ben Hur {194) Broadway Theatre 29 November
William Young Klaw & Erlanger 1899
Chris and the Wonderful Hammerstein's Victoria 1 January
Lamp (58) Klaw & Erlanger, 1900
Glen MacDonough, B. D. Stevens
Music--John Philip Sousa
The Rogers Brothers Hammerstein's Victoria 17 Septenber
in Central Park (72) Klaw & Erlanger 1900
John J. MacNally
Music--Maurice Levy,
Lyrics-- J. Cheever Goodwin
Foxy Quiller (in Corsica) Broadway Theatre 5 November
(50) Harry B. Smith Klaw & Erlanger 1900
Music--Reginald de Koven
The Village Postmaster Grand Opera House, 6 November
Alice E. lves & Brooklyn
Jerome H. Eddy
Star and Garter (25) Hammerstein's Victoria 26 November
John S. McNally Frank McKee 1900
Sweet Nell of Old Drury Knickerbocker Theatre 31 December
Paul Kester 1900
The Roger Brothers in Knickerbocker Theatre 2 September
Washington (49) Klaw & Erlanger 1901
John J. McNally
Lyrics--Harry B. Smith
Music--Maurice Levy
The Sleeping Beauty and Broadway Theatre 4 November
The Beast (241) Klaw & Erlanger 1901
J. Hickory Wood & Arthur
Collins, Adapt. by
J . J. McNally & J. C. Good-
win, Music--J. M. Glover &
Frederick Solomon
The Rogers Brothers in Knickerbocker Theatre
1 September
Harvard (63) John J.
McNally, Music--Maurice
Lyrics--J. Cheever Goodwin
Whoop-Dee DOD (151) Weber & Fields Music Hall 24 September
Edgar Smith, Music--W. T. Weber & Fields 1903
Captain Barrington (51) Manhattan Theatre 23 November
Victor Mapes Weber & Fields 1903
An English Daisy (41) Casino Theatre 18 January
Seymour Hicks & Weber & Fields 1904
Walter Slaughter,
Rearranged by Edgar Smith
with added score by AM.
The Rollicking Girl (192) Herald Square Theatre 1 May
Sydney Rosenfield, Charles Frohman 1905
Music--W. T. Francis
The Catch of the Season Daly's Theatre 28 August
(1 04) Seym_our Hicks & Charles Frohman 1905
Cosmo Hamilton, Lyrics- -
Charles H. Taylor, Music-
Haines & Hamilton, Francis,
Solomon & Bart, Madden &
Morse, Kern & Harris, Earle &
The Mountain Climber (79) Criterion Theatre 5 March
C. Kraatz & M. Neal Charles Frohman 1906
The American Lord (32) Hudson Theatre 6April
Charles T. Dazey & George Charles Frohman 1906
The Little Cherub (155) Criterion Theatre 6 August
Owen Hall, Music--Ivan Caryll Charles Frohman 1906
The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer Wallack's Theatre
(187) Harry B. Smith, Book Charles Frohman
& Lyrics
Music--Ludwig Englander
The Rogers Brothers in
Panama (71)
Sylvester Maguire & Aaron
Hoffman, Score--Max
Hoffman, Lyrics--Edward-
Broadway Theatre
Rogers Brothers
22 October
2 September
The Hoyden (58) Knickerbocker Theatre 19 October
Cosmo Hamilton, Adapt. Charles Dillingham in assoc. 1907
from "La Soeur" by Tristan with C. Frohman
Bernard. Music--Paul Rubens
Fluffy Ruffles (48)
John J. McNally, Lyrics--
Wallace Irwin, Music--W. T.
Francis, Jerome Kern &
Keigh & Potter
The Queen of the Moulin
Rouge (160).
Paul M. Potter, Lyrics--
Vincent Bryant, Music--John
T. Hall
A Skylark (24)
William Harris Jr., Music--
Frank G. Dossert
Paul Jones
Criterion Theatre
Charles Frohman
Circle Theatre
Thomas W. Ryley
New York Theatre
Henry Harrow
Ohio Valley Exposition
7 September
7 December
1 September
Music--Pietro Froridia
The First Lady in the Land
Charles Nirdlinger
The Man from Cooks(32)
Henry Blossom Book &
Lyrics, Music--Raymond
Hub bel
Adele (196)
Paul Herve
Music--Jean Briquet
/ole (24)
Robert W. Chambers &
Ben Teal, Book &
Lyrics, Music--Frederic
The Midnight Girl (104)
Paul Herve. Adapt. Adolph
Philips & Edward A. Paulton.
Music--Jean Briquet &
Adolph Philips
The Red Canary {16)
William Le Baron &
Alexander Hohnstone
Lyrics--Will B. Johnstone
Music--Harold Cobb
The Girl who Smiles (1 04)
Henry B. Harris
New Amsterdam Theatre
Klaw & Erlanger
Teller's Bradway Theatre
New Era Producing Co.
Longacre Theatre
H. H. Frazee
Forty-fourth St. Theatre
Shubert Brothers
Lyric Theatre
Mackay Procuction Co.
Lyric Theatre
4 December
25 March
28 August
29 December
23 February
13 April
9 August
Paul Herve & Jean Briquet.
English version--Adolph
Philips & Edward A. Paulton
Broadway and Buttermilk
Willard Mack
The Wanderer (1 08)
Maurice V. Samuels
Time Producing Co.
Maxine Elliott Theatre
Frederic McKay
15 August
Manhatan Opera House 15 February
William Elliott, F. Ray Com- 1917
stock, Morris Gest
The number in parenthesis indicates number of performances of
original production.
(*) These plays were listed in articles about Teal as having been
directed by him, but I could not find his name on programs or in
reviews of original production. It seems feasible that he directed
(#) Two productions named Sieba opened on the same date,
August 18, 1884. The other was produced by the Kiralfy Brothers at
the Star Theatre.
This list was compiled from programs and clippings in the Billy
Rose Theatre Collection of the Performing Arts Research Center, the
New York Public Library at Lincoln Center; from The Best Plays of
1894-1899, and 1899-1909, and 1909-1919, Burns Mantle and Gar-
rison P. Sherwood, eds. (New York: Dodd and Mead and Co., 1955,
1947, 1933) and from James P. Cochran, The Development of the
Professional Stage Director: A Critical-Historical Examination of
Representative Professional Directors on the New York Stage, 1896-
1916, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, State University of Iowa, 1958.
The latter contains an almost complete list of Teal 's productions from
1894-1917 based on The Best Plays.
Mary Maddock
In The Women (1936), Clare Boothe puts together a rogue's
gallery for her era.
Like Juvenal in his Satires, Boothe shows us
decadence and corruption everywhere, in women (explicitly) and
men (implicitly), high and low, from servant class to patriarchs. No
quarter escapes her cruel humor. The Women, which Burns Mantle
called "the most brilliant social satire of its time," is a comedy of man-
ners like Etherege's Man of Mode, but a sour one, and one present-
ing a female point of view.2 As John Gassner comments, "No
American writer has ever arranged such an exhibit of parasitism as
Miss Boothe's gallery of idle, backbiting and unscrupulous women."3
These women sublimate their gender frustration by turning their
attack on each other-rather than confronting the real causes of their
pain: men and the expectations of a society caught in economic and
social crisis.
Boothe does not glamorize the situation of her women;
instead, she reveals how a grotesque situation makes women act in
grotesque ways. Such a harsh, uncompromising characterization in
Boothe's "high comedy .. has led critics and audiences to suspect the
dramatist of setting women up as an inferior breed on which to shar-
pen her teeth. As Susan Carlson recently observed, "While Boothe's
1937 [sic] comedy . .. is a play full of women, it is not a woman's
play.n4 .
The reputation of The Women as a misogynistic play, however,
is not deserved; the play reveals, rather, the etiology of certain
female behaviors in a capitalistic and patriarchal system. Keeping
the male holders of economic and social power off-stage, Boothe
focuses on women dominated by the values, caprices and free
movements of these unseen men. Boothe's women are corrupted by
the materialistic and competitive values a moneyed and power-
braking male world generates. They are powerless receptors of
social forces wholly determined by men, and Boothe portrays the
consequences of their extreme behavior.
The characters' fierce competition for men and for the eco-
nomic security provided by men stems from the subordinate and
dependent status of women at that time. Thus, the fact that The
Women was written in the depths of the Depression, in 1936, is
important to an understanding of the play. Like their rich husbands,
the women are products of a capitalist mentality. Whereas their hus-
bands deal in Wall Street securities, the women trade in the eco-
nomic security of their marriages. This portrayal of men as mere
utilities of economic provision is a reversal of the usual patriarchal
notion (one common to Restoration comedies) of women as prop-
erty. The women--not having social power--gain control of powerful
men, who in turn become goods to be awarded to the most aggres-
sive bidder. To entrap such men, Boothe's upper-class women must
compete not only with each other, but also with their more desperate
(and hence more ambitious) working-class counterparts.
In this struggle the women use their only weapons--brains and
sex--not simply against other women, as first reactions may suggest,
but ultimately against the male prey they hope to snare. The women
are not fighting for men per se, but for money and financial security
in insecure economic times. That their savage aggresssiveness
mimics the competitive behavior of their lovers and husbands in the
marketplace is central to Boothe's unremitting satire of a society that
perverts Darwinist beliefs to justify inhumane competitiveness and
greed. For Boothe's women, the Social Darwinist motto, "survival of
the fittest," could well be emblazoned on Chane! originals and Wool-
worth smocks alike.
In order to make themselves more alluring to men and more
competitive in the marketplace, the women rush to fix their faces,
their hair, and their bodies because beauty is their marketable asset,
and its value can easily decrease. When women must depend upon
men for their survival, it becomes essential not only that they attract
men, but also that they continue to please them. It is therefore
appropriate and significant that several scenes of The Women take
place in beauty parlors, exercise salons, and dress shops. Contrary
to endorsing such behavior, Boothe brings out the agony of the
rituals of "public execution," as the First Hairdresser describes it, that
women go through to make themselves desirable.s Miriam appears
on stage under a mud pack, Sylvia and Peggy strenuously exercise
at Elizabeth Arden's, and Flora sits in danger of electrocution under
the permanent wave machine. What makes undergoing such torture
worthwhile is, of course, success with men. In the classy dress shop,
which sells "seduction," the conversation reinforces the plight of
women whose assets are their bodies. As the Corset Model com-
plains, "What else have we got to give?" (p. 136). Even Mary recog-
nizes that her loss of beauty is largely responsible for Stephen's
search for another woman. She tells Nancy: "Well, I was very pretty
when I was young. I never thought about it twice then. Now I know
it's why Stephen loved me" (p. 115) . Despite her virtues, the aging
Mary loses Stephen when someone more glamorous comes along.
The body that was an asset when she was young has now become a
liability. The battle of t he women to keep their looks is one which
they will eventually all lose. To postpone that event as long as pos-
sible becomes their primary goal.
In portraying this struggle, Boothe satirizes the extremes of
female behavior. She most noti ceably reviles the cattiest com-
petitors, such as Sylvia Fowler or Crystal Allen; yet, at the same time
she sati rizes self-sacrificing characters such as Mary Haines and
Miss Trimmerback, who are taken to task for their phlegmatic pas-
sivity. Only after losing her husband, Stephen, to the rapacious Crys-
tal does Mary learn to fight for what she wants and become a
sympathetic character. Mary's transformation is orchestrated by ex-
chorus girl Miriam Aarons, who tempers aggressiveness wi t h
sympathy. Despite her sharp satire, Boothe finally presents marriage
as the best state for women, but a state entered into with enlighten-
ment and feeling.
Typical of the comedy of manners genre in its attention to
sophisticated society, its stinging repartee, and its irreverent treat-
ment of sacred social myths, The Woman examines the behavior of
women in both the upper and lower reaches of patriarchy. Boothe
strips away sentimental notions of marriage and pregnancy to tackle
the problematical questions of economic and social equality. The
main assets Boothe's women possess are their fleeting beauty and
their ruthlessness. They pursue men unremittingly, they are intent on
lucrative marriages or affairs, and they trade lovers or husbands
according to the reversals of male fortunes. A physical as well as a
verbal comedy, The Women is replete with hissing and fisticuffs as
women's competitive verbal sparring erupts into actual physical fight-
ing. When Sylvia discovers in Reno that her husband is divorcing her
to marry Miriam, the two women fight tooth and claw. To Boothe's
women, finding men is serious business. It is at heart a situation
ruled by the laws of the jungle and the survival of the fittest.
The major problems audiences have had with Boothe's play, its
immorality and cynicism, are inherent in the play's genre. As Ken-
neth Muir observes, the comedy of manners is "one branch of
English comedy that is almost exclusively concerned with sexual
relations, in and out of marriage."6 In the tradition of the eighteenth
and nineteenth-century critics of Restoration drama, such as Jeremy
Collier, Thomas Macauley, and others, Boothe's critics made her
play an object of controversy on the grounds of the negative picture
it paints of human motivation and behavior.? After all, as Muir
observes about the genre of the comedy of manners, "the prodigal is
depicted more sympathetically than the usurer, the cuckolder than
the cuckold, the wine-bibber than the total abstainer."8 As Macaulay
did with Restoration drama, Boothe's present-day audiences often
have wrongly judged The Women by their own standards, be they
Victorian or feminist, rather than by the standards of her era.
John Palmer's warning to critics writing on Restoration com-
edy may also be salutary to those discussing the modern comedy of
manners. He says the play
must be judged as an honest reflexion of con-
temporary manners; it cannot be intelligently approached
as a quetion of morality in vacuo, or as an exhortation to
be vicious by the devil's advocates; . . . the critic must
begin by accepting the conventions and postulates of the
poet whose work he contemplates.9
Such a statement seems apt when one remembers that in
Providence, Rhode Island, police closed The Women because they
found it "cheap, bawdy and lusty."
In London, authorities
threatened to ban it because of Boothe's unsentimental treatment of
marriage and prenatal complaints.
The play's unvarnished pre-
sentation of the female perspective on sex, birth, extramarital affairs,
divorce, and dull husbands clearly offended a certain sector of its
audience. As a writer for Newsweek observed, "the metropolitan
dramatic critics were unanimous in their disappointment at the
playwright's picture of American womanhood."
Yet none of these
criticisms prevented The Women from becoming highly successful at
home and abroad.
When audiences, in obedience to patriarchal responses, see
the behavior of Boothe's characters merely as comic or distasteful,
they fail to grasp the situation of the women, the causes of their reac-
tive behavior, and the impossible roles into which they have been
trapped at every level of society. They have consistently overlooked
the socioeconomic dimension of Boothe' s play: the intensity of
Boothe's attack on the causes of female behavior has led them
wrongly to view her play as an attack on women themselves. The fact
that very few people have questioned the accuracy of Boothe's
portraits of clawing and venal women must give one pause.
The response of critics to The Women parallels the reaction of
most audiences. In the appraisal of an anonymous reviewer in the
Literary Digest, "America's No. 1 woman-hater is Clare Boothe, who
uses her typewriter as a scalpel to dissect the vanities and pomps of
her sex."
3 Joseph Mersand (who as late as 1949 insisted that
women are incapable of writing great plays because innate prac-
ticality prevents them from achieving the "idealistic heights" men
enjoy) praises Boothe mainly for her negative presentation of
The Women is one of the frankest studies of the sex
penned by one of its members .. . [s[he had the courage,
rare even in a male writer, to present women unfavorably
... a deeply-inbred, typically American respect for the
sex (the save the women and children first idea) would
always prevent any male writer from writing as bitterly as
he might want.14
Mersand and the "male critics" he cites too quickly take what is
merely a convention of the comedy of manners--the presentation of
despicable creatures for the moral enlightenment of the audience--for
Boothe's own feelings toward her gender. Applauding the "truthful-
ness" of Boothe's portraits, Mersand clearly demonstrates the cloud-
ing of his critical vision by his all too obvious patriarchal bias.
George Jean Nathan condemns Boothe for the very "objec-
tivity" that Mersand applauded. He observes: "Clare Boothe may be
carelessly praised for achieving . .. objectivity in a play like The
Women ... but it hardly constitutes sound appraisal of character and
in sum merely amounts to a melodramatically inversed
Nathan thus concludes that The Women is not
finally satiric, but melodramatic and sentimental, terms male critics
have often applied to female writers.
Even recent feminist critics, such as Susan Carlson, who seem
as guilty as earlier patriarchal critics in applying incongruent moral
standards to Boothe's play, tend to agree that Boothe's attitude
toward her female characters is as negative as Mersand and Nathan
maintain. Carlson describes Boothe's play not as a battle between
the sexes but as a battle within one sex.
6 The contempt Boothe's
women express for their sex and their sex roles--and, sometimes, for
each other--are, however, not evidence of the playwright's own con-
tempt for women, but of her attempt to portray realistically how
women feel about themselves in a society, especially one in eco-
nomic crisis, where most of the power is in the hands of men. If
Boothe portrays women scrambling for money and security by
attaching themselves to affluent men, this is a trait of social comedy,
a genre that emphasizes the economic function of marriage.
Boothe's apparent misogyny needs to be viewed in terms of a
socio-economic framework, one in which women are property, and
much of the language of The Women is colored by metaphors of
economics. This is made clear, for example, by Nancy's claiming
that she is "What nature shows, l'm--a virgin--a frozen asset" (p. 105).
Boothe does not see women's inferiority as inevitable and natural, as
given in the constitution of the universe. Rather, she sees this
inferiority as the result of actual social and economic relationships
designed to maintain male superiority.
Competition among the women arises from the social forces
which keep them dependent on men for social and financial security.
As Sylvia tells Crystal, her psychiatrist says "you've got a Cinderella
Complex. He says most American women have. They're all brought
up to believe that marriage to a rich man should be their aim in life.
He says we neither please the men nor function as child-bearing
animals--" (p. 177). Boothe may be satirizing some modes of female
behavior, but she is also showing that the psychiatrist ignores the
causes of the problem.
One of these causes is the shortage of affluent men, making
them a precious commodity for which the women, in search of finan-
cial security, compete fiercely. Men, then, The Women shows, are
accorded the special treatment given to a valuable and desirable
object. Mary' s maid, Jane, has noticed that Miss Fordyce, the
governess, treats Mary's son Stevie preferentially and attributes her
behavior to the nece$Sity of nurturing a commodity in short supply.
Miss Fordyce herself remarks: "in England, Mrs. Haines, our girls are
not so wretchedly spoiled. After all, this is a man's world. The
sooner our girls are taught to accept the fact graciously--" (p. 119).
Mary observes that although Miss Fordyce "really prefers Mary . . .
she insists we all make a Iitie god of Stevie" (p. 120). Jane aptly
blames this attitude on the relative scarcity of males in post-World
War I England,exclaiming, "Competition is something fierce!" (p.
120). At the time Boothe wrote The Women there was no shortage
of men in the United States, but during the Depression years there
was a shortage of rich men.
Because few of the women are economically self-sufficient, the
financial well-being that wealthy men such as Howard Fowler or
Stepen Haines can offer plays a crucial role in making them desirable
to women. Edith, for example, is well aware of this dynamic. Her
husband is bald and fat, yet because of his wealth he finds women
attracted to him. Mary's marriage with Stephen is safe until he grows
prosperous. Mary addresses this issue when she tries to tell Stephen
about Crystal's motives: "Stephen, can't you see that girl's only inter-
ested in you for your money" (p. 146) Sylvia later attributes the same
motive to Miriam, to which Miriam replies: "And what did you want
him for? I made Howard pay for what he wants; you make him pay
for what he doesn't want . .. Besides, I'll stay bought." (p. 195).
When Mary complains about Stephen's infidelity, Crystal expresses
surprise, saying Mary has "got everything that matters. The name,
the position, the money" (p. 135). That the lower-class women
unabashedly share the materialistic values of their upper-class
counterparts comes out in the last scene, when the Second Girl
complains in the most unsentimental terms that her lover made her
quit the stage, "For what? A couple of cheesy diamond bracelets? A
lousy car, which every time it breaks down you got to have the parts
shipped from Italy?" (p. 196). To emphasize the fact that men hardly
exist apart from their money, Boothe uses the brilliant device of keep-
ing the men, who are at the center of the play's action, off-stage.
It is the women's economic and social impotence and
dependence that leads them to lament their unsatisfactory roles.
Boothe realizes that the audience may well think of the working
woman as a contrast to the women on stage. She therefore creates
Stephen's secretary, Miss Trimmerback, who destroys the myth of
the glamorous and independent career woman. Women's salaries
are low and conditions in the workplace so unreasonable that happi-
ness is impossible. She complains: "I wish I could get a man to foot
my bills. I'm sick and tired cooking my own breakfast, sloshing
through the rain at 8 A.M., working like a dog. For what? Independ-
ence? A lot of independence you have on woman's wages." (p. 153).
Like Rachel Crothers in the earlier play, A Man's World (1909),
Boothe observes that society often forces women into compromising
positions. Because of their unsatisfactory place, moreover, working
women must work harder than the financially supported members of
their sex to obtain what they want. Not surprisingly, then, Mary's
competition is a sales girl , and Sylvia's a chorus girl. Even Nancy
Hale, who alone of Boothe's women enjoys a successful career and
its concomitant independence, expresses to her friends some dis-
satisfaction with being an intelligent and capable female in a world in
which only men are supposed to possess such qualities. As she tells
her friends, "Practically no one ever misses a clever woman" (p. 116).
Related to this is Mary's daughter's precocious recognition of her
gender limitations. She complains to her mother: "I don't want to be
a little girl. I hate girls! They're so silly, and they tattle, tattle-- ... Oh,
Mother, what fun is there to be a lady? What can a lady do?" (p.
121). Despite the fact that Mary's assurance that "These days dar-
ling, ladies do all the things men do. They fly aeroplanes across the
ocean, they go into politics and business," Little Mary wisely
counters, "You don't, Mother ... even when the ladies do things, they
stop it when they get the lovey-dovies" (p. 121 ). The evaluation is
reinforced by Jane. When Mary observes, "She doesn't want to be a
woman, Jane," Jane replies, "Who does?" (p. 122). Similarly, Nancy
knows that hers is a man's world, for when Edith declares "If men
had to bear babies, there'd never be--", Nancy cynically offers the
male viewpoint, observing, "--more than one child in a family--And
he'd be a boy" (pp. 102-103).
To guide our reading of her play, Boothe employs a chorus of
dispossessed women who are prevented in various ways from fully
participating in their world. No one character stands in opposition to
the corruption Boothe sees in the structure of her society. Part of the
rationale for the chorus lies in the fact that the play's heroine, Mary,
who is in a state of transformation throughout the play, cannot con-
sistently represent the behavioral norm. Because some critics mis-
takenly consider only Mary to be normative--ignoring the importance
of the minor characters to the play's central theme--they misunder-
stand the thrust of the play. Charles Morgan, for example, com-
ments that Mary
is intended to be a likable woman and, as, such, a line of
departure from which the satire on the rest may be
measured; but it is remarkable that she also, though a
sentimental and matrimonial gloss is put on her posses-
siveness, has none but possessive values . . . . One can-
not obtain a genuine effect of satire unless there is a
visible background against which the satirized objects
appear . . . . Even though [Mary] the dramatist makes no
contact outside the jungle.18
What Morgan fails to see is that the 'visible background" against
which the "satirized objects appear" does not only consist of Mary,
who is herself mocked throughout most of the play for the smugness
and and prudish sentimentality that blinds her to the reality of her
situation. It also consists of secretaries, servants, shop girls,
spinsters like Nancy and children like Little Mary, who are outsiders
economically or socially and who reveal the corruption of a society in
which the motivation for marriage is not love but financial security.
At the same time that Boothe contrasts the social position of
women and men, she contraposes the situation of working women
with that of their upper-class sisters and reveals that the former are
worse off. Boothe's rich women endure hardships through their
dependent status in a male-dominated society, her less affluent
women are even more handicapped. Choral figures from all classes
are used throughout the play to express resentment toward patriar-
chy. At the same time, representatives of the female working class
are used as foils for the rich women. The Nurse, for one, explodes
with fury at Edith's frivolous postnatal complaints. She tells her:
"Why women like you don't know what a terrible time is. Try bearing
a baby and scrubbing floors. Try having one in a cold filthy kitchen,
without ether, without a change of linen, without decent food, without
a cent to bring it up--and try getting up the next day with your insides
falling out, to cook your husband's--!" (p. 159). Clearly, the Nurse
and her peers feel simultaneously the pressures of gender and the
The Nurse's comments are echoed throughout the play by
hairdressers, women exercise instructors, dressmakers and secre-
taries. The last scene cleverly orchestrates a powerful polyphony of
the complaints of the rich and the more serious problems of the
proletariat. Juxtaposing the conversation among rich women in fur
coats with that between the restroom attendant and the cigarette girl
at a posh hotel, Boothe directs her satire at women who are 'heart-
broken' over missing one winter in Palm Beach. In this scene,
Boothe forcefully evokes an understanding of the appeal of the Lett
in the 1930s. Cigarettes, who cannot even get married until her
unemployed fiance finds a job complains:
CIGARETTES. It ain't fair! Why, we could get married
and have a family on that coat--Sadie, wh'd'ya say If I was
to tell you I'm a Commyanist?
SADIE. I'd say ya was bats. I was a Norman Thomas
fan. Where'd it get me? (p. 192).19
Their assessment of the efforts of radical social reformers to deliver
them from the evils of class oppression reveals their deep hopeless-
ness. Cynicism seems the last weapon in the arsenal of the
Despite the divisiveness of class, however, Boothe shows that
women share many of the same problems independent of economic
status. The situation of Lucy--the manager of the hotel for divorcees
in Reno--is not far from Mary's or Peggy's. The difference is in
degree. Because the society women are affluent and can terminate
their marriages more easily, they are one step ahead of women who
must, for economic reasons, adjust to unsatisfactory marital circum-
stances. Lucy's unhappiness in marriage mirrors the discontent of
the rich women; her situation simultaneously emphasizes the more
serious predicament of working women who endure adultery and
violence at the hands of their husbands and who find pregnancy only
Mary's cynical servant, Maggie, moves the consideration of
marriage into a more overarching understanding. She constantly
speaks of the unsatisfactory position that all women, regardless of
economics and class, accept in marriages based on the double
standard. Yet Maggie criticizes Mary's decision to divorce Stephen
only because Mary's "pride" blinds her to the reality that marriage has
primarily an economic motivation. Like Lucy, she treats the idea of
happiness in marriage as beside the point: "Marriage is a business of
taking care of a man and rearing his children ... What's the difference
if he don't love her?" (p. 149). Maggie knows that a woman's main
goal in marriage is financial security, not love, and she looks on
marriage--stripped of its romantic myths--as just another business
deal. The layers of contrast on which Boothe's play are built work to
reveal not the differences between women but their common inter-
ests and difficulties. Not content to present the manifestations of her
women's discontent, Boothe lays bare the roots of their behavior in
the workings of patriarchy and of capitalistic competitive economy
during the Depression. Clearly, Mary is the cynosure of The Women.
And when Mary adopts her friends' competitive behavior, Mary for
the first time sees her role in an acquisitive and patriarchal society.
Mary simply becomes the best businessman, the best capitalist. She
learns, moreover, to outwit her rivals and returns to her marriage no
longer naive or passive. She moves from being unquestioningly
domestic to being shrewdly domestic. Even though Mary returns to
conventional role of wife, she returns with self-realization, having
acquired far greater self, economic, and social awareness than that
of the husband whom she recaptures.
It would be a small step, yet one Boothe does not take, to say
that Mary, self-aware and superior to naive Stephen, does not need a
man at all. She has come to direct the action of her life and the play
by effecting the renewal of her marriage. Unlike many of the women
in the play, she escapes charges of corruption because she does not
use her newly won astuteness to exploit others. The play ends in the
victory of the competit ive yet sympathetic women like Mary and
Miriam. Unredeemably selfish and scheming women like Crystal
Allen and Sylvia Fowler are sent down to ignominious defeat. Boothe
engineers her play to give Mary a range of options. Mary rejects the
untrammeled acquisitiveness of Crystal, and eschews as well the
possibility of an independent and solitary life. Mary throughout the
play is revealed as a woman of warmth and love. Boothe has her,
therefore, retain those qualities but in such a way that she is no
longer naively passive and exploited but shrewdly in control of her
life The difference between Mary at the play's opening and at the
play's conclusion is social and economic enlightenment.
Boothe cleverly pairs Mary with her friend Miriam. Miriam and
Mary's different approaches to life make them seem a paradigm of
the split woman in patriarchy that appears in American women's
drama for the first time in this century in Alice Gerstenberg's Over-
tones (1915):
0 In Gersternberg's play, each woman houses within
herself two opposing personalities: one half is passive and conserva-
tive and the other aggressive and rebellious. In Boothe's play, the
two different personalities split so completely that they form two
separate characters with individual, opposing identities. Miriam and
Mary are opposites in several way. They come from different classes
and so have had life experiences that are very different. Mary's
privileged upbringing insulated her from most of life's problems; she
believes she can lead a storybook existence as long as she play by
the rules. What she does not count on is the incursion into her world
of disruptive women from the lower classes who play by completely
different rules and play to win.
Although Mary is Boothe's central character, Miriam is the
play's raisonneur and Mary's guide. She is qualified for this role
because she also lost the man she loved by holding onto old-
fashioned notions of female purity and passivity. Miriam appears to
be Boothe's feisty Jewish working-class ideal, believing that women
should be willing to throw away all scruples when fighting for men.
She tells Mary: "I come from a world where a woman's got to come
out on top--or it's just too damned bed ... What t he hell? A woman's
compromised the day she's born."(p. 171 ). Her low economic and
social status make it impossible for Miriam not to compromise herself
to win. Because women in Miriam's position have had to adjust to
the bumps of an uncushioned ride, they know a few tricks that Mary
and her peers do not. She changes a Mary reluctant to soil her
hands to a female with sharp claws ready to draw blood. During the
course of the play, Mary comes closer to Miriam's view of life, healing
the breach between the two halves of what should be one woman,
and giving them the same happy fate in marriage.
As Mary changes, she becomes a role model and teacher,
advising her friends who are caught in unsatisfactory marital situa-
tions similar to hers. Her advice reflects her own changes under the
tutelage of Miriam. Implied in the play, then, is a possibility of
change through women supporting and teaching one another.
Clearly such a possibility is in direct opposition to the predatory rela-
tionships among women that Boothe's play so savagely depicts. The
instillation of a feeling of community in some of the women in
Boothe's play is largely the responsibility of Mary and Miriam. By
giving out advice and, later, by actively involving themselves in their
friends' romantic lives, Mary and Miriam gradually turn their friends
away from mutually destructive behavior and toward female com-
munity and alliance.
It is in the action of the final act that the women finally affirm
their solidarity. The rapid sequence of events and the offhand man-
ner in which the final scene is played shows that Boothe expects the
audience to look upon Mary's transformation from sweet, passive
matron to enlightened scrapping cat as positive, because in adopting
her sisters' tactics she becomes more competitive and better able to
obtain happiness. In the final scene at the Casino Roof, Mary
unashamedly stages her battle, using new strategies recently learned
from both friends and enemies. Mary's new skill in jungle warfare
prompts Miriam to tell Sylvia, "We're minor league this evening" (p.
197). Paradoxically, the ultimate compliment Mary receives comes
from an insult. When the defeated Crystal and Sylvia discover that
Mary has resorted to methods of warfare even more sordid than
theirs to win back Stephen, they wail :
SYLVIA: Mary, What a dirty female trick you played!
CRYSTAL: Yes! From the great, noble little woman!
You're just a cat, like all the rest of us!
MARY: Well , I've had two years to sharpen my claws.
(Waves her hand gaily to SYLVIA) Jungle Red, Sylvia!
Good night, ladies! (p. 200).
Boothe makes it clear that the help Mary's friends give her
once she makes up her mind to fight for her husband is a decisive
factor in her victory. Together, they represent a powerful force. With
Miriam's help, Mary has learned to "trick the tricksters." Even Sylvia
realizes this and betrays Crystal in the end by affirming Mary's guess
about Crystal's affair with Buck. The two villains, expelled from the
community the other women have formed, end up battling each
None of the women are satirized for their choice to return to
the home; after all, it is one of the conventions of the comedy of man-
ners to affirm marriage in the end. As Earl Miner observes:
The normal movement of English comedy from disorder
to order is confirmed by reinstatement of the characters
after numerous trials into the most basic social unit, the
family . .. The threats to such movement come not so
much from outside pressures, but from rebellious
impulses within ... The movement of a Restoration com-
edy is, therefore, perversely like that of a romantic drama.
Only the virgin woman is permitted her choice of a hus-
In Boothe's play, where there are few "virgins," the prize goes in the
end to those who are pure in motive. Thus Miriam wins Howard
Fowler and Mary wins Stephen. Although the men are seemingly in
control of their spheres, it is, ironically, women like Mary and Miriam
who really wield the power in the end, who r ~ the clever ones.
Reduced to Lilliputian stature, the men become the objects that
women in patriarchy traditionally have been.
Because the virulence of the competition among Boothe' s
women has so much been the focus of those people who write about
The Women the sense of community which develops among some of
the women has been largely ignored. Carlson is typical of the critics
who focus on Boothe's presentation of competing women. She
observes, "Although the play's successive episodes study the
permutations in one community of women, in every case the com-
munity is one in which sharing and concern give way to battles and
rifts. "22 As Carlson asserts, the women are often unable to reach any
accord. The internal structure of the scenes mimics the divisive
architecture of patriarchy itself. As Nina Auerbach observes in her
study of the treatment of women's friendship in fiction:
A community of women may suggest less the honor of
fellowship than an antisociety, an austere banishment
from both social and biological rewards .. . As a recur-
rent literary image, a community of women is a rebuke to
the conventional ideal of a solitary woman living for and
through men, attaining citizenship in the community of
adulthood through masculine approval alone.23
Carlson maintains that even though in Boothe's play women are
thrown together constantly in places where there are no m ~ n "it's
stage full of women [is] at once a potential women's community and
a backhanded endorsement of the male world"24
The limited environments i n which Boothe isolates her
women--beauty parlors, dress shops, exercise salons--mimic the
restrictions on women arising from patriarchal expectations of
women' s place. Boothe's rejections of the common view that
women cannot form lasting friendships is manifested in many ways,
but most obviously in her satire of Sylvia's psychiatrist. His clearly
male viewpoint, appropriately, is expressed by Sylvia. She tells Crys-
tal : "He says I attach too much value to my feminine friendships. He
says I have a Damon and Pythias Complex. I guess I have given too
much of myself t o other women. He says women are natural
enemies--" (p. 178). In selfish Sylvia's mouth these words are ironic;
she of all the characters in The Women attaches the least value to her
female friendships. Because the psychiatrist's observations about
Sylvia are so obviously false, we are forced to question the validity of
his opinion about women's friendship.
Focusing on the conflicts between women makes it easy to
miss the fact that Boothe's women (with the understandable excep-
tion of Crystal and Sylvia, left sparring at the final curtain) come
together in the last scene to form a community of effort and interests
around Mary. Their sense of sol idarity is increased, not diminished,
by play's end. Just as Miriam helps Mary to become competitive
enough to regain Stephen, Mary helps Peggy return to her estranged
husband, John. Mary's friends, who actively support her in the final
scene, are largely responsible for the success of her cause. Even the
hardened Nancy, who throughout the play acts mainly as an
observer of her friends' follies, becomes joyfully involved in Mary's
siege on Stephen at the Casino Roof. When the women come
together to help Mary, they create a force strong enough to render
men l ike Stephen Haines and Howard Fowler passive. To see
Boothe's play only as a j ungle-red world of cat eat cat is to bli nd
oneself to a significant portion of the play.
In The Women traditional romantic notions of marriage and
parenthood are viewed dispassionately and realistically. Boothe
posits, particularly through Mary, the need for--as well as the pos-
sibility of--revaluation. The play, furthermore, deals mainly with rich
women of leisure, the majority of whom are never satisfied with their
positions, never fulfilled sexually or personally. Most of the women
cheat, their husbands or lovers cheat, and few of them are happy.
Boothe states in the preface to the original playscript that she is
portraying the lives of only a small group of Park Avenue matrons;
but by including peripheral characters from other social sectors, she
gives us equally realistic portraits of women in the lower classes.
Boothe, in short, observes the effect of total economic or social
dependence upon the behavior of all women, leveling her attack at
materialistic values and patriarchal conventions.
Boothe has given us a play of women's "lower depths." Those
depths to be sure are set in Park Avenue rooms, but the pain, pathos
and futility therein are not disguised. Without being didactic, Boothe
shows women in her audience how to stop being manipulated by
their environment and how to control it. Contrary to what Mrs.
Morehead says, happiness is not found in passivity; ignorance is not
the same as bliss. Only in action do Boothe's women have a
chance. Boothe's approach to social realities is muscular: she thus
suggests a means for transforming the female gender role from a
passive to an active one. If her women want marriage for reasons of
security in an insecure time, not merely for love, that is
understandable; she just asks them not to gloss over their motives
with the imprisoning platitudes of a past age.
1. The Women, which opened on Broadway on 26 December
1936 ran for 657 performances before it went on the road. Filmed in
1939 and again in 1956 under the title "The Opposite Sex," it was
revised in 1960 and revived on the Broadway stage in 1973. Werner
Fassbinder did a television production in Germany in 1977.
2. Burns Mantle, ed., Best Plays oof 1936-1937 and Yearbook of
the Theater in America (1937: rpt. New York: Dodd Mead & Co.,
1966). 171.
3. John Gassner, ed., "An American Decade," in Twenty Best
Plays of the American Theatre (1937; rpt. New York: Crown, 1939),
4. Susan Carlson, "Comic Textures and Female Communities
1937 and 1977: Clare Boothe and Wendy Wasserstein, "Modern
Drama 27 (1984) : 564.
5. Clare Boothe, The Women in Plays by and about Women,
eds. Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch (New York: Vintage, 1974),
111. All references to Boothe's play are taken from the 1960 revision
instead of the 1936 original since this later version represents
Boothe's final decisions on the script. Further references appear in
the text.
When Boothe revised her play in 1960, most of the changes
were made in the play's structure. Originally, her play consisted of
three acts, with Act I ending after a scene in the dressmaker's shop
and Act II ending after a scene in Reno. In the revised version,
Boothe condensed her material into two acts. The first act ended as
her protagonist, Mary Haines, sets out to Reno for a divorce. In this
way she divided the play neatly into halves, with the first half showing
her fight to regain her husband. In addition to changing her play's
structure, Boothe also made a few changes in content. She added a
brief alternate ending, which shows Mary's opponents, Crystal Allen
and Sylvia Fowler, brawling after Mary leaves the stage victorious.
The ending metes out dramatic justice to the two villains of the play.
6. Kenneth Muir, The Comedy of Manners (London: Hutchison
Univ. Library, 1970), 26.
7. Muir, p. 20. Muir tells us that as far back as 1698 Collins com-
plained about the "profaneness" and "immorality" of Restoration
drama. Thomas Macaulay's comments appear in his Critical and
Historical Essays. II (1907), 443, as cited in Muir.
8. Muir, Comedy, 27.
9. John Palmer, The Comedy of Manners (London: G. Bell &
Sons,Ltd. 1913), 15-16.
10. Providence Censors Put Ban on Two Plays: 'Of Mice and
Men' and 'The Women' Cannot Get Licenses," New York Times, 10
June 1939, 14.
11. "'The Women' Faces London Stage Ban," New York Times,
22 May 1938m sec 2.2.
12. "Comedy out of Sight, Not Out of Mind, Men Rule the Cast
of 'The Women"' Newsweek, Jan. 1937, 24.
13. '"The Women:' Clare Boothe Mixes Sour and Sweet in Snip-
ing Drama of Feminine Foible," Literary Digest, 9 Jan. 1937m 4.
14. Joseph Mersand, The American Drama Since 1930 (1949:
rpt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1968, 49.
15. George Jean Nathan, The Entertainment of a Nation (New
York: Knopf, 1942), 36.
16. Carlson, "Comic Textures," 64.
17. There are other twentieth-century plays in which characters
central to the play's action never appear on stage (e.g. Evelyn in
Eugene O'Neill 's The Iceman Cometh, Lefty in Clifford Odets' Waiting
for Lefty, Godot in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and Minnie
Foster Wright in Susan Glaspell's Trifles).
18. Charles Morgan, "Britain Snarls at 'The Women,"' New York
Times, 7 May 1937, sec. 10:2.
19. The characters to whom Sadie refers in her conversation
with Cigarettes were radical figures in their day. In the 1937 version,
she refers to the popular reformer, Francis Everett Twonsend, who
authored the Townsend Plan in 1933. This proposal espoused the
idea of retiring mature workers with an old-age pension (financed by
a 2% federal sales tax) in order to make work for jobless young
people during the Depression. In the 1965 version, Sadie mentions
Norman M. Thomas, who was a radio announcer, Socialist leader,
and frequent presidential candidate after 1928.
20. See Alice Gersten berg, Overtones, in Plays By and About
American Women, eds. Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch (New York
Vintage, 1974), 1-18.
21. Earl Miner, lntrod., Twentieth Century Views of Restoration
Dramatists, ed. Earl Miner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall ,
1966), 4.
22. Carlson, "Comic Textures," 566.
23. Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women (Cambridge: Har-
vard Univ. Press, 1978), 3,5.
24. Carlson, "Comic Textures," 564.
Edward Wagenknecht
In 1920 David Belasco sent his last big star, Lenore Ulric, to
Chicago in a Chinese or pseudo-Chinese confection called The Son
Daughter that he and George Scarborough had put together, and
both sides of the entrance to the lobby of Powers Theater, where she
was playing, were decorated with huge photographs of the star in full
Chinese regalia. I found one of these very beautiful and having more
nerve and enterprise in those days than I now possess, I wrote to her
and asked whether it would be possible to possess a copy of it. I
told her that the picture I wanted was the one on the right-hand side,
but I neglected to specify whether I meant the right-hand side going
in or the right-hand side coming out.
She might have ignored me or she might have told me that I
was an idiot, either of which actions would have been justified. She
did neither. Instead she sent me fine copies of both photographs,
nicely inscribed, and wrote me a charming letter besides. I still treas-
ure both the pictures and her letter.
In behaving thus, Miss Ulric of course acted generously, but
she also showed that she knew how a young star must conduct her-
self if she wishes to build up a following to support a career. I am
sure that I never passed up an opportunity to see her in any of her
later vehicles. By way of contrast, I cannot but remember what hap-
pened when one of my sons, then a little boy, was greatly taken with
a television production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, featuring Rex Har-
rison, and wrote the actor a fan letter, to which he did not bother to
reply. I do not believe I have ever heard him mention Rex Harrison
Lenore Ulric formulated at least one luminous truth about
acting when she said, "In the theater a girl must be satisfied that she
can do anything, but she must never be satisfied with anything she
does." In his Great Stars of the American Stage, Daniel Blum records
of her that she began her career while working days as a cash girl in
a Milwaukee department store by playing bit parts and walk-ens with
a local stock company, after which she went on to stock in Chicago
and Grand Rapids and then toured with road companies, and I could
not help wondering where, in the present state of our theater, a
young actress could secure such training and experience. I have
always believed that one of the most fortunate experiences of my life
was that, when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I was taken each
week to see the stock company at the People's Theater, at Van
Buren and Leavitt Streets on Chicago's West Side. This must have
been about the last time the old melodramas were played seriously.
They were not the only fare at the People's but they were an impor-
tant element in it, for which I am thankful. With eleven performances
a week and a new play every Monday night, I doubt that any stock
actors of those days had much time to think about their "art," but
they did learn how to conduct themselves on the stage, how to deal
with emergencies, and above all how to speak their lines so that they
could be understood. I still believe that Marie Nelson, the leading
woman at the People's, was an excellent actress, and years after-
wards, when I was in my early twenties, Isabelle Randolph, who, as a
very young girl, had been a much admired ingenue at the People's,
turned up as leading woman of a stock company at the Warrington
Theater in Oak Park, where I was then living. Thackeray once asked
a man if he "cared for the play." "Ye-e-s," drawled his companion
tentat ively, "I like a good play." "Pshaw!" exclaimed the great
novelist, "I asked you if you cared for the play." That is exactly what
the devotees of the old stock companies learned to do.
It has been related of Belasco that in his New York theater he
had a brick in the rear wall of the gallery painted red and that when
he got a new actor he took him out on the stage, pointed out that
brick, and told him that when he played in Belasco's theater he was
going to speak so that brick would understand every word he said.
Lillian Gish says that when in her teens she played for him, along with
her friend Mary Pickford in Rosamond Gerard's play, A Good Little
Devil, he drilled her for two weeks on the word "apple." In this day of
mumbling actors, when everything goes so long as it is "natural," that
alone should assure Belasco's canonization. He knew that there is
only one kind of art that is natural and that that is bad art. When it is
successful, the dialogue of even a writer like Ernest Hemingway is
not natural but only made to seem so. If you do not believe it, I sug-
gest that you try to write the same way. George Arliss was quite cor-
rect when he remarked that if actors are going to speak the way
people speak in drawing rooms, the audience must have the right to
come up on the stage and follow them around so as to be able to
hear what they are saying.
The only book I have ever seen that does real justice to
Belasco is Lise-Lone Marker's David Belasco: Naturalism in the
American Theatre, published by Princeton University Press in 1979.
George Jean Nathan once observed that when we stopped building
theaters that looked like festival halls and began building theaters
that looked like mortuaries, the nature of what was presented on their
stages altered its character to correspond with the change. Belasco
productions were not transcripts of life; when he was at his most
characteristic best, they partook rather of the nature of the incanta-
tion. When you entered a Belasco Theater, the magician seduced
you into leaving the mundane world behind, and the seduction
worked all the more effectively because the materials he employed
were so obviously of this world. You may call this "escapism" if it
makes you feel comfortably superior. In a sense all art is escapism.
Myself, I prefer to think of it as extending life by exercising human
creativity rather than as escaping from it. As Shaw shows us in Back
to Methsuselah, if the time ever comes when we can satisfy all our
needs and desires in our own life experience, we shall have no need
of art.
We have high authority for believing that the way of a serpent
upon the rocks and the way of a man with a maid are among the
most difficult things in human experience to understand. I can add
one more to the list: why does hardly anybody seem to be able to
write a good play anymore? I do not share the common delusion
that the American drama began with Eugene. O'Neill, for I share with
Walter Meserve the conviction that the pre-1920 years in American
drama have never been appreciated or appraised as they deserved.
Nevertheless the twenties, in which O'Neill was not only the king-
figure but an important influence and inspiration besides, were
splendid. When in 1926 I made my first visit to New York, I spent
every night I had in town at the theater and attended all matinees
besides. I should hate to be condemned to repeat that performance
in this year of grace, and without the revivals of old plays that now
occupy so many theaters, the situation would be much worse than it
Even if one were to try to confine himself to revivals and even
(or especially) to the classics, he would not be safe, for very few of
the younger players know how to read blank verse, and freakish
tendencies in stagecraft and interpretation are nowhere worse than
in Shakespearean revivals. It all began in the twenties with the pre-
sentation of Hamlet "in modern dress," which was about as sensible
as it would be to do Ibsen in Roman togas. (I am told that in Den-
mark there was even a nude Hamlet.) Surely there can be no sense
in doing a Shakespeare play in either the costume of the period in
which the action was supposed to take place or, as the Elizabethans
themselves did, in the period of the playwright. This of course was
"modern dress" for his contemporaries, but since the language and
the psychology of all Shakespeare's characters is Elizabethan
anyway, it worked out pretty well. But this is a far cry from the televi-
sion production of Hamlet starring Maurice Evans I once saw in what
looked like Prisoner of Zenda costumes, or setting the scene of
Much Ado About Nothing in the old Spanish Southwest. A friend of
mine had the misfortune to be cast in a production of The Tempest in
New York in which the entire cast wore leotards and began the per-
formance with setting-up exercises, which should have been
reserved for the director's brains. And only a few years ago in Boston
there was a production of Romeo and Juliet in which the Montagues
and the Capulets appeared as on opposite sides of the disturbances
in Northern Ireland and into which a particularly refined and imagina-
tive piece of. "interpretation" entered when Mercutio was required to
urinate on the stage.
My own standards in Shakespearean production were set
many years ago by E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, as my
standards in film production were established by D. W. Griffith, and in
neither case have I since been tempted to go whoring after false
gods. A Sothern and Marlowe production was not, as was said of
Edmund Kean, like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.
They were both intensely cerebral , even scholarly, actors. Every
nuance, every inflection, every gesture had been carefully con-
sidered beforehand and gracefully performed on stage: nothing was
left to chance. They did not play for "points"; your satisfaction in one
of their performances was that of seeing everything done exactly
right. In this respect they differed radically from their notable
Shakespearean contemporary, Robert B. Mantell. Mantell's produc-
tions were ragged compared to theirs and his companies often less
than second-rate. I saw him twice in As You Like It, and both times he
read Jacques's description of the wounded deer thus:
And the big round tears
Coursed one another down
His innocent nose
In piteous chase,
with something very much like a full stop at the end of each line. Yet
at his best Mantell was a great actor. I have heard an audience gasp
at the blasphemy when his Richard Ill silenced the "tell-tale women"
in their railing against "the Lord's anointed," and I have since heard
admired actors read the line without creating a ripple. His greatest
role was of course King Lear, and I still think it one of the greatest
performances I ever saw, nor was it ever impaired by advancing age.
He continued to act after his physical powers had become
inadequate for Othello or Macbeth, but his performance of the
broken Lear was great to the end. As for Julia Marlowe, I had the
good fortune to see her again for the last time more than twenty
years after she had left the stage. In 1945 I dedicated The Fireside
Book of Christmas Stories to her. An interesting correspondence fol-
lowed, and when I was in New York, she invited me to tea in her
apartment at the Plaza Hotel, and I felt I had passed the supreme test
when she said, "I wish Edward could have known you." Though she
was then in her eighties, she was still very much the same beautiful
woman that her audiences had fallen in love with in the late nine-
teenth century, before I was born.
I cut my operatic teeth in Chicago in the days when Mary Gar-
den was the dominating personality in the opera there. Seven dollars
was the top price for a seat on the main floor of the surpassingly
beautiful old Auditorium except on Saturday bargain nights, when the
tariff was dropped to three dollars. You could get a good seat for
three dollars in the middle of the balcony, which was where we
generally sat, at any time, and if you cared to mount to the gallery,
you could hear the opera for a dollar. Today, with both book prices
and theater ticket prices on the dizzy heights to which they have
climbed, I do not see how young people, who as a class do not have
much money, can be expected to form either the book-buying habit
or the theater-going habit, which is an ominous portent for the future.
I attended the opera in Chicago during the aesthetically bril-
liant but financially disastrous year when Mary Garden was the gen-
eral director, serving without pay. She made the mistake of hiring so
many great singers that she could not find slots for them to fill in her
tight schedule, and the season ended with a deficit of over a million
dollars, which Harold McCormick cheerfully paid. There were many
good stories about Miss Garden around Chicago, some of them
probably apocryphal, for she was the kind of person about whom
legends accumulate. On important nights when she was not singing
herself, she occupied a box, and she was there when Marguerite
D'Aivarez made her debut in Samson et Dalila. When Dalila made
her first entrance from the Temple of Dagon, Madame O'Aivarez
slipped, fell, .and slid on her bottom down a flight of steps to stage
level. Though the audience gasped, fearing she had cracked her
spine, she was up in an instant, with the note she was supposed to
be singing on key, and no harm was done, except that Miss Garden
was heard by those around her to exclaim, "My God! She is making
her entry into the Chicago Opera like Salaam into Jerusalem!"
She told me that the only record she had ever made that she
did not think "terrible" was "At Dawning" and that she did not possess
a copy of that. I have no idea why she exempted this particular item
nor why she condemned the others, for all her Victors, though made
late in her career, are very fine. I only talked with her twice, and nei-
ther meeting was in Chicago. The first, in company, was in Seattle
and the second, alone, in Boston.
Most celebrities one meets expect you to know everything
about them but show no interest in wishing to know anything about
you. Miss Garden was different. When she met people, all her inter-
est was in them. She wanted to know all about you--who you were,
what you had done, and what you hoped to do, and this was not idle
curiosity but genuine, kindly interest in others. Having met her, I was
sure, upon reading, in one of her autobiographical writings, the state-
ment, probably unconsciously echoing Voltaire, that the one thing
she could not understand was how anyone could be bored, was
accurate. It is a rather nice way to be constituted.
WARREN KLIEWER, founder of the East Lynne Company, has written
critical-historical essays for such theatrical publications as American
Theatre, Back Stage and The Dramatists Guild Quarterly, as well as
such literary journals as The South Dakota Review and The Cresset.
These critical observations are normally based both on scholarship
and on production work--in the present essay, for example, on
having produced and directed Jefferson's play and an adaptation of
Gough's "lectures."
SERENA ANDERLINI, Assistant Professor of Modern Drama at
Vanderbilt University, has published in Theater, The Canadian
Journal of Italian Studies, Leggere Donna and other periodicals.
She is currently at work on a study that compares American and
Italian new feminist plays. Her work traces the constitution of the
woman playwright as subject of history and culture.
LEWIS E. SHELTON, Professor and Director of Theatre at Kansas
State University, teaches courses in directing and acting and directs
productions. He is currently researching the history of the director in
the American theatre.
MARY MADDOCK has a Ph.D. from Indiana University and lives in
Bloomington, Indiana where she works as a freelance editor. Her
poems and translations of Russian women writers have appeared in
American Poetry Review and Nimrod. She is currently working on a
study of 20th century American women dramatists.
EDWARD WAGENKNECHT, Professor of English Emeritus at Boston
University. Most of his seventy-odd books deal with literary criticism
and biography, but he has written of the theatre in Merely Players,
Seven Daughters of the Theatre, The Movies in the Age of
Innocence, Stars of the Silents, and (with Anthony Slide) The Films
of D. W. Griffith and Fifty Great American Silent Films, 1912-1920. He
has written about the People's Theatre more fully in his semi -
autobiography, As Far As Yesterday.
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