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THE JOURNAL OF

AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE


Volume 16, Number 1 Winter 2004
Editor: David Savran
Managing Editor: Ken Nielsen
Editorial Assistant: Amy E. Hughes
Circulation Manager: Jill Stevenson
Circulation Assistant: Serap Erincin
Professsor Daniel Gerould, Executive Director
Professor Edwin Wilson, Chairman, Advisory Board
James Patrick, Director
Frank Hentschker, Director of Special Projects
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
THE GRADUATE SCHOOL AND UNIVERSITY CENTER
OF THE CITY UNIVERSI1Y OF NEW YORK
Editorial Board
Philip Auslander
Una Chaudhuri
William Demastes
Harry Elam
Jorge Huerta
Stacy Wolf
Shannon Jackson
Jonathan Kalb
Jill Lane
Thomas Postlewait
Robert Vorlicky
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre welcomes submissions.
Our aim is to promote research on theatre of the Americas and to
encourage historical and theoretical approaches to plays, playwrights,
performances, and popular theatre traditions. Manuscripts should be
prepared in conformity with The Chicago Manual of Style, using
footnotes (rather than endnotes). Hard copies should be submitted in
duplicate. We request that articles be submitted on disk as well (3.5"
floppy), using WordPerfect for Windows or Microsoft Word format.
Submissions will not be returned unless accompanied by a stamped,
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selection. Address editorial inquiries and manuscript submissions to
the Editors, JAD7j'Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate
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Please visit our web site at web.gc.cuny.edu/mestc
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center publications are
supported by generous grants from the Lucille
Lortel Chair in Theatre and the Sidney E. Cohn
Chair in Theatre Studies in the Ph.D. Program in
Theatre at the City University of New York.
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Copyright 2004
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THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE
Volume 16, Number 1
Contents
FROM THE EDITOR
AusA RoosT,
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!: A REAPPRAISAL OF
MUSICAL THEATRE DURING THE 1930s
MARVIN CARLSON,
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES
ALAN ACKERMAN,
INFELICITIES OF FORM
IN ZONA GALE's MISS LuLU BEIT
JOHN s. BAK,
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER!-BY FORCE!":
BLANCHE AND THE EVOLUTION OF A RAPE
JUDITH MILHOUS,
AN AMERICAN MEDLEY FOR NEW HAVEN?
OR, WHY TONY ASTON DIDN'T Go TO YALE
CONTRIBUTORS
Winter 2004
IV
1
36
50
69
98
120
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 16, no. 1 (Winter 2004)
FROM THE EDITOR
Founded in 1989 by Vera Mowry Roberts and edited by her until her
retirement in 2003 at age 90, the Journal of American Drama and
Theatre has provided a unique forum for historical, theoretical, and
literary critical scholarship. The singularity of the journal is in part a
result of Vera Roberts's singular importance in the American theatre for
over fifty years.
A pioneer in American theatre studies and a champion of
women artists and scholars, Vera was educated at the University of
Pittsburgh and began her teaching career at George Washington
University. Believing in the inextricable connection between theory and
practice, she directed in educational, community, and professional
theatres while teaching theatre history and dramatic literature. In 1950
she and five others co-founded Washington's Arena Stage, one of the
first and most influential regional theatres in the U.S.
Vera joined what was then called the Department of Speech
and Dramatic Arts at Hunter College of the City University of New York
in 1955 and was one of the faculty members who in 1968 established
the Ph.D. Program in Theatre at CUNY's Graduate Center. Her
publications include dozens of pathbreaking articles and three books,
On Stage, A History of the Theatre (1962), The Nature of Theatre
(1972), and Notable Women in American Theatre (1989), which she
co-authored with Milly S. Baranger and Alice M. Robinson.
When Vera began her career after World War II, American
drama was widely regarded as the illegitimate cousin of its European
superior and hardly worth taking seriously as a subject of scholarship.
Along with many others, she had to fight to establish its legitimacy
during a period when playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur
Miller, directors like Elia Kazan and Jose Quintero, and a new
generation of actors trained by the Actors Studio were revolutionizing
American theatre practice. By later founding and editing the Journal of
American Drama and Theatre, she became instrumental in advancing
the kind of theatrical and academic work she had long been
endeavoring to legitimize. Collaborating with co-editor Jane Bowers,
Vera published essays by many of the leading scholars in the field.
In the fifteen years since the journal was founded, Theatre
Studies-like the humanities more generally-has been transformed.
Its object of study has been interrogated and pluralized and its
traditional methods have been challenged. Under my editorship, I
hope to bring the journal more closely into conversation with American
Studies and Performance Studies by attempting to problematize three
key words in the journal's title: "American," "drama," and "theatre."
Recent scholarship has alerted us to the fact that the designation,
v
"American," is ambiguous and problematic. Does it refer to the United
States, the continent of which it is a part, or the entire hemisphere?
The very word, moreover, is the product of an imperial history, a
corruption of the name of a sixteenth-century Italian navigator. I
believe that scholarship on subjects deemed American should be
conscious of the geographical and linguistic ambivalence of the word
and the colonial histories that are inscribed in it. We must bear in mind
that not all drama that passes for American is written in English.
Indeed, some of the most noteworthy American theatre has been
performed in Spanish, Italian, Yiddish, German, and many other
languages.
Just as problematic is the word, "theatre." Performance
Studies has demonstrated the theatricalization of many social
behaviors, ceremonies, and practices. Does a Mardi Gras parade, for
example, qualify as theatre? Or a political convention? Or a ride at
Disney World? Or a public execution? Or a Janet Jackson concert?
Cannot these performances be analyzed using the same tools that one
brings to a study of what happens behind and in front of a proscenium
arch? Why have these and other popular entertainments-from
musical comedy to magic shows-been marginalized within Theatre
Studies?
And what of the word, "drama," which precedes "theatre" in
the title of the journal? Does this signal a privileging of the literary? Or
does it suggest that the literary is simply one among a multitude of
theatrical forms? Until recently, academic programs in drama, theatre,
and English departments have tended to favor canonical, text-based
theatre. But non-text-based performance is every bit as central to
what we call American theatre as Long Day's Journey into Night.
Please help us continue Vera Roberts's mission and expand the
journal's mandate by submitting articles on these and any other
subjects that relate to American Theatre Studies. Manuscripts should
be prepared in conformity with The Chicago Manual of Style, using
footnotes (rather than endnotes). Hard copies should be submitted in
duplicate. Articles must be submitted on disk as well (3.5" floppy).
Address editorial inquiries and manuscript submissions to the Editor,
Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Martin E. Segal Theatre
Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, New
York 10016-4309.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 16, no. 1 (Winter 2004)
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!: A REAPPRAISAL OF MUSICAL
THEATRE DURING THE 193Qs1
AUSA ROOST
Oklahoma! is generally viewed as the pivotal moment in
musical theatre history that gave musicals content. In nearly every
history it is the show that separates the "mature" musical from the
superficial, star-vehicles that supposedly dominated the Depression.2
According to most musical theatre books Oklahoma!, which opened in
the midst of World War II, created the "integrated" musical that uses
songs and dance to further the story and save musicals from frivolity.
This trajectory of musical theatre history has become so deeply
ingrained that it defines the expectations by which all musicals are
judged. As the reviews of the recent Broadway revival demonstrate,
the histories posit that this show was "a revolution in musical
storytelling" that "engineered the musical equivalent of the
interchangeable part . . . and the musical was now, in principle,
anyway, infinitely repeatable."3 In The New York Times Ethan Mordden
(the most prolific of the musical theatre history writers) argued,
"Depression economics had forced musicals of the 1930s to favor easy
entertainment. They offered star turns and fun but lacked content."4
The musical before Rodgers and Hammerstein continually
experimented with form and content. While its authors relied primarily
on humor, they developed musical satire into a sophisticated genre
with variable formal elements, mostly within revues but also in operas,
1 Many thanks to Jim Wilson and David Savran for their close
readings and suggestions.
2 Ken Mandelbaum, Not Since Carrie (New York: St. Martin's
Press, 1991) and Richard Kislan, The Musical: A Look at American
Musical Theatre (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980) are two
books that refer to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals as
"mature."
3 John Lahr, "O.K. Chorale," The New Yorker, 1 April 2002, 84.
4 Ethan Mordden, "Six Decades Later, Still the Great American
Musical," New York Times, 24 February 2002.
2 RoosT
and musical comedies.s After Oklahoma! set the form by inventing the
"interchangeable" part, authors no longer needed to experiment with
structure at all. However, the history of the 1930s is not a history of
shows merely leading up to Oklahoma!. It is a history of producers
taking extraordinary risks as Broadway reinvented itself in light of the
Depression and the talking (and singing) movies that decimated its
audience base. It is the history of authors systematically testing form
and content to create vital and exciting musical theatre that could,
possibly, provide a foundation for further innovation in a genre that
has since become tired. While the integrated musical tended to
distance the subject from the audience by time and/or place, the
thirties musicals focused on urban, contemporary characters, like the
members of their audience. Out of this came not only Oklahoma! but
numerous shows that point to various possibilities in the genre,
particularly in interweaving popular culture with political commentary.
There is a difficulty in dismissing all the innovations that came
before a successful new style as merely leading up to the future event.
In musical theatre this tendency had denigrated many of the musicals
that experimented with class, politics, and social issues and with satire,
allegory, and opera. During the Depression authors, producers, and
s Revue is generally defined as an evening made up of
unrelated sketches and songs. Musical theatre and musical comedy
have a single story that uses both songs and spoken dialogue. The
"concept" musical is a musical that is organized around an idea or
concept rather than a chronological development. Characters often
break the fourth wall and comment on the actions as they sing
directly to the audience. Historically, opera generally has little or no
dialogue, although there are exceptions. Opera is generally
performed in repertory, without amplification (which affects
performance, orchestrations, and sound, as well as the behavior and
expectations of the audience), in a not-for-profit environment while
new musicals are generally developed for open-ended runs in a
market defined by for-profit demands. Musical theatre is influenced
by the Jewish cantors, with a strong emphasis on melody, one
syllable per note and the focus on a solo singer, while opera is more
influenced by the Christian choral tradition, with numerous notes for
a single syllable and choral melody. These lines are continually
blurred, for example when the English National Opera performs
Pacific Overtures or the Lyric Opera commissions a new piece by
Michael John LaChiusa; Mozart's The Magic Flute would probably be
considered a musical if it had been written in English, for it mixes
spoken dialogue with song, and was written to include special effects
for a working-class audience.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!
3
directors grappled with political issues and entertainment at a time
when neither had stable definitions. Their shows explore different
ways to dramatize political issues, not only as content, but also as
commentary that connected to the lives of the audiences. The retelling
of the biased history has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, where
producers are afraid to produce shows that challenge audiences'
presumably conventional expectations. In addition to unfairly
dismissing the nuance and intelligence of the genre, the Rodgers and
Hammerstein-focused histories have, in a subtle way, created
expectations for the future of the genre that can stymie
experimentation.
The producers, librettists, lyricists, and composers of
Depression-era musicals took extraordinary risks to develop new
structures, combining political concerns with popular forms. While
political satires shared the stage with extravaganzas and frivolous
comedies exploiting political issues without commentary, the vital
connection between entertainment and commentary needs further
exploration. Thirties musicals continually experimented with form and
addressed the political and social concerns of the moment, and they
had a far greater influence than is traditionally recognized. The satire
developed in these shows continued throughout the 1950s, primarily
in the work of Bernstein, Camden, and Green (including Wonderful
Town and Candide), and also in shows like the superficial spoof How
To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961) and the radical
Anyone Can Whistle (1964). Love Life, a 1949 musical vaudeville by
Kurt Weill and Alan J. Lerner, draws on the 1930s experimentations
and in many ways provided a foundation for the concept musicals,
which was then developed by Kander and Ebb in Cabaret.6 Not until
Company in 1970 does the musical return to contemporary, urban
subject material that risks changes in structure and content. The
experimentations created by the 1930s authors, however, provide a
rich blueprint for artistic experimentation under severe economic
pressure, the combination of popular art with political commentary,
and an understanding of the satirical development that eventually
supported the concept musical.
While musical theatre was not unique in its political
involvement during the 1930s, its historians have continually
denigrated that period. Even as the genre of American musical theater
has become synonymous with the "integrated," sentimental musical at
the expense of all other forms, the inherent ideological implications of
6 The concept musical is generally defined as a musical that is
organized around a central theme, rather than a linear plot, and has
songs that comment on the action as well as developing character.
4 RoosT
this shift have been largely ignored.? Rick Altman writes that genres
are "ideological constructs masquerading as neutral categories," but
the ideological implications of the definitions of stage musicals have
been ignored.B The popular perception of American musical theatre
leads audiences to expect sentimental, romantic plots, a tight focus on
characters, and songs that explore or develop emotions. The
chroniclers of the genre ignore musicals that develop representative
characters, songs that comment on the action, or those that explore
political or material concerns. This essay will start with a brief history
of musicals in the 1930s, outline the historiography of musicals, and
then analyze three shows in depth that systematically experimented
with political content and demand a reassessment of the history of
Depression era musicals: Face the Music, I'd Rather Be Right and
Johnny Johnson. Irving Berlin and George Kaufman's 1932 Face the
Music is a satire of the Tammany Hall corruption in New York. While it
is local in its humor and targets, it drew strong audiences and even
toured. George Kaufman went on to work with Moss Hart and Rodgers
and Hart on I'd Rather Be Right, which opened in 1937 and satirized
national politics. The authors focused on Roosevelt as he tried to pack
the Supreme Court, failed to balance the budget, and tap-danced his
way through a vaudeville. Finally, not-for-profit theatre also developed
musicals, including Paul Green and Kurt Weill's internationally focused
musical, Johnny Johnson (1936), which passionately demanded peace.
These shows represent the ingenuity and commitment of Depression-
era writers. While they are unique in their specific focus on
contemporary local, national, and international politics, by no means
are they the only innovative musicals before Oklahoma! that must be
included in the canon. The innovations in form and content of
Depression musicals must be reclaimed to explore the possibilities and
expectations of the genre.
REASSESSING THE 1930s
Throughout the 1930s the status of musicals remained in flux
because of both financial hardships and the immensely popular talking
movies that created significant competition for entertainment
7 I use "sentimental" to refer to a show that makes its
primary appeal to an audience through sentiment, as opposed to
humor or intellect.
a Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1987), 5. Emphasis in original.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 5
expenditures. New York's musical comedy was originally designed for
financially comfortable audiences but was a comparatively lowbrow
entertainment. By the 1920s, the working classes attended movies
much more often than theatre, which allowed theatre to move up in
the social hierarchy. Simultaneously, Tin Pan Alley started to set the
popular musical tastes of most of the country, which further confused
musical theatre's place on the social scale. In 1914 The Atlantic
Monthly hoped that through the popularity of movies, "the art of the
stage may escape from the proletariat, and again truly belong to those
who in a larger, finer sense are 'the great ones of the earth,' "9 but
musicals inhabited a much lower social sphere than straight plays.to
The newly ubiquitous popular song market (intimately connected with
musical theatre), combined with the emergence of movies as a popular
form, made the class markers of musical theatre less stable.
Like most of the "capitalist culture industries," commercial
theatre in the United States is a business before it is art, and of
necessity, it is a popular art form because it relies on many individual
ticket-buyers for support.tt Thus, any financially successful show on
Broadway needs to appeal to a large enough audience both to meet
weekly operating costs and to pay back the initial investment. As a
result of the economic conditions surrounding the production of
musical theatre, the authors needed to be aware of the demands and
interests of their audiences. As movies gained in popularity and
theatre ticket prices increased, working class people were increasingly
excluded from the theatre by virtue of ticket prices alone. The
Depression exacerbated this problem. Between 1929 and 1933 theatre
lowered top ticket prices by 37% to $4.40. Many shows charged a top
ticket price of $2.50 with balcony seats available for $1 and
9 Quoted in Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow
{Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 207.
to Contemporary reviews of Of Thee I Sing when it won the
Pulitzer prize over an O'Neill play make this bias obvious.
11 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (New York: Verson,
1998), 42.
6 Roosr
occasionally 55 cents. Yet, despite the price cuts, theatre was
increasingly a luxury few could afford.12
The changing financial conditions forced producers to
experiment. While Ziegfeld continued with his extravagant revues, he
continually lost money. By contrast, Sam H. Harris allowed playwrights
to experiment as they saw fit, and the result included several
successful political satires. Playwrights, lyricists, and composers had to
innovate as they navigated the cultural hierarchy. The Gershwins, who
were the most committed to developing political musicals, were the
most aware of the tension between popular and elite art forms and
deliberately tried to transcend or ignore the cultural hierarchy,
incorporating both popular forms and intellectual themes into their
shows. This awareness is clear years before the Depression; in 1916
two years after the Atlantic Monthly article, Ira (then 20) wrote that
the "The Ideal Humorist" "Must be a low brow-with, however, a
streak of appreciation and sympathy for the ideas of aesthetics."13 In
1922 Ira wrote, "For though we like to play the high-brow stuff ...
we're not high brows, we're not low brows . . . we're He-brows."14
Jewish identity sets them outside the American cultural elite. During
the Depression the Gershwins consciously developed popular work:
after the premiere of Porgy and Bess, a Hollywood agent sent a
telegram to George Gershwin saying, "They are afraid you will only do
highbrow songs, so wire me on this score so I can reassure them."
George wrote back, "Rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Stop.
Am out to write hits."1S In a 1935 article on George Gershwin in
12 According to U.S. Census reports, in 1929, the most
prosperous year of the 20s or 30s, the per capita personal income
averaged $705. Although the movies were available for as little as
ten cents, few theatre tickets were offered for the cheapest prices,
which were usually upwards of a dollar, and the highest theatre
ticket prices were $7, or one percent of the average annual income.
By 1933 per capita personal income was $374, with finance,
insurance, and real estate workers averaging 24% less than their
1929 salaries at $1,555 and domestic workers averaging $460, a fall
of 37%. By contrast, the costs of necessities declined much more
slowly; the price per pound of bread fell by just 19% from 8.8 cents
to 7.1 cents. Even those on the lower end of the economic system
lucky enough to have work needed to make their meager salaries
stretch much farther.
13 Deena Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration
of George and Ira Gershwin (New York: Dutton, 1991), 18.
14 Ira Gershwin, The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 29.
1s Rosenberg, 321.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 7
Modern Music, Virgil Thomson wrote, "I don't mind his being a light
composer, and I don't mind his trying to be a serious one. But I do
mind his falling between two stools."16 George Gershwin's early death
has lent an iconic element to the composer, but the highbrow/lowbrow
dichotomy persists in looking at his work. The difficulty of transcending
the categorization of highbrow/ lowbrow has continued to affect the
reception of Depression musicals. As Levine writes, "Rigid cultural
categories . . . made it so difficult for so long for so many to
understand the value and importance of the popular art forms that
were all around them.''17 In contrast to Rodgers and Hammerstein who
effectively created a middlebrow, nationwide culture, the Depression
musicals rarely reached a nationwide audience. They did, however,
develop a politically conscious, popular form, transcending
preconceived delineations.
The Gershwin brothers and George S. Kaufman created the
foundation for political satire in musical theatre with Strike Up the
Band, Of Thee I Sing (1931-the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize),
and its sequel Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933). Two years later the Gershwin
brothers brought Porgy and Bess to the stage, which eschewed overt
political commentary as it broadened the definition of American
musical theatre. Porgy and Bess is often viewed as America's best
opera, but it was originally intended for the commercial stage. 1s Their
16 Qtd. in Levine, 233.
17 Ibid., 232.
1s Porgy and Bess is the only American opera to be
continually performed at numerous opera houses throughout the
world, including the Metropolitan and Glyndebourne. Although Amah/
and the Night Visitors, originally written for an NBC special, has
become widely performed by community groups at Christmas, it does
not have the critical acclaim of the Gershwin piece. "Porgy and Bess
will gradually establish itself as arguably the greatest truly American
opera" [Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., The Almanac of American
History (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), 470). Porgy and
Bess "has proved a lasting characteristically American opera .. ..
Many Americans have written operas, but not many have created
truly American operas" ['Opera," George Hauger, The Cambridge
Guide to Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),
741]. See also Stanley Green, The World of Musical Comedy: The
Story of the American Musical Stage as Told Through the Careers of
its Foremost Composers and Lyricists" (New York: Ziff-Davis
Publishing Company, 1960), 2-3; Thomas S. Hischak, Word Crazy:
Broadway Lyricists from Cohan to Sondheim (New York: Praeger,
1992), 48; Lehman Engel, The American Musical Theater (1968;
reprint, New York: Collier Books, 1975), 145; Joseph Swain, The
Broadway Musical (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 12;
and Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America (1950; reprint, New
York: Theatre Arts Books, 1981), 162-63.
8 ROOST
last two shows failed financially, but the Gershwins continually
developed musicals through satire and heightened emotions while
working to reach a large audience. The Gershwins are still among the
most popular American songwriters, but the political issues that
permeated many of their shows are ignored today. Throughout the
Depression many authors followed the Gershwins' lead and musicals
explored publicity-driven elections, corruption in the police force, labor
issues, communism, gender, and war, and these shows were produced
commercially and in the nonprofit theatres. The shows usually
developed the political elements in conjunction with entertainment,
usually centered on a love plot, and often developed political
commentary through satire. They experimented with different
presentation styles to soften their message after the original sharpness
began to lose appeal (with Roosevelt's election and increased
optimism). Authors experimented with framing devices (usually
dreams or introductions that called attention to the show as a fiction)
that distanced the action.
The best-known political musicals of the 1930s are probably
Pins and Needles and The Cradle Will Rock, both of which consciously
experimented with different production styles. The International
Ladies' Garment Workers' Union successfully produced the former,
which became the longest running musical during the decade. The
director, Charles Friedman, consciously avoided any pretense at
realism: "I directed in the music hall tradition where you sing directly
to the people in the audience .... I did not direct it as an illusionistic
play."19 As the conservative characters in the show experimented with
slogans like "Bigoted and Better," and "Rugged Individualism will Save
the Starving," the Mussolini character acknowledged, "You call me
sadistic, imperialistic" but explained, "My armies require a quarry./ And
though we may slay hordes of Spaniards each day,/ After all that we
say that we're sorry."20 Throughout its four-year run, the authors
constantly updated references, interweaving international issues
with domestic labor politics in a playful and up-beat revue.
19 Friedman qtd. in Michael Denning's The Cultural Front
(New York: Verso, 1997), 297.
2o The first two lines were included in a sketch in Sing Out the
News. There is no extant script for Pins and Needles. In a 1980 letter
from Harold Rome to Paul H. Dedell, People's Theatre, dated June 16,
1980, Rome wrote "It was a revue, consisting of songs and topical
sketches. The sketches are long outdated, and to the best of my
knowledge, are no longer available" (Harold Rome Papers, Yale
University, MSS No. 49, Series No. IIIB, Box No. 78, Folder No. 54).
Pins and Needles, Columbia CD CK57380, track 12.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 9
Meanwhile the failure of the Federal Theatre Project to
produce The Cradle Will Rock is one of the best-known stories about
the FTP. Opening on June 16, 1937, only weeks after the Memorial Day
Massacre where forty striking steel workers in Chicago were shot in the
back and ten were killed in the drive to unionize Republic Steel, The
Cradle Will Rock successfully drew on the CIO's drive to organize
steelworkers that year.21 Numerous other authors experimented with
creating popular theatrical forms for progressive political ideas with
both political and theatrical perspectives. In New Theatre Jerome
Morass argued for musicals based on his concerns about political
efficacy, reaching widespread audiences, utilizing an indigenous
American art form and the power of German musicals. He believed
that satirical musical revues "made more powerful by a clear-cut,
class-conscious viewpoint, would be an invaluable agitational bulwark
against fascism."22 His Marxist Parade was produced on Broadway
simultaneously with Cole Porter's superficial Red, Hot and Blue, which
exploited political issues to attempt a timely veneer. Not surprisingly,
commercial producers attempted to replicate the financial success of
Pins and Needles with a sequel, Sing out the News (1938) . While the
show, based on the scripts and reviews, had the vitality of the original,
the sequel was not able to compete financially with the still-running
original, which did not go unnoticed by Broadway producers and
directors. After the failure of Sing Out the News, Joshua Logan had all
the satire written out of Swing to the Left, which became known as
Stars in Your Eyes. Shortly thereafter, the script to Louisiana Purchase
became less political and significant political experimentation in
musicals on Broadway ended until WWII. Taken together, these
musicals create a foundation for understanding the innovative, vital,
and complex paths that creative teams attempted to develop during
the 1930s. All of this has been subsumed into the histories as "pre-
Rodgers and Hammerstein," and has been ignored and derided by
historians.
21 See Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Cambridge, MA: South End
Press, 1997).
22 Jerome Morass, " New Musical Revues for Old," New Theatre
(October 1936), 12.
10 ROOST
MusiCAL THEATRE HISTORY: FAcrs AND MYTHS
Musical theatre histories generally follow these lines: Jerome
Kern first "integrated" the music with the story when he created a
series of musicals with Wodehouse and Bolton for New York's intimate
Princess Theatre, which focused on contemporary, upper middle class
characters. Kern worked with Hammerstein to create the first "mature"
musical, Showboat (1927). As Joseph Swain notes, "In virtually every
historical study of the American musical theatre, Showboat is
recognized as an important landmark. . . . Showboat is the first
American musical that integrates the elements of a musical theater
into a credible drama."23 Musical theatre history traditionally ignores all
musicals between Showboat and Oklahoma! sixteen years later.
Despite the fact that the songs of the Gershwins, Rodgers and
Hart, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter are acknowledged as "standards,"
that theatre music provided much of the popular music until rock 'n'
roll, and that the compatibility of theatre with popular music often
marks the twenties through forties as the great age of musical theatre,
the musicals of the twenties and thirties are generally denigrated in
books about musical theatre as pointless vehicles for stars and hit
songs.24 Porgy and Bess (1935) is the exception, but it is identified as
23 Swain, 15.
24 "Standards" are songs that have been remade by numerous
artists in at least two different styles by at least two generations. They
are usually in a 32-bar MBA format, which means that an 8-bar
portion of the songs is repeated twice, a contrasting 8-bar portion is
sung and then the first 8 bars are repeated a third time. For example,
the "A" portion of "I Got Rhythm" always ends with "Who could ask for
anything more." The "B" portion begins with "Old man trouble" and
ends with "round my door." "I Got Rhythm" has been recorded by Ethel
Merman, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Harpo Marx, Dorothy
Dandridge, Count Bassie, Nat King Cole, Gene Kelly, Cab Calloway,
Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, Ella
Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Martin, Judy Garland, Fats Waller,
Lena Horne, The Muppets, The Canadian Brass, Maureen McGovern (a
pop/vocal artist), Kiri Te Kanawa (an opera singer), the Moscow Sax
Quintet and Andre Previn, to name but a few. (An unscientific search
on a web page [artistsdirect.com] had 336 different versions of the
song. Many were repeats for a single recording that can appear on
several albums or be cataloged under both first and last names, but it
did not include all the known versions.) See Jesse Green, "The Song is
Ended," New York Times Magazine, 2 June 1996, for further discussion
of standards.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 11
a folk opera and usually ignored as part of the history of musicals. As
a representative example, Richard Kislan's The Musical acknowledges
the diverse forms that laid a foundation for musical theatre, which
include operetta, ballad opera, minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque,
extravaganza, and revue. Despite acknowledging a diversity of styles
in the early history, he focuses on the work of Kern, Hammerstein, and
Sondheim, which he labels as "the mature musicai."2S "Maturef/ and
"serious" refer to "integrated" pieces in many histories, as historians
constantly privilege the sentimental "integrated" musical over the
shows of the thirties, which they often dismiss as "transparent
excuses" and "filler."26 As Mark Steyn affirms, the history of musicals is
"a straightforward family tree from Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim
via Kern's partner and Sondheim's mentor Oscar Hammerstein with
various collateral branches."27 The Kern-Rodgers &
Hammerstein-Sondheim evolutionary narrative influences most
scholarship about musical theatre; unfortunately the shows between
Showboat and Oklahoma!, when the most experimentation with styles
and subjects happened, do not easily fit into this lineage and are often
ignored.
Part of the reason that the histories created an evolutionary
development of the genre is that, for the most part, musical theatre
books are published by commercial presses and focus on the shows
that enjoyed commercial success during the time the history was
written, and musical theatre enjoyed the most popularity between the
beginning of World War II (when cast albums were introduced) and
the arrival of The Beatles. Furthermore, cast albums, movies, and
productions are the most popular means for becoming familiar with
musicals; without a cast album, faithful movie, or a recent production,
neither historians nor readers develop interest in a show.2a Focusing
2s See note 2.
26 Mandelbaum, 52. RUdiger Bering's Musicals (Hauppauge,
New York: Barron's, 1998) is the only general book to include a (small)
section on political satire. It was written for a German audience and
later translated into English.
27 Mark Steyn, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals
Then & Now (New York, Routledge, 1999), 30.
28 The movies made of pre-Oklahoma! musicals bear little
relations to the shows, using only one or two songs and the title.
Probably as a result of cast albums, movie musicals of shows became
much more faithful to the original.
12 RoosT
on the most popular contemporary shows, however, privileges the
more conservative elements of the form. As Koger writes, "In focusing
primarily upon the most successful and popular musicals in history,
scholars have, in effect, given those shows more legitimacy than their
less successful counterparts."29 The Depression is the only time when
numerous musicals that challenged many elements of the status quo
succeeded at the box office, and yet these shows are continually
denigrated. Furthermore, few texts work to incorporate the political,
social, and economic trends of the time into the development of
musical theatre.
For the most part, a few authors have delineated the history
of musical theatre: Cecil Smith, Stanley Green, David Ewen, Lehman
Engel, Ethan Mordden, and Gerald Bordman defined the history and
the expectations of books about musical theatre. Cecil Smith wrote the
first book on musical theatre during the politically repressive era of the
blacklist, and his conventions, assumptions, and style have been
largely accepted. For example, most musical theatre history is written
in a chatty, gossipy, "I was there" voice for a popular audience and it
usually eschews documentation. It focuses almost exclusively on
Broadway and privileges words over music and texts over production.
As Alicia Kae Koger documents:
Smith's assessment of the musical theatre as
inappropriate for scholarly research and analysis
signaled that such popular entertainments lacked
substance and depth; at the same time, his view
derided the methods of the academician. In
suggesting that the scholar and the musical could not
be compatible Smith established an attitude that
would pervade the writing on the musical theatre for
the next three decades.3o
Equally important to Smith's literary and stylistic choices,
contemporary theatre shaped the history, as Mordden noted earlier in
his career:
29 Alicia Kae Koger, "Trends in Musical Theatre Scholarship:
An Essay in Historiography," New England Theatre Journa/3 {1992):
77-78. Koger's article is an excellent introduction to musical theatre
historiography; however, she is not a musical theatre historian and
her article is limited by the very histories she analyzes.
30 Ibid., 70.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!
History is written by the victors and in this case it was
the Hammerstein generation who wrote the musical
comedy histories. In the wake of Oklahoma!,
Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I, the
official line held that a great musical was well-made,
diversely and impeccably joined, and if possible well-
meaning. By hindsight, a hit show that wasn't
integrated or solemn had to be a fluke-no matter
how many there were.3t
13
Surprisingly, the histories from the politically conservative
1950s, by Smith, Ewen, and Green, were all complimentary towards
the radical satire of the Gershwins. Lehman Engel, writing for CBS
records in 1967, seems to have started the dismissal of the 1930s
satirical works, arguing that Of Thee I Sing "is a ruin because it was
stapled into its own time and situations which nowadays we have to
ask Great-grandpa or an archaeologist (nearly synonymous) to
explain." He concludes that "today it is meaningless, and the show,
because it is built squarely on comedy, cannot be revived."32. The 1952
revival of Of Thee I Sing made the show seem very tame, and
probably hurt political satire in the eyes of many historians. In addition
31 Ethan Mordden, Broadway Babies The People Who Made
the American Musical (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 58.
32 Lehman Engel, The American Musical Theater, (1967;
revised edition, New York: Collier Books, 1979), 219. The same quote
also appears in Lehman Engel, Words with Music (New York:
Macmillan, 1972), 300. The second quote appears in Engel's The
American Musical Theater: A Consideration (New York: Macmillan,
1967), 112. His 1979 book is primarily a reworking of the 1967 book.
In Words With Music he also argues "The Gershwin librettos (Porgy
and Bess excepted) achieved little beyond the entertaining of their
precisely contemporary audiences. Although the characters were local
everyday people, they were nearly as unreal as the ersatz ones of their
operetta forebears" (83).
Two years after Engel's first book, Abe Laufe also criticized the
Gershwins' political satire as not pertinent. He took the issue of
timeliness to an extreme, arguing that by 1933 the issues of Let 'Em
Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing were already irrelevant. Despite the
continuation of the Depression and the change in style from Of Thee
I Sing to Let' Em Eat Cake, he argues that the latter's failure was
entirely because "the timeliness of the humor was gone." Abe Laufe,
Broadway's Greatest Musicals (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 33.
14 Roosr
to numerous cuts and rewrites, the show, a satire of ineffectual
government, had no satirical relevance during the McCarthy era. The
only political musical that Engel supports is the one for which he
served as a musical director, The Cradle Will Rock. While it was an
exciting and contemporary piece, due to a series of pol itical quirks The
Cradle Will Rock is far more "stapled into its own time and situation"
than many of the satirical musicals. Recently the issues raised in the
Gershwins' trilogy-wars designed to ensure favorable trading
conditions, a president's impeachment because of complaints about
his romantic behavior towards a woman before his election, and a
coup resulting in a stolen election-have startling contemporary
resonance. Yet Engel's statements and biases regarding 1930s
musicals have been so often repeated, they have become accepted as
fact. Forty-five years later Mark Steyn echoed Engel's derision of pre-
Oklahoma! musicals:
Talented men wrote these shows (Vincent Youmans,
the Gershwins) but they accepted implicitly the low
ambitions of the genre, and were concerned mainly
that you notice their contributions .... The Golden
Age of Theatre Song left us lotsa song but very little
theatre.33
Steyn never backs up his assertion that the Gershwins
"accepted implicitly the low ambitions of the genre," but it is certainly
influenced by Engel and the many authors who quoted Engel.34 In fact,
the Gershwins wrote the radical satire Strike Up the Band before
Showboat opened and continually challenged their audience and
producers. Strike Up the Band did not make it to Broadway until 1930
and the other satires were several years later, but the Gershwins
33 Steyn, 64.
34 Even Tim Robbins's movie, Cradle Will Rock, repeats this
assertion by having the Hallie Flanagan character state "Never before,
to my knowledge, has an American musical dealt with content and
social issues and dramatic themes .... [Cradle Will Rock is] reinventing
musical theatre." Tim Robbins, The Cradle Will Rock (Burbank:
Touchstone Home Video, 1999). The Federal Theatre Project had
previously produced Johnny Johnson and Flanagan had to have been
familiar with Pins and Needles, but the movie reinforces standard
assumptions about musical theatre.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 15
clearly worked to experiment with the form. Nevertheless, historians
continually deride nearly all Depression-era musicals.
The scholars who do acknowledge the contribution of the
Depression writers frame that work as important for helping create a
foundation for Rodgers and Hammerstein. If Rodgers and
Hammerstein are only about "integration," and integration is only
about imbedding the songs in the dramatic action of the piece, then
the 1930s shows definitely belong in that tradition. Yet integration
generally implies an unspoken but specific set of priorities and
expectations: text develops a story until the emotions, now too strong
for spoken words, soar into song. Dance is sometimes used when
emotions become too strong for any words to develop areas the
character is afraid to acknowledge, or to build community.
Furthermore, the action almost always focuses on characters who are
removed from the audience by either time or geography. And while the
songs in satirical musicals are more likely to further the plot, the songs
of " integrated" musicals are more likely to develop character. When
historians ignore political and social commentary, they develop a
historical narrative that focuses exclusively on integration before the
"concept" musical, with romance as the only acceptable content of
these shows. While writers like Bruce McConanchie, Andrea Most, D.
A. Miller, and Stacy Wolf have begun to challenge traditional views of
musical theatre, they have focused primarily on Rodgers and
Hammerstein and their successors. The stage musicals of the 1930s
remain virtually unexamined.
Musical theatre history generally ignores political issues in
favor of the integrated model, and this is exacerbated by some of the
historians who seem avidly to dislike progressive political comments in
musicals. Mark Steyn's derision of liberals and their causes runs
throughout his book.35 Ethan Mordden ignores Kurt Weill's political
involvement in the United States and excuses his German politics as
accidental. Juxtaposing Weill's artistry with Marc Blitzstein's politics he
implies that artistry and politics are mutually exclusive. This false
dichotomy and the language he uses to condemn Blitzstein indicate
hostility towards progressive commentary in musicals: Weill
35 Steyn is alone, however, in using musical theatre for
unabashed homophobia: " Fags weren't funny any more; fags meant
disease and death" (202). His dislike of progressive political
movements is clear in unexplained diatribes "American feminist
deconstructionist cultural studies professors" (106) and "the banality
of one farewell message on an Aids [sic] memorial quilt" (206).
16
ROOST
"happened[,] for various complex reasons having to do with the nature
of the precarious Weimar Republic, to have collaborated on artwork
with Leftists. Blitzstein was a braying stooge of the Communazi [sic]
Red Front whose work never succeeded and who is virtually forgotten
today."36 Mordden does not let Blitzstein's "braying ... Communazi"
musicals alter his overall view that before Oklahoma! "the good shows
were more entertaining than but not much different from the poor
ones. They were all concoctions, pranks, swindles."37 Gerald Bordman
faults Pins and Needles for its political involvement: "Too many of the
sketches and songs gratuitously injected slanted political muckraking
into what could have been pleasant apolitical numbers," which
Bordman claims could have been better developed as "a basically
innocuous, mindless revue."38 Although these historians sometimes
champion liberal causes today and rarely display their anti-political bias
blatantly, it does inform their work.39
The 1930s shows are so little understood that the
conventionally accepted way to deal with their revival is to cut the
satire and focus on a love plot. The revised revivals, or "revisals,"
reinforce the idea that the shows possessed little inherent worth. The
cycle is perpetuated as the revisals are incorporated into the
conventional perception of musicals, which further reinforces the idea
36 Ethan Mordden, Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical
in the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 144. The
conflation of Communism with the Nazis is particularly indicative of a
deep dislike for progressive politics, and a disregard for history, for
communism and Nazism were diametrically opposed.
37 Ibid., 7 (emphasis in original).
38 Gerald Bordman, American Musical Revue (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1985), 108-09.
39 Ethan Mordden has been quite supportive of gay rights and
most musical theatre historians applaud Hammerstein's political
involvements.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!
17
that the original shows were superficiai.40 Nearly all items created
around musical theatre support the evolution of sentimental musicals
and ignore political and social commentary as a valid function of
musical theatre.41 This unexamined popular dialogue of books, cast
albums, and related items shapes what audiences expect, which
defines what producers will finance, thus ultimately influencing the
form and content of future shows.
FACE THE MUSIC (1932)
Face the Music, with songs by Irving Berlin, libretto by Moss
Hart and direction by George S. Kaufman, opened in early 1932,
which, in many ways, marked the low point for the Depression.
Salaries had dropped 40% since 1929 and hourly wages by 60%.42
40 Producers routinely hire playwrights to rewrite books, and
it would be very unusual for an early musical to be presented with
the original book intact. Crazy for You, a rewrite of Girl Crazy without
the satire, closely focused on the love story and added other
Gershwin hits. Even City Center's Encores!, which is a series
dedicated to producing lost musicals as staged readings for only one
week, substantially rewrote the 1927 Strike Up the Band to make the
love story sentimental, rather than ironic. David Ives changed the
context of "The Man I Love" so that the romantic leads sang it
sincerely, rather than as the heroine taunting the hero with an ideal
romance to fight in a war in which he did not believe. Additionally
several of the more pointed songs were cut, and songs from the
1930 version were added. "Yankee Doodle Rhythm," a patriotic song
with several racial slurs, was cut. If Encores! set it according to the
original stage directions with the singers donning hoods that
resembled KKK uniforms shortly after the number finished, the
authors' progressive linking of racism with patriotism would have
been clearly demonstrated. Instead they cut the entire number. At a
question-and-answer session following the Saturday matinee on 14
February 1998, Ives stated that he made the changes to strengthen
the love plot.
41 For example, when the U.S. Post Office issued American
musical theatre stamps four shows were included: Showboat, Porgy
and Bess, Oklahoma!, and My Fair Lady (1956) .
42 See Bureau of the Census Historical Statistics of the United
States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.: Department of
Congress and Bureau of the Census, 1976).
18
ROOST
The government helped large banks get loans but seemed
uninterested in the procurement of food for families and the failure of
the U.S. banking and economic system became painfully obvious when
demonstrated by the debacle of the Bonus Army.43 Publicly, Hoover
seemed oblivious to the problems as investigations into the economic
difficulties exposed widespread corruption.44 Furthermore, New York
City became painfully aware of the corruption under Tammany Hall
when Judge Samuel Seabury prosecuted numerous political figures
and police commissioners for bribery, pay-offs and fraud.45 The trials
and Face the Music ran simultaneously until Jimmy Walker, New York's
43 During the summer of 1932, a large group of veterans,
many with families, known as the Bonus Army, traveled from all over
the U.S. to Washington, D.C. They petitioned the government
immediately to pay their adjusted compensation, which Congress had
approved in 1925. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand
people moved into a "Hooverville" (temporary shanty housing named
sarcastically after the president) outside the capitol, and when the
senate voted against the bill, most left. A few thousand stayed on
until General MacArthur defied Hoover's commands and led the U.S.
Army with tear-gas bombs and threats of machine guns and tanks to
disperse the veterans. See Donald Lisio, The President and Protest:
Hoover, MacArthur, and the Bonus Riot (New York: Fordham
University Press, 1996).
44 Beginning in 1933 the U.S. Senate heard testimony about
the vast corruption of the economic elite on Wall Street, and how they
had manipulated the market and protected their own interests at the
expense of socially unconnected investors and the workers. Even as
the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and specific legislation
worked to prevent future abuses, a deep cynicism developed. The
abuse was outrageous and widespread. The head of Chase bank
netted over $6.5 million from a drop in his own company's stock. The
economic elite profited handsomely from insider trading and often put
all of the risk on the institutions they worked for even as they kept all
of the profits. They sold stock to their family members, took paid
positions on other boards in exchange for the arrangement of loans,
made money through illegal liquor trade, and manipulated the market
for their profit at the expense of everyone else. See John Kenneth
Galbraith, The Great Crash 1929 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954,
1979), 132-35, 147-67. See also Frederick Lewis Allen, Since
Yesterday: 1929-1939 (1940; reprint, New York: Bantam, 1965), 135-
40.
45 See Herbert Mitgang, The Man Who Rode the Tiger: The
Life and Times of Samuel Seabury (New York: Fordham University
Press, 1996).
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 19
mayor, was forced to resign in September of 1932. Face the Music
responded to the growing cynicism and awareness of corruption with
a satire of fraud among police managers, who-needing to hide some
of their illicit profits-decide to lose their ill-gotten wealth by investing
in a show. The musical demonstrates a popular method of political
commentary during the thirties, satirizing theatre and connecting the
corruption of theatre to fraud in other elements of society. Reisman,
the fictitious producer, brags that he can lose all the money that needs
to disappear. Foolishly, he trusts a bank that immediately folds, so the
show needs to return a profit. The intended flop becomes a smut
show, the Vice Commission raids the musical, and the police let
everyone go. 46 "It'll be on the front page of every paper, and by Friday
night we're sold out for six months."47 The show-within-the-show
parodied the commodification of sex, mediocre musicals, and the
producers' acceptance of censorship. In the end, the musical blurs the
lines of news, entertainment, and criminal trials with Reisman getting
his wish to produce his own trial from jail. The show may have been
an inspiration for the movie of The Producers, for the plots are similar.
Face the Music, however, is far more cynical for it correlates the
corruption of theatre to numerous elements in contemporary society.
The show's satire focuses on three targets: economic despair,
political corruption, and show business. These elements were not
always unified as the authors explored the potentials of a new genre,
a concern that contemporary critics noted: "Satire to music is still a
difficult medium and 'Face the Music,' which attempts to combine a
familiar type of musical comedy score with a modish sense of
impishness, is not perfectly fused."4B Nevertheless, the show built on
Of Thee I Sing to develop musical satire as a viable form.
Face the Music opens with all of society at the latest social hot
spot: The Automat. Conversation focuses entirely on how difficult
things are, but even in these circumstances, major differences exist
between the privileged and the poor. Two socialites compare bargain
shopping: "I felt I just couldn't live without Bergdorf-Goodman. But
look at this. Twelve-fifty at Klein's!"49 The truly down-and-out,
46 One of Seabury's highest profile investigations involved
police arresting prostitutes and then releasing them for bribes.
47 Moss Hart and Irving Berlin, Face the Music (New York
Public Library for the Performing Arts *ZC-87), 2-11.
48 Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 18 February 1932.
49 Face The Music, 1-4. (Underlining theirs.)
20 RoosT
however, rummage for food: "We had the goldfish for [the] entree at
dinner last night, and I said goodbye to the canaries this morning. Of
course, there's Aunt Tilly, but there's no meat on her."so All the banks
have folded, and the bank presidents are in prison. The corrupt police
exacerbate the general despair.
The commissioner calls the force together because, "We're
facing a crisis ... . We've been making a lot of money and the
Reformers are out after us."Sl The corruption, however, is by no means
limited to the police; all politicians and government officials are
implicated.S2 At one of the numerous parties the police throw to mingle
with chorus women, they meet a bribing, disbarred judge. One woman
is surprised to hear a judge would be removed for bribery, but a
policeman clarifies that, "He got on the bench for bribery . . .. They
finally got the judge for selling opium."S3 Despair and corruption are
continually intermingled.
In Face the Music, theatre is the largest source of corruption,
incompetence, and scandal, but eventually it pales compared to the
systematized corruption of the city government. Through their focus
on corruption in theatre, the authors created derisive satire without
the appearance of malice or didacticism. However, it is also clear from
the mood of the show that theatre is no different from anything else.
The entire society is corrupt and all business involves selling oneself.
There is a constant joke that "show-business is the oldest profession
in the world."54 The connection of sex and show business becomes
much more explicit with the development of the musical. The
producers are delighted with the judge's ruling: "I give you my word
as a gentleman, this is the dirtiest show I've ever seen."ss They refer
to Mae West and The Captive and delight in theatre's transgression of
societal norms. Theatre clearly sells sex because everything else is, as
the second act opener proclaims, "Lousy": "Any wonder why the
theatre's going to heii?/After looking at this show it's easy to teii."S6
Attending theatre has worse odds than gambling.
so Ibid., 1-7.
s1 Ibid., 1-23.
s2 Like the show, Seabury focused on the police but branched
out to include the entire political infrastructure. Tammany Hall
routinely demanded the first year salary of all political appointments.
Justice Seabury documented the fraud in excruciating detail.
s3 Face the Music., 1-61.
54 Ibid., 1-24.
ss Ibid., 2-15.
56 Ibid., 2-2.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 21
Production, like all business ventures in the Depression
economy, is even more like a game of roulette. Though it is called
"show business," it is clear that any connection with a sound business
model is entirely coincidental. One police officer does not think
investing in a show could "take care of our problem. We've got too
much money for one producer to lose." The producer responds: "I
resent that. That's an insult. No man can sit there and tell me he's got
more money than I can lose on a show."57 Although the theatre cannot
compete with the banks' financial incompetence, it is clearly a foolish
investment.
Theatre attendance is frivolous, and investment is dangerous,
but employment is devastating. Actors are sold off of pushcarts on the
streets and picked up for prostitution. The only way to be cast is to
"know" the producers. When Reisman produces his own investigation
at the end of the show, the world of show business is explicitly linked
with political corruption, and the authors illustrate that corruption and
despair penetrate all elements of society. Reisman exploits the
similarities of trials and entertainment when he positions his own trial
for maximum publicity: "They've got the greatest natural attraction in
the world! ... They've got something that gets on the front page of
every paper in the country."58 Thus, the separation between
entertainment and politics is completely eradicated.
Face the Music is a tightly written, engaging show, and it is
also brazenly cynical. The authors made the connection with local
politics clear, naming one character after Judge Seabury just in case
any audience member missed the correlation. As Brooks Atkinson of
the New York Times noted: "What makes 'Face the Music' essential to
the hilarity of Manhattan is the audacity of its cartooning of local
politics."59 The authors, however, matched the timbre of the time
beautifully, and they focused on entertainment. Unlike many political
musicals of the 1930s, there is no fantastical element or dramaturgical
estrangement. The only thing that makes the show less pessimistic is
the use of theatre as the primary target of satire; the show-in-the-
show intensified the satire of commercial theatre, which was explicitly
linked with corrupt politics. Face the Music ran for 165 performances
in 1932 (with an additional month-long run in 1933). The 1933 revival
did not prosper, in part because the show is built around specific
57 Ibid., 1-24-1-25.
58 Ibid., 2-8-8.
59 Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 18 February 1932.
22 ROOST
retired politicians. As Atkinson noted, "Perhaps the change in 'Face the
Music' would interest the historian; it is chiefly the point of view of the
audience."6o Face the Music probably could not have been such a
popular success at any other time, and no other hit musical develops
the dry, acerbic tone. The authors matched the weary prevailing mood
just before Roosevelt's election. Despite the entertainment, despair
and cynicism pervade the piece, and musicals generally attract a wider
audience with an underlying optimistic core. Nevertheless, Face The
Music and Of Thee I Sing established a commercial and artistic
foundation; Berlin and Yip Harburg drew on the precedent with the
politically engaged musicals Louisiana Purchase and Hooray For
What?. Political commentary became common enough that some
writers incorporated it into trivial shows as a bit of color, like Cole
Porter's Red, Hot and Blue.
I'o RATHER BE RIGHT (1937)
Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right draws on Face The
Music by intermingling theatre and politics to satirize both. Rather than
ridiculing theatre and corresponding it with society, however, they
lampooned the current president by associating him with theatre. The
1936 presidential election between Franklin Roosevelt and Alfred
Landon was bitterly contested.61 Platforms were surprisingly similar,
but the people Roosevelt referred to as the "malefactors of great
wealth" and "economic royalists" passionately hated him; many
viewed him as a demagogue and a communist.62 The chairman of the
Republican National Committee said Roosevelt's powers were
"comparable to those possessed by Mussolini and Hitler," and the
committee published a pamphlet about Roosevelt's administration
called "Tories, Chiselers, Dead Cats, Witch Doctors, Bank Wreckers,
Traitors."63 Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill argued that Roosevelt had
60 Ibid.
61 See Sean J. Savage, Roosevelt: The Party Leader: 1932-
1945 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 124-27.
62 See George McJimsey, The Presidency of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000).
63 Henry P. Fletcher, qtd. in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s The
Coming of the New Deal: The Age of Roosevelt (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1958), 482; pamphlet quoted on 481.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 23
become fascistic in their allegorical musical Knickerbocker Holiday.
Roosevelt also faced significant opposition on the left for he supported
the capitalist system. When Huey Long advocated the obliteration of
social stratification through legislation ['Share the Wealth''), Roosevelt
made it clear that he wanted an "equitable way of segregating the
great fortunes owned in this country and gained through the abuse of
social ethics, from those which were gleaned by inventive ingenuity or
as compensation for honest toil plus good management."64 Roosevelt
won by a landslide because he treated the poor as respected citizens
who faced a difficult situation.
Despite Roosevelt's victory in 1936, he faced continual
difficulties with the "nine old men" of the conservative Supreme Court
that constantly ruled New Deal programs unconstitutional; he lost
considerable power because of his attempt to "stack" the court.6s I'd
Rather Be Right dealt with much of the anti-Roosevelt anger, the
reelection campaign, the difficulties with the Supreme Court, and,
unlike other musical satires, it named names. It ran for 290
performances, with a libretto by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart;
Sam H. Harris produced. Rodgers and Hart wanted to add more love
songs to the show because they made money from sheet music sales,
a move that demonstrates how economic conditions shape shows even
among the writing teams. Kaufman and Moss Hart, however,
continually pruned those songs so that the show worked primarily as
political commentary.
64 Roosevelt, qtd. in Ted Morgan, F.D.R.: A Biography (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 410. See also Roosevelt's second
annual report to congress reprinted in FOR: The Words that
Reshaped America, ed. Stamford Parker (New York: Quill, 2000).
There he discussed the importance of "the profit motive" which
guarantees "the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for
ourselves and for our families" (82).
65 Roosevelt derisively referred to the Supreme Court as the
"nine old men" who still lived in the days of horses and buggies. The
men were between 61 and 80, with 6 of them over 70. In 1936, they
annihilated any labor laws by declaring it unconstitutional for the
states to legislate working conditions and hours. The following year,
Roosevelt suggested the expansion of the number of federal judges by
the addition of a younger judge for each judge over seventy. This
would have enlarged the Supreme Court to fifteen, and Roosevelt
would have appointed six new members. The plan galvanized anti-
Roosevelt anger and he lost significant political power over its defeat.
Eventually judges were allowed to retire voluntarily at seventy and the
Supreme Court began to allow more of the New Deal's changes.
24
ROOST
While parts of the show originally seem like derisive satire, it
also has many elements that work to lessen the satirical bite. Like
many satires of the time, it is framed as a dream, much of the satire
is undermined in the end, and the musical focuses on a romance that
cannot be consummated until the underlying social issue is solved.66
Despite the distancing device and happy ending, there is significant
political commentary. In this case the young man and woman cannot
get married until the man gets a promotion, which he will not get until
the federal budget is balanced.67 The plot is framed as the young
man's dream, and it burlesques Roosevelt's attempts to balance the
budget at the same time that he approved extravagant budgets for a
myriad of programs that are deemed frivolous.
The musical is presented as a vaudeville, with various specialty
acts that wander in to perform a number. The show continually
acknowledges the overt theatricality of its own presentation.6B As the
characters introduce themselves in a vaudevillian fashion, the political
parameters are delineated. The Postmaster explains that his job is to
give "jobs for everyone in the Democratic Party . . . I give a job for
every vote, and how the votes increase."69 The show implies that the
government is the only place people can find work, and the promise of
employment is the only reason the Democrats were elected. The
Secretary of the Treasury behaves like a child, spending his allowance
66 A framing device is used in the 1930 Strike Up the Band
(which also frames the action as a dream), Knickerbocker Holiday
and Louisiana Purchase (framed by authors or lawyers commenting
on the show), and Johnny Johnson (which uses a lunatic asylum to
distance the satirical commentary).
67 Although few promotions were explicitly linked to a single
political issue, thousands of people could not afford to marry, as they
could not move out of their parents' homes; the marriage rate fell by
30% during the Depression. Allen, 107. According to Allen, the
marriage rate went from 10.14 in 1929 to 7.87 in 1932.
68 For example, the members of the president's cabinet refer
to themsel ves as the chorus of Gi lbert and Sullivan: " From the way
we' re grouped/You'd think we'd trouped/With Rupert D'Oyly carte."
George Kaufman, Moss Hart, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, I'd
Rather Be Right (New York: Random House, 1937), 22. D'Oyly Carte
produced Gilbert and Sullivan's shows in England.
69 Ibid., 23. James Farley, the Postmaster General, had served
as Roosevelt's campaign manager.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 25
of $300 million in one week and demanding more. The cabinet creates
new taxes because they cannot cut any items from the budget. One
suggestion is to sell all the gold in Fort Knox (a reference to the Gold
Reserve act of 1934), but the stock market crashes upon the news, so
that is not an option. Another cabinet member suggests, "a
Government pickpocket, in plain clothes, ... goes up behind a man
and just quietly slips his hand into his pocket.'7o The musical's villain,
the Supreme Court, vetoes this option. They will not tolerate any of
Roosevelt's suggestions because they are angry with him for trying to
fire them. The Republican nominee, Landon, now works as Roosevelt's
mother's butler and represents an anti-theatrical political option: "It's
true I didn't photograph well, nor did I have that smile. And I will
frankly admit that I was lousy on the radio. But Mr. Roosevelt, I
balanced my budget!'71 According to the show, Roosevelt won based
on charisma, not policy.
Meanwhile a circus atmosphere mocks Roosevelt. The young
man's boss now works with the PWA: "With an elaborated cluttering of
picks and shovels, a very small twig is picked up, transferred from one
man to another, and finally deposited about ten feet from where it
started.'72 Roosevelt asks to see the Wagner Act (a labor bill), and
"two large German acrobats, fully tricked out with dumbbells, weights,
etc." appear, who turn out to be "Federal Theatre Project No. 34268.'73
The president's advisors then plan a variety show to precede
Roosevelt's request for a third term: "Give 'em entertainment first-a
good band, comedy .... Then you go on with the commercial.'?4 Thus,
entertainment keeps the masses occupied as power is abused.
Despite relentlessly criticizing Roosevelt, the show supports
him in several ways. In the end, the script itself undercuts the satire
of Roosevelt inherent in the rest of the show. First Roosevelt's enemy,
the Supreme Court, becomes completely ridiculous when it declares
70 Ibid., 34.
71 Ibid., 104.
72 Ibid., 86. The PWA, or Public Works Administration, was one
of the early New Deal programs, an early version of the WPA or Works
Progress Association. It differed from the WPA because it did not run
the administration of projects but provided funding for locally
controlled projects.
73 Ibid., 91.
74 Ibid., 111 (emphasis in the original).
26 RoosT
"the Constitution unconstitutional.'?s More important, Roosevelt's last
speech emphasizes how crucial it is to come through the difficulties
together as a country. He acknowledges the hardships, reminds the
audience that although things are bad they have gotten better, and
emphasizes that they can fix the current problems by cooperation:
There's something in this country-a sort of spirit that
holds us together-that always sees us through. And
we mustn't ever lose that. Just remember folks, that
even though things are a little wrong right now, we've
got a chance to make 'em right, because at least this
is a country where you can come out and talk about
what's wrong. And there aren't many left like that
nowadays. . . . It doesn't matter whether I'm
President or anybody else is, and it never mattered.
That's not important. There's only one thing that
really matters in this country, or ever will. You!76
The casting of George M. Cohan helped Roosevelt. Cohan
supported Roosevelt and refused to sing several of the lines.77 More
important, because Cohan was the original Yankee Doodle Boy and the
actor most identified with patriotism, he linked Roosevelt with
patriotism.
Roosevelt finally tells the young people, "Get married. Take
your life and live it. You'll manage. People have done it before. You'll
come through somehow. Listen-suppose I don't balance the budget?
There'll be a baby born every minute just the same.'78 The young man
wakes up from his dream and decides they should marry. The
resolution invokes a common comic-satire tradition: the world is a
mess, but people will find a way to survive despite political and
economic difficulties. At a time when the political system seemed
totally dysfunctional, and the marriage rate had fallen by a third,
ignoring the e ~ o n o m i and political systems was perhaps the most
optimistic message a musical could support. Many of the issues raised
in I'd Rather Be Right were concerns Roosevelt had previously raised.
When the Civil Works Administration (a precursor to the Works
Progress Administration) was created, Roosevelt commented on his
concerns about the ever-more-central role of the Federal government:
75 Ibid., 119.
76 Ibid., 121 (emphasis in the original).
77 See Frederick Nolan. Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 229-33.
78 Ibid., 122 (emphasis in the original).
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!
We are getting requests practically to finance the
entire United States. There are individuals who want
$500 to start raising chickens, and from there up to
the corporation that wants to borrow money to meet
its payroll; from there on to the railroad that has to
refund its bonds coming due; from there up to the
municipality that says the wicked banks won't let us
have any money; and from there down to the
individual who says he is entitled to work .... There
is the general feeling that it is up to the Government
to take care of everybody, financially or otherwise .. .
the artists, musicians, painters and brass bands.79
27
o w e v e ~ I'd Rather Be Right never indicates that Roosevelt
implemented moderate policies, and "attempted to find a middle road
between the ideological poles" that may have saved capitalism from a
revolution.8o
The show is ambivalent in its representation of Roosevelt, and
class seems to have affected its reception. As indicated by the
following newspaper account, the wealthy probably viewed it as an
indictment of Roosevelt's policies even as the working class viewed it
as an exoneration of Roosevelt. Cohan was clearly aware of the varied
audience reactions f o ~ according to the New York Post, when Sara
Delano Roosevelt (Franklin Roosevelt's mother) attended the musical
Cohan was concerned:
Mr. Cohan, playing F.D.R., makes an impassioned plea
for a third term, and the speech, put over for all it's
worth by the star, generally receives hisses from the
lower floor, answered by applause from the balcony.
Fearing that the dowager Mrs. Roosevelt might be
disturbed by the hisses, Mr. Cohan raced through the
speech at this performance and finished the scene at
such breakneck speed that the audience didn't get
the idea until too late. There was no hissing and no
applause.81
79 Qtd. in Morgan, 409.
80 Michael A. Bernstein, The Great Depression: Delayed
Recovery and Economic Change in American, 1929-1939 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987), 189.
81 Wilella Waldorf, New York Post, 9 June 1938.
28 Roosr
The disparity between the reactions of the people in the
orchestra (who paid significantly more for their tickets) and the people
in the balcony indicates that the show could support divergent
opinions of Roosevelt.
The show is derisive of Roosevelt. Infantalizing him, it implies
that his administration developed with as little forethought and
coherence as a vaudeville show. Despite this satire, the show probably
helped support Roosevelt. Press coverage surrounding the show
benefited Roosevelt. By doing nothing, he demonstrated that he was
not a dictator, and America was a free democracy; numerous press
articles pointed out that the authors would have been killed for similar
works in Russia, Germany, or Italy. Eleanor Roosevelt supported this
view and commented that satire was healthy for the country: "The
outstanding interest is that we live in a country where a play like this
can be produced and acted and have a long run without any
interference from the government. Thank God for democracies . . . . I
would ... fervently thank God for a nation with a sense of humor."82
While it was the only intelligent response she could make (for the
suppression of satire gives it more power), it served to undermine
complaints linking Roosevelt to fascism.83
According to Patrick Julian, I'd Rather Be Right "is very much
a part of the collective record that formed around the personality of
President Roosevelt."84 The show portrayed the president as
spontaneous, concerned about everyone, boisterous, and tap-dancing
(despite his limited physical capabilities due to polio), and his
opponents as frivolous. Ultimately the president's concern for the
representatives of the underclass (the boy and girl) drives all of his
attempts at power. "By making the figure of the President both
extremely sympathetic in voice, movement, and deed and allowing
him the opportunity to let America laugh at his recent troubles, they
[the authors] were contributing to his mythical status as the protector
82 Ibid.
83 See Richard c h e c h t e ~ "The Theatre of Satire, or Politicians
and the Arts" in Before His Eyes: Essays in Honor of Stanley Kauffman,
ed. Bert Cardullo (Lanham: University Press of America, 1986), for the
political implications of theatrical satire.
84 Patrick Julian, "Let the Orchestra Go, but Carry the Gallery:
The Mythic Portrayal of FOR in I'd Rather Be Right," New England
Theatre Journal9 (1998): 65.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 29
of the common man and the leader of a free people in a dark world."85
As Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin and others satirized
domestic political issues in the commercial theatre, not-for-profit
groups experimented with musicals in a variety of forms. One of the
most innovative is The Group Theatre's Johnny Johnson.
JOHNNY JOHNSON (1936)
Johnny Johnson, the most unusual musical of the decade,
both compels and challenges audiences. While Face the Music focused
only on local issues and I'd Rather Be Right centered on national ones,
Johnny Johnson interwove local and national politics with international
concerns. Under the guidance of Cheryl Crawford and the direction of
Lee Strasberg, The Group Theatre developed the innovative script and
score for Johnny Johnson with Paul Green writing the book and lyrics
and Kurt Weill writing the music. According to Green: "The first act is
a comedy, the second a tragedy and the third a satire. That sounds
crazy and maybe I can't get away with it, but that is what I have tried
to write."86 The show focuses on Johnny Johnson, a sort of everyman,
who attempts to live ethically in a society that glorifies war. Like
Kaufman's approach to Strike Up the Band, Paul Green wanted music:
"Without music there could be no war .... Music has always been an
integral part of fighting."87 Combining music with anti-war satire was a
conscious attempt to develop the theme of complicity.
The first act is earnest and light-hearted. The show opens with
the entire town out to celebrate Johnny's newly created monument to
peace, moments before war is declared. Like many musical
commentaries, social issues divide the young couple: Johnny is against
the war and Minny Belle, his sweetheart, is in favor of the war. When
Johnny announces his pacifism, Minny breaks off the engagement.
Once President Wilson announces that this is a war to end war, Johnny
enlists with an innocent idealism. A scene satirizes the army as Johnny
attempts to join. "[In] a series of vaudeville blackouts, he is soon
befuddling the Army psychological examiners while they are trying to
catechize him; enraging the drill sergeant who will not realize that
Johnny is left-handed; unintentionally stealing the captain's girJ."88 At
the same time, his rival for Minny cynically espouses support for the
war and fakes an illness to avoid enlisting.
8s Ibid., 67-68.
86 Newsweek, 28 November 1936, 19.
87 Paul Green, qtd. in ibid.
88 Paul Green Kurt Weill, Johnny Johnson 2-7-50, NYPL-PA.
30 RoosT
In the second act, Johnny attempts to kill a German sniper
who is shooting through a gash made in the heart of a statue of Jesus.
He ends up talking with the sniper, who is named Johann (German for
Johnny). Johann is sixteen years old and hates the war as much as
Johnny. Mutually, they attempt to convince their fellow soldiers to
shoot in the air instead of at each other. Johnny then sneaks into a
meeting of the allied commanders, where each one tries to outbid the
others with how many casualties they can offer for the next battle. He
makes an impassioned plea for peace, which the commanders ignore,
and then opens a canister of laughing gas. They agree to peace and
Johnny makes a hasty retreat. The effect of the gas quickly dissipates
and Johnny is arrested as war is reinstated. The war is shown through
flashes, which are preceded by biblical references that support peace.
One flash portrays "A young German praying at the foot of the black
wooden statue of Christ. He rises to meet an American who enters
with drawn bayonet. They fight and the German is run through. An
exploding shell kills the American. The statue totters and falls with a
crash."B9 Johnny finds Johann's body and mourns his death: "Two
hundred thousand dead, five hundred thousand dead, a million
dead.-And they have had their way, Johann. And all for what? And
why? What for? . . . They killed you. I saw it happen. One of my own
squad did it."90 In the third act Johnny is placed in an insane asylum,
presumably to protect society from his dangerous ideas. Although the
second act has strong expressionistic overtones, the satire in the third
act is presented within the framing device of a lunatic asylum.
Act three takes place ten years later and develops a decidedly
different approach. Johnny has been diagnosed with a rare mental
disturbance that the doctor likens to one that afflicted Jesus, "peace
monomania." It starts with a long political discussion. Johnny portrays
President Wilson in the debates and the other inmates depict various
political figures, satirizing the emphasis on abstract theory rather than
on the realities of people's lives.91 They eventually ratify a "League of
World Republics," clearly a reference to Wilson's desire for the United
States to join the League of Nations. The scene satirizes politicians
through a constant emphasis on parliamentary rules and through
equating political personages with mentally disturbed inmates.
89 Ibid., 2-7-51.
90 Ibid., 2-8-52.
91 Wilson was President of the United States during World War
I and tried to keep the U.S. out of war; after the war he worked
tirelessly (although in vain) at both his goals-to have a fair and liberal
war settlement and to convince the United States to join the League
of Nations. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 31
The final scene takes place much later, after Johnny, now 45
or 50, has been released and sells toys on the street. Minny's son gives
Johnny a nickel to buy a toy soldier, but Johnny will not sell war-related
toys. Minny's husband, who avoided service by his bogus illness, is the
mayor, and the son is going to be a soldier in the current cycle of war.
"Daddy says that we're in for a terrible war and all the people have got
to be ready to keep the enemy from destroying us."92 The show ends
on a somewhat upbeat note as Johnny walks out of the town. "He
begins whistling his song again-a little more clearly now, a little more
bravely."93 Despite the convoluted priorities of society, Johnny's
strength allows him to live with integrity.
Green's idealism runs through the show. Despite the insanity
of politics and the difficulty of survival in this world, if people can keep
their own integrity, they have an inner reserve of strength and beauty
to draw upon. This strength endures even if they do not change the
world. The satire is used only for political subjects: the army recruiters,
the allied commanders, and the inmates' satire of politics. The story of
the everyday people is told with earnest idealism. Only power and
hypocrisy are ridiculed.
Based on the photos and reviews, the direction seems to have
reflected the varying styles of the acts. The first act was staged in a
conventionally realistic manner. The second act had an expressionistic,
nightmarish quality. In the scene with Johann, there is a disintegrating
archway, and a fence is painted to look like a nightmare. The statue of
Jesus had a huge, violent gash where his heart should have been. The
third act developed a quality reminiscent of cartoons. This show is one
of the few that did not succeed financially. The actors of The Group
Theatre were very disappointed in the production because they did not
feel supported by the director or designers and The Group Theatre
disbanded shortly thereafter. It is entirely possible that if The Group
Theatre had created a stronger production, the show would have had
a much longer run. The actors make it clear that "It's no secret that
Group morale on every front reached its all-time low during the final
92 Ibid., 3-2-25.
93 Ibid., 3-2-26.
32 RoosT
stages of Johnny Johnson."94 Despite the original financial failure, the
show has received several revivals.
The initial round of reviews emphasized that even though it
was an important show, it was deeply flawed. As Atkinson wrote:
It is part fantasy, part musical satire, part symbolic
poetry in the common interests of peace; and also
one is compelled to add, part good and part bad,
since new forms cannot be created overnight. There
are many interludes in Mr. Green's work when both
the satire and the idealism wither away to restless
emptiness .... [Johnny Johnson is a] sincere and
generally exalting attempt to put on the stage an
imaginative portrait of recent history.9s
The authors worked assiduously to balance the different
moods, and the result was not always successful. The different styles
bothered a great many critics. According to Krutch in The Nation,
"Every now and then the mood is broken, every now and then the
author of the text seems to lose his sense of style, and to write a
speech or a scene too realistic on the one hand or too near burlesque
on the other really to harmonize with the dominant manner, which is
poised at some definite point between the two."96 The show has
beautiful moments that almost everyone immediately appreciated, but
94 See "Report of the Actors' Committee To The Directors of
the Group, December, 1936, by Stella Adler, Roman Bohnen, Morris
Carnovsky, Elia Kazan," 11. This document goes through everything
that the actors believed was wrong with Johnny Johnson in particular
and The Group Theatre in general, focusing mostly on the lack of
planning on the part of the creative team. Although the document
stated that developing Johnny Johnson was one of the best
experiences of the Group, the production team failed abysmally. The
Group Theatre was not planning to produce the show until right
before it was cast. With eleven weeks of rehearsal, blocking was not
given until the eighth week, and then it was not specific. Costumes
were thrown together at the end. The sets were changed at the last
minute, and the set designer was over-committed to other projects.
Lee Strasberg read a newspaper during the meetings with the set
designer. Harold Clurman talked about abstract ideas and Cheryl
Crawford took over because she was the only one willing to deal
with details.
9s Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 20 November 1936.
96 Clippings, Kurt Weill foundation, The Nation, Joseph Wood
Krutch, 676 (n.d.; probably 1936).
BEFORE OKLAHOMA!
33
the overall effect disappointed many critics.
Although the show is dissatisfying in some scenes, many of
the images and ideas are resonant. Several critics of the time seemed
to be moved by the show long after they saw the piece. The Literary
Digest commented on the phenomenon: " Rarely do critics ever go
back to take a second look at a slated production, even when invited.
Curiously, by last week most of the fourteen First Line critics had gone
back to 'Johnny Johnson' voluntarily, most of them had written
second reports, confessing themselves 'haunted' by certain aspects of
the play."97 Overall, the later reviews seemed to appreciate the careful
amalgamation of the various elements.
We are led to think that only serious intentions can
be light without boredom; or shall we say at least
flexible. You make a mistake about this "Johnny
Johnson" of The Group Theatre if you say that songs
and dances are added to a play that might otherwise
lack ginger. . . . The piece is built of dialogue,
movement, scene, music all together. It is a
promising-and needed-example of theatre that
passes from one to the other of these with equal
ease. 9s
Johnny Johnson combined music and varying approaches for
an idealistic show, demonstrating many of the different qualities and
styles explored during the 1930s. It is a hybrid piece that could prove
a vital model as creators work to reimagine the possibilities of the
American musical.
Concurrent with Oklahoma! 's revival, Urinetown also opened
on Broadway. The critics have praised it for being an "unrepentantly
skeptical work .. . [both] Swiftian [and], Brechtian."99 Urinetown
"acknowledges theater tradition and pushes it forward as well ."loo
While Urinetown has been lauded in most news sources, even making
a featured appearance in conjunction with Enron on "The Jim Lehrer
97 Literary Digest, 2 January 1937, 23.
98 Stark Young, The New Republic, 9 December 1936, 179.
99 Linda Winer, "Urinetown: The Musical," Newsday, 21
September 2001.
100 Bruce Weber, 'Theatre Review; How Reality Affects a Play,"
New York Times, 21 September 2001.
34 ROOST
the show itself has little that could pass as even mild
political commentary in comparison to such pop-culture stalwarts as
The Simpsons, South Park, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or even
the politically tepid Saturday Night Live.1o1 The most political element
of the show is a single line in the second act, which The New York
Times's critic considered "a bold if brutal bit of sarcasm": "Don't you
think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?"102
This is hardly "bold" or "brutal" by any standard other than musical
theatre scholarship after Lehman Engel. While occasional political
comments are thrown in, perhaps to give the musical a sense of
political daring, the show is fantastical enough in its premise that it
has no bearing on current political discussions.103 Compared to the
much-derided musicals of the Depression, Urinetown is quite tame,
using politics to dress up the plot rather than developing a show to
comment on the political scene. Because the history of political
involvement in musicals has been almost entirely lost, in part because
of the focus on Oklahoma!, Urinetown is seen as cutting edge by most
of the critics. However, its success indicates that producers might
successfully develop works in the mold of the 1930s satires.
This does not mean that current shows are without merit.
101 I use parody with regards to comments on art and form
and satire in relation to political and social concerns.
102 See Bruce Weber.
103 The production is a marvelous parody of musicals, but is
not satirical. The plot is premised on a drought that is controlled by a
corporation, which charges people to use toilets. While there is a
minor connection to environmental concerns, it is also so clearly
preventable (clearly technology could develop an alternative for water-
based toilets were such a drought to occur). Furthermore, no
reputable political commentators are arguing that corporations are
protecting the environment by carefully controlling use of natural
resources.
BEFORE OKLAHOMA! 35
Looking at the history, Oklahoma! is important-it pioneered cast
albums, faithful movie adaptations, and long, nationwide runs
developing a national audience for Broadway musicals. Formalistically
it developed dream ballets and brought musical theatre's focus to
rural subjects that are removed by time and/or geography. The
salience of previous shows in no way diminishes Oklahoma! 's
accomplishments. Meanwhile Urinetown is a very good parody; it is
not, however, satire. It does not innovate with structure or content;
instead it reopens the opportunity to experiment with form and
content. The goal of both historians and producers should be neither
to develop The New American Musical nor The Definitive History, but
to grapple with the eclectic, exciting, and exacerbating history that
refuses to have only a single form for a single purpose.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 16, no. 1 (Winter 2004)
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES
MARVIN CARLSON
Tom Sellar, in the lead article for the Roundabout Theatre's
magazine Front and Center of Spring 2001, began his comments on
that theatre's current revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies
with the observation, "It is a musical of and about ghosts."l Indeed in
a panel devoted to "Material Ghosts: Theatre and Memory in the
Twenty-First Century," I can think of no more fitting illustration of how
memory, ghosts, and material circulate in the theatre than this first
major musical revival of the new century in New York whose theme,
concerns, and very physical embodiment are built upon the ghosts of
a century or more of New York theatre.
Follies presumably takes place in an abandoned New York
theatre, once the home of this spectacular, now almost legendary
entertainment. On the last night before the theatre is to be
demolished to make way for a parking lot, the producer of the original
shows holds a reunion of Follies performers. Two couples, the women
(Phyllis and Sally) former Follies girls, and the men (Buddy and Ben)
the stage door Johnnies they married, meet at this gathering after
many years and confront their failed dreams surrounded by the
ghosts of their younger selves and the real and ghostly figures of
other Follies performers. T. E. Kalem, reviewing the piece for Time
magazine, called Follies, "the first Proustian musical .''2
As I have argued elsewhere, it is a particular quality of the
theatre to deal with memory, ghosts, and the recirculation of every
part of its complex material realization,3 but I know of no dramatic
script, nor no stage realization, that has been more centrally
concerned with this dynamic than Sondheim's Follies. The failed
hopes and blasted dreams of the deeply flawed central characters
reflect, as is so often the case in Sondheim, a painful confrontation
with a tarnished and faded national dream. Indeed Hal Prince called
the collapse of the American dream the real subject of the show,
1 Tom Sellar, "The Ghosts of 42nd Street," Front and Center,
Spring 2001, 2.
2 T. E. Kalem, "Follies," Time, 12 April 1971, 97:78.
3 See Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 2001).
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES 37
presented in the form of a bittersweet recollection of a bygone
theatrical era. 4 Doubtless this lost era has been converted by memory
into something far more glorious and brilliant than was the original,
typical of the imaginary golden ages that haunt all cultures, but that
does not diminish but rather increases its emotional power.
Sondheim's orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, perfectly expressed this
dynamic in orchestral terms: "Follies is not a re-creation of, but a
glorification of, every Broadway pit band that ever played ... and it's
not what the pit band actually sounded like, it's what you thought the
pit band sounded like."s In 1971, when Follies opened at the Winter
Garden Theatre, the revitalization of the Times Square area still lay in
the future, and the New York theatre in general and the American
musical in particular, seemed close indeed to the situation of the
characters in Follies, the aging remnants of a once-glorious culture,
now engaged in celebrating the last spark of that glory in ghostly
memories.
One of Sondheim's great gifts as a composer and lyricist is his
ability to create fresh new works in an almost unlimited variety of
earlier musical styles, an ability that was perfectly suited to the
concept of Follies. Not only the remarkable closing sequence, which
recreated a metaphorical Follies review in which the problems of the
individual leading characters were presented as review numbers, but
much of the production consciously and specifically evoked
composers and lyricists of the earlier twentieth century. Sondheim
himself helpfully provided a guide to a number of these evocations:
"One More Kiss," he reports, was written in the tradition of Friml and
Romberg; "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" in that of Cole Porter;
"You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" and "Love Will See Us Through" in
that of Jerome Kern and Burton Lane, with an Ira Gershwin-E.Y.
Harburg lyric. "Beautiful Girls" imitated Irving Berlin; "Broadway
Baby" DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson; "Loveland" Jerome Kern; and
"Losing My Mind" George Gershwin with a Dorothy Fields lyric.G The
importance of such musical ghosting to the central dynamic of the
play would seem obvious, but it nevertheless escaped the notice, or
at least the comprehension, of New York's major reviewers.
4 Meryle Secrest, Stephen Sondheim (New York: Knopf,
1998), 206. This association was visually emphasized in the poster
for the original production, which showed the statuesque head of a
Follies girl with a clear suggestion of the face of the Statue of
Liberty, with a deep crack running down it.
s Qtd. in Craig Zadan, Sondheim & Co. (New York: Harper
Collins, 1986), 155.
6 Ibid., 147.
38
CARLSON
Clive Barnes in a particularly savage review in The New York Times
remarked that "This non-hit parade of pastiche trades on camp, but
fundamentally gives little in return.''?
Stephen Banfield, in his musical biography of Sondheim,
views Sondheim's musical references in a far more positive light, and
further notes that "Sondheim's pastiche technique reaches its zenith
in Follies."s Here he extends Sondheim's general comments on
pastiches to a number of specific parallels:
"Rain on the Roof" shares subject matter and manner
with Berlin's "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" from Top Hat
. . . ; the verbal gist of "Can That Boy Foxtrot!"
though not the innuendo, parallels that of Berlin's
"You'd Be Surprised," which appears in the film Blue
Skies but stems from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 ... ;
the melody of "Little White House" is similar to Roger
Eden's celebrated vamp in Nacio Herb Brown's
"Singin' in the Rain;" "Live, Laugh, Love" contains at
least two musical suggestions of Gershwin, in its
introductory accompaniment, similar to that of " I Got
Plenty o'Nuttin" ... and in Ben's "Me, I Like to Live,/
Me, I Like to Laugh" refrain, which uses the metric
wrong footings of "Fascinating Rhythm," though not
to the same degree. Sondheim's model for "Losing
My Mind" was Gershwin's "The Man I Love."
"Broadway Baby," at least in the hands of Elaine
Stritch [in the 1985 Follies in Concert] sounds like a
Mae West parody.9
7 Clive Barnes, "Follies' Couples, Years Later," New York
Times, 5 April 1971, 44. Barnes's highly negative review inspired a
number of letters of protest from leading figures in the New York
cultural and theatrical world, headed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who
suggested that the "complex and sardonic commentary on American
theatre and on American mores in general" was simply beyond the
comprehension of an English reviewer (NYT, 2 May 1971, 2:37).
Jerry Orbach complained that Barnes was not simply wrong about
Follies but "criminally mistaken," while Remak Ramsey prophesied
that Sondheim's work would be "sung and remembered long after
everyone has given up ever finding a quotable line from a Barnes
review" (NYT, 23 May 1971, 2:25, 27).
s Stephen Banfield, Sondheim's Broadway Musicals (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 166. Banfield's analysis
has been particularly helpful to me in understanding the scope of
musical ghosting in Follies.
9 Ibid., 199-200.
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES 39
Less remarked upon in studies of Sondheim, but even more
striking from a theatrical point of view, was the recirculation not only
of musical styles and motifs, but of the actual physical bodies of
performers. Directors Hal Prince and Michael Bennett sought out
performers who would physically evoke a collective theatrical
memory, just as the score aurally evoked a collective musical one.
Martin Gottfried in his review in o m e n ~ Wear Daily was one of the
few critics to understand this. "Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, Dorothy
Collins, Yvonne De Carlo, Fifi D'Orsay and Mary McCarty have not
been hired just for the sake of camp. The audience knows these
people from its own past, remembers their faces from a performing
youth. Now they are aging and we see them aged, and Follies is
about aging and age. In a sense these actors are being used as
people rather than performers."lo Interestingly, the memories evoked
by the physical bodies of these actors were neither of the original
Follies, now two generations in the past, nor of that performance
tradition, but rather of the popular culture that replaced them, the
musicals, reviews and films of the 1940s and early 1950s, much more
central to the performance memories of 1971 audiences, even if most
of them had a strong interest in the musical theatre. In fact several
of these performers, familiar as they were to 1971 audiences and with
careers stretching back three decades or more, actually made their
Broadway debuts in Follies.
Perhaps the outstanding example of this was Yvonne De
Carlo, who first performed the song that best captured the power of
these Proustian performances and the spirit of their performers, "I'm
Still Here." Although De Carlo brought a significant performance
memory to Follies, none of it was from the Broadway tradition, but
rather from films and television. She had established herself in 1940s
film musicals such as Salome and Scheherazade, which in many
respects inherited the tradition of the lavish stage entertainments of
previous decades. During the 1950s she appeared primarily in
Westerns, when that genre held a leading place in American film
culture, and during the 1960s she appeared as Lily Munster on The
Munsters, one of the most popular television series of the decade.
"''m Still Here" is a particularly effective example of a "list
song," a standard musical comedy device often used by Sondheim but
before him almost a signature device for Cole Porter, and with an
impressive tradition going back at least as far as Gilbert and Sullivan.
Most often these lists are primarily used to place the singing character
10 Qtd. in Zadan, 138.
40 CARLSON
in a framing world by piling up references to specific items in that
world.ll Banfield, in his discussion of Sondheim's use of list songs,
suggests a subgenre of such songs, "encyclopedia songs," which
assemble things that make up a person's experience. "''m Still Here"
he calls a "wonderful encyclopedia song," adding parenthetically that
"it suggests the newspaper rather than the encyclopedia."t2 This
distinction is hardly minor, however, since the newspaper references
are designed to place their singer not in a specific physical world or
mental world, like almost all list or encyclopedia songs, but in a
specific temporal one. The stanza containing the most detailed and
specific list is the following one:
I've been through Ghandi
Windsor and Wally's affair,
And I'm here.
Amos 'n' Andy
Mah-jongg and platinum hair,
And I'm here.
I got through Abie's
Irish Rose,
Five Dionne babies,
Major Bowes,
Had heebie-jeebies
For Bebbe's
Bathysphere.
I lived through Shirley Temple
And I'm here.
Few of these references would seem to suggest items or experiences
that would test anyone's powers of survival, as the over-all theme of
the song implies. Rather they are the sorts of items that caught the
popular cultural imagination of their period, mostly the early 1930s
(which, surely not coincidentally, was also the heyday of Porter, the
master of the list song). Thus their function is in fact much closer to
the over-all theme of Follies than are structurally similar compilations
11 Another striking example in Follies is Phyllis's "Could I
Leave You?" which begins with a list of the "little things" that make
her marriage to Ben intolerable and she continues with an inventory
of the furniture she looks forward to obtaining in a divorce suit.
12 Banfield, 179-81.
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES 41
in other musical list songs. Like the musical echoes of Sondheim's
pastiche numbers, or the physical bodies of performers of the past,
these verbal references, singly and collectively, seek a Proustian
effect, evoking, like the taste of the madeleine, memories of an
almost forgotten past.
Yvonne De Carlo's non-Broadway background was not
unusual among the better-known performers of this first Follies.
Indeed, non-Broadway backgrounds characterize most of the
performers mentioned by Gottfried as evoking memories of a
"performing youth" in the Follies audiences. Alexis Smith (Phyllis), like
De Carlo, made her reputation in the 1940s, as the "Dynamite Girl" of
Warner Brothers, playing opposite such stars of that era as Errol
Flynn, Charles Boyer, Frederic March, and Cary Grant. Gene Nelson
(Buddy) began his career in ice shows and in fact appeared during the
1940s in Broadway reviews (This Is the Army, 1942) and musicals
(Lend an Ear, 1948), but he was best known for his film work at
Twentieth-Century Fox and Warner Brothers in the late 1940s and
1950s. His specialty was song and dance spectacles, most notably the
film of Oklahoma! in 1955, where he played the high-kicking cowpoke
Will Parker. During the 1970s he turned to film and TV directing, and
so his appearance in Follies brought his performance career to a kind
of full circle. Dorothy Collins (Sally) had built her reputation largely in
television, especially as a singer in the popular 1950s series "Your Hit
Parade," but also as a conspirator in the gags on the widely viewed
"Candid Camera." Mary McCarty, who as Stella Deems led the
company in the central "Mirror Number," "Who's That G i r l ? ~ was
another film and television star, breaking into movies in the 1938
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and building a reputation on television
during the 1940s and early 1950s in such series as The Admiral
Broadway Review and Celebrity Time.
Of the six performers cited by Gottfried as touchstones of
cultural memory, only one actually provided a living tie to the older
vaudeville and review tradition. Fifi D'Orsay, 86 years old when she
appeared in Follies as the chanteuse Solange Lafitte, had been a
vaudeville headliner, Mademoiselle Fifi, and the song Sondheim
created for her, "Ah, Paris!", eloquently recaptured her style and
persona of fifty years before. An even more striking direct tie to the
Follies tradition, however, was Ethel Shutta, cast as Hattie Walker,
since Shutta had actually made her debut fifty years before in the
Winter Garden, the same theatre in which Follies was presented, in
the Follies-type review The Passing Show of 1922. For her, a
comparative youngster, Sondheim created the song "Broadway Baby."
One other performer contributing to the memories embodied
in this first Follies production must be mentioned. One of the most
striking moments in the production comes when the four-piece stage
42 CARLSON
band at the opening party suddenly swells to a full orchestra during
the "Beautiful Girls" number and the spotlights pick out a dazzling but
ambiguous figure at the top of the stairs, the first materialized follies
ghost, who then leads down the stairs a glamorous process of her
fellows, each with a sash proclaiming the follies year she represents,
from 1918 to 1941. She is clearly too old for a follies girl, and yet she
wears that unmistakable elaborate costume and headdress, and
moves in that unmistakable elegant and graceful style. This first
"beautiful girl" was not so familiar to the audience as De carlo, or
even, presumably, Shutta or D'Orsay, but she also evoked deep if
quite different resonances with the Broadway tradition. This was Ethel
Barrymore Colt, daughter of Ethel Barrymore, and thus the direct
descendent of the greatest of American theatrical dynasties. Although
she had first appeared on Broadway with her famous mother in the
theatre that bore their common name in 1925 (she was 59 when she
appeared in Follies), most of her career had been spent as a nightclub
singer outside of New York. Strangely enough, her only other
Broadway appearance had been in a variety follies-type review,
George White's Scandals of 1931, from which she was fired, to be
replaced by Ethel Merman.B
Although Follies won almost every available theatre award for
1972, it was not a commercial success. Nevertheless it entered that
roster of Sondheim shows that despite an initial unfavorable critical
reaction14 became legendary in the history of the modern American
musical theatre. An all-star concert version with the New York
Philharmonic, Follies in Concert, was a huge success in 1985, and this
time was hailed by The New York Times reviewer, now Frank Rich, as
"one of our musical theatre's very finest achievements."1S Again the
13 Margot Peters, The House of Barrymore (New York: Knopf,
1980), 330-32.
14 Especially from the influential New York Times Walter Kerr
seconded Barnes's strongly negative reaction in a follow-up review
on April 11, calling the work "intermissionless and exhausting," a
"tedious extravaganza" displaying "ingenuity without inspiration"
(NYT, 11 April 1971, 2:1) .
1s Frank Rich, "Concert Version of 'Follies' is a Reunion," New
York Times, 9 September 1985, C16. The opinion of the Times
reviewer remained as powerful as ever, but obviously Rich's
enthusiasm gained in significance by the fact that his own positive
judgement was haunted by the memory of producers and audiences
alike of the contemptuous dismissal of Sondheim's work by Rich's
predecessors, Barnes and Kerr.
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES 43
dynamics of ghosting were an important part of the occasion. Indeed
Rich's review noted that "it was impossible to separate the fictional
show-biz reunion dramatized in Follies from the real one unfolding on
the stage."16
In 1971, Sondheim was still known primarily as a lyricist,
although his production of Company the previous year had for the
first time gained him generally widespread praise as a composer as
well .17 During the next decade and a half, however, he produced a
series of major works, including A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific
Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Sunday in the Park with
George (1984), still running when Follies in Concert was presented,
as well as several popular anthologies of his music, beginning with the
now almost legendary Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, a one-night
benefit at the Schubert Theatre on March 11, 1973. The first major
book on Sondheim, Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co., appeared in 1974;
scholarly articles on his work began to appear during this decade, and
he was the subject of four doctoral theses between 1980 and 1984.18
If his work still aroused controversy, he was nevertheless now clearly
established as the leading musical comedy writer of his generation.
Thus the 1984 concert incorporated not only performers who brought
to it memories of the theatre and performance world in general, as
did the cast of the first Follies, but also performers who could now
specifically evoke memories of Sondheim's own distinguished career.
Like Gottfried in 1971, Rich in 1984 remarked on the importance of
this now doubly embodied tradition:
To cast this all too transitory event, the producer
Thomas z. Shepherd brought together veterans of
Sondheim musicals stretching from the 1964 "Anyone
Can Whistle" to "Sunday in the Park with George,"-
among them Lee Remick, Elaine Strich, George
Hearn, Liz Callaway and Mandy Patinkin. They were
joined by other stellar musical-comedy hands who
16 Frank Rich, " Sondheim's ' Follies' Evokes Old Broadway,"
New York Times, 15 September 1985, 2: 1.
17 Although New York's most powerful critic, Clive Barnes at
The New York Times, was dismissive of Company, as he would be of
Follies, calling it " slick, clever, and eclectic rather than emotionally
stimulating." Qtd. in Secrest, 197.
18 See Banfield, 54.
44 CARLSON
exemplify the Broadway whose passing "Follies"
mourns-Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Betty
Camden and Adolph Green. Once this company
paraded before the Orchestra to the glittering melody
of the opening song, "Beautiful Girls," it was
impossible to separate the fictional show-biz reunion
dramatized in "Follies" from the real one unfolding on
the stage.19
In a follow-up article published the following week, Rich noted that
"the cheering went on and on-in part to honor a restored musical
treasure, in part to postpone that painful moment when the visiting
ghosts of a glamorous old Broadway would once again disperse."20
Two years later Cameron Mackintosh revived Follies to
considerable critical acclaim in London, but it was not until 2001 that
the Sondheim piece was revived on Broadway, now significantly
ghosted by its own legend. This was hardly surprising, since this
revival, thirty years later, was as distant in time from the premiere
production as that production had been from the first great Rodgers
and Hammerstein hit, Oklahoma! in 1943. If one assumes an
audience member the approximate age of the Follies protagonists,
then the personal generational memory for the original Follies would
have extended back over the great years of the "classical" American
musical, the years of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with the Follies-type
reviews lying dimly beyond, preserved more in recordings, films, and
photographs than by direct memory. In 2001, the generation memory
extended back over the Sondheim era itself, with that of Rodgers and
Hanimerstein now as remote as the Follies reviews had been in 1971.
Writing in the New York Times just before the April 5 opening, Barry
Singer astutely observed that this production would be "as much
haunted by the lingering ghost of the 1971 production as it is by the
lore and legends that inspired the show's creation." And "this is
perversely appropriate. Follies is about growing old. Having now
grown old itself, the musical must forever contend with its own
ghostly younger self." This emphasis runs throughout Singer's piece,
which begins, "The Broadway musical has always been a haunted art
form. Every Broadway musical performer or creator is shadowed by
the spirits of those who have preceded them [sic]." Singer calls Follies
a "collective memory of Broadway itself," evoking "the entirety of
19 Ibid.
20 Frank Rich, "Sondheim's 'Follies,' " 2:1.
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES 45
Broadway musical history with an all-encompassing spectral
embrace.''21
Thus, in a far richer and deeper manner than the original
production, the 2001 revival was centrally a haunted production,
haunted by its own memories, by those of its audiences, by, as Singer
noted, "the collective memory of Broadway itself," and now also by
memories of Sondheim's own major contributions to that collective
memory. In 1971, suggests Ethan Mordden in another Times article
in that same issue, "Follies dealt with nostalgia. By now the show is
nostalgia. Yet it is a timeless piece" since it embodies those "ghosts
of our former selves that are always looking on."22 The songs that
were dismissed by some 1971 critics as pastiche echoes of musical
memories had now developed their own Proustian echoes, and the
characters and situation their own associations with the musical
tradition. In the original production the living bodies of the actors
were in most cases haunted by the theatrical memories they evoked,
but in 2001 an additional layer of ghosting was created by the
memory of those performers, many of them no longer living, who had
created these roles and first delivered these songs as well as by the
memories of those who had presented these songs in the legendary
1985 concert version, reinforced by the extremely popular recording
of that event as well as by other recordings of specific songs from
Follies in various staged and recorded compilations of Sondheim's
work. These recordings guaranteed an audience in 2001 containing
many members not only familiar with the Follies score, but with
various interpretations of key songs, and indeed even with material
planned for Follies but not used, most notably the sly "Can That Boy
Foxtrot," whose borderline eroticism suggested the "naughty" songs
of Cole Porter.23 Dropped during previews because of Yvonne De
Carlo's difficulties in singing it and replaced by "''m Still Here," this
song was subsequently incorporated into the 1981 Sondheim revue,
Marry Me a Little (along with "Uptown, Downtown," another song
dropped prior to the New York opening) and included in the four-disc
A Collector's Sondheim released by RCA in 1985. Thus thanks to
21 Barry Singer," 'Follies' Shows It, Too, Is Still Here," New
York Times, 25 March 2001, 2:2.
22 Ethan Mordden, "An Elegy for an Era, 'Follies' Itself Goes
On," New York Times, 25 March 2001, 2:2.
23 Or perhaps even Noel Coward, whose parody of "Let's Do
It," like "Can That Boy Foxtrot," brings Cole Porter's implied eroticism
right to the edge of open expression.
46 CARLSON
revues and revivals, as well as to a brief musical echo of it in the
underscoring, even the rejected "can This Boy Foxtrot" maintained a
ghostly presence in the 2001 revival.
The layering of memories of specific songs, characters, and
performers was clearly a powerful part of the effect of this revival.
Behind Jane White, who performed the role of Solange, lay memories
not only of her own fifty-five years and countless roles in the
professional theatre, but also of vaudeville star Fifi D'Orsay, for whom
"Ah, Paris" was written as well as of Liliane Montevecchi, who
performed the song in the concert version. Behind Betty Garrett, a
long-time star of stage and screen musicals, lay also memories of the
1920s showgirl Ethel Shutta, for whom "Broadway Baby" had been
written (and who had reprised it in the 1973 Musical Tribute), as well
as of Elaine Stritch, the star of Sondheim's Company, who did this
number in the concert version. Behind Judith Ivey, the stage, screen,
and TV star who created Sally in the 2001 production, lay memories
of Barbara Cook, the vocal star who made "In Buddy's Eyes" one of
the most harrowing and memorable songs in the concert version, as
well as of Dorothy Collins, who created this role and who reprised
"Losing My Mind" to create a climactic moment in the Musical Tribute.
Behind Polly Bergen, who as carlotta sang the number that became
a kind of theme for Follies, "''m Still Here," was not only the memory
of Yvonne De Carlo (the only one of the stage veterans cited by
Gottfried in 1971 who was still alive in 2001), but also of Bergen's own
half-century of stage, screen, and TV performances and her recent
reemergence, at the age of seventy, after almost twenty years of
obscurity. Her own signature song "The Party's Over" and her own
remarkable comeback added for many listeners an extra depth to her
moving rendition of Sondheim's paean to survival. Indeed Sondheim
himself remarked that Bergan regarded the song, and delivered it, as
if it had been written to summarize her own career.24
Although the elaborate "Mirror Song," "Who's That Woman?",
in which the protagonists confront their real and imagined younger
selves, is probably the number which most directly expresses the
central concerns of Follies, it is unquestionably "I'm Still Here" which
has become the musical emblem of the show. What ghosts share with
memory is survival. However attenuated, altered, subjected to the
ravages of time, they are still here, and this has made Follies, despite
the somewhat sordid narrative of its principle characters, a powerful
statement of survival of both individuals and of the art they produce,
even that most ephemeral of arts, the theatre.
24 James Gavin, "A Trouper Whose Role is Life-Tested," New
York Times, 25 March 2001, 2:7, 22.
GHOSTS AND FOLLIES 47
In his report on the 2001 revival, Singer understandably
singled out Joan Roberts as the performer who "most particularly"
embodied this spirit in the production.2s Like other performers in the
revival, Roberts inevitably aroused memories of her predecessors in
her role, that of Heidi Schiller, first Justine Johnston, a music comedy
veteran, and then, in the concert version, the prominent operatic star
Licia Albanese, hailed by Frank Rich as an "inspired casting choice" for
her "spectral invocation of operettas past."26 The selection of
Albanese also added an important element to the musical associations
evoked by the bodies and the voices of the performers,
acknowledging the relation of Sondheim's work not only to the many
varied strands of twentieth century musical comedy and related
popular forms, but also to the world of opera.27 In addition to the
memories of these previous interpreters, Joan Roberts, like D'Orsay
and Shutta thirty years before, brought to her role a personal history
that made her almost a living memorial to the tradition being
celebrated. Now in her 80s, Roberts, like her character Heidi Schiller,
had established her reputation in East European operettas, touring in
more than twenty such musicals under the sponsorship of the Shubert
Brothers while still in her teens. Schiller's major song is " One More
Kiss," the final number in a series of memory pieces by the ghost
figures of the past, a lush and bittersweet Strauss-style waltz duet
sung by Schiller and her younger self, an embodied evocation of the
past of the fictional Schiller and the actual Roberts, who like Schillefr
made her fame in work like this. The evocative power of these ghostly
parallels is great, but it is vastly increased by the fact that Roberts, in
1943, building upon her success in operetta, was selected to play the
leading role, Laurey, in Oklahoma!, the musical that launched a new
era in American musical theatre, in which the triumph of the so-called
integrated musical brought to an end the era of the operetta and the
Follies-type reviews. Now, appearing in Follies, both an evocation of
the ghosts of that earlier era and, in the opinion of many, the elegy
for the musical era that began with Oklahoma!, Roberts became a
living synecdoche of the structure of memory and memorialization
offered by Follies as a whole.
2s Singer, 28.
26 Rich, " Concert Version," C16.
27 Europeans have been rather more ready to accept this
association than Americans. Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, for example,
was selected as the inaugural production for the opening of the new
Finnish National Opera in Helsinki in September 1998.
48 CARLSON
For the original production of Follies in 1971, Boris Aronson
designed a splendidly evocative setting of broken scaffolding and
decaying elements that, after the surrealistic Follies sequence, almost
literally fell apart, revealing glimpses of daylight outside the partially
destroyed stage. The design for the 2001 revival, by Mark Thompson,
developed, like the revival itself, an even more elaborate commentary
on Sondheim's haunted house. To begin with, the revival took place
not in a major Broadway musical theatre like the original Winter
Garden but at the smaller and now far less fashionable Belasco
Theatre. The very different venue was itself an indication of how
Broadway had changed since 1971. The Winter Garden was in fact
without a show in 2001, but the production that had just closed there
was Cats after a run of eighteen years, and a more problematic or
challenging work like Follies was no longer thinkable in such a venue.
Although the far more modest Belasco was selected for financial
reasons, the entire production being considerably scaled down from
the original concept, the choice could not have been more
appropriate. Although the Belasco did not disappear during the
wholesale destruction of major Broadway theatres in the early 1960s
(a photograph of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the
destroyed Roxy is said to have been an important part of the
inspiration for Follies), it had nevertheless suffered considerably from
Broadway's late twentieth-century decline. Too small for most
musicals in an era when Broadway has not been hospitable to the
spoken drama, the Belasco is today more often than not dark, a kind
of ghost itself, and a fitting home for the most famous Broadway
ghost, David Belasco himself, who lived in a sumptuous private
apartment on the upper floor of the theatre (now the home of the
Shubert Archives) and whose stout figure, in clerical collar, was often
reported appearing in the theatre until the nudity in Oh! Calcutta!
reportedly drove it away during the early 1970s.
Oh! Calcutta! was not the only depredation suffered by Mr.
Belasco's once elegant house. Later in the 1970s it hosted The Rocky
Horror Show for which production the handsome lower boxes on
either side of the house next to the stage were destroyed and the
ones above them heavily damaged to provide a suitable decayed
cabaret ambiance for this production. When Tony Randall's American
Actors Theatre and other more respectable offerings returned, at
least from time to time, during the 1980s and 1990s, this destruction
was masked by heavy discreet curtains hung on either side of the
auditorium. Designer Mark Thompson ripped all this masking away,
revealing (like an ugly scar temporarily obscured by heavy makeup)
the ravaged interior of the once elegant auditorium. Further, following
the model of Chloe Oblensky, who in 1987 added new cracks and
GHOSTS AND FOLLI ES 49
peeling walls to the already distressed Majestic Theatre (now the BAM
Harvey) in Brooklyn to make it resemble Peter Brook's decaying
Bouffes du Nord in Paris, and Paul Clay, who added further decay to
the already decaying lobby of the Nederlander Theatre on Forty-First
Street in 1996 to provide a suitable venue for Rent, Thompson
painted new cracks and stains on the doors and walls of the
auditorium, so that instead of watching the stage representation of a
partly destroyed theatre as in Aronson's original design, audiences
actually found themselves seated in what was apparently such a
theatre. The same complex mixing of real and fictional ghosting
already present in the script and in the physical bodies of the actors
was thus ingeniously carried into the auditorium itself, so that the
audience was literally united with the performers in the interplay of
present and past, memory and imagination.
A more powerful and comprehensive expression of theatre's
continual occupation with ghosts, memory, and the inevitable passing
of human bodies and human works would be difficult to find, and for
the sadly brief run of Follies in 2001 the Belasco was surely New
York's most haunted house. What could be more appropriate then
than reports that the ghost of Belasco has recently been seen again
in his theatre home, apparently once again able to inhabit -
comfortably this beloved repository of theatrical memory.
This essay owes much to the helpful advice and musical comedy
expertise of Tom Herson, Bruce Kirle, Scott McMillin, and David
Savran. My warmest thanks to them all.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 16, no. 1 (Winter 2004)
INFEUCITIES OF FORM IN ZONA GALE'S
MISS LULU BEIT
ALAN ACKERMAN
Besides the uttering of the words of the so-called
performative, a good many other things have as a
general rule to be right and to go right if we are to
be said to have happily brought off our action. What
these are we may hope to discover by looking at and
classifying types of cases in which something goes
wrong .... [T]he utterance is then, we may say, not
indeed false but in general unhappy. And for this
reason we call the doctrine of the things that can be
and go wrong on the occasion of such utterances,
the doctrine of the Infelicities.
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words
Ina: Oh, I'm so flustrated!
Zona Gale, Miss Lulu Bett
A lulu is a "remarkable or wonderful person or thing; freq.
used ironically" (OED). Whether a person or a thing, a lulu is
feminine. A 1922 example of this American slang "of obscure origin,"
provided by the OED, captures the qualified wonderfulness, the irony,
the feminization and reification all at work in these redundant
syllables: "She's a lulu though!" A lulu is also potentially disturbing.
The central figure of Frank Wedekind's infamous "Lulu" plays is
introduced (in a 1914 translation) by an Animal Tamer as a "pretty
beast." In 1920, an American "lulu beast" appeared in Zona Gale's
novel and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, both titled Miss Lulu Bett. Gale's
works are fully alive to the semantic complexity of the name. Yet,
ironically, the remarkable work that they do with words may, and has,
escaped notice because those words are also so ordinary and the
realist conventions to which the play adheres dramaturgically had
become, by 1920, themselves so unremarkable.
Though admired as an effective combination of dramatic
realism and feminist propaganda, Gale's play is far more radical
formally than has been recognized. Even Gale's most incisive
contemporaries, while recognizing the importance of her work, could
not quite put their finger on how it achieved its startling effects.
Joseph Wood Krutch, describing another of Gale's works, wrote of "an
atmosphere at once apparently realistic and yet charged with a sense
INFELICITIES OF FORM 51
of the ominously mysterious ... enmeshed in a network of words."
Krutch assumes a realist aesthetic innocent of complex linguistic
strategies. His and yet indicates the felt opposition between the
"apparently realistic" and the "network of words."l But for Gale the
language of dramatic realism is not transparent. She understood the
drama in the context of both European and American modernism.
"Even if there were no signs to point the way/' she wrote in 1921,
shortly after the play opened, "the assumption might safely be that we
are moving slowly, and uncertainly, toward a new form of play. New
poetry, new painting, new music, new social conceptions, new
drama."2 The title character of the novel, though living in a Midwestern
hamlet, thinks about social gatherings "the way that a futurist receives
the subjects of his art-forms not vague, but heightened to intolerable
definiteness, acute colour, and always motion."3 Futurists, Gale wrote
in a letter, recaptured "that which lies within some other area of form
than that form to which we are accustomed."4
The forms that the novel Miss Lulu Bett continually and self-
consciously represents are more often verbal than visual, and Gale's
work represents aspects of both literary formalism and the structural
approaches to language current in her day. This is not to suggest that
Gale read Edward Sapir, I. A. Richards, or Victor Shklovsky but that her
work can be understood to participate in contemporary discourse on
the forms of art and spoken language, while maintaining its realistic
milieu. The novel recontextualizes relationships between sound and
meaning. A character might say "the unspellable 'm-m,' rising
inflection, and the 'I see,' prolonging the verb as was expected of
him/'s with the result that the "expected" linguistic object is marked as
1 Joseph Wood Krutch, "Zona Gale's New Manner," Nation, 11
December 1929, CCCIX.
2 Zona Gale, "Zona Gale Sees New Form of Play Coming;
Goddard Believes Plays Progress," Globe and Commercial Advertiser,
8 January 1921, n.p.
3 Zona Gale, Miss Lulu Bett [novel] (New York: D. Appleton
and Company, 1920), 37.
4 Qtd. in Harold P. Simonson, Zona Gale (New York: Twayne,
1962), 102.
s Zona Gale, Miss Lulu Bett, in Plays By American Women:
1900-1930, ed. Judith E. Barlow (New York: Applause, 1981), 53.
Subsequently in this article, page numbers for excerpts from the play
will be indicated parenthetically.
52
ACKERMAN
a phonetic event. And the realization of that analysis of sound and
sense in performance is a vital feature of Gale's transposition of the
novel to the stage.
Nearly every reviewer of 1920-21 praises Gale for the
extraordinarily faithful adaptation of her best-selling novel, but none
considers the precise nature of that textual condensation or, to put it
bluntly, what Gale does with words. In the novel Lulu's overbearing
brother-in-law, who speaks "methodically" yet "puns organically,"
objects as his elder daughter attempts to describe a recently attended
tea party; she heaps superlatives like confectionery. "'Grammar,
grammar,' spoke Dwight Herbert Deacon. He was not sure what he
meant, but the good fellow felt some violence had been done
somewhere or other" (21). It is the task of the play to demonstrate the
violence done in dialogue and to realize aspects of those linguistic
forms in the voices of actors and the spaces they inhabit. In 1921
Edward Sapir wrote that "our present tendency to isolate phonetics
and grammar as mutually irrelevant provinces is unfortunate," for
"there are likely to be fundamental relations between them and their
respective histories."6 Miss Lulu Bett represents precisely the absurdity
of such an isolation, for here the doctrine of separate spheres is
represented as one of separate linguistic provinces: Women occupy
the phonetic and men the grammatical. The protagonist must learn to
inhabit both, to reconcile or to form new relations between phonetics
and grammar.
Three years before the success of Gale's play, Victor Shklovsky
had written that art ought to disrupt habitual ways of thinking. Like
other formalist thinkers, he believed that the study of literature is
fundamentally the study of language and that the distinguishing
feature of literary language is its capacity to defamiliarize or make
strange an object or action that is ordinarily perceived "automatically"
or ignored.? Shklovsky and his American contemporary, I. A. Richards,
thought further that the chief end of the defamiliarizing work of art is
perception, ultimately a full awareness of the world. a The failure of so
many critics to appreciate the play's formalism may be accounted for
as a failure to recognize the realist-modernist dynamic.
6 Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of
Speech (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921), 183-84.
7 Victor Shklovsky, "Art as Technique," in Russian Formalist
Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee Lemon and Marion J. Rees
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3-25.
s I. A. Richards, "Science and Poetry," in Criticism: The
Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment, ed. Mark Scharer,
Josephine Miles, and Gordon McKenzie (1926; reprint, New York:
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1958), 513.
INFELICITIES OF FORM 53
The exaggeration and destabilizing impact of Wedekind's
"Lulu" plays epitomize the parodic and deeply conservative impulse of
modernism to depict modernity as degeneration and culture as
corrupt. Antonin Artaud also diagnosed a sickness that comes from "a
rupture between things and words." He proscribes a hieroglyphic
theater "not confined to a fixed language and form."9 Gale represents
the danger of limiting subjects to a fixed language and form, but for
her this danger results not from a rupture between words and things
but on the contrary, from their identity. Gale's play does not represent
culture as inherently problematic or esoteric; nor are discussions of
language within her work explicitly accompanied by meta-textual
references. Playfulness with language is naturalized in Miss Lulu Bett
as, H. L. Mencken argued, it was broadly and unconsciously in
contemporary American usage. Miss Lulu Bett renders a local situation
that audiences recognized at once as ordinary and familiar. Yet, as
Constance Rourke notes, it also bitterly assails "the tedious facility of
thought and speech and action."lo
Modernist drama, from Wedekind to Pirandello to Brecht and
so on, foregrounds its representational apparatus, explicitly protesting
the elision of theatricality on the realist stage. But, of course, it is
possible to be both a modernist and a realist, to employ metaphor and
metonymy simultaneously and in the service of each other. Lulu may
or may not be really a beast, but, as a cook becomes known for her
meat-pies, personal identities are naturally reduced to verbal
mannerisms. Miss Lulu Bett has an interest in eliding aspects of its
representational apparatus, allowing the audience to forget the
constructedness of theatrical time and space in order to foreground
more vital formal concerns. Gale's drama adheres to the model of the
fourth-wall illusion and presents a subject that is far from shocking but
is more subversive for being more common, directing attention to the
building blocks of reality, language itself.
The plot of the play Miss Lulu Bett is simply told. The thirty-
three-year-old, unmarried Lulu has been, for fifteen years, a household
drudge in the home of Ina and Dwight Deacon, her younger sister and
overbearing brother-in-law. The 1922 silent film labels Lulu "a beast of
burden." She is "caught in the toils of the commonplace." Eventually a
chance for escape arrives in a visit by Dwight's brother, the world
traveler, Ninian. He and Lulu flirt until one night, to pass the time
before going to the theatre, they perform a mock-wedding service only
9 Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary
Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 12.
1o Constance Mayfield Rourke, "Transitions," The New
Republic (1 August 1920), 316.
54 ACKERMAN
to be informed that in the presence of Dwight, who "happens to be a
magistrate," they are now officially married. Lulu departs with Ninian
but returns in the next act when the marriage turns out to have been
fraudulent. The play has more than one ending (each of which differs
from that of the novel). In the first Lulu learns that Ninian, who was
previously married, has found his wife again. She determines to leave
the Deacon family, find work and see the world for herself. The revised
ending kills off Ninian's first wife so that he can return and be
reconciled to Lulu. The plot and the trope of the woman who longs for
liberation from the oppressive domestic sphere are not enough to
qualify Miss Lulu Bett as a landmark drama. The play bears a striking
resemblance to another, staged ten years earlier by David Belasco,
called The Lily in which an older daughter is compelled to work as
housekeeper, serving her younger sister until her own passionate
rebellion. By 1920, social polemics against the oppressiveness of the
domestic sphere were far from radical. Gale's literary and dramatic
work merits attention not because it stages a woman's liberation from
a constrictive environment but because of the remarkable ways in
which realist dramaturgy, middlebrow sensibility, feminist poetics, and
modernist concerns with language coalesce.
The play begins with an assault upon grammatical
Midwestern-American English and never lets up in its critique of the
forms of expression available to middle-class women and men and the
inherently gendered quality of those forms. Without properly
understanding such experimentalism, it is difficult to see how certain
sections of dialogue can make sense at all. The first scene sets the
stage with an abruptly farcical exchange that indicates that the
superficially petty members of the Deacon family are engaged in a
hostile contest over language itself. Lulu's niece, Monona Deacon, is
the baby of the family, but she continually asserts an awareness of her
own agency that might mark a far older person. Her linguistic clowning
has a sharp edge and should evoke other important examples of baby
talk in popular and high culture of the 1920s, from Fanny Brice's Baby
Snooks to Tristan Tzara's Dada. In the novel, Monona injects, into a
moment of family silence, a " loud 'Num, num, num-my-num,' as if she
were the burden of an Elizabethan lyric."ll Unlike drab aunt Lulu, she
is a festive if, paradoxically, humorless character. She challenges and
often successfully inverts normative social structures and patterns of
discourse. Her utterances, though less communicative than aesthetic,
are intended to have a social impact and so extend far beyond the
typical child's glossolalia. In the novel, she is described as "using a
ridiculous perversion of words, scarcely articulate, then in vogue in her
11 Gale, Miss Lulu Bett [novel], 11.
INFELICITIES OF FORM 55
group."12 When Lulu asks her in the second act of the play why she
provokes her parents with strings of apparently insensitive questions,
telling her, "you mustn't talk so," she replies honestly: "0, I like to get
them going" (101) . Monona's nonsense is more prominent and
powerful on stage than it is in the novel in part because theatricality
itself is considered by the characters to be potentially dangerous and
wicked. In this respect Monona resembles the mischievous and
"theatrical" Gertrude Stein, who expressed a similar impulse in The
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: "My sentences do get under their
skin.''13
In the opening scene, both Monona's subversiveness and her
complicity are signaled as she enters. Like Nora in A Doll House, she
covertly indulges a forbidden appetite and then "hides a cookie in her
frock.'' Monona will give way to Lulu, who makes the cookies, as the
Nora figure in this drama; each of the female characters is factored in
the larger story of a woman's need for autonomy and, specifically, in
the need for a new form of self-expression. But Miss Lulu Bettis less
a reworking of A Doll House than, like Noel Coward's Easy Virtue
(launched in New York in 1925), both an homage to and a send-up of
the discussion plays of the nineteenth century that centered on fallen
women and neglectful mothers. Monona continually calls attention to
the sign system as a sign system, and yet her performance does not
vitiate the realism of the play as a whole; rather it will heighten the
audience's ultimate identification with the protagonist, Lulu herself. Yet
Monona does play a critical role in Gale's project; her performance is
not ends-directed. If (masculine) forms are "heightened to intolerable
definiteness," Monona represents the other, perhaps dialectical, aspect
of Gale's definition of futurism, the "always motion.''
After gobbling her snack, Monona begins a "terrible little chant
on miscellaneous notes" that will stand in opposition to a "masculine"
language often identified by its causal and linear structure. For
instance, after her mother tells her not to "stand listening to older
people" but to "run around and play," Monona performs a reductio ad
absurdam that literalizes her mother's sentence (legal pun intended).
Monona "runs in a swift circle and returns to her attitude" (95). In a
later scene, upon Monona's singing the "terrible little chant," as it is
always called, her twit of a father, Dwight, responds forcefully, building
to a "male" climax: "Softly, softly, softly, SOFTLY!" (92). The line is a
paradoxical indication that form is at least as important as content.
The common sense of the word softly, with its connotations of
12 Ibid., 48.
13 Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (New
York: Vintage Books, 1990), 61, 66.
56 ACKERMAN
detumescence and femininity/ in this line is in tension with its
arrangement (repetition) and mode of delivery (building to an
exclamation). A central feminist critique of conventional dramatic form
(exposition-complication-climax-denouement), here represented in the
microcosm of a single sentence, is that it represents a "male bodily
experience."14 In this play the structures of individual utterances are
incorporated into larger thematic and formal concerns. The hapless
suitor Cornish, cannot finish a sentence or ejaculates prematurely.
As the play opens, then, Monona is consuming sweets
surreptitiously/ already a disruptive presence, even before Dwight
enters and attempts to assert his authority as a father. In this context
1
Monona's first line C'I ain't a baby.'') establishes the play's theme/ for
it is a descriptive statement/ an attempt at self-naming, but it is also a
negation (anti-nominative) and slang (subverting standard English)
that cannot be understood outside of the particular context in which it
is uttered. And it provokes a bizarre response from her father. Monona
draws attention to the construction of meaning through difference/
and the overdetermined language of this scene indicates that the most
fundamental signs of identity, pronouns and names, are rooted in
oppositional structures.
Dwight: What! You don't mean you're in time for
supper, baby?
Monona: I ain't a baby.
Dwight: Ain't. Ain't. Ain't.
Monona: Well, I ain't.
Dwight: We shall have to take you in hand, mama and
I. We shall-have-to-take you in hand.
Monona: I ain't such a bad girl
Dwight: Ain't. Ain't. Ain't. (89)
Monona names herself in a way that Dwight does not actually
contradict, but she also defines herself in the negative as a direct
response to Dwight's initial naming of her. The opening scene
immediately introduces a central theme indicated in the title itself, the
potential violence of naming and the problem of resisting the force of
one's own name. As Judith Butler notes, "the name wields a linguistic
power of constitution in ways that are indifferent to the one who bears
14 Patricia R. Schroeder/ The Feminist Possibilities of
Dramatic Realism (Madison, NJ: Associated University Press, 1996),
22.
INFELICITIES OF FORM 57
the name."ts Every character already has a "proper" name, yet all
remain vulnerable to the action of naming or having their identities re-
constituted by others in language. Monona's name suggests the
monodic or single melodic line. She does not introduce variety or
alternative forms of expression. And though he hears and does not
contradict her, it is evident that Dwight does not take her seriously, for
he parodies precisely the negation (ain't) that is her own by claiming
it so strenuously for himself (the nominative "baby" was his to begin
with). The opening dialogue between Dwight and Monona sets up a
fundamental problem that the play will explore: the vital roles played
both by the circumstances in which an utterance is made and by the
agreement and seriousness of a listener to grant any form of self-
articulation the status of objective validity.
Another remarkable feature in Dwight's first exchange with
Monona is that, far from compelling her to speak his language, he ends
up speaking hers. He adopts not only her word (the ungrammatical
ain't) but also the a-logical repetition of a word in a form that
resembles her opening chant. Yet this playful disruption, this reductio
or re-forming, only reinforces the existing order when Dwight reasserts
his prerogative in linguistically formal terms. For, asserting a different
kind of syntax, Dwight repeats the authoritarian, "We shall have to
take you in hand," with a heavily enunciated, "We shall-have-to-take-
you in hand." Each word is linked in the text as if to emphasize the
diagrammatic subject-verb-object structure, with Dwight as subject
and Monona as object. The overdetermined enunciation is fueled by
Dwight's self-righteous vindictiveness and his desire to assert
authority. His heavy articulation of a sentence in which he is the
subject and Monona the object indicates not only that control over
language is a form of power but also that every utterance is inherently
constructed and, thus, freighted with a context. "Any child thirteen
years old properly taught can by that time have learned everything
there is to learn about English grammar," writes Stein. "So why make
a fuss about it. However one does."t6 That fuss not only defines
characters and relationships in Gale's play, but, more important, the
plot will be generated from just such a fuss.
When Dwight's wife Ina enters, he absolves her with another
highly formal line of a crime she did not commit. "Have I kept you
waiting?" she asks. The answer is simply no, but Dwight replies with
more self-reflexive grammar. "Bear and forbear. Bear and forbear," he
1s Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the
Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 31.
16 Stein, 249.
58 ACKERMAN
says resignedly, indicating on one level, again in form and content,
that he must continually carry the burden of these women and yet
refrain from or avoid responding in kind. Both assumptions prove to be
false. It is rather the women and, we soon discover, Lulu in particular
who must perpetually bear and forebear the burden of Dwight's
authority. By bemoaning his plight with "bear and forebear," Dwight
dramatically foregoes forbearance entirely (or utter-ly). The lines are
not only ambiguous in their subject-object orientation, but also they
do exactly the opposite of what they appear to claim (an instance of
Austin's infelicities) . Moreover, though he seems to imply that he must
bear and forebear continually, the form of the sentence makes that
meaning ambiguous, for though ostensibly referring to himself, the
absent subject is "you." Gale's playfulness with grammar questions
binary oppositions of self/other, speech/writing, passivity/activity.
The difficulty of situating Dwight's line within a clear set of
referents indicates the ideological importance of the repetition. The
verb "to bear" has not just metaphorical but also semantic
significance, for words bear meaning, or explaining. To bear is also to
be accountable for. And while men can bear a burden or be a forbear
(ancestor), only women can bear children. The defamiliarizing of the
word through repetition and by drawing attention to power of its prefix
is a technique that Gale employs commonly. Here, Dwight's emphasis
on bearing and forbearing establishes a range of thematic concerns in
the play specifically related to language itself: Who is active, and who
is passive? Who is the subject? Who is the object? And how is one to
limit the range of possible referents, let alone the ideological baggage,
with which language comes loaded?
When Lulu first enters, a few lines later, she is bearing a plate
of muffins, and she will be defined throughout the play by her cooking,
one of the few forms of (specifically female) making (also poetics)
open to her, yet she is told, paradoxically, that she cannot "work." In
an important sense, it is absolutely true that Lulu is unable or, at least,
not allowed to work, if we accept Hannah Arendt's distinction between
labor (the activity that corresponds to biological process) and work
(the activity that corresponds to the unnaturalness of human
existence). To labor, Arendt writes, "is to be enslaved by necessity."17
When the lovable but inarticulate piano salesman Cornish shows up at
the Deacon home, he refers to the pleasure of Lulu's company on a
previous evening with a reference that equates Lulu with her cooking:
"Don't you think I 'd remember that meat pie?" (95) . Cornish is
superficially benign, but, when he manages to complete a sentence,
he offers the same old oppressive language. He is, as Dwight notes
17 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1958), 83.
INFELICITIES OF FORM 59
approvingly, "studying law evenings" (96). (Dwight is both a
magistrate and a dentist!) Cornish, itself the name of a language, also
may be a pun on the newly (in 1920) colloquial term "corny" to signify
the "tiresomely or ridiculously old-fashioned or sentimental;
hackneyed, [or] trite" (OED). His insensitive if solicitous comment
understandably provokes the lonely Lulu, for apparently it was not her
conversation that stuck in his mind. Cornish himself manifests
embarrassment over the gaffe with an aside (''What the dickens did I
say that for?''), yet conversation with a woman is regarded to have
about as much lasting value as what she offers for dinner. And
Cornish's remark, after Lulu leaves the room, leads to an extraordinary
dialogue in which food and language are literally and absurdly
conflated.
Dwight: A most exemplary woman is Lulu.
Ina: That's eggsemplary, Dwightie.
Dwight: My darling little dictionary. (95-96)
Making words and making meat pies have more in common than one
might expect. Ina's malapropisms throughout the play indicate how
little author-ity she really has. She later complains, "Nobody listens to
me. Nobody" (108). Dwight accuses Ina of exaggeration, a tendency
that he regards as bad for Monona (117), but her putative tendency
to exaggerate indicates the constricting limits of the language.
Moreover, the fact that Dwight himself is guilty of exaggeration
indicates that he is limited by the same discursive/ideological forms.
Yet Ina's quibbles about language, which are almost entirely
phonological and not obviously semantic ("eggsemplary" for
"exemplary"; "sheff'' for "chef''), reveal the complicity of conventional
women in perpetuating the roles that subjugate them. She is full of
words that are not of the standard lexicon. And, like a dictionary, she
is inconsequential (asyntactic), not one who constructs sentences but
a tool for those who do.
References to texts (such as dictionaries) ultimately contribute
to the play's concern with the phenomenology of language and the
realization of social forms in linguistic performance. The marriage that
is comedy's most conventional element and standard conclusion is the
central event of this play, occurring at the end of the first act, and it
provides the basis for a sustained discussion of the power of spoken
language and the constitutive features of the speech event. Theatre,
marriage, and conventional middle-class discourse are the deeply
interconnected strands of the play. Ina and Dwight's conventionally
rebellious elder daughter, Diana, is a coquette, deeply attracted to the
commercial theatre. Diana's love of language resembles her mother's.
She takes pleasure in words that only reinforce her subservient status.
60 ACKERMAN
Urging her boyfriend to make something of himself, she relishes an
inherited ideological and verbal structure.
Bobby: Di, when you said that it sounded just like a-
a, you know.
Di: Like what?
Bobby: Like a wife. Gee, what a word that is!
Di: Isn't it? It's ever so much more exciting word [sic]
than husband. (100)
Diana has a predilection for certain forms, habits of thought that
originate outside herself, and she internalizes these already authored
texts. When her elopement with Bobby falls apart in the end she
laments, "You're about as much like a man in a story as-as papa is"
(137). She is excited by a title (wife) whose "objectivity" she does not
question; ready-made linguistic and narrative structures are the
preconditions of her reality.
Diana's seemingly subversive modes of discourse (teasing and
lying) are reactive and not creative. She does not work with language.
When she makes fun of Bobby in front of her friends it is only to stop
from being teased herself: "I had to make them stop [teasing] so I
teased you. I never wanted to" (99) . Her "love" is utterly banal. The
same cannot be said of Lulu, who is deeply suspicious of the
metaphorical content of language because she has a sense that
language is powerful and can be not only misused but also abused. For
example, Uncle Ninian waxes poetic to the gullible Monona: "Some day
I'm going to melt a diamond and eat it. Then you sparkle all over in
the dark, ever after. I'm going to plant one too, some day. Then you
can grow a diamond vine." Lulu cuts him off: "Don't do that .. . To her.
That's lying" (105). Ninian replies that it's "just drama." But Lulu
believes, at this point, that truth exists apart from interpretation. What
she will come to learn is that life is drama and that truth is contingent.
Lulu's ultimate recognition and reversal will be accomplished by going
to another space, gaining another perspective, and assuming another
form of expression. Ninian, the traveler and outsider, will teach Lulu
the necessity of achieving a personal poetics and, with it, the
possibility of realizing herself as a character. In this sense, though
without breaking the illusion of the fourth wall, Lulu Bett anticipates
Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, which Brock
Pemberton, the director of Gale's play, directed in New York in 1922.
But even at first Lulu appears to recognize the constructed
nature of identity, questioning language that other family members
take for granted. Unlike Diana, Lulu challenges the ideological basis of
standard titles of address. She rebukes Ninian for addressing her as
"Mrs."
INFELICITIES OF FORM
Lulu: ... What did you call me then?
Ninian: Mrs. Bett-isn't it? Every one says just Lulu,
but I took it for granted .... Well, now-is it Mrs.? Or
Miss Lulu Bett?
lulu: It's Miss . ... From choice.
Ninian: You bet! Oh, you bet! Never doubted that.
Lulu: What kind of a Mr. are you?
Ninian: Never give myself away. Say, by George, I
never thought of that before. There's no telling
whether a man's married or not, by his name. (102)
61
Ninian, Dwight's older brother, takes Lulu's title for granted. To do so
is to deprive her of the capacity for self-definition, as she plainly
asserts. But it is not clear to what "choice" Lulu refers. Presumably she
means the choice not to marry, but the plain meaning of the line is that
the choice is to be called "Miss." Yet the idea that Lulu chooses her title
or name is playfully deconstructed, as Ninian appropriates her name
(homonymically) in the next line with a pun that can also be read as
naming: "You bet!" So after asserting her choice of her own name,
Lulu is confronted with a man who humorously yet forcefully asserts
what is heard as "You Bett!" And the fact that names determine
identities is overtly contextualized here in the history of sexual double
standards, a staple topic of realist dramas. Ninian, whose own name
may be ironic (ninny is the familiar form of innocent, and a "ninny" is
a simpleton), realizes that his title (Mr.) will not "give him away," just
as "husband" is less "exciting" than "wife." Indeed "Mr." does not give
him away, and his ambiguous marital status is the crux of the play's
action, for, explicitly and deceptively, he aims to turn Lulu from Miss to
Mrs. Men are the namers and it is in their ability to name, to define,
to turn language into action, that their power finally resides. And in the
absence of her father, it is Lulu's title (Miss) and her maiden name that
may be said, in another sense, to give her away, to authorize her to
be married.
Insofar as conventional dramatic speech and Dwight's
pompous logocentrism are reduced to absurdity in this farce, writing
becomes an especially contested site, for the written text signifies the
absence of the author. Miss Lulu Bett features the crucial letter
containing the information that will resolve the central conflict. Dwight,
who denies women access to important and literally powerful forms of
spoken discourse (e.g., he complains about women "generalizing''), is
even more adamant about forbidding women access to his mail. While
the final conflict over a significant letter will, in fact, prove
anticlimactic, Gale does all she can to prepare the audience for a
conventional climax. In the first act, Ina and Lulu both misplace a
62
ACKERMAN
letter for Dwight. The letter will introduce what proves to be the play's
complication, the visit of the outsider, Dwight's brother Ninian. The
pleasure and power in a letter (its relation climax) have specifically
phallic connotations. Yet Dwight's inability to police access to the
letter, his mail/male, will be a key to the unraveling of both his
authority and the plot. It is the spoken word through which the play
dramatizes the power of men to shape the experience of women.
Ninian follows his letter in person in Act 1, and it is his speech,
not his writing, that provides the plot's complication. In what appears
to be a paradigmatic performative utterance, he and Lulu are married
(or seem to be) before they realize it. It is now commonly understood
that performatives do not describe an event; they enact or make a
reality. "The act of marrying," J. L. Austin famously writes, may best
"be described as saying certain words, rather than as performing a
different, inward and spiritual, action of which these words are merely
the outward and audible sign."tB Spoken language has
transformational power. It is the economical presentation of this crucial
theme, the semantic function of the phonological by virtue of the
particularity of its pronunciation, that renders the play of much more
lasting value than the novel. The central section of dialogue must be
quoted at length:
Dwight: Got to amuse ourselves somehow. They'll
begin to read the funeral service over us.
Ninian: Why not the wedding service?
Dwight: Ha, ha, ha!
Ninian: I shouldn't object. Should you, Miss Lulu?
Lulu: 1-1 don't know it so I can't say it.
Ninian: I can say it.
Dwight: Where'd you learn it?
Ninian: Goes like this: I, Ninian, take thee, Lulu, to be
my wedded wife.
Dwight: Lulu, don't dare say that.
Ninian: Show him, Miss Lulu.
Lulu: I, Lulu take thee, Ninian, to be my wedded
husband.
Ninian: You will?
Lulu: I will. There-1 guess I can join in like the rest
of you.
Ninian: And I will. There, by Jove! Have we
ts J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. J. 0.
Urmson and Marina Sbisa (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1962), 13.
INFELICITIES OF FORM
entertained the company, or haven't we?
Ina: Oh, honestly-! don't think you ought to-holy
things so-what's the matter, Dwightie?
Dwight: Say, by George, you know, a civil wedding is
binding in this state.
Ninian: A civil wedding-oh, well-
Dwight: But I happen to be a magistrate. (113)
63
Ninian confuses a performance with a performative, and, though no
one realizes it at first, there has been a misinvocation of the procedure
of marriage. Theatrical and social forms are conflated in part "to
entertain the company." The action is performed because of a trip to
the theater. The ritual is initiated when Dwight demands some sort of
amusement as they wait to depart because he is afraid that in the
meantime his wife will "make a scene.'' The slippage between
theatrical and domestic life, however, quickly assumes "real"
importance. Lulu and Ninian have not, in fact, been married, but an
act has been performed, because, as Austin remarks, "Despite the
name, you do not when bigamous marry twice.'' However, " 'without
effect' does not here mean ' without consequences, results, effects.' " 19
And the performance of this doubly fictional (metatheatrical) marriage
will precipitate Lulu into another world in several senses. She will for
a time be propelled both out of Dwight's orbit and, equally important,
off the stage.
Gale, like Austin, recognizes that "truth" is theatrical, but, for
that very reason, individuals must act responsibly, i.e., not exploit the
faith of their listeners. To elide theatricality, to depend on the willing
suspension of disbelief of one's interlocutors is to exercise social
power. The problem is not in social power per se; it is in denying
certain persons access to that power. Ninian, the fabulist, is
dangerous, but it is also from Ninian that Lulu learns her most
important lessons. Ultimately the discovery of "facts," such as the
"truth" about Ninian's prior marriage, which characters, including Lulu,
insist are crucial, turn out to be largely unimportant in themselves as
Lulu agrees to conceal them from the community. The self-
consciousness of Gale's play about performing actions with words (to
joke, to scold, to pray, to prove, to lay down the law, to curse) signifies
how the truth of utterances may be constituted through the temporal
process of uptake. Several levels or contexts of performance
complicate the marriage between Lulu and Ninian, an event that
19 Ibid., 17.
64 ACKERMAN
happens so unexpectedly that the participants themselves are taken
by surprise. "He isn't in earnest," Lulu says. "I am in earnest," Ninian
replies, "hope to die" (114). Ninian's earnestness is theatrical. Ninian
already has defended lying as a form of "drama" (105). Yet in its
advocacy of a self-conscious realism, the play shows how the power of
Ninian's kind of artist/liar depends on the suspension of disbelief and
hence the disempowerment of his interlocutor. In this critique of the
liar in conjunction with the hasty wedding ceremony, Gale
demonstrates not that there is a single or fixed form of truth but, as
she says in an article, that "new conventions immediately arise, no less
shackling than the old."20 The idea that truth is performative can be
both liberating and dangerous. In this concern for the damage that
one can do with words, Gale's formalist and reformist impulses
combine, leading her to demand what might otherwise seem
paradoxical : "new forms" and "fundamental honesty."2t
In the forward to her collection Old-Fashioned Tales (1919),
Gale herself had distinguished between two forms of expression: "that
which says something" and that which " does not say anything, it does
something to you." The latter is "essentially an utterance, a mode of
activity, a path for energy."22 Gale's play may be suggesting that what
for Austin seems an " infelicity" is for feminine discourse the very
opposite-that balanced speech and listening must accommodate the
non-ends-directed utterances, rather than mourning them as
infelicities. In many ways Ninian is a benign alternative to Dwight, and
Lulu learns important lessons from Ninian. But newly learned words
will not free Lulu. And four particular responses to the apparent
marriage are important. Ninian exclaims, when it looks as if they really
have been hitched, "Well, I'll be dished." It is an odd line that reiterates
the food motif at the moment of theatrical and verbal consummation.
As it happens, the marriage will not stand the test of time but is simply
the confectionery of the evening. Second, Lulu, referring to the
ceremony (such as it is), exclaims, "I ought not to have done this.
Well, of course, I didn't do it-" indicating not only her self-effacing
modesty but also a profound intuition that an action has not been
performed if the words have not all been said and received seriously.
And the lack of seriousness implied by Lulu is made explicit by her
blunt mother, who says, "This is what comes of going to the theater,"
a remark that refers not only back to this particular farce but also to
2o Gale, " New Form of Play Coming," n.p.
21 Ibid.
22 Zona Gale, Old-Fashioned Tales (New York: D. Appleton-
Century Company, 1933), vii-viii.
INFELICITIES OF FORM 65
the commercial theatre in general. Fourth, and finally, Ina blurts out,
as they all head off for the train to the city and the theatre, "Oh, I'm
so flustrated!" And that typically irrelevant outburst is, in fact, of
central significance to the scene and the play as a whole. Ina is making
her scene, responding to the performance of a marriage ceremony, the
constrictions of the institution of marriage, her own unsatisfying
marriage, and in conjunction with all of the above, the inability of
conventional English to allow her adequate expression of her
experience.
Ninian knows the wedding service because he has performed
it before. After a month of married life, Lulu returns to the Deacon
home, having learned not only that Ninian was previously married but
also, and more important, that his first wife may still be living, making
him a bigamist. Terrified that the family honor will be tainted when
rumors begin to spread, Dwight demands that the "business" be kept
secret, though Lulu, concerned that she will be regarded as a bad wife,
insists on telling the "truth." This insistence provokes Dwight to
question just what the "truth" is, and he demands "proofs":
Dwight: ... Did he give you any proofs?
Lulu: Proofs?
Dwight: Letters-documents of any sort? Any sort of
assurance that he was speaking the truth.
Lulu: Why-no. Proofs-no. He told me.
Dwight: He told you . . .. I may as well tell you that I
myself have no idea that Ninian told you the truth ...
(123)
In the absence of the Truth, figured as the Letter, authority legislates
silence, but the key to Lulu's reversal and recognition is the discovery
of discursive multiplicity. She has traveled to another region with
Ninian, specifically to Atlanta. And from Southern ladies she learned
both a new grammar and a phonetics. She has heard another dialect
and learned that there are varieties of spoken language or acceptable
ways of varying from a generally recognized standard. Gale published
the two endings to the play together. But both endings feature the
same key exchange between the two sisters, Lulu and Ina.
Lulu: How good of you to miss me!
Ina: Lulu, you don't act like yourself.
Lulu: That's the way I heard the women talk in
Savannah, Georgia. "So good of you to miss me."
(151)
It is clear to all, not least to Ina, that speech is a form of action. And
66 ACKERMAN
this way of talking could only have come from elsewhere, another
province of language. Language is fundamental to the ontology of the
self, and if there is no truth that is not circumscribed by cultural
practices, the most fundamental of which is language, there is also no
self outside of language. One is always already represe.nted. Butler has
written that in being named one is constituted by a discourse, "but at
a distance from oneself." To speak in a new way is to assume a new
identity position.
In the revised, more sentimental and conservative ending, in
which Ninian returns, Lulu forgives, and they live happily ever after,
Mama Bett moralizes: "Plain talk won't hurt nobody around here." But
Mrs. Bett's plain talk deconstructs not only in the larger context of the
play but also in its own grammar. Of course, the line is to be read
colloquially to say that plain talk is good for everybody, for the non-
standard grammar, or this particular form of the double negative, is
itself a sign of plain talk. But Mrs. Bett has hardly been a practitioner
of plain talk herself in the rest of the play. And the literal meaning of
the sentence, with double negative, is that plain talk will hurt
somebody. Or perhaps there is no such thing as "plain talk." Yet in both
endings the curtain falls with Lulu still on stage, implicitly compromised
by the oppressive theatrical milieu that she claims to want to escape.
Lulu's subjectivity does not reside in Lulu but obscurely in the diverse
ways in which her utterances are received by listeners, onstage and
off.
Form is also thematized in the publication of multiple endings
and appreciation of that aspect of the play may lead to a re-reading of
the play's two endings. Gale's substitution of a second ending shortly
after the play's premiere need not be read simply as evidence that she
" capitulated to popular tastes and betrayed her earlier intentions,"23
though the exigencies of the popular theatre doubtlessly played a role
in that decision. But it is possible to see the writing and publication of
two endings as perfectly consistent with the play's deep preoccupation
with form itself. As we have seen, closure-as in a completed
sentence-is associated with masculine power. In her 1921 article
advocating new forms of plays and defending her own, Gale
concluded, "Perhaps the new drama is going to face the truth that
there is no 'ending,' happy or unhappy, anywhere in living. Perhaps it
will be free to use its episodes so long as they convince, without
labelling [sic] them.''24 The ability to imagine diverse solutions to
particular problems is beyond the ken of anyone who has accepted the
23 Judith E. Barlow, introduction to Plays by American
Women, xxiv.
24 Gale, "New Form of Play Coming," n.p.
INFELICITIES OF FORM 67
limitation of the Deacon family's worldview. In the opening stage
directions, those limitations are named in historical or socioeconomic
terms: The time is "the present." Place is "the middle class." Within
those constraints even the seemingly subversive Monona is bound by
the ecriture-feminine model of expression. Gale, unlike the Gertude
Stein of, say, Tender Buttons or Stein's own 1922 play, Ladies Voices,
is, paradoxically, radically practical. And ultimately Lulu's sensible
mixing and accommodating of discourses suggests a parallel with
Gale's own market-sensible writing of the second ending. Gale's play(s)
is/are radical not only because it/they privilege(s) a kind of feminine
expression but also because the openness to revision acknowledges
producing it/them in audience-accessible form.
A year after Gale won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Eugene
O'Neill won it for Anna Christie, yet O'Neill too found himself struggling
to justify a "seemingly facile happy ending."2s Unlike Gale, however,
O'Neill did not change the ending of his play. Anna may escape the fate
of the nineteenth-century "fallen" woman. But, because she lacks self-
consciousness, she falls into prescribed social and theatrical forms at
crucial moments. The only ways in which she can imagine herself are
derived from cultural forms that are deeply inscribed by an ideology of
gender and, in particular, one that links women to affect not intellect.
Responding to what critics described as an unsatisfying ending, O'Neill
wrote: "I have a conviction that with dumb people of her sort, unable
to voice strong, strange feelings, the emotions can find outlet only
through the language and gestures of the heroics in the novels and
movies they are familiar with-that is, that in moments of great stress
life copies melodrama."26 The dumb gestures of melodrama frequently
bring O'Neill's plays into tension with the detailed social realities that
he admires in the media of movies and books. But Miss Lulu Bett, the
drama unlike the silent film, never enters the domain of melodrama.
Lulu may begin as one of O'Neill's sort of dumb people but silence does
not express her. The achievement of her character is to discover not a
transcendent voice of her own but a world of voices. And unlike
O'Neill's play, in which different accents are sounded by the Swedish
Chris Christopherson, the Irish Mat Burke, and the Midwestern Anna,
or Wedekind's in which Lulu speaks German, French, and English,
Gale's play questions modes of discourse. Gale has written, as her
2s Brenda Murphy, American Realism and American Drama,
1880-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 118.
26 Isaac Goldberg, The Theatre of George Jean Nathan (New
York: Simon & Schuster, 1926), 154.
68 ACKERMAN
subtitle suggests, "An American Comedy of Manners." At the end of the
original third act, all the characters assemble on stage, demanding an
explanation of Lulu's extraordinary behavior in the overdetermined
terms of spoken language itself. "What ridiculous talk is this?" Dwight
asks rhetorically. Lulu responds that she is going "to work at I don't
know what. But I'm going from choice!" The freedom to work, or the
very question of what constitutes work, is the play's ultimate, loaded,
yet ambiguous motif, an idea connected fundamentally to talk. "If I
don't talk, how'll they know I'm there" (149), Monona demands of her
grandmother in the penultimate scene, after being shushed. In the
end, it is not speaking alone which guarantees one the full status of
human being. Unlike making cakes or babies, making a reality requires
an awareness of the action of making itself and, specifically, of the
binary oppositions of language: sound/sense, speaker/listener,
active/passive, subject/object. Only upon recognizing the formal
quality of language can one appreciate the structure and
constructedness of a whole reality. Miss Lulu Bett does not suggest
that one reality may be as good as any other but that each person
must construct through what she says, and in choosing to whom she
says it, the reality that will be the best for her.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 16, no. 1 (Winter 2004)
"STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER!-BY FORCE!":
BLANCHE AND THE EVOLUTION OF A RAPE
JOHNS. BAK
Arise and fly
The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
Move upward, working out the beast,
and let the ape and tiger die.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, CXVII.25-28
69
Despite its successful run on Broadway, A Streetcar Named
Desire was not immediately optioned, as most profitable Broadway
plays were, by any of the Hollywood studios.l Hollywood had never
before attempted a film of such an adult nature and failed to see how
Streetcar could be "retooled into a family movie," packaged, that is, for
a mass audience. 2 As R. Barton Palmer explains,
With its revelation and dramatization of sexual
misconduct, its delineation of a horrifying descent
into madness, its portrayal of women driven and
even controlled by desire, the play, in fact, offered
themes that could not be accommodated to any
Hollywood schema.3
When Streetcar was finally optioned by Warner Brothers, Williams was
thus not entirely surprised by the demand for scriptural changes that
1 A shorter version of this article first appeared in a collection
of essays prepared for French students taking the CAPES and
Agregation exam.
2 Gene D. Phillips, The Films of Tennessee Williams
(Phi ladelphia: Art Alliance, 1980), 81. See also his "Blanche's
Phantom Husband: Homosexuality on Stage and Screen," Louisiana
Literature 14, no. 2 (Fall 1997) : 36-47.
3 R. Barton Palmer, "Hollywood in Crisis: Tennessee Williams
and the Evolution of the Adult Film," The Cambridge Companion to
Tennessee Williams, ed. Matthew C. Roudane (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997), 214.
70 BAK
were to become, as Nancy Tischler describes, "the crux of the conflict
involving numerous individuals and organizations, from the producers,
directors, and advisers to the Hays office and the Roman Catholic
Church."4 Whereas the theatre venue-where Streetcar proved its
staying power-had already contained the seeds of its own
"censorship" through the high cost and limited availability of tickets,
the cinema, which was more democratic by nature, had to rely on less
economic forces to police its moral character. The Production Code of
the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), then headed by
Joseph Breen, exercised that force by demanding that Williams and
Kazan expurgate from the film version "the homosexuality of Blanche's
late husband, her evidently aggressive sexual appetite, and Stanley's
violent rape of his wife's sister."s
This history of Streetcar's censorship has been well
documented, with Tischler, Palmer, and Phillips among others
describing in various ways how Williams and Kazan effectuated Breen's
demands in altering the play for the screen, particularly the rape
scene. As their research has shown, Williams, all too familiar with the
economics of Hollywood morality (he had, after all, been recently
"sold" there by his agent Audrey Wood for $250 a week in April 1943),
was ready to accept some of the necessary changes to the script and
therefore did little to derail efforts to remove references to
homosexuality (these could be reinserted anyway through a queerly
encoded language of private allusions and metaphors) or to keep
Stanley from being punished for his act by the film's end, which he is
when Stella apparently leaves him.6 Williams refused, however, to
budge on the rape. In his letter to Breen, for example, Williams
explained his reasons for maintaining the integrity of the climactic rape
4 Nancy Tischler, "'Tiger-Tiger!': Blanche's Rape on Screen,"
Magical Muse: Millennia/ Essays on Tennessee Williams, ed. Ralph F.
Voss (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2002),
52. Tischler devotes her entire essay to precisely the problems of the
rape scene on film, comparing it first to its "conjugal rape scene"
(54) predecessor in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, then
providing more detailed information about the behind the scenes
maneuvering to bypass the Hays office and the Production Code
censors, including an analysis of playwright Lillian Hellman's
requisitioned revisions of the film's script.
s Palmer, in Roudane, 215.
6 Stella leaves Stanley at the end of the 1951 film version,
fleeing to Eunice's flat as she had done the night of the poker party.
Yet in Streetcar's 1994 director's cut Kazan restored the Production
Code's expurgated footage of the original ending, which intimates
that Stella's flight might again be short lived.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 71
scene, which, if excised, would decenter Streetcar not only
dramatically but, more importantly, thematically. "The rape of Blanche
by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play
loses its meaning . ... "7 To soften it under censorship laws, then,
would be to diminish, if not lose entirely, Streetcars and Williams's
souls, for as Palmer posits, "the rape was the plot's central event"-
remove it and "the story, and the characters whose development it
traced, would no longer make any coherent sense.''8
None of these critics, however, has convincingly treated the
reasons why Williams felt the rape was so essential to the film in the
first place. There were, to be sure, potentially dozens of ways Williams
and Kazan could have had Stanley exact his vengeance on Blanche in
the film, dozens of ways they could have articulated Blanche's tragic
suffering at the hands of her executioner. Given that Williams had
fought less over removing references to Allen Grey's homosexuality,
and with it much of the evidence of Blanche's guilt, it would appear
that he was less concerned with getting across to his film audience
why Blanche was in New Orleans than he was with what had forced
her to leave. So what was it about the rape that Williams felt could not
be compromised?9
The answer, I believe, lies more in Blanche than it does in
Stanley, and more in Williams's esoteric understanding of the word
"rape" than in his audience's collectivist definition of it. We (readers,
7 Qtd. in Phillips, 82.
a Palmer, in Roudane, 218.
9 Nearly half a century's academic criticism on Streetcar has
repeatedly asked this question, which often led to two other
perennial questions: with whom, then, are we to sympathize at the
end, and, because this question is so difficult to answer, is the
resultant ambiguity an artistic failure on Williams's part? The majority
of scholarship on Streetcar addresses one question, the other, or
both. Simply put, Streetcar criticism had become bifurcated between
those who saw Streetcar as a social play about the struggle between
Blanche and Stanley, and those who saw it as a psychological play
about Blanche's sole contention with herself. In terms of the social
reading of the play, critics have felt that the rape was a metaphor of
the North's ravenous assault on Southern agrarianism during
Reconstruction, Stanley, an obvious mouthpiece of the New South,
destroying the Old South's false pretensions and literally fertilizing it
with a new breed of carpetbagger mercantilism. For those reading
Streetcar psychologically, the rape was the destructive culmination of
all realistic social forces against the nonrepresentational imagination
of one of Williams's famed fugitive kind.
72 BAK
viewers, and critics alike) have perhaps focused too much on Stanley
and the reasons behind his actions than we have on Blanche and why
Williams felt her rape was inescapable.to One of the reasons behind
this truth lies in our having been visually influenced by performance,
particularly Branda's in Kazan's interpretation of the play as it moved
from the ephemeral stage to eternal celluloid. As Gene Phillips posits,
"When he finally assaults her in the play's climax ... , it is the action
of a desperate man equipped with more brawn than brains to cope
with a calculating creature who declared war on him when she first
stepped across his threshold."ll Once the rape was acted out on stage
or on screen by a real Stanley, it forever left the realm of the symbolic,
which is what Williams had envisioned from the start, and irrevocably
entered the mimetic. In other words, as Stanley passes from Williams's
literary tool to the audience's dramatic antihero/antagonist, we are
forced into either decriminalizing the rape (as Kazan had effectively
done) or acknowledging its tragic consequences (which Harold
Clurman, director of the road version of the play, had enacted)
because we are naturally incapable or unwilling to recognize or accept
any of the private, metaphysical intentions Williams might have
attached to the heinous act.
There exists, then, a continental divide between Williams's
epistemology and our positivist/phenomenological readings of the
rape, and to transcend the mimetic we would be obliged to read it in
a way entirely unorthodox (if not simply dangerous) to social order and
convention: as an act of symbolic liberation of a trapped spirit
(represented by Williams's ubiquitous bird imagery) locked within the
confines of a sexual body (his cat or tiger, in perpetual war with the
bird). It is precisely this reading of Blanche's rape that I wish to
undertake here. To understand fully the polemics of the rape in the
film, however, necessitates our returning first to the manuscripts
themselves, whose story testifies to the struggle Williams had first in
understanding who Blanche was-the sexual predator or the spiritual
victim-and then, once having found her, determining what
to What, for instance, motivates him, since an objective
correlative for his sexual impropriety was never established earlier in
the play, and since (and more importantly) his wife was
simultaneously giving birth to their child, of which he felt earnestly
proud?
n Though he does not wish to "justify Stanley's rape of his
sister-in-law" but rather "to explain it" (73), Phillips in a significant
way echoes what essentially Kazan himself had initiated more than
half a century earlier.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO H ER 73
consequences that dialectic would generate in her (madness) and on
those around her (social warfare). The complex evolution of Streetcar
would prove the rape to be more a working through of one person's
metaphysical debate than a climatic end to a dramatic pas de deux-
less victim/aggressor and more warrior/facilitator, which is wholly the
reason why Williams allowed no substitution when the play was
adapted to the screen. This essay, then, examines how Williams
arrived at the rape as the sole means of providing dramatic closure to
his morality play, though, once chosen, moved the play irreparably
from the symbolic toward the mimetic; a future essay will attempt to
explain why Williams chose rape and how the play's potential message
became distorted once the signifier left the page and found itself first
on the stage and then on the screen.t2
"LOOKING FOR MRS. GOODBAR":
BLANCHE IN THE EARLY MANUSCRIPTS
When Williams began drafting scenarios that would eventually
become Streetcar, there is little doubt that he was concerned with
Blanche's thematic development before her dramatic one, for in his
Memoirs Williams writes,
Almost directly after Menagerie went into
rehearsals I started upon a play whose first title
was Blanche's Chair in the Moon. But I did only a
single scene for it that winter of 1944-45 in
Chicago. In that scene Blanche was in some
steaming hot Southern town, sitting alone in a chair
with the moonlight coming through a window on
her, waiting for a beau who didn't show up. I
stopped working on it because I became
mysteriously depressed and debilitated and you
know how hard it is to work in that condition.B
That was not, research has since proven, Williams's first version of
Streetcar or of Blanche. Several critics have in fact traced the evolution
12 This essay, entitled " A Streetcar Named Dies Irae: Williams
and the Semiotics of Rape," is nearing completion.
13 Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (Garden City: Doubleday,
1975), 86.
74 BAK
of Streetcar and Blanche from the one-act plays in the 1945 collection
27 Wagons Full of Cotton-which were written as early as 1941-three
or four years prior to Williams's recollection-through to the
manuscript drafts of Streetcar, which Williams had begun as early as
1944.14 While Vivienne Dickson argues that Streetcar developed
through the manuscripts-with changes in locale, character name, and
nationalities-from a romance to a tragedy,ts Deborah Burks posits
that Williams created Blanche first but that the play did not find its
strength until Williams had heard Brando read for the role, discovering
for the first time a humanism in Stanley that would counter his
antagonistic bestiality.t6 Despite their individual conclusions, both
studies suggest that, while factually inaccurate concerning dates in his
Memoirs, Williams was precise in his assessment of Streetcar's
conception: Blanche drew the focus of his attention first, and Stanley
second, with Williams inverting the story of Genesis in having his Adam
created only to seduce Eve. Being more holistic in their approach to
explaining the genesis of Streetcar, however, neither of these studies
attempts to trace how Blanche was conceived or why Williams labored
so intensively toward her inevitable rape, two ideas essential to
comprehending the play's final moments.
Williams was often, more consciously than not, a revisionist
concerning facts about his own past, which (like many of his
characters) he viewed in equal balance between pleasure and pain.
Yet, while the facts may have changed, the truth behind them
invariably remained. So even if his Memoirs do not recount the first
version of Streetcar, he remembered it as such probably because it
14 Lyle Leverich suggests that even by November 1939,
when Williams was completing Battle of Angels, he already had
Streetcar or, more accurately, Blanche, in mind: "have an idea for a
new long play-rather, a character for a new long play-in New
Orleans-Irene-." See his Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams
(London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), 332.
1s Vivienne Dickson, "A Streetcar Named Desire: Its
Development through the Manuscripts," Tennessee Williams: A
Tribute, ed. Jac Tharpe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,
1977), 154-71.
16 Deborah G. Burks, '"Treatment Is Everything': The
Creation and Casting of Blanche and Stanley in Tennessee Williams'
'Streetcar,"' Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin 41
(1987): 16-39.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER
75
contained the essential truth behind Streetcar's meaning for him, or at
least the initial message it purported to carry, as evidenced by the
early manuscripts. There are five extant manuscripts of the early drafts
of Streetcar, dating from the (ca.) 1944 "Scenario for a film" entitled
"A Street-car Named Desire" (presumably written after Williams left M-
G-M) to before the fall of 1946 with a draft called "The Primary
Colors."17 In each of these five drafts, including the fragment "Electric
Avenue" and "Go, Said the Bird!," the locus of change for Williams is
not just that of Blanche, with Stanley developing simply from "a good-
natured 'pretty-boy' to the potentially explosive 'strong silent type,"18
but more specifically her gradual progression from an anachronistic
southern belle, whose gentility is accosted by the virile landscape of
modernity, to a femme fatale whose sexual appetite is at once gilded
with spiritual affectations and at other times sublimated by a
puritanical superego.
17 Concerning all dates surrounding the composition of
Streetcar, I refer to Sarah Boyd Johns's excellent 1980 dissertation,
"Williams' Journey to Streetcar. An Analysis of Pre-Production
Manuscripts of A Streetcar Named Desire," Ph.D. diss., University of
South Carolina, 1980. Though a bit different from Burks's stemma of
and commentary on the drafts, Johns competently traces the
development of the pre-production drafts of Streetcar not to suggest
Blanche's literary ancestry but to provide a chronology to and theory
behind the play's construction. I also spent time at the Harry Ransom
Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin
studying the manuscripts and thus cite here from the manuscripts
themselves, respecting all of Williams's spelling and grammatical
conventions, as well as his dramatic use of punctuation (particularly
ellipses and dashes). Any of Williams's deletions or emendations
made in the text, either in type or in holograph, are surrounded by
< > or { }, respectively. Any editorial changes I include are enclosed
in square brackets.
1s Johns, 16. Stella and Mitch (called Howdy and George at
various times) remain relatively consistent throughout these early
drafts, acting only as foils to Blanche as she journeys through her
psychological maelstrom. Only in the penultimate draft, "The Poker
Night," is Stanley's character developed and his relationship with
Blanche precariously balanced, suggesting from the start that
Williams was concerned first and foremost with Blanche and her
dialectic long before he began grappling with Stanley's character.
76
BAK
In the three-page draft "A Street-car Named Desire," for
example, Caroline Krause, a twenty-five-year-old junior high school
teacher in New Orleans who suffers from an inferiority complex, is
given advice from a doctor to go "away somewhere" and "get
married."19 Marriage, he tells her, will stop her "insomnia-
palpitations-acute and . unreasonable self-consciousness-feeling
panic-nerves . ... All without any physiological basis" [2]. Learning
that the school has lost five eligible bachelorette teachers already "to
matrimony" [2], Caroline becomes so depressed that by the end of the
school year she does leave to "go away somewhere" [3] but not for
reasons of matrimony. A stock character in the Williams canon (we find
her equivalent in Miss Jenny Starling of a later Williams screenplay, All
Gaul Is Divided, and in Dorothea Gallaway from A Lovely Sunday for
Creve Creur), Caroline is distraught most by the fact that the marriage
question itself is the cause of all of her problems:
But there isn't anybody, there hasn't been. I don't
see how there could be. I'm not attractive enough.
And even if I were pretty-I'm dull-and stupid! I
can't talk to people! I don't know how to laugh. [3]
Lacking self-confidence and charisma, Caroline is more like Alma
Winemiller than Blanche here, especially given that her nervousness
and southern gentility signal the beginnings of a mental breakdown.
Sexual desire is, of course, present here, though only alluded to in the
title of the scenario, as well as in the novel Caroline reads while riding
the streetcar: Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor's scandalous 1944
19 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "A Street-car
Named Desire (Scenario for a film)," n.d., pp. 2, 3, Harry Ransom
Humanities Research Center (hereafter HRHRC), University of Texas
at Austin, Texas. Further page references to this draft are cited
parenthetically in the text. Page numbers given within square
brackets indicate that no page number appears on the manuscript
page.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 77
novel about sixteen-year-old Amber St. Clare's sexual prowess in
seducing and sleeping her way to becoming Charles II's mistress.20
However, innocent romance is not yet sexual desire and Caroline only
resembles Blanche in her occupation and in its relationship to her
virulent fear of spinsterhood.
Similarly, in another early draft, "Electric Avenue" (whose
composition is also ca. 1944, around the time of The Glass Menagerie's
short run in Chicago from December 1944 to March 1945), Blanche,
Stella Landowski's sister, simply "has suffered."21 Because the three
pages constitute the "LAST SCENE" of this playlet, we are not sure as
to what has caused her suffering. All that Williams makes clear is that
Eddie Zawadski, ignoring his best friend's Stanley's demand that he
abandon Blanche, has come to end Blanche's suffering by taking her
as his wife, making this one the only draft to end happily: "You need
somebody. I need somebody, too" [3] . Eddie eases her mental unrest
by accepting whatever dastardly deed she is guilty of. "In spite of-
<all>-? {-even with-?}" [3], she says and goes to the window and
tells Eddie that she is looking for "God's face in the moon!" [3] to thank
Him for Eddie's forgiveness: "I didn't know there was-going to be so
much-pity ... " [3]. What would eventually develop full-blown into
Blanche's flesh/spirit dialectic, however, is only inchoate here, despite
our never knowing what prompts it. The implication, both in the
electricity of the title and in Blanche's demureness in revealing all that
prompts Stanley from having his best friend stoop to accepting
20 Forever Amber was so popular in America that, despite (or
because of) being banned in Boston for its raciness, it was the best-
selling novel of the 1940s. Blanche reads this, along with Mitchell's
Gone with the Wind, in a very late fragment of scene five in
Streetcar. See unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire: Scene V]," n.d., pp. 1, HRHRC, University of Texas at
Austin, Texas. At other times, Blanche tells Stella she wants a man
"who has read a couple of books, not just <only the Mother Goose
book and> Forever Amber." See unpublished typed manuscript
fragment, "[A streetcar named desire: Scene]," n.d., pp. 1, HRHRC,
University of Texas at Austin, Texas; cf. unpublished typed
manuscript, "A streetcar named desire (A play)," Teems, with A
inserts [2 pp.], T inserts [15 pp.], and A emendations on 15 pp., n.d.,
pp. 62, HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.
21 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire] Electric avenue: last scene," n.d., pp. 3, HRHRC,
University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Further page references to this
draft are cited parenthetically in the text.
78 BAK
Blanche as his wife, is simply sexual indiscretion; but Williams makes
Blanche here appear to be nothing more than a fallen woman who is
given, as this draft's epigraph from Prometheus Bound by "Aeschuyles"
[sic] prepares us for, "blind hope .. . " [3].
After establishing Blanche's fear of spinsterhood in these first
two drafts, Williams begins experimenting more fully with her potent
sexuality. "Go, Said the Bird!", written in December 1945, has Blanche
Shannon and George (Mitch) discuss, among other things, her
superiority complex, her tenuously hidden strip-tease behind the open
portieres, her gay lover, and her affair with the high school student.
Yet the locus of Blanche and George's conversation is on sex: how
Blanche was once promiscuous at Blue Mountain High School but is
now frigid toward George: "You're lily white? ... So is mud!"22 Despite
her coyness, Blanche's sexuality is latent, as George denotes in his
description of her undressing in full view before him:
When I met you the night of the poker party and
you took off your shirt with the portieres open and
turned around and smiled at me with the light on
Y
ou-
thought, My God-This woman is a tiger! . .. The
tiger was a sweet young English teacher, visiting
her sister for her summer vacation. Butter wouldn't
melt in that sweet mouth of hers. [2]
In this fragment, Blanche acquires the nature of the tiger she will
embody in Streetcar-vibrant sexuality. She is not ashamed of her past
encounters and tells George, "what people do with their bodies is not
really what makes good or bad people of them!" [3] She will not give
in to George's sexual desires, though, until he asks her to marry him,
which he won't now because "laid end to end" Blanche's lovers would
"stretch all the way from here to Frenchman's Bayou!" [5]23 To further
22 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire: Scene IX]," n.d., pp. 2, HRHRC, University of Texas at
Austin, Texas. Further page references to this draft are cited
parenthetically in the text.
23 In an even later version of "The Poker Night," Williams
uses this reference again, though altered, to show not only how
prodigious were Blanche's lovers, but also how proud she is of her
sexual exploits. For when Mitch says that Stanley told him that if he
laid "every mother's son" she seduced from "feet to forehead, they'd
stretch all the way from here to Lake Pontchartrain," in other words
"about three miles." Blanche, now drunk, laughs and replies, "No,
further! ... Further than that. his estimate is too modest. The men
who've enjoyed me, the strangers to whom I gave pleasure, would
pave a glittering highway from here to-Mobile!" See unpublished
typed manuscript, "A streetcar named desire (A play)," Teems, with A
inserts [2 pp.), T inserts (15 pp.), and A emendations on 15 pp.,
n.d., pp. 109, HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 79
connect her sexuality with the cat, Williams writes in the closing scene
just before the curtain descends: "( .. . ON A FENCE NEARBY A CAT
SCREECHES. BLANCHE LEANS SUDDENLY FORWARD AND IMITATES
THE SCREECH)" [6].
Although no real reference to the bird exists in the fragment
that makes up "Go, Said the Bird!", there is one in its title, where the
reference to the bird indi rectl y suggests Blanche's spiritual side, one
which Williams would repeatedly use throughout his canon, especially
in Streetcar. Moreover, Williams often used epigraphs, as he did
colorful and informative titles, to provide clues to decoding his cryptic
plays, just as he does here.24 Therefore, the title and epigraph to this
draft, "Go, said the bird, go, go, go, said the bird! Human I kind cannot
bear very much reality" (a misquote ofT. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" that
was later dropped and then found its way instead into Ten Blocks on
the camino Real and camino Rea{), further recall the spiritual fight
Blanche encounters with her sexually feline side evidenced in the
script, with the indirect reference to reality here denoting that such a
struggle often implies a rupture between the rational and irrational
mind.25
Within these first three drafts, Williams apparently shifted his
view of Blanche away from the spiritually distraught teacher and more
towards the sexually vibrant siren. And yet the dialectic is always
somehow present, with Williams simply inverting the spiritual/sexual
subtext through the titles of his drafts. If, for instance, spiritual piety
24 As Delma E. Presley and Hari Singh write, "The epigraphs
to Tennessee Williams' plays provide insights usually ignored in
critical discussions of his works" and are "helpful clues for the
interpreter of each play" (2). Since epigraphs to Williams's plays
always suggest the work's major theme, the theme of the final
version of Streetcar has allusions to Hart Crane's poem, "The Broken
Tower." As this is the case here, early epigraphs to Streetcar allow us
to trace Williams's reworking of his theme, displaying for us that his
sympathies in Streetcar obviously lay from the start with Blanche and
her spiritual nature. See Delma E. Presley and Hari Singh, "Epigraphs
to the Plays of Tennessee Williams," Notes on Mississippi Writers 3
(Spring 1970): 2-12.
2s Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire] Go, said the bird! (A play)," T title page, pp. 1,
HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Johns believes this
separately filed title page is meant to accompany the six-page
fragment entitled "Scene IX" discussed above, presumably because
both cite the character name "Blanche Shannon," one not found
elsewhere in any of the other manuscripts.
80 BAK
is caroline's lot in life in the film scenario "A Street-car Named Desire,"
Williams informs us that a burning sexuality inevitably lurks
unconsciously behind that identity, just as the licentious Blanche
Shannon in "Go, Said the Bird!" belies a liminal purity. Within each of
these fragments, however, that duality is inscribed solely in reference
to Blanche. The various characters who incarnate Stanley Kowalski
either support or judge Blanche's many avatars, but do little beyond
providing advancement in the plot. Williams was closer to writing a
medieval morality play here than he was a twentieth-century tragedy,
with little to no dramatic conflict vehicling the philosophic import, as it
does in Streetcar. Nor is there any significant sexual or spiritual
struggle between the Stanley and the Blanche in the fourth, untitled
draft, though for the first time Stanley's character begins to signify a
sexual presence in the story.
Set in Chicago, this three-page manuscript (the third page has
only "Rosa:" at the top) begins exploring more recognizably the
conflict of Streetcar, especially the love triangle and the marriage
question, though the most significant changes are found only in the
character names (Lucio, Rosa, and Bianca for Stanley, Stella, and
Blanche, respectively) and nationalities.26 Lucio (the "light" that will
eventually attract/burn Blanche the moth), Rosa, and their visiting
relation Bianca, Rosa's "older unmarried sister" [1] from Baton Rouge,
are Italian, and Williams makes much of this fact in his stage setting,
the first of its kind here to make any significant literary contribution to
the story. The scene is described as a claustrophobic two-room "south
side flat of an Italian American menage in Chicago" with a "Latin-
Catholic richness of color contained in such items as a painting of the
Virgin, prayer candles in crimson glasses, a silk kimona [sic] sprinkled
with red poppies hanging on the chair . . . " [1]. In addition to the
symbolic setting, we are finally given insight into Lucio's (Stanley's)
character, who halfway through the fragment becomes Ralph (which,
Johns notes, suggests that Williams was already working through the
conflict of nationalities). Despite his "weakly good-looking" appearance
and "playful tenderness" amounting to "effeminacy if he were not
Italian" [1], he wears a sexually-signified "silk bowling shirt with the
name of his firm's team, The Busy Beavers, applied in scarlet" [1]-a
prurient detail Williams no doubt adds to foreshadow Bianca's past.
26 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[Streetcar
named desire (early form)]," n.d., HRHRC, University of Texas at
Austin, Texas. Further page references to this draft are cited
parenthetically in the text. Johns also dates this fourth draft from
around December 1944 to March 1945, during the Chicago run of
The Glass Menagerie.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 81
Bianca, however, again an "old maid school teacher" [2] who cannot
secure herself a husband, resembles Blanche only in what she is and
not really in who she is. Though the characters are still nothing more
than tools to work out plot and locale, and Blanche's inner dialectic is
suggested only in Bianca's failing beauty and desire to be married,27
the stage signification of sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley
is explicit and begins preparing for their conflict. In each of the
subsequent drafts, in fact, Williams moves closer and closer to
exploiting their mutual sexuality, with Blanche's spirituality all but
getting pushed aside.
Williams quickly abandons the locale and characterization of
Lucio, Rosa, and Bianca in his fifth draft, now set in Atlanta and
comprising thirty-two pages of similar character traits and interaction
between Stella and Ralph and between Blanche and Howdy/Mitch.
Though the first two fragments of this draft reflect a nonsequential
revision process (using Mitch in one and Howdy in the other) and have
some variance in plot, the third fragment of this draft is cohesive and
entitled "The Primary Colors." Blanche's surname is now Collins, like
Lucretia Collins in Portrait of a Madonna (Streetcar's closest one-act
predecessor), and although there are several noteworthy changes in
the series of these early drafts that are important to Streetcar, the one
of significance here is Blanche's clearly established sexuality and direct
promiscuity toward Ralph (Stanley). Though Blanche falls prey to
Stanley in Streetcar, Ralph here is the victim of Blanche's overt sexual
aggression.
Still an "old maid school-teacher," Blanche is preparing for a
date with Mitch. Though not entirely Blanche's ,ideal suitor, Mitch at
least "isn't <Irish> {common!} like Ralph.2B She sees her sexuality
fading, however, and realizes that this will be her last attempt at
marriage, an institution which she feels will at once secure her
reputation and preserve her innocence (that is, sexual intercourse is
27 For a brief analysis of how the characters here compare
with Shakespeare's Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and Lucio in
Measure for Measure, see Joan Wylie Hall's" 'Gaudy Seed-Bearers':
Shakespeare, Pater, and A Streetcar Named Desire," Notes on
Contemporary Literature 20, no. 4 (September 1990): 9-11.
2s Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire] The primary colors (A play)," n.d., pp. 22, HRHRC,
University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Further page references to this
draft are cited parenthetically in the text.
82 BAK
sanctioned through marriage and thus eliminates any sense of
religious guilt). And yet, at the end of this first fragment, after Stella
and Ralph (whose antagonism toward Blanche in Streetcar is here
mere cajolery) have left for the evening, Blanche sits patiently for
Mitch to arrive, waiting to tell him that she will marry him (though she
is still hesitant about her decision). As Blanche goes to the window to
sit in her chair,
(RIGHT OUTSIDE AN ALLEY-CAT RAISES A LONG
NOCTURNAL HOWL.)
(BLANCHE LEANS SLOWLY FORWARD, HER WHOLE
FIGURE TAUT LIKE A CAT ABOUT TO SPRING.
THEN SHE TWISTS HER MOUTH DOWN AND
IMITATES THE CRY OF THE CAT.)
(LONG AND HIDEOUSLY!) [24; cf. 13]
This stage direction, and Ralph's earlier jibe that Blanche leaves the
apartment smelling like a "cat-house" [24] after she primps for her
date, clearly signifies her latent feline sexuality, though Williams
returns to the Blanche of before-the prudish spinster afraid of sexual
commitment. Sex, the flesh, is for her only a means to ensnaring a
husband, which is now indirectly a way for her to preserve her delicate
spirit. But her artistic refinement and haughtiness only further
ostracize her from a potential mate.
This sexuality becomes more pronounced when, in the second
fragment of this fifth draft, Williams continues the scene with Blanche
and her suitor (now called Howdy) after Stella and Ralph have left.
Blanche's nervousness is again poignant here as she tells Howdy, "I'm
out of my mind" [28], though her mental capacity is far more stable
here than it will be in Streetcar. After some uncomfortable laughter
about his new job on the "precision bench of the spare parts
department" [25]-a position Blanche feels is beneath her desire for
social status-they start into the Southern Comfort, "a lick-cur" [27],
as Howdy says, which gets them drunk. Released from her inhibitions
through the effects of alcohol, Blanche winds up in bed with Howdy,
and the scene ends with Stella and Ralph discovering them in the
apartment. What Williams was searching for here, it seems, is the
balance between Blanche's sexuality and femininity: she is not as
coarse as Howdy but realizes that at twenty-seven (and this is her
birthday), her chances at marriage are diminishing. While she learns
that sexuality need not be conditional, we are still left wondering how
her desire for social status will accommodate Howdy's blue-collar
status.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 83
Blanche's sexuality, couched in her mimicry of the cat before
Mitch's/Howdy's arrival, becomes less obtuse in the third fragment of
the fifth draft (the only fragment that contains the title "The Primary
Colors," wherein his stage directions themselves Williams refers clearly
to Blanche's sexual overtures to Ralph Stanley, as he is now called).
"Pale, refined and delicate," though "charged with with [sic] plenty of
that blue juice which is the doves of Aphrodite's or anyone's car!" [2],
Blanche is slowly integrating her flesh and spirit. As she had done in
the previous fragment, Blanche takes a bath to cleanse away her
fleshly corruption; afterwards, she demands white clothing and a white
handkerchief [5], the purity of which also identifies her as the
moth/soul of Streetcar. Moreover, Williams begins fleshing out Ralph
here, having him rebuff Stella's sexual advances and behave uxoriously
toward Blanche. The antagonism that will electrify Blanche and
Stanley's sexual attraction is not yet apparent, however; instead,
Williams chooses to symbolize that eventual encounter, albeit now
mutual, through the signification of colors, hence the fragment's title.
For example, after her bath and before the scene blacks out,
Blanche enters wearing a "BRILLIANT SCARLET SILK KIMONA [sic],"
while Ralph has on his "VIVID GREEN SILK BOWLING SHIRT" [6].
After some playful banter, Blanche says to Ralph, commenting upon
the nature of the color of their clothing, "We're like a stop-light, aren't
we? Red and green!" [12]. Just prior to this sexual play, however,
Williams establishes the innocence of their attraction. With Stella
preparing for a night out with Eunice and Blanche wanting into the
bathroom to retrieve her "finger-nail scissors" (the tiger claws that the
matron nurse in the final lines of Streetcar says need trimming), we
next hear about Blanche's love for both Stella and Ralph and that she
will be leaving them soon since Mitch has asked her to marry him
(though she is still uncertain in accepting the offer since his job, still
"on the replacement bench-in the spare parts department" [10], lacks
the prestige she desires in life: "I don't want to slip in the world. I want
to improve myself" [11]). Only once Stella leaves does Blanche utter
her comment about their clothing. The effect here is of Williams
working through the unconsciousness of Blanche and Ralph's
attraction to show that nothing was premeditated (an important
development toward the rape). In another version of the scene,
Williams writes,
Blanche: "What a charming costume . .. Green!
And Red! Like a stop-light!"
Ralph: "What's red?"
Blanche: "My-Kimona [sic]."
Ralph: "Like a stop-light?"
84 BAK
Blanche: "Yes!"
Ralph: "Or a go signal?"
(Pause) [32]
Blanche answers him silently as she lets him come up "VERY CLOSE
TO HER, EXTENDING THE CIGARETTE" [33]. In this version, Williams
attributes for the very first time to Ralph a hint of culpability in his
attraction to Blanche, while continually maintaining Blanche's invitation
to his advances. Moreover, we begin to see the dichotomy of Blanche
sincerely emerging, where her talk of purity and higher aspirations
seems in earnest despite her dominant sexuality.
In these early five drafts, then, Blanche's sexual nature is
clearly established, as is the cat imagery that will eventually
accompany it in the final play. Again, near the end of third version of
the draft, after Stella leaves her alone for the evening with Ralph and
tells them to have fun, Blanche says, "Oh, I am sure to have some
fun-that's all I'm sure of" [13]. As Blanche retreats to the window,
(AN ALLEY CAT, JUST OUTSIDE, RAISES A LONG
NOCTURNAL HOWL.
(BLANCHE TWISTS HER MOUTH DOWN AND
IMITATE'S [sic] THE CAT'S CRY, LONG AND
HIDEOUSLY. [13]
As for her spiritual side, Williams continually insists on her artistic
nature, her repeated baths, and her need for things white and
unsoiled. Though late in entering the storyline in these early drafts,
however, Blanche's sexuality now far outweighs her spirituality. In the
subsequent drafts, those coming from the penultimate version of
Streetcar-"the Poker Night"-Williams would look to refining her
spiritual side so as to make its dialectical relationship with her
instinctive sexuality more pronounced. Yet Williams would be troubled
by this dialectic: knowing now who Blanche was, and understanding
Ralph's/Stanley's role within her dialectical struggle, Williams did not
yet know how that dialectic would be worked out through their mutual
attraction.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 85
PROMETHEUS UNBOUND:
STANLEY AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE RAPE
By late 1945, then, though not in the fashion that it would
become, the cat and the bird imagery accompanies Blanche's budding
southern dialectic29 (as Stanley's ape imagery would his
primitiveness), which transforms this story from the Shakespearean
romance of Bianca and Lucio in the slums of Chicago to the
metaphysical battle between flesh and spirit in the sultry Vieux Carre
of"The Primary Colors." Had Williams intended Streetcarfrom the start
to end in Blanche's final submission to the one man who breaks her,
then the rape could understandably be interpreted as the polemic that
some critics have branded it. But the ending did not come easily for
Williams, despite his experimentation with it elsewhere as a viable
dramatic possibility.
In fact, in the now-famous letter to his literary agent Audrey
Wood, dated 23 March 1945---more than two years prior to completing
Streetcar-Williams's proposal of three possible endings reflects his
continued uncertainty:
One, Blanche simply leaves-with no destination.
Two, goes mad.
Three, throws herself in front of a train in the
freight-yards, the roar of which has been an
ominous under-tone throughout the play.3o
29 Although the "southern dialectic" is my neologism, its
traditions date back to the Fugitives from Vanderbilt and are
encountered in nearly every significant southern hero/heroine of the
writers of the Southern Renaissance. Drawing from what southern
historian W. J. Cash called the "Cavalier thesis" in his The Mind of
the South (1941; reprint, New York: Knopf, 1970), the southern
dialectic adds a southern twist to the Platonic search for Truth
through duologue and Hegel's essentialist science of synthesis. This
dichotomous nature of the South had a lasting impact on how
Williams viewed the world around him, for, as he wrote of himself in
1947, "there was a combination of Puritan and Cavalier strains in my
blood which may be accountable for the conflicting impulses I often
represent in the people I write about." See his Where I Live:
Selected Essays, ed. Bob Woods and Christine R. Day (New York:
New Directions, 1978), 58.
30 Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, 23 March 1945,
HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.
86
8AK
This letter suggests Williams's conscious effort to resolve Blanche's
dilemma, one that he had explored fully in the drafts of the past year
or so as well as in the one-act plays from 27 Wagons Full of Cotton
and Other Plays; and just as he had found it difficult to resolve the
dialectic there, Williams would struggle to find that resolution in the
drafts of Streetcar for the next two years. Only by strengthening
Stanley's sexuality and instilling fear in Blanche of her own potency did
Williams recognize that the rape was the only dramatic solution to the
thematic dilemma he had confronted in Blanche.
Williams had explored his first proposed ending in "The
Primary Colors," then again in a few early fragments of Williams's next
draft, "The Poker Night" (what Johns calls the "morning after" scenes),
where Williams experiments with the result of this attraction. Whereas
before it was Blanche who was the aggressor, here it is finally Stanley,
though Blanche's disinterest in fighting him is evidenced through her
lackluster attempt to keep him at bay and in her eventual (and even
passionate) response to his advances. In one three-page sketch, for
instance, after having had a sexual encounter that is closer to sexplay
than rape, Ralph says, "I can't see you and me and Stella all in two
rooms together after last night.''31 Blanche agrees and decides to leave
so as not to create unnecessary tension between the two of them.
Then, Ralph congratulates Blanche on putting up a good "fight <that
any man could be proud of>," and Blanche responds, "A trapped
human being will always put up a fight" [2]. What sounds like rape,
though, soon blurs into seduction, for Blanche brings to the surface
her unconscious desire for Ralph to take her sexually:
Blanche: "Yes? -What about last night [sic]"
Ralph: "In fifteen years of experience-"
Blanche: "I stand alone?"
Ralph: "Like nothing-a man-could dream of-"
Blanche: "Ha! Since we're exchanging bouquets, let
me add this one. Everything's been a preparation
for you in <what else> what I've gone through,
also! I am really surprised the walls are still
standing. There was one moment when I thought
we were lying out-doors halfway between this crazy
old world and the moon! (THEY BOTH ALUGH [sic]
31 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire: Scene]," n.d., HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin,
Texas. Further page references to this draft are cited parenthetically
in the text.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 87
A LITTLE.) I guess that was the moment when I-
scratched you .. . . " [3]32
Even in this repeated attempt at the first ending, albeit more fully
realized than the innuendo which closes "The Primary Colors," the rape
is still less an act of Ralph's sexual violation and more their liminally-
desired mutual attraction, with Blanche being only predictably coy to
his sexual advances.
Williams must have soon recognized that this recipe for desire
was more melodramatic than tragic, and needed to submerge
Blanche's desire more so as to make her not only theatrically
believable for an audience but also morally acceptable. Thus, in
another two-page fragment from scene ten of "The Poker Night,"
Blanche now expresses her disgust for Ralph, though her words, then
her actions, belie her conscious desires. Ralph, equally irate with and
sexually charged by Blanche's elitist reproaches, begins advancing
toward her threateningly, saying, "<Didn't you know that?> We've had
a date with each other from the beginning! .. . Didn't you know
that!"33 Ralph's "(EYES AND TEET <C>H CATCH THE GLARE" while
Blanche "RETREATS TOWARD THE WINDOW)":
(SUDDENLY SHE THROWS HER FISTS UP IN THE
AIR AND SHAKES THEM CRAZILY WITH A SHRILL,
TORMENTED OUT-CRY) . . Yes, ~ ' ~ , ~ ,
~ [2]
32 This long speech by Blanche is marked between brackets
in ink with the word "cut" handwritten in the right margin. On the
verso of page one is handwritten the following dialogue:
-What is the matter with my back?
-Scratches!
-Scratches all over like [sic] tyger [sic] clawed me!
-[illegible]
-Now, I just want to get dressed and get out of here.
-That's an old story, my dear. [verso 1]
33 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire: Scene X]," n.d., HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin,
Texas. Further page references to this draft are cited parenthetically
in the text.
88 BAK
As Johns points out, Blanche in this scene, as in several others, is
"evidently aroused to erotic heights by aggression and violence":
"Ralph overcomes Blanche with physical force, but she responds
passionately after a fierce struggle against him."34 As with the last
fragment discussed above, there is some driving force bringing
Blanche and Ralph together, and that destiny is not entirely unwanted
or undesired by either, but since Williams moves it out of the plot and
into the realm of the symbolic or at least the subconscious, he begins
opening the play up to higher levels of artistry.
That destiny, which perhaps also begins hiding Williams's
stronger social message in the play, is realized only once in all of the
extant manuscripts. On the verso of two title pages entitled "The
Passion of a Moth"-exhibiting once more Williams's insistence that
Blanche carry a fragile, spiritual nature along side her sexual one-are
various attempts at displaying Blanche's phantasm of being the
Madonna of the Modernist Christ, one who successfully integrates the
clash of opposing worlds (hers and Stanley's) and dialectical conflicts
(flesh and spirit certainly, but also past and present, time and
timelessness, etc.). In this fragment, Blanche accepts Stanley's gift of
a bus ticket for her birthday, as well as "a couple of ten-spots on the
dresser."3S It is the morning after their love-making, and Blanche is
preparing to leave, though she has "no plans whatsoever!" [verso 1].
After delivering her "unwashed grape" monologue (in holograph, thus
Williams's first draft of her speech, though here it is delivered
romantically to Stanley whereas in the play it will be spoken to Eunice
and Stella at the end to signal her madness), Blanche pontificates on
what her life might bring her. Though Stanley has left the room without
her knowing it, Blanche continues to tell him:
34 Johns, 102-03.
35 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire] The passion of a moth (A play in ten scenes)," n.d.,
verso p. 1, HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Further
page references to this draft are cited parenthetically in the text. The
trouble in reading and citing from this fragment is that Williams
reused typing paper liberally, even if there was something already
written on one side, which might have nothing to do with what he
was at present writing. That is the case here. Williams experimented
frequently with various versions of the same scene, and all of this
was done on the verso of a title page of previous draft. HRHRC
catalogued both the title pages and the fragments as it deemed
them independently relevant to discerning Streetcars evolution.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER
(Suddenly laughing) You know what I've just
thought of? This unholy union of ours may not have
been fruitless. I may bear you a son. That strikes
me as being in the realm of probability. (Laughs) I'll
bear you a son. I'll creep in some lightless corner
or drop in a ditch somewhere and bear you a child
that will be more beast than human.-Because our
collision, that awful crashing together, could not
result in anything more than a beast or less than an
angel. And this, this angelic monster coming to be,
will rise out of smoke and confusion to clear it
away. He will clear it all away. He will clear it all, all
away. All the confusion, all the brutality, all the
sorrow, [sic] will be washed off and we will be
shining again!-What shall we call him? We'll call
him Le Fils de Soleil-the Sun's child! [ ... ]
And I, the anonymous drab who was his mother-
will be lost in the crowd about the-colisseum! [sic]
Ha-ha!-Proudly smiling with tears on her ravaged
face .... [ ... ] But now I've got to get packed-
and be going-somewhere .... [verso 2]
89
As this is the end of the fragment, with the curtain falling just after a
final stage direction describes the forces of modernism in the form of
the locomotive outside the window, it reveals in shocking clarity how
Williams saw Blanche and Stanley's sexual encounter not in mimetic
terms but rather in symbolic ones, not as theatrical movement but
rather as divine (or at least determinist) intervention.
This ending, like each of the attempted endings prior to it,
suggests that Williams labored to resolve Blanche's dialectic through
an act of the flesh, though it was her spirit that preoccupied him the
most. Yet rape was simply not within the realm of possibilities Williams
imagined his play would likely end; Blanche desired, first consciously
then not, her and Stanley's encounter too much for it to prove
licentious. He would begin experimenting more with Blanche's
unconscious desire, brought to the surface only after Stanley awakens
it through his conscious lust for her. In another four-page fragment of
"The Poker Night," for example, written on the verso of the typescript
for the 1943 story "The Angel in the Alcove," Blanche describes
precisely what Johns says of all of these early drafts, that is, what
"started as rape ended in satiety"36:
36 Johns, 17.
90
Remember you took me, [sic] It wasn't I that took
you. So if you got somewhat more than you
bargained for, Mr. Kowalski-If you hadn't
suspected a lady could be so <awful> {violent}-
(could give such a wild performance when
aroused)-try to remember the way it started, not
I but you, putting dynamite under the tea-<pot>
{kettle}.J7
BAK
The reason why the rape had not yet become what it would be in
Streetcar is that Blanche, simply put, is still the stronger of the two
sexually, and therefore could not be "broken" by Ralph's/Stanley's first
passive then active advances. Williams's difficulties in "The Poker
Night" would continue until the moment he recognized that his answer
to ending Blanche's dialectic lay in a sexually stronger Ralph/Stanley
and a more frightened Blanche.
The third option stated in Williams's letter to Audrey Wood, in
which Blanche throws herself in front of a passing train, is never
realized in writing. Williams must simply have known early on that
Blanche's inner-strength was life-affirming and not life-terminating,
which is partly why she is helpless in resolving her dialectic by herself.
In the second ending, though, Williams would find his solution and
would work arduously to achieve it. In a world of illusion, one Blanche
tried to make New Orleans into with her candles, paper lanterns, and
liquor, one where all Stanley Kowalskis become Shep Huntleighs,
creatures like Blanche DuBois can flourish. And the perfect illusion is
one that only the mind can create for itself. Blanche, incompatible with
either world, must coexist in both. But since she cannot deny Stanley's
reality (which holds that wildcat in her, that animus of her spirit, in
chains), she cannot wholly accept Shep's illusion either (despite all that
it promises for her). If she could permanently cleave in her mind these
contradictory worlds, leaving her wholly the bird, the anima forever
freed from the harsh realities of the Kowalski world (for she never
could exist solely as the wildcat, not in her time anyway, nor would her
guilt allow for it), then she could live forever in stasis, which for her is
not an undesirable existence. All that was left for Williams to decide
was what, thematically and dramatically speaking, would finally push
an already demented women further into madness-the rape.
37 Qtd. in Johns, 108.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 91
Not until he began envisioning Stanley's raw sexuality, then,
did Williams see what sex could do with respect to Blanche, how
Stanley's character could function beyond being her dramatic foil.
Once he discovered this, Williams began weaving Stanley's sexuality
into the fabric of his dramatic tapestry. Therefore, in subsequent
attempts to find the right balance between them, Williams increased
Ralph's liability in the rape and further removed Blanche's conscious
duplicity. Their attraction is still there, but Blanche is now more
frightened by him than before. In one late sketch of "The Poker Night,"
for example, after she and Ralph had their torrid encounter, Blanche
comments about the scratches she has left on his back, to which
Stanley responds, "Scratches all over like a tyger [sic] clawed me!"3B It
is at first ambiguous as to whether these marks were due to her
passion or her repulsion. In another fragmented dialogue on the verso
of this same sketch, it is now Stanley who declares sole responsibility
for the result of their desire:
You know, I admire you, Blanche. You got into a
tight corner and you fought like a wi ld-cat to get
back into the open. I was a son of a bitch to stand
in your way. Protecting Mitch? Hell, I didn't care
about Mitch. I wanted you for myself is the truth of
the matter. Did you know that?39
Similarly, in a late version of scene eleven, which Williams crossed out
and then left directions, either to himself or to a typist, to insert an
emended page of new dialogue, Eunice and Stella are talking about
Blanche's claim that "Stanley made love to her!-[ . .. ] . .. by force!"4o
In that inserted page, Williams added that Stella does not want to
believe Blanche's story, but she cannot deny that his "pyjamas [sic] are
38 Qtd. in ibid., 105.
39 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire: Scene X]," n.d., p. 2, HRHRC, University of Texas at
Austin, Texas. Further page references to this draft are cited
parenthetically in the text.
40 Unpublished typed manuscript, "A streetcar named desire
(A play)," Teems (132 pp.) with A inserts (2 pp.), T inserts (15 pp.)
and A emendations on 15 pp., n.d., pp. 120-21, HRHRC, University
of Texas at Austin, Texas. Further page references to this draft are
cited parenthetically in the text.
92 BAK
torn to shreds and his shoulders and back are covered with scratches
as if a wild-cat had clawed him" (121). Whereas Williams had in these
last fragments unquestionably strengthened Stanley's role in the rape,
there was still missing something in Blanche to counter Stanley's
aggression: to remove her sexuality entirely and make Stanley the
dominant aggressor and her the helpless victim would be to undo all
of the complexities Williams had been building up in her character. In
other words, to replace Blanche's sexuality with Stanley's would be to
simplify her nature and to privilege melodrama over tragedy.
Williams had found his missing element, curiously enough,
again in Blanche's spirituality. Whereas Williams had first envisioned
Blanche as a nervous, man-hungry spinster whose genteel sensibilities
aspired toward the spiritual, and then only gradually developed her
strident sexuality (shaping her into a femme fatale) all the while
increasing Stanley's, Williams could no longer make Blanche truthfully
repel the encounter with her nemesis for purity's sake alone: she
simply desired Ralph/Stanley too much to be repulsed by his advances.
Yet if the answer to the play's resolution lay precisely in Blanche's fear
of sexuality all the while proselytizing it (but, as we have just seen,
dramatizing that fear solely through its relationship to Stanley's
strength would diminish the play's tragic overtones), then making
Blanche afraid of her own sexual nature to the point of desiring its
elimination would satisfy the needs Williams had in both establishing
her tragic stature and justifying Stanley's role in finally bringing that
stature about. By the time he began refining "The Poker Night," then,
Williams exploited Stanley's new-found purpose and turned Blanche's
fear symbolically inward and dramatically outward: whereas before she
had openly celebrated her sexuality, she is now frightened by it and
looks for ways in which to countefr control, and finally extirpate it.
In a late fragment of "The Poker Night," for example, the same
one that finally depicts Ralph as the "GAUDY SEED-BEARER" who
"SIZES WOMEN UP AT A GLANCE, WITH SEXUAL CLASSIFICATIONS,"41
Blanche is now frightened by the screeching cat, as she would be in
Streetcar, rather than imitating it, as she had done before. In another
thirteen-page scene, a cat screeches outside; frightened, Blanche asks
Stella what the cry was. Though Stella assures Blanche that it was
"just-cats," Blanche shows disdain toward them: "(with distaste)
41 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire]," composite Tms/inc (57 pp.) with A emendations on
22 pp., n.d., HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas. Citing page
numbers from this composite series poses immense problems as the
scenes and pages are mixed together without much order.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 93
Cats!"42 So averse now to the sexual force that controls her and is
shaping her into the animal that she identifies Stanley as, Blanche
gradually descends into madness. With this final twist in her character,
Williams justified Blanche's paradoxical repulsion toward and
complicity in Stanley's rape: since she is the "tiger," she cannot deny
her desire towards his bestial kind, but as she now detests the fact
that modernist man/woman is forever slouching toward Caliban rather
than rising toward Belle Reve, she can equally feel repulsed by desire
itself.43 Stanley appears, then, as her welcomed executioner, making
her both victim and victimizer in her manipulation of Stanley into
raping her, that is, in killing the sexuality in her that has hindered her
aspirations of purity.
Williams understood the dialectic he was developing in
Blanche, for even in one of the last drafts of scene five of Streetcar
(ca. 25 August 1947), he wanted to make clear how Blanche should
be read. Here, in a stage direction following Stanley's discovery of
Blanche's sordid past in Laurel (which would eventually be cut from the
final version), Williams explains the balance in her character that he
was seeking:
This scene is a point of balance between the play's
two sections, Blanche's coming and the events
leading up to her violent departure. The important
values are the ones that characterise [sic] Blanche:
Its function is to give her dimension as a character
and to suggest the intense inner life which makes
her a person of greater magnitude than she
appears to have [sic] on the surface.44
42 Ibid.
43 Benjamin Nelson writes, for example, "If Blanche is a
moth woman in the tradition of Laura Wingfield and Matilda Rockley,
she is also a tiger" (143). Nelson, though, is referring to Blanche's
"fierce desire . . . for life" and not to any dual nature in her
character (143). See his Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work
(New York: Obolensky, 1961). In an interview later with Joanne
Stang in 1965, Williams commented specifically on Blanche's feline
nature: "Blanche was much stronger than Kowalski. When he started
to assault her, he said, 'Tiger-Tiger!' She was a she had much
more strength than he, and she surrendered it to him out of desire.
These fragile people-they're always spiritually sometimes
physically stronger, too." See Conversations with Tennessee Williams,
ed. Albert J. Devlin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986),
110-11 (emphasis added).
44 Unpublished manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar named
desire]," Tms/mimeo, 136 pp., n.d., p. 64, HRHRC, University of Texas
at Austin, Texas (emphasis added).
94 BAK
So conscious was he of Blanche's struggle between flesh and spirit,
past and present, and desire and death (Stanley's job was at one time
a mortuary goods salesman) that Williams devoted the majority of his
attention to developing her character.
Thus when Blanche and Stanley have their infamous
confrontation near the end of Streetcar-considering all that Williams
attempted, discarded, then refined in the drafts-we begin to see that
it is less the case of Blanche fighting Stanley, and more the
manifestation of her sexual energy, threatened with extinction,
struggling for its survival all the while her spiritual nature is looking
skyward.4S With respect to this interpretation, Blanche in this final
45 cat and bird imagery, to be sure, fills Streetrar. In the first scene, for
instance, Williams immediately establishes his cat imagery. While Blanche is
introdudng herself to Eunice, "a cat screeches"; Blanche "catches her breath
with a startled gesture" (1.250). Williams then introduces his bird imagery:
Stanley enters ''with the power and pride d a ridlly feathered male bird among
the hens'' (1.265). Williams finishes this first scene with the cat again, having
Blanche spring up at the screech of a cat, yelling 'What's that?" with Stanley
responding, "cats" (1.267). By placing the bird imagery between these two cat
references, Williams successfully achieves the necessary tension that
foreshadovvs the tightening of Blanche's relationship with Stanley and with
herself. Later, when Blanche is not frightened by the cat, she becomes the cat,
for during her later attempted seduction of Mitch, he calls her a ''wild cat!"
(1.383). And when Blanche is not the cat, she is the bird, "spending the summer
on the wing, making flying visits here and there" (1.325). When Stanley finds
Blanche's fake summer furs, for example, he says to Stella, "Look at these
feathers and furs that she come here to preen herself in!" (1.274). This line
explicitly foreshadows the rape when Stanley says to Blanche moments before
he attacks her, "What've you got on those fine feathers for?'' (1.392). These are
the same feathers that make Blanche the hen of Steve's joke during the poker
party, as "light as a feather'' to Mitch (1.347), and "flighty" to Stella (1.364). Even
Steve's ''joke" serves to portend the confrontation Blanche later has with the
"male bird" Stanley: Stanley says to her and Stella, "You hens cut out that
conversation in there!" (1.294). When Stanley calls Blanche the "canary bird"
(1.359) for the first time, he does so to mock her bathroom airs, but his
comment also desaibes her entrapment. He says to her again, "Hey, canary
bird! Toots! Get OlJT of the BATHROOM!" (1.367), as if to strengthen her avian
identification. Rnally, Blanche's spirit is a caged bird desperately seeking its
freedom. Williams supports both confrontations when he combines the cat and
bird images, which war unequivocally in Blanche, in scene seven: having
uncovered Blanche's two diarnebically opposed lives in Laurel and in New
Orleans, Stanley says to Stella, "now the eat's out of the bag! .. . Some canary
bird, huh" (1.358-59). Tennessee Williams, The Theatre of Tennessee Williams,
8 vols. (New York: New Directions, 1971-92). Further page references to the
play are dted parenthetically in the text.
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER 95
version of the rape sounds more like the bestial tiger that Stanley calls
her, slowly backed into a corner, than a woman fighting to remain
dignified in an incredibly demeaning situation. When Stanley says to
her, "Come to think of it-maybe you wouldn't be bad to-interfere
with," Blanche shouts, "Stay back! Don't you come toward me another
step or .... [an] awful thing will happen!" (1.401) That "awful thing"
becomes the cat in her lashing out with its symbolic claws-the jagged
edges of the broken bottle. Curiously, Blanche, now armed, does not
say that she is dangerous but that, as the raised hair and pinned-back
ears of a cat alert to, she is "in danger!" (1.401) It is fitting here that
Stanley should say moments before raping her, "Tiger-tiger! Drop the
bottle-top! Drop it! We've had this date with each other from the
beginning!" (1.402), for he is addressing Blanche the cat, whom he is
about to kill and whom the doctor's nurse must eventually declaw with
her scissors.46
CONCLUSION
The rape that brings Streetcar to its climax, then, was certainly
not an afterthought, nor did Williams envision it as a way to portray
Blanche's innocent victimization at the hands of a nefarious individual
or an indifferent society. Stanley does destroy Blanche in many ways
when he rapes her, but Streetcar's controversial rape scene is more the
thematic confluence of Blanche's inability to sequester her own sexual
attraction toward Stanley than it is the dramatic climax of their visceral
attraction. Since she fails to cope with her dialectical dilemma alone,
Blanche must end it; since she lacks the inner strength to end it in
denial and Mitch fails to provide her with that strength, Blanche turns
to Stanley, whom she has known all along to be her executioner. The
rape in the play frees as it demeans, extirpating for her all the desires
46 In Williams's frequent borrowing throughout the
manuscripts of William Blake's spelling of "Tyger," lost in the final
version of the play, we should recognize the Romantic implications of
man's duality as Blake explored in Songs of Innocence and
Experience. Given that Blake's two poems "The Lamb" (with the lamb
suggesting the innocence of a child, like Stella to Blanche whom she
calls "Precious lamb" [1.251] or the paperboy whom she calls "honey
lamb" [1.339]) and the "Tyger" reflect the contrastive struggle
between or "symmetry" of "Innocence" and "Experience," Stanley's
calling Blanche a "Tiger" here only complements her own lamb-like
nature. When Stanley insists that she did not pull "any wool over this
boy's eyes" (1.398), we also get that complexity now intermingling
the boy/lamb with man/wolf duality (Shep/Sheep Huntleigh/Hunter)
that Williams exploits throughout the play.
96 BAK
of the flesh so that her needs of the spirit can be actualized. Therefore,
while the rape functions dramatically as a horrifying act of violence
(the point upon which most critics have focused), Williams presents it
thematically as the neutralizer to Blanche's personal struggle brought
on by the debilitating effects of her southern dialectic.
To be sure, by the time he completed the abundant sketches
that constitute "The Poker Night," Williams had refined Blanche's
dialectic and Ralph's role in ending it. Having traveled a long way from
the "weakly good-looking" and "playful tenderness and vivacity which
would amount to effeminacy" of Lucio to the Ralph of "The Poker
Night" who possesses "TRAITS OF AN INDIVIDUAL TOTALLY
ANTIPATHETIC,"47 or the psychologically fragile and socially inept
caroline Krause to the metaphysically divided Blanche, Williams
succeeded in constructing a play that delicately balances social with
psychological readings. From Lucia/Ralph came Stanley, the ignorant
savage of the animal kingdom who kills out of instinct. We can hate
him no more than we can the fox for breaking into the hen house.
From Caroline/Bianca came Blanche, the sexually divided neurotic of
the spiritual kingdom whose loss of her cat-like nature is celebrated in
the release of her bird-like spirit.4B
47 Unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar
named desire]," composite Tms/inc (57 pp.) with A emendations on
22 pp., n.d. See note 41 regarding problematic pagination.
48 It is not coincidence that until very late in the revision
process, Blanche's surname was not DuBois but Boisseau, with the
French /'oiseau clearly being echoed. In fact, in an earlier version
"The Poker Night," Blanche recalls how, when she and Stella were
young, the "chattering of birds" would descend by the thousands
upon Columns (an early rendering of Belle Reve) like "a big black
fan," lulling Blanche to sleep. See the opening of scene two in the
unpublished typed manuscript fragment, "[A streetcar named
desire]," composite Tms/inc [57 pp.] with A emendations on 22 pp.,
n.d. Judith Thompson also traces Streetcar's mythological roots
where bird imagery plays an important role:
In the legend .. . Procne and Philomela are saved
from Tereus' revenge by being turned into birds:
Procne into a nightingale, Philomela into a swallow,
. .. and Tereus into a hawk, a bird of prey .... Bird
images, Jungian symbols of psychological
transcendence from "any confining pattern of
existence," are also present in Streetcar, but their
significance is ironic, testimony to the characters'
earth-bound natures rather than symbols of
liberation. (47)
See her Tennessee Williams' Plays: Memory, Myth, and
Symbol (New York: Lang, 1987).
STANLEY MADE LOVE TO HER
97
In his 1963 essay "T. Williams's View ofT. Bankhead" for The
New York Times, Williams all but declares this when he writes, "I don't
suppose anyone reads 'Streetcar' anymore, but if they did, they would
discover that Blanche is a delicate tigress with her back to the wall."49
That "wall "-the rape-necessitates its direct association with the
sexual nature she possesses that put her there. Remove the "wall,"
and we remove not only the sense of how she got there but also the
why of its necessary transgression. In closi ng his letter to Joseph
Breen in a final attempt to convince the censors not to cut the rape
scene from Kazan's film adaptation of Streetcar, Williams wrote,
But now we are fighting for what we think is the
heart of the play, and when we have our backs to
the wall-if we are forced into that position-none
of us is going to throw in the towel! We will use
every legitimate means that any of us has at his or
her disposal to protect the things in this film which
we think cannot be sacrificed, since we feel that it
contains some very important t ruths about the
world we live in.so
Being backed into a corner is an essential part of life; having the
strength to fight one's way out, no matter what the reason, is not just
a sign of strength but also of resolve, be it one's metaphysical trauma
or one's commitment to delivering the truth. The rape in Streetcar,
however we are understand it for ourselves in our world, was for
Williams Blanche's truth.
49 Tennessee Williams, "T. Williams's View of T. Bankhead,"
New York Times, 29 December 1963, sec. 2:3; reprinted in Where I
Live: Selected Essays, 148-54. It is worth nothing that Williams had
dedicated his early draft " Go, Said the Bird!" to Tallulah Bankhead
because he thought it "exciting to imagine her in the part" of Blanche
Shannon. See unpublished typed manuscript fragment, " [A streetcar
named desire] Go, said the bird! (A play)," T title page, n.d., pp. 1,
HRHRC, University of Texas at Austin, Texas.
so Qtd. in Phillips, 82.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 16, no. 1 (Winter 2004)
AN AMERICAN MEDLEY FOR NEW HAVEN?
OR, WHY TONY ASTON DIDN'T GO TO YALE
JUDITH MILHOUS
Long before purpose-built theatres existed in the American
colonies, performances of various kinds took place in "found" spaces,
for audiences at various levels of sophistication. Documentation of
such events is scanty in the extreme, and even where they are
documented, we seldom have any idea what was actually performed.
Early eighteenth-century New England was famously inhospitable to
ungodly entertainments of any kind, but we may certainly inquire
whether any proto-theatrical entertainment might have been available
in New Haven in 1701, when the institution that became Yale
University was founded, or shortly thereafter.! No theatrical
performances are recorded in the port city until after the middle of the
century, but Tony Aston,-a minor professional actor from London, was
doing some acting in New York in 1703 and could imaginably have
contemplated trying New Haven. As a tavern performer and stroller in
the English provinces, he was accustomed to working in found spaces.
A full -dress play would have been well-nigh impossible under the
circumstances, but back in the United Kingdom Aston was performing
his celebrated Medley in gentlemen's homes or in taverns at "Marts,
Fairs, Horse Races, and Cock Matches" as early as 1710 or 1712.2 He
continued to tour versions of this entertainment until 1737, but never
published it. We can, however, construct an impression of it from
various sources, and if we contemplate the Medley in an American
setting, where parts of it might well have originated, the exercise
1 An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a talk at
Yale University at a conference on "Theater and Anti-Theater in the
Eighteenth Century," 16-18 February 2001, celebrating the university's
tercentenary. I would like to thank Professors Joseph Roach and Ruth
Yeazell for inviting me to participate.
2 Aston was already claiming to have played "at several
Noblemen's Houses" in the 11 January 1717 Daily Courant. He
mentions the other venues in Tony Aston's Petition and Speech (With
his Deportment Before the Honb!e H-se of C-ns In Behalf of Himself
and the Actors in Town and Country (1735), reprinted in Vincent J.
Liesenfeld, The Licensing Act of 1737 (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1984), 174-79, at 177 and 178.
AMERICAN MEDLEY 99
illuminates Aston's work and the theatre it depended on, as well as the
preconditions for theatre to develop in America. For a variety of
reasons, even so minimal a production as the Medley turns out not to
be very feasible in the conditions obtaining in New Haven just after the
turn of the century.
Aston is the first professional English actor we can name who
set foot in America. We know of the trip from "A Sketch of the Author's
Life" attached to his Fool's Opera (1731), though few of the details
recorded there can be verified.3
He does not explain why he embarked on this adventure, but
behind him he left, among other careers, two failed apprenticeships at
the law; what he claims was a successful engagement acting at Drury
Lane; and a stint of uncertain length as a strolling actor in the English
provinces.4 The years immediately after Jeremy Collier published A
Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage
(1698) were not propitious for beginning a career in theatre, and Aston
never bore authority well. In his youthful restlessness, the New World
may have seemed more attractive than it proved to be upon close
acquaintance.
3 Watson Nicholson made the basic identifications of people
and places mentioned in the "Sketch" in Anthony Aston, Stroller and
Adventurer (South Haven, MI : for the author, 1920). See also
Thornton B. Graves, "Some Facts about Anthony Aston," JEGP 20
(1921): 391-96, which corrects Nicholson on some points; and R. H.
Griffith, "Tony Aston's Fool's Opera," JEGP 21 (1922): 188-89, which
establishes 1 April 1731 as the publication date for that play. Mary A.
Nickles, "Tony Aston's 'Medleys,'" Theatre Notebook 30 (1976): 69-
78, summarizes information from The London Stage, 1660-1800, 5
parts in 11 vols., ed. William van Lennep et al. (Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1960-68). See also the entries for Aston and
his family in Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A.
Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians,
Dancers, Managers and Other Theatrical Personnel in London, 1660-
1800, 16 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973-
1993), 1:151-61.
4 The only possible appearance of his name in the sparse
records for London in the 1690s occurs under the deformation
"Ashton" in the cast list for George Farquhar, Love and A Bottle (acted
by December 1698).
100
MILHOUS
Figure 1.
Frontispiece to Aston, The Fool's Opera, 1731.
AMERICAN MEDLEY 101
He left England in 1701, when he was about twenty-one. He
arrived in Jamaica, moved on to Charleston, South Carolina, to
Philadelphia, and then New York, before shipping out for home from
Virginia in August 1704. During his wanderings, he dabbled in various
occupations. He says he passed himself off as a lawyer; he spent some
time as a soldier; twice he claims to have acted, but gives no details,
except to mention a play he wrote about America, which was lost.
After he returned to England, he "marry'd a Bartholomew-Fair Lady,''S
and his subsequent career is known chiefly through newspaper
advertisements for his Medley, which he played up and down the
country with his nameless wife and their son, Walter. Although Aston
is the best known tavern performer of the time, he was not the only
one. The Observator of 1-5 January 1703/4 refers to playbills
distributed in coffee houses with the offer that "Any Gentlemen or
Ladies may have a private Play any time of the Day, giving Notice an
Hour before-hand; Perform'd by Ann Wood.''6 Aston appeared briefly at
Lincoln's Inn Fields between 13 January and 17 May 1722, when
Christopher Bullock became too ill to complete the season. Playing
nine comic roles, not all of them previously Bullock's, Aston enjoyed
only moderate success. His salary is unknown, but a benefit at the end
of his engagement brought only 54, about a third of the highest gross
receipts that spring/ I deduce that the mature Aston was not an
enormous success as a "regular" actor. Although he was in and out of
London until 1744, he never appeared at a patent theatre again.
To get a sense of why the Medley was successful for him, I
want first to set out the three elements that went into it and then
consider the viability of his performing a version of it in the New World.
To make the situation particular, I am going to indulge in a
counterfactual fantasy, related to the circumstances for which this
essay was originally written: the location will be New Haven; the time
a Friday in May 1704, and Aston, touring from New York to Boston, will
s "Sketch," 21.
6 Nothing further is known about Wood, who may be a
fiction created by Daniel Defoe. However, the circumstances must
have been plausible for his denunciation of the playbills to be
effective.
7 Unless Aston negotiated a free benefit, 30 or more of the
gross was probably owed to management. Exact charges for Lincoln's
Inn Fields at this time are not known. For charges earlier in the
century, see The London Stage, Part 2, 1700-1729, 1:xcvii.
102
MILHOUS
be on his way home.s Afterwards, I will point out a variety of
impediments to such a tour, which have implications for theatre in the
colonies at this date.
A low comedian, Aston knew his limitations as well as his
strengths and tailored the Medley accordingly. Evaluating himself "in
plain Terms," he said, "I acknowledge I know not much, [but] affect a
little of every Thing." He claimed to be really good at "Acting Prologue,
&c., writing and Face-making, Song-making, and Singing them with
any Man."9 Note the physicality and interactivity built into his list. The
Medley was extremely flexible in performance: advertisements record
that Aston often invited the audience to call for favorite scenes or
routines, and no doubt they sometimes joined in the songs. In 1735,
when he participated in a campaign against a forerunner of the
Licensing Act, he spoke before Parliament and bragged that his show
was "void of Immorality, Scurrility, Prophaneness, and all ill
Manners."lO Since this protestation may itself have been a jest, it
cannot be taken as proof of the tone of the Medley. However, it does
show that Aston was acutely aware of both censorship and potential
audience disapproval. The long-term survival of the Medley is proof
that it was rigorously apolitical.
A Prologue and Epilogue of his own composition framed the
performance, which lasted about two hours.ll The substance of the
evening was a series of contrasting low comedy scenes from popular
plays, on which more below. They were interspersed with animal
imitations, songs, and sung dialogues. The texts of some of his songs
can be found in his Fool's Opera and The Coy Shepherdess (1709), but
many more are lost. This "hodge-podge"-his word-had no inherent
connections, but apparently Aston segued from one piece to the next
with patter that either manufactured connections or joked about there
being none. The last page of his autobiographical "Sketch" consists of
s On such envisioning of history that did not happen, see Niall
Ferguson, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997; rpt.
London: Papermac/Macmillan Publishers, 1998).
9 "Sketch," 18.
10 Aston in Liesenfeld, 178.
11 Daily Courant, 9 March 1717: "Beginning exactly at 7, and
ending before 9 a-Clock."
AMERICAN MEDLEY 103
a curious, disjointed passage, ignored by commentators, which I
believe is Aston's attempt to set down on paper a bit of such a
routine.12 In the transcription that follows, the spelling, punctuation,
and italics follow the original. Boldface type has been added, to set off
the points at which he addresses his audience directly.
To alert the reader that the autobiographical narrative in his
"Sketch" is over and a performance is about to begin, Aston opens
with a short boast, "Force of my undaunted Genius." Then he launches
into a mock sermon with a classical text as its base:
For, look'ee Brethren, it is appointed for all Men
once to die, and (as Adrastus13 says) Who would
grieve for that which in a day must pass?-and again,
Whose Knowledge from the Depth of wisdom I
springs, Nor vainly fears inevitable Things. If the Sun
shines by Day, and the Stars by Night, &c.-
I take the "&c." to mean that he could spin this passage out or cut it
off, as the occasion dictated. Changing gears, he contrasts the former
highflown, positive outlook with a vernacular philosophical statement:
"Life's a Bite"-that is, a hoax; then, checking to be sure his audience
is still with him, he runs through a series of very different "characters":
You have it, have you?-
The Wife liv'd Yesterday-
You snotty Dab of a Puritan!-
Siing your Gob, and sob your Guts out-
Its all a-case, there's still a Hole in my Kettle-
The lines may be from familiar routines of his, not pursued in the
"Sketch," which could be expanded as the occasion permitted. The
words matter less than the instant vocal and presumably physical
transformations differentiating one character from the next. This
section is designed to show off Aston's ability as a "Face-player and
12 His speech before Parliament in 1735 has elements of
patter, but the patter is balanced by an attempt at a serious argument
against limiting the number of theatres.
13 Adrastus, the only one of the Seven Against Thebes to
escape that clash, was slaughtered at Troy (Iliad, Book 6).
104
MILHOUS
Gesticulator," his term for marking changes of character as much by
physical means as by words.14 Paired with the opening "sermon," they
function to set up a debate.
He then speaks for putative objectors in the audience, only to
assert that disagreeing with his philosophy leads nowhere.
Ay, but says another, Why I'le get another shall
contradict him-and another him-Mankind are all
Quakers; there's no convincing of 'em-
Here he may be following a pattern in some of Plautus's prologues,
where a particular customer is recognized and chivvied.lS Returning to
his own character, Aston prompts the audience to laugh and invites
them to make the speaker himself the subject of their amusement.
"Let me see you laugh now! Why look at me: Ha! ha! ha!" His
next philosophical statement-"You're a Fool "-is comically insulting,
but presumably defused by the audience's having already laughed at
him. Lest anyone respond directly to the slur, in an aside, he takes
refuge in the familiar stupidity of commedia dell'arte characters:
There are but two Sorts of Men, Scaramouch and
Harlequin. If you're grave, You're a Fool; if trifling,
you' re a Fooi:-Ergo, You're a Fool; be what you
wi/1!-Is that Logic or no?-1'11 bring a Clown from the
Plough shall talk better.
While far from flattering in content, the words were presumably
delivered with nods and winks and chuckles that kept them amusing.
Aston goes on to complain about the difficulties of technical
vocabulary and then focuses on individuals in the audience resisting
his philosophy. Anyone who was really offended would surely have
walked out by now, so these "victims" are just being kidded for effect,
not really resisting his performance. However, the focus is no longer
on the whole audience but on individuals or small groups, whose
expressions and postures he perhaps mimicked. They are singled out
for more joking insults:
14 Aston applies these terms to his mentor Thomas Doggett
in A Brief Supplement to Colley Cibber, Esq; his Lives (1747),
reprinted in Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley
Cibber, 2 vols., ed. R. W. Lowe (1889; rpt. New York: AMS Press,
1966), 2:297-318, at 310.
1s See, for example, the Prologue to Captivi.
AMERICAN MEDLEY
'Tis silly, that People can't like a Thing unless they
know the Name on't.-Hamlet's Munchin Maligo, is a
better Answer than any other to so trifling a Querist.
What then, say you, we are not to be banter'd by a
frothy Fellow, and lay out our Money for such Stuff.-
Why, do not be angry, Friend: If I mock you with
your own Face and Gesture, then you'll see
what a Fool you are.-
105
Having again delivered his chief message, Aston indulges in an
editorial comment, "That makes Comedies useful." The observation is
thrown away, but literary criticism, however off-hand, is quite
unexpected in this context.
He returns to prompting audience response, first in general,
then teasing an individual for having resisted him:
Come, laugh again now: Why you came crying into
the World; go out laughing, do Jack, for Variety's
Sake-What! You're asham'd to look such an Ass.-
To conclude this joking attack, he switches into what I take to be his
"Serjeant Kite" mode, after a favorite role from The Recruiting
Officer.16 By changing into one of his best-known characters, Aston
withdraws from direct engagement with his victim to a stage persona:
Come, frown and strain hard, as if you were at
Stool, and look like a Lion.-There's a brave Boy! you
shall be Captain of the Train-bands-
And having made that transformation, he speaks again to the whole
audience, concluding his performance (which is also the end of his
book), with a reminder of his hungry, dependent status:
I'll wait on you to Morrow about Dinner-time-
and, 'till then, I am your humble Servant, A.
ASTON.
16 See Kite's patter at the beginning of George Farquhar, The
Recruiting Officer (1705). Aston's 1716-17 season in London included
"Serjeant Kite and Mob," which he had already played at Bath.
106 MILHOUS
On the printed page, the logic of this material is difficult to follow, but
presumably it reminded readers of Aston's performances. Such patter
formed only the connections in an evening's program.
The second category of material in the Medley was songs and
other varieties of entertainment. For a performance at the Globe and
Marlborough's Head Tavern in Fleet Street, he advertised in the Daily
Courant of 5 December 1718:
from Wales, an admirable Curiosity, viz. A Mock-Voice,
never heard in London before. He imitates with his
Voice domestic Animals, as Cocks, Hens, Ducks,
Turkey-Cocks and Turkey-Hens, Swine, Horses, Dogs;
also Ravens, Lapwings, Sea-fowl, Sheep, Lambs,
Bulls, Cows, Cats, &c. and that too after a comical
Manner, following them thro' their different Passions,
as Surprise, Fear, Anger, &c. in their Eating, Walking,
Converse &c.
Perhaps because he was competing with the established imitator Mr
Clinch of Barnet, Aston offered to do this routine on the spot "at a
Minute's Warning, from 9 in the Morning to 9 at Night," and no doubt
parts of it turned up in his patter. He proudly advertised Purcell's comic
dialogues, which suggests that he favored English music, traditional or
modern, over Italianate. Aston brought his show to town from Bath,
where he could count on well-to-do, theatre-hungry Londoners for
custom. His advertisement of"Two New Songs on Tunbridge and Bath"
in the Daily Courant of 18 February 1717 is a clue to the sort of mild
social satire he purveyed. The note on 29 March that "Any Person may
bespeak what Scene, Song, or Soliloque they please" implies a large
repertoire.ll Aston continued to add to it: a 17 May 1722 performance
included "A New Song by Mr Aston, representing a Hide Park
Grenadier," and he wrote "A Ballad, Call'd A Dissertation on the
Beggar's Opera," which cannot be earlier than 1728 and which
featured as the refrain the phrase, "0 brave Gay!"lS He appears to
admire and envy Gay's daring, since, to maintain his welcome, Aston
always had to avoid politics. Near the end of his career, on 26
17 Daily Courant, 29 March 1717.
1a Reprinted in Church Music and Musical Life in
Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Society
of the Colonial Dames of America, 1938), 3:126-28. This edition
includes music, where identifiable, inserted into the text of The
Fool's Opera.
AMERICAN MEDLEY
107
December 1743, he began an engagement at the Temple Punch House
in London, offering "his learned comic demonstrative Oratory on the
Face, with English, Irish, Scotch, and Negroe Songs, in proper
habits."t9 He may have picked up the Negroe songs in the colonies.
The musical dialogues would lend themselves to little production
numbers; other songs might be simple covering devices, played while
other members of the company prepared the next scene.
I turn now to the question of what scenes Aston could have
played if he had toured the Medley to New Haven. Let us imagine that
some of the young men of the Collegiate School, which is temporarily
housed at the rectory in Killingworth and will later become Yale
University, have come into New Haven for the fair on a May afternoon
in 1704. One of them hears that Tony Aston from England will perform
his Medley at a tavern on the edge of town this very evening at 7 PM,
admission 1s. In a spirit of science the students pool their money and
attend what has to be the first performance they will ever have seen
by a professional English actor. What do they see?
The heart of the Medley was several scenes from recent plays.
No evidence shows conclusively whether Aston played single scenes or
compiled them into "drolls/' fitting together scenes from a comic
subplot, a strategy used in the provinces during the Commonwealth
period.20 Aston may have done both. In any case, by limiting choices
to plays written before 1700 that he advertised in his first extended
engagement in London, we can construct a program he could have
presented at the imaginary New Haven fair.2t For the most part Aston
worked with only his wife and their son (who was advertised as 10
years old in 1716), boasting that
19 The London Stage, Part 3, 1729-47, 2:1,080.
2o For such scripts, see the drolls collected in The Wits or,
Sport upon Sport, ed. John James Elson (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1932).
21 My list derives from his advertisements in the Daily
Courant, 27 December 1716 and 18 January 1717.
108
Three, more Diversion can show,
Than 20 that do little know;
We shift the Dress, and change the Theme,
We skim the Milk, and take the Cream.22
MILHOUS
He could not legally present whole plays, even if he undertook to
sustain a company of more than three. For 26 February 1717, at the
Globe and Marlborough's Head Tavern, he advertised "a Contiguous
Entertainment, beginning with a New Farce," to be performed by his
family and "4 People capable to discharge" the other characters. This
and "The whole Spanish Fryar" on 2 March seem to have raised
questions about the degree to which he was challenging the theatres.
Unsurprisingly, he returned to the Medley and, for safety's sake, on 11
March took refuge behind a censorship dodge routinely employed by
others later in the century: "N. B. Mr. Aston performs to divert his
Friends Gratis, and hath Toothpickers to sell at 1s. each."23 His basic
show was set up to make efficient use of limited resources.
In New Haven in 1704, the evening's scenes might include:
(1) Sailor Ben and Miss Prue, from Congreve's Love for Love
(1695): a perverse courting scene, since, though Ben has been urged
to accept Prue, he is not eager; and she, infatuated with the fop Tattle,
has no time for a mere sailor-and tells him so. Their mimed reactions
to one another are as important as the words. The contrast between
Ben's forthrightness and Prue's affectation is inoffensive, but the fact
remains that both are defying parent figures. A more elaborate
selection is the early scene in which Angelica mocks the astrological
wisdom of her uncle Foresight and his friend Sir Sampson Legend. This
scene pits youth against the authority of age and features many
cuckolding jokes.
(2) Teague from Sir Robert Howard's Committee (1662):
probably the exuberant drunk scene in Act IV, when Teague sings and
dances an Irish jig with the deeply inebriated Puritan clerk Obadiah.
(For a later illustration of this popular play, see Fig. 2.) If this were a
droll, it might also include the earlier scene in which Teague
overpowers a bookseller and steals a pamphlet from him. Of course,
Teague is meant to be laughed at and is not an exemplary character.
22 Daily Post, 20 March 1724. This is the unrecognized
source of William Rufus Chetwood's report of how Aston treated
competitors outside London. He would allegedlY' demand a benefit
performance as the Rrice of his moving on, so Chetwood said that
he "generally, like a Cat skimm'd off the fat Cream, and left the lean
Milk lo those that stay' a behind." A General History of the Stage
(London: for W. Owen, 1749), 90.
23 Daily Courant, 22 February and 1 March 1717. Aston's
price in his next London tour was 1s. 6d., so he appears undaunted
(Daily Courant, 5 December 1718).
AMERICAN MEDLEY 109
Figure 2.
Moody as Teague and Parsons as Obadiah in Howard,
The Committee, Act 4, sc. 1. (Dodd ad viv. delt., Collyer sculp.;
T. Lowndes, 8 November 1776)
110 MILHOUS
(3) Jerry Blackacre and the Widow, from Wycherley's Plain
Dealer (1676) : a droll might begin with the Widow browbeating her
son early in the play, as she tries to teach him the law, and go on to
the scene in Act IV where Jerry confronts his outraged mother in his
new red breeches. He then joins his new-found "guardian," Freeman,
in trying to bully the Widow into a second marriage. She resists and
threatens to disinherit her son, a sobering thought.
(4) Fondlewife and Laetitia, from Congreve's Old Batchelour
(1693) : in which the impotent old banker berates his young wife for
the cuckolding she has not yet managed to achieve (though she's
working on it). When she answers to his satisfaction, they kiss and
make up in babytalk. Aston acknowledged following the great
comedian Thomas Doggett in his interpretation of this role.24
Assuming a second man were available, Aston could also do the scene
in which Fondlewife comes back unexpectedly and finds Laetitia's
would-be lover in the marriage bed (though still dressed). Rather than
own himself a cuckold, Fondlewife agrees to believe Laetitia's protests
of innocence instead of what his own eyes tell him. (Imagine his
double takes.) This was intended to be amusing, but cannot be
described as edifying. And finally
(5) Antonio and Aquilina, the flagellation and shoe fetishist
display from Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682), which might be quite
instructive, but is it what the Founding Fathers of Yale wanted their
young gentlemen to learn?
These are just the best known of the eight scenes Aston was
offering in his 1716-17 London season. This review of a potential
repertory marks the end of my counterfactual fantasy, which I will now
proceed to undermine. The obstacles to this scenario range from the
practical, which were perhaps soluble, to the legal/social/macro-
economic, which were less yielding.
Aston was obviously good at getting a tavern crowd to
respond to him, and his pattern and songs would have been easy to
adapt to the colonial environment. About the scenes, I am less sure.
Early in The Haunted Stage, Marvin carlson notes that
24 Nicholson, 47.
AMERICAN MEDLEY
We are able to "read" new works-whether they be
plays, paintings, musical compositions, or, for that
matter, new signifying structures that make no claim
to artistic expression at all-only because we
recognize in them elements that have been recycled
from other structures of experience that we have
experienced earlier.2s
111
I am struck by how heavily the scenes Aston played depend on the
assumption that the audience will bring a lot of knowledge of theatrical
context with them to the performance. The extremes of behavior they
portray were originally meant to contrast with the more restrained
action in main plots, and in isolation they seem sketchier and more
crudely written than they do within their respective plays, where the
characters, or at least their foibles, have already been introduced.
There is much scope for face-making, but at the level of ideas, I am
not sure the detached scenes would be funny, if, like our imaginary
Yale students, one had no experience at all of the conventions of
theatre. Indeed, the students might not have been the only ones
mystified, since by 1704 the original colonists had mostly died, and
Aston would have been playing to a population almost none of whom
could ever have been to the theatre. One feature that would probably
have gotten across, however, is the misogynistic outlook that the
scenes emphasize. I believe they anticipate a predominantly male
audience, such as would be found in taverns, and a very broad playing
style.26
Turning to practicalities, I want to ask whether Aston could
have put together a show, or even a company, in the colonies. He was
2s Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as
Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 4.
26 In his Supplement to Cibber's Apology, at the end of a
discussion of "the grand Contest . . . whether Nature or Art excell'd,"
Aston offered himself as an example (2:311-13). He claimed that "all
the best Critics," assessing his Fondlewife in The Old Batchelour
against Cibber's, said, "If you wou'd see Nature . .. see Tony
Aston-if Art, Colley Cibber." However, I find it difficult to believe
that Aston could play this material "naturally" or at all subtly in
tavern and fair settings. Perhaps he referred to a more
conversational tone on his part and to his encouragement of direct
interaction with his audience.
112
MILHOUS
certainly qualified to do so: he had acted at Drury Lane; "strolled" in
the provinces with Doggett; and he says that he spent the winter of
1703-04 in New York "acting, writing, courting, fighting" with friends
he had known in England. (He does not claim they were actors.) So let
us consider what would have been necessary to put together the
Medley in New York and tour it to New Haven, on the way to Boston,
whence Aston might seek passage home.
Tony, who had lost all his possessions three times over, would
have had to write out sides from memory. The best records available
suggest that only about 25% of the books exported from England in
the early days fell into the category of "romances," which I take to
include plays, so his local bookseller probably couldn't have obliged.27
That might have limited the repertoire, but Aston no doubt
remembered and was prepared to embroider his best roles, so texts
were less of a problem than if he had contemplated doing whole plays.
To perform scenes, however, he needed a second man and,
preferably, a woman-or I suppose a boy might have done. Aston
acknowledged no wife in the colonies, and though he may have found
female companionship, one has to wonder how many such casual
acquaintances would be willing to undertake the risk and labor to learn
even a few scenes and then go on the road with him. Can we imagine
that the friends in New York with whom he played scenes did so for
profit, rather than for their own diversion? And would they, or one of
them, be willing to play the women's roles? A company of any kind
would not have come easily to hand. Nevertheless, Tony was
perpetually optimistic and very persuasive. With the aid of a few books
and a radically incomplete apprenticeship, he says he passed himself
off as a lawyer in Jamaica. Teaching young hellions to act would surely
have been no harder and would probably have been more fun. His
endeavors took place before New York attempted to ban theatre in
1709, so that legislation would not have impeded his efforts.2s
27 See Lawrence C. Wroth, The Colonial Printer
(Charlottesville: Dominion Books, 1931); Giles Barber, "Books from
the old world and for the new: the British international trade in
books in the eighteenth century," Studies on Voltaire and the
Eighteenth Century 151 (1976): 185-224; and Stephen Botein, "The
Anglo-American Book Trade before 1776: Personnel and Strategies,"
in Printing and Society in Early America, ed. William L. Joyce et al.
(Worcester, CT: American Antiquarian Society, 1983), 48-82.
2s See Peter A. Davis, "Puritan Mercantilism and the Politics
of Anti-theatrical Legislation in Colonial America," in The American
Stage: Social and Economic Issues from the Colonial Period to the
Present, ed. Ron Engle and Tice L. Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), 18-29, at 19.
AMERICAN MEDLEY 113
The jingle about skimming the cream contains an important
point about Aston's production method. A talented mime could
manufacture the effect of costumes and props, but Aston was no Dario
Fo. The visual impact of his miniscule company depended on "shifting
the dress" for major transformations. Miss Prue can perhaps share a
gown with Laetitia Fondlewife, but the Widow Blackacre and the
prostitute Aquilina probably should not wear the same thing. Teague
the Irishman cannot dress like Sailor Ben. Jerry Blackacre needs two
sets of pants, one of them red, and a green baize bag of legal briefs.
Aquilina must have a discipline of some kind-a riding crop, a cane, a
handful of birches. Dresses and properties cost money, though of
course less than scenery, which the Medley did without. Another
potential limitation of the talent pool is that, ideally, each performer
should be able to sing and to play some musical instrument, however
simple-a pipe of some sort, a drum-to aid with the musical
interludes.
Our Tony was nothing if not persistent, so let us assume that
after a winter's worth of preparation, the Medley is ready to tour to
New Haven and points north. They will need at least three horses,
which in Connecticut in those days might cost as little as 2. 7s.
apiece, but of course had to be fed and preferably housed.29 Costs are
adding up. When his company gets to a town-any town-a whole new
set of problems arises: getting permission to play, finding a place to
perform, publicizing the show, gauging when to leave. No doubt the
formidable blue laws of Connecticut and the large Puritan majority in
the population of New England, whose antipathy to theatre made
Jeremy Collier look benign, were a factor in discouraging Aston from
taking that route, even by himself. In relation to New Haven
specifically, there were local ordinances against "strangers" living there
for longer than a month without a license, lest they create disorder-
and, like the three young men had up "for acting a play of ye Bare and
ye Cubb" in Accomack County, Virginia, in 1665, disorder is surely what
Puritan officials would have regarded Tony Aston as creating.3o
29 On horses, see Jackson Turner Main, Society and Economy
in Colonial Connecticut (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985),
368. This price is listed for 1680, down from much higher in the
1650s, when horses were in shorter supply.
30 On the Virginia incident, see Odai Johnson and Willliam J.
Burling, The Colonial American Stage, 1665-1774: A Documentary
Calendar (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001), 92-
93.
114 MILHOUS
"Travellers, ... [and] such as resort hither in a way of merchandise or
trade" were not "reached" by the law, but the immaterial and
evanescent Medley would have been hard to define as a product, when
it was so much more easily regarded as seditious speech, as it might
be by local authorities in England who wished to prevent plays.31
Recent scholarship suggests, however, that New England
society was not as monolithic as it has sometimes been portrayed. In
1704, New Haven was about to be named one of a handful of official
Connecticut ports and was already more used to "strangers" than it
had been in earlier decades. Although it included some slave owners,
it was also "basically egalitarian," and included comparatively few
people who were truly poor.32 Still, there were no doubt limits as to
how quickly the authorities wished to embrace frivolous changes. So
far as preserved records show, Yale College, as an institution, did not
feel much pressure to combat theatre in this period, presumably
because it was non-existent. Yet temptation lurked, at least as early as
1714, when a major donation of "above 800 Volumes of very valuable
Books" arrived at the college library, gotten together by an enterprising
colonial agent.33 The very first entry on the docket was "All the Tatlers
and Spectators . . . in Royal paper, neatly bound and gilt," full of
enticing references to actors and actresses, plays and playgoing.
These volumes,- the personal gift of "Richd. Steele Esqr.," would have
given questing readers one positive source of information about
theatre to set against other acquisitions such as Prynne's Histrio-
Mastix, the works of Tertullian, and "Mr. Collier's Essays on Several
31 See The Blue Laws of New Haven Colony [etc.] (Hartford:
Case, Tiffany, & Co., 1838), 125, 213-14. On the immaterial product,
see M. C. Bradbrook, The Rise of the Common Player (1962; rpt.
London: Chatto & Windus, 1964).
32 See Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 29, and Main, 82,
86, 97.
33 See Anne Stokely Pratt, "The Books Sent from England by
Jeremiah Dummer to Yale College," and "The List of Books Sent by
Jeremiah Dummer," prepared by Louise May Bryant and Mary
Patterson, in Papers in Honor of Andrew Keogh (New Haven:
privately printed, 1938). Technically, the school was not yet named
Yale, though Dummer was instrumental in getting Elihu Yale to
become a benefactor of the Collegiate School.
AMERICAN MEDLEY 115
Subjects." How early the college authorities had to worry about the
embodying of plays by students is unclear. According to the catalogue
of an exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a
"prohibition of theatrical activities" survives from 10 December 1754;
and another "faculty judgment" of 2 July 1755 "reports that six
students were fined for acting in an unnamed play the previous winter
and two of them, who had dressed as women (an aggravating
circumstance), were publicly admonished."34 But all this energetic
imitation comes long after Tony Aston's projected visit.
Looking for bright spots, I note that taverns were plentiful,
and twice a year there was a fair, both of them Tony's natural
venues.3s Publicity would have been difficult, though. The whole
colony of Connecticut had no printer until 1709,36 so mass-produced
posters and handbills for the Medley were not an option, though a few
handmade notices could have been stuck up in key places, and an
entry parade, had it been permitted to go ahead, would have alerted
by-standers to the new arrivals.
Who could afford to come to the Medley? In my view, this
obstacle outweighs even censorship as an explanation for why the
Founding Fathers did not have to worry about theatre as a distraction
for the early students of Yale College. New Haven was comparatively
densely populated, but is estimated to have had only 1,400 people in
34 Vincent Giraud, Theater and Anti-Theater in the 18th
Century (New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
Yale University, 2001), 5.
35 On taverns, see Bushman, 111, and Bruce C. Daniels, The
Connecticut Town: Growth and Development, 1635-1790
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 157-58, who
estimates that "probably no Connecticut man was more than three
mile from one, and most were far closer." New Haven had officially
permitted markets in May and September as early as 1644, according
to Albert E. Van Dusen, Connecticut (New York: Random House,
1961), 61.
36 See Robert J. Taylor, Colonial Connecticut: A History
(Millwood, NY: KTO Press, 1979), 186.
116
MILHOUS
1748, and no doubt fewer earlier.37 The most intensive and elegant
analysis of the economic structure of colonial Connecticut society I
have come across is by Jackson Turner Main. Analysis of wills and
inventories, as well as local tax and census records, leads him to
conclude that "By the 1670s .. . the social structure of Connecticut
had crystallized into its permanent form."38 The largest single block of
the population, about a third, was young unmarried males. In
principle, they included some who might have the time and inclination
to attend the Medley. They made a fixed wage of 2s. per diem, country
pay, for working long hours six days a week. In Main's view that
amount was "probably twice the minimum for survival, permitting a
margin against sporadic unemployment"-but not a large margin. If
10 or 12 worth of consumer goods represented sufficiency, these
young men, on average, accumulated that and more, but it took them
several years. They did not have much money to spend on frivolity.
Main considers that 15 was the "bare subsistence level in
consumption goods for a family with young children," again
accumulated over several years, and "comfort needed several times
that amount," so few young married couples were going to have
money to spend on theatre. Then what could Aston charge? As much
as a shilling? Connecticut at large does not appear to be able to afford
Aston in 1704.
One last factor is Aston's own expectations. He reminisced in
his valuable Brief Supplement to Cibber's Apology that when he "had
the Pleasure" of strolling with Doggett, "each Sharer kept his Horse,
and was every where respected as a Gentleman."39 Just after Aston
took off for the colonies in 1701, Doggett's people attempted to play
a season at Sturbridge Fair, outside Cambridge, with the
encouragement of the Lord Mayor. However, the university's Vice
Chancellor, the great classicist Richard Bentley, then at work on his
edition of Terence, ordered them arrested.40 Subsequent lawsuits
37 Rollin G. Osterweis, Three Centuries of New Haven, 1638-
1938 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 102. Cf. Everett G.
Hill, A Modern History of New Haven (New York: S. J. Clarke
Publishing Company, 1918), 28, who considers that in 1720 the
"rural community" (not just the town) consisted of fewer than 2,500.
Daniels, 45, cautions that "there are few hard data antedating the
1750s."
38 Main, 369. Subsequent quotations from 90 and 91.
39 Brief Supplement, in Cibber, Apology, 2:310.
40 See Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, "Thomas Doggett
at Cambridge in 1701," Theatre Notebook 51 (1997): 147-65.
AMERICAN MEDLEY
117
reveal the scope of operation Aston had been used to, even in the
provinces. Doggett's company numbered between fifteen and twenty-
one, comprised of hirelings, one or more guest stars, and at least eight
sharers (one of them a woman). Their repertory ranged from Hamlet
to Behn's machine farce, The Emperor of the Moon. The company
owned jointly a considerable quantity of scenery and costumes, and
during that summer performed or attempted to perform in Norwich,
Beccles, Bury St. Edmunds, Colchester, Great Yarmouth, and
Sturbridge. The play booth contracted for at Sturbridge Fair measured
32' x 71' and cost 40 to build, a substantial structure, albeit
temporary. If, during the eight days of the fair, just three hundred
customers a day paid a shilling apiece for shows, the company could
probably have amortized their construction costs and immediate living
expenses at the rate of about 7 per day and made a profit of 8 a
day. More customers would have fattened the profits considerably.
Strollers had been playing at this fair for years. Doggett was unlucky
that the university administration had recently changed, but otherwise,
1701 seems to have been a normal year for his company. Whatever
performances Aston was able to arrange in New York in 1704 were
probably on a very different scale.
New Haven would have to wait decades to see amateur
performances of modern plays by students, let alone any theatre as
sophisticated as Tony Aston's Medley looks in this early American
context. By 1767 there was at least one literary society at Yale that
proposed to act plays regularly.41 The circumstances were, however,
very different back in 1704. For all that Aston chose to go his own way,
rather than hold a subordinate position in London, even the Medley as
played in England represented a severe cut-back from his expectations
of theatre.42 The patter and songs Aston could do anywhere by
himself, but the substance of the Medley was the scenes, which
distinguished him from other tavern performers, remained dependent
for variety on that traditional source, the repertory of the London
theatres.
41 Giraud, 5, and George Dudley Seymour, New Haven (New
Haven: privately printed, 1942), chapter LXIV.
42 Graves, 392, notes that he set up a company of eleven in
Edinburgh in 1726, "at the express invitation of the city magistrates,"
but was closed down the next year, after an election brought in new
officials.
118 MILHOUS
Aston's failure to go to Yale makes perfect sense, even if he
had had reason to believe that the authorities would tolerate his
performing there. In the first decade of the eighteenth century, New
Haven had neither the economic base to support even a minimal set
of strollers nor the cultural understanding that would have made such
entertainments comprehensible and enjoyable. The Medley was
minimal in its production demands, but Tony Aston visited America
about half a century before he would have had any hope of making his
expenses in the vicinity of Yale.
119
CONTRIBUTORS
ALAN ACKERMAN is an associate professor in the Department of
English at the University of Toronto. He is currently co-editing a
volume of essays on modernism and antitheatricality (Palgrave
Macmillan, forthcoming) and is the author of The Portable Theater:
American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage from Johns
Hopkins University Press (1999).
JOHN S. BAK is Maitre de Conferences (Associates Professor) at the
Universite Nancy 2-c.T.U. in France where he teaches American drama
and American Gothic. He has presented papers in both the United
States and Europe, and his published work has appeared in such
journals as Theatre Journal, American Drama, Eugene O'Neill Review,
Tennessee Williams Literary Journal, Coup de Theatre, and Cercles.
MARVIN CARLSON, Sidney C. Cohn Professor of Theatre at the City
University of New York Graduate Center, is the author of many articles
on theatrical theory and European theatre history and dramatic
literature. He is the 1994 recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award
for dramatic criticism and the 1999 recipient of the American Society
for Theatre Research Distinguished Scholar Award. His book The
Haunted Stage; The Theatre as Memory Machine, which came out
from the University of Michigan Press in 2001, received the Callaway
Prize.
JUDITH MILHOUS is Distinguished Professor in the Ph.D. Program in
Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research specialty is
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English theatre, opera, and
dance. Her most recent book, with Gabriella Dideriksen and Robert D.
Hume, is val. 2 of Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth Century London:
The Pantheon Opera and Its Aftermath (Oxford, 2001).
ALISA ROOST, alisa@monm.edu, is an assistant professor at
Monmouth College. She is writing a book on "The Other American
Musical: Political Satire in American Musical Theatre" and has directed
Flahooley and Bloomer Girl at the Theatre at St. Clement's (an off-
Broadway house). She has a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center at City
University of New York.
MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER PUBLICATIONS
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