AMERICAN PLAYS OF THE NEW WOMAN

 edited by Keith Newlin            from Ivan R. Dee


. . . from the Introduction

WHILE IT WAS not the only subject of plays produced in the early years of the twentieth century, the New Woman was certainly the dominant theme of many of the more interesting dramas that still claim the modern reader’s attention. Surveying the recent offerings of the stage in 1914, one critic observed, "Every play produced on the American stage, with perhaps a few negligible exceptions, has its say on the feminist question. Until sex ceases to be the main preoccupation of drama, this must necessarily be so."1

The "feminist question" was actually comprised of a host of questions, issues, and concerns, brought on by the increasing role of women in the workforce. During the nineteenth century women had served principally as supportive wives and nurturing mothers; now the demands of a growing economy pushed many out of the home and into colleges, factories, and the professions. From 1900 to 1920 the enrollment of women increased 1000 percent in public universities and colleges and 482 percent in private ones, while the number of women entering such professions as the ministry, law, medicine, nursing, photography, teaching, and journalism grew from 6.4 percent in 1870 to 10 percent in 1900 and 13.3 percent in 1920. Similarly, women employed in clerical and sales positions increased from 0.8 percent in 1870 to 9.1 percent in 1910 to 25.6 percent in 1920.2

This increased visibility of women in the workforce prompted both men and women to reexamine their assumptions about the role of women in society and especially their expectations of "proper" public behavior for women. The questions and problems created by an expanding female workforce dominated newspapers, novels, serial fiction, and the theater. Gender was "in the air," and most dramatists responded to its presence. Of course the conflict between the sexes has always been central to drama, as one exasperated chronicler remarked in 1925 about one of the plays in this anthology: "A Man’s World sounds very old-fashioned at this date, as indeed it was when it was written. Everything the author says about the life of her woman novelist . . . seems now trite not because it is fifteen years old but because it is thousands of years old."3

The six plays included in this collection focus on what was popularly called the "woman problem"—that is, the debate over the "proper" role of women in a rapidly changing and increasingly industrialized society. As illustrated by these plays, the conflict most commonly occurred over such issues as the double standard, the advent of the New Woman and turn-of-the-century feminism, and the conflict between a woman’s desire to work and her role in marriage. William Vaughn Moody’s The Great Divide (1906) offers an early exploration of conventional expectations of women’s moral "superiority," couched in mythic symbols of Eastern and Western contrast, which other playwrights would shortly question. Rachel Crothers’s A Man’s World (1910), for example, critiques male expectations of women, morality, and marriage while offering a still trenchant exposé of the double standard. Augustus Thomas’s As a Man Thinks (1911) is the conservative (and more commercially successful) reply to Crothers’s play.

The early twentieth century was also a time of dramatic experiment, and this collection offers two examples of innovations in dramatic structure in plays written for the noncommercial theater. Alice Gerstenberg’s Overtones (1913) reveals the impact of Freudian psychology in the play’s depiction of the id and the ego as the "shadow selves" that haunt two conventionally decorous women. And Susan Glaspell’s The Outside (1917) suggests through highly developed symbols the ebb and flow of the life force as two women come to terms with the loss of their husbands. The final play in the collection, Jesse Lynch Williams’s Why Marry? (1917), won the first Pulitzer Prize for drama. This witty, Shavian discussion play offers a most controversial critique of marriage—and it remains a delightfully zesty comedy.

. . . snip . . .

Notes

1. Florence Kiper, "Some American Plays from the Feminist Viewpoint." Forum 51 (1914), 921.
      2. Elizabeth Ammons, "The New Woman as Cultural Symbol and Social Reality: Six Women Writers’ Perspectives," in Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick. Eds., 1915, The Cultural Moment (New Brunswick, 1991), 82.
     3. Thomas H. Dickinson, Playwrights of the New American Theater (1925; reprint Freeport, 1967), 184-185.

back  from American Plays of the New Woman, ed.
         Keith Newlin (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000)
 

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