. . . 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
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
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 . . .
Florence Kiper, "Some American Plays from the Feminist Viewpoint."
Forum 51 (1914), 921.
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.
Thomas H. Dickinson, Playwrights of the New American Theater (1925;
reprint Freeport, 1967), 184-185.