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Women, the Theatre, and the Avant-Garde

By Andrew White, PhD

By the early 1900's, middle-class white women could adopt the stage as a profession and enjoy respectable careers as actors or playwrights. It was still a struggle, however, for female playwrights to get their works produced. Some of them simply shelved their plays; others responded by creating their own small companies. In 1916, Susan Glaspell co-founded the Provincetown Players with her husband; based in Greenwich Village and the Cape Cod city of the same name, Provincetown featured works that covered a wide range of theatrical styles; among her collaborators was Eugene O'Neill.

Like their male peers, women tended to write light theatrical fare. This isn't surprising, because the theatre had the same entertainment function now taken up by television and film: then as now, the proportion of high quality work was very low. As women became more politically active, however, they began to address contemporary issues in otherwise conventional plays. And the growth of the Little Theatre movement, in both white and black communities across the country, offered greater opportunities for productions of daring, higher-quality material.

Although realism was the most popular theatrical style, white avant-garde artists in Europe and the U.S. had long since abandoned realism and moved on to greener pastures. (Constanine Stanislavsky toured the USA in the 1920's with his Moscow Art Theatre; the first season, consisting of his old realist masterpieces, was well received; his second season, featuring his more experimental contemporary work, was panned.) Perhaps the first great avant-garde movement was the Symbolists, who were inspired in many instances by the Orthodox Christian vision of the material world as a veil of the sacred. Symbolists from Moscow to Paris experimented with ways of evoking spiritual and supernatural presences on the stage.

The Expressionists, meanwhile, took some of the more histrionic acting techniques developed during the nineteenth-century and focused them to create more shocking effects on their audiences. Melodrama, for example, allowed middle-class patrons to watch sympathetically from a distance as tragic, "transgressive" women died rather than challenge society's hypocritical values. Expressionism also forced audiences to experience the hell created by their own hypocrisy, through the state-of-mind of its tragic heroes and heroines, challenging the status quo in a more visceral way.

The other international movement from this period emerged out of the moral wreckage of World War I: Dada (French for "hobby-horse," and a word that also has rude sexual connotations). Launched at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Dada mocked everything that was sacred and politically expedient with what, on the surface, looked like utter trash. There was method to the madness, however. Dada was profoundly anti-authoritarian in an age when authority (especially in Europe) had proven to be morally bankrupt. Language - the ultimate tool of government propaganda - became a plaything, with a greater emphasis on sound than sense and little concern for niceties of grammar or syntax.

(Tristan Tzara, one of Dada's leading lights, once offered this recipe for writing a Dada poem: 1) take a newspaper and scissors; 2) cut up the paper into individual words; 3) place these clippings in a bag and give them a shake; 4) pull the words out one by one and write them down in the exact order they come out. Check out those refrigerator magnet word games the next time you're in your kitchen!)

The mechanized nature of modern warfare also led Dada to question the value of the human being in a machine-driven world. Meanwhile, photography, a technology initially dismissed as "artless," had become a fascination among the avant-garde. Gertrude Stein's good friend Man Ray began to experiment with a variety of subversive photographic and filmic techniques.

The 1920's was an especially fertile period for black theatre and drama. Harlem had a dozen theatre companies, with nearly as many ideas about the nature and purpose of black theatre. Some companies, in the tradition of the great nineteenth-century actor Ira Aldridge, insisted on including European classics and Shakespeare in their repertoire. Others confined themselves to light fare and melodrama. Others still indulged in blackface performance; indeed, it wouldn't be until the 1940's that black entertainers finally stopped "corking up" for their shows. A debate raged over what black drama was and what it should be. Should it copy prevailing European styles? Should it portray black life as it is? Or should it go back to its African roots and incorporate more traditional forms of storytelling, song and dance?

Harvard graduate W. E. B. DuBois, founder of the N.A.A.C.P., argued passionately for the portrayal of blacks as human beings, and started a movement for theatre "about us, by us, for us, and near us." Some advocated "folk plays" that portrayed blacks using the patois of their own communities (like Zora Neale Hurston's Florida or Eulalie Spence's Harlem). On the other hand "race plays," as championed by W. E. B. DuBois, were overtly political and confronted the most compelling political issues of the day.

Because black writers were excluded from most literary contests downtown, Harlem had its own dramatic competitions sponsored by the seminal black magazines Crisis and Opportunity. In the years 1925-1927, the variety of prizewinning plays, many written by women, attested to the vitality of the black theatre scene at that time.

The 'teens and twenties witnessed a wide variety of artistic movements, and the plays selected here show how American women playwrights worked in all of them.

~ Originally published in 2007 in the Audience Guide for TACT's production of Drama Under the Influence.

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