Here’s a new party game. The category is Women Playwright and the goal is to name as many women who wrote plays from this past century as you can. Some you should be able to name off the top of your head: Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosenswieg, Uncommon Women and Others), Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest) and Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother, Getting Out). Maybe Eve Ensler whose Vagina Monologues are popular. This year, Lynn Nottage became the first woman to win a second Pulitzer Prize, an Award also given to Susan Glaspell (Alison’s House), Mary Chase (Harvey), Annie Baker (The Flick) and Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, Indecent).
How many have you seen? How many have you heard of? How many have been locally produced? This is a topic I’ll return to in future, but three women whose works wereproduced nearly a century ago are the topic of this article.
Zona Gale (1874-1938) was born and raised in Portage, Wisconsin, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin, first with a Bachelor of Literature (1895) and then a Master’s degree (1899). She moved to New York to work as a journalist, but returned to her hometown to care for her aging parents and focus for her work. In 1920, her second novel, Miss Lulu Bett, was published.
The plot of Miss Lulu Bett concerns a small-town family whose existence is uprooted when bigamy is committed and how the title character, a servant in her family’s household, declares independence and deals with it sensibly. Dramatizing her novel wasn’t an easy task. Definitive plot elements were eliminated, and the novels’ ending didn’t lend itself to satisfactory dramatization. Feeling that a play shouldn’t have two weddings, especially one that had to do with a social issue, the original manuscript was given a different, more theatrically satisfying ending. The producers preferred “a happy ending,” and that’s what Broadway audiences were given.
Still, Gale’s stage version was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, making her the first woman to be honored. Her literary output included twelve novels, seven plays, many short stories and essays as well as a book of poetry. Miss Lulu Bett was filmed in 1921 and is available on YouTube, but films based on her novel Faint Perfume and her story The Way aren’t easy to find.
Zona Gale was politically active, supporting Robert and Philip La Follette (both future governors of Wisconsin.) She was active in the National Women’s Party, the Lucy Stone League and lobbied for the Wisconsin Equal Rights Law. She married in 1928 at 58, and passed away from pneumonia ten years later. The home where she grew up is on the National Register and serves as the home for the Portage Historic Society. The room in which Gale wrote has been preserved.
A most prolific playwright
While researching this article, I examined the output of Neil Simon (30 plays), Tennessee Williams (29 plays), John Patrick, Edward Albee and George S. Kaufman (33 each. Musicals aren’t included here). Zoe Akins (1886-1958) is much more prolific. While her work has mostly been forgotten, she wrote 40 plays, 27 screenplays and 12 TV scripts, many of them adaptations of her own plays.
Zoe Byrd Akins was raised in a Southern Republican family and was distantly related to George Washington. After beginning her writing career as a journalist, she turned to writing plays. Her first, Papa, failed, but Ethel Barrymore had a hit with Déclassée. The Greeks Had a Word For Them is probably her most successful work. You’ve probably never heard of it, but the most third and most famous movie version is a little something called How to Marry a Millionaire. This comedy about three models looking for rich husbands was made into a lush and delightful 1953 movie starring Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. One of the most notable aspects of the story, is that, with Bacall in charge, the women are the aggressors. They have affairs (even chaste ones) with married men, turning down younger men who pursue them and do whatever it takes to get by in New York City. This all builds, with hilarious results, to a pleasantly surprising ending.
Akins wrote the script for Morning Glory, which helped launch Katharine Hepburn’s film career and earned Hepburn her first Oscar. It was remade in the 1950s as Stage Struck, which did little for its leading lady, Actor’s Studio protégé, Susan Strasberg, because she didn’t deliver the bubbling personality Hepburn brought to the role of Eva Lovelace.
When Akins dramatized The Old Maid by Edith Wharton (the author of that short story you were possibly supposed to read in high school but didn’t, Ethan Frome), she was honored with the Pulitzer Prize. The play starred Judith Anderson and staged by Katherine Cornell’s husband, Guthrie McClintic. It was a success. The film version stars Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins and Donald Crisp. Davis plays Charlotte Lovell, a woman who gives her illegitimate daughter, Tina, to her cousin, Delia (Hopkins). Posing as the child’s aunt, as Tina gets older, she resents “Aunt Charlotte.” With a Civil War setting and released the same year as Gone With the Wind, (if you blink, you’ll miss Rand Brooks, who plays Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband, in a tiny role) the score was composed by Max Steiner, who also did GWTW. The picture is a Warner Bros. tear-jerker and Davis is at her best as the old maid.
Directed by George Cukor, with a cast that featured Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore and a script co-written with James Hilton and Frances Marion, by Akins, the 1936 version of Camille will always be that story’s ultimate interpretation. Based on Alexandre Dumas Fils novel and play, La dame aux camellias, it’s also based on the life of Alphonsine Duplessis, the most celebrated courtesan in Parisian history. Illiterate when she arrived in Paris at age 15, by the time she passed on from Tuberculosis eight years later, her salon was filled with volumes of books, she took piano lessons from Franz Liszt and the auction to help pay off her debts took five days. Buried at Montmartre Cemetery, her funeral was attended by hundreds of people.
Garbo was nominated for her third Oscar, and while the story has been told many times over, MGM gave this film first-class treatment and it holds up beautifully eight decades later. Like The Old Maid, it’s a genuine tear-jerker.
Even with these screen successes, Akins returned to the theater. Her last three plays, O Evening Star, The Happy Days and Mrs. January and Mr. X were produced between 1936 and 1944. She married set designer Hugo Rumbold, but the marriage was short-lived due to his death. The great aunt of actress Laurie Metcalf, she died in her sleep the night before her 72nd birthday.
It’s a very slow process, but the works of playwright/director Rachel Crothers (1878-1958) are being rediscovered. Born and raised in Illinois, her mother was one of the first women doctors in the state. Crothers was raised to believe women had a rightful place in the world. Like Akins, her output was notable. She graduated high school at the age of 13. Her first play, The Three of Us, produced in 1906, had a healthy run and was later presented in London.
Her works are considered to be well-crafted, with early feminist themes. He and She follows a married couple whose marriage is challenged when their dedicated professionalism threatens the family unit. He and She was loved by the critics, and has been revived in New York in 1980 and 2005. When will a Twin Cities production appear?
Crothers made it a point to work with people whose views were similar to hers, among them Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Cornell, Gloria Swanson, Spring Byington, Gertrude Lawrence and Marie Dressler. Some of her more familiar titles are Mother Carey’s Chickens, Nice People, Let Us Be Gay, As Husbands Go, When Ladies Meet and Splendor. Her play, Old Lady 31, follows a bankrupt elderly couple who move into the same retirement home, only to find the man, surrounded by 30 women, to feel emasculated.
Susan and God was Crothers’ most successful play. It’s about a wealthy woman who chooses to become an evangelist, only to find disillusionment. Gertrude Lawrence, Eleanor Audley and Conrad Nagel starred in the 1927 Broadway production. Lawrence appeared in a film version, but, by far, the most famous production is, like Camille, an MGM production starring Joan Crawford and Fredric March.
Crothers was among the first women to direct her own works and those of others. She made it possible for women to be accepted in the roles of producer and director and helped establish The American Theater Wing and the Stage Door Canteen among other programs. Rachel Crothers never married, and passed on in 1958 at her home in Danbury, Connecticut.
This past Spring, I had the privilege and pleasure of directing a production of Miss Lulu Bett. It’s time for the theater community to look at plays by these three women and add them to the mix that already includes above-mentioned names like Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel.
Please let me know if you play the game and how it goes, too!