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American Women Playwrights (July 2022): Populist Studies Written by Women

By Martha Schmoyer LoMonaco

Populist Studies Written by Women

Two nonscholarly books afford insights into how mid-twentieth century women viewed American drama as largely the bastion of male writers. The first is Eleanor Flexner’s American Drama, 1918-1938: The Theatre Retreats from Reality, which was originally published in 1938 and was reprinted in 1969 with a new introduction. In the new introduction Flexner states that if she were writing the book in 1969 she would have included work by Hellman and also Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Commenting on the original study, Flexner asserts that “social concern was one of the principal yardsticks against which I measured the work of the leading playwrights of the twenties and thirties, and found them severely wanting” (p. iii-iv). Of especial interest—prescient for 1969—is her assertion that “the greatest failure of [American] theater (as with the rest of [US] culture) has been its treatment of the American Negro experience. By omission … playwrights denied the very existence of Black Americans, as well as their segregation and oppression. The theatrical structure as a whole had no place for drama that dealt with the Black heritage and expressed its culture.” Women playwrights do not seem to be a principal concern for Flexner. In a likeminded, but less serious, vein is Jean Gould’s Modern American Playwrights, a breezy populist discussion of well-known writers focused on biographical details rather than serious analysis of plays. The only women profiled are Susan Glaspell and the Provincetown Players (which is as much about Jig Cook and Eugene O’Neill as it is about Glaspell) and Lillian Hellman. A chapter entitled “Some Clever Collaborators” highlights Bella Spewack, who, with her husband Sam, co-wrote popular midcentury Broadway comedies, including the book for the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Works Cited