You are on page 1of 102

THE jOURNAL OF

AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE


Volume 11, Number 2 Spring 1999
Editor: Vera Mowry Roberts
Co-Editor: jane Bowers
Managing Editor: Lars Myers
Editorial Assistant: Robert C. Roarty
Editorial Coordinator: Susan Tenneriello
Circulation Manager: Susan Tenneriello
Circulation Assistants:
Melissa Gaspar
Bruce Kirle
Edwin Wilson, Director
(ENTER FOR ADVANCED STUDY OF THEATRE ARTS
THE GRADUATE SCHOOL AND UNIVERSITY CENTER
OF THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK
Stephen Archer
Ruby Cohn
Ed ito rial Board
Bruce A. McConachie
Margaret Wi I kerson
Don B. Wilmeth
Felicia Londre
The journal of American Drama and Theatre welcomes submissions.
Our aim is to promote research on American playwrights, plays, and
theatre, and to encourage a more enlightened understanding of our
I iterary and theatrical heritage. Manuscripts should be prepared in
conformity with The Chicago Manual of Style, using footnotes (rather
than endnotes). Hard copies should be submitted in duplicate. We
request that articles be submitted on disk as well (3.5" floppy). We prefer
the articles to be in WordPerfect for Windows format (versions 5.1 and
6.0), but most word processor formats (Mac and PC) are accepted.
Windows 95 formats are not accepted at this time. Submissions will not
be returned unless accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
Please allow three to four months for a decision. Our distinguished
Editorial Board will constitute the jury of selection. Address editorial
inquiries and manuscript submissions to the Editors, jADT, Ph.D.
Program in Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center, 33 West 42 Street, New
York, New York 10036-8099. We can also be reached by e-mail at:
jadtjour@email.gc.cuny.edu
Please visit out web site at: http://web.gsuc.cuny.edu/casta
CASTA Publications are supported by generous grants
from the Lucille lortel Chair in Theatre and the Sidney E.
Cohn Chair in Tneatre Studies in the Ph.D. Program in
Theatre at the City University of New York.
CAST A Copyright 1999
The journal of American Drama and Theatre (ISSN 1 044-937X) is a member of
CELJ and is three times a year, in the Winter, Spring, and Fall.
Subscriptions are $12.00 for each calendar year. Foreign subscriptions require
an additional $6.00 for postage. Inquire of CASTA, CUNY Graduate School, 33
West 42 Street, New York, New York 10036-8099.
THE jOURNAL OF AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE
Volume 11, Number 2 Spring 1999
Contents
WALTER j. MESERVE,
Malice, Ignorance, and Good Intentions:
The Struggle for Stability in the American Theatre
during the 1850s 1
THERESA jOETTE MAY,
(Re)placing Lillian Hellman:
Her Masculine Legend and Feminine Difference 17
RICHARD E. KRAMER,
The Lost Premiere of Tennessee Williams's
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 42
CYNTHIA D. SMITH,
"Emasculating Tom, Dick, and Harry":
Representations of Masculinity in
Susan Glaspell's The Verge 60
ROBERT ji-SONG Ku,
"Beware of Tourists if You Look Chinese" and
Other Survival Tactics in the American Theatre:
The Asian(cy) of Display
in Frank Chin's The Year of the Dragon 78
CONTRIBUTORS 93
journal of American Drama and Theatre 11 (Spring 1999}
Mal ice, Ignorance, and Good Intentions:
The Struggle for Stability in the
American Theatre during the 1850s
1
VVALTERJ. ~ S R V
The summer of 1850 was extremely hot in New York City, with the
result that many people were reluctant to attend the theatre. For the
American actor, however, as well as the American theatre and the
American drama, the year started out rather well. The Second Annual
Festival of the American Dramatic Fund. Association at the Astor Place
Opera House was described as a brilliant affair with all of the appropriate
people devoting an evening to support the actors and the actresses who
"amuse and sometimes instruct and humanize."
2
In January at London's
Olympic Theatre Anna Cora Mowatt's Fashion (1845) provoked some
interesting reactions. The Daily News called it "an extremely clever
work"; the Sun declared that Fashion would "take its place by the side
of the best English comedies." On the other hand, when Farmer
Trueman entered the New York drawing room in muddy boots, Mr.
jenkins of the Morning Post was deeply offended, exclaiming loudly that
"the characters were blackguards and imposters and immediately left the
house." (2 February 1850: 600) It must also be reported that in New
York after good wine, good food and ready speeches by james Brady,
john Brougham, Mordecai Noah and james Wallack at the American
Dramatic Fund Association meeting in April 1850 those present toasted
the President of the United States, Sheridan Knowles, "the Press" and
"The Drama." (4 Apri I 1850: 1 08) It would be a long time before
American actors in an American play would truly impress the English,
and there would be many hot summers in New York before actors and
actresses would realize the support so optimistically promised by the
1
From the author's Echoes of the Public Voice: the Drama of the American
People from 1850 to 1890 (in progress), to be published by Feedback Theatrebooks.
2
[n.a.], The Spirit of the Times (24 january 1850): 564. Subsequent references
will be cited parenthetically in the text with date and page.
2
MESERVE
event at the Astor Place Opera House. Recognition for American
playwrights would require an even longer passage of time.
One aspect of the public diversion at mid-century was the continuing
publication of opinions on actors, plays and the theatre in general. The
old argument over the utility and propriety of dramatic performances
was revived in August 1852 by Harper's Monthly Magazine which threw
down the gauntlet with the statement that "the virtues of the stage are not
Christian virtues
11
while supporting its views with a quotation from
Seneca: "Nothing is so destructive to good morals as mere amusements,
or the indolent waste of time in public spectacles.
113
With the obvious
current emphasis upon amusements and spectacles-the bread and butter
of mid-nineteenth century American theatre-Harper' s position seemed
unassailable but, of course, differing opinions immediately poured forth
from the pens of eager defenders of the profession. Before the end of
August the New York Home journal had declared itself on the side of
"Reform in the Theatres." Accepting theatres as "fixed facts
11
and
assuming that a portion of the population "cannot be argued out of their
liking," although "the theatre, at present, is grievously at fault," the writer
for the Home journal recommended doing away with afterpieces,
sending audiences home earlier and emphasizing the play, "not the
actor, or the scene painter or the property-room, but the play." (21
August 1852: 321) It seemed a novel idea.
"Acorn," the pseudonym of a Boston theatre reviewer named James
Oakes who seldom passed up an opportunity to speak his mind, clearly
and sensibly, on any theatre subject, stoutly defended the influence of a
well-regulated theatre, as "most assuredly conducive to the good and
moral atmosphere of any metro pol is." In early 1853 he wrote,
I am well aware there is, and always will be, a set of bigoted,
croaking religious demagogues who are everlastingly prating
about the demoralizing effects of theatrical entertainments; but,
I will venture to assertt that in five cases out of seven you will
find such persons actuated either by selfish motives, personal
interests, hypocrisy, or entire ignorance of the good influences
to be derived from the proper representation of the creations of
our dramatic writers. (26 February 1853: 17)
Soon others would "venture to assert" themselves until many of the
weaknesses of the theatre were paraded before the public as critics
professed to illuminate the resources of this allegedly wasteful and
3
[n.a.], "Editor's Table," Harper's Monthly 5 (August 1852): 406-11 .
American Theatre During the 1850s 3
destructive social institution. The writer of "Miscellany and Gossip" in
The Literary World, ridiculed the "starring system."
4
A reporter for The
Spirit of the Times (heretofore Spirit) suggested that one theatre box
should be reserved for actors who by watching their peers on stage could
"improve and elevate" the style of their own acting. (1 April 1854: 74)
"Acorn" condemned the system of com pi imentary benefits which
allowed managers to advertise benefits for "fire associations" or "some
charitable institution" and promote sales through the efforts of individuals
who do not know "that they are being made ticket sellers for the purpose
of putting a dollar in the manager's pocket, while the object that claims
their sympathy and assistance receives but fifty cents, or nearly in that
ratio." (26 February 1853: 17) Other opinions appeared in "Originality
in Dramatic Writing" (7 Apri I 1855: 89) and "Foreign and American
Critics" (12 january 1855: 569), in which the tendency of disappointed
dramatists to fold themselves in "our glorious flag" was exposed. The
author of "The Theatre and Its Enemies" condemned society rather than
the theatre. "When a fearful and demoralizing spirit has overspread, the
face of society," why not allow a man to seek "oblivion from the evils
which oppress him in an art able to assist in elevating the low moral
standard?" "Cities must have places of social amusement," this writer
contended, "and the question should be, with all good men, 'How shall
dramatic art be purified from much dross that has corrupted it, as well as
journal ism, politics, and even religion in these days?' " (28 February
1857: 25)
A long essay in The journal of Psychological Medicine condemned
the theatre for losing confidence in itself because there is now " scarcely
a subject lying out of the beaten domestic track which it dares to
handle. " (24 November 1860: 502) In phrases that epitomize the
weakened condition of American drama during the 1850s the writer
bearded playwrights who refused to meddle with politics, religion or
"great questions which may be agitating the public soul."
It [the drama] goes at a jog-trot pace, the embodiment of a
common-place respectability, which, in its eagerness to offend
no susceptibilities, to awaken no antagonisms, to pass beyond
no established formula of thought and speech, becomes pre-
eminently tame, servile, humdrum, harmless, and contemptible.
For a large percent of the plays produced in American during the
decade-whether English, European or American-the writer caught the
4
[n.a.], " Miscellany and Gossip," The Literary World, 3 September 1853, p. 92.
4
MESERVE
spirit of the theatre. A reformer, he was not concerned with the reality
of the theatre or of the times, nor were other idealists such as George
Henry Boker, who, perhaps wisely, left the theatre when his plays did not
receive the response he desired.
Another critic discovered the secret of the "degraded state of the
drama" in the puerile efforts of managers to outdo each other in
producing "tinsel and trash . ... We can never have actors and actresses
and, properly speaking we can never have audiences, while the present
deplorable condition of the stage exists." (24 January 1857: 583) As they
had always done-and always would do-critics talked of "The Decline
of the Drama"-complaining that audiences wanted only to be amused
while both "English and Amer ican play writers have clumsily imitated
from the French." (13 November 1858: 473)
This steadily increasing debt to the French was readily acknowledged
by both critics and playwrights. While deploring the French melodrama
as "more in the light of a spectacle than a play," with its " vulgar
elements of noise, such as gunpowder, thunder, lightning, " and
gladiatorial exhibitions, English and American playwrights were
unrelenting in their imitations. No one illustrates this point better than
the American actor-playwright Harry Watkins in Nature's Nobleman, the
Mechanic; or, the Ships' Carpenter of New York. Here, Hopkins Crayon,
Esq., an American literary aspirant, explains matters to a Mr. Furleigh:
CRAYON: Talk of dramas-you went to the theatre-of course? How
I should like to see a French play!
FURLEIGH: Be satisfied, Sir; you have seen a hundred.
CRAYON: Eh?
FURLEIGH: Almost all the neat, interesting dramas of the day are
French in scene and origin.
CRAYON: Yes, the scene laid in France.
FURLEIGH: And the plot made there also. English playwrights are
arrant thieves, and we are the receivers. We go to the theatres,
not to see our own character and social life portrayed but to
witness the obsolete peculiarities of wigged brigands and square
skirted counts.
CRAYON: I am sure I have done my best. I wrote a naive comedy,
but because there were eight scenes in the last act, the manager
said that it was fitter for the closet. I sent a tragedy for the Forrest
p r i z ~ I felt sure that my Christian Knight would come off
American Theatre During the 1850s 5
conqueror, but somehow or other the infidel committee had
more faith in Mohamet.
5
Crayon refers in his final speech to Mohammed which George H.
Miles submitted to one of Edwin Forrest's contests. Although the contest
judges could not choose a winner from the eighty plays submitted,
Forrest paid Miles the prize of $1000 but did not perform the play.
Watkins, always a belligerent defender of American actors and play-
wrights, appealed to American pride at a time when antiforeign feeling
was politically popular and pointedly criticized the affected preference
of America's literary elite and theatre managers for European models if
not European authors.
Seemingly attacked for what he did and the way he did it as well as
for his association within a suspect institution, the playwright was also
caught up in the controversy regarding the control or ownership of the
play he wrote. At mid-century it was generally accepted that an actor or
manager assumed complete control of a play which he paid a dramatist
to write. Barney Williams, the Irish actor, presumed that his "exclusive
rights" by virtue of paying for a play protected him not only from
pilfering but from imitation of his "peculiar style of performance." "It is
time," a critic asserted, "for the sake of authors, actors, and the public,
that this system of literary plunder was restrained by legislative interfer-
ence." (31 May 1856: 192) Actors who disregarded this convention were
taken to task, such as the time Mr. Neafie was chastised for acting the
role of Jack Cade in a play of that title written by Judge Robert Conrad for
Edwin Forrest. (3 May 1856: 183) The dramatist, of course, was not part
of the issue in this instance; he was merely the paid supplier, but this
critic was aware of the playwright's situation and went on to praise
Congress for the bill it was then considering which would protect the
dramatist from marauders. To this critic such a law would help build a
national drama and "be an inducement for the man of mind to enter the
field of dramatic literature"-an issue that bothered many cultured
Americans.
Complaints rising from a lack of copyright protection had been real
and costly, whether from the view of the playwright who wrote the play
or from the actor who purchased the play. As the bill was debated in
Congress, theatre critics looked forward enthusiastically to a national
drama, to that time when authors could secure to themselves the right of
stage representation of their own plays. It was a logical progression of
5
Quoted in Perley Isaac Reed, "The Realistic Presentation of American
Characters in Native American Plays Prior to Eighteen Seventy," Ohio State University
Bulletin 22, 26 (May 1918): 126.
6
MESERVE
thought for the mercantile-minded individual who understood pre-Civil
War competition as well as corruption and saw an element of fairness in
the legislation, even as he compared, with a condescending tone-as he
would for years to come-the consequences of physical effort versus
intellectual exercise. "There is a law to protect the property of the
merchant from the hands of predators, and why not extend to the
playwright the same protection for his property, although it be the
coinage of the brain?" (3 May 1856: 133) Others agreed, although for
d ifferent reasons. "N.O. Delta," writing about "Dramatic Art," for the
Spirit in early 1857 placed the reason for the poverty of popular theatres,
where "the majority of the educated think only of going there to kill
time," squarely on "the want of a national theatre." (24 January 1857:
598) Perhaps the new law would stimulate a new a drama. Clearly there
was renewed hope.
Most of America's major writers from John Neal in the 1820s onward
had complained about the lack of copyright protection. Both Robert
Montgomery Bird and George Henry Boker had, in fact, recently tried to
persuade Congress to create a bill giving dramatists both performance
and publication control of their work. All such advocates had been
ineffective, however, until Dion Boucicault, with some self-serving
motivation, added his voice and reputation to the argument. On 18
August 1856 a copyright law was passed giving the playwright "the sole
right to print and publish" a play as well as "the sole right to act,
perform, or represent the same. "
6
To this event "Acorn" responded with the enthusiasm of one who
had frequently pleaded the dramatist's cause, regretting only that the
penalty for piracy was not five hundred dollars rather than one hundred
dollars for the first offense. Now, he hoped for "a permanent and
responsible national drama," liberal prizes that would "induce men of
the finest minds and most brilliant intellects to enter the field of dramatic
I iterature," and freedom from the foreign trash of England, France and
Germany that flooded the stage. In an expansive mood, "Acorn"
described the person who elevates the dignity of the stage as a "public
benefactor" and declared a moral national drama as essential to the
happiness, morality and well being of a community as the influence of
the pulpit. (6 September 1856: 349) He was also "a strong advocate for
the encouragement of native talent." When Boston opened a new
theatre in 1854 under the management of Thomas Barry, "Acorn" hoped
that Barry would "give preference to American artists, providing they can
6
Copyright Enactment of the United States, Washington, 1906, 43.
American Theatre During the 1850s 7
be found possessing equal talent to that of a foreign import." (1 April
1854: 74)
Some dramatists were quick to take advantage of the new copyright
law. "The first entries in the State Of Ohio under the new law for the
protection of Dramatic authors, have been made by Chas. M. Barras,
Esq., Mr. B. having copyrighted The Hypochondriac and The Modern
Saint." (1 October 1856: 420) Such an option for these two new and
evidently popular plays was indicative of the shrewd man whose
spectacle of The Black Crook ten years later would place him in all
theatre history books. The first arrest, according to the Spirit, took place
in Boston and involved the Howard Athenaeum and a play called Rose;
or, the Career of an Actress, acted by F. S. Chanfrau and Miss Albertine,
which Boucicault claimed was a copy of his Violet; or, the Life of an
Actress. (6 December 1856: 516) Whether the new copyright law
promoted national drama of substance, as some critics argued it would,
however, is surely open to question. A score of years would pass before
"men of the finest minds," or those with a literary bent, were attracted to
the theatre, but a national drama was an issue of some significance in
mid-century America and would become increasingly important to both
literary and theatre people as America developed politically and
culturally.
For the intrepid playwright there were in New York at mid-century
a half-dozen substantial theatres-the Broadway, Burton's Theatre, the
Bowery, the National, Brougham's Lyceum and the Olympic. Within two
years Brougham's management would fail as would the Olympic, but
Wallack's Lyceum would start up in 1852, to be joined the following year
by Barnum's American Museum and, as the decade progressed, by Laura
Keene's Theatre, Brougham's Bowery, the Chatham Street Theatre and
N iblo's Garden. These were, of course, only the major establishments
whose activities were faithfully recorded, with varying amounts of pride
and censure, by reviewers whose language reveals the prevailing
attitudes. "The lessees," confided a reviewer in the fall of 1852, "of our
theatres, concert rooms, and panoramas-the lecturers, male and female,
and fifty other places of public amusement in this city, have been
exceedingly prosperous throughout the past week." New York,
according to this writer, was "'the best theatrical town' in this country
and is hardly exceeded by Paris itself." (27 November 1852: 492) Four
years later, in early 1856, reviewers for the Spirit made similar statements
concerning the popularity of theatre and the "immense profit [going] to
the managers of our various places of amusement." (5 january 1856:
564) Theatres clearly existed mainly to amuse.
As theatre managers and house playwrights of mid-century America
attempted to satisfy their patrons with appropriate amusements, however,
8 MESERVE
reviewers and theatre commentators persisted in arguing the social value
of comedy and tragedy, extolling the actor's art, pleading for new plays
or becoming embroiled in their own arguments. Does comedy or
tragedy have "more claim upon the public regard"? Should one laugh
and grow fat on the spoils of wit or be exhilarated by the noble senti-
ments that tragic heroism awakens? (19 Apri I 1851 : 1 08) Although the
moral lessons resulting from the tumult of passions evoked by tragedy
were considered valuable for society, there was also a strong feeling that
tragedy could not match the "good to mankind that the sister art of
comedy has effected" with its "picture of real life" in distinct and
advantageous contrast to the "blind satire" that permeated Greek
comedy. (16 April 1859: 111) In such ways did commentators judge
their theatre against past traditions and in the light of present material
advances. With such assessments did they find value in melodrama and
its means of "analyzing wholesome instruction to the masses," quite in
spite of its past reputation for representing "the stage run mad" and the
current argument that melodrama was a "corporeal invasion. of the
realms of wit, fancy and poetry ... affording proof of the degeneracy of
our nature." (26 March 1857: 75)
Serious, sentimental, witty or satirical, playwrights and theatre critics
were seldom naive. They were very much aware of the unreliability of
current criticism of theatrical performances. As one writer pointed out in
1855, "it has become too much a custom with the press to 'puff' theatres
and performances or allow managers to do so, rather than criticize kindly
and fairly, but strongly." (17 March 1855: 50) This critic also rebelled
agai nst "the custom of many of our managers to think nothing but
transatlantic ability was worthy of encouragement;" he wanted to "foster
and cherish our own countrymen" whom he considered victims of such
bias for the past twenty-five years. james Oakes ("Acorn") of Boston
condemned the "brainless penny-a-liner" with petty feelings and
personal prejudices who never reads what he pretends to dictate about,
although "his comprehension would be too obtuse to understand it," and
consequently destroys the work of both actors and playwrights. (30
October 1858: 445)
If malice and ignorance from within condemned the drama, so also
did good intentions. It was, for example, common practice for some
newspapers to announce that a play had been successful when the
opposite was true, and there were those who approved such actions
"done purely from good feelings toward the parties interested, and for the
purpose of lending aid and encouragement to those whose exertions
merit success." (24 April 1858: 121) Although there might well have
been legitimate reasons during this period-careless and indifferent
acting, rowdy audiences or slipshod productions-that a playwright might
American Theatre During the 1850s 9
have deserved better than he received, this accepted critical practice
quickly became an irritant to critics who wanted a vital American drama
that could compete in the world market.
Until the Panic of 1857 became a challenge for all theatre managers,
theatre in New York during the 1850's was a mixed adventure among a
multitude of amusements, but the actors always dominated the scene.
"My deer Sur," wrote one critic in 1852, "Since mi airwal phrom
Kaliferny I have taken a turn or too at the Theaturs, and find they are
pretty much the same old two-and-sickspennys they oriways was." He
mentions "Homas S. Tamblin," "Wemes Jallack," "Milly Bitchell" from
the old "Lampwick Theatur, " "Chank Fanfraw," and the "Chateman
Bildress"-all of whom were doing well. Forrest, ever popular,
at the Broadway, drors like a Large Horse. He did Hamlet, the
Norweegian, the uther nite ... and I thort as the aktor took the
skull in hand, commencing with the well known wurds, 'Alas,
poor Varick-street,' and then arsks it (the skull) 'where be your
jobes and jests now'-1 thort to myself, how wood you like to
know when you have 'muffled orf this cortal moid,' that sum
Leeding Tragedian wood be feeling your hed peace, and then
toss it orf to the 'Property Man,' to be piled up with a lot of wids,
cudgets, Blunderbussess, Rusty Swords, pump-handels, and
pitch-forks-and the Lines of the Immortal Bard, akkured to me,
'To what dooble Bass uses may we kum.' (13 November 1852:
461)
Forrest remained extremely popular, but there were those who already
anticipated his passing and saw in young Edwin Booth an actor who
would "shed light upon the drama, and elevate the dramatic taste of our
city." (2 May 1857: 133)
As a further challenge to playwrights the places of amusement in
New York City featured not only the efforts of major actors and actresses
in traditional and contemporary plays but a tremendous amount of variety
entertainment ranging from the Bateman Children, the numerous minstrel
shows such as Christy and Wood's Minstrels, burlesques, the Wood and
Marsh children, the farces of Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams, the Ravels
in pantomime and ballet, the songs of Jenny Lind and the antics of Lola
Montez, a variety of dog shows, Irish, Dutch and Yankee farces, operas,
concerts, lectures and amateur entertainments.
These entertainments describe the New York theatre during the
1850s, and generally speaking, theatre across America. As a report on
the activity taking place at the National Theatre in the spring of 1857
suggests, such were the opportunities open to the theatregoer.
10
MESERVE
Manager Purdy has exceeded himself this week in the extraordi-
nary attractions he has offered. On St. Patrick's Day his
programme included the sterling old drama of Brian Borihme, a
new burlesque written expressly for this house called Clam-eel,
a hornpipe by Miss Adelaide Price-a pretty dancer and a pretty
young lady-the pantomime of the Four Lovers, and the
comedietta of Wilful Murder. On Wednesday was presented the
new drama of Mary's Dream, Clam-eel, The Magic Barrel and
Hole in the Wall . This is a fair sample of what can be had at
Purdy's for 50 or 25 cents any evening in the week. (21 March
1857: 72)
If New York audiences at mid-century were fascinated by all shades
of novelty, they still cheered Edwin Forrest-whose divorce suit from
Catharine Sinclair, filed in February 1850 on the grounds that "his wife
had committed criminal acts inconsistent with the dignity and purity of
the marriage state," made newspaper headlines. (23 March 1850: 51)
On his return to the Broadway Theatre in the fall of 1851 after an
absence of two years, he was hailed as occupying "the first place among
American artists." (20 September 1851: 392) Boston also championed
Mr. Forrest. Gleason's Pictorial, the Drawing-Room Companion,
Devoted to Literature, Arts, Amusements, News. etc. displayed a picture
of Forrest as the Gladiator on its front page on November 29, 1851, and
described him as "the true Roscius of the stage." Two years later Daniel
D. Kelley of East Boston was reported to be building a dipper ship to be
called the Edwin Forrest and "to be launched on or about the 1 7th of the
present month [September 1853], and is to bear on her bow, as a figure-
head, Mr. Forrest as the Gladiator." (17 September 1853: 361) Writing
of a performance in Boston, James Oakes gave Forrest his enthusiastic
support. "I know of no tragedian on the English stage, at the present
time, who will at all compare with him as a truthful interpreter of the
immortal Shakespeare's loftiest and most sublime creations." (2
December 1854: 504)
There is no doubt that Forrest was an inspiration to many Americans
as well as an object of adoration. He did much for the early growth of
American theatre. For those who could separate his professional career
from his private life he promoted the acceptance of theatrical
entertainment at a time when much of society in America was
questioning its value. Unfortunately, he did very little for the cause of the
American dramatists for reasons bearing both on his own disposition and
the attitude of theatregoers toward theatrical art. A number of American
dramatists provided Forrest with appropriate vehicles for his success,
among them his one-time dose friend Robert Montgomery Bird whose
American Theatre During the 1850s 11
play The Gladiator reached its 1000th performance in 1853 with Forrest
in the leading role. Audiences, however, drew distinct lines between the
art of the playwright and the art of the actor. Perhaps it was both human
and consistent with the times that Forrest did not try to change such
opinions. On one occasion when Forrest appeared at the final curtai n of
The Gladiator in obedience to the call of the house, "his first words were
an expression of thanks in behalf of Dr. Bird, the author, but there arose
immediately a storm of hisses, and, taking his cue from the demonstra-
tion, he returned thanks for himself amidst a loud burst of applause." (21
April 1855: 120) Bird, already honored as a member of the English
Dramatic Author's Society, had died the previous year (1854), largely
unrecognized by American theatregoers.
The American theatre, however, was beginning to change during the
1850s, and after a diminished activity during the Civil War, a new
approach to the American theatrical enterprise would appear. This
change was also true of American drama. William Mitchell retired from
the theatre in 1852. Thomas S. Hamblin, a man who genuinely
promoted American dramatists during his tenure as manager of various
Bowery theatres, died in 1853. At least two thousand people watched
the sixty carriages in his funeral procession, as two horses, draped in
black, pulled the hearse carrying the coffin "covered with black velvet."
(15 january 1853: 576) Sol Smith died the same year, William Burton in
1860. The Wallack dynasty was beginning to change heads as Edwin
Forrest and Charlotte Cushman, giants of the period, enjoyed the final
energies of their popularity. Such prolific playwrights as Joseph S. Jones
and Silas Steele were past their prime by the late 1850s along with
Cornelius Matthews whose vision had once earned him the title of
"Father of American Drama."
As patterns began to change in the production of American plays,
two opposing views of the theatre that seem inherent in its existence
became more noticeable-the romance and the reality-each promoted
or lamented from within the institution itself and from without. During
the 1850s, for example, a number of articles appeared in the Spirit
emphasizing the romance and glamor of the theatre. "Leaves from the
Common-Place Book of an Old Stager" described briefly the painfully
secured but attainable goals of the actor. (12 July 1851: 243) " The
Model Actor" was treated with good natured satire, and actresses,
although described in agreeable terms, were warned of the consequences
of their choice. (21 August 1852: 317; 7 March 1857: 37) It was even
argued that many actors and actresses " have reached the very longest
period of the duration of human life." (17 July 1858: 69)
On the more realistic side, there were numerous references "to
intemperance-to which the existing character of the life induces too
12
MESERVE
many of the profession."
7
Harry Watkins's journal is filled with the sad
details of suicides, violence and drunkenness: "It is the oft repeated tale
[of the death of A. A. Adam, once a popular actor]: too long an associa-
tion with John Barleycorn. . . . Oh, this curse of drunkenness in my
profession!"
8
In Louisville an actor named Bridges committed suicide by
cutting his throat: "His fatal drunkenness had destroyed all confidence in
him."
9
Still, theatre in America existed in its pursuit of amusement and
escape-in its worship of novelty, its adoration of English tradition and in
its excesses that foreshadowed the coming generations. In Washington
in early December 1855, the National Theatre celebrated a Carnival of
Thespis and Dramatic Festival, "the Centennial Anniversary of the
Establishment of Drama in America." Mr. and Mrs. Barney Williams
appeared in The Irish Lion at the Baltimore Museum in the early evening,
took a special train to Washington and acted in The Happy Man and In
and Out of Place at the National Theatre. "A limited number of guests
will accompany the party," recorded the Spirit: "Certificates, admitting
them to the Museum, furnishing carriage hire both ways, fare to
Washington and back, admitting holder to the National Theatre, are but
two dollars." (8 December 1855: 505)
Earlier in the decade, 1852, James William Wallack had made his
debut in London as Macbeth at the Standard Theatre. (27 March 1852:
61) McKean Buchanan, an American tragedian, made his London debut
at the Marylebone Theater that same year in the character of Giles
Overeach and was praised in the Morning Advertiser, 25 May 1852, as
"undoubtedly one of the best actors America has yet exported." (31 July
1852: 288) Josh Silsbee, "the delineator of the eccentricities of the
Yankee character," was toasted throughout his 1852 tour in London and
the English provinces. (27 March 1852: 61) The Spirit quoted the
Liverpool Times which declared Silsbee
the best commedian [sic] America has ever sent to England. He
appeared as the rough, homely, and rustic Yankee, overflowing
with a fund of broad, unctuous humor, while his walk, his
accent, his look and dancing, are irresistibly comic, and totally
7
Maud and Otis Skinner, One Man in His Time, the Adventures of H. Watkins,
Strolling Player, from His journal (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
1938), 99.
8
Ibid., 110.
9
Ibid., 157.
American Theatre During the 1850s
unlike anything we ever saw before, either on or off the stage,
although, doubtless, true to nature. (1 December 1852: 565)
13
Back in America the following year, Silsbee met some resistance from
critics who found that whatever was praiseworthy in his Yankee,
although accepted by the English, "to whom all such monstrosities are
ever agreeable," was submerged by his coarseness of style and frequency
of giving vent to oaths. (August 1853: 324)
Along the eastern seaboard playwrights and managers tried to save
a struggling theatre which ebbed and flowed in a continuing battle for
stability among a population sometimes concerned with spiritual needs,
more often determinedly striving for success on a materialistic level and
always arguing social and political values. Early in the eventful war (22
October 1862) William C. McCready, the celebrated English actor, wrote
to a friend in America:
Does not the train of circumstances lead us to condemn the
Jeffersonian policy, as opposed to the views of Hamilton,
Washington, Adams and that party?-Would it not have been
likely to prevent this segregation, if the government had been
maintained a little more above the people, and not so accessible
to second, and third-rate men?
10
Currently involved in that "train of circumstances," the theatre could
only endure the consequent problems.
Bostonians supported the Boston Museum which boasted an active
stock company during the 1850s, as well as the National Theatre which
opened in 1852. Phi I adelphia had three first-rate theatres-the Walnut
Street, the Chestnut Street and the Arch Street-that maintained accept-
able entertainment. The Providence Museum burned in the fall of 1853
and was replaced by the Forbes Theatre which fell victim to the financial
Panic of 1857. That same year the Spirit congratulated the citizens of
Worcester, Massachusetts on the opening of their new theatre. (14
February 1857: 7) The opening of a new theatre in Albany, New York
four years previously had caused some excitement when the new
manager, Madame de Marguerittes, experienced some difficulty in
wresting control from the previous manager, a Mr. Preston, who
surreptitiously entered the theatre with a gang of his associates: "Madame
de Marguerittes, being apprised of the event, hastened to the spot and, at
the head of the pol ice force, battered down the stage door and took
10
William C. McCready, " Letter." Collection of J. Peter Coulson.
14
MESERVE
possession." (22 January 1853: 583) Managing a theatre was not an easy
career.
Further west, the Eagle Street Theatre in Buffalo, New York was
completely destroyed by fire, in 1852, "leaving nought but the walls to
mark the spot. .. . The fire is no doubt the work of an incendiary." (15
May 1852: 156) In Baltimore John T. Ford, manager of the Halliday
Street Theatre, sent a fiery letter to the Spirit complaining of the
"malicious misstatements and an undisguised perversion of the truth" by
the Spirit's correspondent who, he stated, misrepresented "the affairs of
the establishment under my control" by underestimating the popularity
of Edwin Forrest and the size of the audience that awaited Forrest's
performance each night despite the "snow storm and the counter-
attraction of one week's excellent sleighing." (26 January 1856: 600)
Through the pages of the Spirt of the Times various correspondents
kept readers generally aware of theatre activity across the country. In
Chicago in the middle of the 1850s there were "two well organized
companies: the Chicago Theatre under the direction of Percy Marshall
who had taken over John Rice's company, and Amphitheatre," run by
Lerie J. North, which in 1857 looked forward to performances by "Mrs.
Shaw, Davenport and young Booth." (18 April 1857: 1 09) This situation
would change in November 1857 when McVicker's Theatre opened its
doors for a series of successful seasons until it fell in the Great Chicago
Fire of 1871. Milwaukee could boast of three theatres in 1858-one
English and two German. (4 December 1858: 507) In his book on
theatre in Minnesota, Frank M. Whiting described this decade as "The
Booming Fifties."
11
"Amusements are scarce articles here," wrote one correspondent in
an essay on "Theatricals in Ohio," while acknowledging a strol l ing band
of Ethiopian minstrels which provided a "chaste and unique entertain-
ment" and the moderate efforts of " Shires' National Troupe," managed
by " an enterprising, gentleman of Cincinnati ." (15 April 1854: 99) With
its newly developing theatrical tradition, Cincinnati celebrated a "Grand
Amateur Dramatic Festival" at its National Theatre on 16 February 1855,
all for "the benefit of the poor." (3 March 1855: 26) Songs, orchestral
product ions, excerpts from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and The Iron
Chest preceded a solo on the bugle by H. Menter, a Dutch-English ballad
with a hand-organ accompaniment by Mr. Charles Barras and a perfor-
mance of Bombastes Furioso. The following year Cincinnatians planned
a new People's Theatre for which the Spirit provided a detailed descrip-
11
Frank M. Whiting, Minnesota Theatre: From Old Fort Snelling to the Guthrie
(St. Paul, MN: Pogo Press, 1988), 3-19.
American Theatre During the 1850s 15
tion. Much emphasis, it seems, was always placed on the democratic
"People's" and the patriotic "National," with I ittle avowed enthusiasm
for plays by Americans or about Americans!
Down South, theatre in Mobile started the second half of the century
with the "promise of success" from an able stock company managed by
R. L. Place of the American Theatre in New Orleans where Ben De Bar
took over the St. Charles Theatre from Noah Ludlow and Sol Smith in
1853 and monopolized theatrical activity there until 1861. Before the
Civil War De Bar also played summer seasons in St. Louis where he
purchased a theatre in 1855. (19 january 1850: 566) His mid-decade
competition in New Orleans, the Gaiety, under the management of Dion
Boucicault, who produced mainly his own plays, was not successful.
By 1850 California was on the minds of many Americans. As eager
as any to take advantage of new found wealth, theatre people trouped to
the Golden West. During the 1850s two major theatres were built (and
rebuilt): in 1850 the jenny Lind Theatre, which burned twice before the
builders replaced the wooden construction with stone, and the Metropol-
itan Theatre in 1853. Both attracted America's most celebrated actors
and actresses. At the American, in 1852, the Tong Hooktong Dramatic
Company ("a company of Celestial dramatists, lately imported from the
flowery kingdom"), performed Chinese operas in Chinese and "met with
much success, having perfect jams, at three times the usual amount
entree." (1 December 1852: 507) It was at this same theatre the
following year after a performance of Nathania! H. Bannister's Putnam,
the Iron Son of '76 that, while the hero was leading his "famous steed out
with him and making his acknowledgments to the audience in a few
remarks, the noble charger was guilty of an indiscretion." (12 March
1853: 38)
In the fall of 1854 Californians "greatly deplored" the "sudden
departure of Miss Laura Keene for Australia" after her brief management
of the I ittle Union Theatre. (16 September 1854: 362) It was described
as another of her "circulating fits"-she having abruptly left james
Wallack in New York in 1852 and a Baltimore theatre the following year.
Immediately, the Union Theatre became the People's Theatre and
remained successful, while at the Metropolitan Mr. and Mrs. Barney
Williams became an "unmistakable hit," creating the kind of publicity
that immediately drew actors to California. On their first appearance,
"thirty-three hundred dollars were taken in at the door!" (4 November
1854: 446)
The theatrical future looked exceptionally bright, and the newly
refurbished American Theatre, under A. J. Neafie's management, was
impressive. The foreground of the drop-curtain represented "a bronze
figure of Washington standing on a pedestal, while overhead hangs in
_16 MESERVE
massive folds the flag of our country; in the background is the bay of San
Francisco, with the entrance through the Golden Gate, the surface of the
water being dotted with sailing craft. Above all is the coat of arms of the
State of California and the United States." (13 january 1855: 566)
Before another month passed, however, the Spirit's correspondent
announced "Theatricals at a Discount," and predicted that "the general
depression of business throughout the state" along with the abundance
of visiting stars and the "enormous rates" they demanded would destroy
any expectations for a healthy drama and opera. (24 February 1855: 14)
In june, 1855 critic "Col. jeemes Pipes of Pipesville, California"
[pseudonym of Stephen Massett] declared that "theatricals are dead,
dead, dead." (16 June 1855: 212)
Living was expensive in California; prices and salaries were high, and
actors and actresses of exceedingly moderate abilities disappointed
audiences while driving managers toward bankruptcy. (24 May 1856:
172) The Metropolitan Theatre was closed half the time. Only under the
management of Laura Keene, "with her handsome legs and beautiful
person," could the American Theatre continue its prosperous venture. (30
June 1856: 235) Theatre in California was as much a gamble as life
anywhere in the Golden State, as much a gamble as theatre anywhere
across the nation.
There were the same comments everywhere-moral questions,
theatre and society, the star system, foreigners in the theatre, the lack of
good plays, a need for exciting spectacles, effective entertainments-and
the same disasters that followed players and their theatres. On 7 june
1856, the Spirit announced from California: "The People's Theatre is no
more!" Fire! There were heavy losses to actors and to those who owned
nearby houses, and there was the gloomy conclusion: "The whole was
the work of some malicious person. There is no insurance." (7 June
1856: 212)
That metaphor for theatre and drama in mid-nineteenth century
America-"There is no insurance"-holds true for most Western theatre
and drama. It was the constant challenge-from critics, audiences,
theatre managers, reformers, acts of God and man-made events-that
created opportunities for, by and large, journeymen playwrights who at
this time would play second-fiddle to actors and animal acts. Interrupted
by events surrounding the Civil War major dramatists such as john
Brougham and Dian Boucicault would leave for England. By the late
1860s theatre managers, theatre critics and the playwrights-perhaps
showing evidence of the "man of mind"-would begin to change in their
skills, attitudes and approaches to what they did and how they did it. In
the American theatre there would not be another decade like the 1850s.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 11 (Spring 1999)
(Re)placing Lillian Hellman:
Her Masculine Legend and Feminine Difference
THERESA JOETTE MAY
Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that
happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines .... That is called
pentimento because the painter "repented" .. . the old conception, replaced by a
l t ~ r choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.
-Lillian Hellman, Pentimento
1
I know what you are thinking: all we need is another paper on
Lillian Hellman. However, the paint has aged on the lfgrand dame of
American letters,"
2
and now we may be better able to see the original
I i nes, to uncover some of the forces at work during the double arc of
Hellman's legendary career. We may meet a woman who even Hellman
confesses she lfdid not know very well," appearing from under the
surface-most image.
3
This paper is a historiographic review of the
phenomenon of Lillian Hellman, and inquires into her experience as a
woman. Can we locate a trace of the woman's voice amidst the
polyphony of constructed Li II ians? Or is it submerged, silenced, by the
very forces that gave her persona so much cultural clout? And perhaps
more importantly, who will claim the story of Lillian Hellman, who will
her story serve?
Few figures in American theatre history can be used to illustrate a
liberal feminist position as readily as Lillian Hellman. She arrived on
Broadway in 1934 with her first hit play, earned and maintained a place
in the male canon of Ameri can dramatic literature through four decades
of subsequent work, was lavished with numerous awards and honorary
degrees, and for a time rivaled the names of O'Neill, Williams and Miller
1
Lillian Hellman, Pentimento, (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1973), 1.
2
Annette Grant, "Lively Lady, " Newsweek 73, 89 (30 june 1969): 9.
3
Lillian Hellman, "On Reading Again," in Three (New York: Farrar, Straus,
1955), 9.
18
MAY
in the pantheon of modern American drama. And she made a lot of
money doing it. In 1975 Hellman was the National Newspaper
Association's "most influential woman," and younger women thought " if
Lilly can do it, I can do it!"
4
She was the quintessential example of a
woman making it in a man's world.
For almost a half-century Lillian Hellman was anthologized more
than, and to the exclusion of, other American women playwrights. Artists
such as Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, and Sophie Treadwell were as
popular in their own time as Hellman was i n hers. But when Hellman
came on the scene, her name eclipsed many women playwrights who
had preceded her. The male canon had found its token woman.
Lill ian Hellman fell out of fashion in the early 1980s partly as a result
of the backlash against Scoundrel Time. Her memoir about her experi-
ence before the House Un-American Activities Committee had angered
many anti-Communist liberals who felt her representation of the
McCarthy era was both dishonest and malicious. In addition, Hellman's
achievement as a playwright has been put in perspective by feminist
scholars who have revived and re-instated into the canon many American
women playwrights of the early twentieth century. Rarely anthologized
now, her plays are characterized at best as well-made social dramas;
more often, as melodramas.
5
During her lifetime, however, Lillian Hellman rose to stardom twice,
and she was able to stay in the public eye for nearly a half-century. The
period from The Children's Hour in 1936 through a succession of hit
plays in the 1940s composes one arc of her success. After Autumn
Carden in 1951, however, it seemed to some that Hellman' s career as a
dramatist had seen its best days. When Toys in the Attic appeared in
1960, Hellman had not written a play in nine years. Hellman's appear-
ance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, or
Dashiell Hammett's time served for contempt in 1951 followed by his
protracted ill health following his release from jail, or even the release of
information by Khrushchev about the Stalin era, might have had
something to do with her non-productivity during those years. However,
4
William Wright, Lillian Hellman: the Image, the Woman (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1986), 481.
5
For example, compare The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 2nd edition,
W. B. Worthen, ed. (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996), and The Bedford Anthology
of Drama, 3rd edition, Lee A Jacobus, ed. (Bedford Books, 1988), both of which have
plays by Susan Glaspelf and none by Hellman, with The Modern Theatre, Robert W.
Corrigan, ed. (New York: Macmillian Company, 1964), which incl udes Hellman as
the sole woman playwright of the twentieth century United States.
Lillian Hellman 19
nothing in her memoirs suggests that these factors damaged her creativity
as a playwright. After Hammett's death in 1961, and increasingly swept
up in the rising tide of radicalism of the 1960s, Hellman secured a
second rise to celebrity status-not as a playwright, but as a memoirist.
As an old radical herself, Hellman's image and her story served the
New Left and the 1970s women's movement. True, her success as a
playwright had entitled her to tell her personal story, but it was the telling
of that story, not her plays, that promoted her to celebrity status. After
publication of Unfinished Woman in 1969, and then Pentimento in
1973, Hellman became a kind of oracle to be consulted about everything
from Watergate and women's liberation to turtle soup. When her fall
from grace occurred after publication of Scoundrel Time in 1976, critical
discourse about Lillian Hellman took on the appearance of a literary food
fight. Some writers, who had helped construct Hellman as a symbol of
integrity in previous years, defended her against those calling her a liar;
while others, baffled and betrayed, defected from her camp.
Historicizing Lillian Hellman, therefore, is a messy business. It
becomes impossible to separate the person from the culturally produced
and commodified persona of Lillian Hellman. Hellman herself warns us
that the "real woman" may have never existed. The drinking, the affairs,
the rages, the trips to Russia, along with the books she tater wrote about
it all, blur the real into the represented woman. The response of the
literary establishment to the Hellman phenomenon has run the gamut
from overblown praise to spiteful sniping. Lillian Hellman has been "our
most promising playwright," for Marvin Felheim;
6
and was "one of the
most distinguished dramatists of our century" according to New York
Times' Stanley Young.
7
On the other hand, Hellman has been " apocry-
phal," according to Martha Gellhorn;
8
a "bad writer, over rated,
dishonest," for Mary McCarthy;
9
and "the ugl iest of them all," in the
6
Marvin Felheim, "The Autumn Garden: Mechanics and Dialects, " in Critical
Essa ys on Lillian Hellman, Mark W. Estrin, ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1989),
49.
7
Stanley Young, " An Unfinished Woman," New York Times, 29 June 1969, sec.
" Book Review," p. 8.
8
Martha Gellhorn, "Close Encounters of the Apocryphal Kind," in Critical Essays
on Lillian Hellman, 175.
9
Mary McCarthy quoted from the Di ck Cavett Show, 25 j anuary 1980. See, Carl
Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martin 's Press,
1988), 512.
20 MAY
view of William F. Buckley.
10
In historicizing Hellman, the intersection
of the playwright, the woman, and the myth becomes so problematic that
one is forced to examine the legend of Lillian Hellman as a cultural
product.
Hellman biographers, Carl Rollyson and William Wright, character-
ize Hellman's memoirs as performative. Indeed, the Hellman persona
often appears constructed, well-made, like her plays. She knew that
almost all controversy is good for business. Rollyson claims Hellman
"made a theatre of her life."
11
For example, while some critics thought
it beneath a I iterary giant to pose in a mink coat advertisement with the
headline, "Nothing Becomes a Legend More," and receive the coat as
remuneration, Hellman replied, "why the hell not!"
12
She participated,
with gusto, in the commodification of her own image.
Hellman biographers and critics, however, have not addressed the
mutually constructive dynamic among Hellman, her public and her
critics-a dynamic in which all three agents vied for authority, and none
have had the last word. I will not attempt to sift through this maelstrom,
sorting "truth" from "story." Hellman's biographers and critics have
navigated that quagmire sufficiently already. It may be more important,
rather, to look for what was at stake for Hellman in writing plays and
memoirs, than to determine, once and for all, the "facts" of the matter of
Lillian Hellman.
The impulse for my project here begins at the end of Hellman's
career, with publication of her final memoir, Maybe. In June 1980,
Brown, Little and Company (Hellman's publisher) took out a full-page ad
in the New York Times in which a photo of Hellman appeared with a
caption that touted her latest memoir as "enigmatic" and "revealingly
intimate." The image of Hellman is at best vulnerable, at worst pathetic,
as if to say "look what became of the legend!" Maybe-an eloquently
bumbling little book-may help us understand the price Hellman paid for
legendary status. First, however, and in order to illuminate Maybe, it is
useful to map the making and the un-making of that legend.
The double arc of Hellman's career-as playwright and memoirist-
requires a two-fold inquiry. In order uncover a sense of Hellman's
experience as a woman coping with patriarchal forces, I place Hellman
10
William F. Buckley, Jr., "Scoundrel Time: Who Is the Ugliest of them All?,"
National Review 29, 101 (20 January 1977): 77.
11
Rollyson, 429.
12
Alfred Kazin, "The legend of lillian Hellman," in Critical Essays on Lillian
Hellman, 174.
Lillian Hellman
21
and her plays in the context of what Susan Harris Smith has called the
"masculinization of American theatre'' in the early and middle twentieth
century.
13
.In American Drama: the Bastard Art (1997), Smith reveals the
political aspects of this aesthetic process. Thus, she helps us deconstruct
the patriarchal era which is credited with Lillian Hellman's success. The
dictates of "masculinization" informed not only reception of Hellman's
work, but the construction of Hellman herself in the public and private
arenas of her I ife. I posit that what Rollyson has called "the theatre of
[Hellman's] life" was a collaboration, one in which we participate even
now.
In this light, Hellman's memoirs become, not only a process of
collaboration with the construction of her own public image, but a
process of taking her life back, finding her voice, sorting her self from the
woman who wrote "manly" plays. Yet, Hellman tells us that even she
was never successful in this regard. The best she is able to find is a
scent-a sense-of self. Then, in order make sense of Maybe, I place all
of Hellman's memoirs in the context of the theorizing about the art of
autobiography occurring at the time Hellman wrote each of them. I am
not claiming that Hellman was necessarily aware of the contemporane-
ous development of autobiography theory; however, the shifting notions
of what an autobiography is or should be informed the critical climate
Hellman was writing into each time she wrote a memoir.
The Masculinization of Lillian Hellman
Susan Harris Smith maps the forces at work just prior to and during
the period when Lillian Hellman took stage. Smith characterizes the
period from approximately 1911 through the "birth" of American drama
in the work of Eugene O'Neill as the masculine reclaiming of an
over-feminized theatrical marketplace. Smith's narrative helps set the
scene for the role Hellman would play, and the purposes she would
serve, in the development of the "manly art of playwrighting" and,
ultimately, the codification of the canon of American dramatic literature.
In the years following the Civil War women had become a "civilizing"
force to be reckoned with. The abolitionist movement, followed by the
1890 victory for compulsory schooling, established women as an
increasingly effective cultural/political force. Women's groups worked
for literacy, morality, and culture. By 1910 "civic minded women" and
"academic men" were hatching a strategy to institutionalize "high art"
13
Susan Harri s Smith, American Drama: the Bastard Art (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1997), 57-113.
22
MAY
in the name of morality and "self improvement." Founded in 1910, the
Drama League undertook to promote a "high standard" of American
theatre. The League successfully expanded the theatre-going audiences
and increased the production, publication, and reading of "good" drama.
The League also initiated connections between the theatre and higher
education. Within the organization, according to Smith, "men were the
figureheads, the women did the work."
14
Smith notes that Clayton
Hamilton was unreserved in his regard for women's power in the theatre.
Hamilton "claimed that 'the destiny of our drama has lain for a long time
in the hands of women ... in fact, the theatre is to-day the one great
public institution in which 'votes for women' is the rule." '
15
A decade
later, however, the rhetoric had changed.
A process of "masculinization" attempted to recover from a "weak"
and "feminized" state and to throw off the shackles of "romanticism"
and /'sentimentality" that marred nineteenth century drama. Smith
underscores this effort as a calculated, carefully constructed reclaiming
of theatre as a male domain:
The rhetoric of masculinity and vitality was a communicative
strategy designed to discount others as enfeebled; science was
equated with objectivity and the search for truth, and left any
unscientific enterprise behind ... pejoratively associated with
femininity and untempered emotions.
16
By the 1920s the architects of a new masculine American drama begged
for a theatre free from the dictates of "feminine fancy" and the "strangle-
hold of petticoats" in which "manly virtues were preferred."
17
The discourse of masculinity infused literary circles as well as other
professions. Lawyers, architects, and other professionals sought to
"legitimize" their fields by demonstrating "scientific" methods. The rise
of the American university "claimed science as both its goal and domain"
as professionals endeavored to "defeminize" in order to be "adequate to
the university's demands."
18
With the advent of the "manly art of
14
Smith, 84.
15
Clayton Hamilton, "Organizing an Audience," in Conversations on American
Drama (New York: Macmillian, 1924), 163-64, quoted in Smith, 85. Ellipses hers.
16
Smith, 103.
17
Ibid., 104.
18
Elizabeth Renker, "Resistance and Change: The Rise of American Literature
Studies," American Literature 64, 2 (1992) : 347, quoted in Smith, 104.
Lillian Hellman 23
playwrighting" and the
11
Well made play," the American theatre, which
had been
11
gendered, degendered and regendered" since its beginnings,
could reclaim its creative, essentially masculine" prove-
nance.19
National identity was at stake in the process of breathing new and
"virile" life into American drama. The
11
Connection of drama to
'feminine' and 'foreign"' was marked as the root cause of American
drama's impotence abroad and at home. "American drama" would have
to be forged as both "native" and "universal" in order to earn a place in
the world canon. '"Greatness' was thus locked to masculinity," while an
impenetrable male logic conflated notions of" American" and "manly"
with "legitimate" and
11
great."
20
These qualities, in turn, became the
fundamental identifiers of the "new," "mature" American drama born in
the person of Eugene O'Neill.
Enter Lillian Hellman. As a young and presumably ambitious
woman, knocking back drinks with the best of them at Bani & Liveright
parties, we must speculate that Hellman's creative and professional
ambitions were forged within earshot of the communicative strategy of
the masculinization of American Theatre. Whether a conscious
calculation, or as some biographers have posited, Hellman fell under the
tutelage of masculine forces like Dashiell Hammett/
1
her early creative
impulses were surely immersed in the rhetoric and excitement of the
years when American drama had finally come into its own.
22
As Hellman
developed an ear for how to become part of it, both her work and her
persona would disassociate from women dramatists of the past, and
19
lbid., 104-105. Here Smith examine a "misogynistic and xenophobic" passage
from Charles and Mary Beard's The Rise of American Civilization (New York:
Macmillian, 1934), and an excerpt from Henry Arthur Jones' "The Aims and Duties
of a National Theatre," in Foundations of a National Drama (New York: George H.
Doran, 1913), in which the rhetoric of the masculinizing forces is parti cularly strong.
20
Ibid., 1 OS.
21
Any discussion of the emergence of Lillian Hel lman must also situate her in the
context of 1930s politics and the American communist party of that period. It would
be interesting to examine the connecti on between Hellman's politics and her
"masculinization," particularly in light of the men who played important roles in her
artist ic and political development. She may have been "a rebel " from childhood, as
Pentimento asks us to believe; however, being a radical, even a communist, may have
a connection to the necessity of constructing herself within a male-dominated world.
William Wright leans in this direction. See, Chapters 6 and 7 of Lillian Hellman: The
Woman, The Image.
22
The "maturation" of Ameri can drama has been regularly linked to O'Neill's
Beyond the Horizon, which appeared in December 1920. Smith, 98.
24 MAY
embody the valorized notions of "virility," "brutality" and
"unsentimental ity."
Indeed, Hellman's work seemed to answer the complaints which had
been levied at "feminine" drama (and against female dramatists) almost
blow for blow: If women could not produce plays with the necessary
"virility" or "courage," Hellman's Children's Hour was "straight forward
and driving" according to Brooks Atkinson, and "bravely written" for
Robert Benchley.
23
If "women could not handle the 'largeness of topic,"'
Watch on the Rhine would take on Nazism. If women were "incapable
of 'strictness in treatment/" leaving their plot constructions "deficient/'
24
Little Foxes was noted for "brilliant construction ... like a Chinese box,
each piece fitting precisely with the next/' according to John Malcolm
Brinnin.
25
If "young ladies' literature soon dies" owing to the "gaps in
her equipment," as Charles and Mary Beard posited/
6
then Hellman's
writing was "sure and pointed" according to New Yorker's Margaret Case
Harriman, and would prove lasting.
27
Writing "like a man" entitled her
to be counted part of the American drama that John Gassner's 1952
"Answer to the New Critics" described as "masculine, buoyant,
hard-driving and uninhibited."
28
Lillian Hellman was the exception that
proved the rule: a woman can write a good play, even a "great" play,
though most women can not and have not. It would not be enough,
however, for Hellman's plays to be "hard-driving/' she would have to
perform masculinity in her person as well.
The masculinization of Hellman's image, which began at the start of
her career, and continues into current discourse, is a process of marking.
It lays claim to her work, her success, and her life. As early as 1941, after
three successful plays, the personality and "true nature" of "Miss Lilly
of New Orleans" was the subject of an "in depth" article by Margaret
Case Harriman for New Yorker. "She's the kind of girl who can take the
23
Wright, 96.
24
Brander Mathews, A Book About the Theatre (New York: Scribner, 1916), 117,
quoted in Smith, 105.
25
Wright, 149.
26
Charles and Mary Beard, quoted in Smith, 105.
27
Margaret Case Harriman, "'Miss Lily of New Orleans' Lillian Hellman," in
Critical Essays, 219. Originally pub I ished as "Profile," New Yorker (8 November
1941 ), [n.p.].
26
John Gassner, "An Answer to the New Critics," Theatre Arts 36 (1952): 59-61,
quoted in Smith 108.
Lillian Hellman 25
tops off bottles with her teeth," Harriman writes, quoting from a 1934
review of Children's Hour.
29
The bottle cap trope followed Hellman into
her later years.
The masculinization of Hellman's image married her identity to
various male icons of popular culture. She was "a female super-literate
Humphry Bogart" according to New Republic's joseph Epstein.
3
For
Margaret Case Harriman, Lillian Hellman's face bore a "curious
resemblance to .. . George Washington."
31
Perhaps the most striking
example of Hellman's masculine construction is the oft employed
identification of Hellman with Hemingway. And Hellman herself is the
source of this trope. In Unfinished Woman she tells a story of Ernest
bringing the proofs of To Have and Have Not to her hotel room one
evening, while they were both in Spain. Hellman claimed that
Hemingway made a pass at her; in response she quipped that his
manuscript was missing a piece. In "Close Encounters of the Apocryphal
Kind," Martha Gellhorn claims that this encounter could not have taken
place, since Hellman and Hemingway were not in Spain at the same
time.
32
The incident seems to have been invented by Hellman in order
to put her name on the same page as Hemingway's.
The trick worked. Scholars then and since have been invested in this
particular masculine construction of Hellman. As recently as 1994 in
American Drama: 1940-1960, Thomas P. Adler illustrates his own
investment in a "Hemingwayesque" Lillian Hellman. He writes:
Hellman remained her own woman, using the stage, however
impersonal the plays might seem at times, to impress on
audiences her personal belief in the Hemingwayesque virtues of
courage, honesty, loyalty, and decency, as well as to set forth
certain strongly held convictions ...
33
Was it "Hemingwayesque virtuesn which compelled her ferocious attack
on the anti-Communist left in Scoundrel Time? "Loyalty" which
29
Harriman, 219.
30
joseph Epstein, " No Punches Pulled, " New Republic 161, 27 (26 July 1969):
27.
31
Harriman, 220.
32
Gellhorn, 1 75-190.
33
Thomas P. Adler, "Lillian Hellman: The Conscience of the Culture," in
American Drama: 1940-1960 (New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1994), 61.
26
MAY
service" when he was a lover of two years with whom she contemplated
marriage? Was it "honesty" which prompted her to pass off Muriel
Gardiner's life story as her own flesh-and-blood friend "Julia" when she
and Gardiner had never met?
34
Was it "decency" which prompted
Hellman's suit against Mary McCarthy? Are "strongly held convictions,"
about Stalin for instance, "manly virtues?" Adler has continued to
masculinize Hellman, a decade after her death, by using one super-male
construction to shore up another. In addition, he has appropriated and
masculinized virtues that might otherwise be attributed to both sexes of
homo-sapiens and some canines.
Understanding the workings of power and ideology as a force at
work from the inside-out, as well as outside-in helps us put Lillian
Hellman's life-long collaboration in the masculinization of her own
image into perspective. Masculine subjectivity is so deeply ingrained that
it not only permeates how women represent themselves externally, but
also how they conceive of themselves internally. In Feminist Spectator
as Critic, Jill Dolan invokes materialist feminists Judith Newton and
Deborah Rosenfelt in this regard:
Ideology ... is not a set of deliberate distortions imposed on us
from above, but a complex and contradictory system of represen-
tations (discourse, images, myths) through which we experience
ourselves in relation to each other and to the social structures in
which we live. Ideology is a system of representation through
which we experience ourselves as well .
35
So we must ask, for example, if Hellman's own linking of herself to
Hemingway was a response to an already existing requirement for
continued success? If the masculine theatre of her working years
prescribed only one subject, then she must become that subject; if only
men are canonized, she must become and remain one of the guys.
The masculinization of Hellman has subjected her to a double
standard in literary history. Although Hellman cast herself, and was cast
by journalists, in a masculine image, her public appeal was predicated on
34
Many believe that the "real" Julia was Muriel Gardener, and that Hellman
appropriated the detail of her life and passed them off as those of her childhood
friend, "Julia" There are dissenting opinions which identify other options for the
possible Julia, however the consensus remains that Hellman did not, personally, know
the woman on whom she modeled the character of Julia. See al so, Alexander
Cockburn, "Who Was Julla, " in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, 190.
35
Jill Dolan, The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1991), 16.
Lillian Hellman 27
by journalists, in a masculine image, her public appeal was predicated on
her difference. Regardless of Hellman's success, the public was never
allowed to forget she was a woman. That difference set in motion a
discourse of titillation from the start of her career. Margaret Case
Harriman's 1941 New Yorker "Profile" of Hellman is full of the gender
tropes that would fol low the Hellman persona for forty more years.
"Miss Lilly" of New Orleans, as Harriman calls her, is "more often mild
than not and ... genuinely feminine." While crediting Hellman with
"the kind of intellectual indignation that must be sexless," Harriman
makes much of "Miss Lilly's" feminine qualities, such as Hellman's poor
sense of direction and her "helplessness in the face of geography and
physics." Harriman also begins the masculinization of Hellman's anger.
Lillian's temper has a "gentfemanly quality of never being unintentionally
rude to anyone," while "she can sometimes hit below the belt."
36
For
the rest of her life, Hellman's rage would be de-feminized in a similar
manner.
In addition, the New Yorker article drives a wedge between Hellman
and the possibility of female colleagues and friends. Lillian Hellman,
writes Harriman, is an "independent woman," and "has more men
friends than girl friends" because she "likes to gamble with men for
manly stakes." Harriman notes, however, that Miss Lilly is not
condescending to members of the female sex and " is fond of a number
of women and likes to send them unexpected and interesting presents,
half a proscuito ham or a silver bowl for mixing New Orleans cafe
diable."
37
In other words, Hellman treats her female friends as any
gentleman would.
Under this literary double-standard, Lillian Hellman's plays were
" good" because they were "masculine," yet "Miss Lilly's" "femininity"
continually provided journalistic juice. In the same vein, while
Hellman's canonization denied her sexual difference on the one hand,
journalists made much of her sexual promiscuity on the other. The
construction of Hellman's sexuality as a form of male desire served to
separate Hellman from other women, and other women writers, while it
laid claim to that desire for heterosexual men. Her "sexually aggressive"
traits were masculinized, yet her difference embodied the fulfjllment of
male fantasy-a woman so sexed that even Hemingway returned to the
lobby of a Paris hotel in 1937, "looking disheveled and explained the
lipstick on his collar with 'Lillian Hellman was up there and she's the
36
Harriman, 220.
37
Ibid., 219-229.
28
MAY
most extraordinary female I' ve ever met!"'
38
It seems that to compete-
with men in the marketplace of the theatre, she had to match their
boldness in the bedroom.
The Token Woman in the Male Canon
J iII Dol an has observed that there is a danger when a female
playwright is accepted into the male canon. Rather than establishing a
"precedent for women playwrights to follow" it reinforces "the male
precedent the canon has already set." The hegemonic function of the
canon not only serves to exclude women in the past, but by "limiting the
visible number of women playwrights" it precludes women's entrance in
the future.
39
More importantly, by controlling the mapping of influence,
it causes ruptures and discontinuities in the connections women might
otherwise make with other women within the history of their profession.
Tracy C. Davis notes that canonization is a political process in which the
"possession of power by those in command of the approved form" is
redoubled by valorizing the best examples of its ideology.
40
It
simultaneously erases examples of forms inconsistent with its aim. As
Susan Harris Smith has pointed out, the dominant ideology in the
American theatre of Hellman's years was naturalized as the very
definition of "great" drama. The movement to masculinize American
theatre, while it put Lillian Hellman center stage, successfully obliterated
the achievement and contributions of pre-Hellman women dramatists.
Susan Harris Smith observes that:
the standard anthologies of American drama [1918-1986] ...
have long been gendered male. The links in the chain that
stretches from Godfrey to Tyler to O' Neill to Williams to Miller
to Albee to Shepard and Mamet are all male. Harold Bloom in
Esquire (September 1994) allows nine male playwrights . . . into
his canonized list. This gendering is not just the work of literary
critics at large; recent historians of the drama, though certainly
38
Wright, 326.
39
Dolan, 20.
40
Tracy C. Davis, "Questi6ns for a Feminist Methodology in Theatre History, "
in Interpreting the Theatrical Past, Thomas Postlewait and Bruce A. McConachie, eds.
(Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), 67.
Lillian Hellman
obliged to obey the facts of a dominant male presence, have
done little to redress the historical imbalance.
41
29
Hellman's is a litany of male identification and lineage: she is
"Chekhovian" for jacob Adler,
42
and "lbsenite" for Mark Estrin, who also
notes that Hellman has been "compared to the 'high tradition' of
Sophocles" by Stark Young, and "heir to Strindberg" for Joseph Wood
Krutch.
43
juxtaposing Lillian Hellman with the great men of modern drama
provides her some historical status; it also separates her from other
women playwrights, and thus interrupts whatever chain of influence
might otherwise be constructed among Hellman and her female
predecessors. Susan Harris Smith points out that in "C.W.E. Bigsby's
three-volume history, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century
American Drama (1985), one volume of which is devoted entirely to
Williams, Miller, and Albee ... only two complete chapters to women;
one is to Lillian Hellman, the other is on women's theatre."
44
Hellman's
elevated status, however, still does not compensate for her difference. At
least for Bigsby, she remains a one-chapter playwright.
Lillian Hellman has indicated no influence, nor do any of her critics
or biographers posit that she has any debt to the women who wrote,
produced and directed before her. It is as if she sprung fully formed from
the forehead of Zeus. Indeed, this mythology was part of the
"masculine" strategy for the future, which sought to disassociate itself
with the "feminine" past. Yvonne Shaffer's American Women
Playwrights 1900-1950 reinstates into literary memory a number of
women playwrights of the early and mid-twentieth century. "Although
most of these playwrights are nearly forgotten, their work had a major
41
Smith, 106. Smith notes the pattern of canonization since the beginning of the
" masculinization" of American theatre: "In forty-five anthologies of American drama
complied between 1918 and 1986, from Quinn and Moses to Jacobus and Gassner,
eleven collections had no plays by women at all and fourteen included only one. Of
the 740 plays anthologized, only 90 were by women and many of those were one-acts
and/or from the regional theatre movement of the twenties and thirties."
42
Jacob Adler, "Miss Hellman's Two Sisters," in Critical Essays on Lillian
Hellman, 43.
43
Estrin in Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman., 3, 12.
44
Smith, 106.
30
MAY
impact on the American theatre," Shaffer writes.
45
Rachel Crothers,
Susan Glaspell, Sophie Treadwell, and others wrote plays which "broke
with formulae and challenged the accepted conventions of a largely
realistic, male-dominated theatre," plays which were (like Hellman's)
concerned with social justice and issues well beyond the drawing room
and bed room.
46
It would seem to make sense to connect Hellman to
women playwrights of the past; or to show how she has influenced
women playwrights of today. Yet, in his Introduction to Critical Essays
on Lillian Hellman (1989), Mark Estrin encourages studies which
"speculate on Hellman's possible influence on such contemporary forces
in the American theatre as David Rabe or Sam Shepard."
47
Even though
Marsha Norman has claimed Hellman's influence, Estrin's narrative
seems to indicate that not only did Lillian Hellman emerge without any
literary mothers, her own progeny are all men.
Mastering the "manly art of playwrighting" set Hellman apart from
Crothers, Glaspell, Treadwell and Zoe Akins in the minds of (primarily
male) critics and scholars. Hellman none-the-less stepped into success
on the heels of the women who had careers in commercial theatre in the
early part of the century. Hellman is heir to women playwrights who,
until recently, have been effectively dismissed, not only because her style
and subjects reflect the work of some of these individuals, but simply
because they were there . . Women were not absent. They were present,
vital, courageous, uninhibited and innovative forces in the American
theatre that Hellman (and Eugene O'Neill) inherited. Placing Hellman
within a lineage of women dramatists, with an eye to deconstruct why
she has been plucked from that lineage, is a vital piece of research still to
be done.
Ironically however, Hellman's work has not escaped the gendered
critique leveled at the women playwrights who preceded her. Even with
the successes of Children's Hour, Little Foxes, and Watch on the Rhine,
some critics claimed the plays were merely "melodramas."
48
Katherine
Lederer's 1979 book on Hellman attempts to rescue Hellman's work from
that fatal label. Lederer cites Hellman's "ironic vision" and begs that
45
Yvonne Shaffer, American Women Playwrights 1900-1950 (New York: Peter
Lang, 1995), 7.
46
Ibid., 2.
47
Estrin, 9.
48
Wright, 325-327. See also, Estrin's Introduction to Critical Essays on Lillian
Hellman for a discussion of Hellman .and melodrama.
Lillian Hellman 31
critics transcend "genre classification."
49
"Melodrama" continues to be
a gendered genre, however, and the label has served to marginalize
Hellman's work.
Lillian Hellman's drama has been dismissed on still two other counts.
In fact, as time passes, Hellman's work becomes subject to almost all of
the criticisms-such as moralizing-that were leveled at the "feminized"
drama of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For example,
although Thomas P. Adler has praised Hellman as "Hemingwayesque,"
he demotes her from the canon of "great" American dramatists to that of
"moralist" and reduces her "hits" to mere "representative" works of
"social drama.
5
Further, while Hellman has been lauded for her
masterful dramatic construction, Adler turns her expertise into a deficit,
claiming she demonstrates an "excessive reliance on well-made dramatic
structure."
51
In addition, while the patriarchal realism . of her
contemporaries demanded her "unsentimental" writing, Hellman has
been accused of having "a lack of compassion for her characters."
52
One
wonders, if it were not for her memoirs, whether Hellman's name would
have gone the way of Glaspell's and Crothers'. If not for the runaway
successes of An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, would Hellman
have survived as the token woman in the male canon?
Reinventing Her Self: the Hellman Memoirs
It was iro!liC, perhaps, that after Toys in the Attic, and at a time when
the civil rights movement and later the women's movement of the 1970s
might have provided Hellman with rich source material for drama, she
stopped w r i t ~ n plays. He11man's memoirs begin to break step with the
very patriarchal forces which had enshrined her. In these works of
para-fiction she makes little mention of her life in the theatre or her
politics. Some critics were aggravated by certain "omissionsu in An
Unfinished Woman, as if writing about the theatre was a debt she owed
for previously garnered approval. Not writing about writing plays was
received as a direct insult by many in the world of American theatre. "It
is close to stubborn affectation to pass by so much," Harpers' Robert
49
Katherine Lederer, Lillian Helfman (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979), 138.
50
Adler, 43.
51
Estrin, 10.
52
Ibid., 13 . .
32
MAY
Kotlowitz complained.
53
New York Times' Stanley Young noted a
"studied evasiveness."
54
Where there is silence, however, Tracy C. Davis
reminds us, there may also be some mechanism of silencing. Or, at least
we must hear the silence itself as a statement. In " Questions for a
Feminist Methodology in Theatre History," Davis urges us to examine the
silences:
[T]he interpretation of published autobiographies is . . .
problematic, in part due to women's reluctance to discuss the
machinations of invisible professional forces, (such as patriarchal
exclusion and sexual coercion) and to mention delicate personal
matters relat ing to romantic liaisons and the female life cycle.
55
In Hellman' s memoirs, and particularly in their silences, we begin to find
evidence of subtle forces and " delicate" topics. Ultimately, Hellman's
memoi rs must be seen as "performance vehicles" through which
Hellman was able to say and/or not say her self.
Curiously, when all four memoirs are taken together they
demonstrate the way in which postmodern/post-structural thought has
informed theorizing about autobiography writing. The Hellman memoirs
form a map from her initial search for a cohesive sense of self in An
Unfinished Woman, to one composed of many voices and relationships
in Pentimento, then to the primacy of the text and confounding of
historical " truth" in Scoundrel Time, and fi nally towards a deconstruction
of the self into the mere possibility of existence-the scent of a self-in
Maybe. Hellman's memoirs have served as central sites for scholars of
autobiography in recent decades, and indeed, helped re-define
autobiographical writing.
The critical acclaim her memoirs received provided a kind of
insurance against being dismissed from the canon. Mark Estrin notes that,
prior to An Unfinished Woman, "Hellman [was] the subject of an
astonishingly small number of book-length studies devoted exclusively to
her work.
56
The sound bites which accompanied publication of An
Unfinished Woman substantially reinforced both her publ ic persona and
her stature as a playwright. Best Sellers noted "a strong and determi ned
53
Robert Kotlowitz, " Rebel as Writer," Harpers 238, 87 Uune 1969): 87.
54
Young, New York Times, 29 June 1969: p. 8.
55
Davis, 64.
56
Estrin, 31 .
Lillian Hellman
33
unwilling to con [her]self ... tough yet generous, honest yet reticent."
59
Hellman herself posited, during a 1974 Bill Moyer's interview, that the
reception of her first two memoirs reflected the public's need for heroes.
likewise, Rollyson notes that "by 1976, there was a reading public
primed for anything that had Lillian Hellman as a heroine."
60
With each new memoir her pubic jmage grew and so did the
rankling among cultural forces that had laid claim to that image. After the
second wave of criticism of Scoundrel Time, in which she was accused
of lying and misrepresenting herself and others, An Unfinished Woman
was revisited and probed for the "facts" she claimed not to have fooled
with. Pentimento was subsequently discredited by research into the
veracity of "Julia." In a kind of positivist barrage to discredit Hellman,
many of the people who appear as characters in the story got out their
own dusty personal records, train schedules, diaries, and correspon-
dence. The sometimes ludicrous sometimes vicious debate over the
veracity of her memoirs, in which Hellman, her critics, and her friends
participated, ended in an public absurdist performance in which Hellman
sued Mary McCarthy and PBS after McCarthy called Hellman "a liar" on
the Dick Cavett Show.
61
After Hellman's death, the investigations into the veracity of
Scoundrel Time and Pentimento continued with biographers Wright and
Rollyson making much of the ''implausibility" of various episodes, and
gathering primary and secondary sources to prove or disprove everything
from whether or not Hellman staged the first anti-segregation demonstra-
tion at ten years old by making her nanny Sophronia sit in the front of the
bus, or whether or not the Russian officer who loved American fiction
actually existed, to whether painter Stephen Greene's company in Rome
in 1953 constituted the correct use of the word "alone" for Lillian
Hellman.
Hellman's own collaboration in the project of her masculinization
notwithstanding, her four memoirs became a process of taking her life
back. Within what Jill Dolan has identified as the "male cultural, social,
sexual, political, and intellectual discourse,"
62
Hellman's memoirs are a
kind of performative struggle for authority over her own image. Accord-
ing to theorist Jeanne Braham, in Crucial Conversations: Interpreting
59
Epstein, 27.
60
Rollyson, 481.
61
Ibid., 512-528.
62
Dolan, 3.
34
MAY
back. Within what Jill Dolan has identified as the "male cultural, social,
sexual, political, and intellectual discourse,"
62
Hellman's memoirs are a
kind of performative struggle for authority over her own image.
According to theorist Jeanne Braham, in Crucial Conversations:
Interpreting Contemporary American Literary Autobiographies by
Women, "the female autobiographer deploys language to convey the
feeling of being cut off from language."
63
Hellman's autobiographies are
not so much an attempt to put language around historical events, but to
lay claim, through language, to her self.
Autobiography studies have mapped a continually shifting notion of
the self over the last forty years. This field of study examines the tension
between self and community, and between authorial license and
historical responsibility. Autobiography theory also examines the
mutually constructive relationship between identity and language, and
between private life and public image. Contemporary autobiography
theory grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, concurrent with the
anti-positivist critique of history, and the philosophical/social/political
upheaval of the 1960s.
64
Autobiography theory follows the significant
trends in contemporary theory occurring over the past several decades.
These shifts illuminate each of Hellman's memoirs in turn.
In "Autobiography and the Cultural Moment," James Olney notes
that until the nineteenth century, autobiography, like history, was a
I iterary art. Writing history and writing a I ife-story were conceived as
similar impulses. In the late nineteenth century, historians joined in the
academy-wide embrace of scientific method; history was re-conceived as
a "scientific" search for the "laws of historical development."
65
Because
autobiography was a key component of history in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, it was dragged into history's I iaison with science in
the early twentieth century and expected to conform to the rules of
objectivity, analytical inquiry, and documented evidence. Autobiography
as an exact science soon caused havoc, and by the 1950s it was
re-classified as an "existential act," and re-positioned within the domain
of humanistic philosophy. Indeed, the rise of significant theorizing about
&
2
Dolan, 3.
&J jeanne Braham, Crucial Conversations: Interpreting Contemporary American
Literary Autobiographies by Women {New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia
Universi ty, 1995), 42.
&
4
Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About
History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 199.
&S Ibid. , 52.
Lillian Hellman 35
autobiography during this period helped drive a wedge between its
former parents, history and science.
james Olney tell us that, as a new genre apart from literature and
history, in the late 1950s autobiography was defined as the struggle to
reconstitute the scattered pieces of individual life into a cohesive whole.
The autobiographical act was conceived as an attempt "to reconstitute
[one's]self" and to construct a "special unity and identity across time."
66
Furthermore, many argued that the author "half discovers, half creates"
a "deeper truth" than simple " adherence to historical and factual
truth."
67
Shortly, it became clear to theorists that this "special unity," this
"identity," is, after all, whether discovered or imposed, a matter of
design. By the mid-1960s the unwieldy genre of autobiography was
re-positioned once again as a quasi-creative act.
An Unfinished Woman begins chronologically, constructing an
identity that emerges over time. Then mid-book Hellman sets the reader
down amidst theoretical misgivings. The last three chapters are portraits
of significant people in Hellman's life. This later part of the book can be
taken as an illustration that there is no singular, stable, Hellman identity,
but rather that a sense of identity is formed, as if by composite, out of her
relationship with other people. Contemporaneously, theorists had
posited that the autobiographical impulse was not simply the need to find
a unifying self, but the discovery of multiple voices within one self.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a result of this new emphasis on
multiplicity, the genre of autobiography became central to emerging
fields of study, such as Women's Studies, African American Studies,
Native American Studies, Gay/Lesbian Studies. As expressions of
personal experience, unique culture, and diverse perspectives, and as
documents of the contributions of marginalized groups to mainstream
culture, autobiographies often served as primary texts for Black History
or Women's History courses. Olney notes that, "[a]utobiography-the
story of a distinctive culture written by individual characters from
within-offers a privileged access to an experience."
68
As a literary form
complete with its own body of criticism, autobiography provided
leverage as marginalized groups began to claim and reclaim their place
66
james Olney, " Autobiography and the Cultural Moment," in Autobiography:
Essays Critical and Theoretical, james Olney, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1980), 11 . See also, James Olney, Metaphors of the Self: the Meaning of
Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), for a history of
autobiography theory and the modern notion_ of the self.
67
Ibid., 11.
68
Ibid., 8.
36
MAY
in history. In this model, a "sense" of history was provided by
multi-voiced collections of individual experiential accounts. It made
sense that Hellman's next memoir would abandon the effort to find a
"unified self" in favor of a multi-voiced identity .. Pentimento appeared
in 1973 as a series of portraits from which the reader might draw a sense
of Lillian Hellman. Like a demonstration of contemporaneous
autobiography theory, the book seems to posit that a person is a
composite of experiences, and identity is, at best, a web of relationships.
No sooner had autobiography begun to provide these "alternate
histories," than theorizing shifted again. What bothered some scholars
was the tendency for particular autobi.ographies to become the " definitive
book" on such-and-such an experience, or for certain key individuals to
represent, for example, the "woman's experience" or the " Latino
experience." This tendency to centralize certain narratives as
representative of the " truth" hearkened back to history's search for laws,
patterns, and essences. James Olney has noted the complications that
bothered theorists of autobiography in the early 1970s:
[there was a] rather naYve threefold assumption about the writing
of an autobiography: first that [it] could signify the course of a
lifetime; second, that the autobiographer could narrate his life
[bios] in a manner at least approaching an objective historical
account . . . and third, that there was nothing problematic about
the autos, no agonizing questions of identity, self-definition,
self-existence, or self-deception.
69
It seemed clear to theorists that writers of autobiography were engaged
in a process of self-definition, even self-invention, that tended to include,
from time to time, the invention of certain events or situations in their life
narrative. In other words, autobiography sometimes includes, of
necessity, lying.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s emphasis turned from bios to
autos, from an accounting of a life to the emergence of a self, but with
the added consideration of the "third element": the text. The text,
theorists posited, has a life of its own, one that complicates both the
writing and reading of autobiography. In this model , the act of writing
is irrevocably tied up with, and fundamental to the construction of
identity; language is the vessel of the emerging self. "It is through that act
[of writing] that the self and the life, complexly intertwined and
entangled, take on a certain form, assume a particular shape and image,
and endl essly reflect back and forth between themselves as between two
69
Ibid., 22-23.
Lillian Hellman 37
self that was not really in existence in the beginning is in the end merely
a matter of text and had nothing whatever to do with an authorizing
author. The self, then, is a fiction and so is the life ... "
71
Ultimately, the
text not only has life beyond the self, but in lieu of the self.
Many critics claimed that Scoundrel Time, which appeared in 1976,
is pure fiction. It is, nonetheless, a performance of the power of a text to
take on a life of its own. Responses to Scoundrel Time came in two
waves. Initially, and perhaps without considered reflection, many critics
praised the book's narrative power. Writing for the New York Times;
Maureen Howard commented that Scoundrel Time was "intricately and
elegantly conceived," and "compelling, quite wonderful to read."
Howard predicted that Scoundrel Time would be popular reading "on
the beaches" that summer of 1976.
72
. A good read or no, others were outraged and offended by it.
S(;oundrel Time was received as a personal attack by many liberal
intellectuals, and consequently, precipitated attacks on the veracity of
Hellman's other books. Discrediting Hellman became a public project.
Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times, claimed that Scoundrel
Time is "one of the most poisonous and dishonest testaments ever
written by an American author."
73
The debate over Scoundrel Time
produced unlikely liaisons between the anti-communist left and the
intellectual right. William F. Buckley, Jr. blasted the book not only for its
"historical inaccuracies," but for its omissions and moral one-up-man-
ship. In Scoundrel Time, Hellman makes light of the holocaust of the
Stalin years; she is vague about her own politics; she unjustly attacks the
anti-Communist left; it would appear as if she and Hammett were two of
the very few courageous and decent people to come before the House
Un-American Activities Committee. "[S]he should be ashamed of this
awful book," Buckley concludes.
74
Likewise, Sidney Hook of New York
University charged in Encounter that Scoundrel Time "seems to have
duped a generation of critics devoid of historical memory and critical
common sense.fl
75
Ironically, the bombshell of Scoundrel Time
71
Ibid., 23.
72
Maureen Howard, "Scoundrel Time," New York Times, 25 April 1976, sec.
"Book Review," p. 2.
73
Rollyson, 499.
74
Buckley, 106.
75
Sidney Hook, "LiHian Hellman's Scoundrel Time.'' ,Encounter 48, 82 (February
1977): 83.
38
MAY
duped a generation of critics devoid of historical memory and critical
common sense."
75
Ironically, the bombshell of Scoundrel Time
motivated critics to probe all three of Hellman's memoirs for their
"facts." After 1977, it was "open season on Lillian Hellman."
76
Scoundrel Time turned autobiography theory back on itself. Whether
Hellman was historically ill-informed and politically na'fve, or deliberately
malicious and deceptive, or all of the above, Scoundrel Time confounds
the notion of historical "truth," and scrambles distinctions between her
remembered personal experience, her historical responsibility, and her
political agenda. Many critics fled back to a nineteenth century definition
of autobiography as a historical science in order to combat what seemed
to many as an unjustified attack that, according to Sidney Hook,
amounted to "an act of political obscenity."
77
Hellman attempted to hide
behind a vague notion of personal truth. Her defense was, "that's the
way I saw it." She claimed, "I do not want to write about my historical
conclusions-it's not my game."
78
Yet, precisely because Scoundrel Time
was written as a memoir and not a novel, it throws into question the very
theories that have been used to defend it. In Scoundrel Time Hellman
constructs herself as a historic figure. Based on her account, she was a
heroine fighting boldly and alone, "betrayed . . . by American
intellectuals" who found patriotism "an easy refuge."?
9
By its genre
Hellman's self-coalescing, . quasi-creative, autobiographical text is an
historical and historicizing act.
Moreover, as response demonstrated, Scoundrel Time was not
merely an account of the past (fictional, malicious or otherwise); it was
itself an action in present time. Ironically, the furor forced even Mary
McCarthy, one of autobiography's early theorists, into a positivist corner.
In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, first published in 1946, McCarthy
was one of the first to claim that autobiography should be understood as
a personal expression, rather than an exact science. In her introduction,
"To the Reader," McCarthy cautions, "there are cases where I am not
75
Sidney Hook, "Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time," Encounter 48, 82 (February
1977): 83.
76
Walter Clemons, "Memories Tricks," Newsweek 95, 76 (2 june 1980): 76.
Although this is from Clemons's review of Maybe, he was describing a condition of
discourse about Hellman that had begun with publication of Scoundrel Time.
77
Hook, 91.
78
Hellman, Scoundrel Time, 41.
79
Howard, New York Times, 10 June 1976, [n.p.)
Li 11 ian Hellman
39
sure myself whether I am making some things up."
80
Suing McCarthy
was a stunning act of irony on Hellman's part, one that forced Mary
McCarthy to dissect Hellman's "truth" from her "I ies" in a series of
formal depositions.
81
Conclusion: Maybe
Hellman's self-reflexive Maybe appeared in 1981, at a time when,
according to Olney, theorists had "dissolved the self into a text and then
out of the text into thin air" and thus "announced the end of
autobiography."
8 2
Olney o ~ e r v e s that:
;
it is not that the self is altogether a fiction or a delusion and
every emanation of it a deconstructable text, but that its ability
to say " 1'; in a written text and to have any authority for that
assertion has been of late so thoroughly compromised
philosophically and linguistically and so thoroughly complicated
literally that the very basis on which a traditional autobiography
might be commenced has simply been worn away ... Is it all
past tense, then, both with autobiography and criticism of it-.the
former a mere stuttering and the latter no more than a babbling .
about stuttering?
83

Hellman's Maybe, called by. some a "non-memoir," appeared in
1981, and if there ever was a babbling, stuttering book, this is one. It is
a book which deconstructs itself. Its author cannot find her "1." Instead,
the " I" is split between two women-the self and the "other. " The trope
of two women, femal e doubles, which Hellman employs in several
works, appears for the last time in Maybe. Fifty years earlier, in
Children's Hour, it takes the form of Martha and Karen, and in that
rendering of the double, the "other" must commit suicide. Some
theorists posit that the character of Julia in Pentimento is also an
80
Mary McCarthy, "To the Reader," Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New
York: Harcourt, Brace and Company 1957), 4. Many of the foundat ional notions used
by theorists of autobiography appear in this introduction. See also, Timothy Dow
Adams, Telling Lies in American Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1990), 85-120.
81
Rollyson, 516-528.
8 2
Olney, 22.
83
Ibid., 22-23 .
40
MAY
incarnation of the beloved other, the self that Hellman wanted to
become. Julia too is destroyed, not by her own hand, but by the
(masculine) Nazis. The scene is particular in .its description that Julia's
face-her identity-is destroyed.
84
The same double that she betrayed, killed off, or sold off in her plays
returns in Maybe, and to some extent sets Hellman's mind at ease about
being a woman. In this memoir, a sometime (male) lover remarks to
Hellman that she "smells funny."
85
For years after the incident she is
obsessed with her bodily odor and how to get rid of it. She bathes
several times a day, trying to wash away the scent of herself. She meets
an old friend-Sarah-who discloses that she slept with the same fellow
years ago, and he told her the same thing. Hellman is much relieved;
perhaps the man was simply being cruel. After this encounter, she does
not see Sarah for many years; occasionally she hears about her, or
believes she sees her on the street, but they do not speak. Ultimately, she
is never sure if she knew Sarah at all, or even if she existed.
Lillian Hellman's life-long collaboration in the masculinization of her
persona was, perhaps, an effort to wash the "woman" from her skin. In
Maybe, Hellman finally admits that she is part of a class, and that she
shares an experience of a misogynistic, patriarchal culture with other
women. Maybe is a haunting tale in which Hellman pursues her other
self-the illusive, silent, seldom glimpsed Sarah, who provides comfort
at a time when Hellman is obsessed with the sign of her difference.
Holly Hughes has stated that "women only get two choices, good girl
or bad girl. I'd rather be a bad girl."
86
Lillian Hellman's case is
somewhat more complex. As a good girl she played by the rules, wrote
well-made plays, and she was rewarded with the patriarchy's highest
honors. However, being a good girl also meant she had to be a bad
84
Several theorists posit this idea of Julia as another "self" for Hellman, and
some would like to believe a romantic connection which Hellman must resist by
destroying the woman she desires. See, for example, Adams, 121-166.
85
Rollyson and Wright only perpetuate the issue of Hellman' s body odor by
actually trying to historicize it! They make no observation that the whole issue could
be a metaphor for the sexism she may have felt in life. Timothy Dow Adams is one
of the few criti cs to recognized the character of Alex as a misogynist. Assumptions
about smell have long been part of culturally imbedded oppression and othering of
women, and persons of difference. In Maybe, Hellman spends the entire book like
a blood hound on the scent of the cruel white male who told her she "smelled
funny. " Clearly, this man was a stinker himself.
86
Holly Hughes, "World Without End," excerpted from " Sphinxes without
Secrets: Women Performance Artists Speak Out," Outspoken Video Productions,
1994.
Lillian Hellman 41
girl-drinking, raging, schlepping to the Russian front, throwing up on
opening night, lopping the heads off turtles, and appearing as sexually
promiscuous as a man. Hellman's sexuality and her rage became part of
her commodified image. Her temper was rarely interpreted as feminine
rage, but as a kind of masculinized "integrity."
87
Until the mid-1980s,
Hellman's presence as token woman in the canon deflected criticisms of
exclusivity and bias, while preserving the male hierarchy. Hellman's
success became a foil which protected and shored up the male-identified
American theatre for over five decades.
It is useful to reclaim the story of this woman who made the most of
a double bind. Lillian Hellman was a perpetual self dissembler. Though
Hellman's plays reinscribe the status quo, there are disjunctures between
her dramas and her life that eat away at those norms. Even the cultural
commodification of her image, works against itself. Maybe is a memoir
that begins to speak about Hellman's experience of her difference. It is,
perhaps, the strongest piece of evi.dence we have to inform our
understanding of Lillian Hellman as an American woman playwright. It
provides a kind of pentimento effect as the Legend of Lillian Hellman
fades. For those who read Maybe, there is no guarantee that
Hel.lman-the-woman is speaking, no guarantee of a " voice." There is a
scent-a sense-that makes the search for Miss Lilly worth taking from
time to time, however.
87
See, for example, Robert Brustein, "Epilogue to Anger," in Critical Essays on
Lillian Hellman, 260.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 11 (Spring 1999)
The Lost Premiere of Tennessee Williams's
Eccentricities of a N ightinga/e
RICHARD E. KRAMER
From 10 to 28 October 1967, Tennessee Williams's Eccentricities of
a Nightingale was presented at the two-year-old Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
in Guildford, Surrey, about thirty miles outside London. The production,
directed by Philip Wiseman, an American who works in England, and
starring Sian Phi II ips as Alma Winemiller opposite Kevin Colson's John
Buchanan, Jr., was declared the "world premiere" of Williams's new
version of the story of the Winemillers and the Buchanans of Glorious
Hill, Mississippi.
1
Seven months later, the Theatre Society of Long Island
announced the presentation from 14 to 26 May 1968 of the "American
premiere" of Eccentricities at the Mineola Theatre.
2
The second of four
plays in the inaugural eight-week season of Long Island's first
all-professional repertory company," this Eccentricities, also dubbed the
play's "New York premiere,"
3
starred the original Stella Kowalski, Kim
Hunter, as Alma, with Ed Flanders as John and James Broderick as the
Rev. Winemiller. The director was Edwin Sherin, who later directed the
1976 production at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre that went on to
Broadway.
1
[n.a.], "Tennessee Williams premiere," Stage and Television Today (London)
12 October 1967, p. 23; Ronald Bryden, "Theatre: Sir Winston as a German
Everyman," Observer (London), 15 October 1967, p. 24; Sean Day-Lewis,
"'Nightingale' on song but play is flat," Daily Telegraph (London), 11 October 1967,
p. 17; Thomas Quinn Curtiss, "Theater: World Premiere for an Early Williams Play,"
International Herald Tribune, 14-15 October 1967, p. 6.
2
Mineola Theatre, Theatre Society of Long Island, "New Tennessee Williams
Play to Premiere at Mineola Playhouse," press release, 3 May 1968.
3
Mineola Theatre, Theatre Society of Long Island, "L. I. 'Star Repertory' Season
Hailed by L. I. Leaders," press release, 14 March 1968; "Repertory Company is Set
for Mineola," Newsday (Garden City, NY), 24 January 1968, sec. A, p. 3; Mineola
Theatre, Theatre Society of Long Island, "Tennessee Williams Premiere Will Take
Place on L. 1.," press release, 10 May 1968.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 43
The problem with these proud pronouncements is that they were
plain wrong. This was not an incidence of reinterpretation or spin; both
the British and Long Island producers were simply flat-out overlooking
three previous U.S. productions of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, all
quite professionally mounted and duly recorded in local newspapers.
Furthermore, because of the publicity from the theatres and the press
coverage of the two productions, the errors have become a permanent
part of the historical record. In a 1965 announcement in London's Daily
Telegraph of the prospective British production, Ronald Hastings
emphasized that Williams's Eccentricities would be "the first play by this
author to have its opening performance in Britain."
4
The British and
international press went on to designate the Guildford Eccentricities,
which International Herald Tribune critic Thomas Quinn Curtiss further
erroneously identified as "the first draft of ... Summer and Smoke" and
incorrectly predicted would go on to London's West End "before long,''
5
as its "world premiere." The local paper, the Surrey Advertiser and
County Times, even described Eccentricities as "a hitherto unstaged play
by one of the greater American playwrights of the century."
6
Then, while
acknowledging the earlier British presentation, the Theatre Society of
Long Island also asserted in a press release that Eccentricities "has never
been professionally produced in the U.S."
7
These assertions, too,
became the record, as Long Island's own Newsday reported that the
show was Eccentricities' U.S. debut, and jerry Tallmer of the New York
Post wrote that Williams attended opening night "when, at long last, at
the Mineola Theater, L.l., 'Nightingale' received its American premiere."
8
4
Ronald Hastings, "Plays and Players: Unviolent Williams," Daily Telegraph
(London), 23 October 1965, p. 11.
5
Curtiss, p. 6.
6
j. W. P., "Acting of real quality," Surrey Advertiser and County Times
(Guildford, Eng.), 14 October 1967, p. 8. The announcement of the theatre's season
one week earlier in the Advertiser also referred to Eccentricities as a "World
Premiere."
7
Mineola Theatre, Theatre Society of Long l51and, "Rockefeller and Kennedy
Endorse Reper-tory Theatre on Long Island," press release, 19 April 1968; Mineola
Theatre, press release, 3 May 1968; Mineola Theatre, press release, 10 May 1968.
8
Leo Seligsohn, "On the Isle: Williams' Nightingale Soars rnfrequently, "
Newsday (Garden City, NY), 15 May 1968, sec. A, page 2; Jerry Tallmer, "Across the
footlights: Williams vs. Williams," New York Post, 16 May 1968, p. 58.
44 KRAMER
Once on the record for future writers or producers to look up, such
statements simply become "The Facts." In Contemporary Authors, for
instance, Williams's 1990 profile states that the first production of
Eccentricities-noted only under Summer and Smoke, as a revision of that
play-was in Washington, D.C., in 1966.
9
An earlier profile reports an
unspecified "summer-stock tour" in 1964, and records a production at
the "Guildford Theatre, London" in the fall of 1967.
10
Aside from its
publication with Summer and Smoke, the play is not otherwise men-
tioned in these lengthy profiles; not even the television or Broadway
productions in 1976 are noted. Even when the 1976 Buffalo production
that moved on to Broadway was reviewed by the Wall Street journal,
critic Edwin Wilson asserted that Betsy Palmer had "performed in the first
stage version" of Eccentricitie? when she played Alma in the sum-
mer-stock tour that became the Studio Arena's one hundredth
production.
11
Someone who knows that the play had been published in
1964 and suspects that a production had been mounted that year would
still have a very difficult time locating even the spare New York Times
coverage of the event. The Times calls itself "the paper of record," but
looking up Tennessee Wi I Iiams or The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in
the 1964 volume of the New York Times Index, under either books or
theatre, reveals nothing. All three pieces that year are buried under the
entry for the producing theatre, making the record easy to miss unless the
researcher already knows a great deal of the actual history. No other U.S.
newspaper has indexes going that far back, and such usual sources as the
Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature do not reveal any articles on
either the production or the publication of the text. It is little wonder,
then, that many have missed this significant little event.
Because many chronologies of Williams's life and work do not even
include Eccentricities, this factual confusion is seldom addressed.
Indeed, Eccentricities, which Williams considered a new play rather than
9
W. Kenneth Holditch, "Williams, Tennessee," in Contemporary Authors, James
G. Lesniak, ed., New Revision Series, vol. 31 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1990), 461.
10
[n.a.J, "Williams, Tennessee," in Contemporary Authors, Barbara Harte and
Carolyn Riley, eds., First Revision, vols. S-8 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1969), 1254.
Readers should note that this record is even internally inaccurate: the theatre was
named the Yvonne Arnaud, and it was in Guildford, Surrey, not London.
11
Edwin Wilson, "Shufflin' Off to Buffalo-And Points West," Wall Street
journal, 13 October 1976, p. 20; Studio Arena Theatre, "Betsy Palmer Opens Studio
Arena's 12th Season in Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,"
Press release, 27 September 1976.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 45
a revision of Summer and Smoke,
12
has generally flown under the radar
of most Williams chroniclers and biographers. Even when the actual
premiere is correctly identified, the writer does not mention, let alone
refute, the other claims, so the error is not even acknowledged, much less
laid to rest. There are, however, records that document the actual
chronology of the birth of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
Summer and Smoke, whose premiere was successfully presented by
Margo jones's Theatre '47 in Dallas on 8 july 1947, had received
devastatingly bad reviews in New York and closed on 1 January 1949.
Having sailed for Gibraltar in December 1948 with his long-time lover,
Frank Merlo, and his friend, writer-composer Paul Bowles, Williams was
in Fez, Morocco, when he received the telegram announcing the
clos ing.
13
He was devastated and bitter, but the character of Alma
Winemiller was indelibly printed on his soul. She "seemed to exist
somewhere in my being," he wrote,
14
and later, during rehearsals for the
Broadway premiere of Eccentricities, Williams candidly acknowledged,
"Look, lJ:n Alma."
15
Alma had actually first appeared earlier in 1947 as
the main character of Williams's short story,
11
The Yellow Bird,"
originally published that June in Town and Country magazine.
16
She was
named Alma Tutwiler then; Williams had first used the name Winemiller
in another story, "One Arm," written between 1942 and 1945. Unable
to shake her, even after the rejection of her latest incarnation, the
12
Tennessee Williams, "Author's Note," The Eccentricities of a Nightingale and
Summer and Smoke: Two Plays By Tennessee Williams (New York: New Directions,
1964), 4.
13
Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 200-202.
14
Ibid., 139.
15
Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 353. Literary analysts will point out that the character
of Alma Winemiller also contains elements of both WiUiams's mother, Edwina, who
in her youth had been called a nightingale (see page 347), and his beloved sister,
Rose. Ironically, Betsy Palmer, the actress who played Alma on Broadway, was also
quoted as declaring, " I feel like I am Alma." (Marne Dimock, "Betsy Palmer Talks
About Who She Is and Who She's Been," Courier-Express Magazine [Buffalo, NY], 17
October 1976, p. 16.)
16
Tennessee Williams, "The Yellow Bird," Town and Country Uune 1947):
40-41 1 102-03.
46
KRAMER
playwright, one of whose friends came to call him "Tenacity" Williams,
17
determined to create a new play for the Nightingale of the Delta to
inhabit.
After closing on Broadway, Summer and Smoke had a meager
production record until its reputation was resuscitated by the historic
Off-Broadway revival in 1952.
18
There was a summer-stock run (22-27
August 1949) at the Mountain Playhouse in jennertown, Pennsylvania,
whose only historical significance seems to be that it is believed to be the
first summer-stock performance to include blind actors.
19
In 1950, the
Portuguese-language premiere, 0 Anjo de Pedra (The angel of stone),
opened at the Teatro Brasiliero de Comedia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in
October of that year a tour of the Western states went out with film stars
Dorothy McGuire and John Ireland as the would-be lovers and Una
Merkel as Mrs. Winemiller.
Williams, who seldom let a script alone even after it was published,
continued to rewrite Summer and Smoke and in the summer of 1951,
while on one of his many retreats to Rome, completed a new version.
Letters Williams wrote between january and September 1951 to producer
Cheryl Crawford and agent Audrey Wood attest to this. At the beginning
of 1951, Williams wrote Crawford, who was producing The Rose Tattoo
on Broadway at the time, "tam still working on the new 'Summer'. It
has turned into a totally new play, even the conception of the characters
is different,"
20
and in June, he wrote:
I am doing a completeJ new version, even changing the title
as it now takes place in winter, and I think I have a straight,
17
Lyle Leverich on "Tennessee Williams: Wounded Genius," Paul Budline, wr.
and dir., Edward Herrmann, narr., Paul Budline Productions, Biography, A&E
Television Networks, 1998.
18
This famous production, credited with establishing Off-Broadway as a venue
for serious drama, opened on 24 April 1952 at the Circle in the Square on Sheridan
Square in Greenwich Village, New York City. Directed by jose Quintero, it starred
Geraldine Page-founding both their careers and the reputation of Circle in the
Square, and reviving those of Williams and Summer and Smoke-and used as its
script, not the Broadway version, but the longer "literary" text. A resounding critical
success, the production closed 19 April 1953 after 356 performances.
19
J. P. Shanley, "2 Blind Actresses in Summer Stock," New York Times, 9 August
1949, p. 21.
20
TennesseeWilliams, "LettertoCheryl Crawford, " (Rome, c. 1 January 1951),
Typescript signed by Williams, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public
Library for the Performing Arts. Punctuation is original.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale
clean dramatic line for the first time, without the cloudy
metaphysics and the melodrama that spoiled the original
production.
21
47
Williams was even contemplating returning the new version to the
United States with "a big star like Peggy Ashcroft" or Margaret Sui Iavan,
whom, apparently, Crawford had suggested.
22
By August, he was writing
to Wood that he had completed a draft of the new script, which he was
still calling Summer and Smoke,
23
and by September, he must have
finished the revision because he wrote Crawford that he did not know
which version the London company would present, "the new or old
one." He added, "I prefer the new one."
24
He rushed off to London where a production of Summer and Smoke
was in preparation by producer H. M. Tennant. Met at the airport by his
friend Maria Britneva (later Lady St. Just), who was playing Rosemary in
the production, he arrived too late to substitute the new script for the one
"already deep into rehearsals,"
25
under the direction of Peter Glenville
who, ten years later, would direct the film version.
Williams insisted that the script Britneva "put safely away," was The
Eccentricities of a Nightingale-though that title did not appear until later
correspondence-and that it did not resurface for "some 10 or 15
years."
26
A typescript of Eccentricities in the New York Public Library for
the Performing Arts' Billy Rose Theatre Collection bears the date 20 June
1961, and letters to Robert MacGregor and Jay Laugh I in at New
Directions, Williams's publisher, indicate that he was working again on
21
Tennessee Williams, "Letter to Cheryl Crawford," (Rome, 14 June 1951),
Typescript signed by Williams, Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library for the
Performing Arts. Emphasis is original.
22
Ibid., (c. 1 January 1951, 14 June 1951).
23
Tennessee Williams, "Letter to Audrey Wood," (london, 23 August 1951),
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.
24
Tennessee Williams, "Letter to Cheryl Crawford," (Copenhagen, 8 September
1951), Manuscript in Williams's hand, Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library
for the Performing Arts.
25
Tennessee Williams, ' " I Have Rewritten a Play For Artistic Purity,"' New York
Times, 21 November 1976, sec. II, pp. 1, 5.
16
Ibid.
48 KRAMER
the new play, now under its present title, in 1963 and 1964.27 Except for
a subtitle-The Sun That Warms the Dark (A very odd little play)-the
typescript is nearly identical to the 1964 published text.
28
It would
certainly be in keeping with his practice for Wil liams to have reworked
even his new play over a decade, making additional changes to the
characters and situation.
29
It is on record, to be sure, that Williams had
begun Summer and Smoke, originally entitled A Chart of Anatomy, in St.
Louis as early as February or March 1944.
30
He continued to work on it
in Mexico in 1945-where he went to recuperate from one of a series of
cataract operations-in New Orleans; in Taos, New Mexico; on
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in 1946-where he shared a cottage
with Carson McCullers while she dramatized her novel, The Member of
the Wedding-and on until well after its successful Dallas premiere.
31
A
27
Tennessee Williams, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, or The Sun That
Warms the Dark (A very odd little play), Typescript, 20 June 1961, Billy Rose Theatre
Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; Tennessee Wil liams,
"Letter to Robert MacGregor," (Key West, FL, 27 March 1963), Harvard Theatre
Collection, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Tennessee Will iams, "Letter to Jay
Laughlin and Robert MacGregor, " (Key West, 6 May 1963), Harvard Theatre
Collection; Tennessee Williams, "Letter to Robert MacGregor, " (8 April 1964),
Harvard Theatre Collection; Tennessee Williams, "Letter to Robert MacGregor," (Key
West, FL, 1 June 1964), Harvard Theatre Collection. The author has found no
evidence that Williams focused on Eccentricities, under either its old or new title,
between 1951 and 1961. Apparently Britneva, or perhaps someone else, did keep the
script hidden away during the intervening decade.
28
An identical typescript is in the New Direct ions archive, but it has been
marked for typesetting. Though no dialogue changes are indicated, the stage
directions have been edited for reading clarity and other, non-performance aspects of
the script have been standardized for pub I ication. The one change from the Library
for the Performing Arts copy is that the play's subtitle has been crossed out, indi cating
that it never again appeared on any version of the play.
29
For a brief discussion of one such possible change, proceeding from Williams' s
Freudian psychoanalysis, see the author's " Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities
of a Nightingale" in Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance,
Phil ip C. Kolin, ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 86.
30
Ronald Hayman, Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 93.
3 1
Edwina Wi lliams and Lucy Freeman, Remember Me To Tom (New York: G.
P. Putnam' s Sons, 1963), 194; Hayman, 93; Audrey Wood with Max Wilk,
Represented by Audrey Wood (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1981 ), 148. The
Theatre '47 premiere ran at the Gulf Oil Theatre in Dallas until 19 July 1947 (plus two
additional performances on 2 and 10 August).
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 49
typescript of Summer and Smoke in the Billy Rose Collection i.s labeled
"Rome Version (March 1948)" and hand-annotated "Produced by Margo
jones at the Music Box Theatre, 6 October, 1948."
32
If he reworked a
"successful" script for four years, why not a "failed" one for a decade?
It is not inconsistent, surely, and he did, indeed, furnish typed additions
to the script of Eccentricities for a 1979 New Jersey production, three
years after the Broadway outing.
33
Even if Williams did not see the
revision of Summer and Smoke for a decade after 1951, he clearly
worked over the new play between at least 1961 and the performance in
1964.
In any event, publication of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in a
single volume with Summer and Smoke was scheduled by New
Directions for October 1964.
34
The New York Times' June 1964
announcement of the forthcoming publication also noted that the new
play would receive its premiere later in the month in Nyack, New York/
5
but in a February 1965 review of the new text, eight months after the
premiere had closed, long-time New York theatre critic George Freedley,
also the first Curator of the New York Public Library's Theatre Collection
since 1938, noted that his "own researching shows" that Eccentricities
32
Tennessee Williams, Summer and Smoke, Typescript, Rome Version, March
1948, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
33
The author was a member of the cast of this revival, presented by BergenStage
(5-28 October 1979), a now-defunct professional company in the New York suburb
of Teaneck, New jersey. Uoseph Catinella, "Stage: 'Nightingale' and 'Tobacco
Road,"' New York Times, 14 October 1979, sec. 11, p. 16-17; Peter Wynne,
'"Eccentricities' : Fine opener at Bergenstage [sic]," The Record (Hackensack, NJ), 8
October 1979, sec. A, p. 16. The typed changes were supplied as "sides" through
Williams's agent and may not exist anywhere except in the collections of participants
who, like the author, kept their scripts. Neither Williams's publishers (New
Directions. for the "literary" edition and Dramatists Play Service for the "acting"
edition) nor any of his current or past agents had any knowledge of these changes and
additions.
34
Doris Funnye and Rose Arny, comp., "Author Index", s.v. "Williams, T.," and
"Title Index," s.v. "Eccentricities of a Nightingale & Summer and Smoke," in "FaU
Book Index, 1964," Publishers Weekly 186, 9 (31 August 1964). According to
copyright records, the text was released on 31 December 1964; according to New
Directions' records, the text was released on 12 February 1965 (George W. Crandell,
Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh
Press, 1995), 235). Publication on 12 February 1965 is confirmed by "New Books
Today," New York Times, 12 February 1965, p. 26.
35
Sam Zolotow, "Publication Ends for Theater Arts: Williams in New Version,"
New York Times, 2 june 1964, p. 30.
so
KRAMER
"has not been seen on any stage."
36
The New York Times announced the
imminent premiere on 2 June 1964, something over three weeks before
it opened, and the New York Herald Tribune gave full coverage to the
opening on the day of the performance.
37
Edie Adams, the widow of
Ernie Kovacs and already an accomplished star of television (The Ernie
Kovacs Show, 1952-53, 1956; Here's Edie/The Edie Adams Show,
1963-64) and musical comedy (Wonderful Town, 1953; Li'l Abner,
1956), was to play Alma Winemiller in the summer-stock production
directed by George Keathley at Bruce Becker's Tappan Zee Playhouse.
Eight years earlier, Keathley, a friend and fellow Key West resident, had
directed The Enemy: Time,
38
Williams's one-act version of Sweet Bird of
Youth, at Studio M, the theatre Keathley ran in Coral Gables, Florida.
That production starred Alan Mixon, who played John in the premiere of
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.
39
Local coverage began three days before the opening with an
announcement in the Rockland County journal-News of Adams's
impending appearance on the Nyack stage, though the paper made its
own mistake by stating that Eccentricities would be Adams's "east coast
stage debut."
40
That certainly had occurred at least on 25 February 1953
at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre when she opened as Eileen
opposite Rosalind Russell's Ruth in Wonderful Town, the Leonard
Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green adaptation of Joseph Fields and
Jerome Chodorov's My Sister Eileen. The premiere of Eccentricities was
seen as such a major event in Nyack, in fact, that "Miss Adams and the
cast, subscribers, New York and local celebrities" were bidden by
engraved invitation to a "Special Buffet" at the elegantly appointed
restaurant of Nyack's St. George Hotel on Burd Street after the debut
performance. Proclaiming, "Many top celebrities have been invited to
36
George Freedley, "2 Versions of Play by Williams," Morning Telegraph (New
York), 17 February 1965, p. 2.
37
Zolotow, p. 30; Stuart W. Little, "Rewritten 'Summer and Smoke' Makes Bow
Tonight at Nyack," New York Herald Tribune, 25 June 1964, p. 8.
38
Pub I ished in The Theatre 1, 3 (March 1959): 14-17.
39
Mixon had so impressed Willfams that the playwright sent the young Floridian
to his own agent, Audrey Wood, who convinced the actor to move to New York . . He
would go on to play many Williams roles both before and after John Buchanan, Jr.
40
[n.a.], "Well-Known T.V. Star: Edie Adams Opens Nyack's T. Z. In Wil)iams
Play This Thursday," Rockland County journal-News (Nyack, NY), 22 June 1964, p.
13.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 51
the opening," the journal-News noted that after all other opening nights,
the "meet-the-cast party" would be at the YMCA.
41
The journal-News made much of Adams's "returning to her home
area"-she had grown up in nearby Tenafly, New Jersey, and attended
New York City's juilliard School of Music-and her original intention to
become, like Alma Winemiller, a music teacher. Adams, for her part,
saw the production as an opportunity to stretch her dramatic muscles. In
an interview a few weeks before the opening, she acknowledged, " I had
to fight to get away from the dumb blond parts. And I did. I was the
ingenue and dumb blond so long that nobody thought I could do
anything else."
42
Adams declared, "This one's for me .... It's a rewrite,
all on the girl. You're on stage expounding for two and half hours." She
suspended her busy schedule of "singing, dancing and frothy musicals"
to do the production, which the paper still called Summer and Smoke, as
"part of her education as an actress." Explaining that working on stage,
especially in material like Eccentricities, was necessary to establish a
reputation and talent for serious acting, Adams observed that "if I wanted
to do summer stock shows and make money I could do that. ... But I
wouldn't be proving anything. I'd just be away from home."
43
Pre-opening announcements and festive plans, of course, are not
proof that a performance actually took place. Neither are press releases
or program bookiets, all of which can be pubHshed and distributed before
a performance which, due to various circumstances, does not occur.
This, we shall see, was the basis for the claim made by both the
subsequent British and Long Island productions.
For the opening of a new play by one of America' s most renowned
and respected playwrights, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale received
scant critical attention outside Nyack. The New York Herald Tribune,
while reporting that Adams had no plans to perform the show anywhere
else-it was not a tour as the 1969 Contemporary Authors chronology
recorded-had suggested that "she has not ruled out c arrying the play
further at a future date."
44
The Herald Tribune later stated categorically
41
Ibid.
42
United Press International, " Summer and Smoke: Dramat ic Stint for Edie
Adams," Morning Telegraph (New York), 5 June 1964, p. 2.
43
John S. Wilson, " Edie Adams Trains at Waldorf Not for Money, but
Personality," New York Times, 10 April 1964, p. 28; United Press International,
" Summer and Smoke, " p. 2.
44
little, p. 8.
52
KRAMER
that the summer production had been a "pre-Broadway test."
45
Nonetheless, though the New York Times and the Herald Tribune had
both announced the performances, neither reviewed the opening on
Thursday, 25 June 1964. (Ironically, both papers covered the closing.)
In fact, the only New York City paper which did review the Tappan Zee
Playhouse production was the New York World-Telegram and Sun. After
quoting Williams's statement-composed at the time of the play's
pub I ication and restated in nearly every program and most production
reviews-that the playwright thought that Eccentricities was a new play
and better than Summer and Smoke, critic Norman Nadel complained
that "Summer and Smoke never looked better than it does in comparison
with this revision" and that Williams " has made Alma and the play more,
rather than less melodramatic." He blamed "backstage blundering" for
"a production that ranged from indifferent to catastrophic," specifically
citing miscues in Clifford Ammon's lighting that caused inappropriate
laughter among the spectators when lights went on or off at the wrong
times, destroying "what might have been moving moments." Though he
praised "some excellent supporting performances," particularly Alan
Mixon's, Nadel went on, finally, to conclude that casting Adams was a
"conspicuous error" and that
All Miss Adams has done is to superimpose patterned eccen-
tricities on a kooky and rather pitiful young woman who,
toward the end of the play, abruptly becomes as overtly sexy
as a TV actress doing cigar commercials. Alma in this new
version is neither as complex nor as sensitive a character as
Williams wrote for "Summer and Smoke," but her complexity
and sensitivity go far beyond Miss Adams' ability to communi-
cate them more than momentarily.
46
Nadel's cigar-commercial gibe was a reference to Adams's appear-
ances as television's skimpily-costumed "Muriel Cigar girl" from 1962
until 1976.
4 7
He summed up his assessment of both the play and the
45
Little, p. 8; [n.a.], "The Area: Smoke Closes 'Smoke,"' New York Herald
Tribune, 28 July 1964, sec. I, p. 28.
46
Norman Nadel, "The Theater: Indifferent New Williams Play Gets Botched-Up
Showing," New York World-Telegram and Sun, 27 June 1964, p. 19.
47
Suzanne Adelson, "Life After Kovacs? Edie Adams Finds an Even Nuttier World
of Her Own," People (3 May 1982): 68, 73.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 53
performance by proclaiming, "Subtlety and tenderness have been
sacrificed all along the line."
48
Nyack's own Rockland County journal-News touted the "excite-
ment" of seeing "variations on a familar [sic] theme" in Williams's new
version of Summer and Smoke with the "added fillip" of "a new play,
still in try-out." Critic Mariruth Campbell, citing part of the subtitle in the
production's program, confirmed that Eccentricities was, indeed, "a very
odd little play." The Nyack production was, in fact, the only one that
ever carried the subtitle as it appears on the title page of the Billy Rose
Collection's typescript. This suggests that director Keathley worked from
this typescript or one like it, while subsequent productions were based
on the published text, which did not bear the subtitle.
Campbell did object that the play was "over-long" and noted,
"Unfortunately the on-stage figures moving scenery [in full view of the
spectators] amused the audience, breaking the continuity of mood for
which Williams aimed." She praised Patricia Nielsen's set in general,
however, and attributed the lighting and staging style-"no curtain,
changes in lighting to designate scene changes," among other ele-
ments-to "ancient oriental stage techniques." Campbell, in contrast to
Nadel, pronounced Adams's performance "splendid," and applauded the
rest of the cast who, she wrote, "[a]ll worked valiantly to breathe life"
into the play. Campbell did criticize them, though, because "[m]any of
the most important line[s] never were clearly heard." Blaming some of
the "dreariness" on Keathley and the company, she complained, "In real
life, words spoken under great stress may be without force, may be
whispers; in the theater, those same wor[d]s must be in 'stage whispers',
reaching the last row."
49
The ten-day run of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, which
launched the 1964 summer season at the Tappan Zee Playhouse, was
scheduled to close on Saturday, 4 July. Sadly, early in the morning of
Saturday, 27 june, just two days after the opening, a fire broke out in the
theatre. Discovered just before three o'clock in the morning by Bob
Olson, the Tappan Zee's house manager, the fire damaged the backstage
48
Nadel, p. 19.
49
Mariruth Campbell, "The County Stage: Edie Adams Scores at TZ In Summer
Opening," Rockland County journal-News (Nyack, NY), 26 june 1964, p. 27. This
passage contained several typographicat errors which the author has corrected here.
The idiosyncrati c punctuation remains, however.
54
KRAMER
dressing rooms.
50
Separated from the backstage area-originally a
nineteenth-century livery stable to which the theatre had been added in
1903-by a thick brick wall, the auditorium suffered mostly water and
smoke damage. The fire singed the edge of a stage drape and local
firefighters-125 in all-cut into the theatre's roof in order to contain it.
While the journal-News stated that neither the props nor the lighting
instruments were damaged, the New York Times reported that the blaze
destroyed props and costumes. In its report on the fire, whose origin was
not determined, the Times quoted some prescient lines from the script's
last scene:
Alma: Where did the fire come from?
john: No one has ever been able to answer that question.
51
Ironically, since the text of Eccentricities had not yet been published at
the time of this report, someone associated with the Times seems to have
been present at a performance, barring a pirated copy of the script, in
order to have noted these lines. Apparently, the Times did not deem the
production worthy of a published review, despite Williams's prominence
and the intimations that the Tappan Zee production had been a Broad-
way try-out.
Along with his own assertion that no production of Eccentricities had
been staged by the time of the play's publication, George Freedley's
Morning Telegraph book review in February 1965 ~ s o quoted Williams
as stating that there had as yet been no production of the play, but that
statement had been part of his original "Author's Note" for the published
edition, prepared in May 1964, before the premiere. In it, Williams
wrote, "This radically different version of the play has never been
produced."
52
This statement, which become part of the text's description
in New Directions' advance catalogue, was circulated with review copies
of the book. It was amended in August 1964, however, prior to
publication and after the stage debut had occurred, to include the words
"on Broadway," and that is how it appears in the 1964 published text
50
Virginia Parkhurst, "Theater Closed By Fire," Rockland County journal-News
(Nyack, NY), 27 June 1964, pp. 1-2.
51
[n.a.], "Backstage Fire Halts Season at Tappan Zee," New York Times, 2 July
1964, p. 28.
52
Tennessee Williams, "Author's Note," Typescript, c. 8 May 1964, New
Directions, New York; Tennessee Williams, "Letter to Robert MacGregor," (8 May
1964), New Directions; Robert MacGregor, "Letter to Audrey Wood," (8 May 1964),
New Directions.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 55
and all subsequent editions.
53
Apparently Freedley, despite his critical
and curatorial credentials, accepted Williams's advance statement as still
valid in February 1965, overlooking the fact that a production had
occurred in the meantime. Williams's amendment to his Author's Note
in August 1964 certainly indicates that he would not have denied the
following February a production that had been staged a scant eight
months earlier.
Furthermore, according to Adams, Williams had planned to come to
Nyack from Key West to see the performance, 5
4
so he is unlikely to have
said such a thing any time after, say, April 1964 when a brief profile of
Adams in the New York Times mentioned that she planned to appear in
the new play.
55
He would surely have the scheduled
presentation by early June when the Times announced it in conjunction
with the text's publication.
56
Unhappily, the Saturday morning fire
having truncated the run, Williams did not make it north to see his new
play on Tuesday, 30 June, as he had plannedP
Both the British and Long Island producers gave the same justification
for their claim that they were staging premieres of The Eccentricities of
a Nightingale. Ronald Hastings, for example, reported in London's Daily
Telegraph that "on what should have been the opening night of
' Eccentricities,' the [Tappan Zee Playhouse] building burned down, so the
play has never been performed."
58
Then, in May 1968, the Theatre
Society of Long Island declared that the "production scheduled for the
Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack was cancelled [sic] when the theatre
burned down two summers ago."
59
The Theatre Society of Long Island's
assertion even had the time-frame wrong: the fire had been nearly four
years earlier, of course, not two.
53
Robert MacGregor, " Note to 'OF/JF," ' Typescript, (9 August 1964), New
Directions. Oddly, this amended wording was not changed for the publication of the
acting script after the Broadway premi ere, though the Note bears the parenthetic
comment, "Written prior to Broadway production." (Tennessee Williams, The
Eccentricities of a Nightingale [New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1977], 5).
54
Little, p. 8.
55
.J. S. Wilson, p. 28. The press was still calling the play Summer and Smoke,
however.
56
Zolotow, p. 30.
57
[n.a.], " The Area: Smoke Closes 'Smoke,"' sec. I, p. 28.
58
Hastings, p. 11 .
59
Mineola Theatre, " press release," 3 May 1968.
56
KRAMER
None of the published reports of the fire and the closing of the
theatre indicated that the theatre had "burned down," or that Eccentrici-
ties had failed to get on the stage. Becker, who had gone to New York
City with his wife and co-producer, Honey Waldman, after the second
performance of Eccentricities to meet with Hermione Gingold's agent
regarding the actress's mid-August appearance at the Playhouse in Arthur
Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm
Fee/in' So Sad, believed he could reopen the Playhouse in two weeks or
less.
60
On Monday, 6 July, ten days after the fire closed it down, the
Tappan Zee Playhouse did, in fact, reopen, using trailers behind the
theatre as temporary dressing rooms. Becker had broken a hole in the
14-inch theatre wall to give the actors access to them, but because he
could not disrupt the theatre's summer schedule, the production that
reopened the theatre was Preston Sturges's screwball comedy, Strictly
Dishonorable, starring Cesar Romero.
61
Eleven years later, after several
fires severely damaged it in the early 1970s, the historic Tappan Zee did
close its doors for good, however;
62
In her opening-night review,
Campbell, too, quoted ironic lines from the play: "The fire has gone out,
nothing will revive it."
63
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale's premiere
production stood at two performances. Still, it was a fully
union-accredited, professional production of the first performance of a
new play. Duly recorded in press reviews, both locally in the jour-
nal-News and in New York City in the World-Telegram and Sun, and in
after-the-fact reports of its closing in the journal-News, the New York
Times, and the New York Herald Tribune, the Nyack Eccentricities fulfills
all the requirements for an official world, American, and New York
premiere, denying the 1967 Guildford and 1968 Mineola productions the
right to claim those titles. The Guildford show, of course, remains the
British premiere, but the Theatre Society of Long Island mounted merely
one of several revivals in the 1960s.
Furthermore, even if we discount the Tappan Zee Playhouse
production somehow-and there seems no valid reason to do so-there
were at least two productions between the ones at Nyack and Guildford
60
Parkhurst, 1.
61
[n.a.], "Tappan Zee Playhouse Uses Trailers as Dressing Rooms," New York
Times, 7 July 1964, p. 23.
62
[n.a.], "Restored Nyack Theater Named for Helen Hayes," New York Times,
30 September 1989, p. 13; Alvin Klein, "Crace and Clorie in Nyack," New York
Times (Westchester Edition), 22 March 1998, sec. 13, p. 1.
63
Campbell, p. 27.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 57
which would have earned the designation of premiere. First, on 20 April
1966-a year and a half before the production in Guildford and a little
less than two years before the one in Mineola-Eccentricities opened at
the Washington Theater Club in the District of Columbia as "the major
city premiere,"
64
which it was. This production, which ran until 15 May,
can arguably be written off as a semi-professional staging. The director
was the Theater Club's artistic director, Davey Marlin-Jones, later the
theatre and film critic for WUSA-TV (formerly WTOP), the CBS-affiliate
in the District, and the only name in the cast that might be generally
recognized today was john Hillerman.
65
Principally a television actor,
Hillerman, who played Vernon, the would-be poet in Alma's literary
circle, is best known as the British major-domo of the Honolulu estate in
the 1980s detective series, Magnum, P.l. It was a light-weight produc-
tion, perhaps, but the one that followed is not so easily dismissed.
Between 13 january and 5 February 1967, the Goodman Theatre in
Chicago presented its revival of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, nine
months before the British premiere and 15 months before the Long Island
revival. The Goodman, a long-established regional repertory theatre and
one of this country's most highly regarded professional companies, surely
cannot be ignored in a play's production history. In addition, the
Goodman's production of Eccentricities included a curious historical
footnote-possibly even a unique occurrence. Directed by Bella Itkin,
the cast included Lee Richardson as john.
66
Richardson, who in 1952
went by the name Lee Richard, played the same character in the
landmark Circle in the Square production of Summer and Smoke.
The next significant productions of Eccentricities after 1968 did not
. occur unti I the end of the 1970s, starting with its "Theatre in America"
telecast on the Public Broadcasting Service's "Great Performances" on
16 june 1976 with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella in the leads and the
belated Broadway premiere which opened at the Morosco Theatre with
Betsy Palmer and David Selby on 23 November 1976. On 15 February
1979, the German premiere (and so far the only foreign-language
production on record) opened under the title Die exzentrische Nachtigal/
64
Davey Marlin-Jones, "Statement from the Director," program, Washington
Theater Club.
65
fmerson Beauchamp, "Another Rewrite Job By Tennessee Williams," Evening
Star (Washington, DC), 22 April 1966, sec. D, p. 14; Geoffrey A. Wolff, " At Theater
Club: New Williams Play Is Well Produced," Washington Post, 22 April 1966, sec.
D, p. 15.
66
Thomas Willis, "Williams' New Play Sexless," Chicago Tribune, 14 January
1967, sec. 1, p. 13.
58
KRAMER
(The eccentric nightingale) at the now-closed Kammerspiele in
DUsseldorf. Two productions in October that year, one by BergenStage
in Teaneck, New jersey, and the other by the Westchester Regional
Theater in Harrison, New York, are the latest documented professional
stagings.
The Broadway premiere had something of a curious history itself.
Betsy Palmer and David Selby headed the cast of a summer-stock
production of Eccentricities, appearing at such theatres as the Ogunquit
Playhouse in Maine (19-24 July 1976), the Falmouth Playhouse on Cape
Cod, Massachusetts (9-14 August), and the Pocono Playhouse in
Mountainhome, Pennsylvania (17-21 August). Originally directed by
jeffrey Chambers, this production had problems with its design, direction,
and some of the supporting cast.
67
Neal Du Brock, Executive Director of
the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, took over for the last month of the
tour. "The play was being buried under props and scenery," Du Brock
complained of the summer-stock show.
68
He repackaged the production
with the same stars but replaced half the cast and remounted the
production at the Studio Arena from 8 October to 6 November 1976. Du
Brock brought in Edwin Sherin to replace Chambers and a
Broadway-quality design team to redo Michael Sharp's sets and Clifford
Capone's costumes. When he turned the direction over to Sherin, who
had previously directed Claire Bloom in a successful 1974 London revival
of A Streetcar Named Desire, Du Brock ordered, "[T]hrow it all out and
do it on an empty stage."
69
The producer wanted "to let the actors speak
and not have all that other stuff cluttering things up/' and the result, both
in terms of William Ritman's set and Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, was
a spare, almost minimalist production. Sherin, harking back to his 1968
attempt on Long Island, averred, "I think some vibrations are set off, and
the play's effects are felt years and years later."
70
He came to Buffalo, he
said, to take up the challenge of a play he had "failed to ignite the first
time around." "It's bothered me ever since," Sherin admitted. "But now
it's exactly the way I wanted to do it." Williams, who attended rehearsals
and opening night in Buffalo, is reported to have "loved this concept."
67
Edwin Wilson, p. 20.
68
Doug Smith, "Studio's 'Nightingale' Uncluttered: In The Spotlight," Buffalo
Courier-Express, 24 Oct. 1976, p. 27.
69
Roberta Plutzik, "Betsy Palmer Returning to Star in 'Eccentricities,"' Buffalo
Courier-Express, 20 August 1976: p. 8.
70
H. C., "Candid Director Sherin Waiting For the 'All-Encompassing Play,"
Buffalo Evening News, 7 October 1976, sec. 2, p. 26.
Eccentricities of a Nightingale 59
Critics in Buffalo apparently agreed/
1
though the New York press found
the production "skimpy."
72
The Broadway production closed on 12
December after only eight previews and 12 regular performances.
The record, then, is unambiguous: The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
premiered on 25 June 1964 at the Tappan Zee Playhouse in Nyack, New
York. This was incontrovertibly the New York, American, and world
premiere. The production mounted at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in
Guildford in October 1967 was the British premiere. Intervening and
subsequent U.S. productions, regardless of quality or other distinctions,
73
were merely revivals or narrowly-defined premi eres.
71
E. Wilson; Roberta Plutzik, "Studio Arena Review: Williams' Rewrite Well
Performed," Buffalo Courier-Express, 9 October 1976, p. 16; John Dwyer, "The
Studio Arena: ' Eccentricities' Excels; Betsy Tops Fine Cast," Buffalo Evening News,
9 October 1976, sec. C, p. 10.
72
Clive Barnes, "Stage: Williams' s 'Eccentricities,"' New York Times, 24
November 1976, p. 23; Martin Gottfried, ' " Eccentricities' and Frustrations," New
York Post, 24 November 1976, p. 24.
73
There were a few singularities among some of these revivals. On 15 April
1977 a production of Eccentricities opened in Williams's hometown at the Greene
Street Theatre in Key West ([n.a.], "'Eccentricities' Opens At Greene St.: Wi ll iams'
Play Excellent & Overdue," Key West Citizen, 17 April 1977, p. 7) . Wi lliams
attended the openir)g performance and gave it his own favorable review (Tennessee
Williams, "I Am Widely .Regarded as the Ghost of a Wr.it.er.," New York i/iir:nes, '8 May
1977, sec. 2, pp. 3, 20) . For a productiorn '(2u-Z9 October 1978) at the nineteenth-
century Bardavon Opera House :in P.o:CJglnkeepsie, New York, the Collingwood
Repertory Company co.rnmissioned the Original Suite from The Eccentricities of a
Nightingale from composer Joseph !Bertolozz i (Jeffrey Borak, "A new theater group
is in town: .. . and the play., '!Eccentricities, "' Poughkeepsie journal, 20 October
1978, p. 2; Jeffrey Borak, " Risks outrun accomplishments in ' Eccentricit ies of
Nightingale,"' Poughkeepsie Journal, 28 Qctober 1978, p. 9). The score, in
manuscript, is in the collection of the American Music Center in New York City. The
above-mentioned 1979 revival by BergenStage incorporated not only material cut
from the official acting edition of the text, but typed additions supplied by Williams,
himself.
journal of American Drama and Theatre 11 (Spring 1999)
"Emasculating Tom, Dick, and Harry":
Representations of Masculinity in
Susan Glaspell's The Verge
CYNTHIA 0. SMITH
Linda Ben-Zvi begins the article "'Murder She Wrote': The Genesis
of Susan Glaspell's Trifles" with an eloquent explanation of society's
fascination with women who kill men.
Women killing somebody else, especially when that somebody
is male, has fascinated criminologists, lawyers, psychologists,
and writers. Fascinated and frightened them . . . . Women who
kill evoke fear because they challenge societal constructs of
femininity-passivity, restraint, and nurture-thus the rush to
isolate and label the female offender, to cauterize the act. Her
behavior must be aberrant, or crazed, if it is to be explicable.
And explicable it must be; her crime cannot be seen as
societally-driven if the cultural stereotypes are to remain
unchallenged.
1
This explanation, if lifted from the analysis of Trifles, easily applies to the
murderous actions of Claire Archer in Glaspell's The Verge. The physical
act of murder which ends The Verge clearly provides the same hint of
fear and fascination as Minnie Foster Wright's crime against her husband,
especially since Claire strangles the one man she truly loves in what
begins as a moment of passion. However, Claire' s more subtle forms of
murder throughout the text force the reader or audience member to
question the playwright's political and social intentions.
Critics and scholars tend to romanticize Claire's final violent act as
an expression of freedom, a gift of life, or as a gesture symbolic of
women's fight for individuality and freedom from male oppression.
Unfortunately, few scholars acknowledge Claire's manipulative and harsh
1
Linda Ben-Zvi, '"Murder She Wrote' : The Genesis of Susan Glaspell's Trifles/ '
in Susan Claspe/1: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, ed. Linda Ben-Zvi (Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1995), 19.
The Verge
61
treatment of the male characters from the first lines of the play to the last.
If striving for a feminist viewpoint, Glaspell falls short because she
emasculates the male characters so that they seem to have no gender
identity. Even her choice of names, Tom, Dick, and Harry, presents men
as two-dimensional stereotypes. While not negating the female
protagonist's emergence as an individual and as a woman attempting to
break free of oppression, a careful study of the text reveals that Glaspell
constructs the male characters not as agents of their own fates but as
objects of Claire's wrath and victims of her seemingly selfish actions.
juxtaposed w ith historical trends in concepts of American manhood
leading up to the play's premiere in 1921, the masculinities represented
in Anthony, Dick, Harry, and Tom merit re-examination as do the means
by which Claire renders each of the men ineffective and powerless in her
interactions with them. Glaspell's reductive treatment of male gender
identities undermines the feminist goals of the text, which remain as
relevant for modern readers as for Glaspell's contemporaries. In order to
fully appreciate Glaspell's attempt at de-essentializing the feminine roles
assigned to women through Claire's uninhibited nature, one must
evaluate the male identities within this text as possible hindrances to that
attempt.
Despite the efforts of feminist and gender theorists such as Judith
Butler to acknowledge the constructed nature of gender identity for both
males and females, scholars of masculinity and manhood recognize the
frequent neglect of men's gender identities in the realm of feminist studies
and writings. Although men are viewed as the oppressors, scholars must
remember when approaching a text such as The Verge that men also
suffer victimization under the dictates of gender roles and sexuality.
Michael Kimmel's Manhood in America covers the history of manhood
and of masculinities in American culture while addressing the importance
of recognizing that the gender of both males and females is similarly
constructed under the pressures of society.
2
Kimmel begins his study
with this observation made by historian Thomas Lacqueur, "Woman
alone seems to have 'gender' since the category itself is defined as that
aspect of social relations based on difference between the sexes in which
the standard has always been man."
3
In other words, according to
Lacqueur, man is the unnamed gender; standards of masculinity are
linked to our notions about what human beings should be like. An
2
Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
3
Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Creeks to Freud
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 22.
62
SMITH
examination of the male characters in The Verge can reveal the extent to
which masculinity is also a marked gender.
Approaching this text by means of the male characters requires a
thorough understanding of masculinities and manhood and the forces
which have created masculine gender roles. Kimmel defines masculinity,
as
a constantly changing collection of meanings that we construct
through our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and
with our world. Manhood is neither static nor timeless; it is
historical. Manhood is not the manifestation of an inner
essence; it is socially constructed. Manhood does not bubble up
to consciousness from our biological makeup; it is created in
culture. Manhood means different things at different times to
different people. We come to know what it means to be a man
in our culture by setting our definitions in opposition to a set of
'others'-racial minorities, sexual minorities, and above all,
women.
4
Kimmel also offers a slightly different perspective of masculinity than that
provided by many feminist scholars: "Masculinity, we were told, was
defined by the drive for power, for domination, for control. .. .
Manhood is less about the drive for domination and more about the fear
of others dominating us, having power or control over us."
5
According
to Kimmel's studies, the fear of domination stems largely from interaction
with other men, which he identifies as the basis for homophobia.
Kimmel's theory of the connection between homophobia and
masculinity serves as an important foundation for studying the gender
relationships in The Verge. Kimmel views masculinity as a homosocial
enactment which renders men susceptible to comparison with other men
in defining their masculinities.
6
"Masculinity defined through
homosocial interaction contains many parts, including the camaraderie,
fellowship, and intimacy often celebrated in male culture. It also
includes homophobia. . . . Homophobia is the fear of other men-that
other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that
4
MichaelS. Kimmel , " Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence
in the Construction of Gender Identity," in Theorizing Masculinities, eds. Harry Brad
and Michael Kaufman (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publ ications, Inc., 1994), 120.
5
Kimmel, Manhood in America, 6.
6
lbid., 7.
The Verge 63
we do not measure up, are not real men . . . . "
7
In developing this view
of homophobia, Kimmel asserts the importance of other men's judgment
and approval of one's actions.
To admit weakness, to admit frailty or fragility, is to be seen as
a wimp, a sissy, not a real man. But seen by whom? Other
men: We are under the constant careful scrutiny of other men.
Other men watch us, rank us, grant our acceptance into the
realm of manhood. Manhood is demonstrated for other men' s
approval. It is other men who evaluate the performance.
8
Throughout the text, Claire continually compares Tom, Dick, and Harry
and encourages them to compete for her approval. As discussed in the
following pages, their masculinities fall subject to Claire's manipulation
of their relationships to her and to each other, playing upon this sense of
homophobia.
A brief look into the history of American masculinity and into the
changes in feminism which directly affect the period in which the play
premiered contextualizes the positions of the four men within society and
in relationship to Claire as a woman. In his book, The Changing
Definition of Masculinity, Clyde W. Franklin designates two distinct
periods: "The Strenuous Life (1861-1919) and "The
Companionate Providing Period" (1920-1965). During the " Strenuous
Life Period," separate spheres still remained for men and women;
however, women started the move into the public sphere, threatening the
positions of men within society. Also during this period, the definition
of masculinity focused on being the antithesis of the feminine rather than
the childish, and these differences established the beginning of the
of femininity in the American culture. In the "Companionate
Providing Period," romance marked relationships between men and
women, just as it does those between Claire and the three men, and the
country witnessed a decrease in age differences between couples.
Labeling the man as the provider identified masculinity during this era
and encouraged more aggressive, competitive behavior among men in
the public sphere.
9
An element of this period highly relevant to Claire's
7
fbid., 8.
8
Kimmel, "Masculinity as Homophobia;" 128.
9
Clyde W. Franklin, II, The Changing Definition of Masculinity (New York:
Plenum Press, 1984), 7-8.
64 SMITH
exchanges with Dick and Tom is the perception of sex as recreational,
whether premarital or extramarital.
Not only did manhood undergo several changes during these two
periods but as Liza Nelligan observes, feminism experienced an increase
in momentum and stronger objectives. Nelligan points out that
The Verge was produced in 1921, less than five years after
Trifles, yet the intervening years had seen monumental historical
events that had profound impacts on the expression and
interpretation of feminism in the early 1920s: World War I, the
passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Bolshevik revolution
in Russia, and the corresponding backlash (the 'Red Scare') in
the United States all contributed to feminism's entrance into a
period of metamorphosis with a promise of boundless possibility
for change . . .. With the vote finally won feminists were in a
position to formulate comprehensive strategies addressing the
economic, political, and psychological boundaries that impeded
women's ability to move freely within the social system.
10
Women desired additional freedoms and autonomy, which Glaspell
demonstrates in her construction of Claire. The influence of these varied
cultural shifts upon Glaspell's writing emerges in the relationships of the
characters and in the ways Claire fights to obtain her freedom through
manipulation.
Evaluating Claire's relationship with each of the four male characters
in the text reveals the shortcoming of previous studies: the lack of
attention given to the male characters as individuals and as important
figures in the text. Many scholars simply dismiss the three major male
characters as the cardboard cut-outs Glaspell has seemingly intended
them to be. Veronica Makowsky observes,
Glaspell is not unproblematically presenting Claire as a monster
of egotism since the men who surround her, the representative
Tom, Dick, and Harry, do not seem worthy of much serious
attention. Her husband Harry just wants a wife who wi II be the
I ife of the party so he tries to fit her horticultural experiments
into a suitably feminine paradigm .... Her lover Dick just wants
his ego boosted by a beautiful woman who befongs to another
man; he dismisses her experiments as 'merely the excess of a
10
Liza Maeve Nelligan, "'The Haunting Beauty from the Life We've Left': A
Contextual Reading of Trifles and The Verge," in Susan G/aspe/1: Essays on Her
Theater and Fiction, 90-91.
The Verge
particularly rich temperament'. The man who does understand
her experiments, the ironically named explorer Tom
Edgeworthy, is unwilling to risk the challenge of an experimental
relationship with Claire; he is about to run away on his next
journey to avoid exploring his own or Claire's inner space.
When he offers to keep Claire 'safe' she is momentarily lured,
but then shoots him.
11
65
Makowsky falls into the trap of many other scholars who view the males
as mere stereotypical representations and exhibits the typical lack of
interest in these characters when she claims Claire shoots Tom rather
than strangling him. In this view, each of the male characters represents
a different masculinity and a different position within Claire's life which
most scholars simply label as husband, lover, and confidant, while
Anthony disappears completely from the criticisms of the text. By
evaluating Anthony, Dick, Harry, and Tom in the context of the dramatic
action, we can see that the play depicts more than Claire's struggle for
autonomy. It also addresses the degradation and emasculation suffered
by each man.
Anthony, although usually overlooked, occupies an important
position in the play. He emerges as the only male who avoids conflict
with Claire; however, Glaspell depicts Anthony as entirely submissive to
Claire's every wish and command. His complete obedience and
allegiance to Claire are demonstrated clearly throughout the text but
displayed most pointedly in the opening scene and in the closing scene.
As the play begins, Anthony appears alone on the stage in the greenhouse
answering a late night call from Claire and then reappears at a later time
in the morning. Glaspell's stage directions emphasize his subservience
to Claire:
(ANTHONY is at work preparing soil-mixing, sifting. . . . The
buzzer sounds. He starts to answer the telephone, remembers
something, halts and listens sharply. It does not buzz once long and
three short. Then he returns to his work. The buzzer goes on and
on in impatient jerks which mount in anger. Several times
11
Veronica Makowsky, Susan Glaspell's Century of American Women: A
Critical Interpretation of Her Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 79.
66
SMITH
ANTHONY is almost compelled by this insistence, but the thing that
holds him back is stronge;Y
2
The thing that holds him back is his desire to keep the telephone line
clear for Claire's call.
HARRY .... Now, what do you mean, Anthony, by not answering
the phone when I buzz for you?
ANTHONY. Miss Claire-Mrs. Archer told me not to.
HARRY. Told you not to answer me?
ANTHONY. Not you especially-nobody but her.
HARRY. Well, I like her nerve-and yours.
ANTHONY. You see, she thought it took my mind from my work to
be interrupted when I'm out here. And so it does. So she
buzzes once long and-Well, she buzzes her way, and all other
buzzing-(59)
Similar . instances occur throughout the text displaying Anthony's
obedience to Claire's demands and his refusal to help anyone other than
her. He never contradicts Claire or acts independently from her control
and influence. Even when she has murdered Tom, Anthony tries to take
the blame, "I did it. Don't you see? I didn't want so many around.
Not-what this place is for." (58)
Glaspell notes in the first description of Anthony that he is "a rugged
man past middle life.'' (1 00) He is a hired servant or employee of
Claire's, definitely not a participant in the social rankings of the other
three men, and thus his submission is based on his social class in
comparison to other males as much as it is a result of Claire's domination
of him. In part, Claire controls Anthony through his masculinity, gaining
his allegiance by giving him a power the other men do not have: the
surveillance and supervision of the greenhouse. As Kimmel notes, "The
hegemonic definition of manhood is a man in power, a man with power,
and a man of power. We equate manhood with being strong, successful,
capable, rei iable, in control. The very definitions of manhood we have
developed in our culture maintain that power that some men have over
other men and that men have over women."
13
In The Verge, Anthony
has no power of his own; therefore, according to Kimmel's "hegemonic
12
Susan Glaspell, "The Verge," in Plays by Susan C/aspe/1, ed. C. W. E. Bigsby
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 58. All subsequent citations from this
text will be noted parenthetically in the text.
13
Kimmel, "Masculinity as Homophobia," 125.
The Verge
67
definition" of American manhood, his limited, secondary power,
dependent on a woman, is a sign of his lack of requisite masculinity.
Glaspell provides another example of weak, ineffective manhood in
her representation of Richard Demming, or Dick. Dick functions as
Claire's sexual companion and provides Claire's adulterous adventure,
one which she continually uses to taunt her husband and thereby
intimidate Dick. Even in front of her husband, Claire refers to her affair
with Dick, enjoying the risk of arousing Harry's anger with no regard to
the consequences for Dick.
CLAIRE. (with no ill-nature) I care nothing about your ease. Or
about Dick's ease.
DICK. And no doubt that's what makes you so fascinating a hostess.
CLAIRE. Was I a fascinating hostess last night, Dick? (softly sings)
'Oh, night of love'- (from the Barcarole of 'Tales of Hoffman')
HARRY. We've got to have salt. (He starts for the door. CLAIRE
slips in ahead of him, locks it, takes the key. He marches off,
right.)
CLAIRE. (calling after him) That end's always locked.
DICK. Claire darling, I wish you wouldn't say those startling things.
You do get away with it, but I confess it gives me a shock-and
really, it's unwise. (62)
Dick proves to be ineffective in convincing Claire to be silent on the
subject of their involvement, and finally, Claire pushes Dick into conflict
with Harry when she takes refuge in her lover's embrace in the last scene
of Act Two.
Harry's realization of the affair initiates a battle to prove masculinity
in which Dick fails to assert his "manhood" by hiding behind Claire
when faced with Harry's revolver. Claire interrupts Harry's pursuit of
Dick in the greenhouse, easily taking controi of the revolver from her
husband. Dick's dependence on Claire's adoration to define his
masculinity surfaces under her careless disregard for words in defending
his life.
CLAIRE. To make yourself ridiculous? If I ran out and hid my head
in the mud, would you think you had to shoot the mud?
DICK. (stung out of fear) That's pretty cruel!
CLAIRE. We11, would you rather be shot?
HARRY. So you just said it to protect him!
CLAIRE. I change it to grass. (nodding to DICK) Grass. If I hid my
face in the grass, would you have to burn the grass? (94)
68
SMITH
Claire is obviously unconcerned for Dick's feelings or for Harry's distress
at this moment. She manipulates the situation, preventing both men from
expressing their feelings or frustration by dominating the confrontation
with her own sarcasm. In summarizing the studies of Joseph Pleck, Clyde
Franklin notes that women have two types of power over men, one of
which is expressive power, as seen in this example with Claire.
Masculine identity in American society dictates that men display no
emotion; therefore, males tend to vicariously express their emotions
through women, depending upon them for emotional vitality, thereby
allowing the women this expressive power.
14
Dick allows Claire to
define the tone of his fear and frustration throughout the text with her
sarcasm and lack of emotional intimacy, thus rendering him emotionally
and mentally impotent in his interactions with Claire, Harry, and Tom.
Claire relegates Dick to a position of mere sexual virility, using him
for her own efforts to escape from the mundane and to manipulate the
expressive power she holds over him. The text reveals that Claire's initial
attraction to Dick stems from his efforts to create art using lines that make
"nothing," that is, rejecting form, just as Claire attempts to do with her
plants. Dick's artistic rejection of form, however, serves only as the
initial attraction and allows Claire to lose interest when he fails to display
the same abandon of convention in his psychological and emotional
states. Dick's artistic individuality fades into the background in his affair
with Claire, leaving him dependent upon her for all expression and
approval. In many ways, Dick serves as Claire's catalyst for provoking
emotion and passion in her husband Harry.
Unlike Anthony and Dick, Harry attempts to control Claire through
his position as her husband. Using Dr. Emmons, Adelaide, Elizabeth, and
his concept of domestic responsibility to entice Claire's submission and
conventionality, Harry embodies the oppression that Claire struggles
against so vehemently. Harry's masculine identity depends upon his
possession of his wife and his ability to protect that claim. Harry's
actions exemplify the view that "women themselves often serve as a kind
of currency that men use to improve their ranking with other men."
15
In
order to display his wife, Harry repeatedly urges Claire to behave as a
proper wife should, warning her against certain language and against
appearing too serious or disturbed. Harry even ignores her remarks about
Dick by simply reprimanding her for inappropriate jokes.
14
Franklin, 13.
15
Kimmel, Manhood in America, 7.
The Verge 69
CLAIRE. (gaily) Careful, Dick. Aren't you indiscreet? Harry will be
suspecting that I am your latest strumpet.
HARRY. Claire! What language you use! A person knowing you
only by certain moments could never be made to believe you are
a refined woman. (64)
Harry's discomfort with Claire's language parallels his uneasiness with
her horticultural experimentation.
HARRY. But it's growing on her. I sometimes wonder if all this
(indicating the place around him) is a good thing. It would be
all right if she'd just do what she did in the beginning-make the
flowers as good as possible of their kind. That's an awfully nice
thing for a woman to do-raise flowers. But there's something
about this-changing things into other things-putting things
together and making queer new things. (65)
Claire's fascination with her work threatens Harry's position within the
domestic and public sphere. His wife assumes a profession that replaces
her home with the greenhouse, a stance symbolically represented in
Claire's channeling all heat from the house out to the plants.
By enlisting the support of Dr. Emmons and Adelaide, Harry displays
his distress caused by Claire's behavior and the struggle he faces with her
assertion of autonomy. Michael Kaufman makes an observation about
the relationship between men and feminism that Glaspell demonstrates
in the relationship between Claire and Harry.
The rise of feminism has shifted the balance between men's
power and men's pain. In societies and eras in which men's
social power went largely unchallenged, men's power so
outweighed men's pain that the existence of this pain could
remain buried, even nonexistent. When you rule the roost, call
the shots, and are closer to God, there is not a lot of room left for
pain, at least for pain that appears to be linked to the practices
of masculinity. But with the rise of modern feminism, the
fulcrum between men's power and men's pain has been
undergoing a rapid shift. This is particularly true in cultures
where the definition of n ~ s power had already moved away
from tight control over the home and tight mohopolies in the
realm of work.
16
16
Michael Kaufman, "Men, Feminism, and Men's Contradictory Experiences of
Power," in Theorizing Masculinities, 154.
70
SMITH
Harry hopes to re-initiate Claire into the sphere of domesticity through
the persuasion of her sister and the psychologist; however, his attempts
to pull Claire back into his influence and realm of power creates a
backlash that forces Harry to prove his manhood.
In her distress over the confrontation with Harry, Adelaide, and Dr.
Emmons, Claire rushes into Dick's embrace, choosing not to disguise her
physical involvement with him. Harry's position as her companionate
spouse faces the threat of destruction at the hands of another male.
Claire's action seems to exemplify the second type of power that women
possess over men, "masculinity-validating power." Franklin explains:
Because few men accept self-definitions of masculinity from
other men, according to Pleck ... most men depend on women
to tell them emotionally that they are members of the masculine
gender. Pleck feels, by the way, that most women only pretend
for men, realizing that this is a need that men have. At any rate,
women assuming submissive roles for men often do so only to
make men feel good. Women also sometimes refuse to accept
their submissive roles in an effort to make men feel bad. The
mere fact that women often determine whether men feel
masculine or non-masculine attests to the power that women
have over men .
17
From this perspective, Claire turns for protection and security to Dick
rather than her husband, displacing Harry from his position as the
protector and provider.
Presenting Dick as the physical threat to Harry's manhood, Claire
inadvertently forces Harry to resort to his only remaining device,
violence. "Violence is often the single most evident marker of manhood.
Rather it is the willingness to fight, the desire to fight. .. . As adolescents,
we learn that our peers are a kind of gender police, constantly threatening
to unmask us as feminine, as sissies."
18
In the company of other males,
such as Dr. Emmons, Tom, and even Anthony, the need for Harry to
defend his power and masculinity against the threat of Dick' s physical
intimacy with Claire encourages the Act Three chase into the greenhouse
with the revolver. Harry never fully commits an act of violence against
Dick, largely due to Claire's crippling emasculation of her husband, but
he nonetheless demonstrates the willingness to fight and defend his
17
Franklin, 13.
18
Kimmel, "Masculinity as Homophobia," 132.
The Verge
71
position. Claire devalues Harry's act of manhood when she
acknowledges that even his rage of passion is worthless in her esteem and
pales in comparison to her creation of Breath of Life. Once the plant
appears, Harry no longer occupies a position within Claire's life, and he
loses any grasp he held on their marriage. Claire finally breaks free from
the oppression represented by her husband and domesticity; however,
Claire's agency in achieving this freedom destroys the one human being
she truly loves, Tom Edgeworthy.
Tom shares Claire's sense of adventure and her need to escape into
freedom. Glaspell constructs Tom as the pioneer and the man searching
for new frontiers. Tom's plans throughout the text revolve around his
decision to leave permanently and reach out to experience his own
freedom in a new place. In many ways Tom fits the description of one
type of male identified by E. Anthony Rotundo in American
Manhood-the "existential hero." Rotundo states,
Another strategy for establishing a relationship between male
passion and modern life is represented by the "existential hero. "
This ideal grows out of a belief that there is, in fact, no proper
place for true masculine impulse within modern society. The
hero who lives by this belief is suspicious of authority, wary of
women, and disgusted with corrupt civilization. If he would be
true to the purity of his male passions and principles, he
must-and can only-live at the margins of society.
19
Tom's desire to move outside of American society and to escape into his
own idea of freedom can be seen as characteristic of the existential hero;
however, Tom has a tragic flaw. He refuses to associate Claire with the
constraints of society and sees her as the embodiment of the freedom he
hopes to attain. In this respect, Glaspell's construction of Tom's
masculinity eliminates the suspicion of women and their sphere that
usually characterizes the existential hero. In fact, Tom's complete trust
in Claire's ideals make him the strongest version of masculinity within the
text.
Tom is Claire's confidant and the only man she trusts to help preserve
her ideals of freedom and experimentation. Tom defends Claire's actions
in Act One and attempts to help Harry understand her.
TOM. Let her be herseiL Can't you see she's troubled?
19
E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity
from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 286.
72 SMITH
HARRY. Well, what is there to trouble Claire? Now I ask you. It
seems to me she has everything.
TOM. She's left so-open. Too exposed. . . . Please don't be
annoyed with me. I'm doing my best at saying it. You see Claire
isn't hardened into one of those forms she talks about. She's
too-aware. Always pulled toward what could be-tormented
by the lost adventure ....
HARRY. Claire was the best fun a woman could be. Is yet-at times.
TOM. Let her be-at times. As much as she can and will. She does
need that. Don't keep her from it by making her feel you're
holding her in it. Above all, don't try to stop what she's doing
here. If she can do it with plants, perhaps she won't have to do
it with herself.
HARRY. Do what?
TOM. (/ow, after a pause) Break up what exists. Open the door to
destruction in the hope of-a door on the far side of destruction.
(71)
Unfortunately, Tom's understanding and connection with Claire
ultimately enable her to destroy him.
After Claire's initial confrontation with Harry and Adelaide, Tom
comes to her rescue in the tower and brings the argument to an end. In
their isolation from the rest of the house, Claire asks Tom to embark on
a physical relationship w ith her which she believes will transcend all of
her other experiences. Tom's understanding of Claire's aspirations for
freedom and purity of life prevent him from succumbing to her offer.
CLAIRE. (with the simplicity that can say anything) I want to go it,
Tom, I'm lonely up on top here. Is it that I have more faith than
you, or is it only that I'm greedier? You see, you don't know (her
reckless laugh) what you're missing. You don't know how I
could love you.
TOM. Don't, Claire, that isn't-how it is-between you and me.
CLAIRE. But why can't it be-every way-between you and me?
TOM. Because we'd lose-the open way. (the quality of his denial
shows how strong is his feeling for her) With anyone else-not
with you. (85)
Claire refuses to accept Tom's reject ion of a physical relationship and
continues to try to persuade him, playing upon his understanding of her
ideas of beauty and freedom to bring him closer to agreement with her
decision. When Tom persists in his rejection, Claire manipulates his
position as a male in comparison with other males and touches upon the
The Verge 73
homophobia that Kimmel identifies as an element in the construction of
manhood. Claire blatantly stabs at Tom's self-image as a man with,
"Wouldn't men say you were a fool!" (87) By striking at Tom with this
powerful remark, Claire challenges him to defend his masculinity and his
sexual prowess in fear of domination by Dick, Harry, or simply men in
general. Claire's tactic aims to evoke the male fear of not measuring up
to other men; therefore, she pointedly refers to the judgments of other
men rather than herself as the determining factor in Tom's manhood.
When she realizes this attempt to demean and threaten his virility
fai Is, Claire pursues her manipulation even further by trying to wield
expressive power over Tom with the emotional account of the memory
of her son and his yearning to fly. Claire attempts to dictate Tom's
emotional state by recalling the one male figure in her life she believes
would have broken into the freedom she desires. Claire appears to be
co.axing Tom into a sexual relationship which she believes possesses the
same potential for true freedom she remembers being in her young son's
reaching toward the stars. By relating the desired sexual freedom to the
lost hope in her son, Claire strives to spur Tom into proving his manhood
by fulfilling the one position which all males before him have failed to
maintain. This attempt also fails and Tom sustains his own identity and
belief in his and Claire's ideals of freedom.
Claire's shameless attempts to seduce Tom end when the other
characters return to the tower; however, once Tom returns to her the next
morning to accept her offer, in his belief that she truly wants the physical
relationship, Claire fears that their physical intimacy threatens to trap her
and capture them within a form or pattern. With this realization, Claire
slowly tightens her grip around Tom's neck and suffocates him. Scholars
such as Nelligan and Karen Malpede believe that Tom offers Claire only
another form of oppression and a fixed mold of his ideas of beauty
20
and
romantic love,
21
but throughout the play, Tom promotes Claire's actions
and yearnings in opposition to the views of her husband and Dick. Tom
emerges as the only male character of the three who encourages and
inspires Claire's creativity, regardless of the effects it has on their
relationship. Tom's refusal of physical intimacy arises from his desire to
respect Claire as he knows her, and his later acceptance of the offer
displays his willingness to share his own plans for freedom and escape
with Claire. Claire's final act of murder destroys the one form of
20
Nelligan, 97.
21
Karen Malpede, "Reflections on The Verge," in Susan C/aspe/1: Essays on Her
Theater and Fiction, 124-125.
74
SMITH
masculinity that supported and encouraged her quest for individuality
and freedom.
The destruction of this supportive masculine identity reflects the fears
men of the Suffrage era faced as women fought to gain their own
freedoms. Female workers, reformers, and activists of this period not
only campaigned for their right to vote but also struggled for equality
within the labor movement resisting the ideas of domesticity and
submissiveness which defined women's relationships with men up to this
point. As an example of an upper-class career woman during this era,
Claire brings to life men's worries that women with power and equality
will only work to destroy the ideologies and structures that were allowing
the male-dominated society to thrive. Modern historical accounts of the
women's movement and the American labor movement of the early
twentieth century shed light on the lives of lower-class women who
formed networks to further their efforts for equality, many of them
including men. Female reformers such as Rose Schneiderman and
Pauline Newman realized the importance of incorporating the support of
men in their efforts to improve the lives of female workers and gain more
freedoms.
22
These women and the organizations they founded served to
establish working relationships between men and women of this period
and bridged many of the tensions surrounding this assertion of female
rights.
However, the female Glaspell creates in Claire fails to acknowledge
the difference between those males who hoped to restrict her freedoms
and the one male who sought to become a partner in her freedom. Claire
emerges as a woman who chooses to destroy all men rather than respect
the possibility of shared goals and desires. Claire's goals for freedom
focus entirely on her own existence and in the process deny the same
freedoms of expression and individuality for Tom. Tom's death portrays
the figurative death many men of this period believed to be looming
within the aims of the feminist movement. Claire, as popular sentiment
suspected to be typical of all women, emasculates all of the men in her
life and kills the only one she could not emasculate, eliminating at the
same time his proffered support and possibly undermining the feminist
aim of-the play.
22
For a full account of the lives and achievements of Fannia Cohn, Rose
Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Clara Lemlich Shavelson, see Annelise Orleck,
Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and the Working-Class Politics in the
United States, 1900-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
Orleck traces their careers throughout the American labor movement, identifying the
networks they established within the work place, government, and their personal lives
which furthered the efforts of working-class women
The Verge
75
The Verge is admired and respected for the vivid, controversial
characters and events it depicts, yet scholars fail to agree on the result of
G laspell's "political" message or intentions. The fi nal act of murder
provides a direction for the play that many believe defeats any feminist
purposes embedded in the female protagonist's struggles or at least serves
as a warning against pushing feminist ideals beyond reason. Arthur
Waterman believes,
We must realize that Claire has gone too far. Like many of
Susan Glaspell's heroines she seeks some form of expression for
the complete life. She can mouth sentiments Miss Glaspell must
have felt herself, but Claire's final actions indicate that the
playwright was making her an extreme case for dramatic
purposes and was acknowledging the limitations that have to be
placed on aspiration, the boundaries beyond which no one may
go.23
Waterman's comment suggests that Glaspell uses Claire as an example
of the abuses of liberation and as a lesson to women who place their
goals for self-expression beyond society's supposedly safe limits.
Contrary to Waterman's view, Marcia Noe recommends that if
scholars view the play "as a play written in the female mode, and as an
attempt not to celebrate feminism or illustrate male oppression but,
rather, to represent, through Claire, the female experience, we have taken
an important first step in coming to terms with this play."
24
There are
two problems with this view. First, the assumption that the text achieves
a " female form" and portrays the "female experience" relies upon the
essentialist view of gender roles and of women's experiences, thereby
relegating all females to Glaspell's constructed example of Woman and
oppressing women and men within prescribed gender roles. This view
of the text robs Claire of her individuality just as she denies the male
characters their individual masculinities. Secondly, the image Glaspell
presents of Claire's individuality creates an image of a fanatical woman
who destroys all manhood regardless of individuality and seeks only to
gratify self-serving agendas. In the midst of early twentieth century
feminism, the embodiment of feminist qualities coupled with the harsh,
emasculating treatment of the men in the text risked the possible
23
Arthur E. Waterman, Susan C/aspe/1 (New York: Twayne Publ ishers, Inc.,
1966), 81 . .
24
Marcia Noe, "The Verge: l'fcriture Feminine at the Provincetown," in Susan
Claspe/1: Essays on Her Theater and Fiction, 132.
76
SMITH
promotion of anti-feminist ideals within the American society. As
discussed earlier, women's refusal of strict domesticity and
submissiveness to men figured as an intimidating force in and of itself;
however, Claire's emasculation of the men in her life sent the message
that men were completely expendable. In a society already faced with
explosive social changes, a character such as Claire can potentially create
a backlash amongst men against the feminist goals of the era. If women
like Claire display no regard for the identity and validity of masculinity
and manhood, why should men respect and encourage the development
of womanhood and female independence?
The difficult task lies in determining whether Claire is a positive
example of female creativity and individuality or a self-defeating version
of feminism, emasculating every male in her path. Nelligan summarizes
the difficulty of accepting or rejecting Claire Archer:
The Verge anticipates a feminist audience that fully expects to
find a character with whom they can sympathize by giving them
Claire Archer, a heroine who privileges her right to self-
development over maternal and wifely devotion, articulately
demands satisfying and egalitarian relationships with men, and
is committed to exposing and destroying the conventional social
boundaries that crush her individuality. At the same time,
Glaspell gives them an unquestionably disturbing character: a
mad, inchoate, unsympathetic woman who rejects her daughter,
abuses her sister, betrays her husband, and murders one of her
lovers because he wants to 'save' her from madness. This, too,
is Claire Archer. Through this character Glaspell asks
uncomfortable questions about the consequences of a radical
individualism that rejects any quality traditionally associated
with the female sphere.
25
Nelligan's observation adequately characterizes the dilemma
encountered when trying to evaluate The Verge as an example of feminist
writing. It is important to recognize that Glaspell demonstrates the
inherent difficulty in creating a text that avoids oppressive representations
of gender, for in her attempt to construct a strong female character, she
victimizes the male characters by diminishing the importance of
masculinity.
Despite scholarly opinions that Tom, Dick, and Harry present
colorless, two-dimensional images of manhood, all three provide insights
into the importance of gender and the construction of gender roles in
25
Nelligan, 91-92.
The Verge
relationships, whether with other men or with women. Claire's strong
spirit and quest for individuality provide the background for a fully
realized example of the freedom experienced in breaking from
oppression; however, Glaspell diminishes the effectiveness _of the female
protagonist by allowing her to manipulate and degrade the four men in
her life. The Verge depicts the dual nature of gender as it applies to
women and men equally, confronting both sexes with the struggle to
maintain independent identities in the face of society's constructed
categories of behavior. Anthony, Tom Edgeworthy, Richard Demming,
and Harry Archer must not be allowed to disappear into the background
of Claire's frantic journey to escape gender oppression as just any "Tom,
Dick, or Harry," nor must Claire be forsaken for her yearning to
experience the pure beauty of self-recognition.
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 11 (Spring 1999)
"Beware of Tourists if You Look Chinese"
and Other Survival Tactics in the American Theatre:
The Asian(cy) of Displat
rn Frank Chin's The Year of the Dragon
ROBERT ji-SONG Ku
The Spectacle of Buying Fish
I once had an epiphany buying fish on Canal Street in Chinatown,
New York City. Not wanting to pay twelve dollars for a pound of salmon
in my own neighborhood uptown, I had come downtown to pay just five.
As I handed the fishmonger my money, I first noticed her in my vision's
periphery: a woman, white, rigged with a camera, amidst a stormy sea of
people in the crowded sidewalk of Canal Street. Her costume and
gestures easily gave her identity away: she was a tourist. And at that
instant, she pointed and shot. Thus we were captured-the fishmonger
and me. As she walked away, my instinct was to chase after her, demand
an explanation, maybe even payment. If I was to show up on her
vacation slide show along with the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn
Bridge, I wanted to be paid, damn it! But I wasn't in the mood. I had
had enough. t had had enough of chasing after tourists. (I grew up in
Hawaii-need I say more?) Besides, if this was the price I had to pay for
saving seven dollars for a pound of fish, so be it.
What irked me perhaps more than anything else was her brazen
presumption: how dare she presume I was a native? Never mind I don't
live in Chinatown; hell, I'm not even Chinese! But to be treated as
such-1 don't know-as such a casual spectacle! To be ambushed like
wild game; to unwillingly become a salve for soothing the touristic pangs
of a total stranger-it was more than I could bear. I'm just buying fish, for
heaven's sake! Yes, I once had an epiphany buying fish on Canal Street:
1
I take my title from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Destination Culture
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), perhaps the most engaging and lucid
study to date of the polit ics and problems of ethnographic objects. She writes:
"Destination Culture deals with agencies of displays in museums, festivals, world's
fairs, historical recreations, and tourist attractions" (1 ; emphasis added).
Frank Chin 79
if you look Chinese, beware of tourists, lest you become a souvenir.
Better yet, stay away from Chinatown.
We Become Who We Pretend to Be
As the curtain rises on Frank Chin's The Year of the Dragon, the
audience sees a lone figure on stage. He is Fred Eng, a professional tour
guide in San Francisco's Chinatown. Although he stands alone, it is clear
as soon as he starts talking that we-the theatregoing audience-are
supposed to imagine a group of people gathered around him. It is the
week of the lunar New Year, eve of the Year of the Dragon, and the
phantom throng surrounding Fred are tourists enjoying the festive colors
and sounds of Chinatown. The play opens as Fred greets the day's last
tour group:
We'come a Chinatowng, Folks! Ha. Ha. Ha . . . Hoppy New Year!
Fred Eng. "Freddie" of Eng's Chinatown tour' n'travoo.
" We tell Chinatown where to go." Ha ha ha. I'm top guide here.
Allaw week Chinee New Year. Sssssssshhh Boom! Muchee
muchie firey crackee! Ha. Ha. Ha ...
2
Then, there is a sudden transformation-namely, Fred's demeanor and
manner of speech:
But you're my last tour of the day, folks. And on my last tour of the
day, no hooey. I like to let my hair down. Drop the phony
accent. And be me. just me.
I figure once a day, I have got to be me. (71)
By dropping his fake pidgin, Fred lets his audience in on the joke:
Surprise! I'm not the goofy Chinaman you assumed I'd be. More
importantly, he places himself into their confidence: Hey, I'm being
straight with you, trust me, I won't rip you off. Fred makes expl icit the
implicit reality of tourism, a truth that is often rendered invisible by the
labyrinthine institutional practices of tourism and only reluctantly made
visible: tourism is a commercial enterprise, an exchange of goods and
services for money. As such, Fred plays the role of a used car salesman
who voluntarily opens the hood of a lemon before he is asked to do so
by the customer. At the very same instant, however, in allowing Fred to
2
Frank Chin, The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon: Two
Plays (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 71. Subsequent references to
this text will be cited parenthetically in the text.
80
jJ-SONG Ku
drop his fake pidgin, to forego the performance of the Chinese goo(
Frank Chin allows his audience (that is, the theatregoer) in on a slightly
different joke, one that might not be as benign: Surprise, you idiot!
There's no such thing as a goofy Chinaman; he's just a figment of the-or
your-white racist imagination. Both Fred and Chin offer their customers
an object lesson, the former masking it as a bargain and the latter as an
insult: Beware of the fake Chinaman, beware of the lemon. Fred
cont inues his sales pitch as both audiences gaze on:
So tonight, I'm gonna take ya where I eat, "The Imperial Silver jade
Empress."
Good home cookin and souvenir chopsticks.
I figure you folks who come ~ me after dark really want to know.
You wanta see the Chinaman albino the color of Spain, and the sights
only Chinatown's topguide can show ya. I might show' em to ya
tonight, folks.
You make me feel good. I like ya. Goon Hay Fat Choy .. . (71)
With these words of candor, Fred leads the group of excited and pleased
tourists to dinner, an activity he repeats day after day as his profession
demands. But this is where another transformat ion takes place, where
another layer of impersonation-or performance-is stripped from Fred.
This time, however, only Chin's audience is in on the joke. As he walks
off the stage at the end of this opening scene, Fred mutters to himself
under his breath (inaudible to Fred' s audience but not Chin's) : "Goddam
motherfucking . . . " (71)
Pulsing beneath the layers of performance and impersonation are not
only bitterness and contempt for the tourist trade but also for the
American theatre. With a line of foul language, Frank Chin rips the mask
off the face of the American theatregoer to reveal what is to him a
pathetic visage: tourist. You are not so different from the tourists in
Chinatown, Chin mocks his audience. The American theatre is no
different from a tourist site when it comes to so-called "ethnic" plays.
The desire of the theatre audience and the desire o( tourists are one and
the same. And, w ith a self-loathing matched in degree only by Fred Eng,
Chin confesses: I am not so different from Fred Eng. I am Fred Eng.
We' come a Chinatowng, Folks! Ha. Ha. Ha.
Can a so-called ethnic American playwright-say a Chinese
American-hope to do more than play the role of the tour guide in the
American theatre? If he aspires to transcend this role, will anyone care,
will he have an audience? Will they come? By staging the stage as a
tourist site in the first scene of his play, Frank Chin reminds the audience
of something they already know but will never admit: the real reason they
Frank Chin 81
have come to the theatre is to gawk at something Chinesey," something
authentically Chinesey-something no hooey Chinesey. They are
tourists, after all.
The Chinese, of course, have been the object of carnival curiosity in
the United States for almost two hundred years, and, as early as the mid-
nineteenth century, "Chineseness" appeared in America as a novelty
item on display. In Marginal Sights, james Moy tel1s us that. the "notion
of Chineseness under the sign of the exotic became familiar to the
American spectator long before sightings of the actual Chinese."
3
An
imagined idea of the Chinese, therefore, framed and dictated the way
spectators were to interpret the meaning of the actual Chinese if and
when they eventually encountered it. As Moy puts it: "From the onset,
then, the Chinese in America resided solely in the province of the
imaginary."
4
One of the earliest actual sightings was Afong Moy, a
"Chinese Lady" placed on display in New York City in 1834. For three
years, she "performed her Chineseness at several locations, including the
American Museum, Peals Museum (which would later be purchased by
P.T. Barnum), and unnamed venues located at 8 Park Place, the Brooklyn
Institute, and the Saloon."
5
By the end of the nineteenth century, the
human display of the Chinese-along, of course, with human
representations from other "alien races"-in American museums,
circuses, freak shows, world's fairs, and theatrical venues was- quite
commonplace. It is this mixture of the freakish, ethnographic, and
touristic that Chin appears to be eliciting in the opening scene of The
Year of the Dragon. Playing the role of docent is Fred Eng, who, as a
Chinese body displayed before an audience, is both impresario and
human attraction. But he is not what he appears to be, for he, like a
trickster, plays a complicated and multileveled game of pretend. He
knows what he is not. Or does he? As the play progresses, the theatre
audience (but not the Chinatown tourists) eventually discovers that Fred
once had a dream, all but forgotten now: to be a writer to write the Great
American Novel. Fearing that no one will take a novel by a Chinaman
seriously and needing to financially support his family, Fred applies his
literary talents to the more lucrative profession of the tour guide. By the
end of the play, the audience discovers the source of his bitterness and
self-loathing: in Frank Chin's words, a Chinese Chinatown tour guide is
3
James Moy, Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America (Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 1993), 9; emphasis added.
4
lbid., 10.
5
Ibid., 12.
82 ji-SONG Ku
by definition "a Chinaman, playing a white man playing Chinese .... A
minstrel show."
6
Fred has become the thing he pretends to be.
A Belated Introduction: Getting It Out of the Way (A Sad Attempt)
He is the only true pariah in Asian American literature, the one writer
no one is supposed to agree with, take seriously, or, god forbid, find
endearing. (Even as I write this, I look nervously over my shoulders, just
in case someone is wagging a disapproving finger at me.) This is no
hyperbole-it is impossible to write about him without first dealing with
the question of Frank Chin. I use the phrase "the question of" as Edward
Said does in The Question of Palestine, to "refer to some long-standing,
particularly intractable and insistent problem. . . . to suggest that the
status of the thing referred to in the phrase is uncertain, questionable,
unstable: the question of the existence of a Lock Ness monster, for
example."
7
Of course, I am in no way equating the plight of Frank Chin
to that of the Palestinians, although it is often difficult to distinguish the
acrimony of Chin's critics from the feelings of bitter enmity that exist
between Zionists and Palestinians. As one Asian American critic put it
somewhat mildly: "Contemporary Asian American critics tend to be
somewhat embarrassed by Frank Chin's angry and misogynistic works."
8
The phrasing of this observation makes it obvious; this critic is among
those embarrassed (note the adjectival use qf "angry" and "misogynistic"
to describe Chin's works). I dare say, this embarrassment is not limited
to critics but, in effect, the entire Asian American literary establishment,
be they writers, scholars, or educators. The intensity of Chin's writings
has led one prominent scholar of Asian American literature to ponder
whether she, as a Chinese American woman and a scholar, is obligated
to choose between feminism and Chin's "patriarchal constructs of
masculinity."
9
She detects in Chin's works not only sexism but also
homophobia that "imply predatory violence against women," which
6
Quoted in Dorothy Ritsuko McDonald, "Introduction," The Chickencoop
Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, xxii.
7
Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 4.
8
josephine Lee, Performing Asian America (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1997), 61 .
9
King-Kok Cheung, "The Woman Warrior versus The Chinaman Pacific: Must
a Chinese American Critic Choose between Feminism and Heroism?" in Conflicts in
Feminism, Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1990),
236.
Frank Chin 83
leads her to implore: "Women of color should not have to undergo a self-
division resulting from having to choose between female and ethnic
identities."
10
A recent experience of a colleague illustrates quite nicely
the degree to which Frank Chin still, after all these years, gets under the
skin of almost everyone in the field of Asian American literary studies:
after delivering a paper on Chin at an academic event, the first response
she received (from the chair of the panel no less!) was distressed and
indignant: "But we can't so easily forgive him, can we?"
Indeed, s n ~ t taking Chin's works seriously tantamount to redeeming
sexism and homophobia? Isn't the question of Chin the only valid
subject for criticism and scholarship? We can't so easily forgive him, can
we?
Authenticity is Big Bucks!
The Year of the Dragon premiered at the American Place Theatre in
New York City in 1974 to predominantly white audiences.
11
A
videotaped PBS production for Theatre in America followed in 1975.
12
Given that the majority of the American television audience, like the U.S.
population in general , was white in the mid-1970s (as it obviously is still),
it should be safe to assume the audience for the PBS broadcast was also
predominantly white. Prior to this, there was only one major American
theatrical production set entirely in Chinatown, the immensely popular
Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on C.Y. Lee's Flower Drum
Song (1958). The Year of the Dragon is a direct, spit-in-your-face riposte
against and a parody not only of the shameless Lee-Rodgers-Hammerstein
"visions of Chinatown as exotic menagerie,"
13
but also of the perverse
orientalia of every other major theatrical production with Asia as a
subject matter: Madame Butterfly, The King and I, M. Butterfly, Miss
Saigon, Shogun, The Colden Child. In the words of Josephine lee:
The Year of the Dragon complicates a supposedly unseen and
privileged spectatorial positioning by drawing attention to the
racialized nature of audiences and the conspicuous consumption
of Asian spectacles both inside and outside the theatre. If the
10
Ibid., 246.
11
lee, 35.
Jl McDonald, xx.
13
Lee, 45.
84 Jr-SONG Ku
curious tourist seeks in Chinatown a glimpse of the "real"
Chinese .. . the strategy of Chin's play is to address such
presumptions directly, ridiculing the spectator who looks for the
reality of Chinatown in stereotypes.
14
Through his play, Frank Chin offers the view that Chinese America having ..
sold its soul, is without integrity and "Chinatown is a Shangri-La, a
Hollywood set."
15
The "real" Chinatown is not "what is seen by the
thousands of tourists" during the New Year's parade,"
16
but something
else-something embodied in .the abject resentment that tears at the soul
of Fred throughout The Year of the Dragon. In order to attract customers,
all in Chinatown turn all of Chinatown into a stage upon which a// of
Chinatown puts on a show-the longest running show in American
history. But Frank Chin offers his white audience something Fred cannot
afford (financially or otherwise) to offer his-the third layer of staged
authenticity dressed up in the costume of a cheap velvet curse: Goddam
motherfucking. Authenticity is big bucks, and it must, as the law of
supply and demand dictates, continually be manufactured, displayed, and
marketed. "The touristic way of getting in with the natives is to enter a
quest for authentic experiences, perceptions and insights,''
17
writes Dean
MacCannell in his astutely instructive The Tourist:
Touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic
experiences, and the tourist may believe that he is moving in this
direction, but often it is very difficult to know for sure if the
experience is in fact authentic.
18
John Urry, in The Tourist Gaze, adds:
The tourist is a kind of contemporary pilgrim, seeking
authenticity in other "times" and other "places" away from that
person's everyday life. Particular fascination is shown by tourists
14
Ibid., 46.
15
McDonald, xx.
16
1bid.
17
Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (New York: Shocken Books, 1989), 105.
18
Ibid., 101.
Frank Chin
in the "real lives" of others which somehow possess a reality
which is hard to discover in people's own experiences.
19
85
Tourists are thus trapped in what amounts to a manifold of stage sets
20
where they, admittedly or not, premeditatedly undergo anxiety about the
authenticity of the sights before their gaze. If a tourist comes to believe
that the object of his gaze is not the real thing but just "hooey" intended
to fool him, his anger and dismay will ultimately result in the resentment
of being ripped off. If, on the other hand, he is confident about the
authenticity-however il l usory-of the site of his gaze he will accordingly
feel satisfied about getting his money's worth.
In describing the touristic activity of "slumming," Barbara
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes:
Slumming . . . takes the spectator to the site, and as areas are
canonized in a geography of attractions, whole territories
become extended ethnographic theme parks. An ethnographic
bell jar drops over the terrain. A neighborhood, village, or
region becomes for all intents and purposes a living museum in
situ. The museum effect, rendering the quotidian spectacular,
becomes ubiquitous.
21
This begs the question: Are the Chinese Americans who live in
Chinatown just people or actors? Is Chinatown for all intents and
purposes not only a living theatrical stage, as MacCannell implies, but
also a living museum, as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues? If, say, a Chinese
woman in Chinatown engages in the utmost quotidian act, say, of buying
fish, is she just living or is she performing? Is this a simple question of
audience, "some philosophical conundrum like the one about the tree
falling in the forest and no one hearing it?" No, "that is a puzzler for
college freshmen."
22
No, the woman buying fish, caught_ helpless in the
19
John Urry, The Tourist Gaze (London: Sage, 1990), 8.
20
According to MacCannell: "The current s t r u c t u r ~ development of society is
marked by the appearance everywhere of touristic space. This space can be called
a stage set, a tourist setting, or simply, a set depending on how purposefully worked
up for tourists the display is." ( 1 00; his emphasis)
21
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture, 54 .
.
22
I borrow this clever analogy from M.R. Montgomery's Saying Goodbye: A
Memoir for Two Fathers (New York: Knopf, 1989).
86
ji-SONG Ku
powerful gaze of the tourist, transmogrifies into a grotesque phantasm of
touristic desires and systems of ethnographic signs and freakish
spectacles. When Fred's sister Mattie suggests to her brothers Fred and
johnny that they follow her example and move out of Chinatown, saying
"Out there we'll be able to forget we're Chinamen, just forget all this and
just be people," johnny responds coldly: "You have to forget you're a
Chinatown girl to be just people, Sis?" (110)
Frank Chin answers johnny's question in the form of a question: Is
there an alternative? Isn't it this or nothing?
The Semiotics of Buying Fish
In Destination Culture, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett asserts:
It is one thing ... when ethnography is inscribed in books or
displayed behind glass, at a remove in space, time and language
from the site described. It is quite another when people are
themselves the medium of ethnographic representation, when
they perform themselves [wittingly or unwittingly, I might add],
whether at home to tourists or at world's fairs, _ homelands
entertainments, or folklife festivals [or on the theatrical stages]-
when they become living signs of themselvesY
Once upon a time, I became a living sign of my Chinese non-Chinese self
while buying fish in Chinatown. Perhaps I should have gone after the
tourist and demanded payment. A dollar would have been enough-fifty
cents for me, fifty cents for the fishmonger. We need to make a living,
after all.
"Bigger Than Kentucky Fried Chicken "
Is it, in fact, this or nothing? For an aspiring Chinese American
playwright, is it the tourist trade or nothing? Contrary to popular belief,
Frank Chin is not a pariah because of his sexism and homophobia. To
repeatedly point out Chin's sexism and homophobia is akin to repeatedly
pointing out T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism or Howard Stern's sexism. It is too
easy, too unimaginative, too boring. It is unhelpful. Frank Chin is a
pariah because he points his finger and names names: C. Y. Lee, Maxine
Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, David Henry Hwang-you are all Fred Engs,
but without the resentment, without the third layer of performance. You
23
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 18.
Frank Chin 87
do not know how to curse because you love who you are. You enjoy
being what you pretend to be. Chin writes:
Kingston, Hwang, and Tan are the first writers of any race, and
certainly the first writers of Asian ancestry, to so boldly fake the
best-known works from the most universally known body of
Asian literature and lore in history. And, to legitimize their
faking, they have to fake all of Asian American history and
literature, and argue that the immigrants who settled and
established Chinese America lost touch with Chinese culture,
and that a faulty memory combined with new experiences
produced new versions of these traditional stories. This version
of history is their contribution to the stereotypes.
24
It is this sort of rhetorical and literary strategy of hyperbolism that has
confused Chin's critics, who mistake the hyperbolic for the literal. This
is especially true of those who accuse him of narrow cultural nationalism.
But how can we not take him at his word? they ask. How can we not be
embarrassed and disgusted by his homophobia when he says for all to
hear:
No wonder David Henry Hwang's derivative M. Butterfly won
the Tony for best new play of 1988. The good Chinese man, at
his best, is the fulfillment of white male homosexual fantasy,
literally kissing white ass. Now Hwang and the stereotype are
inextricably one.
25
Isn't it Chin who takes Hwang too literally? Doesn't he mistake Hwang's
performance for the real?
Perhaps where Chin and Hwang differ is in their respective attitudes
toward the institution of the American theatre and the hypocrisy of the
American theatregoer. Ch-in believes that it is impossible to critique an
institution without implicating the willing participants in that so-called
24
Frank Chin, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,"
in The Big Aiiieeeee!, Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, lawson Fusao lnada and Shawn
Wong, eds. (New York: Meridian, 1991), 3.
25
Jeffery Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao lnada, and Shawn Wong,
"Introduction," in The Big Aiiieeeee!, xiii. Although signed by all four editors, I take
a risk by attributing the primary authorship of the essay to Chin. Given the familiar
Chinian tone and language of the piece, however, I do not think my assumption is too
farfetched.
88 ji-SONG Ku
liberal institution. Rightly or wrongly, Chin is convinced that Hwang is
an apt symbol of the Chinaman who mistakes his token success in the
mainstream American theatre for artistic merit. Is it a coincidence that
the first play by an Asian American playwright to finally appear on
Broadway is a so-called postmodern revival of the ultimate white fantasy,
Madame Butterfly? (Is it a coincidence that Miss Saigon, yet another
revival of Madame Butterfly, is among the most popular attractions for
tourists who visit New York City?) Hwang, therefore, is Mattie in The
Year of the Dragon, who blithely returns to Chinatown fourteen years
after she left it, with Ross, her "China-crazy white husband," (69) in tow.
Although Mattie has returned to Chinatown under the guise of
visiting her ailing father who is dying of lung cancer, she has really come
with the mission to persuade her family to move out of Chinatown, a
place she loathes. Mattie is also, together with Ross, Mama Fu Fu, the
author of a Chinese cookbook, looking to commercially expand into a
Chinese food franchise. She, in fact, has also come back to Chinatown
to wind up a promotional tour of her cookbook. When Ross says to her,
"Well, here we are, honey. You're back home," she answers, "This
wasn't my home then. It's not my home now. My home is with you in
Boston, Ross. Nowhere else." (76) Manufacturing and selling things
Chinese may be her profession but she is not of things Chinese-or so she
believes. In fact, it is Ross who is boyishly excited about visiting
Chinatown. He is the one who admittedly aspires "to be more Chinese"
(78) than Mattie. He speaks Mandarin and is fascinated only by
everything Chinese. (Implied here, of course, is that Ross's marriage to
Mattie is yet another manifestation of his fetish for Chineseness. Mattie,
on the other hand, starved for white approval and knowing her
desirability to "China-crazy" white men, plays the part of the fetishised
oriental object to a tee, too ashamed to admit that she has already
become the thing she pretends to be.) When Fred gives a cynical, wise-
ass, if not hostile reply to every comment Ross makes, Mattie comes to
his defense:
SIS: Freddie, quit that! Ross, I don't think Fred wants to talk about
Chinese things right now ...
ROSS (overlapping SIS's last line): Oh, don't be silly, Mattie. Why
shouldn't he want to talk about his culture with a sincerely
interested student of all things Chinese? (79)
Fred's reply is predictably virulent: "Because I'm a tourist guide and I run
forty to sixty of you ... " (79) Mattie, clearly seeing Ross as a victim of
what is to her Fred's unnecessary attack, "soothingly" cuts him offand
rescues Ross. It is, after all, in her personal interest to defend Ross against
Frank Chin 89
attacks from other less-fortunate Chinese Americans, most of whom are
blinded by their jealousy of her success. She must make it clear to Ross
that she is not one of those needlessly bitter Chinamen.
Here is where the critics who accuse Chin of sexism and unmitigated
patriarchy see a problem: he positions a Chinese American woman as the
"sell-out." She is the one who defends and apologizes for the touristic
desires of Ross, the stand-in for the institutionalized fetishism of the
American theatre. Whether or not Chin sees Chinese American women
to be more inclined to sell-out is debatable, however. His very public
disdain for the relative commercial and mainstream critical successes of
Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan has no doubt contributed to this
impression. But the fact that he is equally, if not more, disdainful of
David Henry Hwang and a growing list of other Asian American male
writers indicates for us perhaps a greater need to interrogate what he
exactly means by "sell-out" than whether his works are sexist or
homophobic. Is it, after all, fair to label anybody a sell-out? Are
Kingston, Tan, and Hwang Chinese tour guides of Chineseness? Is a
Chinese Chinatown tour guide automatically and necessarily a sell-out?
For Chin, the answer is an out-and-out yes. For Chin, then, David Henry
Hwang's successful"marriage" to the American theatre establishment is
analogous to Mattie's relationship with Ross. As the token success,
Hwang, like Mattie, has to protect his personal interest by willfully
accepting the role of protecting his spouse from unreasonably rancorous
Chinamen like "that homophobic Frank Chin."
If Ross is the substitute for the liberal institution of the American
theatre, then Mattie, in essence, is the token Asian American winner of
the Tony. For her, the very fact that Ross has married her is proof enough
of his goodness and of the distortion and paranoia in accusations of
racism. For her to complete her prescribed role, however, she must do
more than just marry Ross for love. She must also convert the bad
Chinamen-namely, those who think precisely like Fred. She must
convince Fred to join her, to leave Chinatown and "just be people."
When Mattie cuts Fred off, she does so by offering him a deal:
"You're Vice President of Mama Fu Fu's, Inc.!" (79) Ross then chimes in:
You've been wasting your talent as a tourist guide. She showed me
a story you wrote and you ... you really have a way with local
color. Then when she showed me the cookbook she did ....
Fred, Mama Fu Fu's is expanding. (79)
When Fred fails to respond enthusiastically and wistfully asks "What's
going on here, Sis?" Ross once again is too quick to chime in:
90
ji-SONG Ku
ROSS: It's easy Fred. Just a matter of writing Mama Fu Fu's syndi-
cated column, patter for her show .. .
FRED: Hey, a show already . . .
ROSS: A new even more "far out" cookbook. The way you write
about Chinatown . . .
FRED: I'm going to write the great Chinese American Cookbook, is
what. MAMA FU FU' S RICE DEEM SUM right up thei r ass, cuz
no one's gonna read the great Chinese American novel .. .
ROSS: No, that's not what I meant .. . When I . . .
FRED (having never stopped, goes on): I' ll write a Mama Fu Fu
Chinese cookbook that'll drive people crazy! They' ll drink soy
sauce straight from the bottle. It' s gonna be the first Chinese
cookbook to win the Pul itzer Prize and make Mama Fu Fu's
bigger than Kentucky Fried Chicken.
ROSS (failing to interrupt; ad lib): Fred, I know you can write a novel.
I sincerely respect your writing ability. (82-83)
Then Mattie, ever so true to her role, soothes Ross's hurt feel ings:
SIS: It's not you, Ross . . . (83)
Sau-ling Cynthia Wong is extremely helpful when she points out in
Reading Asian American Literature that mama fufu in Cantonese means
" perfunctory, " "sloppy," or "mediocre," and as "the name Mama Fu Fu
implies, (the) scheme is doomed because it is by nature makeshift and
phony."
26
In her specific explication of this critical scene, however, she
mistakenly attributes the idea of the "scheme" to Fred, misreading his
subjectivity when she sees him "excited by the possibility of permanently
freeing himself" from the economic burden of supporting his family and
getting out of Chinatown.
27
As the excerpt above clearly shows, the point
Frank Chin makes with Fred is almost the exact opposite: Fred's bitterness
and hostility is due to his frank realization that he will never be free
because his heart will never be in the profession of tourism.
Fairly or unfairly, Chin denounces the institutions of tourism and
American theatre, certain of their bankruptcy and of the gui lt of all those
implicated in them. The perceived narrow nationalism of Chin rests here:
he holds Asian Amer ican playwrights to a higher-perhaps
impossible-standard. He admits to his own failures through the
26
Sau-l ing Cynthia Wong, Readi ng Asian American Literature: From Necessity
to Extravagance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 60.
27
Ibid.
Frank Chin
91
emotional weakness and cowardice of Fred Eng. (Perhaps this is why he
quit the theatre some time ago.) It is impossible to deny it: Frank Chin is
a self-righteous, arrogant, know-it-all. He is covered with nasty flaws and
ugly warts. He is loud and obnoxious. His writings are full of
misogynistic and homophobic ranting. How can anyone actually take
him seriously? How can we so easily forgive him? Perhaps he is the sole
pariah in Asian American literature because he is the only public Asian
American intellectual who makes Asian Americans feel guilty. He not
only removes the masks from the faces of the American theatre audience
to reveal tourists, but also from Asian American writers to reveal, in some
cases, the unhappy face of Fred Eng and, in most cases, the blank, self-
congratulatory stare of Mama Fu Fu. Frank Chin is thoroughly annoying
to everyone because-well, he's such a pig about it when he does so.
(Question: am I a pig to find the him and his writing-but not the
question of Frank Chin-so utterly engaging? Am I a fool to let him make
me wonder whether I have played the tour guide unwittingly?)
Conclusion: That Was Then This Is Now
I try to teach The Year of the Dragon every now and then. I don't
teach it every semester, even though I'm always tempted to do so. It's an
awkward play to teach, as the language is difficult to grasp, and most
students seem not to enjoy it. I have taught it at a few different schools-
an Ivy League university, a small exclusive, private college, as well as a
large public, urban college. It was a former student at the latter, where
I now teach, who came to mind as I worked on this essay. She was a
student in my Twentieth-Century American Literature course a couple of
years ago, and, after reading Chin's play, shared a personal anecdote with
the entire class, some forty of us in all.
She had lived in Chinatown all her life. She was born there, attended
grade school and Chinese-language school there, and still lived there as
she commuted to college. She must have been only nine or ten years
old. She was with her neighborhood friends, two or three other Chinese
American girls playing in the street. One afternoon, tWo strangers, a man
a woman, both white, came up the girls and asked whether they wouldn't
mind posing for a picture. You are so adorable, so cute, the woman said,
grinning a giant Cheshire Cat grin. The student recalled exchanging
nervous glances with her friends. They didn' t answer; they were all too
shy. Thinking the girls did not speak any English, the man held up the
camera to them and pantomimed the act of shooting a picture, mean-
while gesturing to the girls to slide a few steps to the left to stand in front
of a storefront-a Chinese restaurant with an elaborate pagoda carved on
the door. When the girls still didn't respond, the woman opened her
92
ji-SONG Ku
purse and, smiling, held up a few one dollar bills-one for each of them.
Their eyes widened with excitement and the girls said in unison: Sure,
okay, you can take our picture! The woman, thinking she was a victim
of a con, reluctantly gave them the money. So you do speak English, she
said suspiciously, no longer smiling so gleefully. The delighted girls
returned the following day to the same spot and anxiously waited for
other white people to pass by, hoping some of them would stop and ask
for a picture. After a few days of waiting in vain, and with their dollars
all spent, they stopped looking longingly at the passing tourists and forgot
all about the affair. They had homework to do and games to play, after
all.
The student had always regarded this memory with fondness. It
never occurred to her to put a negative spin on this episode. She even
felt guilty for a while, thinking that she and her friends had indeed
behaved dishonestly towards these "innocent" tourists-until now, that
is, some ten years after the fact. After reading The Year of the Dragon,
she suddenly felt angry, not necessarily at the tourists but at herself and
her friends. I feel so dumb, she said to the class. I feel so sorry for
myself-not myself then but myself now.
She eventually went on to finish up her English major, win an in-
school creative writing competition, and graduate with honors last year.
I heard from her a couple of months ago. She e-mailed me to say hello
and to thank me again for writing her a letter of recommendation. She
was about to start the second semester of a M.F.A. program in creative
writing at an Ivy League university in the city. She was still commuting
from Chinatown and was working diligently on a play. She ended the
letter with a joke:
Can you help me come up with a cool pen name?
Anything but Mama Fu Fu will do.
CONTRIBUTORS
RICHARD E. KRAMER is currently completing his dissertation in
Performance Studies at New York University. He has published
in The Cambridge guide to American Theatre, Tennessee
Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, and The Drama
Review.
ROBERTji-SONG Ku teaches in the Department of English and the
Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College. His essays,
fiction, poetry, and reviews appear in a variety of publications,
including Amerasia journal, Dialogue, and the anthologies
Teaching Asian America (Rowan & Littlefield, 1998) and Asian
American Literature (Harper Collins, 1994).
WALTER j. MESERVE is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the
Department of Theatre and English at the Graduate School of the
City University of New York. He is a founding editor of the
journal of American Drama and Theatre and is a widely published
author of books and articles. He is currently working on a six-
val ume history of American dramatic I iterature, the first two
volumes having been published to date.
THERESA JOETTE MAY is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of
Washington School of Drama. She is the co-author, with Larry
Fried, of Greening Up Our Houses (Drama Books, 1994), a guide
to ecological theatre management. She is also a playwright and
the founding artistic director of Theatre in the Wild (Seattle,
Washington).
CYNTHIA D. SMITH is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of
Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, focusing on American theatre history
and American dramatic literature.
93
[I) The Graduate School and University Center
I!I::I The City University of New York
Faculty include:
Albert Bermel
William Boddy
Jane Bowers
Jonathan Buchsbaum
Harry Carlson
Marvin Carlson
George F. Custen
Miriam D'Aponte
Morris Dickstein
Jill Dolan
Mira Feiner
Deborah Geis
Daniel Gerould
Jonathan Kalb
Samuel leiter
Stuart Liebman
Judith Milhous
David Nasaw
Benito Ortolani
Tony Pipolo
leonard Quart
Joyce Rheuban
James Saslow
Pamela Sheingorn
Ella Shohat
Alisa Solomon
Gloria Waldman
Elisabeth Weis
David Willinger
The Graduate School and University Center of CUNY
offers doctoral education in
es
and a Certificate Program in
ihn studies
interdisciplinary options with distinguished
Graduate Center faculty in other fields
and through a consortia! arrangement including
New York University and Columbia University
affiliated with the
Center for Advanced Study in Theatre Arts (CASTA),
Journal of American Drama and Theatre,
Slavic and East European Performance,
Western European Stages
Recent seminars include:
Contemporary Performance
Theory and Technique
The Current New York Season
Feminist Theory and Performance
Melodrama
The History Play
Dramaturgy
Simulat ions
Film Aesthetics
Romanticism
Shakespeare's Comedies
lesbian and Gay Theatre and Performance
Classicism
Theatre Hist ory
Dramatic Structure
Theatre Criticism
American Fil m Comedy
American Realism
Kabuki
Films and Theatre of lngmar Bergman
Native Ameri can Theatre
Women and the Avant-Garde
Post-Colonial ity and Performance
Executive Officer: Professor Jill Dolan
Ph.D. Program in Theatre
CUNY Graduate School and University Center
33 West 42 Street. New York, NY 10036
telephone (212) 642-2231 fax (212) 642-1977
jbarfiel@email.gc.cuny.edu
www.gc.cuny.edu
The Journal of
American-Drama
n.--....... __
The widely acclaimed journal devoted solely to drama and theatre
in the USA - past and present. Provocative, thoughtful articles by
the leading scholars of our time providing invaluable insight and
information on the herjtage of American theatre, as well as its
continuing contribution to world literature and the performing
arts. Edited by Vera Mowry Roberts. Published three times per
year- $12 per annum ($18.00 foreign).
Please n me the rollowing
CAST A publication:
Journal of Amuican Drama
and Theatre _<!!) $12.00 per year
(Foreign) _<!!
1
$18.00
Total
Send order with enclosed check to:
CASTA. CUNY Graduate Center
33 West 42nd Street
New Ynrk. NY 10036
CASTA
The Graduate School and UniverstY. Cenlet
ol The C1ty ol New Yoril.
vOfume '0 .t
Now in its 15th year, this journal, edited by Daniel Gerould and
Alma Law. brings readers lively. authoritative accounts of drama,
theatre, and film in Russia and Eastern Europe. Includes features
on important new plays in performance. archival documents,
innovative significant revivals, emerging artists, the
latest in film. Outstanding interviews and overviews. Published
three times per year- $10 per annum ($15.00 foreign).
Please send me the following
CAST A publication:
5/aric W1cl E(J.Itt'/"11 E11ropem1
Perf(mnunce __ (Q' 1i 10.00 per year
(Foreign) __ <g $l.'i .OO
Total
Send order with enclosed check to:
CASTA. CUNY Graduate Center
33 West 42nd Street
New York. NY 10036
' : : ... .. .... \ : .... .. f ' .' "
111 : :t ,. :
0
,: :- .. ,. 't .. , .. . lo.! \ 0 :-: ; : ! ;
, oo ; .; : .... I 1: I '.; ... '. o
"V-"'''': -1
to,,.,U I. o
An indispensable resource in keeping abreast of the latest theatre
developments in Western Europe. Issued three times a year- Spring,
Winter, and Fall - and edited by Marvin Carlson, each issue contains
a wealth of information about recent European festivals and
productions, including reviews, interviews, and reports. Winter
issues focus on the theatre in individual countries or on special
themes. News of forthcoming events: the latest in changes in artistic
directorships, new plays and playwrights, outstanding performances,
and directorial interpretations. - $15 per annum ($20.00 foreign).
Please send me the following CASTA publication:
Western European Stages
_ @ $15.00 per year
(Foreign) _ @ $20.00 per year
Total
Send order with enclosed to:
CAST A, CUNY Graduate Center
33 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036