- Women Writers of the Provincetown Players: A Collection of Short Works, and: Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell
During an era of American theatre still remembered primarily for the work of Eugene O'Neill and secondarily for the Ziegfeld Follies, women writers created a great many plays that ran the gamut from popular Broadway entertainments to unsettling expressionist experiments. Two recent books focus on some of these women and their contributions to American theatre. In her latest anthology, Judith Barlow collects and discusses thirteen short plays by women whose works were performed by the Provincetown Players. And in a joint volume for the Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists series, Barbara Ozieblo and Jerry Dickey offer thoughtful critical introductions to the works and lives of Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell.
Glaspell was one of the co-founders of the Provincetown Players, which began in 1915 as an informal gathering of friends who wanted to create a space where American plays and theatrical experimentation were welcome. The group is noteworthy not only for producing American plays when most little theatres focused on European works, but also for producing plays by women and for creating a theatre environment in which women could develop other skills and hold leadership roles. During its seven-year lifespan, the group put on almost a hundred plays; more than a third of these were written or coauthored by women, and almost half were directed by women—"an astonishing percentage" (4), as Barlow notes, both then and now. The membership was fluid, and while some women held ongoing central positions—acting, directing, creating costumes and sets, and reading scripts—others had only tangential connections with the group or were involved, as Treadwell was, for only a brief time.
Barlow's Women Writers of the Provincetown Players develops logically out of her 1981 collection, Plays by American Women, 1900-1930. Those who have appreciated Barlow's role in recovering women's contributions to American theatre will enjoy seeing how her thinking about the field continues to develop. In the introduction to the collection, Barlow embraces politicized art more directly than she has in the past, noting that in the little theatres, "[p]olitical radicalism and artistic innovation went hand in hand" (1); she later illustrates this with a thoughtful analysis of the ways these playwrights dealt with the concept of war. The introduction is packed with information, ranging from details about the day-to-day running of the Provincetown group, to analyses of the plays themselves, to comments about the heterosexual framework within which the plays remain firmly cemented, despite the lived experiences of some of the women.
This detailed historical context and analysis continues throughout the volume. Barlow includes a one-act play by each of the twelve women whose work in this genre has survived, and she prefaces every play with a short essay. (She never explains why Rita Wellman alone among these playwrights is represented by a second play, The Horrors of War, added in an appendix, but as the play itself is a fascinating exploration of women's sexuality during wartime and a reversal of cultural ideas that have lost none of their power today, one can only be glad of its inclusion.) The plays selected display the range of the group's output, and Barlow's densely packed introductions contain a wealth of history, biography, interpretation, and literary genealogy that merits multiple readings.
Ozieblo and Dickey, similarly, begin Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell with an overview of modernism and the Little Theater Movement. Although their introduction also makes a clear case for considering the two women side by side, pairing them in a single volume underplays their individual importance—especially relative to other playwrights in this series, since male playwrights are not paired this way. The rest of the book treats Glaspell and Treadwell separately, with each part...