- American Women Theatre Critics: Biographies and Selected Writings of Twelve Reviewers, 1753–1919
Heeding Gayle Austin’s 1991 feminist call for theatre scholars to start “paying attention to women as writers and as readers or audience members” (1–2), Alma Bennett recovers the voices of American women theatre critics for American theatre history. As a result, American Women Theatre Critics: Biographies and Selected Writings of Twelve Reviewers, 1753–1919 brings the contributions of a dozen distaff voices within earshot, expanding the conversation beyond the traditionally male-centered testaments on the state of American theatre. In an introduction and eleven chapters, Bennett traverses over 150 years of US theatre history to establish the circumstances and discuss the representative writings of two female critics from the eighteenth century (Charlotte Ramsey Lennox and Judith Sargent Murray), seven from the nineteenth (Kate Field, Olive Logan, Mildred Aldrich, Dorothy Lundt, Emma Sheridan, Amy Leslie, and Lucy Monroe), and three from the early twentieth (Ada Patterson, Annie Nathan Meyer, and Dorothy Parker). Her chapter notes and bibliography provide a map of the routes her research has taken.
Bennett takes to heart Tice Miller’s premise in Bohemians and Critics: American Theatre Criticism in the Nineteenth Century (1981) that both theatre critics and theatre criticism have been neglected in theatre history research. Surveying a number of important volumes on American theatre history and criticism, Bennett finds that the work of female theatre critics—especially before the twentieth century—has been too often overlooked or left to obscurity. She acknowledges that “[a]n obvious problem complicating the historian’s efforts to identify early critics was the practice of publishing unsigned articles and the use of pseudonyms, especially by women,” to say nothing of “the existing expectations and definitions of gender roles in public life at the time the women were writing” (3–4). Bennett is not the only contemporary theatre historian to address the missing-in-action status of women theatre critics in the sweep of American theatre history. As she notes, Caroline Dodge Latta’s essay “The Lady Is a Critic” in Women in American Theatre (edited by Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins ) is a useful mini-treatise on women critics (including three of Bennett’s subjects, as well as some that she does not cover). But Bennett’s book-length attempt “to provide some gender balance to the patriarchal attitudes toward American dramatic theory and practices, and toward the position of women in public discourse and in society” (5) is a welcome addition to existing scholarship, assembling, as it does, biographical material as a frame for its analysis of each critic’s published writing. By contextualizing each writer’s work in this way, Bennett encourages us to consider how education, economic status, and angle of exposure to the theatrical trade influenced that writer’s sense of self, craft, and subject.
Including writers of both theatrical and dramatic criticism, Bennett begins with Lennox, anointed by Alfred Westfall in American Shakespearean Criticism, 1607–1865 (1939) as the first Shakespearean critic to be born on American shores. Bennett argues that Lennox’s literary life across the pond was influenced by her first two decades in New York State. Of playwright and essayist Murray, Bennett notes that, although deprived of a formal education herself, she advocated for education and equality for women and made public appeals for American playwrights who could supply “the American stage with American scenes” (38). Believing that women were moral standard-bearers, Lundt and Sheridan used their positions as critics to instruct readers and theatre artists alike.
While many of these female critics were allied in their efforts to improve American theatre, Bennett relates that they did not always share a bond of fellow feeling. Field, for example, refused to support her fellow nineteenth-century critic Logan. Although both were reared in unorthodox theatrical families, Field felt that Logan was “unwomanly” for advocating a feminism that historian Faye Dudden described as “decidedly economic . . . and materialistic” (qtd. on 45).
Not all female critics assumed a public...