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The Perils of Freedom: The New Woman in Three American Plays of the 1900's LOIS C. GOTTLIEB The pre-World War I years in the United States, the seeding ground for the post-war Revolution in Morals, have been taken far more seriously by historians of culture and society than by historians of the drama, who apologize for the plays of this era as grossly inferior to contemporaneous European drama. The standard critical judgment is that "even the best of the serious plays" before the war fail to come to grips with the grim truths of human existence, that they rely, instead, on a superficial and less threatening resemblance to reality. 1 This characteristic failing is most often explained by reference to the "complacency" and "facile optimism 11 of the Progressive Era. Alan Downer, for example, argues that "the successful plays of the first decade and a half of the century reflect a certain self-satisfaction, and their happy endings are not so much theatrical conventions as popular conviction: there were few problems incapable of solution in this oversize Eden." 2 Such an estimate, which glosses over the paradoxes and tensions explored by cultural historians of the period/ 1 can hardly provide an adequate basis for ancilyzing the female characters in these plays. Overlooking the ambiguous and often hostile relationship that existed between the pre-World War I Woman Movement and the Progressive Era, the critic misses one of the deepest sources of conflict in the drama of the time. As Henry May notes in The End of American Innocence, the Progressives were hardly unanimous in their support of women's rights. Indeed, in a seeming contradiction of their basic social philosophies, Progressives often opposed changes in women's status and rights with an intransigence which leads May to suggest that "sexual defensiveness" might account for some of the era's anti-feminism: "Women's rights were sometimes a corollary of nineteenth-century moral progress, yet some kinds of militant feminism could be disturbing. To some American males it was disquieting in itself to find the weaker sex taking on the role of athlete, professional or political agitator." 4 In fact, as a study of the era's plays suggests, feminism disturbed many American males even when it did not result in radically altered social and professional roles. THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 1, SPRING 1975 Eugene Walter's The Easiest Way (1908), Clyde Fitch's The City (1909) and William Vaughn Moody's The Faith Healer (1910) 5 are three playswhich reflect the era's ambivalence toward change effected by the Woman Movement. Labelled "plays of revolt" 11 and "plays with a punch,"7 all three are characterized by frank treatment of unsavory subject matter, use of formerly taboo language, and rejection of traditional characterization or plot resolution; at the same time they express the social problems of the day within the conventions of the commercial theatre. In addition, these plays corroborate the existence of that sexual defensiveness highlighted in May's comment. These dramas do not mirror a complacent and self-satisfied society. On the contrary, as they respond to the quest for woman's freedom, 8 they share a common goal: to point outits perils. The Easiest Way 0 has been judged the play that "represented more than any other play of its period a definite breaking away on the part of both dramatists and producers from set trends and traditions in the theatre. It was the first bold denial of the happy ending in modern [American] drama." 10 The play's wide acceptance,1 1 although mourned as a sign of degeneracy by some of the more influential critics of the day, 12 suggests that commercial audiences throughout the country were ready to accept at least a partial reflection of the realities regularly encountered in the tabloids and muckraking journals of the time. Walter, a former newspaperman, found in the contemporary setting of New York's Tenderloin and its theatrical district an apt environment for independent women, where man'r; unfair dominance resulted in antagonistic malefemale relations, rn but also an apt environment for the playing out of a variation on...


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