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38 38 2 copper heiresses take the stage: alice and irene lewisohn Melanie Blood Alice and Irene Lewisohn occupy an unusual place in the history of American theater—they were at the forefront of artistic experimentation during the Little Theatre Movement, knowledgeable about the European avant-garde and several Asian performance styles, and they had the capital to fund their own experiments. The Lewisohn sisters built the Neighborhood Playhouse, served as administrative staff with Helen Arthur and Agnes Morgan, and participated integrally as artists during its amateur and professional years from 1915 to 1927. Other New York little theaters, such as the Provincetown Players and Washington Square Players/Theatre Guild, thrived during this time, but none matched the Neighborhood Playhouse’s dedication to experimental styles or its ability to fund those experiments. Critic and historian Thomas Dickinson wrote in 1924, “Among institutions working for the new art of the theater in America the Neighborhood Playhouse occupies almost the favorite place for the researches of the historian. It is the only ‘new’ theater to have survived 39 copper heiresses take the stage for ten years. And it has survived at the expense of no backward step, of no compromise with expediency.”1 The Neighborhood Playhouse was never driven by purely literary values . Instead, like Edward Gordon Craig, the Lewisohn sisters and their collaborators specifically displaced the written word as the center of the theatrical production and carried out experiments in scenery, lighting, costuming, sound, music, dance, and acting styles. The theory driving such artistic explorations the Lewisohns termed “lyric drama.” Irene Lewisohn wrote, Like the players of the Italian Comedy of Art; like the players in the theaters of the Orient where a performer is called actor, dancer, or singer quite indiscriminately and performs easily the functions of all, our company must be ready to dance, act, or sing; or rather act to music or without, with a sustained or staccato tone, move to measure or create a plastic climax through pure suggestion of mood. It is all one, after all. Back of each of these mediums lie the same principles of form, rhythm, and color, and deeper yet, an understanding of life and the power of interpreting it.2 While many recent historians have constructed a more streamlined historical narrative by downplaying stylistic experimentation in favor of a literary purpose, even at the expense of the complexity of this formative time in American theater history, contemporary critics like Dickinson viewed the Neighborhood Playhouse’s commitment to theatrical experiment as exemplifying a critical function of American art theaters. The Neighborhood Playhouse’s freedom to experiment, without compromise, certainly came from the Lewisohn sisters’ financial, just as much as their aesthetic, commitment. In the 1910s, American little theaters sought to redefine American theater on three fronts: its economic basis, the audience’s taste in drama, and artistic vision. As early as 1917, Thomas Dickinson, whom Kenneth Macgowan called the little theater’s “first philosopher and propagandist,”3 wrote, “We have seen the great need of the theater in three respects, a better system of expense values; a more dependable and enlightened audience ; an impulse coming from the artists rather than the investors.”4 This chapter examines the Lewisohns’ artistic vision as enacted at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the economic issues that arose during their 40 melanie blood active years from 1915 to 1927, and it offers comparisons with both the Washington Square/Theatre Guild and Provincetown Players. As unusual as the combination of experimental artist and financier is Alice and Irene Lewisohn’s choosing careers in the arts at all, given their upbringing and their family’s social status. For most wealthy nineteenth -century families, a daughter choosing the stage was scandalous. Alice was born in 1883 and Irene in 1892, the eighth and tenth children of Leonard and Rosalie Jacobs Lewisohn. Leonard came from Hamburg, Germany, in 1865 to represent his father’s export business, and Rosalie was the daughter of a prominent banking family in New York. In the United States, Leonard and his brother Adolph formed Lewisohn Brothers, which made their fortune when they shifted from lead to copper production, then merged with the Rockefeller family company and United Metals in 1898, and finally branched out into banking. Like many other wealthy families, the Lewisohns contributed to a number of charitable causes, including the Henry Street Settlement. Leonard Lewisohn introduced Alice to Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement, in 1901, a year after Rosalie’s death and...


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