Black, Cheryl. The Women of Provincetown, 1915-1922.
Chansky, Dorothy. Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Two recently published books enlarge and complicate our understanding of Little Theatre and its influence on the development of modern American drama. Dorothy Chansky invites us to examine an infrequently discussed aspect of Little Theatre: its construction of the kind of audience that would be receptive to and supportive of noncommercial theatre. Cheryl Black focuses on perhaps the most famous of American Little Theatres, the Provincetown Players, documenting the many roles that women played in its development and analyzing the ways in which they achieved, maintained, and lost power within the company.
Dorothy Chansky's Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience seeks to explode stereotypical notions of the movement as largely comprising famous experimental theatre groups such as the Provincetown Players. She investigates theatre reform undertaken by not only amateur theatre companies, but committees, clubs, university theatre departments, settlement houses and other entities that staged live performance, intended as serious art rather than entertainment, for the purpose of moral uplift, spiritual fulfillment, civic improvement, cultural enrichment, or social change. She seeks to broaden our concept of Little Theatre to include a wide range of performance activities in diverse venues; thus, she examines not only major centers of Little Theatre such as New York City and Chicago, but also theatre activities in Madison, Wisconsin; Dallas, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island, and many other sites where challenges to commercial theatre evolved in the early twentieth century. Throughout her study she emphasizes the pervasive participation of women in Little Theatre, as playwrights, teachers, scholars, editors, activists, organizers, managers, and audience members and shows how their efforts were often dismissed, criticized, and undervalued.
In her first chapter, Chansky establishes the parameters of her study. She posits a time frame of 1912 to 1925, starting with the founding of Boston's Toy Theatre and Chicago's Little Theatre and ending with a year that by and large saw the nationwide acceptance of Little Theatre and its ideals. Thus, she conceptualizes Little Theatre's trajectory as % continuum rather than a golden age of enlightenment followed by a capitulation to popular taste" (7) and rejects the commonly accepted concept of an experimental Little Theatre movement of 1912-1918 that devolved into community theatre in the 1920s. Her second chapter analyzes the commentary of a number of early twentieth-century scholars, critics, theatre practitioners, and intellectuals that addressed the question of audience and, in so doing, revealed their critical and sometimes prejudiced attitudes toward theatregoers of that day. The third chapter looks at theatre reform discourse that embraced audience reform as part of its project, focusing on two major forces in building the Little Theatre audience: the journal Theatre Arts Monthly and Harvard professor George Pierce Baker's 47 Workshop. The most interesting chapter, although a little off-message, examines the "fall girls of modernism," showing how women at all levels of theatrical involvement were denigrated and often blamed for the poor quality of theatre audiences. This chapter also discusses the feminist orientation of the Drama League of America and its role in promoting culturally uplifting theatre and developing an audience capable of appreciating and supporting it. The penultimate chapter analyzes the role of high schools, colleges, and universities in offering opportunities for women to become involved in noncommercial theatre and in institutionalizing Little Theatre values. Here the careers of teacher and scholar Dina Rees Evans and playwright and theatre activist Alice Gerstenberg are shown to exemplify the values and objectives of educational theatre. In chapter six, Chansky provides an in-depth examination of the Dallas Little Theatre's 1925 production of Paul Green's The No 'Count Boy, which, she argues, represents the fulfillment of the Little Theatre ideal: a production of an original American play that "challenges mainstream audiences without alienating them" (187). She also explores The No "Count Boy's potential, as a folk play, to change the national concept of what it means to be an American.
Chansky asserts that despite the heterogeneity, diversity, and diffuseness which characterized Little Theatre, efforts to produce serious as opposed to commercial, dramas in the United States did share some common traits, among them the commitment to develop an audience for such plays by doing theatre in venues friendly to nontraditional theatre goers (children, students, poor people, immigrants, and farmers), the influence of European models (the Irish Players, the Moscow Art Theatre), and the nurturing of new American playwrights. The better-known groups (Washington Square Players, Chicago Little Theatre) are discussed, but the less-studied practitioners of the movement, such as settlement house workers and theatre professors, are also examined. She acknowledges the influence of Little Theatre on Broadway in terms of the innovative writers, directors, and designers that went on to succeed in commercial theatre but emphasizes that its major contribution was the creation of a set of attitudes and behaviors about theatre-going that would establish a permanent audience who believed in the vital role that theatre could play in American life. Little Theatre practitioners, through "reformance" activities designed for the mutual influence of initiators and recruits, sought to achieve this objective, in order to make theatre competitive with with radio and film through the development of a national "imagined community" of theatre audiences. She also examines Little Theatre's influence on regional, educational, nonprofit, and government-supported theatre, claiming that the significance of Little Theatre rests less in the quality of its products and more in the pervasiveness of its rhetoric and ideology in advocating an important cultural function for theatre in the United States.
Chansky's focus on audience is a unique and valuable contribution to the literature of Little Theatre, but, to her credit, she paints no rosy picture of Little Theatre's salvific role, noting that despite its intended goal of including marginalized groups in its audiences, Little Theatre was an overwhelmingly middle-class, racially segregated phenomenon, and taking pains overall to demonstrate the tensions between the ideal and the actual that characterized its trajectory. This cogently argued, thoroughly researched, well-written, and insightful study of Little Theatre's role in the development of serious American drama through the construction of informed and receptive audiences is a major contribution not only to Little Theatre scholarship but to the scholarship of American theatre and drama.
Cheryl Black's tightly focused examination of one particular Little Theatre, the Provincetown Players, has led her to conclude that this group provided a woman-friendly environment during the early years of its existence that facilitated the participation of females as executive committee members, actors, playwrights, directors, scenic designers, and costume designers at higher rates than those of Broadway. She provides a chapter-by-chapter account of the Provincetown women's contributions in each of the above categories, as well as an analysis of the factors that coalesced to facilitate a high rate of female involvement as the group began and a lower rate in the group's last years. While well-known Provincetown Players such as Susan Glaspell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louise Bryant are discussed, lesser-known female members of the company are also treated in depth, in some cases, giving the reader access to previously unrecorded material. For example, "Performing Women" provides a valuable account of the work of one of the Provincetown's finest actresses, Mary Pyne; likewise, "Staging Women" offers a detailed and informative discussion of the Provincetown's first salaried director, Nina Moise. Black's research took her to thirty manuscript collections, including the little-cited depository of Provincetown Players manuscripts in the Fales Library of New York University. While the quantitative aspect of her study is valuable, her analysis of the relationship between gender and power within the group is even more enlightening. Black emphasizes that different paths to power were effective for different women in the group who functioned as decision makers. She concludes that when the company's initial goals--commitment to a non-hierarchical governance structure and theatre practice and emphasis on experimentation and the nurturing of new American playwrights--were superseded by a compulsion to stage plays with Broadway potential and a top-down decision-making process, women's participation in the group declined in all categories. She shows that as the Provincetown governance structure became more hierarchical and less female friendly, and the company's orientation more commercial, plays by women were reviewed less favorably.
While Black's lively, readable discussion of the Provincetown's women is a major strength of the book, a wonderful bonus is its back matter, which comprises several appendices listing the 120 female Provincetown Players and their major functions, the founding members of the Provincetown Players, the members of its executive committee from 1916 until 1922, and chronological listings of the plays written, directed, and designed by women. There are a few minor errors: the size of the Provincetown's first New York stage was not 10 x 12 feet (100), but 10 1/2 x 14 feet, the mother of the woman Norman Matson left Susan Glaspell for was not one of Susan's closest friends (143) but an acquaintance, and Robert Rogers should have been described as a founding, of charter, member of the Provincetown Players rather than as "founder" (136). Overall, though, Black has produced a thoroughly researched, well-written, accurate and much-needed study that theatre and women's studies scholars will find extremely useful. Both Chansky and Black add significantly to our knowledge of Little Theatre in the United States and also provide important information and analyses regarding the role of women, not only in Little Theatre, but in American theatre history as well.