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New Women Dramatists in America, 1890-1920.

New Women Dramatists in America, 1890-1920. By Sherry D. Engle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. x + 276 pp. $79.95.

Reviewed by Brenda Murphy, University of Connecticut

This study of American women dramatists of the Progressive Era focuses on five playwrights "who rose in prominence as professional dramatists at the turn of the century and who have been essentially overlooked by theatre scholars, their legacy to American theatre overshadowed by 'canonized' male writers of the period" (1). The playwrights that Sherry Engle recovers are Martha Morton, Madeleine Lucette Ryley, Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland, Beulah Marie Dix, and Rida Johnson Young, all of whom were recognized as successful playwrights, both critically and financially, during the period but who have been passed over by theater historians and critics since the early 1920s.

Engle has employed extensive research in bringing these playwrights to light, making use of archival and public documents, correspondence and interviews, articles, and reviews from many contemporary sources. In each chapter, she devotes a section to a single writer's biography (or in the case of collaborators Sutherland and Dix, two writers' biographies), her writing process, and her "evolution as a dramatist" (2). The rest of each chapter is devoted to a summary of the writer's major plays and their critical reception. Engle also includes major documents that help flesh out the portrait of the playwright, such as Martha Morton's speech to the members of the male-only American Dramatists Club in 1907. In addition, a concise and informative introduction places the playwrights in the context of Progressive Era theater conditions and the economic and cultural conditions of the country under which they pursued their careers in the theater.

This book is richly informative, and reading through all four chapters at once gives a broad sense of the playwriting that succeeded in the Broadway theatre during the period. While all of the playwrights were commercially successful, each carved out a different piece of the theatrical landscape. As Engle demonstrates, Morton was at her best with "light, romantic comedies using clear-cut, wholesome themes that affirm basic American values" (46). Ryley excelled at domestic or sentimental comedy. Dix and Sutherland contributed a particular blend of comedy and fantasy with precise knowledge in their historical dramas, and Dix was also capable of serious contemporary commentary, such as her antiwar play Moloch. Young was most successful as a lyricist and collaborator on musical comedies and operettas like the classic Naughty Marietta. While more of her original analysis of the plays would be welcome, Engle provides a full and useful historical context through her summaries and generous citations of contemporary reviews of the plays.

It clearly was not easy to reconstruct the lives and careers of these playwrights, but Engle's thorough research yields an interesting and significant account of each. She also has produced a most useful resource for future research into the women playwrights of this period. Particularly noteworthy is the appendix, a list of "New York Plays and Musicals by Women, April 1885-June 1925." This lengthy list demonstrates the extent to which women were writing for the theatre during the period and immediately suggests topics for future study. It should be noted that Engle for the most part includes only plays that were produced for the Broadway or commercial theatre rather than those produced for the influential "little theatre" groups, such as the Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players, which have already received a good deal of critical attention.

Reading through the list also evokes some questions about Engle's own choices in undertaking her research. She explains in a note that she does not discuss the best-known and most commercially successful woman playwright of the period, Rachel Crothers, because she has already received some critical attention; Engle's purpose is to recover playwrights who have been neglected. But the absence of some other playwrights, such as the very popular Frances Hodgson Burnett, the suffragist and actor Elizabeth Robins, and Mary Roberts Rinehart, Clare Kummer, and Zoe Akins, raises intriguing questions. Why are they not considered in the volume? What is it about the five playwrights included that makes them the focus of a study of Progressive Era women playwrights?

Taking the choices as a given, we are fortunate to have this extensive information about the plays and careers of these playwrights. Whatever one's interest in the field, this volume will enrich any reader's understanding of the Progressive Era, its theater, its playwrights, and, perhaps most of all, its audiences and the entertainment they craved.
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Author:Murphy, Brenda
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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