Aphra Behn (1640-1689) – Dramatist, novelist, spy and poet, Aphra Behn broke every
rule. In September 1670, when Aphra Behn made her literary debut with her play, The
Forced Marriage, produced at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, she had no precedent. There was
no Englishwoman before her who had EARNED her living as a writer. Her novel,
Oroonoko (1688), a story of an enslaved African prince whom Aphra knew in South
America, unquestionably influenced the development of the novel. Her poems, like her
life, have been underestimated. Aphra Behn was intensely popular with the wits and
poets of her day as well as with the court. She is said to have given many young writers,
including Thomas Otway, their start. She was the center of scandal. Her wit and beauty
caught the eye of the court, she was employed by Charles II as a spy in the Netherlands.
Unrewarded for her service and imprisoned for debt, she began to write to support
herself. From 1670 until her death in 1689, Aphra Behn was commercially successful,
published and produced. Her witty and vivacious comedies, such as The Rover (two
parts, produced 1677 and 1681), were highly successful. She was well read, fluent in
French, Italian and Spanish, and often adapted work by older dramatists. Her versatility,
like her output was immense.
Rachel Crothers (playwright, director, actor, activist) wrote 23 full-length plays. At 25, she ended her acting career when her play, Nora, was produced, in 1903. Her highly acclaimed plays include: He and She, A Man’s World, Let Us Be Gay, As Husbands Go, and When Ladies Meet. Her last play, Susan and God, produced in 1937, was made into a film starring Joan Crawford. She broke precedent by casting and directing her own work. Born in Bloomington, Illinois, the daughter of two doctors, Crothers wrote comedies and dramas about sexual politics, social justice, and small town girls meeting big city sophisticates. Ethel Barrymore starred in the New York and London productions of The Three of Us. Katherine Cornell made her Broadway debut in Nice People, written and directed by Crothers. During World War I, Crothers established Stage Women’s War Relief. Eleanor Roosevelt presented her with a national achievement award. Howard Taubman noted, Crothers “used the stage to articulate the case for woman’s freedom. When the battle was won, she did not shrink from poking fun at the liberated woman’s pretensions.” Another critic observed, her “people have hearts, and she gets to these hearts. They have brains and minds; they act on natural and not fictitious impulse.” She died at her home in Connecticut in 1958.
Katharine Cornell (1893-1974) was an American Actress and Producer. She was known as the “First Lady of the Theatre” and loved for her leading roles in such productions as St. Joan, Romeo and Juliet, and Candida. She formed her own production company with her husband, director Guthrie McClintic, which gave her the artistic freedom to choose her own roles in her own productions. One such role was Elizabeth Barret Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which became her longest running and signature role. The play had initially been turned down by 27 producers before Cornell bought it and turned it into a huge success. She became the first actor-male or female, to win a Tony for a Shakespearean role in 1947 for Antony and Cleopatra. Her production company gave actors such as Lawrence Olivier, Marlon Brando, and Christopher Plummer their first Broadway roles. While the playbills of her productions always read Katharine Cornell presents, she insisted on being billed last. Cornell served on the Board of Directors of the Rehearsal Club, a sanctuary for young struggling actresses. In addition to feeding them, she also found minor roles for the actresses. She retired from the stage in 1961, following the death of her husband.
LADY AUGUSTA GREGORY (1852 –1932)
Lady Augusta Gregory, the woman George Bernard Shaw called “The Greatest Living Irishwoman,” was born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway, Ireland, in 1852. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she founded the Irish National Theater which became the Abbey Theatre of Dublin where she served as a playwright, director, manager, and collaborator. At the age of 28, she married Sir William Henry Gregory, a wealthy widower 35 years her elder. As the wife of a knight, Augusta was entitled to be called “Lady” and she lived on grand estate called Coole Park where the couple held literary salons that included Henry James, Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson. Lady Gregory’s best comedies were written in order to furnish relief to plays which were threatening to make the Abbey Theater a one-sided institution of dark, historical dramas. The comedies in her collection called Seven Short Plays are regarded as humorous as any of their time, and have been compared with the lighter pieces of Molière: kindly yet satirical, joyous yet sometimes bitter, but always intensely human. Today Lady Gregory is mainly remembered for her work behind the Irish Literary Revival, her adaptations of the stories taken from ancient Irish legends: Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Gods and Fighting Men, and The Book of Saints and Wonders. She wrote 20 plays of her own, and did so much revising of Yeats’s early plays, that some scholars suggest she essentially co-authored them. Lady Gregory’s only child, Robert, was killed while serving as a fighter pilot during the First World War, and she died of breast cancer in her home in 1932.
Shelagh Delaney was one of the most innovative playwrights of the Twentieth Century. Her most celebrated play, Taste of Honey, featured realistic characters who were working class, gay, black, northern & feminist in1950s Britain whose mainstream remained publicly repressed, hideously white and middle class. What is all the more remarkable is that she wrote this play when she was just 18. The play was picked up by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London’s Stratford and was first performed on 27th May 1958. It went on to a West End run and was produced on with Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury. Delaney co-wrote the 1961 screenplay of the same name with Tony Richardson, which won the BAFTA that year. Sheilagh continued writing until her death in 2011, with numerous recordings for BBC Radio 4′s Afternoon Play slots and the acclaimed 1985 film, Dance With a Stranger. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the same year.
Susan Keating Glaspell born in Davenport, Iowa, on July 1, 1876,
In 1915, she started the Provincetown Players, a long-running company that would have incalculable impact on the American stage. Having unintentionally started a theater troupe, the Players were now required to write or acquire more scripts. Many a playwright began a notable career this way, by submission or shanghai; one member even raided his shy roommate’s hidden supply of manuscripts, bringing Eugene O’Neill’s work to the public eye.
She wrote Trifles, a very short one-act play based on a murder case that Susan covered while at the Des Moines Daily News, is probably her best known and most studied work. The central character, a woman arrested for the murder of her husband, never appears on stage, but her actions and motives are easily reconstructed and understood by the women of her community, while patronizing male authorities overlook solid evidence as meaningless ‘women’s things.’ In an act of solidarity, the women arrange the evidence to support their sense of justice toward what they see as a justifiable homicide.
The enthusiastic reception of Trifles, on the other hand, encouraged the Provincetown Players to move to Greenwich Village in New York. Remaining a club, with tickets sold only to subscribers, the stated mission of the Players was to produce “plays written by its active members, or by others in whose work the active members may be interested” in order to “encourage the writing of American plays of real artistic, literary, and dramatic…merit.”
Susan liked Greenwich Village, immediately joining the Heterodoxy club, a feminist organization dedicated to the freedom of the individual. However, Susan soon discovered that many of the ‘bohemians’ populating the area were more interested in the caché of being ‘radical’ than in committing to the underlying philosophies and ideals. She called this kind of chic radicalism “egotism in disguise,” and wrote a play, Close the Book, in which two young revolutionaries in love are dismayed to find out that their families are actually quite reputable and even distinguished, thus making it impossible for them to respect each other, or themselves.
By 1922, the Provincetown Players had premiered over ninety plays by almost fifty American playwrights. Like most of the writers, Susan produced, directed, and acted in many of her own plays, Praise indeed for a woman whose theater group now included such illustrious walk-ons as Isadora Duncan, Mary Pickford, Walt Disney, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin. Even Charlie Chaplin was rumored to have once asked for a rol
Having retired from the Players, Susan began writing novels again, producing four in quick succession, including the best-selling Brook Evans, which was purchased by Paramount and made into the 1931 movie, The Right to Love. She also wrote numerous short stories, and two plays. One of these plays, The Comic Artist, she co-wrote with Norman. The other, Alison’s House, based on the life of Emily Dickenson, won a Pulitzer in 1931.
Her financial situation was somewhat improved by Hollywood’s interest in purchasing the rights to some of her plays, including Trifles. But Susan’s real rescue came from the government: In 1936, Susan was asked to come to Chicago to direct the Midwest Play Bureau (MPB) for the Federal Theater Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration. The MPB was set up to support American playwrights of promise, and to stimulate the commercial theater by offering inexpensive tickets to their plays.
The MPB had no staff, no money, and no support from the theatrical world, but it now had a very determined director. Susan refused to allow the Bureau to become a clearinghouse or a forum for contract or rights negotiations; her job was to find great plays and to help talented playwrights, and she did her fighting best. If she couldn’t get a promising play produced in the Midwest, she sent it to another Bureau director in hopes that it would be accepted elsewhere. She encouraged writers to stand up for their right to own their work, even against the Federal Theater Project itself. And when critics, most of whom automatically assumed that no one on ‘relief’ could write a decent play, were especially harsh, she considered writing articles defending the plays, the playwrights, and the Bureau. As she told the Project coordinator, “As a playwright I rather hate to launch an attack on the critics, but if my country needs me, I am there.”
During her busy life, Susan wrote nine novels, fourteen plays, countless short stories and articles. She inspired and guided other writers and was a good friend to many. At times, her work and her personal choices reflect acceptance and admiration for the culture, values, and attitudes of her Iowa origins, and at other times rejection and scorn—but there is no doubt that she never lost sight of her Midwestern roots. In 1967, nineteen years after her death, Susan Glaspell was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.