Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past

Alice Gerstenberg

American theatre in the late 1890s had devolved into melodramatic conventions. This is not to say that melodramas are bad, but some theatre practices, especially The Theatrical Syndicate, had a choking effect on American theatre.

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Alice Gerstenberg, savior of independent American theatre.

Imagine one outfit having a monopoly over theatre. Six dudes managed to do just that. This was a time when the touring company was a thing. The Syndicate kept the big houses. Thus, a touring company could spend weeks in New York City or San Francisco and have just a one night stand in, say, Yuma, Arizona.

This led to extremely large cities becoming centers for theatre (which was probably already going to happen) but also stifling local theatre. Why build a local theatre community when Sarah Bernhardt might come through town once in a blue moon?

BTW, here’s Sarah doing her thing at age 61.

 

Even the history-make(believe)rs have this mentality. In this article by the Utah state government about the old Salt Lake Theatre, they behave like celebrity worshipping asses:

“There was scarcely a luminary of the American stage who did not make an appearance: Maude Adams; P. T. Barnum; Drew, Ethyl, John, and Lionel Barrymore; Sarah Bernhardt; Edwin Booth; Billie Burke; “Buffalo Bill” Cody; Fanny Davenport; John Drew; Eddie Foy, Charles and Daniel Froham; Al Jolson; Lillian Russell; Dewitt Talmage; and scores besides.”

Scores. As in multiples of 20. And they even misspelled Ethel Barrymore’s name. 

In terms of a local theatre, this syndicate behaved much like the Manila galleons of yore: Stop by once or twice a year, dump a bunch of silver on the local market and skedaddle.

In response to melodrama holding American theatre captive and then torturing it with its plaintive cries, The Little Theatre movement arose.

More nimble and adventurous than its bloated corn-fed melodramatic cousins, The Little Theatre created a more intimate theatrical experience. It experimented. And pushed social issues. And our playwriting hero Alice Gerstenberg was just one of those intimate, experimenting pushers. Though obviously the most important and awesomest one because this article is about her. 

Gerstenberg was born into the well-connected Gerstenberg family of Chicago. They had four generations on the Chicago Board of Trade simultaneously.  Her mom even donated entire collections to the Smithsonian. She was the grand-daughter of German immigrants. She attended Bryn Mawr and began writing plays professionally soon after graduating. The folks over at On Her Shoulders have written a much more thorough biography. It’s interesting and I’d simply be stealing from them.

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See? She also wrote novels as this blurb from 1915 attests. Via here.

She innovated the use of the split subject before Charlie Chaplin’s alcoholic father-in-law used it and she pushed herself some feminism. Her first collection of plays was published in 1908, specifically for female college students, with all-female roles. Yay for experimenting, yay for feminism. Though some argued that she maintained the biases of an earlier time. 

Gerstenberg’s second play Overtones was apparently the first American expressionistic play. It is still performed today.

The plot is simple, the point is valid. In Overtones, two women meet for tea. Each are accompanied by her “overtone” – that is, a primal version of her that speaks the truth and isn’t afraid of social norms. Like much of Gerstenberg’s work, it is a one-act.

Gerstenberg worked to popularize both Little Theatre as well as one-act plays.

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Here is the same section in a modern production:

Great set-up right there. The two ladies meet and we get to hear from Margaret’s honest half, Maggie.

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I like this part, simply because Hetty is so proud to have a car [which she may or may not actually have].

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Hangry Maggie is a hoot:

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And thus it goes…

Highlights:

  1. Theme. The theme of honesty is always a good choice. The additional spin of being honest with oneself cements it in nicely.
  2. Characterization. Yep, it’s a comedy, but all four characters have depth, even though they’re components of larger characters.
  3. All-female cast, which is still difficult to find over 100 years later.
  4. The play is funny, though not Married…with Children funny.

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5.   Family friendly. Community theatres and high schools would do well with this, royalty-free.

Lowlights:

0. None.

The next play we’ll cover is a very unusual piece written while America was busy getting its young men killed in World War I. Unlike many of Gerstenberg’s plays, this is pretty much the opposite of of comedy. Attuned concerns a soldier’s wife writing him a letter and talking her feelings out loud. More or less a monologue, it is also approximately 10 minutes long, thus foreshadowing that trend. There is a twist at the end, which I won’t give away.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  1. It is an artifact of its time. You want to see how Americans on the homefront in 1918 felt, this should do it:

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We have some universal concerns here, especially the direction that she is “afraid of her next thought.” How true. How often does this happen to us? When people are forced to think things that frighten them, life (and stageplays) get interesting.

Her mention of thousands of others missing their loved ones also rings true and the fact the guy’s letter woke up the whole house speaks volumes to how important communication was in those days.

And it has a “special delivery” which we don’t have anymore. At least I don’t. Or ever did. 

2.  A VERY strong female monologue, written by a woman. One of Gerstenberg’s monologues from her play Fourteen is still used for auditions, but this monologue is where it’s at. Deep characterization.

3. Surprise ending.

LOWLIGHTS:

1.

It may be a bit too sentimental for modern audiences. I don’t consider it a deal-breaker, but it does skew sentimental. If sentimental is your bag, then consider this a highlight. It is very debatable.

2. Remember all that experimenting Gerstenberg was rocking?

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Audiences might laugh at Tom getting pantomime-killed. The play would still pack a punch without it. There is another special effect that is integral to the plot. Since the play is in the public domain, one could modify it totally.

  1. The ending. Not giving it away. It’s a great ending (see HIGHLIGHTS) but might not be great for 2018 audiences.

The final one-act we’ll go over today is The Pot Boiler. And it’s as awesome as it sounds. The definition of “pot boiler” from etymonline:

The notion is of something one writes solely to put food on the table.

This is a hilarious little play. Basically, a playwright brings a wannabe playwright to a rehearsal of his play and explains the whole dang thing. The actors and playwright get snippy, too.

It’s basically a Playwriting 101 course in satirical play format.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  1. It’s funny. “Sud” is the playwright. “Wouldby” the novice.

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2. It’s funny because it’s true. Here, Sud, playwright extraordinaire, argues with an actress about a word. How often have we seen people in life clash because they both “know” more than anyone else?

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Here it is in a 2008(?) production.

Here’s another:

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Sud the Sellout.

  1. Everything you need to know about writing plays can be found here. Sud is with Wouldby watching Pencil and Ivory, two actresses. Ivory is called a “vampire” here – the long form of “vamp” – which, according to Google dictionary is….

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I’m so disappointed “home wrecker” doesn’t get a hyperlink there. Now that we all know what “vamp” is, let’s hear Sud’s expert career advice.

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And onstage…

Hehe. And the trope of the evil foreigner gets mocked as well! 

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LOWLIGHTS

  1. None.

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1953 college production of the Pot Boiler via here.

Her plays have been regularly produced since their writing, yet none of the theatre friends I asked had heard of her. Thus, she gets featured here.

Here’s an article from the University of Utah’s newspaper in 1918 announcing Overtones. Note all the writers and student directors are female. As are most of the casts. Yay progressive 1918 Utah!

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Here’s a list of all our other playwrights.

Gerstenberg of course wrote more than three one-act plays. Here’s a lovely link dump for them. If the title is underlined, that will take you to an online text of it.

I found so many records of porductions over the years, I got overwhelmed and stopped adding them.

1908: The Class President, Captain Joe, Betty’s Degree and The Class Play were all published together as A Little World and were written specifically for all-women college theatre.

1912: Model Maid

Can only find a copyright entry and a newspaper bit.

1913: Overtones

The Broadway run.

A 1918 production in Utah.

A Utah repeat to sell War Bonds.

1929 production.

2008 Malaysian production.

Nice photo from 2016.

Videos of Overtones Productions:

A 2009 college production.

Nash Community College, 2010, parts one and two.

A high school production from 2012.

Interesting 2012 take from abroad.

A 2013 production.

2016 production with two other Gerstenberg plays. Great audio.

2014 production, with a “Biblical” analysis.

A short film based on the play. Intimate.

Meanwhile, in 2014

A 2017 production, apparently by Alive Gerstenberg. Hehe.

Analysis (in English) from an Indonesian perspective. Pretty cool.

More analysis.

1915: Alice in Wonderland from Carroll’s stories.

The audiobook.

Promo for a 2018 production. The actors talking about the play.

Apparently the play is monologue material.

Playbill’s minimalist coverage of the Broadway run in 1915. 25 performances in a week. So jealous. That’s cool.

The ibdb page. So it was more like a month and 25 performances. Still…

1916: The Buffer

Apparently high school, college and English-language schools overseas haven’t discovered this play.

1916: The Pot Boiler

LibriVox version.  Had zero views when I found it.

1926 production at Stanford.

Evidence of a 1954 South African production.

2008 show.

2008 prep school production.

2009 school show.

Part from 2013

Playbill

Review of a 2014 production.

2012 production review.

2007 high school review.

Interestingly, Titanic 2: the Sequel is an adaptation of the play.

1917: Beyond Religious monologue.

1917: Hearts
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A production photo from “Hearts” circa 1920s. Via here.

1918: Attuned

Facebook event from back in 2015.

` Director discussing play in 2010.

1918: The Unseen

Play With Your Food production.

I wonder if this is a different version of A Model Maid. This may have influenced/been influenced by the short film series Sweedie, featuring Wallace Beery as a Swedish maid. Essanay and Gerstenberg were based in Chicago.

1918: He Said and She Said

Production in England.

1919: Illuminati in Drama Libre

University production from 2014.

Ditto from 2016

Promo 2016. Good visuals.

Some kid reading the script with his teacher.

Stills!

Analysis

1920: Fourteen

Wikipedia article.

High school production.

English-speaking production from the Netherlands.

Russian-speaking production from Oregon.

English production in India.

 

1921: Ten One-Act Plays A bunch together.

1924: Four Plays for Four Women Where the public domain ends…as do most modern productions. 

1924: Mah-Jongg

1924: Their Husband

1924: Ever Young

The University of Hawai’i has a copy of the playbill. Good luck finding it.

1924: Seaweed

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A production of Seaweed, West Coast Dramatic Guild, unknown date, via here.

1925: At the Club

Serious analysis right here.

1928:  The Land of “Don’t Want To”  dramatization of Lilian Bell’s children’s story.

1929: Overtones, three act edition

1930: Comedies All 

1930: The Water Babies, dramatization of Charles Kingsley’s work

Wikipedia notes that the novel…

“eventually fell out of favour in part due to its prejudices (common at the time) against Irish, Jews, Catholics, Americans, and the poor.”  

Uh, that’d do it. 

1933: Sentience 

1934: Glee Plays the Game  

1934: Within the Hour  

1939: Across the River

1939: Lake Front, radio play

1940: Time for Romance  

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1943 production at Georgia State Women’s College.

1942: Got Your Number (unpublished)

1963: On the Beam (1963, unpublished)

1969: Time for Living  

Concordia (Unpublished, no date)

Port of Chicago (Unpublished, no date)

The Hourglass (no date)

 

BIO

Magazine profile from 1919. Good article.

Nice profile from On Her Shoulders. Thorough background.

Some info about her and the little theatre.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Alice Gerstenberg”

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