Female Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

Althea Thurston

This week we bring you an unknown playwright who was based in the weirdest state in America my home state and who attended the worst university in the whole goddamned world my alma mater.

Utah birthed this tool:

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The University of Utah flag, stained red by the blood of past memories…or by a horrible police department.

Not only was Althea Thurston prominent locally, but in 1921, her one-act play The Exchange was included in a book of contemporary one acts with such famous playwrights as Barrie, Gregory, Chekov and Strindberg. Not bad company at all. Let’s see what The Exchange is about.

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The Plot

Like many shorter works, The Exchange is based upon a simple, yet entertaining and dramatically/comically fruitful supposition: in some realm beyond, there is a judge and a judge’s helper, an imp.

People who are dissatisfied with their lot in life may approach the judge for an exchange. For example, a vain woman wants her developing wrinkles to stop. After being given several options, she decides to exchange an aging body for deafness.

A poor man wishes to be rich, but at what price? Indigestion, naturally. Let’s take a look at our cast of people who are unhappy with their lot in life and what they exchange it for. This sort of exchange goes on for several unhappy people.

Note: I’ll intersperse some photos of a 2014 reading at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan throughout the article. Thank you to Amani Durrani for the photos.

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You can totally see it listed 2nd on the poster in back.

Characterization

The characters are based upon archetypes (vain girl, poor man, rich idiot) but are broadly drawn with comedic flair.

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Poverty does indeed suck. At least the dude isn’t a criminal.

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Perhaps “poor” refers to his decision-making skills. Be prepared to enter the Twilight Zone, Poor Man.

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On a scale of 1-10, Vain Woman is about 1,000 on the Unlikeability Factor.

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Clearer.

The Judge tries to help:

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“You don’t want me to be unhappy, do you?”  (Actually, I do)

And thus, Vain Woman is cool with being deaf.

The Rich Citizen shows up.

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“Day and night.” Rough life, bro.

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Lack of introspection. Surprisingly, the Rich Citizen doesn’t want to be a bartender. I also like that apparently many bartenders have exchanged their occupations.

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He could have a whole show based on himself if he were a bartender.

Dramatic-Reading

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“By Jove.” Here’s what milk production looked like in British propoganda at that time.

 

Themes

This is where The Exchange really rises to the top (and I believe deserves a spot aalongside those other contemporary plays). The theme seems to be stated right at the beginning (just like they teach you in creative writing class).

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“misalliance” may be an allusion

I like the “defective heart” and “lazy liver” bit. But the true theme is people want to change their miseries, but not their vices. And people minimize their own shortcomings while maximizing others’.

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After the exchanges, The Former Poor Man and the Vain Woman have this exchange:

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Be careful what you wish for.

The fun part is, everyone returns to the exchange, trying to recover their former problems, but it isn’t so simple. The Judge is gone and has sent this letter:

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They’re stuck with their new problems and I can’t say that I feel sorry for them.

The singular drawback to this play would be the stereotypical portrayal of the Vain Woman.

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The Exchange was originally performed in 1919 and published in 1922 in Contemporary One-Act Playsedited by B. Roland Lewis, who just so happened to be Thurston’s playwriting instructor at the University of Utah.

The play later appeared in University of Utah Plays in 1928. It is head and shoulders above the other plays by University of Utah students. These other plays will be profiled in an upcoming post.

However, in the 1928 publication Thurston had a second one-act play, the allegorical And the Devil Laughs.

This play isn’t as good as The Exchange but it has its moments.

The Plot

In some bizarre allegory-land, several folks cross paths:

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The humans are all looking for the Safe Road, though invariably end up on the Forbidden Trail.

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Do you think Thurston knew that 90 years later people in Lahore would enjoy her play?
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The allegory is obvious: “Safe Road” = 9 to 5 job. “Forbidden Trail” = world of playwriting.
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Production in Utah from 1931.

Characterization

The characterization is much thinner in this piece.  The most interesting character seems to be The Girl, though the protagonist and catalyst for everything is The Youth.

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He said “Hell” –

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If all it takes to impress women is taking the Forbidden Trail, I’m there.

Doesn’t Forbidden Trail sound like an oater from the 1930s?

There was another one from the ’20s.

The Youth is supposed to be some kind of punk, but The Girl is the one doing her own bit of rebelling – or trying to.

The Manshows up:

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I’m just gonna point out that even The Youth – whom The Girl seems to have an interest in, simply treats her like any man in a 1920s Utah-written allegory would: “You go do girl stuff. Now!” He doesn’t deserve The Forbidden Trail.

I like how The Man acts like a pastor who just got caught reading a pornographic magazine “for the articles.” The temptation of The Forbidden Trail is too much.

The kids notice this:

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I appreciat the fact he can say “That will do, young smarty” whilst being angry.

“I have read of its wickedness…”

 

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The Young Men’s Advice League sounds exciting.

And they’re not sexist: there’s one for the women, too!

But here’s where the Girl’s character really shines through:

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Hehe.

Next a Husband and a Wife enter. They are looking for The Safe Road.

And of course they strive to protect the Youth and Girl from the horrors of the Forbidden Trail.

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Great, The Girl has a savior complex. She’s exchanged her love of forbidden adventure to a love of socially acceptable daring-do.

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Yes, I know this page comes earlier, but the Husband and Wife are just annoying here as anywhere.

“I wasn’t married…” Excuses, excuses.

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Commadnly. Bristling. Indignantly.

The play gets a serious case of the weirds and it simply ends with everyone slowly being sucked into the Forbidden Trail by a laughing devil. The Girl is the last to submit:

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I want to thank The Book Garden for actually having a copy of this.

About the other plays in the anthology, we’ll cover them fairly soon.

About Ms. Thurston, she seems to have been a college student a bit later in life. And she married a rich dude.

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And for permission back then, we learn Ms. Thurston’s address:

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She lived in the Avenues, which is still very upper-middle class artsy in Salt Lake City.

Thanks to the magic that is Google maps…

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It’s a very shy house, built in 1901.

Here’s a newer video trailer for The Exchange:

 

I haven’t been able to find her other plays. However, I did find a spring “pageant” of hers which I will put here in its entirety.

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Here is a poem she published in 1921:

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For more playwrights, click here.

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For more about Althea Thurston, here is The Exchange in its entirety.

Here is that reading in Lahore.

A production from 1950.

The premiere of The Exchange in 1919.