Introduction Progressive Era Women Dramatists

  • Sherry D. Engle


With the beginning of the Progressive Era, 1890 to 1920—a time of reform and change “in all policies at all levels of society, economy and government”—American women began to advance in almost all careers.3 Thus, it naturally followed that this period would foster the rise of America’s professional woman dramatist. Entering a field that was and always has been “a man’s job,” the women dramatists in this study serve as pioneers in American theatre. Learning about them, their work, and their experience gives insight into the process of Progressive Era theatre, as it also affirms that succeeding as a professional playwright inevitably involves hard work, know-how, buckets of determination, and more than a little luck.


American Theatre Club Meeting Successful Play Century Theatre Club Dramatic Work 
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  1. 4.
    Rachel Crothers (1878–1958), considered America’s first modern feminist playwright for her social comedies and woman-centered themes, is the only woman usually included within the “canon” of playwrights during the Progressive Era. Her production in 1906 of The Three of Us marked the beginning of a thirty-year career as a professional playwright and director in American theater. Her plays were well-constructed and dealt with pertinent issues of the time, such as the unfairness of the double standard and women’s conflicts between career and motherhood; her plays are still revived today. Unlike the other women in this study who are essentially “unknown,” Crothers has been extensively written about in dissertations and journals and, therefore, is not included in this study. For a recent article on Crothers, see Brenda Murphy, “Feminism and the Marketplace: The Career of Rachel Crothers,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, ed. Brenda Murphy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 82–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 5.
    About fifty-one women dramatists achieved two or more productions in New York between 1890 and 1920. Portions of this chapter are from Sherry Engle, “An ‘Irruption of Women Dramatists’: The Rise of America’s Woman Playwright, 1890–1920,” New England Theatre Journal 12 (2001): 27–50.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Rosemary Gipson, “Martha Morton: America’s First Professional Woman Playwright,” Theatre Survey 23 (November 1982): 213–22, is the only indepth article on Morton to appear since Morton’s death in 1925. See also Sherry Engle, “New Women Dramatists in America, 1890–1920: Martha Morton and Madeleine Lucette Ryley” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 1996), chapter 4. Louisa Medina (1813–38) is often cited as America’s first professional woman playwright. As house playwright for the Bowery Theatre, she wrote several popular melodramas but did not live long enough to establish a lengthy career.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 12.
    Gerald Bordman, American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1869–1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 601.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Of the five dramatists in this study, Young was produced most by the Shuberts, in part because of their preference for musicals. See Gerald Bordman, Oxford Companion to American Theatre, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 623.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    In recent years in feminist literary history, two generations of the “New Woman” have been delineated: The first living and writing in the 1880s and 1890s, the second in the 1920s and 1930s. See Sally Ledger, The New Woman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 1–2. The term is applied to the five subjects in this book because they entered a “male profession” and gained financial independence.Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    Karen J. Blair, The Torchbearers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 31.Google Scholar
  8. 21.
    Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider, American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 49.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    Lower salaries offered to women teachers were justified by three assumptions: “women, unlike men, did not have to support a family; women were only working temporarily until they married; and the free workings of the economic marketplace determined cheaper salaries for women.” Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Catharine Beecher: Transforming the Teaching Profession,” in Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, ed. Linda K. Kerber and Jane DeHart-Mathews, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 164–65.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    Frances Elizabeth Willard, Occupations for Women: A Book of Practical Suggestions for the Material Advancement, the Mental and Physical Development, and the Moral and Spiritual Uplift of Women (Cooper Union, NY: Success Company, 1897), 305–9; University of Wisconsin History Collection, Scholar
  11. 24.
    David Belasco, “The Great Opportunity of the Woman Dramatist,” Good Housekeeping 53 (1911): 632.Google Scholar
  12. 31.
    Garff B. Wilson, Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), 182.Google Scholar
  13. 36.
    Burns Mantle and Garrison P. Sherwood, eds., The Best Plays of 1899–1909 (New York: Dodd, 1947), 346–67Google Scholar
  14. Burns Mantle, ed., The Best Plays of 1919–1920 (Boston: Small, 1920), 335–37.Google Scholar
  15. 37.
    Arthur Hobson Quinn, A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present Day (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1936), 50.Google Scholar
  16. 38.
    Oscar G. Brockett, History of the Theatre, 6th ed. (Boston: Allyn, 1991), 425.Google Scholar
  17. 40.
    Virginia Frame, “Women Who Have Written Successful Plays,” Theatre 6, no. 68 (1906): 265.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Sherry D. Engle 2007

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  • Sherry D. Engle

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