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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Pulitzer Prize Plays as Historical Measurement

I recently joined the board of Winthrop Arts, Inc. As you may know, Winthrop is an award-winning mixed-use community in Riverview. Once a dairy farm, it now is a walkable small town, featuring homes, offices, restaurants, shopping, and even medical services in the area south of Brandon that is bounded by Providence and Bloomingdale. Owners Kay and John Sullivan have an uncommon commitment to the community and especially to the arts, and from the beginning, they have employed a full-time artist, Gulf War veteran Bryant Martinez. The Winthrop Arts Fest will have its tenth anniversary next March, and for several years now, the Arts Factory has offered opportunity to kids.

Daughter Sarah Sullivan works at the White House, while daughter Katharine Sullivan-Dawes lives in New York City and has a degree in theater production. Our new e-world, though, makes it possible for Katharine to be, as she jokingly says, “director in charge of everything” at Winthrop Arts, Inc. So I had her theater background in mind when I proposed at our inaugural meeting that we begin thinking about performance art, as well as the visual art that Bryant has created to make Winthrop distinctive.

And I also like to assign myself reading lists that make sense in exploring a topic. When I realized that the first Pulitzer Prize in drama was awarded in 1918, I began reading the plays for the first decade. It was amazing how relevant some still are, and I’d like to tell you about them.

* * *

Why Marry? is the title of the 1918 winner. It’s by Jesse Lynch Williams, and “Jesse” denotes a man – but an astonishingly feminist man. The plot revolves around a character named John, who, as the playwright describes him, “owns the house and almost everyone in it.” John has two sisters, Jean and Helen, who are a great contrast to each other. Coquettish Jean is entirely cooperative with her brother’s plan to marry her off to Rex, “who has not been brought up to be anything but rich.” Helen, on the other hand, wants to be a scientist -- and because she isn’t allowed to work as one, volunteers with Dr. Ernest. They fall in love and when Ernest wins a fellowship in Europe, Helen is faced with a dilemma. Her brother won’t allow her to wed a man without substantial money, and the question of Why Marry is hotly debated.

They didn’t give a prize in 1919 – I don’t know why – but the 1920 one was the first of several for Eugene O’Neill. I liked his writing very much when I was young, but now it seems a bit faux – in the same way that the era’s Ernest Hemingway appears to me now. Both men create female characters who often are wooden; they revolve around the actions of men, with no independent reasons for what they do. Beyond the Horizon features such a woman, Ruth. She is slated to marry Andy, and both sets of parents, who live on adjoining farms, strongly approve of the sturdy young man. Andy’s brother Robert is a contrast: somewhat sickly, he has no interest in farming but cares about reading and exploring the wider world. He is planning to go “beyond the horizon” with an uncle who is a sea captain. Just hours before he is to depart for Asia, Ruth tells Robert that she loves him, not Andy, and the brothers switch roles. As you might expect, the consequences are disastrous for everyone.

The third Pulitzer Prize in drama, in 1921, was the first to go to a woman. I was aware of Wisconsin’s Zona Gale because of her activism in the movement for women’s right to vote, but never had read her prize-winning play, Miss Lulu Bett. It’s another case of women’s traditional economic dependence on men, as thirty-something Lulu is treated as a servant in the household of her married sister. She eventually elopes with her brother-in-law’s brother – who turns out to be a bigamist. Things ensue, and the play has a semi-happy yet ambiguous end. Again, it is ideal for generating discussion on marriage and family.

Eugene O’Neill was back again in 1922. He must have bought a lot of drinks for the drama critics, as this play featured another woman who makes no sense. Anna Christie lost her mother when she was young, and her sailor father sent her to live on a farm in the Midwest – something that in fact routinely happened back then. She ended up a prostitute, but does not reveal that to her father when they finally meet each other in New York City. He is a Swede, and when an Irishman falls for her, the play again revolves around men. The denouement is unrealistic, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

I liked Icebound much better, although I’d never heard of the playwright, Owen Davis. The entire drama takes place in a Maine parlor, with only the windows showing seasonal change. Three insufferable adult children (and one whining child) wait for their mother to die because they want her money. She leaves it to an outsider, and you can understand why.

* * *

I’m going to skip the 1924 winner for now and address it at the end. The 1925 prize was the first for a musical, They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard. It’s only available as a recording, and because I like to read in the quiet of the night, I didn’t bother. I also didn’t read Craig’s Wife (1926) by George Kelly, nor In Abraham’s Bosom (1927) by Paul Green. The USF library didn’t have them, and the price on Amazon was beyond my reach. Because of the wonders of the internet, though, I can tell you about them anyway.

Craig’s wife is a social climber who married for money and, in one twenty-four hour period, loses both family and servants when her longtime selfishness compels them to abandon her. Narrated by the housekeeper, the play enjoyed a long run on Broadway and then was adapted by Mary C. McCall, Jr. (note that usage!) for a 1936 movie. It was directed by Dorothy Arnzer and gave Rosalind Russell her first big chance. Turner Classic Movies still runs it.

Maybe I’ll try harder to obtain In Abraham’s Bosom. Although written by a white man in North Carolina, it was the first Pulitzer Prize winner to feature African-Americans. It’s set in the turpentine woods of eastern North Carolina in 1885. We had those in Florida, too, especially around Palatka near Jacksonville, and workers there were treated as slaves. The protagonist, a man named Abraham, tries to start a school, but is run out of town by whites and eventually resorts to murder. The one review I could find calls the play “a tragedy,” which sounds like an understatement. It should be revived.

Paul Green wrote other plays, but never won another Pulitzer. Instead, the awarders again dragged out Eugene O’Neill in 1928. This was for Strange Interlude, which is a very strange play. Reviewers called “experimental,” and it clearly was. I can’t envision how anyone could stage it, as it truly is a novel, not a play, taking place over several different time periods and scenes. Again, the protagonist is a difficult-to-understand woman and, briefly, her incomprehensible mother-in-law. Over many years, the main character manipulates three men who are simultaneously in love with her, although I can’t imagine why they would be. The fine-print script is 352-pages with nine (!) acts, and it’s a challenge to distinguish the characters’ thoughts from their dialog. I’ll bet other dramatists lurked around Broadway trying to catch O’Neill in an alley.

The 1929 winner was Street Scene by Elmer Rice. Do you remember the TV show “Laugh-In?” Remember the big cardboard house where comedians poked their heads from various windows? That’s how I envision Street Scene. Set in immigrant New York City, its big cast includes people with Yiddish, Irish, and Swedish accents. People converse on the street and shout from windows, but except for a woman in childbirth, nothing much happens until near the end, when there’s a surprising murder.

The topic of violence brings me back to the 1924 winner that I skipped earlier. It was the last play that I read, largely because I was turned off by the title: Hell-Bent for Heaven. The playwright is similarly alliterative: Hatcher Hughes. But it turned out to be the most radical of these avant garde plays from the Roaring Twenties. The setting was very traditional: a poor farmhouse in Appalachia. All of the characters were traditional, too, but yet I think the play may still be controversial with some of today’s fundamentalists. The protagonist is a religious zealot who thinks everyone in his mountain valley – except himself -- is a sinner condemned by God. Eventually he proves his point by dynamiting a dam with the intent of sending them to hell by drowning. He’s so like any number of men with guns that we have today, men so deluded by ideology and/or religiosity that they lose all sense of humanity.

I’m really glad that I read these plays. Despite being almost a century old, they still raise issues in need of attention. At the same time, they also provide an accurate historical measurement of how far we have come towards a better future. That’s especially true for the half of us who are women, as well as for men who wish to avoid the manipulation and dishonesty imposed by older standards.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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