Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Sophie Treadwell and the Frontier Myth:
Western Motifs in Machinal and Hope for a Harvest

Richard Wattenberg

Since 1980 a number of women playwrights have written plays dealing with what had previously been viewed as an almost exclusively male domain: the American frontier West. Plays like Marsha Norman The Holdup ( 1983), Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek Quilters ( 1984), Beth Henley Abundance ( 1989), and Darrah Cloud's adaptation of Willa Cather O Pioneer! ( 1989), have all challenged the traditional frontier Western myth by offering fresh views of the pioneer woman.1 To a certain extent, this kind of reinterpretation was prompted by women historians like Julie Roy Jeffrey, Sandra Myres, and Glenda Riley,2 who--since the late 1970s--have presented a great deal of historical data to refute overly simplified frontier woman stereotypes such as "the gentle tamer," "the sturdy help-mate," and the "Calamity Jane figure" ( Myres1-4); however, the concerns of contemporary playwrights are not without precedents in the American theater. In fact, Sophie Treadwell, a native Westerner whose plays appeared occasionally in New York during the period 1920-1941, introduced themes that are similar to those developed in recent women's plays dealing with the Western experience. Strictly speaking, she never wrote a frontier drama, but her sense of the West, both past and present, molded her plays, and, consequently, she may be seen as a significant forerunner to contemporary playwrights dealing with the American frontier West.

Sophie Treadwell was born in Stockton, California, in 1882, but her family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when she was a small child, and it was there that she received most of her formal education which was concluded with a Bachelor of Letters degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1906. Although she spent the majority of her formative years in the San Francisco area, she occasionally journeyed to less urban Western environs. As a youth and then later as an adult, she made extended return visits to a family ranch in Stockton--a ranch which she kept until 1954. On graduating from Berkeley, she spent a winter working as a "schoolmarm" in an old mining camp town in Placer County ( Wynn16-17) and then became a governess on a cattle ranch in Modoc County, where she is reported to have even tried bronco riding ( Wynn22). Moreover, while working as a journalist during the early decades of the twentieth century, Treadwell's Western exploits extended into the Southwest and across the border into Mexico, where among

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