Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America

Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America

Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America

Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America

Synopsis

Examines a decade when experimentation and incubation for American playwrights coexisted with a flourishing commercial theatre.

Excerpt

Arthur Gewirtz and James J. Kolb

The twenties was an extraordinary time in the American theatre. After some two decades of ferment from native and foreign influences and the intensely transforming experience of World War I, the theatre burst forth into something new and exciting. The sense of change did not come immediately but quickly enough. On 16 December 1924 the playwright Sidney Howard wrote to his friend the critic Barrett H. Clark: “There's rather a showing, these days, for American plays, isn't there? There may not be any great ones—though Stallings and Anderson are pretty near—but there are four of them, doing big business and earning at least serious respect, and that's not bad.”

Interesting here is not only the awareness of a new artistic era but also that art could make money. Art theatres, that is, institutions dedicated to the production of dramas that were nothing but beautiful and true, hardly ever showed a profit and broke even only with the help of private donors. But in fact the Theatre Guild, an art theatre transmuted more or less from the prewar Washington Square Players, generally flourished on Broadway (although it sometimes approached the line of extinction), battling away with the money-loving producers. And increasingly the latter stopped their mere commercialism. They, perhaps following the lead of the Theatre Guild or perhaps sensing a fresh spirit, also climbed aboard the new gravy train—albeit sometimes a bit cautiously. John D. Williams presented Eugene O'Neill's first full-length Broadway play, Beyond the Horizon, early in 1920 for a series of special matinees. But no such Amorousness prevented George C. Tyler from producing in 1921 and 1922 the first plays of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, who though more attuned to the popular ear than, say, Eugene O'Neill, still showed a merry satiric spirit that might have frightened away both producers and widespread audiences just a short time before. Nor were Brock Pemberton, the much maligned William Brady, a firm called Stewart and French, the quintessentially commercial Shubert Brothers, and Arthur Hopkins (who showed the courage of his high principles even before the 1920s) afraid to produce the serious endeavors of Zona Gale, Sidney Howard, Elmer Rice, Rachel Crothers, Philip Barry, and Maxwell Anderson.

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