Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Performing the Woman Question: The Emergence of Anti-Suffrage Drama

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Performing the Woman Question: The Emergence of Anti-Suffrage Drama

Article excerpt

Anti-suffrage drama came into being in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to the increase of rights for women. As the burgeoning woman's suffrage movement gained strength, people opposed to its message of equality for women became concerned. Their reply was a commanding anti-suffrage movement that produced an outpouring of influential materials condemning women's proposed emancipation. The figure featured prominently in their articles and cartoons was the New Woman, modeled loosely on leaders of the woman's rights cause.

Not surprisingly, the anti-suffrage sentiment evident in the media was echoed by various playwrights of the period. Much has been written about new-woman characters in professionally produced late-nineteenth-century American plays; most studies commence in 1890 with the appearance of James A. Hearne's important play, Margaret Flemming. However, less work has been done to examine those dramas that dealt directly with the issue of woman's suffrage, in particular those written in opposition to woman's rights. (1)

Suffrage dramas were written in America between the middle of the nineteenth century and 1920, the year of women's nation-wide emancipation, at which point the need for suffrage drama naturally ceased to exist. These plays fall into the category of social dramas, which became a popular format for broadcasting a range of political opinions. Such dramas dealt with topical issues foremost in the minds of the populace, such as the abolitionist and temperance movements, as well as woman's suffrage. What distinguishes suffrage dramas from other plays dealing with woman's rights is the fact that the subject of woman's suffrage was the drama's absolute focus. Suffrage plays depicted suffragist new-woman characters discussing their cause at length, a cause that operated as the plays' driving action.

The majority of suffrage dramas written during the nineteenth century were anti-suffrage comedies, satirizing the New Woman and her plight for equality. Soon after mid-century, playwrights composed their dramas, pausing during the Civil War years and picking up again in 1868, dramatically increasing their output during the final decade of the century as the woman's rights debate intensified. Authored both by men and women, these plays were most often brief, one-scene sketches, although some did amount to several acts. Such dramas were regularly brutal in their sexist depictions, as well as classist and racist, in many cases. The bulk of anti-suffrage dramas were furthermore intended for amateur performance, penned as an outgrowth of the parlor theatrical craze gripping many middle- and upper-class American households.

Perhaps the earliest playwright to tackle the issues of the woman's suffrage movement was William Bentley Fowle in his one-act play Woman's Rights, included in his 1856 collection, Parlor Dramas; or, Dramatic Scenes, for Home Amusement. As the title to Fowle's collection suggests, his anti-suffrage play and many others like it did not exist in the public forum of professional theatre establishments. Although some of these dramas made it to the professional stage, such as The Spirit of Seventy-Six, this was unusual, and was often not what the authors had intended. The prefatory note to The Spirit of Seventy-Six plainly stated that the "play was not written for the stage, nor with any view to publication, but simply for amateur performance; and therefore all scenery, stage-properties, etc., were purposely dispensed with, and the action limited by the resources of the drawing-room" (Curtis 7). However, the three-act melodrama was so successful that in 1868 it had a professional nineteen-day run at Selwyn's Theatre in Boston, featuring the well-known actress Mrs. Frank Chanfrau. Promoters of the play's professional run advertised its initial amateur status. The press announcement in the Boston Evening Transcript for the first performance read, "At Selwyn's tonight the entertainment will have peculiar local attractions. …

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