As actress, "script doctor," playwright, and, later, screenwriter, Zelda [Paldi] Sears ( 1873- 1935) became one of the most successful professional women of the Progressive Era. Eschewing aspirations to "great artistry," she described herself as a "creature of the commercial theatre," a savvy businesswoman who knew how to develop and market a popular product. In scripts she doctored for leading male playwrights, most notably for Clyde Fitch ( 1865- 1909), and in her own works, like Lady Billy ( 1920), Cornered ( 1920), and The Clinging Vine ( 1922), she offered mainstream, politically conservative visions of ideal femininity for mass consumption. Ironically, however, Sears' personal experience as an olive-complexioned, full-figured, forthrightly intelligent, and independent daughter of an Italian immigrant family placed her at the margins of the very culture whose bourgeois-WASP-domestic-goddess-ideal her theater propagated.
The project of this essay is to explore the dialectical relationship between Sears' marginal personal experience and the mainstream venue and representational lexicon in which she worked amid historical change. My research indicates that Sears' artistic motives included but also surpassed financial exigency and commercial expediency. Combining the perspectives of women's history and feminist theory with theater history, I will argue that in conjunction with prevailing socio-economic forces, Sears' personal marginalization compelled her compensatorily to fetishize the dominant gender ideal through theatrical representation. Analysis of the dialectic may illuminate the nature of this influential female playwright's complicity in the production of discriminatory race, class, and gender ideology which limited the social consequences of women's landmark political gains during this period.
To assess the role of Sears' marginal experience/mainstream vision in historical change, I will begin by situating her career amid several interconnected developments which affected women's status in the United States from 1880 to 1920: the emergence of a visually codified national feminine ideal; the burgeoning number of white, middle-class women writing successful plays for the commercial theater, and the final decades of the woman suffrage campaign. The analysis then turns to her early acting experience and tutelage under her mentor, Clyde Fitch. As playwright and