Goldman and Middleton: Feminism and Modern Drama

goldman.jpgIn the spring of 1914, a few months before the beginning of what would be called the Great War, Emma Goldman set out on a national lecture tour, speaking to crowds on various “radical” topics, from birth control and unemployment to something that had come, in recent years, to occupy much of Goldman’s attention: the modern drama, which she believed would prove a compelling vehicle to bring radicalism to bourgeois audiences. As the tour kicked off, she published a small volume on The Significance of the Modern Drama, based on a stenographer’s notes on a six-week lecture series at the Berkeley Theater, near Times Square. “In countries where political oppression affects all classes,” she wrote in the volume’s foreword, “the best intellectual element have made common cause with the people, have become their teachers, comrades, and spokesmen.” In America, by contrast, the only ones who seemed to wind up in prison–or tarred and
feathered–for their politics were “the ‘common’ people.” Something was needed, then, “to arouse the intellectuals of this country, to make them realize their relation to the people, to the social unrest permeating the atmosphere.”

Goldman’s interest in modern drama was not new; as early as 1897 she had lectured on George Bernard Shaw to an audience of coal miners. In 1905 and 1906, a period when she had withdrawn from the public eye in the wake of a presidential assassination for which she was blamed by some, she had served, under the name “Miss Smith,” as a tour manager for a Russian-speaking Paul Orleneff theater troupe, with stops in Boston and Chicago. The group, which
included the future film star Alla Nazimova, is sometimes credited with introducing modern drama to American audiences; the group also staged a benefit
performance to help fund Goldman’s fledgling Mother Earth. As the Village personality Hippolyte Havel wrote in a 1910 biographical sketch of Goldman, working with the Orleneff troupe granted Goldman access to “various polite functions” among the “aristocratic ladies of Fifth Avenue,” who “had not the least inkling that the amiable manager who so entertainingly discussed philosophy, drama, and literature at their five o’clock teas, was the ‘notorious’ Emma Goldman.”

Though Goldman’s conceptions of what was vital about modern drama did not always square with the ideas of her Greenwich Village intellectual friends, many of whom were helping to usher in a political “little theater” movement at almost the same moment, the convergence of these theatrical obsessions was productive in its own time and can serve us–as I’ll argue at greater length in a chapter of the cultural history Cyrus and I are writing–as a particularly clear window onto the production of literary personality in the early twentieth-century city.

I thought about Goldman yesterday afternoon at the closing performance of the Metropolitan Playhouse‘s production of George Middleton’s Nowadays, written and published in 1914 but never staged because producers feared it would be insufficiently “commercial.” Goldman devoted The Social Significance of the Modern Drama primarily to major works by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov and others, but she also called for a new program in American dramatic arts: “My only regret,” she announced in the preface to her volume, “was that my own adopted land had to be left out [of the book]. I had tried diligently to find some American dramatist who could be placed alongside the great Europeans, but I could discover no one.” She did mention in passing as “commendable” works by American playwrights like Eugene Walter, Butler Davenport, and–yes, George Middleton–but her complaint was clear: an American “dramatic master … was not yet in sight.”

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I’m not sure if Goldman ever addressed Nowadays in her lectures on American drama; if she read it, though, I’m sure it must have worked for her. The play’s technical weaknesses correspond directly to the limitations Margaret Anderson identified in EG’s criticism: Goldman biographer Alice Wexler quotes Anderson on EG’s “intrusion of dogma and platitude into the discussion, the wearying insistence upon ‘the moral’ of each play, the uncritical acquiescence in the veracity of each dramatic picture of life.” Certainly Middleton’s previously-unstaged play suffers from similar problems. The story of a mid-Western family torn apart (but ultimately reunited and strengthened) by a fiery young daughter’s desire to leave home and make it as an artist in New York, Nowadays plays to exactly the kinds of bourgeois-radical concern Goldman hoped to play in her effort to recruit middle- and upper-class intellectuals to the causes of anarchism and feminism. (One wonders if Middleton realized that the newspaper story he uses to open the play–”Eight Million Women Support Themselves by Working”–probably didn’t refer to middle-class women who struck out on their own to be modern artists. Goldman certainly would have known it.)

The play’s most unique plot twist–the mid-Western mother’s decision, two-thirds of the way through the play, to follow her daughter to the city, where she’ll pick up her own youthful enthusiasm for
painting–seems simultaneously far-fetched and, at the same time, extraordinarily heartfelt. It makes plain that Middleton’s target audience was not a generation of bohemian intellectuals in the Village but their parents. The play’s most riveting moment comes at the end of the second half, when the Victorian wife confronts her patronizing husband and tells him she’s going to the city to join her daughter, with or without him. The real force of the drama, then, isn’t the satirical social comedy that opens and closes the play but the tragedy of a woman whose life as a good wife and mother has forced her to sacrifice her own development as a human being. (Unlike her daughter, she doesn’t quite make it as an artist once she’s struck out on her own.)

Middleton, who participated in early public discussions of feminism in the Village, lived until 1967. He published an autobiography in the mid 1940s. Even though he remained somewhat well-known in the theater world during the first half of the twentieth century and had his works censored by church and state for advocating liberal divorce laws, Middleton remains virtually unknown today, a mere Wikipedia stub, perhaps because his cultural politics trumped artistic subtlety. (It’s no mistake that Goldman’s known for her politics rather than her role in American dramatic history.) Perhaps more productions like the Metropolitan’s Nowadays will return some attention–at least from cultural historians of feminism and the American stage–to someone Goldman once thought might develop into a great American playwright.

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