The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
(212) 995 8410
"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage
A Satire in One-Act
Mr. Sud: Well, what is your cue?"Chicago's No. 1 Playwright": Alice Gerstenberg (1885 - 1972)
Mr. Ruler: "What is it?"
Mr. Sud: I asked you what your cue was?
Mr. Ruler: "What is it?"
Mr. Sud: Is your hearing perfectly clear?
Mr. Ruler: Perfectly.
Mr. Sud: Then will you kindly tell me what your cue is?
Mr. Ruler: "What is it."
Mr. Sud: I shall go mad!
Alice Erya Gerstenberg was born in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of Julia and Erich Gerstenberg. Gerstenberg’s grandfather was a founder and member of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1848, a position Gerstenberg’s father inherited later on, which meant that the Gerstenbergs enjoyed a higher standard of living than most middle-class families in Chicago at the time. Growing up, Gerstenberg had ample travel experiences and social indulgences including commercial theater. From her father she inherited endurance, and from her mother a love of theater. She was the valedictorian at the exclusive Kirkland School in Chicago and attended all-women's Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania (1907).
After living in New York for a brief period, meeting with leading figures in New York theatre circles, including David Belasco and with an early avant-garde theatre group, the Washington Square Players, Gerstenberg returned to Chicago, where she continued to write plays; became involved with the Little Theatre movement to forward her work; cared for her parents; and exercised a strong feminist dedication to bringing non-commercial theater to new playwrights, children, and Chicagoans.
Her previous involvement with the theater during her childhood, the plays she wrote at college, as well as the time spent in New York led her to continue writing plays for the rest of her life, working occasionally as an actress, and maintaining an activist role in the theater. Although the majority of her plays have largely been forgotten, her central work Overtones has continued to be produced since its publication in 1913. It was first produced in November 1915 by the Washington Square Players at the Bandbox Theater in New York. The play crystallizes her use of experimental form with a familiar dramatic conflict. The play enjoyed many productions due to its innovative use of the split subject, a technique Eugene O'Neill would later use in his play Strange Interlude.
Overtones was presented recently by Metropolitan Playhouse as part of its virtual playhouse series as was Gerstenberg's Fourteen, a light satire on the pettiness of high society dinner parties. The Pot-Boiler, a comedy about the pretensions of conventional theater along with Fourteen and Overtones appeared in Gerstenberg's second collection, Ten One-Act Plays (1921). They have appeared in numerous anthologies of one-act plays and have been produced by little theaters all over the U.S., England, and Australia.
Gerstenberg continued to write many one-act plays early on in her career, many of which were performed by regional or little theaters in and around Chicago. Her best received full-length was an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland published in 1915, which met with great success, and remained the standard until the renowned Eva Le Gallienne wrote her version in 1932. The majority of these plays demonstrate her feminist tendencies – critiquing the social roles and decision which constrained women of the time. Gerstenberg continued to write plays throughout her life, later on publishing several radio plays as well as several commissioned dramatizations of children’s stories.
Gerstenberg’s influence on the theater is not limited to her early experimental playwrighting forms: she played a crucial role in the foundation and success of several theater companies as well as the Little Theater Movement in Chicago. In 1921, she founded the Junior League Children’s Theater in Chicago; in 1922 she founded the Playwrights Theater; and finally she supported an amateur theater company that was eventually named for her at its foundation in 1955.
Her work with these theater companies demonstrates her commitment to making non-commercialized theater available to new playwrights, giving them the opportunity to see their plays produced; regional playwrights, demonstrating an appreciation for Chicago and the Midwest; and finally to children, giving them an early experience with the theater, the opportunities to act, write, and become involved. Furthermore, she hoped that her work would bring Chicagoans to support non-commercial theater.
Gerstenberg remained involved in the theater throughout her life, whether as a writer, actor, or activist. She had many opportunities to move to New York, but instead chose to remain in Chicago. Many of her female Midwestern colleagues, such as Zoe Akins and Susan Glaspell, began writing in the Midwest but moved to New York where their work was frequently produced, giving them a firmer canonical standing. Many criticize Gerstenberg for not moving to New York when she had the opportunity, believing that she is a playwright who had a great start in Chicago but failed to develop her style. Others cite that Gerstenberg’s decision to remain in Chicago demonstrates her commitment to the Little Theater movement, women’s issues in the Midwest and a developed sense for the regional community that she wrote for and about.
In 1938 Gerstenberg won the Chicago Foundation of Literature Award for her work in American drama. She died of cancer in Chicago.
("Scene from "The Dress Rehearsal" featuring (sic) Alice Gerstenberg, one of the headliners on the OrpheumThe Pot-Boiler
program beginning tomorrow afternoon." The Sacramento Bee, March 4, 1922)
A potboiler or pot-boiler is a novel, play, opera, film, or other creative work of dubious literary or artistic merit, whose main purpose was to pay for the creator's daily expenses—thus the imagery of "boil the pot", which means "to provide one's livelihood". Authors who create potboiler novels or screenplays are sometimes called hack writers or hacks. Novels deemed to be potboilers may also be called pulp fiction, and potboiler films may be called "popcorn movies."
The Pot-Boiler, a satire which uses the technique of a play within a play, role reversals, and invitations to audience participation, is a very different type of play from Gerstenberg's most famous play, Overtones, though it is another inquiry into the constraints of convention, taken to farcical extremes.
Behind the clash of personalities among theatre artists in rehearsal, Gerstenberg has offered a direct hit on self-aggrandizing playwrights and the superficial tricks they are certain will create ridiculous crowd-stirring melodrama. As Mr. Sud piles cliché upon cliché and the melodramatic plot unfolds, it becomes obvious she is sending up the very theatre mindset she herself has rejected in favor of exploring the psychological complexities of human relationships using unconventional, experimental playwriting techniques.
One wonders if playwright Thomas Pinikles Sud was colored by her early observations in rehearsal of David Belasco, the actor/manager/playwright known for producing over-wrought spectacles. In her novel about an up-and-coming actress in New York, Unquenched Fire (1912), she paints, however, a far more flattering portrait of the formidable Mr. Belasco, calling him "John Gaston," than she does of Mr. Sud, though the manager is given to rage and artistic passion (Gerstenberg's Unquenched Fire):
"I could not hurt a fly, and yet I can do anything for results," Gaston had told her once, and for a long time Jane received the kind consideration offered to the fly. But as the rehearsals progressed and the company gradually began to " play up " in vigor and emotion, the time came for Gaston to seek results, and he was not satisfied with those that Jane offered him. There was a scene in the play where she had to make a passionate appeal to her lover not to desert her. Technically she played it well. Her voice rose and fell as Gaston had demanded, her gestures were not strained, there was vitality in the interpretation, and yet there was something lacking. " It doesn't get over," cried Gaston, raising his usually low-pitched voice, and coming down the aisle of the auditorium with unusual speed. He climbed the bridge with surprising alertness, and confronted Jane on the stage. " It doesn't get over, it's all in your mind, get it down down there." He pointed to her heart, took her by the arm and, holding her with a certain rough firmness, crossed the stage with her to the place where the scene began and made her go through it again. He kept her arm all the time, now relaxing his hold, now hurting her in a grip that tried to push her into the passion of the Fire Opal she was to portray."
The Pot Boiler, as she described it, "was first produced in 1916 at The Player's Workshop, in Chicago. Some time later the Theatre Workshop of New York ... gave it ... at colleges, and along the New England coast and it won friends everywhere. Without advertisement the news of it spread, demands coming from unexpected places. Finally, the United States Government asked to be allowed to publish it for use in the cantonments throughout the country, and a letter came out of a trench in France where it had been played."
And for one performance on Broadway.
Under Gerstenberg's supevision, The Pot Boiler gained prominence when it was entered in the 1923 Little Theater Tournament in New York. (See Thursday night left, Daily News, May 6, 1923). It did not win but it is part of Broadway history, as it was performed at the Nora Bayes Theatre on West 44th St. for the glory to the non-professional participants.
Described in the Brooklyn Eagle, April 29, 1923, "Despite proclamations that the Little Theater movement is dead it is proving itself very much alive. Twenty little theaters all from the Metropolitan District have joined force under the Drama League auspices for a competition of excellence. They will each do their best play before a board of five judges and three of the twenty will then join in a prize program."
Burns Mantle reported in the Detroit Free Press, May 20, 1923, that "All three prizes ... were awarded to the tragedies, proving either that the amateurs do their best work in the gloomy drama or that their judges took their jobs too seriously ... three groups received awards of $100 each and the best of three groups ... was presented a tall silver vase from David Belasco, which they will be called upon to defend next season. There was an added prize in the form of a contract for a Broadway appearance offered to the lady the judges picked as best actress of the tournament. Earl Carroll gave this and the award fell to Mrs. George G. Cochrane [the actress who played Mrs. Pencil in The Pot-Boiler] of the Clark Street Players of Brooklyn."
Mrs. Cochrane turned it down, not being interested in possibly only one appearance.
Gerstenberg Plays Vaudeville
Playwrights in the early years of the century could make reasonable ongoing income from adaptations of their plays for use as one-act sketches on vaudeville bills. For the vaudeville bills, the play was shortened to five plays; Sud assumed the part of Mr. Ivory himself and addressed his remarks to the audience instead of to Wouldby. In The Drama Magazine v13 1922-1923, "Vaudeville and the Playwright," Gerstenberg wrote at length of the trials of putting The Pot Boiler to such ends:
"When I had settled down comfortably, believing that The Pot-Boiler was a best seller in the universities and little theatres ... I had a letter from New York that an influential vaudeville producer was willing to produce The Pot Boiler if he could get the right at $10.00 a week to use the idea but to insert musical choruses and what not. ... I replied wearily, "Do anything; show me what version will go in vaudeville but inform me in advance when it plays Chicago that I may be able to recognize it."
But in my contract I was very wary indeed about reserving the rights of performance for the blessed amateurs who like the play as originally written. The title for vaudeville was changed. (To "The Dress Rehearsal.") It opened at the Palace on Broadway and at once captured bookings for both Keith and Orpheum circuits. The enterprising producer took advantage of the riot success and immediately rehearsed a number two company. For a year the number one company played on the Keith Circuit; and number two company played on the Orpheum Circuit; a number three company played it in England, and if the fates are kind one of them will will continue playing for some time to come. It is true that the vaudevillized version met the taste of the house mangers, that praise flutters in with extravagant remarks such as "funniest thing I've ever seen, a scream from beginning to end," but to me the version is the saddest play I have ever witnessed and for me there is not a laugh in it.
While this version goes on merrily though vaudeville houses, winning shrieks from the public, the original version continues to be played from coast to coast in all the university Engish departments and is a little theatre best seller - a best seller to the twenty per cent above; and its step-step sister to the twenty-five per cent below; a case probably without parallel. It is the amateurs who have sustained my faith."
Alice Gerstenberg supported a number of different theatre organizations dedicated to expanding the reach of American theatre - to new playwrights, to theatre education, childrens plays, to local artists and audiences - all this alongside her acting and her playwriting, and her novels and her extensive theatre journalism.
Eugene O'Neill said he was influenced by the psychological dimensions of Gerstenberg's characterization. The influence of psychoanlysis was clear. lt's apparent in Gerstenberg's Overtones (1913), Alice In Wonderland (1915), and her more experimental works The Buffer (1916) and Beyond (1917) and it was not until O'Neill's play Desire under the Elms (1923) that he explored the implications of psychoanalytical theory through drama. O'Neill's interest in parapsychology also emerged in Desire under the Elms, but again Gerstenberg was first to examine the sixth sense in such early one-act plays as Attuned (1918) and The Unseen (1918).
Gerstenberg's characters, mostly women, inhibited by out-worn institutions and by their own fears, make choices that lead to honest self-expression. While her characters are usually upper-middle-class women, they reflect their times in their desires for meaning and identity outside of marriage and motherhood without sacrificing romance. Often her endings are sentimental, but she poignantly examines the trauma associated with women's pressures to marry so that they can maintain social position, the economics of marriage and its effects on the entire family, and the terrible cost of forcing young women to choose.
Needing new dramatic forms to express the daring of her unconventional themes characters, Gerstenberg took the comic form and gave it not only a variety of structures but a modern psychological dimension as well. Gerstenberg's dramaturgy reflects her own vitality as a woman and as a playwright dedicated to a new theater which placed artistic integrity as its highest goal.
As for theatre development, Gerstenberg made her most significant contribution to America's little theater movement, which grew in her lifetime into a national community of amateur theatrework and into an established network of professional regional theatre companies. She cites her founding of the Playwright's Theatre of Chicago (1922-45) as her most important contribution to the movement, as it offered the midwestern playwrights (and audiences) an opportunity to see their local work produced. For her work as playwright and producer, Gerstenberg won the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award in 1938.
Other Works: A Little World (1908). Unquenched Fire (1912). The Conscience of Sarah Platt (1915). Four Plays for Four Women (1924). The Land of Don't Want To by L. Bell (dramatization by Gerstenberg, 1928). Water Babies by C. Kingsley (dramatization by Gerstenberg, 1930). Star Dust (1931). When Chicago Was Young (with H. Clark, 1932). Glee Plays the Game (1934). Within the Hour (1934). Find It (1937). London Town (dramatization by Gerstenberg, 1937). The Queen's Christmas (1939). Time for Romance (with M. Fealy, 1942). Victory Belles (with H. Adrian, 1943). The Hourglass (1955). Our Calla (1956). On the Beam (1957). The Magic of Living (1969).
The Last Word
In her Playbill Who's Who, for a war-time Broadway farce, Victory Belles (1943), Gerstenberg offered the highlights of her life in the theatre: