Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
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Introduction to the Exhibit
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A Voice of Their Own
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Regional Theatre in Virginia

A Voice of Their Own

Women Playwrights

Susanna Haswell Rowson

Susanna Rowson is probably best known in American literature as the author of the novel Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, considered to be America’s first bestseller. However, she was an early American playwright as well. Born in England in 1762, the daughter of a British naval officer, Susanna Haswell came to the American colonies when she was five, following her father’s commission to serve the Crown in Massachusetts. During the American Revolution, the Tories imprisoned her and her family until 1778 when they were freed in a prisoner exchange and forced to return to England.


As a young refugee in London, Susanna gravitated to the theatre, attempting to earn a living by writing songs for the stage. Though not formally educated, she had read extensively and by 1786 began pursuing a writing career as a novelist. In that same year, she married William Rowson, an actor, necessitating that she travel with a troupe of actors and become an actress herself. However, she continued to write novels to supplement the meager income earned from the theatre. In 1793, Thomas Wignell recruited the Rowsons to travel to Philadelphia as actors for his new theatre company. On this stage, Susanna Rowson became quite an accomplished actress, performing thirty-five different roles in her first season.


With her flair for both writing and drama, Susanna naturally turned to playwriting. The strong feminist leanings in her first and only surviving play, Slaves in Algiers (1794), caused controversy when produced in Philadlephia. The Rowsons eventually moved on to Boston, and when her theatrical career began to subside, Susanna Rowson turned to educating young women by opening her Young Ladies’ Academy, the first such school in Boston. Susanna Rowson continued writing until her death in 1824.

 

Rowson, Susanna. Slaves in Algiers; or, A struggle for Freedom. Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, by Wrigley and Berriman, 1794.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Autograph manuscript, signed, of “A Dialogue Spoken by Three Little Misses,” by Mrs. [Susanna] Rowson. No date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Watercolor miniature portrait of Susanna Rowson. No date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie

Born in 1819, Anna Cora Ogden wrote, staged, and acted in family theatrical productions from an early age, fostering her lifelong love of the theatre. With her marriage at the age of fifteen to James Mowatt, writing became a leisurely pursuit until financial disaster and her husband’s illness forced the young woman to use her creative talents to supplement the family’s income. The resulting comedy of manners Fashion; or, Life in New York met with immediate popularity when it opened at the Park Theatre in New York in 1845.


That same year, Anna Mowatt made her professional acting debut as Pauline in The Lady of Lyons, embarking on a financially rewarding and successful career. She started touring with her own acting company in both America and England, and in 1847, Anna wrote another play, Armand: The Child of the People, including it in her company’s repertoire. Following the death of James Mowatt in 1851, her retirement from the theatre, and an unhappy marriage and separation from William Foushee Ritchie, Anna eventually settled in England in 1865, remaining there until her death in 1870.

 

[Ritchie], Anna Cora [Ogden] Mowatt. Fashion; or, Life in New York. New York: Samuel French, 1849.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

[Ritchie], Anna Cora [Ogden] Mowatt. Autobiography of an Actress; or, Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1854.
 

 

Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy

The playwright and novelist Amélie Louise Rives spent most of her life at her family’s estate, “Castle Hill,” in Albemarle County, just east of Charlottesville. Born in 1863, Amélie began writing stories and plays at an early age. When she was twenty-three years old, her first story appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Two years later, in 1888, her first novel, The Quick or the Dead?, caused a sensation when accusations of immorality attached to the plot in which a young widow ponders whether or not to remarry shortly after the death of her husband. Amélie Rives became a celebrity of sorts with the appearance of this “scandalous” novel, which she later dramatized. That same year also saw the publication of her first play, the Romantic drama Herod and Marianne, written in blank-verse.


Following her marriage and divorce from John Armstrong Chanler, Amélie Rives married portrait-painter Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy. The couple divided their time between Virginia and New York, and it was during this period that Amélie became increasingly drawn to the theatre, writing a series of plays that were staged on Broadway. For example, “The Fear Market,” an unpublished play, successfully ran for 118 performances at the Booth Theatre in 1916. The 1920s saw the production of more plays, while the playwright began a nearly twenty-year project to dramatize the story of England’s Queen Elizabeth I. At various times entitled “The Crown of Flame” and “Bel Phoebe,” The Young Elizabeth proved Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy’s last major work before her death in 1945.

 

Author’s typed copy, with autograph notations, of “The Young Elizabeth” [“The Crown of Flame”], by Amélie Rives. 1920.
From the Papers of Amélie Rives.

 

Production photograph of The Young Elizabeth. [St. Louis Little Theatre], no date.
From the Papers of Amélie Rives.

 

Engraving of Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy by Wellington. Ca. 1888.

From The Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature

 

Zona Gale

Although Zona Gale is known primarily for her novels and short stories, she also wrote seven plays, three of which were produced professionally. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Gale incorporated Midwestern values and small-town settings into her novels and plays. The early twentieth-century feminist movement also influenced her writng, as seen in the title character in her short story and later play Miss Lulu Bett. Chronicling the transformation of a meek, servile young woman into an individual of strength and determination, the play earned Gale a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921. The first woman to receive this honor, Gale dazzled the American theatre scene of the 1920s; critics compared her plays to those of Eugene O’Neill in their realism and treatment of dialogue and character.

 

Autograph fragment, of “Miss Lulu Bett,” by Zona Gale. No date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Photograph of Zona Gale. No date.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Florence Hellman was a product of both the American North and South. Born in New Orleans in 1905, she spent large portions of her childhood there with her paternal relatives after her parents moved to New York City when she was five years old. The playwright felt that this dual, and often contradictory, living arrangement influenced the development of her character and temperament, translating into her work.

Hellman’s career took off with her move to Hollywood. Following her husband, Arthur Kobler, who had been hired as a screenwriter, she met and became romantically involved with detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett, a relationship that lasted until his death in 1961. Hammett encouraged Hellman to turn from fiction writing to playwriting, and the result was her first and immediately successful play, The Children’s Hour (1934). Two years later, her Days to Come proved a failure, but Hellman rebounded with The Little Foxes in 1939. Set in the South at the turn of the twentieth century, this familial drama of power and greed won the acclaim of audiences and critics alike, establishing Hellman as a significant American playwright. The success continued. In 1941, Hellman’s anti-fascist views created Watch on the Rhine, her play about the evils of Nazism. That year, the play received the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Over the next twenty years, Hellman produced a large number of original and prize-winning dramas and adapted many authors’ prose works. She also collaborated with Leonard Bernstein in 1956, writing the book for the comic opera Candide. By the time of her death in 1984, Lillian Hellman had contributed five long-running plays to Broadway, more than any of her male contemporaries.

 

Hellman, Lillian. Watch on the Rhine. New York: Privately published, 1942.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Herman Shumlin Presents Tallulah Bankhead in “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman. Playbill for the National Theatre. [New York]: New York Theatre Program, [1939].
Gift of Doris Farr.

 

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