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One of the most successful American playwrights of the early 20th century was an unassuming woman named Rachel Crothers. Though not often revived now, the Broadway stage saw over 30 productions of Crothers’s works between 1906 and 1943. She often directed her own work, and many of her plays went on to successfully tour the country. Though she never married or had children, Crothers wrote primarily about marriage and family – specifically about the double standard set for women attempting to balance career and home life.
Born in Bloomington, Illinois in 1878, to Dr. Eli Kirk Crothers and Dr. Mary Louise de Pew Crothers (her mother was Bloomington’s first female physician), young Rachel enjoyed directing her paper dolls and wrote her first five-act play at the age of 12. Crothers moved to New York at 19 to pursue an acting career, but found she couldn’t stop writing plays. One-act showcases led to her first full-length Broadway production in 1906. The Three of Us enjoyed a successful run at Madison Square Garden Theatre and two years later made its London debut.
Crothers’s early plays were lighthearted though serious in tone, but she shifted her style to barefaced comedy in Young Wisdom. First produced in 1914, the play starred the real-life sisters of Mabel and Edith Taliaferro as fictional sisters Victoria and Gail. The show parodied feminist movements as the young sisters inadvertently mangled modern ideals into excuses for selfish indulgence.
Crothers made her directorial debut on Broadway with the 1921 Nice People. The play follows Theodora “Teddy” Gloucester, a young flapper who willingly trades in the extravagances she knows for a quiet life in the country.
Nice People also starred Tallulah Bankhead, and marked the Broadway debut of a young Katharine Cornell who would go on to become one of America’s great stage actresses as well as a theater manager and producer.
Crothers’s most successful play was her last work on Broadway, Susan and God. First performed in 1937, the play won the Theatre Club’s gold medal for the year (this was before the Tony Awards existed), and follows the title character after she returns from Europe full of new religious fervor. Gertrude Lawrence played Susan whose ludicrous attempts to transition from society woman to evangelist blind her to the disintegration of her own family. The play ends with Susan realizing her true calling is creating a stable home for her daughter.
Crothers was well admired in her time, and her fan mail includes letters from major performers as well as prominent figures like Judge Florence E. Allen, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and United States General of the Armies John J. Pershing. Below is a note from fellow playwright Mercedes de Acosta after Crothers performed in He and She.
Letter from Mercedes de Acosta, ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 70.6.125.
My dear Miss Crothers:
I should like to tell you how much I enjoyed your play – not only the play itself which I thought was delightful, but your acting in it was so sincere and had such a genuine note of realness in it. I feel very much indebted to you for a very wonderful evening and wish I should have had more chance to tell you so outside when I saw you. I felt so dreadfully not to have been able to have taken you home. Many thanks for your play.
Sincerely, Mercedes de Acosta.
(For more on the fascinating Mercedes de Acosta, check out the Museum’s current exhibition, Gay Gotham.)
Though so much of Crothers’s work concerns marriage, the playwright never married. Instead, she lived with a companion, Eula Steeley Garrison, who according to Crothers, kept the house allowing her the freedom to work. While the exact nature of her relationship with Garrison may never be known, evidence of Crothers’s involvement in a heterosexual romance has yet to be discovered.
In addition to being a playwright, Crothers was very active in charity relief work. She founded the Stage Woman’s War Relief fund during World War I and revived the organization at the outbreak of World War II. During the 1930s, she co-founded the Stage Relief Fund to assist out-of-work theatrical artists, and she was part of the group that founded the American Theatre Wing.
As a playwright, Crothers has sometimes had an uneasy relationship with feminist critics, because the tendency of her protagonists is to choose care of the home over pursuit of career. Yet, her work consistently points out the hypocrisies and double standards society imposes on both men and women. Perhaps the key to Crothers’s feminism lays in her oft quoted statement from 1912, “If you want to see a sign of the times, watch women. Their evolution is the most important thing in modern life.”
Crothers wrote her last play, We Happy Few, in 1954. It was never produced on Broadway, but the manuscript can be found in the Rachel Crothers papers here at the Museum.