Written by 8:16 pm Ebook, Feature, Theater

An Open House

America’s pioneer political drama saw the nation falling short of its ideals. Almost one hundred years later, the play is more relevant than ever.

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Radical Hospitality

On the evening of Monday, March 21, 1921, a large audience crowded together on the un-cushioned wooden benches of the Provincetown Playhouse for the premier of Inheritors, a new three-act play by Susan Glaspell. Glaspell was a co-founder of the Provincetown Players, and her 1916 one act, Trifles, had been one of the Provincetown Players’ early successes, and had established her, in the words of The New York Times, as “one of the two or three foremost and most promising contemporaneous writers of the one-act play.” The 1920-1921 season of the Provincetown Players had opened with the triumphant premier of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, which had drawn increasing attention to the small theater company, which was founded in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1915. The company had moved to Greenwich Village in 1916, converting a former stable at 139 MacDougal Street into a small theater.

Shoulder-to-shoulder with radical Greenwich Villagers in the audience were prominent theater critics, including Alexander Woollcott from The New York Times and Kenneth Macgowan from Vogue. Also in the audience, according to Macgowan, was a United States Marshal, who had come “to see if the stories of [the play’s] ‘un-Americanism’ were true enough to justify its suppression or amendment” under the terms of the Sedition Act, which had been enacted during World War I to suppress criticism of the government. The buzz surrounding Glaspell’s new play, which was eagerly awaited in the Village’s radical circles, made it a natural target for official surveillance, as did the Provincetown Players’ reputation for radicalism. Two former members of the Provincetown Players, John Reed and Floyd Dell, had already stood trial under the Espionage Act for their contributions to the socialist journal The Masses. Although by March 1921 President Harding was promising a “return to normalcy,” recent labor unrest and the perceived threat of Communism arising from the Bolshevik Revolution kept the authorities on the lookout for “un-American” activities. 

Above: Candid performance photograph for the 1937 Kalamazoo, Michigan production of Inheritors by Susan Glaspell. Photo: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. 

Inheritors calls for a relatively large cast of fifteen—five women and ten men. In the original production, George Cram Cook and directors Jasper Deeter and James Light all had prominent roles, but the breakaway star was the eighteen-year-old actress who took the role of Madeline, Ann Harding. Harding, who made her acting debut in Inheritors, would go on to a career on Broadway and in Hollywood, and earn an Academy Award nomination in 1932.

The Act I curtain rises on the interior of the Morton farmhouse, located “on the rolling prairie just back from the Mississippi.” It’s July 4, 1879. While waiting for her son Silas to return from the celebrations, Grandmother Morton, one of the surviving early settlers, reminisces about the pioneer days to a young man named Smith, a real estate developer who has come to see Silas about purchasing some of the Morton land on the bluff overlooking the river. But Silas Morton is a dreamer. Inspired by his well-educated friend and neighbor Count Fejevary, a refugee from revolutionary Hungary whose son Felix has recently graduated from Harvard, Silas plans to establish a college on the hill.

inheritors is the first american play to deal with political issues and events as they affect ordinary american lives.

Macgowan saw the U.S. Marshall leave after the first act. Evidently he had found nothing objectionable or potentially seditious in the reminiscences of Grandmother Morton or the idealism of her son Silas. “Had he stayed,” Macgowan adds, “I wonder what his emotions and action might have been.” In its second and third acts, Inheritors, as the marshal would have seen, transforms into a political drama that for its time was thrillingly radical.

As Kenneth Andrews wrote in The Bookman (August 1921): “Inheritors is a first attempt on our stage in a genre we know little of. Miss Glaspell, like the pioneers in her play, was hacking out a clearing in a pretty dense forest.” Glaspell scholar J. Ellen Gainor writes boldly that “one could argue that only Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America (1991-92) has since attempted the scope, sweep, and political force of Glaspell’s writing in this play.” In any case, a lineage of politically-engaged drama can be traced from Inheritors to Angels in AmericaInheritors is the first American play to deal with political issues and events as they affect ordinary American lives.

Editors: Natalie Axton, Jim Uebbing 

Fact Checker: Nick Davidson 

Copy Editor: Cage Ames

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