Feb. 10, 2009
Marra's theater history volume makes the supermarket tabloids seem tame
The temperamental actress, furious because she's convinced that her lover, the manager of the company, is cheating on her, refuses to go onstage for a crucial opening. After he pleads with her, she finally agrees to start the show a half hour late, but only after biting his hand to the bone. Leaving him bleeding backstage, she goes onstage with the taste of his blood in her mouth and delivers a ferocious performance so emotionally charged that the production is an immediate hit.
The latest sensationalized gossip from a supermarket tabloid, or a pivotal scene in a bodice-ripping romance novel? No, it's just the first episode in University of Iowa faculty member Kim Marra's "Strange Duets: Impresarios and Actresses in the American Theatre, 1865-1914," published by the Studies in Theatre History and Culture series of the UI Press. The book recently won the Joe A. Callaway Prize, one of the most prestigious American awards for theater scholarship.
The selection panel called the book "an exceptionally original contribution to our understanding of a crucial period of American theatre history. An expansively conceptualized and deeply researched study of the complex cultural forces -- including what in recent decades came to be called 'identity politics' -- that shaped the foundations of American show business, this book tells its important story through richly detailed and riveting accounts of the lives and relationships of some of the most legendary directors, impresarios and actors of early American theatre. 'Strange Duets' is a work of luminous imagination and superb scholarship."
The Callaway Prize, awarded biennially by the Department of English at New York University (NYU), includes a cash award of $9,000, a remarkable haul for an academic book award. Marra, who is the chair of the UI Department of American Studies and a longtime faculty member in the Department of Theatre Arts, is the second consecutive UI Press author to win the prize. Aparna Bhargava Sharwadker's "Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory and Urban Performance in India since 1947" won the award in 2006.
"Strange Duets" explores the relationships and cultural context of three long-term theatrical partnerships, in which male directors who came from poor circumstances achieved fame and fortune by molding female stars: Augustin Daly and Ada Rehan, Charles Frohman and Maude Adams, and David Belasco and Mrs. Leslie Carter. "The dynamic between the starmaker and the star is what really intrigued me," Marra explains.
The book was a natural progression from Marra's dissertation about Clyde Fitch (1865-1909), whose name has been mostly forgotten, but who was the most popular and prosperous American playwright of his time. He was the first American playwright to earn a million dollars during his career as well as the first American playwright to publish his plays overseas, and at one point he had four productions running simultaneously on Broadway.
Marra was drawn to this research by the observation that Fitch was a male writer who built his reputation primarily through his portrayal of female characters. What her research revealed was a story worthy of a spread in the National Enquirer. The flamboyant Fitch, it turned out, was drawn to the theater, at least in part, as an opportunity for socially acceptable cross-dressing. Fitch had also been Oscar Wilde's lover just before Wilde's ill-fated relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.
Elsie de Wolfe, a prominent actress and socialite of the time, is quoted as saying that Fitch knew more about women than they knew about themselves. He worked with many actresses, including Maude Adams, one of the six people Marra profiles in "Strange Duets." Onto those actresses Fitch projected his personal femininity and his idealized concept of womanhood, and through them he was influential in popular attitudes and fashions. Often he would take the stage during rehearsals to demonstrate how the actresses should move and respond. "That inner woman was coming out, and he was trying to shape it externally through the actress," Marra says.
Although he worked with many actresses, Fitch often stated that his favorite was Clara Bloodgood, for whom he wrote several starring roles. The New York Times described her as the "gray-pearl of Clyde Fitch's psychologic experiments in playwriting." During a 1907 tour of Fitch's "The Truth," in which she portrayed a pathological liar, Bloodgood staged a highly theatrical suicide, carefully laying out her costumes in her Baltimore hotel room before putting a gun to her head.
What Marra pieced together about Fitch, "opened up a whole new avenue of research on his whole circle of acquaintances, which included Charles Frohman and Maude Adams. So there turned out to be this whole network of queer practitioners who were the mainstream of Broadway. Recovering that history became a big push for me."
What emerges in "Strange Duets" is a portrait of the interplay between culture and art through the dynamics of these three distinct, but interconnected, relationships. She illuminates history of an era that is not very distant in time, but seems dramatically distant in America's views of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, relationships, race and art.
She transports readers, for example, to a time when well-to-do women of Victorian America were treated for "hysteria" -- the expression of women's dangerous reservoir of primitive sexual passions -- with regular sessions of "gynecological massage," often with mechanical contraptions patented for that purpose. And she explains how this view of female sexuality shaped audience expectations and influenced how directors sought to both control actresses and provoke their theatrical expressions of passion.
"It is distant in some ways but it is also foundational to many dynamics that are ongoing," Marra says. "Still, now, we have the Svengali-like situations in the fashion industry, the music industry and Hollywood. The understanding of emotion as something that is embodied and sexual in women has really never gone away. And the old paradigm of the abusive, dominating male director-teacher and the female pupil endures."
The UI Press does not commonly publish scholarly work by UI faculty, and Marra says that in this case the connection was coincidental. "Of the scholarly works that the UI Press publishes, a premier niche they have is the Studies in Theatrical History and Culture series, edited by Thomas Postlewait," she explains. "It's one of the top series in the field of theater studies, and it just happens to be here in Iowa.
"When I was in the middle of working on the book, Tom approached me and said, 'Would you consider Iowa?' He has a great record of success, and anybody in my field would be honored to publish in that series. In fact, I'm the third author in that series to win the Callaway Award, which is quite remarkable."
Apart from the dramatic appeal of the personalities and relationships Marra describes, readers and critics have been particularly captivated by a style of writing that, while reflecting the rigor and depth of her scholarship, reads more like a work of popular biography or history than an academic tome.
"Tom said, 'Readers want to get to the meat of the story, so we don't want to alienate them by making them wade through a lot of theoretical material that others have been over. What's important about this is the story that you are telling in a very rich way, informed by the theory,'" Marra recalls.
"It was liberating to hear those comments. Then I could write it in a language that was accessible to readers outside my field. There are lots of people who love theater and love reading biographies and backstage stories, so we wanted the book to appeal to that group as well. I'm very gratified that people who have read the book have recognized the writing as one of the distinguishing features.
"That's one of the hallmarks of the book series -- that Tom is an editor who is very much in sync with the writing mission at Iowa. He's a great stylist and he doesn't want things to be cluttered up with highly specialized language."
The comments of readers and reviewers were gratifying, but Marra first learned that her book was even being considered for an award when she received a congratulatory e-mail message from NYU.
"I had no idea," she says. "My book came out in December of 2006 and it takes one to two years for the reviews to come out. By late 2008, the reviews had come out in the top journals, and they were very positive, but I assumed that it wasn't going to win an award. I just said to myself, I'm grateful for these great reviews, people are reading the book, and I'm on to my next project. So it was just mindblowing when I got the message. The Callaway is my Oscar, and I still can't quite believe it."
The Department of American Studies and the Department of Theatre Arts are academic units in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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