Alice Gerstenberg's Overtones is considered the earliest example of a play that dramatizes the unconscious on stage. In it, Gerstenberg uses two actresses for both Margaret and Harriet to represent the single character of Margaret and Harriet. Each embodies a disparate part of the character's personality; or, to put it in Freudian terms, one is the id and the other the ego. In Overtones, Harriet and Margaret are the cultured and refined selves, while Hetty and Maggie represent the wild, primitive desires of these same women. Using two women to play one character was a unique convention that had not been seen before. This new technique, along with Gerstenberg's ability to write witty, interesting dialogue made the play an instant success. Overtones was first produced November 8, 1915, by the Washington Square Players at the Bandbox Theater in New York. At the time of its production, Sigmund Freud had recently made his first trip to the United States, and the publication of his works had spread interest in the workings of the unconscious mind. Freud's theories were a common topic of discussion and the play capitalized upon this fad. The play influenced many later playwrights including Eugene O'Neill, who used a similar technique in his play Strange Interlude.
Overtones was Gerstenberg's second New York success. Earlier that same year, she had received accolades for her adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Overtones was to become her most popular and most widely produced play, however. It was presented by numerous theatres across the country, had a successful run on vaudeville, and was performed in London by the great actress Lily Langtry. Overtones was originally published in 1921 in Gerstenberg's Ten One-Act Plays and has appeared in many subsequent anthologies. It is still presented by regional theatres and universities today and remains one of the finest examples of the dramatization of Freudian theory to date.
Alice Gerstenberg was born August 2, 1885, in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents, Julia and Erich, were wealthy socialites who were regularly featured on the society pages of the day. She was educated at Kirkland School and then attended Bryn Mawr, a college known for providing education to many high society women. During this time, she began writing plays and performing in college theatrical productions. She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1907 and returned to Chicago.
The following year, Gerstenberg enrolled in classes at Anna Morgan's studio and became active in Chicago's theatre circle. Morgan encouraged Gerstenberg to write some one-act plays and the four resulting plays were published later that year in a volume entitled A Little World. Two years later, Gerstenberg studied theatre in New York, where she composed her first full-length play, The Conscience of Sarah Platt.
Gerstenberg continued her writing career and had some moderate success in 1912 with a production of Captain Joe at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Also that year, her first novel, Unquenched Fire, was published. Later in 1912 she returned to Chicago and became one of the founding members of the Chicago Little Theatre. Unfortunately, personality clashes with Maurice Browne, the theatre's director, caused Gerstenberg to quit at the end of the first season.
In 1915 Gerstenberg had her greatest success with the plays Alice in Wonderland and Overtones. Alice in Wonderland was presented by the Fine Arts Theatre, and again by the Booth Theatre in New York. Also in 1915, the novelized version of The Conscience of Sarah Platt was published. The book won strong reviews in the New York press. Gerstenberg had finally established a strong reputation as a novelist and playwright. Overtones was first produced in New York by the Washington Square Players. It was an immediate success and became a popular choice of many performers in the United States and abroad. The production played on vaudeville, and the great actress Lily Langtry starred in a 1917 London production.
Despite her growing reputation, Gerstenberg remained in Chicago. Although she never matched the success of Alice in Wonderland or Overtones, she continued to write popular plays for the Chicago theatre. In 1921 she co-founded the Chicago Junior League Theater, a group that sponsored plays for children, and in 1922 she founded the Playwright's Theater, a group dedicated to providing opportunities for local artists to develop and present their work. She ran the Playwright's Theater until 1945. In 1938 she received the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award.
Gerstenberg died July 28, 1972, in Chicago. Although Gerstenberg's connections with the wealthy families of Chicago helped provide contacts and backing to foster her early writing career, her talent took her beyond the need for help from family and friends. Her novels and plays quickly became recognized for their own merit by the publishing and theatrical communities. Gerstenberg is now considered an influential member of the "little theatre" movement in the United States and an innovator of theatrical form.
At the beginning of Overtones, Harriet is preparing for the arrival of a former acquaintance, Mrs. Margaret Caldwell, whom she has invited to tea. She is also having a discussion with her primitive "inner self," Hetty. The two women establish that they are indeed very different parts of the same person. As Hetty notes, "I'm crude and real, you are my appearance in the world." Harriet concedes that they are one and the same, but refuses to admit that Hetty is also the wife of Charles Goodrich. Harriet asserts that she alone is Charles's wife because it is she who manipulates him and manages him through her social airs and artifice. Eventually the conversation turns to John Caldwell and to Hetty's despair over not having married him when she had the opportunity. Harriet reminds her that John's desire to be a painter made for too uncertain a future and that, "It was much safer to accept Charles's money and position." Hetty then begins to coach Harriet on what she must say and do when John's wife Margaret arrives. She is to make sure that Margaret knows she is rich, and should try to make her jealous. Harriet then decides she will make Margaret ask if John can paint her portrait. She will then have the opportunity to make him fall in love with her again.
Margaret arrives with her primitive counterpart, Maggie. Immediately, Hetty tries to goad Harriet into mentioning how rich and influential she is. Harriet resists Hetty's prodding, however, and greets Margaret sweetly and politely. Maggie instantly faces off with Hetty and the two trade insults and each tries to get the truth out of the other. All the while Harriet and Margaret continue their pleasant conversation, complimenting each other and affirming how wonderful their respective lives have turned out. Maggie admits that Margaret is starving because John has no orders for paintings. When Harriet offers tea, Maggie makes sure Margaret takes it with cream because it is "more filling." The pleasant chit-chat between Harriet and Margaret continues, while Hetty and Maggie return to prodding their respective counterparts to try and win the game and obtain what they want. Harriet gives in a bit and casually lets drop she has an automobile and a chauffeur. Margaret also gives in to Maggie and brings up the subject of John perhaps painting Harriet's portrait.
The subject then turns to John's time as a painter in Paris. Margaret speaks as if John has become an artist of great renown, while Maggie admits that John is actually drawing advertisements and is "growing weak with despair." Hetty and Maggie finally get down to business once the conversation turns to the subject of Harriet sitting for a portrait done by John. Hetty vehemently urges Harriet to negotiate a low price, while Maggie warns Margaret to be careful not to lose the opportunity. Finally, it is agreed that John will paint Harriet, and with that, both women think they have won. Throughout the entire conversation Harriet and Margaret have remained reserved, with a false air of polite decorum, while Hetty and Maggie have become more and more desperate. In the final moments of the play, Hetty and Maggie face off viciously, each vowing to "rob" the other and take what they covet the most. After a cymbal crash and a brief blackout, Harriet and Margaret end their conversation with false niceties by telling each other what a pleasant time they have had and bidding each other a sweet "goodbye."
Margaret is one-half of one character who appears in this play. She is the refined, cultured part of herself, just as Harriet is. She is the ego. In addition, Margaret shares many other similarities with Harriet. She is in a desperate situation from which she longs to escape. Margaret is married to the painter John Caldwell. The two of them have just returned from eight years in Paris, where John tried to make his mark as an artist. He was unsuccessful, however, and they are now forced to live in poverty while John makes his living drawing advertisements. Margaret loves John, but the benefits of this have been overshadowed by the severe poverty in which they are forced to live. Margaret is desperately hungry and longs for the food and fine things that wealth can bring. She is willing to give up love for money.
John's name also gives a clue as to Margaret's relationship with him. John is called well. In other words, while it may seem prestigious and glamorous to be married to an artist, the reality is not as good as it sounds. To say you are an artist's wife is exciting. To live it is horrible. Just as Harriet must work to control her baser instincts, so must Margaret. Margaret's lavender gown connects her with Maggie, who wears a dark purple gown. The two together represent one complete person.
On the surface Harriet is a cultured society lady who is married to the very wealthy Charles Goodrich. She has a beautiful house, a car, a chauffeur, wonderful food, and all of the fine trappings that wealth can provide. She presents an air of being extremely happy and content. This is all a façade, however. Deep down, Harriet does not love Charles and she is in despair over being trapped in her current situation. She hates her marriage to Charles because it only provides a life of comfort and wealth. There is no passion. Harriet married her husband for the money and that is all she got. His name even indicates what he represents to her: Charles is only good because he is rich. Harriet secretly longs to escape her current situation and to rekindle the passion of her earlier relationship with John Caldwell, a man whom she believes to be the true love of her life. Harriet grew up in the same town as John. The two dated in her youth, and she has been in love with him ever since.
At the time they dated, John was an aspiring painter. He actually proposed to Harriet, but she turned him down because she was afraid his desire to be an artist would lead to a life of poverty and hardship. She has never lost her desire for John, however, and is now deeply jealous of Margaret's marriage to him. Harriet (with Hetty) is actually one-half of one of the characters presented in this play. She represents only the ego portion of this character. She is the person that is presented to the outside world, the cultured, polite woman that everyone expects this character to be. She is the part that has been molded by society and taught how to behave. Harriet wears a green gown, which represents the jealousy that runs deep within her.
Hetty is Harriet's counterpart. She is not a complete person, but is the other half of Harriet's personality. Hetty embodies the wild, untamed desires and wants that live deep within Harriet. She represents her true feelings. Hetty is able to see beyond the courteous everyday conversation that takes place when people talk to one another. She understands that deep down people are vicious and self-serving and that they just cover this up for the sake of appearing humane. Hetty has little patience for these polite games that human beings play with each other. Because she has not been cultured and refined by society, she operates on a very basic level. She is the id portion of Harriet's character.
Hetty has the ability to be violent and cruel and is willing to do almost anything to get what she wants. She desperately wants Harriet to succeed in regaining John and will use any means necessary to convince Harriet to act upon her desires. Harriet's sense of propriety and decorum is all that keeps Hetty's unsociable behavior in check. Hetty is always present, and Harriet must consciously work to keep control of her. If Hetty was ever able to completely overcome Harriet, she would be deemed unfit for society and would probably be locked away. Hetty wears a gown of deep green, which reflects her connection to Harriet. The deeper color signifies the harsher, baser emotions she represents.
Maggie is Margaret's darker half. She is the instinctual, desire-driven force who constantly prods Margaret to go after what she truly wants. It is Maggie who has brought Margaret to the meeting with Harriet in order to carry out her plan of getting Harriet to order a portrait. Maggie is Margaret's id, and she operates on a primitive level, just as Hetty does. Maggie is not afraid of confrontation. She will do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. During the play, Maggie's actions are governed primarily by hunger and her need for food. Just as Harriet must be careful to keep Hetty in check, Margaret must work to do the same with Maggie. If Margaret lets her guard down for a moment and forgets the rules of social etiquette, Maggie will overcome her and drive her to behave in a way that might be considered insane.
Ego versus Id
The theories of Sigmund Freud were very popular when Overtones was first produced. Freud looked at the way various psychological forces shape a person. He eventually concluded there were three major parts that made up an individual's psyche: the ego, the id, and the superego. The ego represents the part of the psyche that experiences the outer world through the senses. It is the "rational" part that primarily governs the actions of the person. The id is the part that contains the instincts for survival and the drive for pleasure. It is often considered the wild, primitive part. The superego is the part that contains the values and moral standards. Although Freud did not publish The Ego and the Id (the book which clearly identified these terms) until 1923, he had already extensively discussed the concept of conflicting societal and primitive forces upon the psyche, and these theories were well-known among educated circles in the United States. They influenced many playwrights of the period, who began using dream interpretations, hypnosis, and subconscious states as themes in their work. Overtones is considered the first example of physically dramatizing the conflict that takes place between the ego and the id. By using a dual-character format, Gerstenberg was able to personify the struggle taking place within each of the characters. At the opening of the play she clearly establishes for the audience that the characters of Harriet and Hetty are actually the same woman with Hetty's opening line, "Harriet. Harriet, my other self. My trained self." Gerstenberg goes on to reinforce this dual-character format by having Margaret and Maggie represent the ego versus id conflict of the other character in the play.
The theme of feminism is addressed in an inadvertent way in Overtones. While the two characters do not directly discuss the suppression of women or their lack of opportunity, these concepts are made apparent by viewing the situations in which they are trapped. Both Margaret and Harriet owe their discontent and sad situation to their total dependence on what their husbands can provide. They both have relied on their respective men to provide a wonderful life for them, and now, since their lives (and husbands) have not turned out as they had hoped, the two women are trapped. Neither woman has the resource to stand on her own or to improve her situation. Instead each sees only one possibility: link up with a better man who might provide a better life. Harriet wants John because Charles cannot give her adequate love. Margaret wants Harriet's money and influence because John cannot adequately provide for her. The possibility of being proactive in improving their current relationship never occurs to either. This is, of course, in keeping with the times in which Overtones was written. During this period, women were expected to remain at home and to obey their husbands. Most women had little social power or influence within society. Like Harriet and Margaret, their choices were extremely limited.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Marsha Norman's play Getting Out. Compare and contrast the way Norman uses the dual-character technique in her play with the way Gerstenberg employs it in Overtones. What are their similarities and differences? Does Getting Out relate to Freud's theories of the ego and the id in any way?
- Research the history and etiquette surrounding the ritual of taking afternoon tea. Who originally popularized this custom? Do we still use any of this same etiquette today when eating or drinking with friends? Explain.
- Research the history surrounding women's entry into the workplace around the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. How did this change the lives of American men and women and their relationship to each other? What problems arose when more women left the home?
- Read an overview of Freud's theories about the ego and the id. Do you agree with his conclusions? Why or why not?
- How would you direct this play so that the audience could easily understand the associations between the characters? Would you follow Gerstenberg's stage directions or use an alternate technique? Why or why not?
The theme of jealousy is pervasive in Overtones. Each character wants what the other has and is willing to go to great lengths to get it. Because we can hear the characters' inner thoughts through the dialogue of Maggie and Hetty, Gerstenberg can make the deep-seated jealousy very clear. At the end of the play when Hetty threatens, "I'm going to take him away from you," and Maggie counters with, "I want your money—and your influence," there is no question as to just how envious and desperate these two women are of each other. Margaret's jealousy is even visually symbolized in her costume. As Gerstenberg states in the opening stage directions, "Harriet's gown is a light, 'jealous' green."
Strictly speaking, the Victorian era corresponds to the reign of Queen Victoria of England from 1819 to 1901, and Victorianism is a term used to describe the social mores and customs that became prevalent during Victoria's reign. Although her reign ended more than a decade before Overtones appeared, many of the trappings of Victorianism were still present in the United States at the time of Gerstenberg's writing. The Victorian household was ruled by the husband. The husband was the "breadwinner," and the wife was expected to stay home and raise the children. Instruction in proper behavior and in the manners of society was considered extremely important. People were expected to follow the rules of decorum at all times and any display of unbridled emotion was scorned. The custom of having afternoon tea became popular during the Victorian era. Victorianism is also sometimes associated with haughtiness and arrogance. Overtones exhibits a strong sense of Victorianism in the way Margaret and Harriet interact while at tea. Although their emotions are raging inside, they make sure to eat daintily and properly, and try desperately not to let their true emotions show.
Overtones is the first known instance of a playwright using two actresses to portray a single character. By splitting each character into two parts, Gerstenberg allows the audience to hear the inner thoughts and desires of the character without having to stop the action. Prior to this, when a playwright wanted the audience to hear a character's private thoughts, he or she would use an aside or a soliloquy. An aside is when a character speaks directly to the audience, without the other characters onstage hearing him or her. A soliloquy is when a character is alone onstage speaking his or her thoughts out loud. Both of these techniques often bring a momentary halt to the action of the play. Gerstenberg's dual-character technique allowed the audience to experience the "outside" and the "inside" of the characters simultaneously, thus creating the possibility of continuous action and of an additional set of internal character conflicts that could be visually experienced.
Gerstenberg uses various types of symbolism throughout Overtones. She uses both visual and textual means to convey symbolic concepts. Also, Hetty and Maggie each wear darker versions of her respective counterpart's costume colors. This symbolizes the attachment between each character and her primitive self, and also suggests the deeper, darker emotions that Hetty and Maggie harbor. In addition to the color, the style of the costumes also serves a symbolic function. In the stage directions, Gerstenberg describes the cultured characters' gowns as made of chiffon, in order to suggest the "possibility of primitive and cultured selves merging into one woman." The title of the play also functions as a symbol. Overtone is defined as an ulterior, usually implicit meaning, or a hint. In the play, Gerstenberg lays out this symbolism for the audience when she has Harriet remark to Hetty, "I am your subtle overtone."
Overtones uses the visual technique of shadowing to help the audience make the connection between the disparate parts of each character. Each primitive self stands behind her respective cultured self and shadows her by using similar gestures. The primitive self also moves around the stage in conjunction with her counterpart. The shadowing primitive self is always behind the cultured character, sometimes looming over them, thus creating a visual image which reinforces the duality present in Margaret and Harriet, and the threat that Maggie and Hetty provide.
Unity of Time and Place
Unity of time and place occurs in a play when it takes place in one setting and in real time. In other words, there are no jumps to another place and there is no passing of time in which the story is picked up later. Overtones has a strong unity of time and place because it takes place in one room and the audience experiences the entire meeting between Harriet and Margaret. These type of plays were popular with small upstart theatres because they usually had small casts, one set, and thus were easy and inexpensive to produce. Gerstenberg often wrote specifically with these factors in mind. As Stuart J. Hecht notes in the Journal of Popular Culture, "Gerstenberg intended such performances as inexpensive productions which could help raise money to begin or sustain a local little theatre."
The New Woman
In the early 1900s an increasing number of women were leaving their homes and entering the workforce. The swell of industry taking place in the United States created more jobs than could be filled by the male population. More employees were needed to work in the new factories and industries, and women were there to answer the call. They were now not merely wives and mothers, but active participants in the economy, and this newfound independence led many to question their place within society. They began to push the bounds of acceptable behavior and to call for equal rights and the right to have a say in matters of government. The "new woman" had more power, was more opinionated, and was more self-determined than females of the previous generations had been. With this surge in women's self-confidence also came a backlash of resistance, and a strong debate arose over the proper role of women in society. Out of this debate rose the feminist movement, a drive for women's rights and equality that still persists today.
In 1915 the fight for women to win the vote was in full swing. From 1905 to 1910 the National American Woman Suffrage Association grew from seventeen thousand members to seventy-five thousand. In 1912 the Progressive Party, led by Theodore Roosevelt, finally endorsed the suffragist position. On January 12, 1915, the women's suffrage amendment failed in the House of Representatives. The suffragettes were not deterred, however. They continued their struggle and finally succeeded in winning women the right to vote in 1919.
Little Theatre Movement
In the early 1900s the theatre was dominated by large commercial institutions that were run by powerful and wealthy entrepreneurs. The commercial aspects of these establishments caused them to offer popular, "safe" productions that would bring in as much money as possible. Little thought was given to artistic innovation or risk-taking. Around 1912 that began to change with the advent of the "little theatre" movement. The little theatres were founded by local artists and based upon similar independent theatres that had been established in Europe. The actors and technicians were not paid, and the theatres relied on subscriptions and donations for financial support. They usually presented small, inexpensive productions and experimented with form and style previously unseen by most audiences. One of the most influential of these was the Chicago Little Theatre, formed by Maurice Brown in 1912. Alice Gerstenberg was a member of this theatre during its first season.
Freud and Psychoanalysis
In 1909 the famous pioneers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, traveled to the United States to give the first American lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Massachusetts. The lectures were published in 1910, and suddenly much of the American population became interested in the topic of psychology and of the subconscious mind. Articles on Freud's theories began appearing in many of the popular literary magazines of the day and they became a common topic of parlor conversation. Freud intrigued and shocked American society with his frank discussions of sexuality and deviance, and his theories eventually led to a change in attitude toward members of society who were considered to be insane or psychologically impaired.
Overtones is recognized as the first example of visually depicting the Freudian split between the id and the ego onstage. As W. David Sievers notes in Freud on Broadway, "it marks the first departure from realism for the purpose of dramatizing the unconscious." When the play premiered in 1915, it was a popular success and was "heralded as representing a new formula in theater," according to Beverly M. Matherne, writing in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. The New York press did not give the play rave reviews, however. As Keith Newlin reports in his introduction to American Plays of the New Woman, the New York Times concentrated most of its critique on the other works presented on the same bill and only briefly noted of Overtones that its "idea was more clever than its execution." Newlin also notes, however, that the New Republic was a bit more generous when it touted the play as an "interesting event" and stated that "Miss Gerstenberg's success will incite other dramatists to try their hands" at plays of a similar form.
In this supposition, the New Republic was correct. Gerstenberg's dual-character form was used by several other playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill. Echoes of her work can also be found in the plays of "Sophie Treadwell, Adrienne Kennedy, Marsha Norman, and Peter Nichols," according to Mary Maddock in Modern Drama. Recent critics still consider the play to be an important milestone in American theatre history. Hecht calls the play "telling and innovative." Maddock states that Overtones initiated a "significant trend in twentieth-century American drama."
Kattelman holds a Ph.D. in theatre from Ohio State University. In this essay, Kattelman discusses the various techniques used by Alice Gerstenberg to heighten visual, auditory, and symbolic interest in her play and how these techniques serve to highlight similarities and differences between the characters.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1910s: The first phonograph is introduced by the Victor Talking Machine Company. By 1919 Americans spend more on phonographs and recordings than on most other forms of home entertainment.
Today: Phonograph records are no longer manufactured. The compact disc has replaced the phonograph record and many people own a compact disc player.
- 1910s: The average price of a new car is $600. A Model T costs $360. Most Americans do not own an automobile.
Today: Almost everyone has at least one car. The price of a bottom-of-the-line new car generally exceeds $10,000.
- 1910s: Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, becomes the first intersection in the United States to be equipped with an electric traffic light on August 5, 1914.
Today: Traffic lights are found in every major city in America. The colors red, yellow, and green are recognized as symbols for stop, caution and go, across the country.
- 1910s: Electric clocks are first introduced. Most people, however, still use windup clocks to keep track of time.
Today: Digital clocks and wristwatches are the most prominent time-telling devices. Clocks on computers and handheld devices can be set to the precise second.
- 1910s: The divorce rate is one in one thousand. Most people remain married no matter how difficult their situation may be.
Today: One in two marriages ends in divorce. There is no longer a horrible social stigma attached to being a divorced woman.
- 1910s: The life expectancy for a man in the United States is 48.4 years and for a woman is 51.8 years.
Today: The life expectancy for a man in the United States is 74.2 years and for a woman is 79.9 years. While better health care and medicine have lengthened general life expectancy, the entry of women into the workforce and the increased common stress of daily life has closed the gap between the sexes.
In Overtones, Alice Gerstenberg uses duality, contrast, and juxtaposition to create a piece that is both visually and symbolically intriguing. The play is noted for being the first instance of the use of the dual-character, a technique in which two actresses portray different parts of one single woman. In Overtones, the split is a Freudian one, with one actress portraying the id or primitive portion of the character, while the other portrays the socialized and mannered ego. This dual-character technique allows the audience to experience the inner struggle of the subconscious firsthand, and because the character's inner thoughts do not have to be conveyed to the audience through an aside or soliloquy, the audience can learn what the character is thinking while the action continues uninterrupted.
The dual-character technique also allows some interesting parallels to be drawn between the two women of the play, and Gerstenberg makes the most of this opportunity. Through the course of the play the audience learns just how similar Harriet and Margaret really are. They are both desperately unhappy and are willing to scheme and lie in order to better their situation. They are also both caught in circumstances that have been dictated by the forces and expectations of society. As Mary Maddock notes in Modern Drama, "Margaret and Harriet are the unhappy products of the process of socialization that replaces women's personal desires with patriarchally correct wants and needs." Thus, the characters are both trapped in a world "not of their own design."
The dialogue of Hetty and Maggie make the similarity between the characters very clear. Gerstenberg often uses a parallel construction of dialogue for these two characters in which one line is a direct counterpoint to the line spoken by the other character. For example, when Maggie urges Margaret to "Flatter her," Hetty counters with, "Tell her we're rich." And when Hetty cautions Harriet, "Don't let her see you're anxious to be painted," Maggie also warns, "Don't seem anxious to get the order." This repetition of sentence structure textually emphasizes the analogous circumstances in which Harriet and Margaret are trapped.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is an excellent short story about the psychological breakdown that can result from a woman's feelings of being trapped and powerless. It is considered a standard text of early feminist literature.
- Getting Out (1979) is Marsha Norman's play about a young woman struggling to break free from her younger, primitive self. The play uses two actresses to portray a single character and was highly successful when it premiered at the Humana Festival of the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
- Sophie Treadwell's play Machinal, originally presented in 1928 and published the following year, is an excellent example of an innovative use of style and form. The play is written in nine episodes and uses offstage sounds to suggest the mechanized world that keeps its heroine, the Young Lady, trapped.
- Daily Life in a Victorian House (1993), by Laura Wilson, gives a good account of the manners and etiquette of England's upper classes. Although the book deals with an extremely wealthy family in England during the height of the Victorian era, it offers a glimpse of the manners and mores that were eventually picked up by upper-middle class families in the United States.
- Afternoon Teas: Recipes-History-Menus (1995), by Pam McKee, Lin Webber, and Ann Krum, contains a brief synopsis of the history and the customs of afternoon tea. The book also contains simple recipes. It provides a concise introduction for those not familiar with the etiquette and history of afternoon tea.
The similarity of the characters in Overtones introduces a strong sense of irony. Although they do not realize it, Margaret and Harriet are practically mirror images of one another. They have both been schooled in the fine art of etiquette and decorum, and they are both trapped within a patriarchal system that affords them no power except for that obtained by marrying the "right" man. They both believe that if they could only possess what the other has they would be truly happy. Yet, one suspects that if the two were to succeed in gaining what they want, they would still be as miserable as they are now. They may trade places, but they would still be confined within a situation that would make them extremely discontent. Eventually Margaret would become desperately bored and unsatisfied with her marriage to Charles, and Harriet would be hungry and miserable with John.
One can imagine the scene presented in Overtones being repeated in the future with the characters reversed. Harriet is forced to grovel for customers while Margaret now laments the loss of her one true love. As Maddock notes, "the desires of Harriet and Margaret are so perfectly symmetrical that should both women succeed in their goals they will both fail." Although the play is a meeting between two women, one can almost see it as struggle that is taking place within a single individual who is in turmoil over whether to listen to the practical side that desires Charles' money, or the idealistic side that desires John's love. Although this interpretation is not what Gerstenberg intended, the close parallels and similarities between the two characters allow for this type of reading as well. The final moments of the play solidify just how alike Harriet and Margaret are when Hetty and Maggie simultaneously exclaim, "I'm going to rob you—rob you."
Comparison and contrast are two key elements of Overtones. They generate interest, and help to raise the play above the level of a typical afternoon tea. One of the ways Gerstenberg introduces contrast into Overtones is through her choice of the husbands' respective professions. Although the play does not make clear what Charles does for a living, one can assume he is a successful businessman. John, on the other hand, has chosen to forsake the money that the business world could bring in order to pursue his art. John pursues a world of ideas, Charles a world of possessions. In the play, Gerstenberg alludes to this dichotomy by emphasizing the place love plays in each relationship. One gets the feeling that Harriet is just another one of Charles's possessions. He can keep her safe and comfortable, but does not love her. John, on the other hand, loves Margaret, but is not able to provide safety and comfort for her. Margaret has love. Harriet has material possessions. Neither woman has both.
Another way Gerstenberg uses the "compare and contrast" motif in Overtones is through her use of color. She establishes in the opening stage directions that each primitive self wears a gown of the same color as their counterpart, but in a darker shade. This helps the audience to visually make the connection between each pair of actresses. But Gerstenberg also helps the audience make the distinction between Harriet and Margaret through a clever use of color. She has chosen their costume colors from opposites sides of the color wheel. Purple and green are not directly opposite each other on the wheel because they both share the color blue, and yet the two colors are far enough apart that they provide a strong visual contrast to one another. In other words, purple and green are alike and yet different, just as Margaret and Harriet are. The juxtaposition of these two colors visually emphasizes the themes and relationships contained within the play. Gerstenberg also plays upon a light/dark theme by keeping Maggie and Hetty upstage and partially veiled. One almost gets the sense that they are lurking in the shadows just waiting for the right opportunity to reveal themselves. In the stage directions, Gerstenberg even uses the term "shadow" to describe how Maggie and Hetty move in conjunction with their respective counterparts.
Allowing Maggie and Hetty to interact directly with one another was a wise choice for Gerstenberg, although it is not strictly in keeping with Freudian theory. Normally, one would not assume that the id of one person can directly interact with the id of another because the id's influence is usually thought to affect only the person within which it is contained. In Freudian theory, the id can only have contact with the outside world through the ego. The ego is the part of the psyche that mediates the influence of external realities. As Freud notes in The Ego and the Id, "the ego seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id." By allowing Hetty and Maggie to directly confront one another, however, Gerstenberg multiplies the possibilities for conflict, making for a much more dynamic and forceful piece of theatre. The audience witnesses four simultaneous "tennis matches" on stage: Hetty vs. Harriet; Harriet vs. Margaret; Margaret vs. Maggie; and Maggie vs. Hetty.
Ironically, while this possibility for direct conflict between the competing "ids" heightens the intensity, it also heightens the humor contained in Overtones. It is comical to watch Hetty and Maggie physically struggling with each other directly behind the reserved pair of their respective socialites. Harriet and Margaret serve as a static facade in the foreground and their prim and proper mannerism provide a humorous counterpoint to the insanity that is occurring right behind them. This humorous vein is in keeping with Gerstenberg's usual style. As Stuart J. Hecht notes in the Journal of Popular Culture, "The vast majority of Gerstenberg's plays are comedic. The few times that her dramaturgy takes a more serious turn comes in those plays where the inner self is confronted."
The above techniques of dual-characters, parallel dialogue, color imagery, and direct interaction between the subconscious-character elements all combine to make Overtones an interesting theatre piece visually, audibly, and symbolically. With this play, Gerstenberg pushed the boundaries of theatrical form and used all means available to create an intriguing exploration into two women's psyches. She provided numerous clues as to what the piece is "about" so that audiences would be able to easily understand this innovative and complex presentation. Apparently her ideas worked because the influence of Overtones on theatrical form is still recognized. That the play survives and is still produced across the country attests to the fact that audiences during the early part of the twentieth century were ready for this type of theatrical/psychological experience and that they still appreciate it today.
Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on Overtones, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Freud, Sigmund, The Ego and the Id, translated by Joan Riviere, edited by James Strachey, W. W. Norton & Co., 1960, pp. 11–21.
Hecht, Stuart J., "The Plays of Alice Gerstenberg: Cultural Hegemony in the American Little Theatre," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 26, No. 1, Summer 1992, pp. 1–16.
Maddock, Mary, "Alice Gerstenberg's Overtones: The Demon in the Doll," in Modern Drama, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 474–84.
Matherne, Beverly M., "Alice Gerstenberg," in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Lina Mainiero, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981, pp. 118–20.
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An exploration of Freud's life and theories presented in cartoon form, this book covers Freud's writings and terminology in an entertaining and accessible way.
Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins, eds., Women in American Theatre, Theatre Communications Group, 1987.
This anthology contains a good overview of all facets of women's theatre history in the United States. It includes discussions of numerous lesser-known figures and groups and also provides an extensive bibliography.
Diner, Steven J., A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, Hill & Wang, 1998.
This book provides a cohesive social history of 1900 to 1920, a time which is considered the "progressive era" in the United States. It explores how the technological revolution during the early twentieth century transformed the lives of all Americans.
Kramer, Dale, Chicago Renaissance, Appleton-Century, 1966.
Kramer presents a social history of the literary movement in Chicago from 1900 to 1930. The book extensively discusses the theatrical community of the time.