Born 30 October 1886, Humansville, Illinois; died 29 October 1958, Los Angeles, California
Daughter of Thomas J. and Elizabeth Green Akins; married Hugo C. Rumbold, 1932
Zoë Akins grew up and went to school in Illinois and Missouri, but none of her original plays give prominence to the Midwest. Most deal with the sometimes decadent middle and upper classes in New York, where she lived for twenty years. Akins early expressed a strong interest in the theater and especially in acting. When she left St. Louis and went to New York in 1909, however, with romantic dreams of going on stage and with the determination and pluck for which she was always admired, she encountered her first defeat. She was told she had no acting talent. She decided at this point to stay in New York and write plays. This decision seems to have been implemented at least in part by the advice of a soon-to-be-important novelist and lifelong correspondent and friend, Willa Cather. During the time Akins was submitting her poetry to the then prestigious McClure's magazine and Cather was its managing editor.
Cather, a drama critic in her own right, rejected Akins' poems but told her, prophetically and shrewdly enough, that she should write for the stage. Cather must have perceived something extraordinary in Akins ' poems and letters, for she encouraged a friendship with Akins almost immediately. This was unusual, since McClure's rather aloof and shy managing editor had already begun her practice of eschewing personal contact with all but a very special few of the literary hopefuls who approached her.
Although Akins ' first published book was a volume of poetry, Interpretations (1911), and although she eventually wrote a novel, Forever Young (1941), she is best known for her original dramas, comedies, screenplays, and adaptations. She began to generate attention in 1916 with her vers libre drama, The Magical City. She went on to write Déclassée (1919), perhaps the best original play of that year. Akins ' high comedies like Papa (1913) and Greatness; A Comedy (1921) demonstrated continued sophistication and even greatness; but she later turned her art to the more popular situation-type comedies which, on the whole, do not possess the dramatic quality of her early original work. Her sharp wit and sense of irony, especially, were quite lost in the shift from high to situation comedy.
While she herself never really achieved the popular or critical success she often deserved for her original plays which she produced steadily after 1919, Akins finally earned a measure of fame for her adaptations and screenplays, like Edith Wharton's The Old Maid (1935) and Edna Ferber's Showboat (1931).
Akins won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for drama for The Old Maid. Her award initially aroused vigorous controversy over the appropriateness of granting the drama prize for an adaptation rather than for an original work. Eventually, though, the "discovery" that a precedent had already been established silenced her opponents. Both a critical and popular success, The Old Maid ran for two straight years at the Empire Theater and on the road, and by 1936 an English theater company was taking it on tour.
It would be interesting to know precisely what it was Willa Cather detected in the not-so-good poems of a not-so-good actress that suggested playwriting potential. Whatever it was, Akins never completely realized her potential as a dramatist of stature. Except for a thorough dissertation by Ronald Mielech, Akins has received almost no scholarly attention.
While it is true that Akins' writing is uneven and occasionally suffers from what Mielech calls "romantic excesses" associated with postwar American drama, and while many of her otherwise attractive protagonists periodically engage in a rhetoric that is uncharacteristic or platitudinous, much of her excellence has gone unappreciated. Some of her efforts at characterization have been misconstrued as overindulgence or a lapse in realism. Akins' significance, it seems, lies in her extremely sharp and sympathetic understanding of human foibles in general and of female folly and frustration in particular.
In a play like Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1921), for example, Akins insightfully portrays the all too common situation of a woman, Edith, blindly committed to fidelity to a confused husband who psychologically abuses her, and who manipulates and keeps her with him largely through the guilt he—as well as society—stirs up in her. When she finally rejects his "open marriage" ideas and leaves him, she flees to another, kinder man who "keeps" her sexually and financially, but whom she refuses to marry because she will not get a divorce. Although the play is recognized for its unorthodox focus on a troubled quest for personal freedom, it is more powerful for its quiet repudiation of women's considerable dependence on men and for its unhappy admission that women like Edith—most women for that matter—find the world "unsafe" when their traditional sources of security are taken from them. Neither Edith's initial decision to remain true to her adulterous husband nor her later decision to live with Greenough in the face of society's censure is completely admirable. According to Akins her keen irony underscores Edith's appalling lack of personal identity and purposiveness, and the reader experiences her horror in realizing she cannot expect men or children to provide meaning and identity for her.
In general, Akins' plays—whether serious dramas or high comedies—emphasize the distortions in values, attitudes, and manners which society promulgates. She is simultaneously both amused and disturbed by the often pathetic efforts of her dramatic characters to extricate themselves from the web of social behavior patterns and thinking they cannot really understand. Akins is probably not a great playwright, but she is surely worthy of more notice and exposure than she has been receiving. If she cannot be applauded for consistent dramatic excellence, she can be appreciated for her exceptional insights into human nature and society, and for her enterprising, delightful sense of humor.
Such a Charming Young Man (1916). Did it Really Happen? (1917). Cake Upon the Waters (1919). Foot-Loose (dramatization by Akins, 1920). The Varying Shore (1921). The Texas Nightingale (first produced 1922). A Royal Fandango (1923). The Moon-Flower (dramatization by Akins, 1924). First Love (dramatization by Akins, 1926). Pardon My Glove (1926). The Crown Prince (dramatization by Akins, 1927). Thou Desperate Pilot (1927). The Furies (1928). The Love Duel (1929). The Greeks Had a Word for It (1930). O Evening Star (1935). The Little Miracle (1936). The Hills Grow Smaller (1937). I Am Different (1938). The Happy Days (dramatization by Akins from Les Jours Heureux by Claude-André Puget, 1942). Mrs. January and Mr. Ex (1944). The Human Element by W. Somerset Maugham (dramatization by Akins, n.d.).
Bradley, J., "Zoë Atkins & The Age of Excess: Broadway Melodrama in the 1920s" in Modern American Drama: the Female Canon (1990). Demastes, W. W., ed., American Playwrights 1880-1945: A Research and Production Scrapbook (1995). Mielech, R.A., "The Plays of Zoë Akins Rumbold" (Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1974).
American Mercury (May 1928). SatRL (11 May 1935). WLB (June 1935).
—PATRICIA LEE YONGUE