Born 12 December 1871, Bloomington, Illinois; died 5 July 1958, Danbury, Connecticut
Daughter of Eli K. and Marie Louise dePew Crothers
Rachel Crothers' childhood, not surprisingly, was lonely—first, because she was much younger than her eight siblings; secondly, because her mother decided at age forty to become the first woman physician in central Illinois, so Crothers was sent to an aunt in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for four years while her mother attended medical school in Philadelphia. Somewhat precocious, Crothers "made up" people, and produced a five-act, nine-scene play, Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining, or The Ruined Merchant, at age twelve, staging it in the family parlor. After graduating from Illinois Normal in 1892, where she formed a theater group, she attended Wheatcroft School of Acting in New York against her family's wishes. Her first four professional efforts at playwriting failed, but in 1906 John Golden produced The Three of Us, and Crothers' Broadway career was launched. Some 24 full-length plays (plus some one-acts for amateurs) followed, most of them commercially successful, almost all of them cast and directed by the playwright.
During World War I, Crothers headed the Stage Women's War Relief, which raised money for entertainments in soldiers' camps, produced by George M. Cohan and Sam Harris. In 1932, with John Golden, she founded the Stage Relief Fund to assist unemployed actors, remaining a member of its governing board until it disbanded in 1951. In 1933 Crothers received the Megrue Prize, awarded by the Dramatists Guild, for her play When Ladies Meet (1932), and in 1939 she was given the Chi Omega National Achievement Award, in the presence of President and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House. In 1940 she helped form the American Theater Wing for British War Relief, an organization which operated the Stage Door Canteen after the U.S. entered the war.
Although Crothers asserted her plays would comprise a kind of "Comédie Humaine de la Femme," many seem closer to what Joseph Wood Krutch characterized as "dramatization of the works of Mrs. [Emily] Post," being for the most part amusing, well-made pieces about comfortably situated, refined people. Only rarely does Crothers touch more than obliquely on problems confronting women, despite claims that feminine concerns were her major focus. A number of her plays deal with marital problems, although she remained single throughout her life. Basically reflecting her genteel, conservative roots, her work as a whole is not socially critical. However, her keen sense of "audience readiness" was helpful in prompting the idea that Americans who wished to spend a pleasant evening in the theater did not have to look to Europe for "social comedies," but could enjoy locally created material instead.
Crothers was consistent in taking a stand against the "double standard" in sexual behavior. In Let Us Be Gay (1929) she made it clear in the prologue that a man's infidelity was cause for divorce. She does have the couple reunited by the play's end, but only after the wife has had three years as a gay divorcée. Along the same thematic line, Crothers wrote When Ladies Meet (1932), in which an independent woman, Mary Howard, has accepted assurances from her married lover that a divorce is imminent until she meets Claire Rogers, the wife, neither woman knowing who the other is. After the true situation becomes known, both women renounce Rogers: Mary returning him to his wife, and Claire realizing she can never forgive him for having deceived Mary, just one in a long line of "affairs" for him.
Despite concern with fair play in sexual conduct, most of Crothers' plays show women happy in the traditional wife-mother role, frequently eschewing a career and independence in favor of resting comfortably in the arms of a strong man who will take care of them. In her best-known play, Susan and God (1937), the protagonist, Susan Trexel, returns from Europe after having taken a keen interest there in the Oxford Movement. She spouts the philosophy, but, in reality, is interested primarily in associating with prominent people in the group and becoming a power in the movement's American version. Her alcoholic husband takes her at her word and tries to reform through faith. Susan then spends her summer pretending to make a real home for him and their lonely adolescent daughter and is surprised to find that she herself has changed through a recognition of the power of genuine faith from within. The final curtain descends on a chastened mother, a now-strong father, and a happy teenager.
For more than 30 years Crothers wrote prolifically and staged a Broadway play almost every season, no small achievement for a woman, particularly prior to World War I. Her dialogue sounds natural, but her tendency to manipulate characters to achieve a predetermined plotline detracts from their theatrical effectiveness and from the plays as literature. When compared with other playwrights of both sexes writing at the same time, it cannot be said that Crothers made more than a modest contribution to the American theater.
Nora (1903). Point of View (1904). Criss Cross (1904). Rector (1905). The Coming of Mrs. Patrick (1907). Myself Bettina (1908). A Man's World (1910). Ourselves (1913). Young Wisdom (1914). The Heart of Paddy Whack (1914). Old Lady '31 (1916). Mother Carey's Chickens (with K. Douglas Wiggin,1917). Once Upon a Time (1918). A Little Journey (1918). 39 East (1919). He and She (1920). Nice People (1921). Everyday (1921). Mary the Third (1923). Expressing Willie (1924). A Lady's Virtue (1925). Venus (1927). Bon Voyage (1929). Caught Wet (1931). As Husbands Go (1931). We Happy Few (1955).
Hackett, F., Horizons, A Book of Criticism (1918). Mantle, B., American Playwrights of Today (1929).
Good Housekeeping (Nov. 1911). Harper's Bazaar (Jan. 1911). Independent Woman (Jan. 1946). Literary Digest (16 June 1917, 15 Aug. 1936). Mentor (1 March 1923). Nation (23 Oct. 1937). NYT (23 June 1933, 6 July 1958, 12 July 1958). NYT Magazine (4 May 1941). Pictorial Review (June 1931). Theatre Arts (Dec. 1932). Theatre Magazine (March 1931). Touchstone (Oct. 1918). Women's Home Companion (Feb. 1924, Aug. 1931). Women's Journal (April 1931, May 1931). World Today (June 1908).
—EDYTHE M. MCGOVERN