Born 2 August 1885, Chicago, Illinois; died 28 July 1972, Chicago, Illinois
Daughter of Erich and Julia Wieschendorff Gerstenberg
Alice Gerstenberg's grandparents on both sides of the family were Chicago pioneers. From her father she inherited endurance, and from her mother a love of theater. She attended the Kirkland School in Chicago and Bryn Mawr College.
Before writing plays, Gerstenberg was interested in writing novels. Her first full-length play, a three-act version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, opened in 1915 at both the Fine Arts Theatre and the Booth Theatre in New York. Gerstenberg's next play, the one-act Overtones, her most original and best known work, was produced in 1915 by the Washington Square Players at the Bandbox Theatre, New York, under the direction of Edward Goodman. It also played in London, starring Lily Langtry. In 1922 Gerstenberg wrote a three-act version of Overtones which she directed herself at Powers Theater in Chicago.
In Overtones Gerstenberg created two lines of action to tell the story of Harriet and Margaret. Harriet has married for money and longs for the man she loves, while Margaret has married for love (the same man Harriet, too, had loved) and now longs for money. The surface action of the play, which reveals only the "civilized" selves of these women, is shown in conventional dramatic form, while the action below the surface reveals the subconscious selves of the two women in two characters named Hetty and Maggie. Harriet and Margaret exist in the present in a world as it appears to be; Hetty and Maggie speak of the past and life as they honestly feel them. The two actions placed side by side create not just a conventional conflict between two women, but a compelling irony and a conflict within each character, Harriet-Hetty and Margaret-Maggie.
Overtones was heralded as representing a new formula in theater. Today it is still seen as a forerunner of later psychological drama by major playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill, who acknowledged its influence on his work. This same concern for the dramatic "representation" of the subconscious is obvious in Strange Interlude (1928) and in Days Without End (1932), both of which use masks to draw the conflict between the false outer self and the painfully honest subconscious self.
The Pot Boiler (later titled Dress Rehearsal), a comedy about the pretensions of conventional theater, and Fourteen, a light satire on the pettiness of high society dinner parties, along with Overtones—all appearing in Gerstenberg's second collection, Ten One-Act Plays (1921)—are Gerstenberg's most popular plays. They have appeared in numerous anthologies of one-act plays and have been produced by little theaters all over the U.S., England, and Australia.
In Gerstenberg's next collection of short plays, Comedies All (1930), the most forceful is The Puppeteer. In this play, the grandmother is a Strindbergian vampire who sucks the creative individuality out of her own family but discovers in her grandson Walter a will stronger than her own.
Most of Gerstenberg's one-act plays reflect her role in the little theater movement, which popularized the one-act experimental play that could be played in the home as well as on the stage. The Puppeteer, for example, takes place on a staircase. Gerstenberg saw these plays, which could be produced without much expense, as a means of fund raising for communities wanting to found little theaters.
Gerstenberg was one of the original members of the Chicago Little Theatre, the first little theater in the U.S., which was founded by Maurice Browne in 1912. In 1921, she and Annette Washburne founded the Chicago Junior League Theatre for children. For two years Gerstenberg was this theater's director. Using her early model for children's theater, junior leagues have developed in communities all over the country.
Gerstenberg's most significant contribution to the little theater movement is her founding of the Playwright's Theatre of Chicago (1922-45), which was designed to offer the local playwright an opportunity to produce plays. For her work as playwright and producer, Gerstenberg won the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award in 1938. Her articles on little theater appear in Townsfolk Magazine, The Little Theatre Monthly, and The Drama. Gerstenberg has also enjoyed a modest career as an actress.
Gerstenberg's characters, mostly women, inhibited by out-worn institutions and by their own fears, make choices that lead to honest self-expression. Needing new dramatic forms to express the daring of her unconventional characters, Gerstenberg took the comic form and gave it not only a variety of structures but a modern psychological dimension as well. Gerstenberg's dramaturgy reflects her own vitality as a woman and as a playwright dedicated to a new theater which placed artistic integrity as its highest goal.
A Little World (1908). Unquenched Fire (1912). The Conscience of Sarah Platt (1915). Four Plays for Four Women (1924). The Land of Don't Want To by L. Bell (dramatization by Gerstenberg, 1928). Water Babies by C. Kingsley (dramatization by Gerstenberg, 1930). Star Dust (1931). When Chicago Was Young (with H. Clark, 1932). Glee Plays the Game (1934). Within the Hour (1934). Find It (1937). London Town (dramatization by Gerstenberg, 1937). The Queen's Christmas (1939). Time for Romance (with M. Fealy, 1942). Victory Belles (with H. Adrian, 1943). The Hourglass (1955). Our Calla (1956). On the Beam (1957). The Magic of Living (1969).
Barlow, J., Plays By American Women: 1900-1930 (1981). Dean, A., Comedies All (1930). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Sievers, D., Freud on Broadway (1955).
NR (20 Nov. 1915).
—BEVERLY M. MATHERNE