Morton, Martha

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MORTON, Martha

Born 10 October 1865, New York, New York; died 18 February 1925, New York, New York

Married Hermann Conheim

Martha Morton's family included two playwrights and several novelists and journalists. Her mother encouraged Morton to write poems and short stories, some of which were published in magazines. Since the stories were mostly in dialogue, Morton was persuaded to try writing a play. Unable to interest any managers in her first effort, Hélène, she mounted it at her own expense, for one performance, in 1888. The New York Times called it "a lugubrious and ill-made though not wholly ineffective drama," but actress Clara Morris revived it in 1889 for a two-year run that returned $50,000 to the novice playwright.

Morton's second produced play, The Triumph of Love: The Merchant (1891), won the New York World's Play Contest. Morton described the prejudice she had to face while directing a rehearsal: "The men shook their heads. They said the drama was going to the dogs. Then they crept in through the stage door and watched that 'green girl' direct the rehearsal and one of them came up to me and said, 'Are you going to make a business out of this?'… I looked him straight in the eyes and answered fervently, 'God help me, I must!' Then he put out a friendly hand, crushed my fingers into splinters and gave me the comforting assurance that a woman would have to do twice the work of a man to get one-half the credit."

Because women were barred from membership in the American Dramatists' Club, Morton organized the Society of Dramatic Authors. Thirty women constituted its charter membership, but male playwrights were also invited to join. In 1907 the older group proposed consolidation, and the result was the Society of American Dramatists and Composers.

By 1910 Morton was called "America's pioneer woman playwright," "the first successful woman playwright," and "the dean of women playwrights." She wrote about 35 forgotten plays, 14 of which were professionally produced in New York City between 1888 and 1911.

Morton's most successful plays were written for the popular comedian William H. Crane: Brother John (1893), His Wife's Father (1895), A Fool of Fortune (1896), and The Senator Keeps House (1911). These were considered "good and clean, not too subtle and not too obvious." Morton's favorite subjects were marital adjustments, ups and downs in the business world, and the foibles of high society. A Bachelor's Romance (1896) showed members of the frivolous social élite redeemed by exposure to rural life. Morton's plays pleased audiences despite the critics' continual readiness to point out their hackneyed qualities.

Morton traveled widely in Europe, and was well read in French and German literature. Her most ambitious work was an adaptation of Leopold Kampf's On the Eve (1909), about revolutionary unrest in Russia. For the part of the heroine, Morton sent for German actress Hedwig Reicher, who made a personal triumph of her first English-speaking role. Of that character, Morton said: "Woman is the tragic element in the social body.… The chief woman figure in On the Eve symbolizes the woman of today, the universal woman seeking her work and finding it." Critics called this play "a collection of antiquated theatrical effects," but Morton's professionalism afforded her a degree of prestige attained by few other women playwrights.

Other Works:

Geoffrey Middleton (1892). The Diplomat (1902). Her Lord and Master (1902). A Four Leaf Clover (1905). The Truth Tellers (1905). The Movers (1907).


Bookman (Aug. 1909). Green Book Magazine (May 1912). Theatre Magazine (1909, 1913). World To-Day (July 1908).