Crothers, Rachel (1878–1958)

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Crothers, Rachel (1878–1958)

One the most successful and prolific American playwrights of the early 20th century. Born in Bloomington, Illinois, on December 12, 1878; died in Redding, Connecticut, on July 5, 1958; youngest child of Eli Kirk (a physician) and Marie Louise (dePew) Crothers (a physician); graduated from Illinois State Normal School, 1892.

Principle works (dates of production):

Nora (1903); The Point of View (1904); Criss Cross (1904); Rector (1905); The Three of Us (1906); The Coming of Mrs. Patrick (1907); Myself-Bettina (1908); Kiddies (1909); A Man's World (1909); He and She (1911); The Herfords (1912); Ourselves (1913); The Heart of Paddy Whack (1914); Old Lady 31 (1916); (with Kate Douglas Wiggin) Mother Carey's Chickens (1917); Once upon a Time (1918); A Little Journey (1918); 39 East (1919); Nice People (1921); Everybody (1921); Mary the Third (1923); Expressing Willie (1924); A Lady's Virtue (1925); Venus (1927); Let Us Be Gay (1929); As Husbands Go (1931); When Ladies Meet (1932); Caught Wet (1932); Susan and God (1937).

In a career that bridged four decades, Rachel Crothers wrote 24 full-length plays that were produced on the New York stage, making her the most successful and prolific American playwright of the early 20th century and an important, though often overlooked, contributor to the emergence of the modern American drama. Crothers' plays were crafted around contemporary problems and social issues, as she focused on women's search for freedom in a man's world, providing, as she put it, a "Comédie Humaine de la Femme, or a Dramatic History of Woman." As early as 1912, she observed, "If you want to see the sign of the times, watch women. Their evolution is the most important thing in modern life."

The daughter of two physicians (her mother Marie dePew Crothers was the first woman doctor of note in Bloomington, Illinois), Crothers displayed an early talent for drama. At age 13, Rachel wrote, produced, and acted in her first play, Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining; or The Ruined Merchant. In high school, her activities with the Bloomington Dramatic Club often took precedence over her studies; after graduation in 1891, she was off to Boston to study elocution at the New England School of Dramatic Instruction. But a career on the "wicked" stage did not sit well with her family, so after receiving her certificate in 1892, Crothers returned to Bloomington to teach and perform an occasional recital. Around 1896, she made her way to New York, where she enrolled in the Stanhope-Wheatcroft School of Acting. After her first year, she joined the staff and would spend the next four years teaching and acting with several stock companies and in a touring company of The Christian.

While continuing to teach, Crothers wrote, staged, and directed many one-act plays, several of which were produced in some of the city's smaller theaters. Many of these early plays were published in popular periodicals of the day such as Smart Set. She later credited this intense period with teaching her the production aspects of her craft. Her first professional play, Nora, was unsuccessfully produced by Carlotta Nielson in 1903. Crothers' first full-length effort, The Three of Us, received a successful Broadway production in 1906. After her first two plays, Crothers staged and directed all of her own works, also serving as her own manager, agent, and occasionally producer. In 1920, she returned to acting to play the lead in He and She.

Her plays were noted for their careful construction, with Joseph Wood Krutch once calling her, "almost the only remaining composer of what used to be called 'a well made play.'" In Twentieth Century American Dramatist, writer Lynn D. Todd divides Crothers' oeuvre into three distinct categories. The early plays, social-problem dramas written between 1906 and 1914, focus on the New Woman, the term applied to those women seeking emancipation during the first two decades of the 20th century. These plays include The Three of Us, A Man's World, and He and She, as well as several other less significant works. A Man's World, considered Crothers most fully developed portrayal of the New Woman, is the story of Frank Ware, a successful woman writer. Ware is raising an adopted son, Kiddie, whose unwed mother died in childbirth after being deserted by her lover. Ware's fiancé turns out to be Kiddie's father, and he refuses to accept responsibility for his conduct. At the close of the play, unable to accept the double standard and wanting to uphold her convictions, Ware sends her fiancé away. This unhappy ending, unusual for that time, drew praise from critics.

A group of social comedies, written from 1921 to 1927, focused on women's continuing pursuit of freedom and chronicled the youthful rebellion of the flapper. In Nice People (1921), Crothers' immodest leading character Theodora (Teddy) Gloucester smokes, drinks, dances, and is hellbent on doing exactly as she pleases. Although the play was a commercial success, critics decried Teddy's reformation in the final act. Louis V. De Foe of the New York World wrote that Crothers "should have allowed Theodora, her heroine, to plunge straight to the unhappiness which is the logical end of the course she pursues." The play, however, was very much in keeping with Crothers' optimistic view that the wild extremes of the 1920s would eventually even out. Although admittedly shocked by some of the things she witnessed, she told a New York Herald reviewer: "I predict also that these very girls who claim independence, who want to see 'life' and go to look at its dangerous places, will recover balance. Love is by no means worn out; they will fall in love and marry."

Also from this period, Mary the Third (1923), is another look at love and marriage. To discover which of her two boyfriends will make the better marriage partner, Mary plans a weekend camping trip with them both. She tells Mary the First (her grandmother) and Mary the Second (her mother), "People don't know each other before they're married. That's why most marriages are merely disappointing experiments instead of lifetime mating. That's why the experimenting ought to be done before marriage." Although Mary ultimately abandons her trip rather than hurt her family, she remains faithful to her convictions. When she finally decides to marry, she vows to stay financially independent in order to escape entrapment and also makes a pact with her intended marriage partner to divorce before love dies. The end of the play finds Mary and her fiancé exchanging the same emotional endearments that had been uttered by the other Marys and their suitors in the prologue, thus expressing Crothers' own belief that romance finds its way into the life of even the most rational women. Another interesting play of this period, Venus (1927), explores the existence on another planet of an advanced egalitarian society without sexual differences.

Between 1929 and 1937, Crothers' plays examined women's new-found sexual freedom and its sometimes disastrous results. When Ladies Meet (1932), judged the best work of Crothers' career, is among these urbane social comedies. The heroine of the play, Mary Howard, is a successful writer who falls in love with her married publisher, Rogers Woodruff. Mary naively believes that Rogers' wife Claire will give him up when she hears of the affair. When Mary meets Claire at a weekend house party, the two women come to respect one another and decide to confront Rogers. Mary is unprepared, however, for Rogers' refusal to acknowledge his love for her in front of Claire. The play ends with Claire divorcing Rogers, and Mary realizing the pitfalls of sexual encounters in a man's world. In 1938, the play was awarded the Megrue Prize for Comedy by the Dramatists Guild.

Early in her career, Crothers also produced a string of sentimental comedies, all box-office hits, mainly from 1914 to 1919. Her output included some genuine farces as well, like Expressing Willie (1924), satirizing Freudianism, and a genre piece, Old Lady 31 (1916). In 1934, Crothers spent a few disastrous months in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

Never married, she divided her time between New York and a beloved refurbished farmhouse in Connecticut. She spent mornings writing in bed, in a room purposely kept free of distracting furnishings. Crothers was said to let the rough draft of a play mellow before reading it to friends to see if they liked it. "I must feel the reactions of an audience," she once said.

In addition to her own work, Crothers devoted considerable time to philanthropies and causes related to the theater. During World War I, she founded the Stage Women's War Relief Fund, composed of over 2,000 women of the theater who undertook a variety of war-relief activities. During the Depression, she supervised the formation of the United Theatre Relief Committee, which established the Stage Relief Fund, for which she served as president. In the period from 1932 to 1951, the Relief Fund distributed close to $800,000 to needy theater artists. Finally, during World War II, Crothers organized the American Theatre Wing for War Relief, best known for its Stage Door Canteen, of which she was executive director until the age of 72.

Starring Gertrude Lawrence , Crothers' last play, Susan and God, was cited by the Theatre Club as the 1938 season's most outstanding play; it was also the longest running play of her career. The plot centers on Susan Trexel, a rich and sophisticated woman in her 30s, who after joining a new religious movement attempts to convert everyone around her. It turns out to be the glorification of self rather than spiritual fulfillment that captures Susan's zeal, and Crothers' message becomes a warning against selfishness in one's pursuit of independence and self-fulfillment.

As Lynn Todd points out, critics have viewed Crothers' work "as, at best, interesting social history or at worst, skillful box-office artistry." The denigration of her plays based on their commercial appeal dismisses Crothers' integrity and complete devotion to the art of the theater. The assessments of America's dramatic historians—who have, for the most part, either ignored Rachel Crothers completely or relegated her to the status of a minor playwright—are called into question as Crothers' views continue to provide important social documentation, particularly of women's lives in the early 20th century.


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kunitz, Stanley, and Howard Haycraft. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1941.

MacNicholas, John, ed. Twentieth Century American Dramatists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts