OVERTONES BY ALICE GERSTENBERG
May 18th, 2020
Are dinner parties ever truly cordial? That's what this hilarious play by Alice Gerstenberg explores, with Harriet and Margaret fighting with their inner-selves.
LISTEN TO THE PLAY!
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Dramaturgy by Erin Gassner
Alice was born on August 2, 1885 in Chicago. The only child of Erich and Julia Weischendorff Gerstenberg, Alice was born in considerable wealth and comfort. Her parents were featured in the “society pages” of Chicago newspapers, much like how modern magazines cover the activities and life of the Royal Family of England. Her mother in particular loved the theatre and had once desired to be an actress, and Alice and her family regularly attended the theatre. Her parents encouraged her to pursue artistic and intellectual endeavors. Alice attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1907. Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts women’s college founded in 1885. At the time, it was considered one of the most progessive colleges in the United States as it offered lots of academic opportunities for women to contribute to the world and to compete with men after graduation. Alice was involved in theatre while attending Bryn Mawr and began to write novels and plays after graduation.
After graduating Bryn Mawr, she relocated back to Chicago due to her strong desire to be with her family. She decided to keep Chicago as her home for the rest of her life, even though she had many opportunities to live in New York and frequently traveled there. According to Alice, "Chicago’s climate itself stimulates the ‘I will’ spirit. We kept on striving to build for a richer soil in the arts.” In 1912 she became involved in the Little Theatre movement in Chicago. This movement sought to create intimate, non-commercialized, non-profit centered theatre throughout the United States. She was one of the original members of the Chicago Little Theatre founded by Maurice Browne. In 1921, Alice and her colleague Annette Washburne founded the Chicago Junior League Theatre for children. Alice was the founder, producer, and president of The Playwrights’ Theatre of Chicago from 1922-1945. Her work there is considered her most important contribution to the theatre industry. Alice was passionate about creating opportunities for artists outside of New York and served on the board of the Society of Midland Authors in order to do so. She was invited to speak at the National Drama Council and National Theatre Conference in 1936 (very few women were chosen), an invited speaker at three A.E.T.A conferences, and won the Chicago Foundation for Literature Award in 1938.
Alice’s first publication was in 1908 with Small World, which was four two-act plays that explored the lives of young women in college and their journey towards status, recognition, and identity. She wrote it while at Bryn Mawr and found success with performances in Chicago. In 1913, Alice wrote Overtones, a one act drama about the primitive vs. cultured selves of two women, is considered her magnum opus and is her most frequently produced work. It was performed in Chicago, New York, and London and toured as part of Martin Beck’s vaudeville circuit. Audiences enjoyed the play’s use of the “split subject” (later popularized by Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude) to explore the inner and outer lives of the characters in the play. She also wrote two feminist novels, Unquenched Fire (1912) and The Conscience of Sarah Platt (1915). Unquenched Fire follows a young Midwestern woman longing for a New York theater career against the wishes of her high society parents, and The Conscience of Sarah Platt is about a middle aged teacher who laments on her missed opportunities in love. Both of these were very popular at the time of publication. She also wrote a successful stage adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1915) which was a combination of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In her adaptation, Alice directly engages with the audience - one of the first examples in American theatre of a character breaking the fourth wall. Most of her plays were experimental one-act plays with leading roles for women. Her plays do not have extreme technical demands and were popular with schools, amateur theater groups, as well as professional theater companies at the time.
Alice’s work reflected her interest in “a critique of a society that represses women so severely they break apart” - namely, critiquing the social roles and constraints of women at the time. She believed that it was "necessary for a woman to be a human being first and a woman afterward and to learn to express her individuality with the same freedom and confidence that men do!” She, like many others in the Little Theatre movement, was turned off by the Great “Trite” Way (Broadway) and wanted theatre in her community that was focused on fellowship and self expression. Scholar Dorothy Chansky, author of Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience, summarizes Gerstenberg's contributions as follows: "She greeted changes with a willingness to go on writing, producing, and speaking about and on behalf of women and theatre. Her life was transitional in the sense that she made, rather than resisted changes. If she was unwilling or unable to play the role of the tough rebel or to give up her financial status, she accomplished for decades the feat that was often short-lived for female playwrights of the Progressive Era. Alice the artist and Alice the woman continued to face each other in the mirror. One can imagine they were often smiling." Alice never married and preferred to dedicate her life to the theatre. She passed away in Chicago in 1972 at the age of 86. Overtones was adapted into a chamber opera called The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret in 2013 by Leanna Kirchoff. It won the 2014-2016 Chamber Opera Composition Competition and had a professional premiere by Really Spicy Opera at the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival.