Revisiting a Dorothy Parker Review from 1919
On the anniversary of her birthday it seems a good moment to remember the great Dorothy Parker. There are, of course, all manner of stories and poems one could look at, not to mention the famous aphorisms that are ascribed to her. Nevertheless, today I’d like to look at a review she wrote from 100 years ago that relates to the 1919 Equity Strike.
Prior to the unionisation of actors, theatre in the US was largely controlled by the Theatrical Syndicate, who, as a monopoly, combined and were able to exert great influence over the working lives of actors. As well as their rates of pay being fixed to the Syndicate’s advantage, actors were often not paid for rehearsal, and could be let go for the most spurious of reasons thanks to a generic ‘satisfaction clause’.
This was the situation that Equity was formed to counteract in 1913. From 1914 they began to issue demands of Theatre managers, which were largely ignored, though by 1917 things were coming to a head: people began to question the right of actors to organise in the first place, asking whether or not what they did was truly ‘labour’. This attitude was in part replicated within the theatrical profession itself, with many opposed to the idea of organising.
However, by the summer of 1919 they had a charter with the American Federation of Labor, greatly increasing their clout as a union. The strike would begin on August 7th, 1919. It would last thirty days, and a month later, one of Parker’s reviews would talk about it in some detail.
She began, as one might expect, with a joke, suggesting that the closing of certain plays had ameliorated conditions amongst the theatre-goers; soon, however, she turns more to the subject matter at hand and suggests the most important thing of the strike was the number of benefit shows. These were so well received, Parker says, that ‘it looks to even the most casual observer as if only their close relatives can be backing up the managers.’
Parker goes on to praise the proximity of audience and performers, remarking on the ‘homey atmosphere’ of these benefit shows and making a particular point of your ability to ‘buy a program – and get your change back – from one of a large flock of eminent ingenues’. Seeing the renowned performing everyday tasks in a way that we do not usually see seems to inspire Parker, since it is done in the spirit of a common cause with their fellows.
Much of the rest of the review is taken up with praise for contemporary acts who feature on the bill, with particular attention paid to Ethel and Lionel Barrymore. That their names live on to the present day is partially reflected in their fame at the time, as Parker writes that they ‘can never fail to be the big event of any bill on which they appear.’
But though Parker is full of praise in this review, her instinct to prick pomposity where it appears comes forth in the final paragraph. The headline of the bill was apparently an oration, inspired by Mark Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar, called ‘Equity’ and in support of the cause for which they were striking. It sounds terribly earnest from this historical distance, and though we fain to judge things with the benefit of a hundred year’s hindsight Parker’s comment is telling: “a little of it might have been a good idea, but it seems to last for three or four hours.’
Dr Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of the Arts, English and Drama at Loughborough University.