Who wrote the brothel dramas? Who produced them? Directed them? Acted in them? Attended the performances? These questions are at the heart of our examinations of the brothel drama and its discursive relationship to Progressive-era culture. The brothel drama ignited countless conversations around race, gender, and labor, and it is to the creators of these dramas – those whom we call our “key players” – that we owe the continuing fascination and cultural resonance we derive from their work.
Among the key players, one will find such eminent authors as Eugene O’Neill and Rachel Crothers; however, one also encounters such figures as Elizabeth Robins, a playwright little-known today but imbued with enormous celebrity during the era; and John Reed, better known as a journalist and as the author of the nonfiction book Ten Days That Shook the World, a firsthand account of the Bolshevik Revolution. Other key players include performers such as Fay Bainter (whose close association with the character of Ming Toy in A Shanghai Cinderella led to typecasting) and Evelyn Nesbit (a chorus girl and model who gained international notoriety when her jealous husband, Harry K. Thaw, murdered her former patron Stanford White on the rooftop theater at Madison Square Gardens in 1906); directors; costumers; and production designers.
Equally significant are the key players who watched the brothel drama from beyond the footlights: the audiences. Because of the incendiary nature of the brothel drama, audiences occupied a unique position vis-à-vis these plays and the issues they raised. What were the artistic merits of such controversial productions? Did such plays work to alert audiences – particularly young women who were increasingly living and working in cities – to the dangers of prostitution and white slavery? Or did the lure of the theatrical milieu actually lead young women further astray? Such debates demonstrate the fraught cultural landscape within which the brothel dramas circulated, and attest to the power of these dramatic works as a crucible for anxieties which informed the entire era. As the stories of the key players demonstrate, the saga of the brothel drama is not only one of words and ideas, but also of individual lives and careers. – Tory Lowe