Though lesser known today, Rachel Crothers was America’s most successful woman playwright prior to World War II. From 1906 to 1937, Crothers was an annual mainstay on Broadway stages, writing one play a year, most of which she cast and directed herself. She was an altogether unique phenomenon: an active, prolific and financially independent female theatrical impresario, much like her hero and inspiration, David Belasco. No dramatist working before World War II chronicled the evolving role of women in American society with more accuracy or biting perspicuity.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana to parents of intellectual stock – her grandfather knew Abraham Lincoln and her mother was one of the first women physicians in Illinois – Crothers was a precocious youth, graduating from high school at the age of 13. By the age of 28, her first full-length play, 1906’s The Three of Us, had opened on Broadway. Her reputation was consolidated the next year when she directed the play’s London premiere, starring Ethel Barrymore. Over the next 30 years, Crothers would tackle problems which today we would call feminist ones: the conflict between career and marriage (A Man’s World, 1909), trial marriages (Young Wisdom, 1914), Freudianism (Expressing Willie, 1924), marital infidelity (Let us Be Gay, 1929) and, most of all, divorce (As Husbands Go, 1931).
Written in 1937, Susan and God is Crothers’ final play and greatest commercial success. It serves as a fitting encapsulation of her theatrical career. The action revolves around the character of bored socialite Susan Trexel, a self-deceiving Connecticut housewife who has recently returned from a European vacation, having fallen under the sway of a religious cult. Her determination to reform the dissolute lives of her disenchanted friends leads to uproarious – and surprising – results.
Dramaturgically, Susan and God features Crothers’ characteristic blend of cocktail-party comedy and serious social critique. Unlike her earlier plays, however, which focus on social problems within one couple’s marriage, the conflicts in this play are internalized and spread among several couples. In Susan, Crothers offers us a fascinatingly fallible female protagonist who not only acts as a catalyst for the others’ conflicts in the play, but also fuels her own. In 1940, the play would be adapted into a film directed by George Cukor and starring Joan Crawford.
Today, many feminist critics take issue with the denouements of Crothers’ plays, many of which fall back on traditional roles. It is worth noting, however, that her career began 14 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women, for the first time, the right to vote. As she once told an interviewer in 1912, “If you want to see the sign of the times, watch women. Their evolution is the most important thing in modern life.”