Despite authoring fifteen novels, a collection of short stories, and several plays, Dawn Powell (1896-1964) was mostly obscure in her own lifetime. And yet she was a major figure in New York literary life, friends with John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and Edmund Wilson, as well as Sara and Gerald Murphy, the real-life inspirations for Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. She wrote about hardscrabble hardships in the Midwest with a realism that could put Willa Cather to shame, and she chronicled Jazz-Age New York with a gimlet eye to rival Evelyn Waugh. Her posthumous rediscovery, spearheaded by Gore Vidal’s 1987 essay, has been called “one of the great literary finds of the 20th century” by the New York Times. Though her novels have all been put back into print, Powell dreamed first and foremost of writing for the stage, and evidence suggests she had a rare talent for the theatre.
Powell’s life was tough. She was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio to a traveling salesman who was never home, a mother who died when she was six, and an abusive stepmother. Powell ran away from home at the age of 13, moving in to her aunt’s boarding-house in nearby Shelby, Ohio. After graduating from Lake Erie College, she moved to New York in 1918 where she married Joseph Gousha, a promising young poet. Almost immediately, he gave up his literary career for one in advertising, dooming Powell to a penurious lifestyle.
Originally titled The Party (like her later novel), Powell’s Big Night is a hard-boiled and semi-autobiographical portrait of Ed Bonney, an advertising salesman on the verge of unemployment. When Ed throws a hastily assembled farrago of a party for Bert Jones, a potential client from Chicago, the ominous history “Jonesie” shares with Ed’s beautiful wife Myra comes to the fore. The play is a genuine discovery – tightly plotted, bitingly funny and tough-minded, shot through with a subtle but unmistakable sadness. It is decades ahead of Powell’s contemporaries in its depiction of women’s lives and the social striving at the heart of the American Dream.
Powell wrote a draft in 1928, and the play circulated among New York theatre circles. After renowned theatre critic Barrett Clark championed the play, it was optioned by the Theatre Guild, a company known for financing artistically ambitious plays, notably those of Eugene O’Neill. The Guild, however, sat on the play for four years. In 1932, former Guild member Harold Clurman optioned the work for his new company, The Group Theatre.
The result was disastrous. The Group – pioneers of “The Actor’s Method” – rehearsed the play for six months, improvising on top of Powell’s diamond-sharp dialogue and suggesting numerous rewrites for the sake of their characters. All of the changes were detrimental to Powell’s elevated style, and the play closed after nine disastrous performances. Writing in her diary on May 9, 1934, Powell noted: “My plays have the difficulty of my short stories – an excellent real treatment of character and dialogue on a structure of contrived, exaggerated and strained story.” She adds: “Except that Big Night wasn’t.”