A literary visit with the Misses Zona Gale and Lulu Bett
A lobby card for the silent film version, with Lois Wilson and Clarence Burton.

SIERRA MADRE, Calif.—Ever hear of Zona Gale?

No? Well, let me tell you something about her.

Zona Gale (1874-1938) was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, in the year 1921.

Gale wrote journalism and novels based on her native Wisconsin. She supported the progressive politics of the La Follette family in her state, and identified herself with the suffragist and feminist movements of her day.

The work she is best remembered for is her novel Miss Lulu Bett, published in 1920, which became a bestseller. Seizing the opportunity, she adapted it to the stage, and it was that play that opened on Broadway on December 27, 1920, starring Carroll McComas, and winning Gale the Pulitzer.

The little Sierra Madre Playhouse, close to Pasadena, stages five or six main productions each season, and also presents one-night-only Off the Page stage readings of works they believe audiences might like to know and/or the company might like to fully produce. Miss Lulu Bett was the rarely seen offering on April 30th. I was curious to find out what made the Pulitzer committee so enthusiastic in 1921, and was not disappointed in the work, the professionalism of the readers, or the direction by Elina De Santos. This was not a fully realized production and was not subject to review. This is not a review.

Lulu Bett, a spinster in her mid-30s, lives with her sister Ina Deacon and her husband Dwight Deacon, and their two daughters Diana and Monona (a key to the author’s Wisconsin roots, as the capital of the state, Madison, sits at the edge of Lake Monona). Lulu is basically the family cook and house servant, not especially happy with her lot in life, but incapable of imagining anywhere else she would go or anything else she would do. Lulu and Ina’s aged mother Mrs. Bett also lives in the household. The time is “the present” and the place is “the middle class.”

When Dwight’s world-traveling brother Ninian turns up on a visit, he appreciates Lulu’s cooking and the glimmers of feisty willfulness that come out of her. While joking around one evening they find themselves accidentally married: The laws for a legal marriage in the state require nothing but wedding vows to be recited while a magistrate is in the room, and Dwight, a dentist, is also such a magistrate, or justice of the peace.

But rather than squirm out of this rather preposterous set-up for a play, Ninian and Lulu decide to stick with it and start enjoying married life. Off they go to a Southern honeymoon. Within a month, however, Lulu is back home. In Savannah, Ninian admitted that he was already legally married: 18 years prior he had wed a girl who left him after two years, and he claimed to have forgotten about her or thought she had died. Much in love with her husband, Lulu considers this a believable story. But Dwight does not wish to be known all over town as the brother of a bigamist, nor is there any proof of Ninian’s admission, and insists that she tell everyone instead that Ninian grew bored with her and left her. From her point of view, this is a far more humiliating story, and refuses to bow to the Deacons’ conformist, middle-class conventionality. Now for the first time since achieving a certain independence, she begins to complain about her circumstances. Her teenage niece Diana is also unhappy with her controlling parents and plans to elope with her boyfriend Bobby as a way to escape, but Lulu persuades her this is not a good solution (for one thing, they’re minors and couldn’t marry legally anyway).

Complicating Lulu’s life at this point is that a pleasant, modest, but profoundly uninspiring man from the town named Mr. Cornish, is rather sweet on her, and since she is now not married (and never was legally), he proposes to her. But Lulu has tasted freedom and decides, at least for now, to decline Mr. Cornish’s offer of marriage and set out on her own. In her final lines, she says, “Good-by. Good-by, all of you. I’m going I don’t know where—to work at I don’t know what. But I’m going from choice!”

That is the play that won Gale the Pulitzer (and the play we heard in Sierra Madre). But the producers felt that this radical independent feminist ending was hurting ticket sales. Theatergoers were not amenable to this Ibsen-like rejection of societal norms. So he insisted on a rewrite or he’d close the play down. In the second version, more commercially acceptable and far less challenging, Ninian shows up in the nick of time just as Lulu decides to go off, and asks her forgiveness. She agrees, saying, “I forgave you in Savannah, Georgia” (the miscreant man redeemed by the selfless love of the good woman, an old and tired theme in literature). And he has conveniently learned that his wife has died so he and Lulu can marry now if she wants to.

In 1921 Miss Lulu Bett was adapted for a silent film of the same name, directed by William C. deMille (older brother of Cecil B. DeMille—they spelled their names slightly differently).

Of, ahead, behind and out of its time

Although somewhat of a drawing-room drama, this play was ahead of its time in America (and made “of” its time with the second ending). There are some snappy lines, such as when Ninian muses aloud about the terms “Miss” and “Mrs.” that identify a woman’s marital state, and Lulu asks, “What kind of Mr. are you?”—an apropos question given what we later find out. And when Ninian wants to celebrate the marriage by taking the whole family into town to have a fancy restaurant dinner and see a play, it strikes the daft Mrs. Bett (Ina and Lulu’s mother) that once Lulu leaves, “Who’s going to do your work? That’s what comes of going to the theatre!”

Lulu makes the simple statement, “I’d like to earn something,” and it comes across as a renegade ingrate abandoning the “Father knows best” Deacon home. And it sets such a bad example: When Diana seeks to leave home and marry Bobby, she says, “I’m going to do just as I see best.” A good middle-class woman was not encouraged to put her own needs first: Indeed, after God, father, brother, husband and children, her needs came last! When Dwight tells her to be quiet about Ninian’s previous marriage, Lulu says, “I want people to know the truth…. Give me the only thing I’ve got—my pride.”

“You’re always thinking of yourself,” her brother-in-law accuses. “Who else thinks of me?” Lulu retorts.

Yet in curious ways Miss Lulu Bett was also behind its time and outside its time. Behind its time in the sense that, as noted, playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen had already raised such critical issues concerning relations between men and women in works such as A Doll’s House, and so for that matter had Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. In America Eugene O’Neill had already staged his early plays, and his Anna Christie would win the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

And outside its time, too. In 1920, women achieved the vote across America. Yet the play does not reference this fact in any way, nor the suffragist movement that led up to that milestone in democracy. Also, in 1920 many women were already working outside the home—as domestic workers in wealthier people’s homes, as farm workers, as textile mill workers, as telephone operators and secretaries; and just recently, in World War I, women had taken up jobs that men had given up to go to war. Gale makes no mention of such women working outside the home.

During the talkback after the play one astute woman in the audience pointed out a telling detail. The playwright has a character turning down the gas to lower the light, but by 1920 virtually all middle-class homes were already electrified. Could Zona Gale have actually been writing about an earlier period, maybe two or three decades before her supposed “present?” Would we hear and read this play with equal or maybe greater satisfaction if the characters were clothed in Victorian dress? The absence of specifics about any recent history or technology (I don’t recall any mention of telephones or automobiles, for example, though trains, yes) lends the play a kind of timelessness that captures the flavor of what likely occurs in many households even today—perhaps not in the United States or most Western nations, but in countries of the underdeveloped world where women’s rights are generations behind.

I wonder if some major company might want to stage Miss Lulu Bett for its centennial in 2020 and reassess its importance. Here’s an idle thought: Stage Act 1 in Victorian times (say, the 1880s), Act 2 in the 1920s, and Act 3 in present times.

Future staged readings in Sierra Madre

The next free Off the Page reading is The American Wife, by Stephen Fife and Ralph Pezzullo, on Mon., May 21, at 7 pm. Imagine you are Karen Roberts, a 35-year-old housewife and all-American woman. You have two young sons and are married to Eduardo, the Spanish husband you met during your junior year abroad. One night, you leave to pick up dinner, and when you come back, he’s gone. The next morning, he shows up on the front page of the newspaper, having been arrested as the suspected leader of a terrorist cell. Your life will never be the same.

Future readings are held on the last Monday of each month at 7 pm. Check the Playhouse website for updates.

The Sierra Madre Playhouse is located at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre 91024. Ample free parking is located behind the Playhouse. Admission is free, but donations accepted. Reservations are not necessary. For further information, including about the current main production of The Immigrant by Mark Harelik, through May 26, go to the company website : www.sierramadreplayhouse.org or call (626) 355-4318.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.