Edna Ferber Drama Analysis
“Stagestruck” Edna Ferber, as she described herself, could not help writing plays, though she never attempted to do this alone. It appears, from a reading of those she wrote with George S. Kaufman, that she relied on Kaufman’s skill for timing and dialogue but that the characterizations are essentially her own. A consistent development in Ferber’s dramatic skills can be traced, beginning with her collaboration with Newman A. Levy, $1200 a Year.
$1200 a Year
Ferber wrote $1200 a Year with Levy during 1920, which was a transitional year in her life. Still living in Chicago but contemplating a permanent move to New York, she was at once attracted and repelled by city life and the large sums of money that could be earned there. She wrote to William Allen White that she hated the play even as she and Levy were writing it, that everyone but she seemed to be earning $100,000 a year, and that she was eager to work on her novel The Girls (1921). She describes the multiple coats of “paint” and “varnish” that she and Levy were applying to the play in an effort to make it stageworthy. This less than enthusiastic approach to the task may well have been one of the reasons for the play’s dismal failure. Sam Harris, who had agreed to produce the play, closed it after a week of Baltimore tryouts. Nevertheless, $1200 a Year reveals a good deal about Ferber as a developing playwright.
Broadly drawn characterizations and stereotypes developed through hyperbole appear throughout the work. The once-moneyed Massachusetts aristocracy, represented by the appropriately named Winthrop family, contrasts with the prosperous immigrant Cyrus McClure, the Scot who built the Wickley, Pennsylvania, steel mill, which supports most of the town’s affluent working class. These personalities, in turn, contrast with those of the mill workers, recent immigrants who have supplied the brawn that the system demands and so have prospered. Paul Stoddard, the protagonist, is a professor of economics at Dinsmore, the university maintained by McClure’s money. Stoddard teaches his students, among them McClure’s son Steven, the mysteries of political economy, and although he understands theoretically how to make great sums of money, he struggles to survive on his meager professor’s salary of twelve hundred dollars a year.
Stoddard’s lectures and research have dealt with the growth of fifteenth century English trade guilds. This has angered Cyrus McClure, who is a member of the Dinsmore Board of Trustees and who fears that the mill workers’ children attending the university will convince their parents to agitate for the establishment of unions at the mill.
When Stoddard first appears, McClure and the other trustees have already issued an ultimatum that the young professor delete this potentially inflammatory material from his lectures. Stoddard has met these demands by submitting his resignation. He decides to leave the threadbare aristocracy of college life and apply for a worker’s job at McClure’s mill. He completes the transformation to worker by living among the workers of the mill district.
Six months later, he has acquired all the material things he and his wife, Jean, have always wanted and has acquired as well a new group of friends, among whom is mill hand Chris Zsupnik. In his free time, Stoddard lectures to receptive audiences, outlining his theories on the potential power of workers, and his words soon have an effect. Significantly, the effect is most pronounced among American academics and other underpaid professionals who flock to join the ranks of unskilled laborers. These new workers create such an imbalance in the labor supply that colleges and universities all over the United States begin to close. What is more, factory and mill owners such as McClure threaten to cut wages to absorb the new supply of workers and maintain a market for the goods they produce. Another group of casualties includes academics who cannot make the transition to the working class. Jean’s older brother, Henry Adams Winthrop, who knows little of any historical event that has occurred since the Peloponnesian War, is now utterly unemployable.
Of necessity, a reversal now occurs. Stoddard’s fellow workers become convinced that the academic is merely doing a form of practical research and attempting to see if his theories really work. Jean is never comfortable with her working-class neighbors, even though she does like what Stoddard’s higher salary can buy. Jean is a characteristic Ferber heroine: She takes decisive action and bargains with McClure on her own. McClure shrewdly uses his interview with Jean to convince his mill workers that he, and not Stoddard, is their true friend.
The play is now at an impasse, which can be solved only by deus ex machina, which arrives in the form...
(The entire section is 1997 words.)