The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Dwight Deacon looks forward to capping his day as a dentist and justice of the peace by sitting down to a family meal cooked by his wife’s sister Lulu, a spinster who drudges for his family to earn her keep. However, his spoiled younger daughter Monona has been snitching cookies and refuses the creamed salmon. Lulu is asked to prepare milk toast for Monona, is reprimanded for buying a pink tulip in a pot for the center of the table, and is squelched when she tries to answer Dwight’s question about the price of canned salmon. The crotchety Mrs. Bett, mother of Lulu and Dwight’s wife Ina, has to be coaxed to the table. Elder daughter Di finally arrives, accompanied by Mr. Cornish, with whom she is flirting at the expense of her infatuated schoolmate Bobby. The tongue-tied Cornish clumsily tries to express his respect for Lulu, but every compliment misfires. Dwight announces that next week will bring a visit from Ninian, a brother he has not seen in twenty years.

A week later, Lulu is making apple pies and Ninian engages her in conversation. He sees how shabbily the others treat her. Lulu’s responses show both a quick wit and feelings of inferiority. Ninian invites her out to dinner and a show that evening. Dwight and Ina agree to come along. As the family gathers, Ninian jokingly passes the time by reciting marriage vows and Lulu plays along. It dawns on them that since Dwight is a justice of the peace, they are now legally married. Ninian proposes that he and Lulu depart for Savannah together right after the theater.

Act 2 is set on the Deacons’ side porch a month later. Dwight and Ina are manipulated by their daughters, whose behavior has become...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As a political and social activist involved in reform movements, Zona Gale had a broad agenda to create a climate in which people could be enlightened and uplifted. Yet, her dramatic method avoided didacticism. She allowed her characters to be themselves in ordinary circumstances, and audiences could draw their own moral lessons from the attitudes and behaviors on display. It could be argued that Miss Lulu Bett approaches melodrama in the polarity between unsympathetic and sympathetic characters.

Dwight might be a stock melodramatic villain, except that he is blissfully unaware of how awful he is. His mask of joviality allows him to get away with mendacity, vulgarity, hypocrisy, insults, and patronizing exploitation of others. His lack of self-awareness is laughable even as it is horrifying in the hurt it causes him to inflict. Even when he is most cruel, he sees himself as a paragon of generosity. The docile Lulu appears to be little match for him at first, especially as she sees herself as having nothing to offer anyone, apart from her cooking. Yet her finer impulses as well as the mettle that lies dormant within her are suggested early in the play. Dwight criticizes her for spending money on the potted pink tulip she has placed in the center of the table. Later in the scene, while Dwight is ranting about something else, Lulu reenters and calmly throws the flowerpot out the window. Still later, Lulu wears the tulip, which she has picked and pinned to her dress, a small act of defiance that prepares for her growing self-confidence once Ninian begins paying attention to her. The play abounds with many such artful bits of business that work subtly to enhance characterizations and plot points, but Gale was also not above deploying such time-tested melodramatic devices as keeping a crucial letter unopened and visible to the audience throughout a scene. The mock marriage that turns out to be binding is another hokey device that proves both credible and theatrically amusing in Gale’s hands.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Modern American Woman
During the 1920s the ‘‘new woman’’ appeared in America. Women no longer believed that marriage...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The majority of the comedy in the play derives from the shenanigans of the characters. Dwight’s pomposity—marked by...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1920s: The Nineteenth Amendment is passed in 1919 and ratified the following year, giving women in the United States the legal right...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Read the novella Miss Lulu Bett. How do the play and the novella compare? Which do you prefer? Why?

As Gale saw it, the...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Miss Lulu Bett was made into a silent film in 1921. It was directed by William C. DeMille, produced by Adolph Zukor, and starred Lois...

(The entire section is 35 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Gale’s best selling novella Miss Lulu Bett (1920) was the basis for the play of the same name. The play is very faithful to the...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Goddard, Leslie, ‘‘Zona Gale,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228: Twentieth-Century...

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barlow, Judith E. Plays by American Women, 1900-1930. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1985.

Schroeder, Patricia R. “Realism and Feminism in the Progressive Era.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Women Playwrights, edited by Brenda Murphy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Simonson, Harold P. Zona Gale. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.

(The entire section is 63 words.)