The Play

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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.

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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 more obnoxious without Lulu’s steadying influence. Suddenly, Lulu arrives. She left Ninian when he confessed that he might have a long-lost wife somewhere. Yet she insists that she loves him still and that he loves her. Dwight sets a condition for taking her back into the household: She must not disgrace the family by revealing the possible bigamy but must let people think that she is to blame for the failure of her marriage to Ninian.

The following evening Dwight lies to his daughters: “The truth is Lulu’s husband has tired of her and sent her home.” Then Lulu enters and asks Dwight for his brother’s address in Oregon. Lulu displays a new assertiveness as she presses Dwight to write a letter asking Ninian to confirm whether he was indeed previously married.

A week later Lulu and Cornish sing together at the piano. She can express herself while Dwight and Ina are away on a trip. An unopened letter from Ninian awaits Dwight’s return, but Mrs. Bett opens it to reveal Ninian’s proof that he had indeed been married and thus that he really wanted Lulu and had not invented an excuse to get rid of her. Cornish proposes marriage, but Lulu is evasive. Lulu prevents Di’s attempt to elope with Bobby. When Dwight and Ina return, Lulu stands up to Dwight to salvage her pride, but he reduces her to silence again by saying that Ninian could be jailed for bigamy if others learn the truth.

The published play offers two versions of act 3. In the revised text, written two weeks into the run and substituted for an ending that audiences had found too dark, Lulu leaves the house determined to make her own way in the world. Ninian arrives in time to catch her. Having tracked down proof that his first wife died, Ninian can offer Lulu an honest future as his wife. The original act 3 is set in Cornish’s piano store. Lulu comes to say good-bye on her way out of town. In this version, the letter from Ninian includes a lawyer’s letter testifying that his first wife is alive. Cornish proposes marriage, and Lulu will consider it eventually, but first she must go away to see life through her own eyes and to make her own choices.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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The Modern American Woman
During the 1920s the ‘‘new woman’’ appeared in America. Women no longer believed that marriage and family was the ultimate goal in life. Women were voting and taking part in America’s political life. Many women began seeking jobs outside of the home, which give them greater economic and social independence, and others became reformers and sought to improve social conditions for women. Women also exhibited greater independence in other ways, such as by wearing short, loose dresses, cutting their hair, and wearing makeup. Young women in particular began modeling their behavior after freethinking artists, such as writer Dorothy Parker. Married women, however, did not share these freedoms. A married woman was still expected to be a homemaker, which remained the ideal of American womanhood.

Women’s Rights
In 1920 after decades of struggle, women gained the right to vote with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Voting gave women the opportunity to influence American politics, and serve as political leaders. In 1924 Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming and Miriam ‘‘Ma’’ Wallace Ferguson of Texas became the first two female governors, and by 1928, 145 women held seats in state legislatures, and two women had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Female activists continued to seek broader social gains. Laws still regulated the types of work women could do, the pay they could receive, and the loans they could get. In 1923 the National Women’s Party proposed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution which would make such laws illegal. Women activists disagreed on whether the ERA should be passed, however, since some women protested that it would take away labor protections that they had fought hard to achieve. Other groups, such as the League of Women Voters, believed that the ERA would interfere with women’s roles in society. The ERA failed to win widespread political support, and it did not pass.

Rural vs. Urban America
As America became an increasingly urban and industrial society, the differences between city and rural residents became more apparent. For example, one of the key disagreements between rural and urban residents was over prohibition (the banning of alcoholic beverages). Rural residents often believed that city culture was less moral. Some urban writers responded by accusing rural residents of remaining ignorant of new technology and modern times.

The Midwest
Many of the Midwestern states relied on an agricultural economy. In the 1920s, prices for food crops dropped dramatically. For example, in 1919 a bushel of Nebraska corn sold for $1.22, but the following year, it sold for only 41 cents. Many farmers found it impossible to pay their debts, and nearly half a million lost their land. In an effort to solve their economic problems, farmers in the Midwest elected pro-agriculture members of Congress. Known as the Farm Bloc, these members of Congress hoped to pass legislation to ease the plight of farmers. They helped pass the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act, which placed high taxes on imported farm products. Intended to prevent foreign farm goods from being sold in the United States and thus raise demand and price for domestic crops, the tariff raised the cost of many consumer goods, which hurt everyone, including farmers. The federal government refused other suggestions to help the farmers, and only large farms or those with expensive, modern machinery prospered in the 1920s.

Literary Style

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Comedy
The majority of the comedy in the play derives from the shenanigans of the characters. Dwight’s pomposity—marked by his language, and most notably, his mispronunciation of words—is cause for mirth, especially since he does not recognize his own inflated self-importance. Di’s forbidden romance with Bobby Larkin plays out under the eyes of her witless family; at the end of act one, stage directions read, ‘‘At the window, behind the curtain, Di has just kissed Bobby goodby’’—all despite the presence of her mother, father, and prospective suitor in the very room. Mrs. Bett’s chronic confusion comes and goes in flashes—one minute she encourages Lulu to accompany the theater party and the next she forgets where everyone is going—but she still emerges as one of the few sensible members of the family. Comedy also arises from Gale’s use of repetition. For example in act II, scenes i and ii contain identical dialogue: ‘‘Mama, I have to go down to the liberry,’’ Di says—and action—the family is seated in the ‘‘approximate positions’’ on the porch.

Monona, left out of the family dramas because of her young age, craftily eggs her family on; as she informs her grandmother, ‘‘Oh, I like to get them [Dwight and Ina] going.’’ Other times, Monona sassily responds to her family’s constant shuttling her around, as when Ina tells her to run off and play and she ‘‘runs her circle and returns.’’ Monona’s one-liners, such as that ‘‘grown folks’’ do not act grown up, or her wondering if grown ups ‘‘always say something bad,’’ provide comic relief while giving voice to the truth as applies to this household.

Plot
The storyline of Miss Lulu Bett is quite simple: a spinster in her mid-thirties, long ill-treated and disrespected by her family and with seemingly no options to change her life, finds herself married to a man she met a week ago. She seizes the opportunity to escape, leaves her family’s home, but returns a month later with the news that the man was previously married and may still be so. Despite the simplicity of the story, and the characters as well, Gale raises themes of supreme importance of her day, namely, the domestic oppression of women and their lack of independence. The play also allows for a related subplot in Di’s attempted elopement with Bobby. She reveals to her aunt that she only wants to marry Bobby to get free from Dwight’s house; she does not love him, but she could learn to love almost anyone who treats her well. In this sense, Di’s problem reflects Lulu’s problems; the two women, though separated by some fifteen years, feel trapped and with little hope of any relevant future in the Deacon home. They both also have been so starved for genuine affection that kindness and attention, in any form, transforms into love.

Ending
As Gale saw it, her character Miss Lulu Bett had three different futures. In the novella, after learning that Ninian’s wife is still alive, Lulu mar ries Cornish. In the first version of the play, after learning that Ninian’s wife is still alive, Lulu sets off on her own, to make her way in the world. In the version of the play that won the Pulitzer Prize—the version generally known today—Ninian, having learned that his wife is dead, comes to the Deacon home to ask Lulu to return to him. The play’s ending is thus a happy ending, one that reunites a couple that has grown to love one another while at the same time, one that allows Lulu to escape the Deacon home with a more secure, stable future.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: The Nineteenth Amendment is passed in 1919 and ratified the following year, giving women in the United States the legal right to vote. In 1924, two states have female governors, and by 1928, 145 women serve in state legislatures and 2 women sit in Congress. In 1923 the National Women’s Party proposes an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many people, including women, oppose this amendment because they fear it will make legislation protecting women workers unconstitutional, and it fails to pass.

Today: More and more women are holding public office, with numbers rising continuously throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1999, 1,664 women hold offices in state legislatures. In 2002 74 women serve in Congress.

1920s: In 1920 women make up 20 percent of the workforce, but few hold professional jobs; instead, most are employed as domestics and servants. Throughout the decade, increasing numbers of women go to work outside the home— more than 2 million by the end of the 1920s. However, women continue to face obstacles in the workplace, such as the types of jobs they can get and the low pay they receive.

Today: By the beginning of the decade, around 48 million women, aged sixteen and over, are employed. These women make up about 44 percent of the American workforce. Women generally earn less money than men; on the average, women earn only 74 cents for every dollar a man earns. They also tend to be concentrated in fewer types of jobs.

1920s: For the first time in the country’s history, more Americans live in urban settings than in rural ones. A little over 50 million Americans live in rural settings compared to about 55 million who live in urban settings.

Today: In 1990, just over 75 percent of Americans live in urban areas.

Media Adaptations

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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 Wilson and Milton Sills. It is available through Nostalgia Family Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Goddard, Leslie, ‘‘Zona Gale,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 73–80.

Lewisohn, Ludwig, ‘‘Native Plays,’’ in Nation, Vol. 112, No. 2900, February 2, 1921, p. 189.

Simonson, Harold P., Zona Gale, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962, pp. 73–91.

Sommer, Elyse, Review of a production of Miss Lulu Bett, CurtainUp, http://www.curtainup.com/ (March 24, 2000).

Woollcott, Alexander, ‘‘Zona Gale’s Play,’’ in New York Times, December 28, 1920, p. 9.

Further Reading
Derleth, August, Still Small Voice: The Biography of Zona Gale, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1940. This in-depth biography, while more anecdotal than critical, provides an interesting look into Gale’s life and the literary times in which she lived. It also includes excerpts from Gale’s writing, including her poetry; other writers on Gale’s work; Gale’s unfinished autobiography; a selected bibliography; and photographs.

Nettels, Elsa, ‘‘Edith Wharton’s Correspondence with Zona Gale: ‘An Elder’s Warm Admiration and Interest,’’’ in Resources for American Literary Study, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1998, pp. 207–34. Wharton and Gale corresponded with thoughts about each other’s writing, and Wharton criticized the stark style employed in Miss Lulu Bett. In this article, Nettels investigates the helpful literary relationship between the two writers.

Williams, Deborah Lindsay, Not in Sisterhood: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and the Politics of Female Authorship, St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Williams investigates the transition in the early twentieth century from the model of the ‘‘lady author’’ to a new, but yet undefined alternative.

———, ‘‘Threats of Correspondence: The Letters of Edith Wharton, Zona Gale, and Willa Cather,’’ in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1997, pp. 211–39. Williams discusses why these women authors placed an importance on remaining separate from other women writers.

Bibliography

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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.

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