Critical Context

Zoë Akins merits more attention than she has received in the history of modern American drama. Even defenses of Akins often begin with the assumption that she wrote melodramas. Predictably, The Old Maid was dismissed as sentimental and out of date when it received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1935. Many critics thought that the Pulitzer Prize should have been awarded to the Lillian Hellman’s more controversial The Children’s Hour (pr., pb. 1934), but The Old Maid was a popular success in New York City and on tour.

Akins adapted The Old Maid from Edith Wharton’s novella, which appeared as one of four studies in a collection published under the title Old New York (1924). Wharton was so confident of Akins’s adaptation that she did not insist on approving the script before it was produced. Akins, like Wharton, was willing to oppose the prevailing approval of naturalism. Akins’s interest in character results in a compelling study of the conflict between society and the individual.