Overtones Critical Overview
by Alice Gerstenberg

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

Overtones is recognized as the first example of visually depicting the Freudian split between the id and the ego onstage. As W. David Sievers notes in Freud on Broadway, ‘‘it marks the first departure from realism for the purpose of dramatizing the unconscious.’’ When the play premiered in 1915, it was a popular success and was ‘‘heralded as representing a new formula in theater,’’ according to Beverly M. Matherne, writing in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. The New York press did not give the play rave reviews, however. As Keith Newlin reports in his introduction to American Plays of the New Woman, the New York Times concentrated most of its critique on the other works presented on the same bill and only briefly noted of Overtones that its ‘‘idea was more clever than its execution.’’ Newlin also notes, however, that the New Republic was a bit more generous when it touted the play as an ‘‘interesting event’’ and stated that ‘‘Miss Gerstenberg’s success will incite other dramatists to try their hands’’ at plays of a similar form.

In this supposition, the New Republic was correct. Gerstenberg’s dual-character form was used by several other playwrights, including Eugene O’Neill. Echoes of her work can also be found in the plays of ‘‘Sophie Treadwell, Adrienne Kennedy, Marsha Norman, and Peter Nichols,’’ according to Mary Maddock in Modern Drama. Recent critics still consider the play to be an important milestone in American theatre history. Hecht calls the play ‘‘telling and innovative.’’ Maddock states that Overtones initiated a ‘‘significant trend in twentiethcentury American drama.’’