Historical Context

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The New Woman
In the early 1900s an increasing number of women were leaving their homes and entering the workforce. The swell of industry taking place in the United States created more jobs than could be filled by the male population. More employees were needed to work in the new factories and industries, and women were there to answer the call. They were now not merely wives and mothers, but active participants in the economy, and this newfound independence led many to question their place within society. They began to push the bounds of acceptable behavior and to call for equal rights and the right to have a say in matters of government. The ‘‘new woman’’ had more power, was more opinionated, and was more self-determined than females of the previous generations had been. With this surge in women’s self-confidence also came a backlash of resistance, and a strong debate arose over the proper role of women in society. Out of this debate rose the feminist movement, a drive for women’s rights and equality that still persists today.

Women’s Suffrage
In 1915 the fight for women to win the vote was in full swing. From 1905 to 1910 the National American Woman Suffrage Association grew from seventeen thousand members to seventy-five thousand. In 1912 the Progressive Party, led by Theodore Roosevelt, finally endorsed the suffragist position. On January 12, 1915, the women’s suffrage amendment failed in the House of Representatives. The suffragettes were not deterred, however. They continued their struggle and finally succeeded in winning women the right to vote in 1919.

Little Theatre Movement
In the early 1900s the theatre was dominated by large commercial institutions that were run by powerful and wealthy entrepreneurs. The commercial aspects of these establishments caused them to offer popular, ‘‘safe’’ productions that would bring in as much money as possible. Little thought was given to artistic innovation or risk-taking. Around 1912 that began to change with the advent of the ‘‘little theatre’’ movement. The little theatres were founded by local artists and based upon similar independent theatres that had been established in Europe. The actors and technicians were not paid, and the theatres relied on subscriptions and donations for financial support. They usually presented small, inexpensive productions and experimented with form and style previously unseen by most audiences. One of the most influential of these was the Chicago Little Theatre, formed by Maurice Brown in 1912. Alice Gerstenberg was a member of this theatre during its first season.

Freud and Psychoanalysis
In 1909 the famous pioneers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, traveled to the United States to give the first American lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Massachusetts. The lectures were published in 1910, and suddenly much of the American population became interested in the topic of psychology and of the subconscious mind. Articles on Freud’s theories began appearing in many of the popular literary magazines of the day and they became a common topic of parlor conversation. Freud intrigued and shocked American society with his frank discussions of sexuality and deviance, and his theories eventually led to a change in attitude toward members of society who were considered to be insane or psychologically impaired.

Literary Style

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Dual CharactersOvertones is the first known instance of a playwright using two actresses to portray a single character. By splitting each character into two parts, Gerstenberg allows the audience to hear the inner thoughts and desires of the character without having to stop the action. Prior to this, when a playwright wanted the audience to hear a character’s private thoughts, he or she would use an aside or a soliloquy

(This entire section contains 537 words.)

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soliloquy. An aside is when a character speaks directly to the audience, without the other characters onstage hearing him or her. A soliloquy is when a character is alone onstage speaking his or her thoughts out loud. Both of these techniques often bring a momentary halt to the action of the play. Gerstenberg’s dual-character technique allowed the audience to experience the ‘‘outside’’ and the ‘‘inside’’ of the characters simultaneously, thus creating the possibility of continuous action and of an additional set of internal character conflicts that could be visually experienced.

Symbolism Gerstenberg uses various types of symbolism throughout Overtones. She uses both visual and textual means to convey symbolic concepts. Also, Hetty and Maggie each wear darker versions of her respective counterpart’s costume colors. This symbolizes the attachment between each character and her primitive self, and also suggests the deeper, darker emotions that Hetty and Maggie harbor. In addition to the color, the style of the costumes also serves a symbolic function. In the stage directions, Gerstenberg describes the cultured characters’ gowns as made of chiffon, in order to suggest the ‘‘possibility of primitive and cultured selves merging into one woman.’’ The title of the play also functions as a symbol. Overtone is defined as an ulterior, usually implicit meaning, or a hint. In the play, Gerstenberg lays out this symbolism for the audience when she has Harriet remark to Hetty, ‘‘I am your subtle overtone.’’

ShadowingOvertones uses the visual technique of shadowing to help the audience make the connection between the disparate parts of each character. Each primitive self stands behind her respective cultured self and shadows her by using similar gestures. The primitive self also moves around the stage in conjunction with her counterpart. The shadowing primitive self is always behind the cultured character, sometimes looming over them, thus creating a visual image which reinforces the duality present in Margaret and Harriet, and the threat that Maggie and Hetty provide.

Unity of Time and Place Unity of time and place occurs in a play when it takes place in one setting and in real time. In other words, there are no jumps to another place and there is no passing of time in which the story is picked up later. Overtones has a strong unity of time and place because it takes place in one room and the audience experiences the entire meeting between Harriet and Margaret. These type of plays were popular with small upstart theatres because they usually had small casts, one set, and thus were easy and inexpensive to produce. Gerstenberg often wrote specifically with these factors in mind. As Stuart J. Hecht notes in the Journal of Popular Culture, ‘‘Gerstenberg intended such performances as inexpensive productions which could help raise money to begin or sustain a local little theatre.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: The first phonograph is introduced by the Victor Talking Machine Company. By 1919 Americans spend more on phonographs and recordings than on most other forms of home entertainment.

Today: Phonograph records are no longer manufactured. The compact disc has replaced the phonograph record and many people own a compact disc player.

1910s: The average price of a new car is $600. A Model T costs $360. Most Americans do not own an automobile.

Today: Almost everyone has at least one car. The price of a bottom-of-the-line new car generally exceeds $10,000.

1910s: Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, becomes the first intersection in the United States to be equipped with an electric traffic light on August 5, 1914.

Today: Traffic lights are found in every major city in America. The colors red, yellow, and green are recognized as symbols for stop, caution and go, across the country.

1910s: Electric clocks are first introduced. Most people, however, still use windup clocks to keep track of time.

Today: Digital clocks and wristwatches are the most prominent time-telling devices. Clocks on computers and handheld devices can be set to the precise second.

1910s: The divorce rate is one in one thousand. Most people remain married no matter how difficult their situation may be.

Today: One in two marriages ends in divorce. There is no longer a horrible social stigma attached to being a divorced woman.

1910s: The life expectancy for a man in the United States is 48.4 years and for a woman is 51.8 years.

Today: The life expectancy for a man in the United States is 74.2 years and for a woman is 79.9 years. While better health care and medicine have lengthened general life expectancy, the entry of women into the workforce and the increased common stress of daily life has closed the gap between the sexes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Freud, Sigmund, The Ego and the Id, translated by Joan Riviere, edited by James Strachey, W. W. Norton & Co., 1960, pp. 11–21.

Hecht, Stuart J., ‘‘The Plays of Alice Gerstenberg: Cultural Hegemony in the American Little Theatre,’’ in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 26, No. 1, Summer 1992, pp. 1–16.

Maddock, Mary, ‘‘Alice Gerstenberg’s Overtones: The Demon in the Doll,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 474–84.

Matherne, Beverly M., ‘‘Alice Gerstenberg,’’ in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Lina Mainiero, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981, pp. 118–20.

Newlin, Keith, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in American Plays of the New Woman, edited by Keith Newlin, Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2000, pp. 1–29.

Sievers, W. David, ‘‘First Freudian Plays,’’ in Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1970, pp. 46–61.

Further Reading Appignanesi, Richard, and Oscar Zarate, Freud for Beginners, Pantheon, 1990. An exploration of Freud’s life and theories presented in cartoon form, this book covers Freud’s writings and terminology in an entertaining and accessible way.

Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins, eds., Women in American Theatre, Theatre Communications Group, 1987. This anthology contains a good overview of all facets of women’s theatre history in the United States. It includes discussions of numerous lesser-known figures and groups and also provides an extensive bibliography.

Diner, Steven J., A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, Hill & Wang, 1998. This book provides a cohesive social history of 1900 to 1920, a time which is considered the ‘‘progressive era’’ in the United States. It explores how the technological revolution during the early twentieth century transformed the lives of all Americans.

Kramer, Dale, Chicago Renaissance, Appleton-Century, 1966. Kramer presents a social history of the literary movement in Chicago from 1900 to 1930. The book extensively discusses the theatrical community of the time.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide