Born in 1874, Owen Davis was one of eight children of Abbie Gould Davis and Owen Warren Davis. His father, a graduate of Bowdoin College and a Civil War veteran, was primarily in the iron business, owning the Kathodin Iron Works and serving one term as president of the Society of American Iron Manufacturers. Later, he operated a photography studio on New York’s Forty-second Street. He died in 1920 of a heart attack.
Davis went to school in Bangor, Maine, and at the age of nine wrote his first play Diamond Cut Diamond: Or, The Rival Detectives. At the age of fourteen, he enrolled as a subfreshman at the University of Tennessee. To satisfy his father, Davis left after one year and attended Harvard. Because Harvard did not have a theater and drama department, Davis first majored in business and then transferred, in 1893, to the sciences to become a mining engineer. While at Harvard, Davis participated in football and track and organized the Society of Arts, under the auspices of which he produced his verse dramas. In 1893, he left Harvard without a degree and followed his family to Southern Kentucky, where he was hired by the Cumberland Valley Kentucky Railroad as a mining engineer. Dissatisfied, Davis decided that he wanted to become a playwright or an actor. In 1895, with twelve dollars in his pocket, he quit his job and went to New York City. Meeting with continual discouragement, Davis was finally aided by theater manger A. M. Palmer, whose influence helped Davis get work as a utility actor, stage manager, press agent, advance man, company manager, and in some instances assistant director for the Fanny Janauschek Troupe. Davis left the company in 1896, committed to becoming a writer.
Giving full attention to writing, Davis tried to sell his first play, For the White Rose. Meeting with rejection after rejection, he became determined to figure out a formula for the then-running successful plays. After studying the melodramas and the audiences, Davis discovered that he needed to write for the “eye rather than the ear”—that is, he needed to emphasize scenic elements. Davis also concluded that the successful melodramas depended on such common features as a strong love interest, the triumph of good over evil, and stock comic characters. Although For the White Rose was finally produced in 1898, Through the Breakers was to be Davis’s first successful play.
In January, 1901, Davis met Elizabeth Drury “Iza” Breyer, whom he married on April 23, 1902. They remained married for fifty-five years and had two sons. In 1902, Davis and Al “Sweetheart” Woods signed an agreement that led in 1905 to the well-known “Owen Davis-Al Woods Melodrama Factory,” from which fifty-nine plays were produced, the first being The Confessions of a Wife in 1905. While pouring out “Davidrama” after “Davidrama,” as his particular brand of melodrama was labeled, at a rate of eight or more per year, Davis began using such pseudonyms as Arthur Lamb, Martin Hurly, Walter Lawrence, George Walker, and John Oliver.
Not satisfied with his success as a popular playwright, Davis struggled to write serious drama. In 1918, he moved from the...
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