Rachel Crothers (KRUHTH-urz) not only wrote about but in many ways was the “New Woman” of the 1910’s and 1920’s. While she is best known today as a playwright, she was also an actor, director, designer, producer, and administrator. The youngest child of Dr. Eli K. Crothers and Marie DePew Crothers, Rachel was born in 1878 (although one recent source argues for 1879). She may have spent much of her youth with an aunt in Massachusetts, especially while her mother studied medicine before becoming, in 1883, one of the first women doctors in Illinois. Rachel graduated from Illinois State Normal University High School in 1891 and enrolled in the New England School of Dramatic Instruction in Boston, from which she earned a certificate the following year. After four years at home in Bloomington, Crothers moved to New York and attended the Stanhope-Wheatcroft Dramatic School, where she stayed for five years: a semester as a student, the rest as teacher and coach. In 1899, Stanhope-Wheatcroft students produced three of Crothers’s one-acts at the Madison Square Theatre. Crothers also appeared as an actor in several New York productions in the early 1900’s.
Her real professional debut as a playwright came in 1906, when The Three of Us played at the Madison Square Theatre for 227 performances and subsequently toured the Midwest. Critics hailed the play for its subtle realism and its tight structure, features that were to become hallmarks of Crothers’s dramaturgy. In 1908, Myself Bettina was directed by Crothers herself, a practice that was to become standard for her later in her career but was certainly uncommon for women of the period. While her earlier plays had strong women characters and a consistent moral tone, A Man’s World was Crothers’s first real examination of gender roles and the place of the “New Woman” in contemporary society—the theme for which she is best known. He and She, another significant work on this topic, debuted in Albany, New York, in 1911 but did not make it to Broadway until 1920. Crothers directed and played the female lead in the Broadway production, the only time she was to act in a professional production of one of her own plays. The Broadway run of only twenty-eight performances does not accurately reflect the play’s impact: It became the nexus of debates over the role of women in American society in the 1920’s. Subsequent significant works using similar themes included Mary the Third in 1923 and Susan and God in 1937. The latter was also the first original-cast Broadway production to be televised. Around 1934, Crothers worked briefly in films as a screenwriter and actor, but clearly theater, rather than film, was her forte.
Despite her stature as a dramatist, one could argue that Crothers’s most significant contribution to American culture came in administration. In 1917 she founded and led the Stage Women’s War Relief Board. She also chaired the Stage Relief Fund, a response to the Depression, beginning in 1932, and—probably most significantly—founded the American Theatre Wing and headed it from 1940 to 1945. She was especially important as a prime mover in the famous Stage Door Canteens sponsored by the wing. She died at her home in Connecticut in 1958 (a day earlier than most accounts indicate, as her obituary had already appeared on July 6).
Rachel Crothers won a number of awards, including election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1933 and the Chi Omega National Achievement Award in 1939. Her popularity waned considerably until the feminist movement revived interest in her work, beginning with a 1973 revival of He and She. Her plays have subsequently been performed regularly in regional and university theaters, although she has probably lost her status as the foremost American woman playwright of the first half of the twentieth century to Sophie Treadwell and Susan Glaspell.
Abramson, Doris. “Rachel Crothers: Broadway Feminist.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. This rather short chapter compares examinations of Crothers’s plays in feminist terms.
Gottlieb, Lois C. Rachel Crothers. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A comprehensive literary biography of Crothers, this book provides both critical analysis and historical perspective.
Lindroth, Colette, and James Lindroth. Rachel Crothers: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. The Lindroths concentrate attention on the production histories of Crothers’s plays. Includes a biographical sketch and an extensive bibliography.