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On Parker's Plays

[Dorothy Parker collaborated on five plays: Close Harmony (1924, with Elmer Rice), The Happiest Man (1939, with Alan Campbell), The Coast of Illyria (1949, with Ross Evans), The Ladies of the Corridor (1953, with Arnaud D'Usseau), and The Ice Age (1955, with Arnaud D'Usseau, never produced). None of Parker's plays were ever box office hits, though Arthur F. Kinney argues that The Coast of Illyria and The Ladies of the Corridor are her strongest and worthy of more general and critical attention. Kinney provides an overview of all five plays in Dorothy Parker, Revised (1998), and discusses The Coast of Illyria in detail in his introduction to the University of Iowa Press edition (1990) of the play. The first excerpt below is taken from his introduction, though anyone with serious interest in her plays and her feminism should read Kinney's entire introduction, as well as the entire paper by Ann M. Fox also excerpted below.]

Arthur F. Kinney

The Coast of Illyria, long buried, forgotten, and unpublished until now, represents some of Dorothy Parker's finest and most mature work. The deeply felt theme of abandonment, which still gives to her bittersweet poetry its most haunting qualities, is combined with the rich understanding of despair that characterizes her prizewinning story "Big Blonde," now a classic, and her other fine play, written with Arnaud D'Usseau, The Ladies of the Corridor. But the issues raised in these other works -- still the most memorable works she has left us -- are explored in this play about Charles and Mary Lamb and their circle with a depth, a sensibility, and a subtlety unmatched in anything else she ever did. And like these other works, this too can be harrowingly autobiographical: The Coast of Illyria not only displays Dorothy Parker as the artist she aspired to be but also brings us closer to the woman herself.

[Kinney discusses factors in the lives of Charles and Mary Lamb (they were Romantic-era siblings) that may have attracted Parker to them: familial loss and estrangement, wit, friendships, attraction to the arts, drinking, self-destructive behavior, concern for the poor and downtrodden, and in particular, the perception during the 1940s that Mary Lamb was a victim of gender discrimination.]

Nowhere else would Dorothy Parker ever wrestle with herself in quite this way; nowhere else would she persistently probe the issues of genius and madness, of alcoholism and drugs and art, of women's rights and the plight of the poor, and the cost and anxiety, sweetness and anguish of one person's love for another. . . . the Mary Lamb of The Coast of Illyria is her finest tribute as it was her finest hour.

From Arthur F. Kinney. Introduction. The Coast of Illyria. By Dorothy Parker. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.

 Ann M. Fox

[The premise of the paper excerpted below is that realism has an important role in contemporary feminist drama, and that the plays of Dorothy Parker need to be re-examined in light of their contribution to that genre. Parker's plays, argues Fox, belong both on stage and in the classroom.]

All of Parker's plays deal with the stifling nature of convention, and with characters who attempt to negotiate through the expectations of others toward some semblance of happiness. The Ladies of the Corridor . . . . uses the setting of a residential hotel for ladies to interweave three main storylines. We see the decline of Mildred Tynan, who has fled an abusive marriage, but whose husband refuses to give her a divorce. Economically dependent on his sporadic checks and unequipped to do any work, she is spending her final days in an alcoholic haze; her despair culminates in a suicidal plunge from her window. Another story follows Lulu Ames, whose move to New York from Akron, Ohio, after being recently widowed underscores her continuing attempts throughout the play to also leave behind the stultifying convention that marked her married life. She becomes involved in an affair with Paul Osgood, a charming and kind bookseller a good deal younger than she. Ultimately, however, Lulu cannot shake her view of herself as existing only if she is everything to a man, and her possessiveness drives Paul away. Parker also tells the story of Mrs. Nichols and her son Charles; an invalid, Mrs. Nichols keeps her son Charles tightly bound to her as her caretaker. When he attempts to break free by seeking a teaching job, she threatens to take to any prospective employer an old scandal in which Charles was accused of making advances to a young male student.

The experiences of all the hotel's residents collectively diagram the female journey in this society from early marriage to middle-aged housewifery to widowhood, with disappointment and disillusionment being the hallmark of every point. Although the women are from all corners of the country -- from the South, the Midwest, California and upstate New York -- their experiences all dwindle to the same tragic end -- either literal death or death-in-life -- in the same locale. Lurking in the background, alternately invoking the Fates and a Greek chorus, are Mrs. Gordon and Mrs. Lauterbach, faded ladies of the corridor who prefigure the fate of all women in the hotel, measuring out their days in hair appointments, movies, and endless rounds of shopping and eating out. . . . The one happy ending is that of Connie Mercer, a friend and fellow resident of Lulu's who finds fulfillment in a career as an interior designer outside the hotel environs. . . . .

. . . Parker's work reads as an intervention into popular stage images of women at the time. The era when the triumvirate of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill ruled the American stage was well underway. . . . [These playwrights] had provided stage audiences with some jarring images of womanhood, images that largely followed the standard division of women into angels . . . or whores. . . . [Female characters] remained largely on the periphery, and even when they took center stage, it was often to perform some essential imbalance. Parker has ostensibly placed these women before an audience in an attempt to provide another glimpse into their position.

Parker's portraits not only answer the limitations of female characters in popular plays by male playwrights, they extend the critique already fomented by popular feminist plays such as The Women (1936) and The Little Foxes (1939). . . . As in both previous plays, the ladies of the corridor find themselves sharply restricted by the social constraints required for "ladylike" behavior. Parker layers image after image of enclosure in the play; the women are neatly parceled out to the rooms of the hotel, kept tucked away in a cellblock of sorts and out of sight once they have outlived their usefulness. . . . [T]hese women have been domesticated; their wildness gone, all they can do is be tended by their keepers, the kindly staff (mostly men, appropriately enough). . . .

In teaching The Ladies of the Corridor as a feminist play, we can come to understand Parker's justifiable pride in it.

From Ann M. Fox. "The Hall Monitor Who Broke the Rules: Teaching Dorothy Parker's The Ladies of the Corridor as Feminist Drama," in Critical Essays on Dorothy Parker. Ed. Rhonda S. Pettit. Forthcoming.

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