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The Athenian Women
by George Cram Cook


When considering Cook’s impetus to write his full-length play, The Athenian Women, the first full-length to be performed by the Players, one recalls that Cook watched Lysistrata in 1915 and responded with tears to this comedy for want of a “freedom to deal with life in literature as frankly as Aristophanes” and for a society like his, which had “the habit of thinking and talking frankly of life.”(1)  Susan Kemper, in her highly-researched and thorough analysis of the play, traces Cook’s written opposition to the war in his columns and articles from 1914.  With Cook’s love of Greek culture, his knowledge of their history and philosophy, and his belief that it had much to speak to modern society, his writing of The Athenian Women was clearly the culmination of all he felt passionate about.

Kemper successfully compresses an explanation of the ideas of the three-act play into a single paragraph: “the first dealing with a plan to bring about peace, the second with the successful implementation of the plan, and the  third . . . with the failure of peace and inevitable onset of war.”(2)  The thematic conflict of the play is the choice between war and beauty, which, Kemper writes that Cook implies, “cannot hold sway at the same time; yet these contradictory impulses constitute a given in human society, and in the mind of most individuals as well.”  The play is clearly anti-war, but Kemper contends it “transcends” that simple label, “expressing as it does some of Cook’s deepest perceptions about the ambivalence of human nature and the precarious position peace and beauty occupy in the affairs of men in the rare times they are able to prevail at all.”(3)

The plot of the play comes from Cook’s contention that a real-life event/person must have spurred Aristophenes’ writing of Lysistrata, the story of a sex-strike by the women of Athens to stop a war,and that Aspasia, who would become Pericles’ new wife just prior to the Thirty Year Peace of 445 B.C., was the most-likely impetus.  The plot, then, has as its main players Aspasia, a foreigner in that she is not of Athenian blood; her lover Lysicles, who in Greek history Aspasia was not with until after her marriage to Pericles but here Cook uses dramatic license; Pericles; and Kallia, a cousin to whom Pericles was married before meeting Aspasia.  Each of the play’s three acts are given titles: Act I is “Kallia and Aspasia.”  Aspasia is a wise and articulate woman who is instructing Lysicles to stop the re-election of Pericles because he seeks war with their enemy.  Kallia, who is Pericles’ wife, is brought by friend Hermippos to Aspasia to seek her wisdom and power of influence, but Aspasia is unaware of who Kallia is married to and, when Lysicles returns with news of Pericles’ victory, they show their contempt for Pericles openly.  By this time, however, Kallia has already been swayed by Aspasia against war and Aspasia is given an idea when Kallia says “Being like you each woman in Athens could turn her man against the war.”(4)  Aspasia asks Kallia, whom she finds is a president of her deme, to allow her to speak for an hour to the Thesmophoria, the women’s assembly, which Aspasia is not even allowed to attend much less speak to since she is not pure Athenian.  Kallia agrees, delighted that the assembly could be “confronted with something real,”(5) and the plan is laid that the women will remain at the festival until the men of Athens have made peace with their enemies.  It is then that Kallia reveals she is Pericles’ wife, initially putting fear in Aspasia, but as she looks into Kallia eyes, Aspasia realizes “Oh! You will not betray me! I was right to trust you!”  Kallia responds, “I’m afraid I love you more than I love him.”  The scene ends with Aspasia “looking intently into Kallia’s eyes” and saying “Be true to me Kallia! Be true to this moment.”(6) 

Act II, titled “The Women’s Peace,” is the story of how the women of the Thesmophoria enact Aspasia’s plan.  The women send away all authorities who try to dissuade them until they know for sure that there are negotiations for peace underway with Sparta.  Pericles comes to the assembly himself and speaks to Aspasia, who “convinces Pericles that Athens must become the Artist rather than the Warrior, and shows him how to stay in power to carry out this completely new political program.”(7)  Pericles, who is furious with Kallia for her stand against the war, now shifts his affections to Aspasia, which in turn causes Lysicles’ to become jealous and he decides to leave.  Aspasia pleads to Pericles for her friend, telling him that Kallia has helped her stop the war “with her heart breaking—because it divided her from you,” though confessing that “the realization of your dream of the City Beautiful is at this moment nearer to my heart than anything on earth.”(8)  Pericles kisses Aspasia, despite her initial hesitancy, and though she appeals for Kallia’s understanding, telling her “Our woman’s friendship—I think it is a strange new power in the world. Save our league at any cost,” she still must admit that “Pericles kissed me, and I’m drunk with it—I don’t know what I’m doing.”  Kallia leaves her, now considering Aspasia an enemy, and she is banished from Pericles’ home.

Fourteen years pass between Act II and III, during which time Athens under Pericles becomes the city of beauty and perfection that Aspasia had dreamed about.  Act III is titled “A Candle in the Darkness.”  During it, there are lyrical, almost wistful moments as the artists who have created the buildings and works of art of Athens sit with Pericles and Aspasia to reflect on what they have created, ruminating about the odd position artists are in when their work is completed.  Trouble brews, however, as Kallia and her ex-husband Hermippos have teamed up with false accusations to bring down Pericles and Aspasia.  When Aspasia meets with Kallia, hoping to join forces again for the cause of peace, she sees Kallia’s resentment, exemplified in the line, “I am for the rule of the best in Greece, and you are not the best.”(9)  Aspasia replies to Kallia’s desire to see the corrupt government of Athens overthrown with, as Kemper says, a speech that “is certainly elicited in the anti-war cause”: 

Democracy!  Aristocracy!  Don’t you know in your heart, Kallia, that there is no other such disaster as this war of exhaustion which has been the nightmare of our lives?  It will bring into the world evil which outweighs a thousandfold the good which victory can bring to either democracy or aristocracy. . . . Be careful, Kallia, lest ten or twenty years from now, with Athens and Sparta bleeding to death, their splendid vital energy forever gone, their generous spirits grown hateful with long hatred, you are compelled to look back to this night and say: “I might have prevented this!”(10)

Kallia is moved enough by this to admit she is “torn in two,”(11) but it is too late; Athens kills some prisoners from Thebes and the war begins.  Aspasia responds, “And it is we—we first—the nobler-minded—whose minds have first darkened back into barbaric hate!  Treason and murder in this night of horror open the war in Greece.  The rest is darkness!”(12)  The play ends in the house of Pericles as it is storming outside, Aspasia and Pericles there with their artist-friends.  Aspasia says: “O Pericles—our great bright circle—this life which has created beauty—we have been but a candle burning in the darkness—a point in space—a bright ripple on a black wave—a boat on a shoreless sea!”(13)

The Athenian Women premiered on March 1, 1918 and ran for seven performances.(14) Though Cook centers the play around the four main characters, there were thirty-plus characters and the production was the largest yet attempted by the Players on many levels.  While three different sets would be common for a Players’ bill, the staging and costuming of twenty-five performers, five of which performed multiple roles, would be the real challenge, particularly considering the size of the Players’ stage.  Nina Moise helmed the direction of the play, adding a set of three steps that led down into the audience, “breaking,” if you will, the arch typically seen as a boundary in other Players’ productions.  Kenton writes that

Justifiable advantage was taken of the exit door near the stage, held to the stage by drapings and by three broad shallow steps, built down from the stage, literally into the audience.  From these steps messengers, archons and incensed statesmen with a few lines to speak, delivered a goodly number of them, thus preserving the stage grouping inviolate.

Kenton goes on to say that Moise worked the grouping of actors in such a way that “at no moment of the play did the little stage seem cluttered or overfilled.  It was a real triumph in production against staggering physical odds.”(15)  Emma Goldman was at the opening performance and brought her friend Mary Eleanor Fitzgerald, who, contradicting Kenton somewhat, remembered the “stage was inordinately crowded, that the building was cold, and that the actors, in their cheesecloth robes, with difficulty cloaked their shivers in Periclean dignity.”(16)  Heywood Broun reviewed the play for the New York Tribune and felt the “producer,” (meaning Moise) had done “extraordinarily well,” though he didn’t mention her by name.(17)  Costumes were created and/or found by Helen Zagat, simulating the styles of ancient Greece of fifth century B.C..  Ira Remsen, who had by now become a regular designer for the group, created the Athens locations using a combination of draperies, painted flats, cutouts and set pieces, leaving lots of open space for the many actors the play required in which to maneuver.  Kenton describes that Remsen’s designs were “handled so simply and so deftly, with low furniture, again broad and shallow steps, or a garden seat whose curve of line so carried the mind and almost the eyes beyond the limitations of actual area, as to give a real sense of space.”(18)  Broun thought the sets were “extremely attractive.”(19)

Obviously, more actors were used at one time than in any previous play by the group; playwrights, less active members, set painters, and new friends were corralled to perform in the play.  Charles Ellis, who lived upstairs at 139 Macdougal with roommate James Light,(20) was “painting his heart out on a cutout of the Acropolis for the show’s set when “suddenly I heard Jig’s voice call out from the back of the auditorium. ‘You are going to play the part of the boy who designed the Acropolis,’” and replaced the actor already assigned to the part with Ellis.(21)  A letter from Hutchins Hapgood to Neith Boyce seems to indicate that Cook took over the role of Pericles at the last minute, though from whom it’s not clear; noticeably missing from the cast is Hutchinson Collins and Justus Sheffield, typically thought of as two of the Players’ strongest actors.(22)  Floyd Dell, Rita Wellman, Dorothy Upjohn, Christine Ell, O. K. Liveright, Augusta Cary and Alice MacDougal were among those in the cast.  Beyond Cook, the other lead roles went to Ida Rauh as Aspasia, Marjorie Lacey Baker as Kallia, and Sidney K. Powell as Lysicles.  Broun overall liked Rauh’s performance, though he disliked her “fondness for overhead gestures.”  Of Cook’s Pericles, he wrote that he didn’t make him seem “much more than a very recently commissioned second lieutenant in the reserve corps.”  He saved his unreserved compliments for Marjory Lacey Baker, whom, Kallia, he said had “an extraordinary moving voice and an easy grace and presence.”(23)  The Players went “on the road” for the first time with a production, moving The Athenian Women to the Bramhall Playhouse uptown on East 27th Street to perform for the Women’s Peace Party of New York.  The Bramhall must have been a very interesting experience for the group, with larger seating capacity, balcony, “better stage equipment, commodious plush-seated chairs and a voluptuous atmosphere,” as described by Kreymborg.(24)

Broun applauds that the Players actually put all of those actors on a twelve foot stage, though notes that “occasionally there is a disturbing suggestion of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”  Of Moise’s work, he says that is “an example of what may be accomplished when taste is substituted for money in the mounting of a play.”  His overall impression of the play was that it suffered “from the too obvious attempt to state present-day problems in terms of Greece, causing the spectator to hurtle “out of the illusion.”  However, the larger flaw, he thought, was that the two lead roles were “not well matched” and that the “part of Aspasia is so much better written and so much better played,” than was Pericles, causing “that tingle of conflict” to be “absent” from the play.(25)  These final comments were evidently difficult for Cook to take, and so he wrote a response on March 20, 1917, almost two weeks after the run of the play had ended.  This document was later used as the preface to the published version of the play, released in 1926 after his death.  Here are excerpts from that document:

A play must be true to its own orbit, not to history, unless history happens to be true to it.  Critics of The Athenian Women, however, have too readily assumed that the play diverges from Greek fact to make a modern parallel.  I feel rather that those Athenian events could not be truly perceived by me until I looked back on them from the similar tragedy of our time.  Sharing a world-experience like that of the Peloponnesian War, we can feel its story more deeply than any generation between theirs and ours. . .

He likens the current war to the Peloponnesian in that both were “brewing” for a long time.(26) Glaspell reports how the summer before as Cook was writing the play, he was reading simultaneously both the daily news about the war in Europe and the Greek historian Thucydides, quoting aloud the ancient historian’s words, “In all human probability these things will happen again.”(27)  He defends his take on Greek history that is espoused in the play, saying it explains many events that are currently not understood, particularly Pericles’ marriage to Aspasia and the years of peace.

Perhaps in this the play diverges more from our historical accounts than from the events themselves.  Whether or not true in this instance, it is true in general that the brooding dream which brings a play to life is of a nature to bridge with truth gaps not filled by those poor piecemeal records from which men must write history.  This is particularly true of those sources of public events which trace back into privacies of soul.(28)

Cook ends up not so much defending his deductions of Greek history, though he does take a lot of time explaining them, as much as he defends the right of the playwright/artist to exercise his imagination.  Cook’s tragic vision of this story was justified by a bawdy comedy about sex, yet Cook has removed all of that from the story and, as Kemper points out, “the emphasis is not on sex, but love.”(29)  Kemper also points out that Cook seems to have missed why Aristophanes could use an improbable situation in Athenian society, i.e. women displaying and using that kind of power, for the core of his play.  She cites Robert W. Corrigan’s identification of this element as the “comic conceit,” which allows the normally improbable, in this case, women in positions of power or leadership, to create the comic situation.(30) 

The Athenian Women was obviously a labor of love for Cook, truly utilizing all of his gifts as an artist, educator and historian.  The play has a tightly structured plot and within it’s full length addresses even more themes beyond those already stated, including the process of creating art, the dream of peace, the “spiritual relationship between master and disciple,”(31) and the idea that, as Aspasia tells Pericles, “The real empire of Athens is not lost or won on battle-fields, but in the human spirit.”(32)  This was Cook’s way of responding to the war, and one can feel his disappointment that the play was not more effective.  However, it would remain some time before the Provincetown Players would be called upon to access such abundant production resources as were used for The Athenian Women.  Moise had initially wondered if the play should be done by a more experienced company when Cook first told her about it that past fall, but Cook told her, “I am confident we can rise to a big production of a thing people are intensely interested in”;(33) it seems he was right.  Glaspell writes that as she and Cook walked home from the last performance, Cook said “After a few years, we will go to Greece.  Maybe I can translate The Athenian Women into modern Greek and produce it in Athens.”(34)

One name noticeably missing from involvement in the play was Cook’s wife, though Glaspell’s support of her husband was evident.  With their dire need for actors, particularly women, it’s surprising to not see her name in the cast list, though she had only acted in her own plays to this point.  One possible reason for her distance could be that it was during this period that Cook was having an affair with Rauh, with whom he was playing opposite as the other lead character.  Like O’Neill’s affair with Bryant, particularly after she married Reed, the evidence for the Cook-Rauh affair is mostly found in letters written by those associated with the group.  Glaspell biographers Ozieblo and Ben-Zvi both remind one that Cook began his relationship with Glaspell while he was married, and that she lived in constant fear of him doing the same in their marriage.  Rauh had been married to Masses editor Max Eastman, but they had separated late in 1916, leaving Rauh to care for their son.  The irony of her affair with Cook was that she, at least while married to Eastman, believed in the more traditional idea that married people should only love each other, and this is one of the reasons Eastman left her.  Rauh had certainly turned her full attention and time to the Players after the onset of her separation and was in constant contact with Cook.  When the affair began is unknown, but Ben-Zvi cites two letters from Hapgood to Boyce, one in March 1918 that indicates Cook and Rauh were together and even contemplating “breaking” because she received better notices than Cook, one assumes for The Athenian Women.  The other letter was written two months later, Hapgood telling Boyce he’d spoken to Justus Sheffield and that “Susan is ‘hanging on’ to Jig, a distant second in the race with Ida.”(35)  The affair was enough of an event, however, for Harry Kemp to write about it thirteen years later in a fictionalized novel set in Provincetown titled Love Among the Cape Enders; Kemp’s ending has the two women confront each other in a physical knock-down, but are ultimately joined as sisters. One is struck by the intimate acting interaction required of Rauh and Glaspell just weeks before in Glaspell’s The Outside, not to mention the irony of the topic of the play if, indeed, Rauh was already involved with Cook at the time. 

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Glaspell, Road 249-250.

(2) Kemper 123.

(3) Kemper 124.

(4) George Cram Cook, The Athenian Women (Athens, Greece: H. F. Kauffman, 1926) 70.

(5) Cook, Athenian 76.

(6) Cook, Athenian 82.

(7) Sarlos, Provincetown 176.

(8) Cook, Athenian 188.

(9) Cook, Athenian 306.

(10) Cook, Athenian 308.

(11) Cook, Athenian 316.

(12) Cook,  Athenian 318.

(13) Cook, Athenian 320.

(14) Deutsch and Hanau incorrectly give April 1918 as when the play was performed.

(15) Kenton 71.

(16) Deutsch 27.

(17) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 4 Mar. 1918: 9.

(18) Kenton 71.

(19) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 4 Mar. 1918: 9.

(20) Light is noticeably missing from the cast list of The Athenian Women and through the rest of the season, most likely because he was taking classes at Columbia.

(21) Gelb, O’Neill 344.

(22) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 192.

(23) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 4 Mar. 1918: 9.

(24) Kreymborg, Troubadour 251.

(25) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 4 Mar. 1918: 9.

(26) Cook, Athenian 2.

(27) Glaspell, Road 267.

(28) Cook, Athenian 6.

(29) Kemper, 155

(30) Kemper 131.

(31) Glaspell, Road 84.

(32) Cook, Athenian 92.

(33) George Cram Cook, letter to Susan Glaspell, 24 Sept. 1917, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

(34) Glaspell, Road 263.

(35) Ben-Zvi, Glaspell 196-197.