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Not Smart

by Wilbur Daniel Steele


In a letter to his parents on the day of its Summer of 1916 opening, Wilbur Daniel Steele wrote that he’d been busy rehearsing his play, Not Smart, and that his wife Margaret, playing the “leading lady,” was “doing well.”  He also mentions the other two women performing in it: Mary [Vorse O’Brien] and Margaret’s cousin, Nani Bailey.(1)  It seems, however, that Ballantine was playing the male lead and Steele complained that “he doesn’t understand the part, and the whole thing falls flat (it’s a comedy supposedly) and I’m in despair.  I’ll never do another.”(2)  Mary Heaton Vorse, who had known Steele intimately in years past, wrote that when Steele worked with the Provincetown Players he “still had the gay high spirits of a kid in college,”(3) but the letter to his parents speaks not only of his frustration with the rehearsals of his play, but also his frustration with his career as a writer.  Though one of his short stories, “The Yellow Cat,” was included in Edward O’Brien’s Best Short Stories of 1915 (and three others listed in his honor roll, with two at the next level, and five with honorable mention), recognition alone couldn’t cover the cost of a new house purchased on the west end of Provincetown and a young child.  Steele’s relative isolation on the Cape was another concern.  William Wyman writes that during this period, Steele felt the “pervasive” and “constant pressure” to “achieve some sort of tangible success,” and points out that of the 193 letters written by Steele before 1920, forty-nine of them speak of financial problems and publishing difficulties.(4)  His reputation as a worrier was matched with a work ethic that demanded he write five-hundred to six-hundred words a day.(5)

When the play was presented in the fourth bill of the 1918-1919 season, critic John Corbin begins his review of this bill in the New York Times with a kind of travelogue of his trip to the Village, presumably with the purpose see the Provincetown’s fourth bill of plays.  He seems to want to dispel any doubts that anti-Victorianism is prevalent in the Village, opening his article by stating that “like Barnum’s Victorian circus, the Village is the greatest moral show on earth.”(6)  He describes dinner at Polly’s, where he watched a lesbian couple holding hands at their table, and then he describes going to the Mad Hatter, where two women drank and smoked cigarettes, the younger woman asking the elder if her desire to give the “proper impression” by wearing a smock in the Village seemed correct.  The elder woman responds, “You must have given a great deal of thought to this,” to which the younger replies, “Days and days together!”  Corbin feigns that he fought with his mind that he “must have dreamed it, dramatized it,” but this companion’s confirmation was evidence it was true.(7)   He then describes the bill of plays as the ultimate proof of his thesis about the Village, relating Wilbur Daniel Steele’s Not Smart to his pre-show visit by writing that it “is the conscious and highly amusing expression at once of what lay beneath the primordial hand-holding at Polly’s and the tacit implied comment of the elder Villager at the Mad Hatter.”(8) 

Not Smart is set on Cape Cod in Provincetown, and the title of the play refers to a Portuguese colloquialism for a woman who has gotten pregnant out of wedlock.  Believing this to be the state of their Portuguese maid, her married employers, artists Milo and Fannie Tate, try to help her.  Fannie, however, becomes suspicious that her husband has put the maid in this condition because of his “open” attitude in stating his affection for her.  The suspicion is furthered when a female friend, Mrs. Painter, arrives and states her own husband has admitted an affair and left her.  The comedy of the play, which Corbin says is “uproarious, consists in the ensuing contrast between their professed Village morality and their instinctive reaction to what, for the moment appear to be its consequences.”(9)  Because the maid, Mattie, does not speak good English, she really is not sure what’s going on through most of the play, until her husband comes and confirms that she is, in fact, pregnant with his child, absolving the artist who has even begun to doubt his role in the situation.  Corbin seeks to prove that the Provincetown Players had consistently made these kinds of statements about Village morality in other plays they’d presented, including Glaspell and Cook’s Suppressed Desires and Lawrence Langner’s Another Way Out, each pointing out that an overreach of anti-Victorian morality only led characters in these plays to ultimately embrace traditional values and institutions, particularly marriage.(10) 

Tribune critic Heywood Broun uses this bill in a similar editorial way, but to underscore a different theme: instructing playwrights how good satire really should be written.  He begins by stating that Not Smart does it right, ultimately using the metaphor that a satirist is a “rapiersman, and if there exists no guard through which he must slip the work is plain murder,” continuing to give a thorough use of the metaphor as a lesson.  He says of Not Smart that Steele’s “swordsmanship is brilliant if not sound, and when he is laid low there is the feeling that the audience has had a run for its money.”  He gives a positive review to James Light in his role as Milo Tate, whom Broun identifies as the “exponent of the Greenwich Village point of view,” stating that he gives “an exceedingly amusing and sympathetic interpretation of a cleverly devised role.”  He calls Blanche Hays (as Mrs. Painter) and Christine Ell (as Mattie) “effective,” but dismisses Ida Rauh’s performance as Fannie Tate by claiming she “is less effective in farce than in more substantial drama.”(11)  The set for this play was designed by W. G. Reinecke, the only time he is credited with designing for the Players.(12)

Though it was the play’s first New York production when presented on this bill in 1919, it came at a time when Wilbur Daniel Steele’s reputation as a writer was at a high indeed, albeit as a short story writer.  In 1917, Edward J. O’Brien, editor of Best Short Stories of America, dedicated that year’s volume to Steele, and declared that, compared to his fellow short story writers, “there’s nobody else in the running with you anymore.”(13)  In February 1918, Bookman magazine named him among America’s eleven best writers.  After spending the summer of 1918 in Provincetown, Steele set out in the early fall, working as a foreign correspondent off the coasts of Ireland, England, and France with the US Navy to write three articles for Cosmopolitan Magazine.  One of the results was his highly-praised story “Contact.”By the time he returned in October, his first collection of short stories had been published, Land’s End and Other Stories.  He won second place in the first annual O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories, instituted in 1918 and awarded in 1919, though three of his stories were actually nominated in that inaugural year.(14)  Steele would eventually win ten more O. Henry awards between 1919 and 1931.

Steele’s deepest connection with the Provincetown Players had been at its inception in 1915, when his play Contemporaries was part of the second bill that summer and then through their two summer seasons in Provincetown.  Biographer Martin Bucco says that Steele broke off his relationship with the Players after a few years, “but he did at first draw strength from their tribal ritualism.”(15)  He clearly kept in constant contact with those who frequented Provincetown (most of the company continued to summer there yearly), and he also developed a close friendship with O’Neill.  In the introduction to The Terrible Woman and Other One Act Plays , which contains Not Smart and waspublished in 1925, publisher Frank Shay writes that Steele is “one of those rare writers who are rapidly disappearing from this systematic and specialized world, for writing is his vocation and writing in all forms is within his power.”(16)

© Jeff Kennedy 2007.

(1) Deutsch and Hanau (13) list Christine Ell as playing the servant girl, but Steele’s letter makes this not probable.  Ell is not mentioned anywhere else as having even been in Provincetown the summer of 1916.  She is listed in the part in the November 1919 mounting by the Players.

(2) William Daniel Steele, Letter to parents, 28 July 1916 (Steele papers, Special Collections, Stanford University Library).

(3) Vorse, Time 122.

(4) Wyman, Diss. 23-24.

(5) Wyman, Diss. 88.

(6) John Corbin, New York Times, 23 February 1919, sec IV, col 1-2: 2.

(7) John Corbin, New York Times, 23 February 1919, sec IV, col 1-2: 2.

(8) John Corbin, New York Times, 23 February 1919, sec IV, col 1-2: 2.

(9) John Corbin, New York Times, 23 February 1919, sec IV, col 1-2: 2.

(10) Corbin does not further his case by referencing Glaspell and Cook’s Tickless Time and/or any of Floyd Dell’s early contributions, which also parodied prevalent Village practices and moralities.

(11) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 23 February 1919, sec. VII, cols 1 & 2: 1

(12) Kenton 97.

(13) Bucco 35.

(14) There was quite a debate amongst the judging committee as to whether “Contact,” with its military subject matter, was an article or a story.  “Three of the committee think it a short-story; two declare it an article; all agree that no finer instance of literature in brief for was published in 1919.” <http://www.blackmask.com/thatway/books153c/oprizinetdex.htm>

(15) Bucco 34.

(16) Bucco 68.  Bucco most likely misidentifies the writer of this introduction as George Cram Cook.  Cook had already died in Greece before this book was published.