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The Widow's Veil

by Alice Rostetter


Alice L. Rostetter, an English teacher at nearby Washington Irving High School,(1) also began her involvement with the Players with the third bill of the 1918-19 season and to much critical acclaim, both as a playwright and actress.  Rostetter’s The Widow’s Veil was a timely play in that the central character's husband seems to be sick with Influenza, as were so many in the Players and millions around the world at this time.  Yet, without making light of the epidemic, the author writes a slyly dark comedy that Broun calls “the best one-act play we have seen in two seasons and among the notable achievements of the interesting organization in Macdougal Street.”(2)  Broun also cites Rostetter’s acting as “one of the best character performances we ever saw in our life,” causing him to ask around about the actress.  After finding out this was her first time on stage, Broun concludes that “acting is almost entirely an intuitive art, in which the untrained may show a high degree of excellence.”(3)  The Morning Telegraph comments that the play “is embellished to such an extent by Alice Rostetter’s acting that it is difficult to determine which is better.”(4)

The Widow’s Veil is a satiric comedy that takes the viewer into the lives and homes of two middle-to-lower class women who live in a New York tenement building, one assumes very like those that surrounded Washington Square and the Playhouse.  The plot is about a new young wife of Irish ancestry, “a ten day bride,”(5) with beautiful long red hair named Mrs. Katy MacManus, whose husband Pat is sick and appears to be dying.(6)  Her neighbor, Mrs. Phelan, with whom she shares a dumbwaiter (a kind of small elevator that allowed people to hoist up their packages to upper floors, typically shared by many on the same floor), fears the husband’s death is imminent and immediately checks on whether Mrs. MacManus has the proper clothing to be a widow, particularly the traditional “widow’s veil.”  Just days before, Pat McManus had said to his wife, “Katy, if I go to join the angels afore you do. . . ye must be marryin’ again. . . . the widow’s veil will become ye fine, and that hair warmin’ the heart of a man.”(7)  Though in sorrow and weeping at the prospect, Mrs. MacManus listens to Mrs. Phelan’s matter-of-fact pessimism about the fate of her husband and, in a dark delight, Mrs. Phelan borrows her cousin’s veil and brings it to Mrs. MacManus to try on.  Mrs. MacManus loves the way it looks on her, so when her husband revives in the morning, there’s actual regret she won’t get to wear it: “(regretfully, in pleasant reminiscence) It did become me, did it not, Mrs. Phelan?” and “It does look grand. It sets me fine . . . I never put a thing on me head that pleased me more.”(8)  MacManus returns the veil to attend to her now very awake and demanding husband; and Mrs. Phelan, with an almost romantic wistfulness, ends the play with “Ah, you never know the wurst till it comes. . . The poor, pretty young thing,” as she shuts the dumbwaiter door in “reproach and disappointment.”(9)  Broun says in his review of the play that it is “. . . human and observant. Not the least human thing about it is the thread of cynicism, which loses nothing of point from the fact that it is smooth and silky.”(10)

The traditional widow’s veil has its origin in the early years of the Christian church.  Like nuns, widows “disguised their sexuality under veils and draperies and wore deliberately old-fashioned clothes to demonstrate their lack of interest in fashionable society.”  The tradition continues today, though it has “succumbed somewhat to the temptation of fashion.”(11) As an Irish immigrant, the character’s wearing of a veil during mourning would have been a stronger tradition than for others living in America during this time period.  Great Britain’s Queen Victoria observed a long period of mourning after being widowed at the age of forty-two, and the veils and dresses she wore during this time had influenced tradition and style in the United Kingdom well into the 20th Century.  There was also an implicit pride in working-class families about wearing a widow’s veil during mourning, “perhaps because of the difficulty involved in providing it at all.”(12)  In this society, to have not worn one during mourning would have implied a woman had never been married at all.  The veil would also be an indication of her availability for marriage, as Mrs. MacManus’s husband indicated he wanted for his young bride. 

The one-act play’s structure is broken into three sections, each begun by the voices of other neighbors above and below the fifth floor tenements occupied by the play’s only two seen characters.  The script also calls for the curtain to drop and immediately rise (at the Provincetown the curtain opened out from the center), indicating morning between the second and third sections.  Though we don’t see the neighbors, we hear the sounds created by those using the busy dumbwaiter and the activities going on in some of the other apartments: “the muffled crying of an irritable baby,” doors opening and shutting, pails slammed onto the dumbwaiter, the whistles of the Janitor, the wind, the “joyous noise of hungry children,” a woman on the fourth floor humming a happy song, the “sleepy fretting of a child,” “slippered feet on oil cloth,” “muffled sound of a dog howling,” a father walking up and down on the sixth floor as a baby wails while the father croons to it, two cats, steam “heard crackling and clanking in the cold pipes,” and the voices of the Janitor, Johnny Phelan (son of Mrs. Phelan), the Grocer, and the women who live on the fourth (one decidedly Italian) and sixth floors, both left and right sides.  The play ends with life going on: two sharp whistles are heard and then the voice of the Janitor as she shouts: “Garbage!”  Though the stage directions call for “a sizzling and pleasant smell” to escape from Mrs. Phelan’s kitchen door when it is opened at one point, one wonders if this production tried to accommodate such a unique stage request.  The play’s director, George Cram Cook, must have had his hands full directing the actors and their timing to create the many sounds and voices performed behind the set and somehow performed to indicate people both below and above the characters on stage.  The only performer credited in the published script for these is “Lewis B. Ell and Others.”(13)  The unique setting of a dumbwaiter shaft with a working dumbwaiter (the ropes taut and/or loose when the dumbwaiter was moving and the platform appearing on stage) and the adjoining kitchen doors for the two fifth floor apartments must also have presented an interesting challenge.  Unfortunately, there are no known photographs or accounts of how this was created by the company, though Edna Kenton tells that the scene was “an angle in a tenement house air shaft,” and that the “other players were in the basement, sending familiar sounds through the air court.”(14) I've recently seen a silhouette drawing of a scene from the play published in The Quill, the Village's monthly local magazine, and it shows the two women each in their own window facing each other, giving the first concrete indication of a possible setting they used.

The Widow’s Veil is the only play of its time I have been able to locate that deals with the effects of the devastating world-wide influenza epidemic of 1918 & 1919.  Not only did this make it unique, but it was performed while the epidemic was still claiming victims in New York City.  The script indicates that the time was: “Twenty-four hours and not so long ago.” Thematically, one wonders whether the play intended to make a comment that the potential widow would have been better off in her own mind if her husband had died, or whether, simply, that her disappointment at his recovery was due to vanity.  Barlow writes that “By keeping the men offstage, Rostetter invites us to see the world from the women’s perspective,” similar to the view given us by many of Glaspell’s plays.  Barlow also writes that the play “is a mordantly anti-romantic view of love among the masses.”(15)  The almost macabre “concern” by the older Mrs. Phelan created a unique character with the potential for a strong performance, which the reviewers claim Rostetter gave.  The fact that the play was revived for the company’s review bill later in the season shows that it was popular with more than just the critics.  Though this was Rostetter’s first recorded involvement with the Players, she continued on with them, “specializing in slightly older supporting characters, particularly comic roles.”(16) Cook and Frank Shay would publish The Widow’s Veil in their 1921 collection of one-acts performed by the company, The Provincetown Plays.  Ironically, Rostetter’s experience with the Players contrasts with that of her co-star Mary Pyne, who played Mrs. McManus and for whom this role would be the last. 

Mary Pyne, like Rostetter, received high praise for her acting in The Widow’s Veil.(17)  Though she was only twenty-six when she performed the role, she was already a veteran actress of the Players and a beloved friend to most of the company.  She was one of the first actresses of the Provincetown company to catch the critics' eyes and she performed eight different roles for the Players from 1916-1919.(18)  Her first role was in O’Neill’s Before Breakfast in 1916, ironically playing against her kind personality as the contentious wife, the only character fully seen on stage.  Hoping for a career as a major actress in the theatre, Pyne went to Broadway producer David Belasco (probably in 1917) and asked him if he could help her achieve her goal.  He made an offer to groom her for Broadway, but she ultimately turned it down, concerned that Belasco’s intentions were not entirely professional.  She did appear in the Greenwich Village Theatre’s productions of Karen and Pan and the Young Shepherd, the two of which ran from January 1918 until the end of March of that year.  The Widow’s Veil was her last production, as she died of tuberculosis in November 1919 at Sarnac Lake Sanatorium.  Djuna Barnes, a dear friend (some researchers suggest they were perhaps lovers (19)) and a fellow Villager, tried to claim Pyne’s body after her death and declared she would never get over the loss.  Her husband, Harry Kemp, reportedly tried to contact Pyne in the spirit world through his second wife, who reportedly considered herself a medium. 

A fifteen year-old student of Rostetter’s at Washington Irving High School, with whom Rostetter had been working to help overcome a minor speech impediment, was encouraged by her teacher to audition for a small part in The Widow’s Veil.  This student’s name was Lily Claudetter Chauchoin, who had moved with her family from France to New York in 1910, and who later would be known to the world as the stage and film actress Claudette Colbert.  Though she reportedly told Adela St. Rogers of Photoplay that she played a “young bride with a red wig and an Irish brogue” (which would indicate the role of Mary), no other accounts claim she played the lead.(20)  William K. Everson, in his book Claudette Colbert, says that Rostetter encouraged Colbert to “try out for a small part. . . the result: a supporting role in the play The Widow’s Veil,” and Everson says that it was “in Provincetown in early 1919.”(21)  Quoting from an unpublished interview with Colbert conducted by Rex Reed, Amy Fine Collins reports that “around 1919, when she learned that the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village was paying $75 a week to actresses, she went down with a friend and landed a role in a production called The Widow’s Veil.”(22) One sees the many problems in these accounts: there was no supporting role (other than voices, which one assumes could be interpreted that way), the play was not performed in Provincetown, and the Players were not paying their actors.  Though none of these articles points conclusively to what part Colbert had in the production, and they tend to point toward her participation during the January 1919 production rather than the revival later in the year, all accounts speak of her participation in a production at the Provincetown of this play.  Her name does not appear in any of the programs, but the “and others” listed in the program is one of the few times a Players program does not list specific names.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Evening Globe New York, 17 January 1919. The address of the high school at the time was 40 Irving Place.

(2) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 19 January 1919, sec. V, col. 3: 1.

(3) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 19 January 1919, sec. V, col. 3: 1.  As this was one of New York City’s most important theatre critics, this statement shows how little development had occurred in America concerning in the nature and study of the art of acting.  He continues in the article by saying “. . . we know even less about acting than we think.”

(4) Morning Telegraph, 20 January 1919.

(5) Alice Rostetter, “The Widow’s Veil” The Provincetown Plays, eds. George Cram Cook and Frank Shay (Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd Co., 1921) 190.

(6) Rostetter, 189-190.  She lists his symptoms as “white…all the blood gone from his face,” “hand cold,” “pain in his head and the throat of him burnin’ like hot peat,” and then later, “the red face of him,” and he “lies still, except for the sound in his throat.” These were all symptoms of the Influenza that was killing so many in the epidemic of 1918-19.

(7) Rostetter 191.

(8) Rostetter 204.

(9) Rostetter 205.

(10) Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, 23 January 1919, col. 4: 9.

(11) Lou Taylor, Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983) 66.

(12) Taylor 153-154.

(13) Rostetter 183.

(14) Kenton 96.

(15) Barlow 266-267.

(16) Black, Women 81.

(17) Broun wrote that “both Miss Rostetter and Mary Pyne are all that the most exacting critic could require.”

(18) These included the maid in Saxe Commins’s The Obituary, Sarah in Neith Boyce’s Winter Night, The Heroine in David Pinski’s A Dollar, Elena in Mike Gold’s Ivan’s Homecoming, Rach in Harry Kemp’s The Prodigal Son, and Mabel in the revival of Cook and Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires. 

(19) Wetzsteon, 442.  Barnes “dedicated a series of sexually suggestive poems to her memory.” Phillip Herring, Djuna,the Life and Work of Djuna Barnes (New York: Viking, 1995)73. “It was at the New York Press that Djuna worked with Mary Pyne, and quite possibly she moved to the Press because of Pyne, whom Barnes came to love passionately.”

(20) Amy Fine Collins, “A Perfect Star,” Vanity Fair, 1998.

(21) William K. Everson, Claudette Colbert (New York: Pyramid Publication, 1976) 29.

(22) Amy Fine Collins, “A Perfect Star,” Vanity Fair, 1998.