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    Broadway’s Lesbian Troika

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    The three women were at the height of their careers, the peak of their creative abilities. Eva Le Gallienne (1899–1991) was one of “the high royalty of the American theatre.” Margaret Webster (1905–1974) was the director celebrated as “the ablest woman in our theatre.” Cheryl Crawford (1902–1986) was a successful Broadway producer known for being an “individual of courage and fortitude.” All three were supremely talented, recognized and honored. They formed their own repertory company to bring the nation the finest plays via the finest productions. What could possibly go wrong?

    Le Gallienne and Webster had known each other from childhood. Growing up in Paris among the “free-spirited” women who lived there on “the Left Bank of Lesbos,” Le Gallienne, at age seven, was inspired by Sarah Bernhardt to become an actor. She made her London debut in 1914 and appeared in New York the next year. By 1920 she was a star of the first magnitude and at the beginning of a five-year romance with the writer Mercedes de Acosta.

    In 1926, at the height of her prestige, Le Gallienne established the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York. The same year, she met the actress Josephine Hutchinson, who became her lover. The press dubbed her Le Gallienne’s “shadow,” then a euphemism for a lesbian girlfriend, and derided their theater group as “the Le Gallienne sorority.” Both women’s careers survived the homophobic publicity.

    Also an actress, Webster’s greatest success came as a director of Shakespeare. In 1937 she began a collaboration with Maurice Evans that lasted for five years. One of the towering actors of his time, Evans, who never married, is best remembered now, ironically, as Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes (1968) and Samantha Steven’s father on Bewitched, the gayest television series of the late 1960s.

    Starting with Richard II, not seen on Broadway since 1878, they presented Hamlet (New York’s first staging of the full text of the play), Twelfth Night, Henry IV, Part 1 and Macbeth, with Judith Anderson, who played the lavender housekeeper in Rebecca, as the wife with uncleanly hands. At the same time, Webster and Le Gallienne renewed their friendship from many years before. Soon they were lovers, a relationship that lasted 14 years.

    Webster achieved theatrical immortality with Othello in 1943 by defying the era’s theatrical and cultural racism with a simple, obvious and daring casting choice. For the first time in Broadway’s fabled history, a black actor, the great Paul Robeson, played the title character, a black man; for the first time a black Othello made love to his wife, a white woman, on stage. Many predicted dire consequences, but her production ran for 296 performances in New York alone, which is still the record for a Shakespearian play on Broadway.   

    Besides confronting bigotry, Webster’s Othello was revelatory of the play itself. Audiences finally saw that the drama was not only about jealousy, suspicion and deceit, but also was about racial prejudice and the “tragedy of racial conflict.” A white actor playing Othello now seemed false and shallow; none has appeared in the title role on Broadway since. Even Laurence Olivier, displaying more ham than a 2nd Avenue deli, wore blackface when he came to film the work in 1965.

    Crawford discovered her love of performance as a student at Smith College, where her deep voice and “masculine mannerisms” won her the breeches parts in school plays. After graduation, she moved to New York to pursue a career in theater, finally becoming an independent producer in 1937. She was successful, according to famed lesbian New Yorker columnist Janet Flanner, because she “eliminated a lot of customary, costly, masculine waste.”

    In an era that demanded women be wives and homemakers, all three had to convey the public’s expected images of femininity and domesticity. So, when the New York Herald Tribune published a profile of Crawford in 1942, it included “some of her favorite recipes.” Perhaps she got them from Ruth Norman, restaurateur and cookbook author, her longtime partner. Typically, “married to my career” or “too busy for romance” were the fig leaves that hid their private sexual truth.

    In 1945 the woman formed the American Repertory Theatre. Their goal was to present the world’s great plays in limited runs with a stock company of mostly upcoming actors. Many reasons were given for their failure, including underfunding, changing audience tastes, critical reviews and “the misogyny of the male theatrical mainstream” against three unmarried, successful career women, among others. It went dark in 1948.

    They survived the misadventure. In 1950 Webster became the first woman to direct an opera for the Metropolitan Opera Company, one of seven she did across the next ten years. Le Gallienne appeared less and less in New York, but instead toured the country, wrote and taught acting classes. In 1964 she received a Tony for lifetime achievement. Crawford went on to co-found the Actor’s Studio in 1947 and to produce, among others, four plays by Tennessee Williams, her “proudest experience.”

    However much they were pressured to conform to their times, each defied the expectation that women, should they work at all, should work at “women’s jobs.” All three changed performance practice, introducing new acting styles, casting criteria or works by then little-known playwrights. With their lasting contributions to theatrical innovation and to the understanding and pleasure of their audience, all three made indelible theater history.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.