People Like That

The evolution of Dawn Powell’s American satire

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“These are not people one would care to meet. They are horrid,” Dawn Powell wrote in her January 1933 journals, mocking the New York theater critics who were at that moment tearing apart her debut play, Big Night. “It was like old ladies on weekly county papers saying, ‘The test of a good novel is, are these people such as you would like in your own drawing room?’—if not, then it isn’t a good book.”

Big Night, a sexual satire set in the advertising world, closed in a week. Today, Powell is widely regarded as one of our great comic novelists, a reputation that began a few years later with her 1936 novel, Turn, Magic Wheel. But Big Night was produced in 1933 and, as theatrical outings go, a disaster. Powell had crossed imagined lines of taste and propriety for which critics still roast funny people today. In modern terms, we might say that in Big Night, Powell wrote “unlikable” people, she “punched down,” and she presented a woman who only achieves what she wants as an object of male desire.

Powell had written jokey, casual stuff in magazines like College Humor for years, and had been publishing novels throughout the 1920s, mostly based on her rural Ohio upbringing. But Powell had been in New York since 1918 and wanted to write about her life there. And she wanted to be funny about it.

Powell’s later prose, which forms the basis for the posthumous renaissance her work has enjoyed, is light and sharp. It gives an impression of effortlessness, and the satirical voice that appears on the page seems every bit as natural and unforced as a spoken one. But finding that satirical voice at age forty—as well as managing her “unlikable” people, punching down at recognizably middle-class characters during the height of the Depression, and presenting women of self-possessed sexuality—was not effortless or natural. It took several frustrating, daunting years to perfect.

Persons of That Class

In 1920, Powell married poet and advertising executive Joseph Gousha. Big Night is a comedy set in the unpleasant, careerist middle-management world of her husband’s work life and focuses on the petty intrigues of ad men and their wives. The play takes place in the middle-class Tudor City apartment of Ed and Myra Bonney, a young couple climbing the career and social ladders of the 1930s. This is not the carefree upper-class sexual comedy of Noel Coward (Design for Living), Ernest Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise), or George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (Dinner at Eight)—no champagne satire for the Bonneys. The women of Big Night don’t wear minks, they drop in on their upstairs neighbors in robes and feather mules to borrow clothes for house parties.

The critics did not forgive Dawn Powell for flouting the proven formulas of the day.

Ed Bonney is a down-on-his-luck account exec, hosting a party in his apartment for Bert Schwartz, a Chicago garment-industry executive with a million-dollar ad budget to spend for the upcoming year. Ed’s wife, Myra, a twenty-one-year-old former model in the industry, has suffered Schwartz’s unwanted advances in the past, and slapped him more than once. Now Ed hopes Myra’s allure will swing the deal. Ed proposes to Myra that if “Schwartzie” still wants to sleep with her, and if their drink-fueled dalliance can win the contract for Ed’s firm, maybe she should do it—a million-dollar account is a million-dollar account.

It’s a controversial premise. Certainly, the idea that a woman in the depths of the Depression would be willing to trade sex for money was not unique to Powell. Barbara Stanwyck seduced her way to the top in Baby Face just six months after Big Night debuted, and Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Express had asked whether female sexuality was a marketable commodity in early 1932. But those were dramas about sex workers, and Powell’s was a light comedy about a young wife, not a “fallen woman.”

Powell’s take on sex and class was radical then and now. Big Night confused even Powell’s collaborators at the left-leaning Group Theater. Powell herself was conservative, but not so strident that she would not work with the Group or, a few years later, lampoon Republican congresswoman Clare Booth Luce with the novel A Time to Be Born (1944). The stridency, it turned out, was in the Group. Stella Adler, who played Myra, was clueless when it came to delivering Powell’s humor. Adler portrayed Myra as a woman tragically prostituting herself to capitalism. Powell saw something else. When Myra explains to Ed what happiness is to her, she says it’s “a feeling that there’s something you want more than anything—something like the Atlantic Ocean or the sky—something you never could have only it’s swell just to be wantin’ it. It’s a feeling that just lasts a minute . . . and then you see a fur coat in Jaeckel’s window and you figure, I guess that’s what I meant.”

In Tim Page’s biography, Dawn Powell, Group member Robert Lewis recalls, “So we came to that line, and Stella gasped it out, with tears and weeping and apology and this terrific intensity—Stella cried through all of her parts anyway, she was a famous crier. And Dawn was sitting there, looking on, sort of amazed. And she turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t that strange? When I wrote that line, I thought it was funny.’”

In order to make Big Night fly with the Group, Powell watered down her original ending—in which Myra bails on Ed’s middle-management scheming for an equally seedy marriage to Schwartz—and tacked on a safer, uplifting one. In the empowering version, Myra walks out on both men, determined to make it on her own, with her brains, not her body. But as reviewers noted, this closing burst of personal redemption rang entirely false—it was an unpersuasively preachy move that defied the moral logic of the rest of the play. Powell did not admire what she had witnessed in the advertising world, and originally wrote her characters to satirize its considerable moral shortcomings. The published version of the play is closer to this. Ed has his eye only on the deal. Myra sees that Schwartz actually cares for her—but she also knows that he wants to bring her back to Chicago as his classy Manhattan-model trophy wife. This gaudy, status-object fate turns out to be merely a high-end version of the one Ed has engineered for her as a glorified sex worker.

Not surprisingly, Adler and her earnest Group colleagues could not accept that. Powell’s interest as a satirist was in attacking not only the ruling class, but also the average, everyday strivers—us—who long to join the ruling class (or at least move in its rarefied circles). Unlike the comedy-of-manners fare offered by Coward, Lubitsch, Kaufman, or Ferber, Powell’s is cold satire, about Depression-era people desperate just to pay rent. “I have noticed that ethically unsound lives on the stage do not offend audiences if it is early established that the characters are financially secure,” Powell wrote, after considering cool preview audiences and class-focused reactions to her script. “Such readers and rehearsal guests have astounded me by referring to some of my characters as ‘persons of that class.’ I’m far too polite to answer, ‘Why, honey, that class is your class.’”

The critics did not forgive Powell for flouting the proven formulas of the glittering social satires of the day. Richard Lockridge of the New York Sun viewed Powell as a misandrist. “Big Night turns like an angry cat, claws out,” he wrote. “Miss Powell does not care much for men.” Like most critics, he was also put off by the low-rent setting of Big Night. “If there are people like that, a matter on which—thank heaven!—I have to take Miss Powell’s word, no chastisement could be too severe.”

The open class contempt of Powell’s detractors is still striking. “A very unconvincing amateur saturnalia,” wrote Stark Young at The New Republic, referencing the ancient Roman festivals where slaves were allowed to feast in their masters’ homes. “Miss Powell’s drama is even more tiresome than the odious little microbes with whom it is concerned,” wrote the Evening Post’s John Mason Brown, who, in the space of one review, managed to describe Big Night’s milieu and characters as “common,” “unattractive,” “sad,” “repellent,” “an insect comedy,” whose “grubby inhabitants” are “cheap” and “unpleasant.” A week later, having perhaps run out to borrow a friend’s thesaurus, he returned to call it a “sodden tale about some repulsive nonentities in the advertising business.”

Robert Benchley, in The New Yorker, was the lone critic to defend Powell against such sexism and class derision:

If unpleasant characters are to damn a play, then Mr. O’Neill has been getting away with not only incest but murder all these years. And when unpleasant characters speak as amusing lines (I’m sorry, but many of them were amusing to me) as those in “Big Night,” I would much rather sit through the grimmest scenes of middle-class cheapness. . . . Dinner at Eight and Dangerous Corner are about unpleasant people for the most part, but they wear evening clothes. Are we only to have high-class cads on our stage?

Thanks to all the critical tag-teaming, Big Night was gone in a week. “Those of my friends who laughed most at the script for Big Night are jovial souls who take human frailty for granted,” Powell wrote in an essay defending the play for the New York Evening Post. “The reformers insisted that what the characters do or say can’t possibly be funny because the way they live is wrong.”

Add all this austere bourgeois moralizing to the Group’s proletariat piety—not to mention that of Big Night’s few audiences—and the lesson of Powell’s fledgling run at the Broadway stage is clear: the reformers won. The debacle of Big Night set a creative puzzle before Powell. She did not want to soften or simplify her characters to make them “likable.” Nor was she going to write what she felt was expected of women writers, a glum prospect she described thusly:

Each page is squirming with sensitivity, every line—no matter how well disguised the heroine is—coyly reveals her exquisite taste, her delicate charm, her never-at-a-disadvantage body (which of course she cares nothing about and is always faintly amused at men’s frenzies over her perfect legs, breasts, etc.) What gallantry, what equalness to any situation in the home, the camp, the yacht, the trenches, the dives—what aristocrats these women writers are. . . . Fit companions and opposites to the he-man writers—Hemingway, Burnett, Cain—imitation he-manners.

Powell wanted the opposite of such caricatures. She wanted to write something far less morally comforting than what her critics demanded. “I think it is the key to great satire,” she wrote in her September 1, 1933, diary, as she pondered her next play, Jigsaw, that “not one acting part or thought represents the norm, the audience, the critic, or the author—there is, in a word, no voice, no pointer to the moral.”

High-Class Cads

“No pointer to the moral” is a tough sell in American humor, where we expect our slob comedians to learn an important lesson at the end of every story (be nice, be a good parent, help poor people, pet dogs, etc.). And it mattered to Powell that her work was funny. In a letter to a friend about Jigsaw, she wrote that audiences saw Big Night as “too brutal, too real, so I thought it would be amusing to cast the new play in very exact French farce form. . . . Audiences can absorb as little meaning as they like so long as the function of comedy—to amuse—is fulfilled.”

Powell was a tough sell in American humor, where we expect our slob comedians to learn an important lesson at the end of every story.

In other words: morally correct, no; entertaining, yes. For Jigsaw, Powell leaned on her gift for witty dialogue. In it, Claire Burnell, a divorcee in her late thirties, lives in a Manhattan penthouse (an upgrade from the Bonneys). She spends her time shopping, drinking, and picking up the occasional young man while out with her best friend, Letty. Claire has started seeing Nathan, a slight fellow in his twenties, who lives off the ill-gotten gains of his deceased, swindler-banker father and provides a nice distraction from Del, her indifferent boyfriend of fifteen years. When Claire’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Julie, comes home from school after quite a while away, she’s become a prim, lecturing reformer who sets her sights on Nathan for herself, in order to “save” him from her mother. “Last time I was home I wandered through the house like a poor mad thing,” says Letty, “leaning over my children’s beds with such a gush of tender mother feeling that they woke up screaming—thought I was Dracula.”

Now critics found Powell funny, but lightweight. The Nation’s Joseph Wood Krutch wrote, “She has achieved a casualness which relieves any distressing suggestion that she considers herself unusually naughty or is deliberately trying to shock.” “Enough wit for seven plays—and not quite plot enough for one,” wrote Gilbert W. Gabriel of the New York American.

The play ran forty-nine performances—not a disaster, but hardly a success.

No Pointer to the Moral

Too brutal or too light and fluffy—Powell finally found a way to balance all this while working on her new novel, begun in 1930, and eventually published in 1936, as Turn, Magic Wheel. She set it in the New York literary scene of the 1930s, the world in which she was daily immersed. The story is about Effie Callingham, ex-wife of a Hemingwayesque he-man writer and celebrity expat, Andrew Callingham. For fifteen years, Effie has continued to dine out as Mrs. Callingham, frozen in time from the moment he dumped her for another woman. Effie has surrounded herself with hangers-on—and indeed, remains a hanger-on in her own right, fiercely attached to the high-society world of her ex. Effie has sold her retinue of literary-minded admirers on the collective delusion that she is still in touch with him and that he will one day return to her. In other words, Effie is literally the opposite of the perfect heroines, the “fit companions” to Hemingway he-men, who made Powell’s eyes roll.

Turn, Magic Wheel is filled with many similar set pieces, featuring mercenary publishers, slippery magazine editors, cheating spouses, climbers, wannabes, and hangers-on.

Excited by the writing, and back home in the familiar world of prose, Powell worked steadily on the novel despite unpaid bills, a meager income, and the disastrous-to-faint praise that her plays won on Broadway. And that’s why, after Powell showed her publisher John Farrar the first forty-odd pages of it in February 1935, she was devastated to hear not only that he disliked her novel-in-progress, but that he would be terminating her contract. Farrar had once signed her to a three-book deal as the proven voice of small-town Ohio ladies’ stories. Now, he had a sample chapter that featured sordid affairs, lying, gossip, and betrayal in the literary world (and not one quivering heroine)—and this from a writer who was a middling seller at best, and a proven failure in satire.

For the next eight months, Powell held it together, working doggedly on Turn, Magic Wheel while seeking out a new publisher. Everyone turned it down. Still excited and passionate about the book, she finished it that November and took it back to Farrar & Rinehart. By now, her career was picking up. Her last Ohio novel, the weak-selling Story of a Country Boy, had sold to the movies and was coming out that Christmas as Man of Iron. With her book finished (no doubt superior to the early sample Farrar had read) and a movie on the way, she won Farrar over—not that he had any serious hopes for its commercial success. Exactly why he changed his mind is unclear, but Turn, Magic Wheel was published in 1936 to excellent reviews and her best sales in many years.

Turn, Magic Wheel is set in a literary world of backbiting authors, pompous publishers, and sketchy editors of weeklies always in need of “pieces”—a milieu Powell knew well. The novel finally struck the balance between light, comedy-of-manners dialogue and brutal satire she had long been seeking. Witty and trenchant, Turn, Magic Wheel allowed Powell what the stage did not: an inner voice to expose her characters and flashbacks that permit the reader to see what led Effie to her current situation. Such techniques establish the tremendous cognitive distance between what the novel’s literati know about Effie and what actually happened between her and Callingham.

It opens with Effie discovering that a backstabbing young man, Dennis Orphen—her young novelist protégé and companion—has written a comic novel based on her, The Hunter’s Wife. Orphen has given her an advance copy of The Hunter’s Wife and arrives to pick her up for a date just in time to see her expression as she reads the first few pages and realizes the lead character is based on herself. In short order, her affect shifts from excitement on behalf of a friend to the sinking humiliation of seeing herself savaged in his pages. She had no idea that literary New York viewed her as a woman suffering from Miss Havisham levels of delusion. Orphen has betrayed her, but he is also in love with her. Powell’s readers soon learn that his book expresses his own concealed anger at living in Callingham’s shadow when out with Effie. The suspense at the heart of Turn, Magic Wheel was familiar turf to a veteran of New York’s bitchy literary scene like Powell: how will Effie respond to Orphen’s book?

Effie hesitated as he held open the door for her. “You say the book isn’t out yet?” “Not til the tenth. Why?” She drew a breath of relief. “Because I wouldn’t dare go anywhere with you if it was already published. Everyone would know then that it really was about me— everyone would laugh.”

It’s a perfectly Powell moment. Until Orphen’s novel comes out, betrayal or not, Orphen is useful arm candy, so why not go out? Turn, Magic Wheel is filled with many similar set pieces, featuring literary scenesters, slippery magazine editors, cheating spouses, climbers, wannabes, and hangers-on, all centered around Orphen’s book launch. Now that Orphen is moving up, a smarmy magazine editor accuses him of being a snob. “I’m not a snob,” Orphen says. “Would I be out with you folks if I was a snob?” To which Powell adds: “Everyone laughed but on second thoughts got a little mad.”

From her opening pages, it’s clear that Powell has tilted decisively away from the cold satire of Big Night and the frivolousness of Jigsaw. It’s hard not to feel for Effie, but Powell never loses sight of the signature tensions of class and sex, and is happy to punch down and up. On the eve of the release of The Hunter’s Wife, news reaches Effie that Callingham’s second wife, Marian, the woman he left Effie for, has arrived from Europe and is in a Manhattan hospital, dying of cancer. The hospital has contacted Effie assuming (like everyone else) that she’s still in touch with the writer and can bring him to visit his dying wife. From Marian, Effie learns that Callingham has now dumped her, too, for a younger woman. And like Effie, Marian pathetically clings to the hope that he’ll come back to her.

When Callingham does return to Manhattan to negotiate movie deals and sign with a new publisher, Effie is determined to make him do the decent thing and visit Marian on her deathbed. Like many such reckonings in Powell’s later fiction, it has complicated motives, combining score-settling personal vendettas with larger moral imperatives. Powell never makes Effie out to be a saint. But seeing herself in Orphen’s book, and in the sad eyes of Marian, Effie is finally over Callingham. And she gets some satisfaction from Callingham’s self-centered pique over her romance with Orphen, author of a book he of course reads only as a nasty attack on himself. Seeing Callingham humbled for once is all she needs to close the door on him for good. Powell does not give us a clear resolution for Effie, Orphen, or their various love triangles, but she does gives us some high comedy and indelible characters.

Given the book’s sales and reviews, it’s fair to say that Turn, Magic Wheel marks the emergence of the Dawn Powell we recall today. As The New Republic’s Jerre Mangione wrote at the time, “It is only when Dawn Powell is completely unserious that she becomes a serious writer.” At home in the novel, Powell renders her protagonists in a far more fully realized fashion than she was able to do with the more schematic characters who populate her plays. These people are no more pleasant than the Bonneys, no less funny than Claire and Letty, but here they find a dimension that required all the skills Powell had developed over years as novelist, playwright, and humorist: snappy dialogue, situation, a strong inner voice, and some perfectly timed one-liners.

Planning new books, Powell left telling notes in her diaries about future work: “the women are in command of jobs and lives, the men scavenge frantically through the city for a life women can’t get at, for pleasures reserved for them alone. The desperate, back-to-the-wall fight for independence, for pleasure.”

Wisecracking, flawed, on-the-make urban operators in a modern New York—these would be the signature characters across the balance of Dawn Powell’s career. It’s easy enough to shock a reader with unpleasant people you might not care to meet in your drawing room, who may even be horrid. But it takes something else again to make them engaging and recognizable characters in their own right.

Ben Schwartz is currently working on a history of American humor between the two world wars and can be followed on Twitter at @benschwartzy.

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