Friday, November 20, 2015


I was initially drawn to this play by the title.  Then I discovered the play was written by a woman I had never heard of, even though I have done extensive research on women playwrights. So I decided to read the play. Fanny Bixby Spencer’s life (1879-1930), her ideas and her position on several political issues of her time are all clearly reflected in this play. 
Fanny Bixby was born into a family that owned Rancho Los Cerritos, an estate that covered thousands of acres and was located about sixteen miles south of Los Angeles, California.  Her father founded the city of Long Beach, California on part of his acreage. Fanny received an education at private boarding schools, including Pomona Preparatory School.  She attended Wellesley College for two or three years. She studied economics and sociology—a new career field that led her to becoming a social worker. Fanny began working as a volunteer at Boston’s Denison Settlement. Eventually Fanny decided not to stay in college since she wanted to commence working full-time to improve conditions for those in need.  

Even though Fanny Bixby had been born into a family of means, reputation and social standing, she was an independent thinker.  In 1908, she was hired by the Long Beach Police Force to serve as its first policewoman.  She was one of the first police women in the United States.  She soon joined the Suffragettes and participated as an active member.  Prior to World War One, Fanny was an active speaker for two political causes: she was a pacifist and a member of the Socialist Party.  As a pacifist, Fanny Bixby believed that armed conflict between nations is never acceptable. She was opposed to war. Due to Fanny’s many pacifist activities, she was ostracized by her friends.

Following the passage of the 1917 United States Espionage Act, Fanny Bixby curtailed her antiwar speeches.  Once World War One was concluded, she commenced speaking about pacifist beliefs.  She did not believe World War One would be the war to end all wars, so she continued, until her death, her antiwar speaking crusade.

Fanny Bixby was, in addition to being an active speaker, an author of poems and magazine articles.  In 1916 she published her book of poems titled Within and Without. Many of these poems were published in newspapers throughout the United States. She met William Carl Spencer in 1913 and they were married in 1918.  They shared many of the same political views.  The couple had no children of their own, but they raised a number of foster children from different ethnic backgrounds.

Sometime in late 1920, Fanny Spencer wrote a play titled The Jazz of Patriotism (an anti-war play). Fanny Spencer produced the play October of 1928 in Los Angeles at the Egan Theatre. She had rented the theatre for a two week run. Martin Volkoff, one of her foster sons, was interviewed for a newspaper article that appeared in the Independent Press-Telegram on January 24, 1971. He remembered that the play was directed by Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife and manager—Gable was a bit player in films at this time.  Dillon also acted one of the roles.  He recalled the play did not make any money and that “Mrs. Spencer gave most of the tickets away.”  He also remembered that Fanny Spencer was delighted to have her name on the front page of a French newspaper that quoted some lines of her play.

Fanny Spencer states in the Introduction to The Jazz of Patriotism:
In writing and publishing this play which deals with actual facts and
circumstances of the war period, I have had a two-fold intent to draw
            a picture of life among the stay-at-homes and to bring to light the
            elements of a profound and misunderstood philosophy.

The play is divided into four acts.  Act One takes place somewhere in the United States during the Summer of 1917.  This act is set in the Sunday School room of a church.  Act Two is during the Fall of 1917 and it is in the living room of Mrs. Holden’s home.  Mrs. Holden is the protagonist and the character who represents Fanny Spencer’s political position. In Act Three it is the Winter of 1918.  The setting is the kitchen of the Schweitzer’s home.  They are a family of German emigrants.  Act Four takes place during the Fall of 1918 and it is in Mrs Holden’s living room again.  I have the sense that this act should have been set in Winter of 1918 like the previous act, but Fall is what is printed in the script.

The play demonstrates the abuse Mrs. Holden and her family faced as well as the plight of a family of German emigrants.  By-in-large the major characters in the play are either patriotic or deemed unpatriotic. The play explores the unfair treatment of those viewed as unpatriotic. It is an interesting read as well as informative about the sentiments of many citizens on the home front. 

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I was initially drawn to the title of the play. I believe Fanny Bixby Spencer clearly makes her play live up to the title.  She understood the elements of jazz and applied them to the voices, characters and situations. She utilized deliberate distortions of intensity as well as a complexity of ideas without a middle ground. At times this play pulses off the page taking hold of the reader even if the reader does not adhere to the extremes of either ideology.

Harris, Marcia Lee. Fanny Bixby Spencer: Long Beach’s Inspirational Firebrand.
    Charleston: The History Press, 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment