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If "the lot of the anthologist is not a happy one", as Mr. Frank Shay assures us that it is not in his "Foreword" to the "Twenty Contemporary One Act Plays--American" he has recently edited, the lot of the reviewer of such a work is not the least bit happier. Not only does he strike the difficulty that persons seem to disagree more over the merits of a play than over those of any other from the writing, but also that of writing an adequate criticism of twenty one-act plays in less time and space than the reviewer can allow or be allowed.
Aside from the actually collected material in an anthology, however, especi ally in an anthology of one-act plays, there are certain things one looks for, from both the aesthetic and the practical points of view, to really complete the volume. From the practical viewpoint, Mr. Shay's anthology is adequately handled. There are the expected notices of addresses for applications for permission to produce, and the bibliographies of books about, and plays of the "Little Theatre". For the reader, on the other hand, who would take up the book as a matter of enjoyable reading only, there are two important elements lacking. To begin with Mr. Shay's "Foreword" is inconsequential, where it could have been a brief survey of the "Little Theatre" movement in America, with special mention of the different groups which gave first production to a number of the plays included in the collection. The other element of which one notices particularly the absence, is an appendix with short biographies of the various authors represented by the twenty plays.
It is unfortunate that the first play of the collection, "Mirage" by George M. P. Baird, should be a typical example of the all too well-known "hokum" of the Indian and the White man in the "silent purple wastes of the Arizona desert" even including the special "Indian" music. It is followed by a pseudo-historical play, "Napoleon's Barber" by Arthur Caesar, of a familiar pattern. The third play, "Goat Alley" by Ernest Howard Culbertson, is saved from being sheer melodrama by its characterization. Floyd Dell's scintillating little comedy "Sweet and Twenty" and "Tickless Time" by Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook, though the latter is more or less trick writing, are highly amusing and the first notable plays of the group.
Other plays which follow that are especially worthy of notice are Harry Wagstaff Gribble's "All Gummed Up", really delicious, though not always clear, satire; George Kelly's "Finders-Keepers", with its very human incident as a basis; and Lawrence Langner twentieth-century-Columbine-and-Pierrot play, "Matinata".
The two most important plays of the anthology are "The Dreamy Kid" and "Thursday Evening", by Eugene O'Neill and Christopher Morley respectively. Mr. of a young married couple and their mothers-in-law who prove to be far more sensible, and to have a greater sense of humor, than their traditional prototypes. Mr. O'Neill's drama of negro life builds up to the curtain with the keen sure, subtle strokes of a master in technique. It illustrates once again the writer's extraordinary power of creating an atmosphere that transcends the actual lines and action of the play. With these two plays as leaders, and with a number of others that may be said to be truly good, Mr. Shay has made a creditable selection from the enormous field of the American one-act play
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