Elizabeth Baker was literally an overnight success in 1909. She went from “obscure stenographer making five dollars a week” to “one of the most widely discussed playwrights in London” when her first play, CHAINS, had a one-performance “try-out” at the Royal Court in London in 1909. The Times and The Globe both called CHAINS “remarkable.” The next year, Baker’s drama was running in repertory with the plays of Galsworthy, Barrie, Granville Barker and Shaw, and was hailed as “the most brilliant and the deepest problem play by a modern British writer since Major Barbara.” (The New Age)

When theaters shut down more than two years ago, the Mint Theater Company, long cherished by aficionados for its dedication to resurrecting largely forgotten but durable works, was about to produce the American premiere of “Chains,” the second in its three-play series dedicated to the British playwright Elizabeth Baker.

Remarkably, the entire 11-member cast originally assembled for the production has finally taken the stage, and the result is a gleaming gem, both engrossing and supremely well-acted. What’s more, this 1909 drama about restlessness affecting middle-class men—and women—in Edwardian England proves to have a timely edge.

Charles Isherwood, The Wall Street Journal

CHAINS tells the stories of a few ordinary people yearning for a less ordinary life. Charley lives with his wife Lily in suburban London, sharing a cramped house with a lodger. Charley commutes daily to an office in London, his only pleasure is the tiny garden patch beside the house which gives little satisfaction. Charley’s sister-in-law, Maggie, finds the drudgery of shop work so stifling that she plots an escape by marrying a kind man she doesn’t love—an escape that can’t provide the adventure she craves.

Charley & Maggie are both shaken when Charley’s lodger announces that he’s tired of the grind and he’s leaving for Australia—the day after tomorrow. His decision sends a tremor through the family that threatens to break the ties that bind Maggie and Charley to their ordinary lives.

Elizabeth Baker

By Maya Cantu

Catapulting from office typist to “one of the most widely discussed playwrights in England” (The Christian Science Monitor), Elizabeth Baker startled her contemporaries with the realist landmark Chains (1909). In this and the twelve produced plays that followed, Baker focused extraordinary attention on the lives of London’s clerks, shopgirls, and suburban strivers. Drawn in her life and work to themes of wanderlust, Baker wrote plays that incisively explore the constraints of class, gender, and social convention upon individual agency, while centralizing the ambitions and desires of working women.

Characterized in the press as an untrained “girl-novice,” the thirty-two-year old Baker created a theatrical sensation with her first full-length play, Chains. First presented by the Play Actors in 1909, and then by Charles Frohman at the Duke of York’s Theatre, Chains focused on lower-middle-class characters longing to break away from routines of work and marriage, with clerk Charlie Wilson looking to new horizons in Australia. Baker earned praise for her “keenness of observation, her powers of drawing characters from the life, and her gift of writing dialogue that is natural and unforced” (The Field). The Bystander called Chains “one of the greatest plays that has been produced in this country for many a long day.” Baker, meanwhile, continued in her work as a typist.

Baker followed Chains with a versatile range of challenging and original plays that premiered on the stages of England’s repertory theaters, as well as in the West End. These included Edith (1912), a one-act feminist comedy for the Women Writer’s Suffrage League; the comic drama The Price of Thomas Scott (1913, Gaiety Theatre, Manchester); and her scintillating business-world comedy Partnership (1917, Court Theatre). Long independent, Baker also found mid-life romance with James Edmund Allaway, a widower who worked in the upholstery trade; she married him in 1915, at the age of forty. In 1922—echoing themes in Chains—the pair emigrated for two years to the Cook Islands.

Baker faced declining production prospects in the early 1930s. Her career as a professional playwright apparently concluded with the one-act One of the Spicers (1932). Following the death of her husband in 1941, Baker moved from her longtime family home in Bedford Park to Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, where she lived with a stepsister. Four ITV Television Playhouse adaptations of her plays appeared between 1959 and 1961. These broadcasts brought “Mrs. Gertrude Allaway, an eighty-four year old widow” (The Daily Mirror) a small measure of renewed recognition, half a century after The Guardian described Elizabeth Baker as a “widener of frontiers.” She died in Hertfordshire on March 8, 1962.

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Cast

Jeremy Beck
Kyle Cameron
Anthony Cochrane
Christopher Gerson
Olivia Gilliatt
Jeff Gurner
Laakan McHardy
Andrea Morales
Ned Noyes
Brian Owen
Elisabeth S. Rodgers
Claire Saunders
Peterson Townsend
Amelia White
Avery Whitted

Creatives

Director: Jenn Thompson
Sets: John McDermott
Costumes: David Toser
Lights: Paul Miller
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Props: Chris Fields
Dialects & Dramaturgy: Amy Stoller
Casting: Stephanie Klapper, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Assistant Stage Manager: Miriam Hyfler
Illustration: Stefano Imbert
Graphics: Hey Jude Design, Inc.
Press: David Gersten & Associates
Production Management: Robert Signom III
Scott Schneider & Melanie Armer
Intuitive Production Management

 

MEET MISS BAKER DAY
Performance of CHAINS at 2:00 (followed by a post-show talk)
Reading of PENELOPE FORGIVES at 7:30

June 29, 2022 Post-show talk after the matinee and a Further Reading at 7:30.

See a matinee of CHAINS followed by a post-show talk with Mint’s Resident Dramaturgical Advisor. After a break for dinner, return to Theatre Row for a reading of Baker’s play PENELOPE FORGIVES, introduced by Kristin Celello from CUNY Queens College.

MAYA CANTU: “How Came Miss Elizabeth Baker…?: The Critical Reception of CHAINS.”

Since 2013, Maya has worked on sixteen productions at the Mint. She is the author of the book, American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage: Imagining the Working Girl from Irene to Gypsy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). For her essay “Beyond the Rue Pigalle: Recovering Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith as ‘Muse,’ Mentor, and Maker of Transatlantic Musical Theater,” published in Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity, Maya was selected as the 2020 recipient of the American Theatre and Drama Society’s Vera Mowry Roberts Research and Publication Award. Maya teaches on the Drama and Literature faculties at Bennington College, and received her D.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama.

PENELOPE FORGIVES

by ELIZABETH BAKER

Directed by Britt Berke

(Free for Members of the First-Priority Club, $25 for non-members)

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This play premiered 21 years after Baker made her dramatic debut with CHAINS. In both plays Baker considers the ties that bind, but PENELOPE… is a “radical and explicit challenge to the institution of marriage as it stands.” Audiences in 1930 were less interested in the social issues that Baker was dramatizing than they had been in 1909. PENELOPE FORGIVES had a brief run and was Baker’s only produced play that was never published. Mint obtained a copy of the typescript from the Lord Chamberlain’s collection at the British Library and is delighted to share it with Mint’s audience.

“The 1930 Players attained some measure of distinction with their first venture, as it was a new play from the pen of Miss Elizabeth Baker. From the authoress of CHAINS a play is always welcome. In her present work, Miss Baker has once again shown that she can write with sympathy, understanding and not a little humor, about mankind’s frailties. This time it is “mankind” used in its most restricted sense—for the theme is masculine marital infidelity.”

KRISTIN CELELLO is Associate Professor of History at Queens College. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 2004. She is the author of Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and the co-editor of a volume titled Domestic Tensions, National Anxieties: Global Perspectives on Marriage, Crisis, and Nation (Oxford University Press, 2016). Her current book project is After Divorce: Parents, Children, and the Modern American Family.

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