4. Biographical Background

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Costa San Giorgio.

The Theater of Life

Perhaps in part because of her personal predicament, Loy recognized early on that the economies of sex, gender, and art were inextricable. Just when she had begun to earn an audience for her work in Paris, exhibiting six watercolors at the prestigious Salon d’Automne in 1904, she found herself pregnant with Haweis’s child. The couple hastily wed and moved to Florence, taking up residence on the Costa San Giorgio.

Long a refuge for British families fleeing scandal and financial woes, Florence in the 1910s had become a hotbed for artistic, social, and sexual experimentation. There, Loy could mingle with free-loving salon hostess Mable Dodge, golden-haired artist Frances Stevens, uncorseted modern dancer Isadora Duncan, and her lover, English stage designer Gordon Craig. In the summer months, she could rendezvous with Leo and Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas to discuss the Paris art scene. And when Marinetti motored in from Rome to consort with Papini and the playboy-poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, she could indulge in heated verbal sparring and steamy flirtations.

While personal dramas provided ample entertainment in the Florentine expatriate community, modern drama was also a popular topic of conversation. Haweis struck up a friendship with Gordon Craig, immersing himself in discussions about Craig’s “theater of the future” and creating plates of his innovative stage sets for publication in Craig’s theater magazine, The Mask (Burke 110-111).

1237323852234375According to Burke, Loy disliked Craig and “found his relations with Isadora Duncan far more interesting than his plans to modernize the theater” (111). But Loy had her own ideas about modernizing theater. Even if she disliked Craig, she would have had a hard time resisting The Mask, given how desperate she was for news of the art world beyond Florence and how often she pressed Van Vechten to send magazines. The Mask gave her ready access to “Magazine Reviews” of the latest issues of Camera Work, the English Review, the Century, and other journals; discussions of the latest developments in European theater; histories of folk drama and puppetry; and a translation of Marinetti’s 1914 manifesto, “Futurism and the Theatre.”

Loy also heard about experimental theater in America from Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood, resident representatives of the Provincetown Players. From them, she may have learned about playwrights such as Susan Glaspbell and Rachel Crothers, who took up questions of women’s rights and roles, using realist approaches to interrogate gender inequality in art and life. Glaspell’s famous one-act Trifles was performed by the Provincetown players in 1916, Crother’s 1911 play He and She, a battle of the sexes between husband and wife artists, became a Broadway hit in 1920.  If Loy’s satire of the sex war, The Sacred Prostitute, wasn’t directly influenced by these early feminist dramas, it most certainly partakes of the same zeitgeist. The Provincetown Playhouse’s openness to feminist experiment may also have appealed to Loy when she agreed to star with William Carlos Williams in Lima Beans in 1917.

But in Florence, Loy could only experiment in the theater of her imagination. She engaged in probing discussions about dramatic theory with Herbert Trench, a British poet, playwright, and former director of the Haymarket Theatre, reporting to Van Vechten:

Trench is writing a tremendous play—& the theory at the back of it which is all he has imparted to me so far—is so deep—I wonder where the public is to come from—The Futurist Theatre is very poor by the way–there is little being evolved here. I wrote a play called ‘The Pamperers’—which is simultaneously a parody of the “Genius”—& the society that takes him up—it’s a good deal longer than the ones in Rogue—the hero is a man who picks up cigar ends.

In rapid fire, Loy expresses her interest in dramatic theory, her concern about audience, her dissatisfaction with Futurist Theater, and her excitement about her own advances in play writing.

Within the limited orbit of the expatriate community of Florence, Loy was able to observe the conversations, interactions, and theatrical antics of the avant-garde from close-range. She analyzed everything she read and saw, trying to understand how the modern art world worked and what was not working—why the Futurists were not living up to their own revolutionary rhetoric, and why her own position as an “exceptional woman” was not leading to artistic or sexual fulfillment, but rather to disappointing love affairs and suffocating isolation.

Although Futurism may have woken her up, it did not turn out to be a high-speed train ticket to emancipation. Loy simply couldn’t exercise the same artistic freedoms Marinetti and Papini enjoyed, particularly in pre-war Italy. Without a license or a car, she couldn’t drive through the city streets, hurling posters and expletives at passers-by. She couldn’t stir up interest in the local cafes, as “Ladies did not venture into such places” (Burke 106).

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Tabernacle on Costa San Giorgio, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

As Loy sardonically observes in her poems of the period, women in pre-war Italy were largely confined to domestic spaces and feminine activities: “all permissible pastimes” were “Attendant upon chastity,” and young women spent their lives “chasing moments from one room to another” (“Italian Pictures”). Unmarried women were effectively prisoners of the bourgeois home: “Houses hold virgins / The door’s on the chain” (“Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots”). Women could not appear in public, much less assume the stage to publicly challenge sexual propriety, without seriously risking their reputations.

Loy’s reputation was especially vulnerable. Although she was estranged from her husband, Stephen Haweis, “divorce was out of the question, since any impropriety meant the end of her income” (Burke 102). Stepping out of bounds in person or in print could lead to getting cut off by Haweis or disowned by her family. “Do you notice how frightened I get like a small child when I have written anything I mean,” she confessed to Van Vechten, “I feel my family on top of me” (quoted by Burke 192).

Nevertheless, she wrote. Writing gave her a vehicle for analyzing her predicament. In addition to poems and manifestos, she wrote fragmented roman-à-clefs that restage scenes from her exhilarating and frustrating encounters with Marinetti and Papini. Loy’s poems and roman-à-clefs provide a way of thinking about sex war on an intimate scale, while giving her critical distance from her own dilemmas. But the more public-oriented plays offer her a larger stage in which she can move from analyzing her personal plight to investigating social roles, psychological patterns, and gender structures.

Loy was not merely interested in solving her own personal problems; she wanted to examine the big picture and understand her position in a much larger system. Playwriting allowed her to explore her personal predicament on a public stage, transforming and generalizing her experiences into art. Her plays offer an insider’s view into the structures and operations of the historical avant-garde, providing insight into her evolving understanding of the artist’s relation to audience.