Irma Kraft’s International Playhouse

“Our object is to bring to America the dramas of every country in the world and to produce those dramas exactly as they are produced in the countries of their origin. We shall stage, dress and light all plays in the native manner. Nothing will be changed in the slightest detail that it is humanly possible to reproduce, excepting the language. The establishment of such a theatre as we plan to make the International Playhouse will, we feel, serve a twofold purpose. It will give those persons unable to travel into foreign lands a true picture of the theatre of those lands, and it will also bring about a better understanding between countries through an art medium which makes a great appeal to all classes. It is not too much to say that it will be a strong factor in permanent international peace.”

               This is how, in 1925, Irma Kraft grandiosely described the foundation of her new Broadway theatrical project – the International Playhouse – to the New York Times. At this time, Kraft was already a well-known gadfly of American theatre.  She had grown up in the small Jewish community of Wheeling, West Virginia, the well-off daughter of Samuel Kraft, a cotton-goods merchant, and Pauline Kraft, a graduate of Rutgers Female College. Her adolescence was typical of a woman of her class, touring the debutante balls and society parties of the American East Coast, eventually fetching up in New York. Through the 1910s and early 1920s she could be found travelling around Europe and the Mediterranean and writing plays or cultural columns for American newspapers. When she returned to New York in the mid-1920s she found it, and particularly its theatre scene, suffocatingly parochial. People, she found, had little exposure to the cutting-edge ideas that were setting the rest of the world alight. In order to shake things up a little in the city, which desperately needed it, she set about creating what she touted as “America’s first world theatre”.

               The programme of plays was ambitious. Perhaps aware that she had to take baby steps, she would open with an American play (“The Subway” by Elmer Rice). With this concession to the New York audience out of the way, she was committed to cast her net across the glove. There was a flutter about the town. The press was full of rumours about the productions that Irma Kraft was planning. Some had heard that the legendary director Max Reinhardt had agreed to produce a play for the theatre, others that the Surrealist giant Luigi Pirandello would visit the city. Audiences were promised a Hungarian comedy called “Waterloo” (or “Napoleon Jr.”), a popular Dutch play called “Within a Day” and an unconfirmed new offering from John Galsworthy.

               In reality, this International Playhouse, with its grand mission to revitalize American theatre, lasted only two weeks. The first and only play to be staged was a theatrical adaptation of Ella Scrymsour’s (frankly, rather bizarre) 1924 orientalist novel The Bridge of Distances. Set in China, it told the story of a princess seduced by a boorish East India Company officer who had come to steal a precious jewel from her family. She elopes with him but comes almost immediately to regret it. In 1925, this novel had only just been published when Irma Kraft came upon a script for a dramatic version of it. According to her programme notes, she came back to her hotel room in London one night to find a full manuscript of the play on her desk. She found the action so beguiling that she stayed up all night reading it and decided that this would be the first play that her new theatre would produce. 

When play premiered in September of 1925, she ensured that it would look fantastic, paying for the highest caliber of set design and lighting. But her enthusiasm was not shared by critics, who panned the performance. One said it had “beautiful scenery, some fairly good acting, some very bad acting and direction that was only fair.” The reviewer continued, saying that it was “a play of little worth, unconvincing, of wobbly construction, and without literary distinction – melodrama without drama.” “The verdict, overall, was “atmospheric, if you will, but dull”.

               So, almost as soon as it had begun, Irma Kraft’s bold experiment was over. It may have been a failure, but like so many failures, it left much to be admired. Her mission of world drama, with its earnest attempts to construct a better world, had both the attractions and the deficiencies of a now lost inter-war optimism. For all their naïveté, the sincerity of her beliefs that international theatre could be agent of peace is seductive. Kraft shared with the adherents of the invented world language Esperanto (a late 19th century conception that reached the height of its popularity around this time) a belief that if everyone could just talk to each other and get to know each other, we would all be fine.

               Her vision had its blind spots, of course – one of these was its glaring eurocentrism. The majority of the proposed plays for the first season were European works, written about European subjects. Only two of her proposed plays were set in other parts of the world and these were written by Europeans. There was to be a “drama of life in India” called Laski, written by Jan Fabricius, a Dutch man who was deemed an expert on the subject because he had edited a newspaper in Calcutta. Then there was the only play that was ever actually produced, The Bridge of Distances. Written by the British Ella Scrymsour, it was is full of the usual early-20th-century Western clichés about China (honour codes, patriarchal oppression, ancient superstition, etc.) as well as including a comic servant whose English is peppered with out of place “l”s. This was not a depiction of Chinese culture on its own terms.

               Failure did not discourage Irma Kraft. When the International Playhouse finished in 1925, she tried other ways to introduce world theatre to the American public. In 1928, she published a collection of articles called Plays, Players, Playhouses: International Drama of Today. In this 263 page book, she developed her ideas about the theatre of the world, reiterating her call for America to learn from the drama of other countries.

Her conception of world theatre was almost Aristotelian in its obsession with classification. The book divides the theatrical tradition of different countries according to their dominant characteristics. Russia is “passionate”, China “ancestral”, Egypt “inscrutable”, and Yiddish theatre “ecstatic, exclamatory and filled with violent comedy or the brutal air of tragedy”. She never met an essentialism she didn’t like. Hers was a way of conceiving of the world in which every nation has its own defining quality, no nation complete on its own. This book was an attempt to create a new entity, under the banner “International Drama”, that could bring all these together as parts of a larger whole.

               Critical responses to the book, as they had been to her earlier dramatic venture, did not share her confidence in this undertaking. One reviewer said that “Mis Kraft’s style is ecstatic. Her fluidity of words is not the product of much knowledge, but rather an effort to hide ignorance.” He continued, “her evaluations of art are to be considerably distrusted.” Another was even more critical of her writing style: “the fact still remains that Miss Kraft has not learned how to write, despite her deep interest in the theatre.”

Irma Kraft was nothing if not committed to her work. These criticisms, with their gendered overtones, would not go unanswered. To the accusations that the book was not intellectually rigorous, Kraft responded that several universities used her text in their courses, that it was in constant circulation at the New York Public Libraries, and that some of the most eminent authorities on drama had given it their praise. As for the charge of bad writing, she responded with vigour. She listed all the publications around the world that she had written for and which had never questioned her abilities. Reckoning that a good offence was the best response to these critics, she finished with the words “the critic who states that an author cannot write may be open to the criticism that he cannot criticise.”

               After the publication of this book, Kraft continued to travel the world, interviewing theatre makers and writing about new dramatic developments. She appears to have had a particular fondness for left-wing artists, interviewing in the space of two years Paul Robeson, Karl Meyerhold and Edwin Piscator, who told her American readers “Yes, I am a Communist. I only want plays that may, perhaps, make things better.” Her efforts to bring international theatre to the USA were smaller in scope and less ambitious in execution.

               In 1944, she turned her attention to a new project, working as director of public relations for another short-lived organisation, the League for American Unity. It was set up by E. George Payne, Dean of the NYU School of Education, and designed to “eradicate racial, religious and other prejudices wherever they occur.” Like so many of Irma Kraft’s former project the League failed to make a tangible impact in American public life. In September 1949, she died, having lived an eventful, intermittently successful, life.

               Now, Irma Kraft has been largely forgotten. There is no entry for her on Wikipedia and her book Plays, Players, Playhouses is hard to find (though her other book, a collection of one act plays written for Jewish schools at Purim, circulates in the trade). She did not live one of the Great Lives of the twentieth century. Her dreams, bigger than her accomplishments, were not realized. Still, her ideal of global art, in its naïveté and its essentialism as well as its forward-looking progressivism, had all the appeal – and many of the flaws – of an inter-war internationalism that has long since disappeared. It is with Irma Kraft that we launch The Myna, a project that remembers the paths not taken and sees the joy in failure.

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