DORTHY PARKER: Theatre’s Warrior Woman of the Past who helped Safeguard our Future
OnStage Nevada Columnist
Dorothy Parker was the salt of the earth that appeared in one of America’s greater moments of need. She lived and breathed the honesty of human life with all of the brutal wit that had been gifted to her. And, in return for such a life… she was left forgotten in the back of some hack attorney’s filing cabinet for some odd amount of years before being brought out into the light of day.
Yet somehow even after passing on, her sense of humor seemed to have transcend the boundaries of life. Of course the beautiful sensuous Parker would make a grand debut from the shadows of death in true diva fashion to secure her legacy. Lady luck always seems to show her favor in the oddest of ways. In one of these odd ways, I was introduced to her reincarnation as Mary Bennett of the troupe Brüka Theatre Of The Sierra, Inc. wrote/produced/acted in her one woman show giving Dorothy’s side of the story of her own nearly-forgotten life… but there is a catch in order to see this rare speakeasy performance of Words To Live By—An Evening With Dorothy Parker.
You must first find yourself at the Brüka Theatre in Reno Nevada between the dates of March 17th- March 25th, go through a secret built in alleyway—and whisper a particular code phrase to the doorman after knocking three times. If given permission to enter this all exclusive party, as an audience member you are transported to the boudoir of Dorothy Parker herself. Of course while you wait for the great star’s entrance with a warm scotch in your hands, Parker is sure to provide some delightful street theatre entertainment to stimulate your senses. Some French clown work pantomimed to gorgeous tunes of the romance languages amongst American modern theatre contemporaries because, why the eff not?
“Because the French clown era is sexier and lighter.” Laughed Mary Bennett. “It’s more subtle, where you’re not hitting it over the head with comedy. Like with Jacques Lecoq the teacher who developed the foundations to our physicality method. Through that movement in his life, clowning came through. That’s what you see in all those silent films. That’s where it comes from. And in American we broadly… bashed things. Buffooned our way through clowning so to speak.”
Lyndsey agreed. “American clown interpretation is more big circus and children’s parties. French clown-work was born in the theatre.”
The two women were put to the test, and won much hard-earned respect for street performers everywhere. No really. For a small fifteen minute performance—two more strong and talented actors Lyndsey Langsdale and Carrie Lynn in The Ballad Frankee & Matilde tell a story of how two souls meet, fall in love and continue on through obstacles with pulled heartstrings and a few laughs. Just as charming as the stage work, is the story of conception for how Carrie and Lyndsey exactly pieced this performance together.
Originally when Lyndsey and Carrie got together and heard the French soundtrack for the first time, since they weren’t fluent in français the meaning of the lyrics went unknown to the creative pair. Instead, both women were transported by the emotion behind the music and coincidently came up with a story arc that was remarkably similar. Either way, it is a performance that Parker herself would be proud of.
Once the lady of the hour appears on stage, Dorothy Parker in all of her splendor—with a little help from scotch and one friendly tech hand, she chooses her own favorite interviews, poems, and short stories that reveal more of her soul than possibly she herself could know.
Dorothy Parker, maiden name Rothschild, was born in 1893 to a growing Jewish family along the east coast. Her beloved mother died before she was five, her hated stepmother passed on before she was nine, then finally her father succumbed to his own death in the year 1913. Yes, Dorothy was accustomed to tragedy. Her circumstances didn’t even allow her to properly finish her education, but that couldn’t stop the fire that burned deep inside of her; and ‘No’ became the courtesy word to which Dorothy politely spat back in people’s faces.
In the year following her father’s death, Dorothy became a published writer; her first poem published within the pages of Vanity Fair. In 1917, Dorothy was officially married—and her name was finally legalized as Dorothy Parker. Armed with this new life, nothing could seem to stop this indomitable woman. Especially after she became one of the founding members of the illustrious critics, writers, actors, and wits known as the Algonquin Round Table. If you wished to summon up the Round Table in two words of today’s modern day terminology, they would be called FAKE NEWS.
But none of this supposed fake news was meant to be taken seriously. They were just a few good friends sharing banter and having fun in a beautiful hotel for lunch. The news was entertainment once upon a time not too long ago as well. For ten years starting in 1919 the Algonquin Round Table dominated the tabloids, and Dorothy did not waste a precious second of its creativity—even going so far as to produce her own show on Broadway despite her being a theatre critic herself. There were no boundaries for Dorothy Parker it seemed, unless it was in her personal life. Two failed marriages, a publicized abortion and a suicide attempt in the late twenties, Dorothy was not spared from further sorrows. Yet she continued on to fight for equality and humane treatment for all. Parker brought awareness by reporting about the Loyalist Faction in Spain, supported Martin Luther King Jr., help found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, headed relief centers and transports—all of this, yet she was labeled as a Communist during the McCarthy era and blacklisted from Hollywood.
As Dorothy Parker grew older, she began to wish that she had never written one wit after being demeaned to just a label of “the critic”. She moved from hotel room to hotel room until she suffered from a fatal heart attack at the age of seventy-three in the year 1967. For seventeen years, Dorothy Parker’s ashes remained unclaimed and moved from place to place before the NAACP gave the great woman her final resting place in 1988. She rests in Baltimore now, and on a plaque in polished lettering it reads:
Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, 'Excuse my dust'.
This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.
To know her history was one thing going before in to see Words To Live By—An Evening With Dorothy Parker, but Mary Bennett made her something so much more. Personable and charismatic, Mary’s version of Dorothy revealed the woman to be empathic and easily relatable to. A stunning masterpiece that passes away the time in a blink of an eye. You walk in a stranger, but walk out with an old friend; a sentiment shared by many members of the audience I discovered after the curtain was drawn to a close.
When sitting down to interview the gentle quick-wit herself, Mary made sure first and foremost that the comfortable nature of the environment was pleasant to all of her guests—audience, actors, and reporters alike.
MARY: You know that Dorothy Parker use to sleep with a notepad by her bed? Just in case any great ideas came to her, and one night she woke up and wrote down:
Man is polygamous,
Woman is monagamous
(Laughs) She was the kind of woman who could step back from these ideas and say “Eh. Maybe these aren’t so good.”
So this isn’t the first time you’ve performed this show, or personified Dorothy Parker correct?
MARY: No. I had remounted the show a couple of times over the years. Once for a dentist convention and once for an annual meeting of mortician and funeral people. I also had re-mounted it for our Biggest Little Festival a few years ago because I know it was the last time my Mom would be there to see it. [In the present] It worked out really nicely because I wanted to do Dorothy Parker again since it’s her fiftieth anniversary since her death, and it has been twenty years since I had did it before. It wasn’t originally meant to be a one woman show, I had given other parts to people—but they bailed.
But I knew I was going to put this up in March because it’s also women’s history month. Carrie, whom I love to chit chat with, then came to me with this idea for her show. I love the idea of the green show or cartoon before the show—not to demean that, I don’t think a cartoon is less than. But Carrie had this great idea, a short show with awesome women, and I knew that this was how I wanted to do it. I love these two women very much.
We shared a laugh and discussed future possible street performances, to which all three women agreed they would love to bring the Ballad of Frankee back to Reno’s annual ArTown in July.
MARY: The more that we perform [these two shows], the more refined both performance becomes. And both of these shows also start to highlight the different relationships in different ways. So yeah, this won’t be the last of Dorothy Parker or Frankee and Matilde.
As you were saying before, this show was produced twenty years earlier before, and that’s when you actually wrote it, right?
MARY: Yes. I love the written word, and my Aunt Sally was this amazing writer. She always told me that I needed to read Dorothy Parker, and it became this passing joke between her and my Mom. My Aunt gave me the book when I was in my teens, and after reading it, I was like “Oh my God! How did you know what was in my mind?”
I wasn’t in theatre when I was first introduced to Dorothy Parker, but when people pass on I think because I’m so caught up in theatre now because of the way I can honor those people and grapple all these ghosts together—and I thought that one of the ways I could do it was through this woman [Dorothy Parker], and tell a few of her stories. Because as I was reading her works, I felt like her. Which is sort of odd when you’re in there and then you look in a mirror and have to recheck yourself of ‘It’s Dorothy, oh wait. It’s Mary.’ But you can get deep in there with certain things, and in the end it was really honoring to my Mom and my Aunt and I wanted to prove to them that I was smart too. They were such intelligent women, and I wanted to be smart using my own wit with Dorothy Parker’s help.
Ah. Dorothy Parker is your succession tribute to your own strong women, and fulfill that cycle that Dorothy hoped to start in her own lifetime.
MARY: Very much so.
Do you believe that Dorothy Parker would reflect similarly in our era with what we are facing as women?
MARY: For Dorothy Parker, it would be mirror to mirror. With all of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), when she and so many others were brought before them as Communists the similarities with the Trump Administration and how they have treated people in entertainment—to make them less than, is fascinating. It’s so important to talk about, and it’s interesting on how one would frame it. For Dorothy Parker, the stock market crashed in 1929 and that in 1920 America was in Prohibition. All of these limitations are coming up, and it was sort of the artists that found their way around that, the bohemians. They had fun with it, and a sense of humor about it. We see that now in late night. We see that on television shows and in sketch comedy. Because of what is happening, it’s amazing to see that all of a sudden Comedy has a Voice. When you see problems, you speak out, and comedy gives you freedom to do that. And as entertainers, we speak out.
So yeah, there are so many similarities and it’s so exciting. Dorothy Parker was as much of an entertainer as she was a humanist. She was brave enough to be loud of who she was and what she was going to fight for despite her own personal history. Dorothy Parker didn’t like to speak out about herself, she used her short stories to do that in so many ways. Kind of opposite to Lillian Hellman who used her own stuff to kind of say ‘Look what’s happening to me.’ After saying this, Lillian was one of the first people to get blacklisted.
I think Dorothy Parker was a little bit quieter than that. She would want to fight to be fighting for the person as opposed to being the person fought for. She wouldn’t be the person trying to gain popularity from a protest, but she would be there. A good example would be the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Go look that up at some point. Dorothy was horrified over these two men when they were arrested for a crime they were blamed for in 1920. They were blamed because they weren’t American, and they had radical anti-government pamphlets in the car when they were arrested. So both Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to be put to death, and were electrocuted in 1927. Dorothy banned up with other individuals (Robert Hemingway, Robert Benchley, HG Wells, ect.) going to the justice department saying ‘You can’t put these men to death.’
After the execution of these two men, Dorothy Parker was heartbroken because this was the first time she stood up for someone else in a large platform - something beyond herself. All the rest were observations for her, but she stood outside of that politically and Dorothy continued that. She got together with a bunch of these intellects, because they all believed that what was being done already wasn’t enough. Then when the McCarthy Era hit, they were all blacklisted. McCarthy turned it around as if they were anti-American, but none of them were Anti-American. The intellectuals and Dorothy Parker were trying to say ‘What’s happening internationally is wrong. We have to stand up.”
I believe Dorothy was highly intellectual. She stopped going to school at fourteen, she never graduated high school. But that was something that didn’t have to be done at the time because a woman working in that profession, in any profession was rare. So Dorothy was breaking boundaries early on, and used her observations to get there. She was kind of the right person at the right time, and thank God she was there. Dorothy took her poetry early on to Crownin- shield, then Vogue, then Vanity Fair, then Round Table taught her that you can be famous for not doing anything. Her glamorized and romantic idealized life was based on nothing more that her own opinions. They were just being funny, and she learned there was power in that. But Dorothy was disappointed in that because she wanted to become more of a serious artist than she was, and she wasn’t given that equality in her life. Her supportive relationship to Ernest Hemingway is a good example of that. She admired that man greatly, and he never treated her very well. However Dorothy Parker learned from it, as we all do when we learn whatever we can.
The Great Parker “There's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” Do you believe that Dorothy Parker has truth she would wish to be known for today’s world about that difference between wise-cracking and wit?
MARY: Absolutely. Dorothy said it too when she talks about the Round table. She said, that these people too are sitting on jokes and waiting to spring them on each other. That’s what it was, it was a game. Silly, probably juvenile games—but to be smart enough to write a clever rhyme or line that wraps itself around the situation and makes sense, that’s the situation. That’s that difference, and Dorothy was aware enough to see the intellect in that. Be smarter than the game, let it wrap around you.
So these are Words To Live By!
If you missed the performance, nothing to worry about. Dorothy Parker still wishes to reach out to you too in her autobiography, her numerous poetry novels that give most modern day rappers a run for their money, numerous articles from her time with Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, along with her famous scripts she left as legacies for both film and Broadway stages.
She wasn’t nearly appreciated as she ought to have been in her living days, but were she still alive—Dorothy Parker’s values would be as unyielding and courageous as they are within her predecessors today without prejudice. As a silent hero, Dorothy fought from the sides without wanting the spotlight…and we need more people to carry own her legacy as Mary Bennett does in true thespian fashion.
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Address: 99 N Virginia St, Reno, NV 89501
Phone: (775) 323-3221
Words To Live By - An Evening With Dorothy Parker & The Ballad of Frankee & Matilde
8 PM SHOWS: MARCH 17, 18, 22A*, 23, 24, 25, 2017
2 PM MATINEES: MARCH 19** (SUN) MARCH 25 (SAT)
List of Some Dorothy Parker Works:
- Parker, Dorothy (1926). Enough rope: poems.
- 1939 - Here Lies
- (February 28, 1925). "A certain lady". The New Yorker.
- (1955) Complete Stories
- (1987). Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?
- (1976) The Portable Dorothy Parker Dorothy Parker (Author), Brendan Gill(Introduction
Photos are under the ownership of:
- Brüka Theatre
- Dana Nollsch
- Anna Christine