Catherine Sheehy (’92, ’99 DFA) is the Chair of the Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism Department and Resident Dramaturg.
The Locusts Have No King
By Dawn Powell
“Realism is the only completely vague term. ‘Satire’ is the technical word for writing of people as they are: ‘romantic’ the other extreme of people as they are to themselves—but both of these are the truth.”
With these two sentences jotted in her diary on February 26, 1936, Dawn Powell (1896-1965) taught me almost everything I know about genre. Powell was a prolific but underappreciated writer of novels, plays, stories, and screenplays. Her first produced piece for the stage, Success Story, was performed by the now-legendary Group Theater starring Stella Adler, with a young Clifford Odets in a bit part as the elevator boy. But almost as soon as it was published or performed, her work was forgotten. After her death, it descended into positively Stygian* obscurity until Gore Vidal in a 1987 New York Review of Books Lazarus act entitled, “Dawn Powell, the American Writer,” reanimated it.
Vidal’s article created something of a sensation among American literati** and a positive boom for the Powell oeuvre. All (but one of)*** the novels were reissued in paperback. Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and Powell superfan, edited her diaries, her letters, and four of her plays for publication. He wrote her biography—which, like her work, ends in tragic anonymity as Powell’s body goes unclaimed and must be buried by the inmates of Riker’s Island in New York’s Potter’s Field.
My own initiation into the cult came in 1990 when my heart-friend James Magruder recommended Powell’s The Locusts Have No King, a razor-sharp comedy of manners careening between Greenwich Village and the Broadway theater scene in 1948 New York. I have since taught Powell’s play, Big Night, in multiple classes and worked on Stan Wojewodski’s 2001 production at Yale Rep.
Dawn Powell is the perfect writer for now…again. So, in this golden age of the great indoors, when the neighborhood I share with Powell**** is the faraway nearby, it was a comfort to find that I could get a Kindle edition of this book of which I have at least two other copies (including one Powell owned herself) quarantined in my office, and laugh again and marvel still at the shrewdness of vision and the openness of heart of “the American writer,” Dawn Powell.
If you, too, want to laugh and read about people as they are, The Locusts Have No King is available in paperback or for download at amazon.com. It is also available through the Library of America, and dirt cheap via abebooks.com.
*If you don’t know, look it up; you’re sitting at home with nothing else to do!
**Fran Lebowitz quipped that Dawn Powell deserved a wider readership far more than a wider readership deserved Dawn Powell.
***Powell had renounced her first novel, Whither, not without reason.
****And Liz Diamond and Karin Coonrod