The Bakers were an entertaining family. Emilie’s father acted, gave readings, and wrote eighty-nine amateur plays in his spare time. The family put on plays for weeks at a time in their home, and the children took part before they were even in school. Rachel, Emilie, and Robert belonged to an acting troupe at their church that put on plays for charity, and when the family went to the shore for the summer, they took along readings, plays, and costumes and looked for a local playhouse.
Generations before, they would have been in trouble with the law. An amateur play in 1750 was so popular in Boston that a near-riot of people tried to get in to see it. The authorities cracked down with a law that forbid acting in the Commonwealth and imposed a fine on spectators. The public loved the entertainment, but they wouldn’t be allowed to have it. It reminds me of the quote from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford: “I only hope it is not improper; so many pleasant things are!”
As you might guess, they found a way. Public plays were illegal, but who would know, if plays were acted in people’s homes? The amateur theatricals of Emilie’s childhood actually began right then, as a dissident movement, subversive acts in defense of entertainment.
By the 1800s, public theater was legal, but it was still not respectable. The Boston Museum got around that with the pretense of being principally a hall of educational exhibits. If folks happened to sit down to rest a bit in the auditorium, and if performers happened to be on stage at the same time, well, what was the harm in that? It was an obvious subterfuge, but the open practice continued for years.
During the Civil War, George Baker wrote comedies for conflict-weary audiences and published the writings of Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, a satirist who critiqued the war with simple humor. Abraham Lincoln read Nasby to “refresh” himself and declared, “For the genius to write these things I would gladly give up my office.” During World War I, Emilie’s brother wrote comedic films for soldiers overseas–including Selden Loring. William Howard Taft called entertainments for troops “a necessity,” a role fulfilled in later wars by the USO.
“For the outcome… was not merely an hour’s pleasure. It was a new spirit and new resolve. It lifted away a heavy load of weariness and homesickness, and, dissolving anxiety in laughter, restored the natural buoyancy which, for most men, is an essential of efficiency. No time or money was more profitably spent than that which set men’s feet to tapping, and let them live for a little time in a world of imagination…” William Howard Taft, former President and Supreme Court Justice
In the wake of the war, literary critics praised harsh realism, and entertainment was again on defense. Happy books–and particularly romances–were called cheap and trivial, but Emilie’s purpose was unshakeable. “I hereby frankly declare that I write to entertain,” she said, confident of her audience, her family’s tradition, and the proof of generations.
“I’ll leave the miseries, ironies, vain hopes, and frustrated dreams to more experienced writers. I want to write the kind of story—it will be just as much a part of the real world—that will cause persons who see ‘Melissa Barclay’ on a cover to plump down their problems—and incidentally the price—and seize the book. If, when they reach ‘the end’ they forget to go back for their problems and march blithely toward the day’s work pepped up and refreshed, refreshed—it’s a great word, isn’t it—I shall feel that I have achieved something.” Give Me One Summer
She succeeded with me. How about you?