The third of Springfield Contemporary Theatre's "Missouri Solo Play Festival" offerings debuts Friday January 15 at SCT Center Stage in downtown Springfield: Saving Rose O'Neill, written and performed by Marcia Haseltine and directed by Dr. Robert Bradley.
Marcia says this project has been percolating for many years. "I was doing The Belle of Amhearst (about Emily Dickinson) at the Bentley House, which is near Drury University's campus. And someone in the audience said, 'You know, there's a woman that should also have a one-woman play written about her--as a matter of fact, Rose O'Neill died about six houses down from the very house you're playing Emily Dickinson in!' So that's the beginning of the thought--that's where the seed of the idea came from."
Of course, that was some 30 years ago(!). "And then it laid somewhat dormant," continues Marcia. Well, not exactly--she had begun gathering information about O'Neill, and made contact with the O'Neill family. "And that's where we got the source material for the journals and the memoirs. I was very interested in research, and I enjoyed that." By 2006 Marcia Haseltine says she really started getting the research together.
Ask her if she'd ever written a play before, and Marcia will probably laugh uproariously. "No!" she says. "In fact, I was hoping someone else might write it!" Finally one of her brothers said, "why don't you do it?" And she finally decided to give it a try.
Those who think of Rose O'Neill strictly as the creator of the "Kewpie" character may be surprised to discover just how wide-ranging were artistic and literary endeavors, says director Bob Bradley. "There is a... slight biography of O'Neill, called Rose O'Neill: More Than the Kewpie Lady." But he says Marcia has constructed an amazing journey for the audience, introducing this quite fascinating woman. Not only was she a visual artist--and a far more accomplished artist than most people know--she wrote four novels. She also published a book of poems in about 1920 or '21; she had short stories published. She was a cartoonist--the first female cartoonist in this country, if not the world. She was at one time the highest-paid illustrator--in the days before photographs, artists did illustrations for Puck, Ladies Home Journal and other magazines."
Marcia found Rose O'Neill equally fascinating as she researched her. "She's a wonderful character for the theater, because she was very eccentric and ahead of her time. One other point about her artwork: in 1906 she was elected an Associate Member to the Societe des Beaux Arts in Paris, which is their national gallery. Most people who exhibit their artwork there have to be juried in. But she was elected Associate Member, meaning she could hang any of her artwork in the National Gallery in Paris until she died."
Of course, Rose O'Neill has close ties to southwest Missouri. Her family purchased the land for what is now Bonniebrook, north of Branson, in the mid-1890s. At the time Rose was living and working in New York. Her first visit here was in about 1896. "From then until she died in 1944, she is a part of this area also," says Bob Bradley.
Marcia, in her script, takes up Rose's story in 1940, just four years before her death. What was happening in Rose O'Neill's life at this late stage? "She's broke, that's what's happening!" says Bob. Marcia explains: "She was a very generous woman and did give a lot of her money away. As a young person growing up, her family did not have money. And when she became a millionaire, sometimes people are not quite sure how to deal with that." Other contributing factors were the recent Great Depression, and the fact that magazine illustrating--"a major part of her income," says Bradley--had been largely replaced by photography, so that source of income had dried up. When O'Neill died she had all of $26.76 in her bank account, according to Marcia Haseltine's research. Also, says Marcia, Rose O'Neill "did not like the idea of selling her artwork--she would rather give it to friends, or loan it, versus selling it for money."
Marcia doesn't just stick to the last four years of Rose O'Neill's life in her play, says director Bob Bradley. "She moves back and forth in time. And in fact, one of the stories that she creates is Rose's first trip to the Ozarks in 1896. So this was an overnight trip for the family to come up to Springfield to get her." (Rose had traveled to Springfield from the East Coast by train.) "And she tells stories of that." So while the play takes place in 1940, the audience gets a review of Rose O'Neill's entire life, and the people in it, in Marcia Haseltine's one-person play Saving Rose O'Neill, receiving its world premiere performances over the next two weekends at SCT Center Stage.