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Dramaturg’s Note | LITTLE WOMEN

by Grace Elphinstone, Dramaturg

“The rose would wilt if she gave it the care of another flower, and the violet too. One isn’t better than the other. They just need different things to grow…Look at them: Aren’t they beautiful together?” – Marmee March

Over a century after its publication, the characters and themes of Little Women continue to resonate with audiences of all ages. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy broke the standards for typical 1860s “women’s literature” characters; the four sisters each had artistic dreams and weren’t afraid to be themselves, even if that meant rejecting the pressures of “ladylike” behaviors. As time went on, the story continued to weave itself into the lives of adolescent girls and women alike, providing them with realistic literature in which they could finally picture themselves. For decades, people have been able to see themselves reflected in Little Women’s characters and audiences identify with the messages of unity, individuality, and sisterhood.

Louisa May Alcott published her novel Little Women in 1868, shortly after the Union victory in the American Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. From 1861 to 1865, the U.S. split in two: the Confederacy fought to uphold slavery, while the Union fought for its abolishment. American values shifted during this time as more people viewed selflessness as a patriotic way to serve their country. These values are reflected in the March family dynamic, where the girls are constantly encouraged to help others in need and reminded of how grateful they should feel. Both armies accepted volunteer soldiers until the 1863 Conscription Act established mandatory registration for the draft. Little Women is set in the early 1860s, so Robert March would have been a volunteer in the Union Army.

During the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott was living in Massachusetts, a Union state, but traveled to Washington, D.C. to aid the war efforts as a nurse. During her time there, she created one of her breakout publications, Hospital Sketches. Alcott continued to write and publish short stories anywhere possible to relieve her family’s financial struggles. After several of her horror and ghost stories were released, her publisher encouraged her to shift gears and write about domesticity – a more ordinary story about family life. Alcott hesitantly agreed, but the immediate success of Little Women led her to write a second part and two accompanying stories, Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. The success of Little Women never truly faded and the story repeatedly has been adapted for numerous media, ranging from movies to Broadway plays and musicals.

Generations of Americans have each experienced different renditions of Little Women, but none quite compare to Kate Hamill’s 2018 adaptation of the Alcott classic. Hamill is an American playwright and actress from Lansing, New York. After graduating from Ithaca College with a BFA in Acting, she began adapting classic stories into plays for today. Her other works include Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and a “feminist revenge fantasy” version of Dracula. Hamill’s overarching goal in adapting classics like Little Women is to revamp them to fit the narrative of today’s society. 

“I am deeply interested in ‘reclaiming’ the classics; in order to create inclusive stories in which each of us can see reflections of our experiences.”
– Kate Hamill

Emerson Stage’s 2023-2024 season theme involves a hunger for authenticity and self-expression, and Hamill’s adaptation of Little Women is a phenomenal opener. From struggling with ever-changing familial relationships to exploring concepts like identity and grief, the characters guide us through the nostalgic and eye-opening experience of growing up in America.

As you watch this play, ask yourself, what does it really mean to “grow up” in a country whose ideals are so complexly layered, and how does that experience shape or alter our worldviews and relationships later in life?

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