Little Theatre Movement

The Little Theater Movement was a social development of theater in the United States starting in 1912. After the new cinema replaced theater as a source of large-scale spectacle, much American drama became focussed, intimate, noncommercial, and reform-minded. Chicago seems to have played an important part in the development of the Little Theatre Movement. Community theater is an outgrowth of the Little Theater Movement.


The "Little Theater" was founded in response to the great melodramas that had entertained audiences in the late 1800s, which had now become the province of motion pictures. The new theater was smaller, more intimate, more psychological.

A wide variety of experimental theater groups, amateur companies, clubs, and settlement houses undertook this theater reform, bringing smaller, more inwardly-directed plays to a wider public audience. The Hull-House settlement theater group, under the direction of Laura Dainty Pelham, was the first to perform several plays by Galsworthy, Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw in Chicago. Maurice Brown, founder of the Little Theater in Chicago, credited Ms. Pelham with being the "true founder of the 'American Little Theatre Movement'. Women were pervasive throughout the Little Theatre Movement, although their efforts were often belittled, dismissed, or undervalued.

Chicago philanthropists and arts patrons [[Arthur T. Aldis] and Mary Aldis founded an artists' colony called "The Compound" in Lake Forest, Illinois, and in 1910, Mary founded the "Aldis Playhouse" there, "a predecessor to the 'little theater' movement.

In 1912, two theater groups were founded, the Toy Theatre in Boston and the Little Theater in Chicago. This was the official start of the "Little Theater Movement" in the United States. Also in 1912 George Pierce Baker offered Harvard's first playwriting course.

"Little" not only refers to the smaller (and eventually black box) sized houses they played for, but also the focus of the plays. Unlike the great melodramas that had entertained audiences in the late 1800, these plays had more subtle conflicts. Often there was no clear villain or hero but rather human beings with crossed purposes. The acting style was also a more subtle precursor to the naturalistic style of acting that would become popular in the '60s and '70s.

The Little Theatre Movement revitalized the American theatre and led to the rise of giants like Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill.


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