In 1903, Anita Block graduated from Barnard College and helped found the socialist newspaper New York Call as its drama critic and women’s page editor, serving in both roles until the paper closed in 1923. Focusing on serious topics rather than standard women’s page fare, Block made the Call the first paper to publish about Margaret Sanger’s birth control work. After the paper closed, she continued writing about theater for other newspapers. In 1926, she became the Theatre Guild’s reader of foreign plays, and in 1939, she wrote The Changing World in Plays and Theatre, exploring topics ranging from the Great War in contemporary drama to sexual morality in plays and arguing that great plays should be read as literature, not just experienced in performance.
Anita Block helped to found one of the first socialist newspapers in the United States, the New York Call, serving as the editor of its women’s page and as its drama critic from 1903 until 1923, when the paper closed during the antiradical, anti-immigrant sentiment following World War I.
She was born in New York City on August 22, 1882, the daughter of Herman and Henriette (Florsheim) Cahn. Her father had immigrated to the United States from Germany some years before and made his living by writing about finance and economics. Her socialist parents gave her little education in Judaism. As an adult, she rejected all religion in order to seek a universal ethic that would unite the people of the world.
Block graduated with a B.A. from Barnard College in 1903 after completing a senior thesis on dramatic realism in the plays of Henrik Ibsen. The subject evoked discomfort and disdain from her instructors, who commented, in her words, “that no nice girl would dream of reading Ibsen.” Drama became a lifelong study. Soon after graduation, she married lawyer S. John Block, who died in 1955, and together they became members of the American Socialist Party.
At the Call, Block directed the Sunday women’s page, an institution at the paper that featured subjects of social and political interest to women. As she recalled, “It was probably the only woman’s page which never printed a recipe or a fashion note.” She also noted that it was the first page in the country to present the views of Margaret Sanger, an early advocate of birth control. Block also served as the paper’s drama critic, and after the Call ceased publication in 1923, she continued to write about theater for other newspapers and various magazines. She traveled to Europe and searched the United States for obscure playwrights worthy of public attention and became the Theater Guild’s reader of foreign plays in 1926. She also wrote a book on the subject.
In The Changing World in Plays and Theatre (1939) Block argues that plays should be read as literature and not simply experienced in performance, that fine drama lives on the page though it may be displayed in the theater. Her subjects include a discussion of the world war in contemporary drama, sexual morality in plays, and a survey of theater in Soviet Russia in which she ruminates “to what new horizons drama is pointing in the one country that has advanced to a new social order.”
Block said of Americans that they tended to be more impressed with the show than the content. “In this country,” she told a reporter, “we never face facts; we try to escape from their unpleasantness. We are neither socially, politically nor economically minded.” She called Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude the only American play good enough to stand with the great European dramas.
Anita Block died in New York City on December 11, 1967. Though never Jewish in religious practice, Block remains one of the most accomplished contributors to the culture of Jewish socialism in New York.
The Changing World in Plays and Theatre (1939).
New York Call.
Obituary. NYTimes, December 13, 1967, 47:1.