101 Dictations: In Ghost-Writer, a novelist and a typist work late nights.
101 Dictations: In Ghost-Writer, a novelist and a typist work late nights.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Somewhere in women’s history between Seneca Falls and Sheryl Sandberg, the best job a young woman could hope to secure was a secretarial position. To be offered such a job, an eligible young employee had to be fiancé-free, and she needed to excel in typing. Not texting, but pounding away at a Smith Premier, 50 words per minute, without so much as missing a semicolon. If a woman finished typing school with the fastest w.p.m. in 17 years, one has to imagine she would graduate with a sense of euphoria comparable to Carly Fiorina being named CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

One also has to imagine such a woman would be a bit uptight, a product of her times, and a touch neurotic. One has to imagine she would be much like Myra Babbage, the protagonist of Michael Hollinger’s 2010 play Ghost-Writer. Susan Lynskey stars as Myra in MetroStage’s production, and in a lengthy opening monologue, she does come off as annoying. At first, Lynskey appears to be slightly overplaying her character given the size of the venue, where no one is more than 15 yards from the stage. But spend 80 minutes with this primly dressed, speedy typist, and you slowly realize that Lynskey acts just as an eager-to-please, early 20th century young professional woman who has just landed her dream job should.

It’s 1919, and fresh out of the Empire Secretarial School for Young Ladies, Myra has been hired as typist by Franklin Woolsey (Paul Morella), an esteemed writer of quasiliterary romance novels with titles like Sojourn in Sicily and The Gentleman-Farmer. But in the throes of his success, Woolsey has decided he’d rather dictate his stories than type them out, and hires Myra after his last typist marries. Myra does not disclose, during the interview, that she has a suitor, only that she attends a dance class each Thursday evening and must waltz off rather than work late. Woolsey agrees, but she is otherwise at his beck and call, and he sees more of her than his wife Vivian (Helen Hedman), who frequently calls on the newly installed telephone.

He doesn’t pick up.

Ghost-Writer is about a love triangle in shirtwaists, and there are plenty of warnings that all will not end well. Myra narrates the play in a direct address to the audience, after Woolsey’s death. The foreshadowing is a bit overly precious, but some flashback scenes are winningly sweet. Early in their collaboration, the typist and the novelist spar over semicolons versus full stops; years later, he embraces her plot points, if not her actual bodice. As a period drama, the play does lack the just-below-the-surface simmer of an Edith Wharton novel or The Heiress. Yet if the sexual tension seems artificial, it’s in part because we’ve become far too accustomed to bodice-rippers, and to real-life women who, thanks to pioneers like Myra Babbage, can succeed in business rather than secretarial school.