By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 9 in the series)
July 6, 2020: A survey of the most active days for New York theater openings in the steamy days of early July during the torrid twenties, thermal thirties, and fiery forties reveals just how sluggish theatre business was in the good old summertime. Over a span of thirty years, the most prolific date between July 1 and 10 was July 6, which provided a mere eight titles, with three on the same day in 1927. Still, some interesting items can be discovered among those eight, which include a revival of Julius Caesar, one of Lombardi, Ltd., the reopening of a recent play called One for All, the reopening of Orson Welles’s “Negro Macbeth,” a musical called Yokel Boy that introduced Phil Silvers to Broadway, a minor revival of No Exit with Bea Arthur, another minor revival of No Exit, and, most interesting, Gertrude Stein’s Yes Is for a Very Young Man in an Off-Broadway rendering starring some soon-to-be heavy hitters from the Actors Studio.
But first, that sultry day in 1927, when three shows opened, one of them Julius Caesar, offered as the Players’ Club’s annual classical revival, with eight performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Suffering from a too-brief rehearsal period, lack of careful casting, and inadequate direction from John Craig, it did at least benefit from the distinctive settings of Norman Bel Geddes, one of the great designers of the period. “With his usual flare for telling simplicity, Mr. Geddes has built nearly all of his effects around a few columns so lighted and arranged as to give an unmistakably authentic mood without the least effort at popular realism,” wrote Richard Dana Skinner.
Basil Rathbone played Cassius, of which a critic signed First Nighter noted: “It was most unflattering to his histrionic ability.” Tyrone Power (father of the movie star) was a dull and funereal Brutus, William Courtleigh made a dignified, authoritative Caesar, and James Rennie was surprisingly effective Marc Antony, with “a truly thrilling energy and reserve force,” in Skinner’s words. Members of the rabble were cast with famous names in the literary and visual arts, including Edgar Lee Masters, Clayton Hamilton, and Don Marquis rabbled among the rabble.
Also on that day in 1927, Leo Carrillo began sweating through 24 performances at the George M. Cohan Theatre in Lombardi, Ltd., a low-priced revival of the hit he’d starred in 10 years before. He played one of his Italian dialect roles as the kindhearted-to-a-fault dressmaker who, unable to win the love of the model he adores (Rita Vale), settles for his assistant (Helen Deddens). The Times thought the piece a bit worse for wear, but to Skinner, it was “full of good comedy and quite a little pathos.”
Of even less newsworthiness was One for All, by Ernest and Louise Cortis, which had given a mere three performances at the Greenwich Village Theatre after opening on May 13, but, for all its awfulness, was moved on July 6 to Broadway’s intimate Princess Theatre. There, for some mysterious reason, it survived for 48 more performances.
This inferior work told of a scientist named Eric (Allyn Joslyn) who agrees to marry Molly Gansevoort (Madeline Delmar) on the condition he not be bothered about sex until he completes his experiments with a TB serum. He himself is a victim of the disease. Two years go by until he needs $900 to complete his work. Molly sleeps with Bertram (Beresford Lofett) to get the cash, but Eric forgives her for her subsequent pregnancy when he learns why she did it.
“It is impossible to judge the acting, other than to congratulate the cast on its martyrdom,” intoned First Nighter. Jasper Deeter, later famed for his founding the Hedgerow Theatre in Pennsylvania, was supposed to have staged the Off Broadway version, but he sent the critics a telegram that read: “My directing of One for All began last Tuesday and ended last night.”
Moving to the 1930s, we have July 6 openings only in 1936 and 1939. The first was a revival of Macbeth, one of seven during the decade, although, like One for All, this opening was not its first. It had opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem on April 14, ran for 64 performances, and then moved on July 6 to Broadway’s Adelphi Theatre for 11 more showings before going on tour. This revival, of course, was the renowned version staged by the 21-year-old Orson Welles—his New York directing debut—with an all-black cast for the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, with music by Virgil Thomson.
It has been written about in too many sources to need repeating here, other than to remind readers that the “Negro Macbeth,” as it came to be known, was considered a highly unconventional, often electrifying version in which the action was transposed to 1820 Haiti with an Emperor Jones-like Macbeth (Jack Carter) dressed like Henri Christophe, a queenly Lady Macbeth (Edna Thomas) in Directoire gowns, scarlet-coated, gold-braided soldiers, throbbing tom-toms, a score combining spirituals and blues, voodoo rites, and the eerie offstage cackles of the witches intruding on the action.
Conceptually, this was a thrilling production, although not without its flaws, including weaknesses in the speaking of the lines, and a script that Welles was accused of having “stupidly altered,” according to John Mason Brown, but it was nonetheless one of big events of the season. Of the many anecdotes associated with the production, perhaps the most famous is the one claiming that critic Percy Hammond, whose review was less than positive, was the object of voodoo rites held in the Lafayette’s basement. The story emerged after Hammond fell ill following the opening and died 11 days later. It must be reported, though, that Hammond’s take was actually rather benign and that, if anyone was to be voodooed to oblivion, it should have been John Mason Brown.
A rare show to open in July and have a decent run was Yokel Boy (originally called Yokel Boy Makes Good), a musical that lit up the Majestic Theatre for 208 performances. With a book and lyrics (with Charles Tobias) by Lew Brown, and music by Sammy Stept, it may have been what Richard Lockridge called “run of the mill,” but it had a good enough supply of tuneful numbers, pretty chorines, and energetic dancing to satisfy the undemanding. It also boasted a company that included dancer-actor Buddy Ebsen (in his first principal role); hillbilly comedienne Judy Canova; petite dancer Dixie Dunbar; and bespectacled, 28-year-old burlesque clown, Phil Silvers, in his first Broadway show.
The predictable plot was about a film being made in Lexington, Massachusetts, reenacting the Revolutionary War battle fought there. The moviemaking interrupts the nuptials of local yokel Elmer Whipple (Ebsen) and Mary Hawkins (Lois January). Elmer is the son of the late dancer Jack Donegil, and was raised by Mary’ ex-show biz folks. Hollywood shows an interest in Mary, and everybody heads for Lotus Land, where Elmer’s dancing makes him a big star, while Mary’s career flops. Romantic complications intrude when Mary, her head swelled, temporarily shifts her affections to drunken actor Jimmy Powell (Ralph Holmes). At the end, Mary comes down to earth, reconciles with Elmer, and they return to Lexington to complete their wedding.
“Every turn of the plot is labored, every moment drawn out as if it were precious,” grumbled Arthur Pollock in a representative opinion. Many were confused by the first act finale, “Uncle Sam’s Lullaby,” which combined a supposed message of peace with a musical spectacle of advanced martial fervor as soldiers, battleships, gorgeous nurses, and fighter planes battled for attention. Silvers was the show’s big find. “Well-nigh perfectly in the Broadway tradition of comedy is Phil Silvers as a Hollywood executive who knows all the answers and all the alibis,” perceived John Chapman. “
Our first July 6 show in the forties doesn’t arrive until 1948, a shoestring revival Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane of Jean-Paul Sartre’s French existentialist classic, No Exit. A more interesting contribution at the same theatre, a year later, was Gertrude Stein’s Yes Is for a Very Young Man, perhaps the most curious find among all the July 6 plays.
No Exit, which had its Broadway premiere in 1946, had already been revived in 1947 at the Cherry Lane. It reappeared there in 1948 in a rendering sponsored by the New York Repertory Group. The play, about the interaction of an ill-fitting trio of characters isolated in a hotel-like room in hell, where they must spend eternity with each other, is too well known to be described here.
In the view of the sole critic attending, Thomas R. Dash, “No Exit . . . , despite its frenzy of passions . . . tends to monotony and is interesting primarily for the author’s macabre ideas and his scourging style of writing.” He castigated the revival for its reliance on shouting, and encouraged “modulation” to create “greater subtlety, poignancy, and effectiveness.” Jack Burkhart was Garcia, Bea (then using Beatrice) Arthur was Estelle, and Eleanor Fitzpatrick was Inez. Arthur, at the beginning of her distinguished career, was cautioned that she could improve “if she did not sneer so insistently.”
For whatever reasons, the July 6, 1949, Cherry Lane production of Gertrude Stein’s Yes Is for a Very Young Man is totally overlooked in The Best Plays of 1949-1950. Even Gerald Bordman’s usually comprehensive American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1930-1940 ignores it, despite the reputation of its playwright and a cast including Bea Arthur, Kim Stanley, Anthony Franciosa, Michael V. Gazzo, and Gene Saks. My essay in Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950, on which the following is based, appears to be among the only sources about the production, outside of what may exist in specialized Stein research.
Stein’s play about the French resistance, first called In Savoy, is set in German-occupied Savoy, France, and covers the years 1940 to 1944. It premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1945. Its language and style are in Stein’s idiosyncratic tautological manner, repeating things frequently, and occasionally using a nursery-school locution. The subject matter is the attitude of the French toward the facts of their occupation, a subject close to the author, who lived in a French village at the time depicted. Stein, influenced by childhood stories she had heard of divided loyalties among Civil War families, used a similar premise. She employed her unique prose to artfully suggest the psychological reactions of the French villagers and an American woman to the situation.
Brooks Atkinson cautioned that while a certain effort was necessary to appreciate Stein’s method in “this thin, sketchy drama,” the patient viewer would be rewarded by a certain freshness of truth [that] does come through it in some elusive fashion” “In her clipped, reiterative style,” declared Howard Barnes, “the author has written a work of complete lucidity and considerable fascination. . . . The plot structure is simple, the dialogue lean and strong, and the characters somewhat undefined.” But Thomas A. Dash refused to praise the play simply because it was more straightforward than other Stein works. He believed that at bottom the play was “comparatively shallow . . . , in addition to being extremely garrulous and pulseless.”
Stein’s plot tells of the divided feelings in Savoy where some accept Petain’s Vichy government, others want to fight and overthrow the Germans. The chief characters are the aristocratic but harebrained young wife, Denise (Stanley), who is a collaborationist ready to accept any ruling power and wants her young brother-in-law, Ferdinand (Franciosa), to come over to her side, although he prefers to remain neutral; her violently anti-German husband Henri (Gazzo), whose Maqui resistance activities are secret; and a visiting American Francophile spinster (Arthur), loved by Ferdinand and supportive of the Maquis. Ferdinand at first joins Petain’s side and goes to work in a German labor camp. But he returns, takes revenge for the killing of his father by the Germans, and joins his brother in the underground. He can now say “no,” whereas when he was very young he could say only “yes.” Liberation arrives at the end, but Ferdinand resolves to go on fighting.
The production, directed by Lamont Johnson, was competent and not inspired enough to do full justice to the writing, but it did provide jobs for some of the bright theatre figures of the new generation, several of them involved with the Actors Studio, then gaining significant attention. Atkinson said of Stanley that she was “a talented actress with temperament, craft and, if there is any justice on Broadway, a future.” And justice there was. To others, the best performance was Franciosa’s. Dash noted that Arthur had presence and poise but that “her performance is pitched in one key of placid coolness and tends to grow into a monotone.” Gene Saks played a German.
In all likelihood, our next day in New York theater will be July 15. I hope to see you then.