By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 28, 2020: If you’re a follower of this series, you know that I always provide descriptions of multiple productions that opened over the years (between 1920 and 1950) on a particular day. Tomorrow, for instance, TheaterLife will post my essay on productions that opened on October 29 in the 1940s. However, one play intended for that essay, The Land is Bright, and fully written up, actually opened on October 28, so I had no option but to remove it. But after seeing it sitting there, so lonely, on my laptop, I decided to give it its own posting, as a sort of bonus to those readers who enjoy these pieces. Given its provenance, and how few people—even theatre folk—are likely to be familiar with it, I think it’s worth the trouble. Without further ado, as they say, here it is.
The Land Is Bright (Music Box Theatre, 79), from 1941, came from the desks of topflight collaborators, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. It benefitted from Kaufman’s direction, sets by Jo Mielziner, and costumes by Irene Sharaff, all members of Broadway’s A-list at the time. A+, in fact. Thirty actors were in the cast of what seemed so promising but, disappointingly, turned out to be an only superficially impressive chronicle play, previously called Three Acts, crammed with action, and covering three generations in the family dynasty founded by Lacy Kincaid (Ralph Theodore), nineteenth-century industrial tycoon, who built the $5 million Fifth Avenue mansion in which the entire play transpires.
“It is a play of events and pasteboard people,” sighed Rosamond Gilder. “Every one of the incidents and even the characters might easily be found recorded in the memoirs and memories of America’s first families, yet all this possible authenticity does not make This Land Is Bright seem real. . . . Its intent is presumably to present the mores of typical American millionaires, but the net result is an ingenious, swift-moving melodrama which derives its precedents not from life but from the stage.” “Generous in eye appeal, it is emotionally meager, bitterly satiric and below the entertainment standard of previous work by the authors,” concluded the reviewer signed as Flin. And Louis Kronenberger, who admitted that it was engrossing, claimed, “Not a thing in the play is real; not a thing is even life-sized. The interpretation is not merely hackneyed and hand-me-down, but even what truth might reside in the triteness is lost in a flood of extravagance and exaggeration.”
The patriotic play, which takes its title from a poem by Arthur Clough, quoted by Winston Churchill in a memorable speech of hope in April 1941, tells of the degeneration of a wealthy family and of its ultimate regeneration in the face of World War II (which, the play intimated, the United States should enter). Through the play many of the characters grow older, requiring changes of makeup.
It begins at the turn of the 20th century, in the tastelessly elaborate expanses of the mansion Kincaid has built for his wife and children with the money he earned as a Western robber-baron involved with the ruthless acquisition of railroads, copper, and the like. He spends his millions on such follies as buying a middle-aged Polish count (Arnold Moss) for his 18-year-old daughter, Tana (Martha Sleeper), to marry; his onetime-waitress-and-now-social-climbing wife (Phyllis Povah) thinks it the thing to do. Son Grant (Leon Ames) rejects the society girl his folks had picked for him in favor of a chorus girl (Muriel Hutchison). Soon after, Lacy is shot by his old mining partner (G. Albert Smith), from whom he has stolen securities.
Twenty years pass. The now anti-American Tana is preparing for her fourth Continental marriage. It’s the age of Prohibition, and her brother, Grant, now the successful head of the clan, is father to three flaming youths who frequent speakeasies. His reckless daughter, Linda (Diana Barrymore), is not only involved with a gangster but accessory to a murder. One son, Wayne (Hugh Marlowe), is a hedonist, and another, Theodore (William Roerick), is a spoiled mama’s boy who gets kicked out of Harvard.
The play then moves to 1941 on the occasion of Grant’s 70th birthday, when the aged Tana has decided to return home from Europe to live in America, which she belatedly has come to appreciate. Her son (Arnold Moss) by the count is now in a Nazi concentration camp, and she is going to ransom him. Theodore has died (Linda’s gangster friend shot him), Wayne is working as a dollar-a-year man in Washington, and Linda, whom Grant holds responsible for Theodore’s death, returns from the West, with her hardworking rancher husband (Robert Shayne). Despite having redeemed herself, she is ignored by her bitter father.
Grant offers Wayne control of his business interests, but Wayne turns him down and Grant begins to understand that the Kincaid way is not the best way, and that it’s time to give and not to take so that a new moral order may be established for the future of society. Grant concedes that something must be done to wipe out Hitler. His air cadet grandson (John Draper) replies with the patriotic tag line, “We’ll fix that.”
Dickie Van Patten, Grover Burgess, Flora Campbell, and Louise Larabee were among the thespians in what was recognized as an outstandingly acted, directed, and designed work of theatre. If only the script were as good as the production.