By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 19 in the series)
December 13, 2020: December 13 may have provided only four openings in the 1940s, but all of them are worth revisiting. Two were revivals, one of recent vintage, the other a classic. The first was Rachel Crothers’s 1937 hit, Susan and God. The classic was Maurice Evans’s newest rendering of Hamlet. The remaining shows were Norman Krasna’s Dear Ruth, one of biggest hits of the war years, and Wandering Stars,a Yiddish show borrowed from Sholem Aleichem (the source of Fiddler on the Roof).
In 1941, Susan and God was the first work put on at the City Center of Music and Drama after the West 55th Street venue had been taken over by the City of New York and its name changed from Mecca Temple. The goal was to turn it into a popular-priced municipal center for the performing arts. Its first season offered a series of plays and musicals in revival, as well as operas, ballets, and concerts. Essentially, that is how the theatre has been run ever since.
Susan and God is Crothers’s comedy-drama about a sophisticated woman who imposes her newfound religious faith on her friends and family, with all sorts of unexpected consequences. Its original star, Gertrude Lawrence, returned to play Susan, and the show was adorned with sets by its original designer, Jo Mielziner, with the production overseen by its original producer, John Golden. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was on hand to host the festivities. He introduced Dame May Whitty, the British character actress, to say a few words of greeting on behalf of the English theatre, presumably because of the dangers then being faced in England from the Germans. Noel Coward, also scheduled to speak, was home ill with the flu.
George Jean Nathan was one of several critics upset that a cultural occasion was marred by the selection of “this six-year-old box-office knickknack,” which he felt would have served better to open a commercial venture. Others, however, thought it a fine, stageworthy choice.
British actress Lawrence, one of the most beloved Broadway stars of the period, gave a demonstration of animal vitality in her heavily embroidered performance, sweeping about the stage with dress, scarf, and hair flying, which gave some reviewers plenty to laugh about. Louis Kronenberger, partly excusing her overacting by referring to the huge playhouse, wrote: “Nuances of inflection and gesture would be quite lost on the more remotely stationed customers. So Miss Lawrence has simplified her performance and gone in for strenuous pantomime. It is probably the only way out, but Miss Lawrence does seem at times like a rather desperate performer in a game of charades; there are even moments when she appears to be playing both Susan and God at the same time.”
Conrad Nagel played Susan’s husband Barrie, and Jean Sampson portrayed their daughter, Blossom. Others included Douglas Gilmore repeating his role of Michael O’Hara, and Eleanor Audley hers of Charlotte Marley.
There were four revivals of Hamlet in the 1940s, the most important being the one starring British-born Maurice Evans, and produced at the Columbus Circle Theatre by Michael Todd on December 13, 1945, shortly after the war ended. It chalked up 131 performances and had a return engagement June 1946, for another 16. The other Hamlets included a two-performance production in visiting British star Donald Wolfit’s repertory in 1947, an Equity showcase at a Public Library branch in 1944, and a stripped-down rendering at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1949, with the unknown Bill Butler as the prince. It was notable only because two later names of import were involved: William Hickey as Francisco and Anthony Franciosa as Horatio.
But back to Evans, who had scored with an uncut Hamlet in 1938 under Margaret Webster’s direction, and returned now with this vigorous, if shorter, version directed by George Schaefer. This eye-catching revival had been born as a touring package shown to the American forces in the Pacific, thus inspiring the name “the G.I. Hamlet,” a soubriquet thought up by master showman Todd. In putting the play on Broadway, he stepped somewhat out of his usual line as a producer of brassy musicals featuring scantily clad showgirls.
Actually, Evans—whose wartime duties had taken him away from Broadway for four years—was given complete authority as producer by the trusting Todd. Evans had feared that there would be a cold reception to his already familiar Hamlet and was delighted at his warm welcome. The combined total of performances given by this new staging in New York and on the road came to a hefty 425. As seen at its current out-of-the-way venue on Columbus Circle, it was “a swift-moving, clearly blocked-out, palpably shortened version,” declared Louis Kronenberger.
The look (sets by Frederic Stover; costumes by Irene Sharaff) was early 19th century. This was fairly novel for Broadway at the time, but was not uncommon elsewhere. Evans had chosen this specific period to make the story more comprehensible to G.I. audiences. A time when men wore swords was essential, so the idea of Mittel-Europa in the early 19th century seemed appropriate. It also provided a period when a decadent, military court would seem acceptable. References to the ghost’s (Victor Thorley) armor were cut.
Evans’s romantic, extroverted, unneurotic, virile, and soldier-like Hamlet suggested Lord Byron. He was a dominant figure in a landscape backed, with several exceptions, by lesser Shakespearean talents. Evans was appreciated for his charisma and clarity of speech and Intention, although some observers found him occasionally superficially rhetorical and emotionally cool. Sarcasm, wit, and contemptuousness were more in view than emotionalism or intellectual depth. The interpretation emphasized Hamlet’s complete sanity, and revealed that his diverse reactions to the people surrounding him were “those of any normal and intelligent man placed in like positions,” wrote George Jean Nathan. John Mason Brown wrote that Evans’s “voice is one of the finest musical instruments of our time. He does not so much read Shakespeare as release him. . . . He is that rarity among modern players, an actor who is able to act; who loves to do so; and who makes us rejoice in his acting.”
Hungarian-accented Lili Darvas was not completely successful as Gertrude, nor was Frances Reid as Ophelia, while Thomas Chambers’s middle-aged, protocol-obsessed Polonius, Thomas Gomez’s portly, Edward VII-like Claudius, Emmet Rogers’s Laertes, and Walter Coy’s Horatio were merely adequate.
Among the novel touches were the elimination of Ophelia’s flowers during her mad scene, her prop being instead a children’s alphabet book with illustrations that allowed her to point to the pictures of the flowers as she went from person to person. Instead of a single ghost, two were used, so that, with the aid of careful lighting, the efforts to stop it on the battlements were baffled by the specter’s magically disappearing and then appearing somewhere else in the blink of an eye.
According to Evans’s All This . . . and Evans Too!, the actor playing the ghost’s double was lit only from the neck up. He wore just a cloak draped around his shoulders. One night, when the lighting cue was mistimed, the actor was revealed in his entirety, his cloak open down the front to reveal him garbed in nothing but his jockey shorts.
The cuts were heavy, including the entire gravediggers’ scene. These omissions sped the action along and even created a sense of melodrama. Brown said this resulted in “a wonderfully exciting show, even if it is Hamlet with a large part of Hamlet left out.” Evans argued that the graveyard scene fits poorly into the dramatic structure because Horatio, inexplicably, never tells Hamlet beforehand of Ophelia’s death, and also because, only a few lines after the scene, Hamlet is talking jauntily about his English adventure and giving Osric (Morton da Costa) a ribbing.
Minor actors later to be well known included Howard Morris (of TV’s “Your Show of Shows” fame) as Rosencrantz, and Ray Walston, in his Broadway debut, as a courtier.
We step back a year now, to 1944, to see what wartime Broadway audiences were so hungry for they kept it going for 683 performances. This addition to the December 13 sweeps was screenwriter Norman Krasna’s Dear Ruth (Henry Miller’s Theatre). It was a slickly effective, fast-paced family comedy that appealed because of its tightly packaged plotting, consistently funny lines, and situations mingling human comedy and mechanical farce. Theatregoers appreciated its excellent blend of family and romantic complications, marvelous acting, and tip-top directing from the estimable Moss Hart.
Louis Kronenberger called it “popular entertainment that yields dividends in a good many directions,” while holding reservations about its incessant going for gags and lack of fully three-dimensional people. Most reviewers agreed with Rowland Field that this play “written with keen skill and enthusiasm” was “a bright suburban family fable expressed in terms of rich humor mixed with wartime human interest.” John Mason Brown could find no intellectual reason for praising the play other than to insist that it “IS funny. Very funny. Which should be ample reason for gratitude.” Dear Ruth was one of Burns Mantle’s ten best plays of the year.
A precocious adolescent girl named Miriam Wilkins (Lenore Lonergan), from Kew Gardens, Queens, engages in a correspondence with a flier, Lt. William Seawright (John Dall), fighting in Italy. She masks her own identity by writing under the name of her older sister, Ruth (Virginia Gilmore), a pretty miss whose picture Miriam encloses and who has no idea of what is going on. Miriam is also politically inclined, considers her featherbrained mom (Phyllis Povah) and traffic-court judge dad (Howard Smith) reactionary, and complains about them to Secretary of State Stimson.
One day, Bill himself shows up at the Wilkins’s home, assumes that Ruth is the romantic pen pal who has written him sixty letters, and asks her to marry him. Ruth, however, who knows nothing about the letters, is engaged to a stuffed-shirt banker (isn’t that always the case?) named Albert Kummer (Bartlett Robinson). Aware that the flier will be off for China in 24 hours, Ruth, hesitant about breaking his heart, seriously ponders his proposal, assuming that once he has left, the romance will fizzle naturally. After a date, she finds him so likable that she agrees to the marriage just before he is scheduled to depart.
Various complications ensue when Bill’s overseas orders are canceled and he is assigned to Florida. He finally discovers who wrote the letters and that Ruth is already engaged. A subplot involving his buddy, Sgt. Chuck Vincent (Richard McCracken), and his sister, Martha (Kay Coulter), concludes with Chuck and Martha being wed by the judge, after which Bill takes his leave. Ruth realizes that she has fallen in love with him and begins to kick herself for letting him get away. Bill returns, however, having forgotten to leave Chuck’s train tickets. Just before the curtain falls on a photo finish, the judge manages to tie his daughter to the airman in holy matrimony, but not before a sailor (Peter Dunn) sticks his head in looking for Miss Ruth Wilkins.
All the performances were first-rate, but Howard Smith’s judge, always ready with a quip, was the most appealing. Lenore Lonergan, noted for her deadpan style and bullfrog voice, scored highly, too. Dora, the conventional comic Black maid, was played by Pauline Myer. Joan Caulfield, William Holden, Edward Arnold, and Mona Freeman starred in the 1947 movie, which was successful enough to foster two sequels: Dear Wife (1949) and Dear Brat (1951).
For our last December 13 theater visit of the forties, the year being 1946, we subway downtown to the Lower East Side for Wandering Stars, a Yiddish backstage comedy, with songs, at Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre. There, Schwartz entertains us in a tour-de-force role set in a play he adapted from Sholem Aleichem’s novel of the same name. (The book continued to have a stage life in later years, including a show by the Jewish State Theatre of Romania which visited the Abrons Arts Center in 2015, and a musical version produced by a Yiddish theatre in Israel in 2016.)
The story is loosely based on the life of actor-composer Abraham Goldfaden, considered the founder of the Yiddish theater. Several of his songs were interpolated into the production. Schwartz played actor Bernard Holtzman, leader of a turn-of-the-century troupe of wandering actors touring the villages of central Europe, where he discovers a talented young pair of players (Jacob Rechtzeit and Beatrice Kessler). After various obstacles are overcome, he convinces them to join his company. Plot circumstances separate the youngsters, but, after many hardships, they find one another on the Lower East Side, where the boy has become a tragic star and the girl an operatic diva.
During his performance, Schwartz got to do a comic bit in drag, playing with surprising energy “an aging coquette in a piebald costume topped with ostrich plumes,” according to L.B. in the Times. “His devoted followers seemed to enjoy him as much in this as in tragic roles,” declared George Freedley. “Evidently on Second Avenue A [sic] Schwartz can do no wrong.” Like so many Yiddish opuses, this one mixed large dollops of broad comedy with others of poignant sentimentality.
And that’s what happened on December 13 in the New York theatre of the forties.