By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 24 in the series)
March 13, 2021: March 13 was one of the more productive dates for New York theater in the 1920s. The decade saw a total of nine March 13 productions, one of them a revival of two French one-acts and another a classical revival. Of them, however, the single title likely to be known to most theatrical cognoscenti is George Bernard Shaw’s epic-scaled Back to Methuselah, seen over the course of three performances, one of them falling on March 13, 1922.
Back to Methuselah, rarely revived, at least in full, is far less well known (or respected) than the great Irish playwright’s other works. Like the other plays seen on this date during the twenties, it will get only short shrift here because of a lack of space and time. I will say a few words about most of these while focusing mainly on a 1928 musical adaptation of Dumas’s classic tale, The Three Musketeers, the most successful of the lot.
Here is the March 13 lineup for the twenties: 1921) a musical called The Hotel Mouse; 1922) The First Fifty Years, a play that opened the same night as Part III of Back to Methuselah; 1923) a translation from the French of a play called The Comedian; 1924) two French one-acts, “La nuit de Mai” and “”Il ne faut jurer de rien”; 1928) Killers and Veils, two plays that opened simultaneously with The Three Musketeers; and, 1930) the spirited old English comedy, The Rivals.
Like The Three Musketeers, several of these had French connections. For example, The Hotel Mouse (Shubert Theatre, 88) was based on Paul Armont and Marcel Gerbidon’s French boulevard play La souris d’hôtel as adapted by Guy Bolton. Its chief attraction was tiny, versatile Frances White as pretty burglar Mauricette, responsible for a string of hotel thefts.
More interesting was Henry Myers’s The First Fifty Years (Princess Theatre, 48), a two-character play when such works were very rare. It covers 50 years, starting in 1872, and follows the ups and downs of married life on the paper, wooden, tin, crystal, silver, and golden anniversaries of Ann (Clare Eames) and Martin Wells (Tom Powers). It’s an idea strikingly like that exploited many years later in Jan de Hartog’s two-character The Fourposter (and its musical version, I Do! I Do!), which covers 35 years from 1890 to 1925 in a married couple’s life.
Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (Garrick Theatre, 25) was a succès d’estime for the Theatre Guild. Produced in five parts over three evenings, this garrulous endeavor requires an essay of its own. Let me just say that when Theatre Guild producer Lawrence Langner was arranging with Shaw to do the play in New York, the playwright wrote, “Don’t bother about a contract. . . . [I]t isn’t likely that any other lunatic will want to produce Back to Methuselah!”
Now back to France for The Comedian (Le comédien; Lyceum Theatre, 87) by the popular Parisian playwright-actor Sacha Guitry, which David Belasco staged here in his own bowdlerized translation. Just one night earlier, another Guitry play, Pasteur, had opened. Considered a better play, it nevertheless flopped well before The Comedian. The latter’s subject was the relationship between a vain, middle-aged actor (Lionel Atwill) and the talentless 18-year-old girl (Elsie Mackaye) he seduces into marrying him, but who rebels when he is unwilling to share the stage with her. Which to choose: the girl or his art?
The French-language one-acts mentioned above (Fulton Theatre, 2), “La nuit de Mai” and “Il ne jurer de rien” were old plays offered by a group of visiting actors from the Comédie Française, headed by Maurice de Feraudy, during a season of repertory elsewhere in New York. They require little comment here.
Of the two awful plays that shared their opening night with The Three Musketeers, the biggest loser was Irving Kaye Davis’s Veils (Forrest Theatre, 4), which lasted less than a week. It was a misadventure with music in the service of a melodramatic plot about twin sisters, one a thieving hooker, the other a nun, both played by Elsa Shelley.
Killers (Forty-ninth Street Theatre, 23) was another melodrama, this one about a woman (Cynthia Blake) who hires thugs to kill her philandering spouse (George Clarkson). He meets his maker in a speakeasy, but the killer turns out to be not the hired hands, who go to prison, but the wife. She confesses just before one of the men (Harold Vermilyea) is about to fry in the electric chair. Thirty-four actors earned less than a month’s wages for this nonsense.
The one March 13 show with legs, The Three Musketeers (Lyric Theatre, 319), was produced by the inimitable Florenz Ziegfeld. It was directed by former Moscow Art Theatre actor Richard Boleslavsky, doing his first major commercial production since choosing to stay behind on one of the MAT’s visits earlier in the decade.
This was actually the second try of the decade at musicalizing Alexander Dumas’s romantic, swashbuckling story, which has seen numerous film and stage versions. Dumas’s nineteenth-century tale of seventeenth-century adventure made for a potently enjoyable operetta, adorned with stunning sets by Joseph Urban and costumes by John W. Harkrider (one expected no less from a Ziegfeld show). Also appreciated were the vitality of the acting and singing, the charm of Rudolf Friml’s score, the choreographic novelties of Albertina Rasch, and the panoply of sword play, lovemaking, and heroic bravado. Richard Dana Skinner said that so much had been added to the enterprise “in glamour and dramatic interest that the result stands forth as something of a masterpiece” (albeit one never seen on Broadway afterward).
Aramis was played by Joseph Macauley, Porthos by Detmer Poppen, Athos by Douglass Dumbrille, Richelieu by Reginald Owen, Louis XIII by Clarence Derwent, Constance by Vivienne Segal, D’Artagnan by Dennis King, Anne of France by Yvonne D’Arle, and Lady De Winter by Vivienne Osborne. Of this mostly star-studded cast, King was extraordinarily fine with his “vocal range and power . . . [and] buoyant personality,” wrote Perriton Maxwell.
In a dozen lavish scenes, the action followed the arrival of D’Artagnan in Paris, the Gascon’s new friendship with the king’s musketeers, his romance with Constance, his adventure in London recovering the queen’s jewels, and his triumphant return to France. The score’s principal contributions were “Ma Belle,” “Your Eyes,” “Queen of My Heart,” and “My Sword.”
Despite its success, the production was fraught with problems. The biggest obstacle was the bibulous behavior of librettist William Anthony McGuire, who had only one-half of the first act finished on the day the show began rehearsals. At one point late in rehearsals, when he still did not have the job completed, he stalled the company from doing him harm by running for them the 1921 silent film version of the story, while he repaired to an empty room to finish the dialogue. As the movie wound to its close, he placed the final pages in Ziegfeld’s hands. The script still needed revisions, though, and even on opening night the actors had to play some scenes with bits of dialogue printed on cards they secretly held in their hands. Nor were things particularly smooth during the run, since King and Segal did not get along and were apt to mar each other’s performances by resorting to underhanded measures.
I now return to the dusty archives to find the next day worthy of commemoration in “On This Day in New York Theater.”