By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 16 in the series)
October 29, 2020: Readers of this series, which began in the spring of this anxious year, know that in surveying the theatrical activity on a particular day over the course of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, I generally try to find one that is both prolific and on which at least one title is more or less a household name. Occasionally, so many shows opened on such days that I’ve had to confine myself to only two decades, as in my last report, which had no room, other than in passing, for the forties. The number of shows typically produced in the late spring through summer was relatively small enough to contain in a single essay, but as the most active months of each season heated up, the numbers became too great to allow comprehensive coverage within the limited space available.
In today’s installment, which examines shows that opened on October 29, I stay within the strict parameters of the 1940s, which provides the comfortable total of six titles, several of which had decent credentials. The shows I look at are Suzanna and the Elders, Inside Story, The Next Half Hour, Present Laughter, The Winslow Boy, and Montserrat. While some disappeared the moment their curtains fell, others are still revived today.
Moving chronologically through the Fighting Forties, we begin in 1940 with Suzanna and the Elders (Morosco Theatre, 30), written by Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall, husband and wife. Langner made a big mark on New York theatrical history by cofounding the Theatre Guild and being a major force during its most impressive years.
A host of well-known actors participated in Langner and Marshall’s well-intentioned but artificial period play, directed by Worthington Miner. It’s set at Harmony Heights, a Christian socialistic community of Massachusetts in 1878. Much of its comedy stems from the community’s concerns with selective breeding, but the authors couldn’t prevent their humor from being “prurient,” in Brooks Atkinson’s view. “It is an easy subject for adolescent guffawing,” he said, and makes for “a cheap and immature play.” Rosamond Gilder took the production to task for its “smirking bad taste.” To her, this was “a poor play which tries to make up in vulgarity for its lack of dramatic content.” In his book, The Magic Curtain, Langner said that when the play was first done, at the Westport Country Playhouse, with Uta Hagen and Onslow Stevens, it had emphasized spiritual values. In the process of revision for Broadway, the physical element gradually overcame the spiritual and the humor was broadened.
At Harmony Heights people don’t own their own property, and plural marriage is practiced among the members, referred to as Sister this or Brother that. The plot circles around the various attitudes of the characters to the process of the eugenic creation of children among selected members. The community is ruled by the benevolent despot, John Adam Kent (Morris Carnovsky, made up with a red beard to resemble George Bernard Shaw), and Mother Kent (Jane Seymour). Their most ardent follower is the fiery Sister Suzanna Leeds (Haila Stoddard).
New member Charles Owens (Paul Ballantyne), a young inventor, is drawn to Suzanna. However, after a year’s trial, when he suggests that he and she be permitted to formalize their relationship, he learns that she has been chosen to participate in a breeding experiment with a certain middle-aged brother. As the community begins to realize the drawbacks of their social philosophy, Owens leads it to revolt in favor of monogamy and capitalism. He wins Suzanna before the final curtain.
Making his Broadway debut as Brother Tom was Lloyd Bridges. Also in the large cast were Royal Beal, Theodore Newton, Hale Norcross, and Lois Hall, the latter receiving excellent notices as a frump transformed into a sexpot.
In 1942, October 29 was represented by Peter Sheehan’s Inside Story (Blackfriars’ Theatre). The Blackfriars’ Guild was an off-Broadway showcase theatre in which—during its early days—professional actors worked without pay in hopes of being spotted.
Inside Story (not to be confused with 1932’s The Inside Story) was what Arthur Pollock called an “agonizingly amateur” satirical farce about Irish-American Jane Carroll (Elsbeth Hoffman), feminist editor of a crusading little political magazine with the same name as the play. A lack of income has forced the magazine to lose its office space. Jane moves with her file cabinets and typewriter into the home of her loudmouthed, ex-fire chief father (Robert Hayward), and tries to edit the magazine from there. The job’s not easy because of the intrusions of various Irish neighbors, a would-be thespian sister (June Meer), and a brat kid sister (Patsy O’Shea) on roller skates who writes poems about the “lousy Japs.”
One of Jane’s chief concerns is to do an inside story about India, of which she knows next to nothing. A phony Indian (Albert Carroll, a versatile actor well known for his impressions and drag performances) provides her with the information she thinks will make a good story. A major plot element is her confusion about whether or not she loves Paul Moore (Douglas Keaton), her assistant. When Paul is in uniform and ready to go to war, she realizes that she loves him after all. Finally, her magazine is saved and she and Paul are united.
George Freedley considered most of the comedy “crude and inept,” yet some, like Robert Coleman, thought the playwright worth encouraging. One of the notable performances was given by J. Augustus Keogh, formerly of the Abbey Theatre, cast here as a garrulous Irish neighbor.
Given those involved in 1945’s The Next Half Hour (Empire Theatre, 8), one would have reason to expect something lasting longer than eight performances. After all, it was the first play by Mary Chase following her smash hit, Harvey, but as Louis Kronenberger averred, “She has . . . written a play whose good things are infrequent and incidental, and whose weaknesses are ultimately crushing.” More serious than her whimsical first play—still being revived—it nevertheless was concerned with fanciful occurrences.
Fay Bainter, a major character actress, was Margaret Brennan, a native Irishwoman living in the United States in 1913 and imbued with superstitious belief in her indigenous folklore. She believes that she has the power to foretell catastrophe, which is signaled by the shrieking of a banshee prior to someone’s death. However, only she can hear it. She suspects that her 19-year-old son, Pat (Jack Ruth), is heading for disaster because of his dalliance with a married woman (Thelma Schnee) and tries to head off trouble by blurting the story out to the woman’s railroad-worker spouse (unseen), thinking that he’ll forgive Pat for his youth.
When Margaret’s bachelor brother (Art Smith) dies soon after, she thinks it was his demise that triggered the banshee’s wails. She sends her beloved younger son, Barney (Conrad Janis), on an errand to prevent Pat from meeting with the woman, but the husband, thinking the boy to be Pat, murders him. Margaret learns that “the next half hour belongs to God” and not to human meddling with fate.
Not even the astute direction of George S. Kaufman could provide the too sentimental and verbose play with the right mood of mysticism, suspense, or interesting action. It was “a long and tedious piece of business, relieved only intermittently by bursts of good acting,” revealed Lewis Nichols. Kaufman had other concerns to sadden him at the time; his wife, Beatrice, passed away during the rehearsal period.
Our next two shows opening on October 29 in the forties are still occasionally seen. In fact, both were produced on Broadway in the 2010s (I’ve linked the titles to my reviews). Noël Coward’s Present Laughter (Plymouth Theatre, 158), directed by John C. Wilson, with scenery by Donald Oenslager, for all its later appeal, was not especially appreciated in 1946, when it first appeared here, following its 1942 London premiere (three years after it was written, the delay caused by the onset of World War II).
Most critics found Coward’s comedy strained, tiresome, and boring, giving it only the slightest approbation. Arthur Pollock considered it “palpably contrived, slow, and entertaining only by jerks.” The first act, in particular, he said, was “one of the dullest of the playwright’s career.” To John Beaufort, it was “tedious, tasteless, and rather old hat.” Rowland Field, more positive, declared that the play “may not match up in verve or originality with certain of its memorable predecessors but it is a nimble work that seems bound to succeed, despite a lack of invention.” And Howard Barnes conceded that despite the heavy going of act one, “the mirth is there to sustain high gayety in scene after scene.” The play’s title comes from Twelfth Night’s lines: “What is love? ‘tis not hereafter:/Present mirth hath present laughter.”
Garry Essendine (Clifton Webb in the role created by Coward) is a pampered, narcissistic London matinee idol of 42 contemplating a repertory trip to Africa. Garry is much sought after and sponged on by various fawning femmes and sycophants. Among them is his estranged wife, Liz (Doris Dalton), his cynically sharp-tongued secretary Monica Reed (Evelyn Varden), the worshipful and eccentric young playwright Roland Maule (Cris Alexander), and Garry’s business associates Morris Dixon (Gordon Mills) and Hugo Lyppiatt (Robin Craven).
Liz, who wants to renew her marital relationship with Garry, has a maternal inclination toward him and is useful in disentangling his frequent amours. Figuring importantly is a spare bedroom from which various women must be secretly spirited out without creating embarrassing situations for the actor or themselves. One of the room’s occupants is a stage-struck blonde ingénue named Daphne Stillington (Jan Sterling, bound for movie stardom). Then there’s Hugo’s seductively attractive wife Joanna (Marta Linden), who’s having an affair with Morris, but for whom Garry falls when he tries to talk her out of it. After the usual complications, Garry decides to abandon his profligate ways and returns to the arms of Liz.
There were mixed feelings about the quality of the production, some lauding it and others dismissing it as ineffective and plodding. Webb’s acting was considered sufficiently Cowardian in certain quarters, while others thought that only the master could have pulled it off.
On October 29, 1947, there opened yet another English hit still occasionally seen. It was Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy(Empire Theatre, 215), directed by Glen Byam Shaw in a production co-produced by the Theatre Guild with others, including England’s H.M. Tennent, Ltd. This solid drama ran out the season and was selected as one the season’s Ten Best, while also winning a Drama Critics Circle Award as best foreign play. Its story is based on a real-life incident in the life of George Archer-Shee, who died at Ypres in the first year of World War I. The David and Goliath case, with its little man pitted against the giant establishment represented by the British Crown, and with its symbolic representation of the rights of average citizens, gained international attention.
The central figure is 13-year-old Ronnie Winslow (Michael Newell), who, shortly before the war, has been kicked out of the Royal Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order, although the evidence is circumstantial. The school is sustained by the Lords of the Admiralty. Ronnie’s father, Arthur Winslow (Alan Webb), convinced of his son’s innocence, struggles to no avail to get the case reopened. The family then turns to Sir Robert Morton (Frank Allenby, in the role created in London by Emlyn Williams), a brilliant attorney, who upsets them by his merciless questioning of the boy before he agrees to accept the case.
Two years of grueling legal battles ensue, including the attorney’s clever maneuvering to get the king to sign a petition of right—necessary to permit a public trial—with the words, “Let right be done.” Meanwhile, Arthur’s health suffers, and he experiences financial hardship. He’s even forced to withdraw another son, Dickie (Owen Holder), from college because of his financial straits. The much-publicized case goads others into treating the obsessed Winslows with scorn for having the audacity to fight the establishment on so trivial a matter. Even Mrs. Winslow (Madge Compton) attempts to have Arthur cease his efforts.
Another blow comes when suffragette and trade unionist daughter Catherine (Valerie White) is abandoned by her priggish fiancé (Michael Kingsley), although Catherine is willing to make the sacrifice in the name of justice and democracy. It turns out that her suspicions of the supposedly reactionary attorney are unfounded, and that he has made major sacrifices on behalf of the case. The case eventually is won, the postmistress’s weak testimony being demolished, although the actual courtroom scenes are offstage. The Conservative Party attorney and the Labour suffragette join hands as friends. It turns out, however, that while the trial was reaching its climax, Ronnie was asleep, and when the verdict came in he was in a theatre watching a film.
The tautly composed drama, presented with an excellent all-British cast, followed the historical case rather closely while taking various liberties with such things as the actual years involved, the names of those involved, the city of their residence, and so on. A few were as moved by the message of the play as they were by its drama. Some felt the play might have been even more potent if the trial scenes had been shown, rather than keeping all the action in the Winslow home and requiring Greek messenger-type speeches to introduce the offstage events. Still, said Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt, “The careful characterization and skillful arrangement of the scenes sustain the suspense in the action.” Howard Barnes called it “richly satisfying drama,” created “with deep feeling, humor and passion.” William Hawkins wrote, “It is a shrewd play, compelling, suspenseful and inspiring.”
Not all felt so positive. George Jean Nathan grudgingly agreed that it was “very fair theatrical goods,” but insisted that it was contrived and an example of “journeyman box-office style.” Even less impressed was John Chapman, for whom the play was “frightfully genteel and more than faintly tedious.”
Our last October 29 play of the decade was Lillian Hellman’s Montserrat (Fulton Theatre, 65), which arrived in 1949 and was gone in two months, being one of the famous playwright’s least admired works. Even a superb cast including Welsh star Emlyn Williams, a young Julie Harris, and William Redfield couldn’t save it. It did, however, later have a few revivals, including an English one starring Richard Burton. Directed by the playwright herself, Montserrat was deemed an uncreative adaptation of a French drama by Emanuel Robles set in Spanish-occupied Venezuela in 1812.
Montserrat (William Redfield) is a young Spanish officer who has gone over to the side of the revolutionary leader and patriot Simon Bolivar. Montserrat is aware of Bolivar’s hiding place. To get the secret of the rebel’s whereabouts from him, he is subjected to psychological torture. Six innocent citizens—four men and two women—are dragged in and used by Izquierdo (Williams), the sardonic colonel, to convince Montserrat to tell what he knows.
One man is a merchant (Reinhold Schunzel), who offers his wife to the colonel in exchange for his life; another is a Creole wood sculptor (William Hansen); another is an actor (John Abbott), who sees no reason to be involved in politics; and there is a defiant Indian boy, Ricardo (George Bartenieff, on the cusp of a long theatrical career). One of the women is a mother (Vivian Nathan). The other is an Indian girl named Felisa (Harris). She shares Ricardo’s bold conviction regarding Bolivar’s importance. This make her partly responsible for keeping Montserrat—who’s ready to submit—silent
These victims, each of whose lives is somehow investigated during the play, are to be killed after an hour if Montserrat doesn’t talk. Finally, they are taken out and shot, one by one. Bolivar is reported safe, Montserrat’s silence having bought him the necessary time. Eventually, the officer himself is put to death.
The drama’s pertinence to the contemporary world was clear, but it was argued by some that beyond its intellectual virtues, it was somewhat unable to touch their feelings deeply. For those inclined to overlook the message about a man’s willingness to die for the cause of freedom, said Arthur Pollock, this would be a “dull or ‘talky’ play, even uneventful,” because the plot structure was so simple and straightforward. To Pollock, it was “a thrilling play, with little speeches here and there that cut like knives and reach the bone.” Thomas R. Dash thought it “a soul-searing adaptation . . . packed with trenchant and remorseless power.”
But more critics sided with John Mason Brown, who described the work as “so repetitious and static a bore that one can hardly wait to have its victims shot.” Richard Watts, Jr., found that “it is oddly less powerful in its emotional impact than its deeply tragic theme would have suggested, and its strength is curiously hampered by a monotony that has crept into it.” And Brooks Atkinson argued that the play never made the ideals of the revolution important enough to warrant the deaths of the six characters.
It was widely agreed that Emlyn Williams was superb as Izquierdo, some thinking his portrayal so fascinating as to make the others, especially Redfield, pale by comparison. “Mr. Williams gives a perfect performance of frigid fury, contempt and decision. Setting his style to the drama, he scrupulously underplays the part of a monster—his manners impeccable and his nerves almost, though not quite, under inhuman control,” praised Atkinson. Others in the highly qualified company included Kurt Kasznar, Richard Malek, Nehemiah Persoff, Stefan Gierasch, Gregory Morton, and Francis Compton.
Hellman discovered that she was ineffective as a director because she was intimidated by Williams, but she had other directorial problems as well. According to William Wright’s Lillian Hellman, when the show was trying out in Boston, she was having trouble getting the right results from an actor. Producer Kermit Bloomgarden told her that the man was a Method actor and needed time to grow into his role. “What the hell is method acting anyway?” she wanted to know. Bloomgarden replied, “I studied with Lee [Strasberg] for a while. He had us acting an orange.” “An orange, eh?” Hellman shot back. The actor was fired a day later.
I’ll be back in mid-November, when, hopefully, orange will no longer be a dirty word.