The Theatre at Mid-Season
Dramatic critic, author and editor, GEORGE JEAN NATHAN first began tailing about the American theatre in 1905; and he has been regarding it ever since with mingled hope, rage, and affection. With his friend and fellow editor, Henry L. Mencken, he was instrumental in reviving The Smart Set between 1914 and 1925; and then, in 1921, they scored an instant success with their first issues of The American Mercury. Mr. Nathan is the author of many volumes of criticism, the latest being The Theatre in the Fifties, which has recently appeared under the Knopf imprint.
by GEORGE JEAN NATHAN
THE theatre as represented by its main artery in New York has come close to its season’s mid-point without disclosing any new play of strict critical quality, though it has provided one that is delightfully beguiling, one or two that, also are interesting to criticism in its less scrupulous moments, and one or two that are moderately diverting, In this respect it is not dissimilar to the contemporary stage in whatever country one encounters it, since little if anything dramatically important seems to be written these days and since the hiatus in authentic merit is being hopefully bridged by what is popularly but sometimes dubiously known as “entertainment.” It isn’t that here and there one does not perceive at least a gesture at real worth; it is rather that the gesture, for all its sincerity, is deficient and that intention is hamstrung by lack of true dramaturgical ability. The best that results is traces of validity, but nothing that overall legitimately deserves a place in the critical sun.
If, for example, honesty of purpose were an acceptable substitute for genuine accomplishment, young Louis Peterson’s first play, Take a Giant Step, would not only have its place in that sun but would be presented with a handsome beach chair in which to enjoy it. What the author has apparently attempted is an autobiographical account of a youthful Negro’s perplexity in a world of whites and his baffled efforts not only to fit himself—at any rate partly — into it, and to accommodate his pride to it, but to resolve the sexual impulses of his adolescence in consonance with his approaching manhood. The character of the Negro boy is admirably penetrated and so are the scenes with his parents, who look askance at his determination to assert himself, lest it discommode the safety of their position in the nonsegregated Connecticut town in which they have been privileged to live — and so, too, are the two episodes involving the prostitutes with whom he comes into contact in his search for an answer to his sex problems — but inexperience in playwriting and the consequent lack of discipline tend to enfeeble the whole with a needless repetition that leads to eventual monotony.
What one gets, in short, is a kind of Negro Ah, Wilderness!, deeper in meaning, that, while it presents satisfactorily some of the facets of adolescence’s struggle with itself, misses final impressiveness by virtue of its dramaturgical weaknesses. But Peterson indicates that he has potential gifts and, if he nurses them properly, should bring to a theatre that badly needs it the sort of drama that amounts to something more than the prettily packaged, broken-down vacuum cleaners it currently often so rapturously buys.
A considerably smoother but considerably lesser play, though one not without its points, is Robert. Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy. In not too loose description, it gives the impression of a combination of the elements of John van Druten’s Young Woodley and Lillian Heilman’s The Childrens Hour, with its key scene a duplication of one in Rose Franken’s Outrageous Fortune, produced ten years ago. We thus engage again the boys’ school with its sensitive student and understanding wife of the housemaster who takes him under her wing (Young Woodley), the other students whose gossip and scandalmongering place him under dire suspicion— in this instance of homosexuality (The Children’s Hour) — and the scene wherein a comprehending and sympathetic older woman gives herself to him to relieve his aberrant doubts and to re-establish faith in himself as a normal male (Outrageous Fortune). But, though Anderson’s play lacks the graceful writing of van Druten’s, the sharp drive and impact of Heilman’s, the critical quality of the Franken exhibit, and seems at times to be forced into an acceptable box-office pattern, there is evidence in it of surgery of character that encourages faith in its author’s future.
Despite its needless repetitions and too frequent injections of sentiment where less soft moisture would improve the dramatic atmosphere, the play has its merits as entertainment above the current average. The performance of the boy’s role by John Kerr, as was Louis Gossett’s in Take a Giant Step, is nicely managed; and Deborah Kerr, drafted from the motion pictures, does an appealing job as the sacrificial lady, though one might wish that Elia Kazan, the director, had refrained from having her indulge in such poses against half-opened doors and fireplaces as are dear to the movies’ heart. Mr. Kazan’s fondness for clichés has further caused old schoolmates who meet again after some years to indulge in such a wealth of mutual back-slapping and handpumping as would have made even George Ado’s comic counterparts wince, and such an undue prolongation of emotional scenes as drains them of almost everything but a rebellious humor.
Another school play, but of markedly different nature, is Calder Willingham’s dramatization of his novel, End As a Man, under the same title. Here we have what is intended as a stern indictment of our military academies. Though the author focuses his attention upon a single one in the South, it is more or less evident that his strictures are meant to have wider range. That his diatribe is not more convincing and at times resembles the unrestrained “exposés” of prisons favored by Hollywood is to be laid in large part to his melodramatically sadistic approach to his subject. Some of his scenes, particularly such as relieve his indignation with humor, are critically effective, and there is token that when one day he succeeds in mastering his apparently reinless wrath he may write drama of some poise and merit. But though he manages to jounce an audience as it is jounced by the Grand Guignol species of drama, it is clear that the acting is more greatly responsible for the effect than the writing.
THE failure locally of André Roussin’s French boulevard farce-comedy, The Little Hut, in an adaptation by Nancy Mitford, after its great success in London and its several seasons’ run in Paris, was not difficult to understand. In the first place, the London production enjoyed the presence in the cast of that able and popular comedian, Robert Morley, whereas his role here was given to an English actor named Culver whose comic talents, such as they were, seemed more suitable to vaudeville or musical comedy than to the business in hand. In the second place, the adaptation, despite Miss Mitford’s gifts in other literary directions, missed almost entirely the effervescence of the original and made what was casually risqué approach to something very like smut. There was also uncomfortable evidence of some readapting of the English adaptation to what she believed was the more vulgar American taste, a belief seemingly shared by Peter Brook, director of the London production who served the same office in the Broadway one. And, in the third place, the essential nature of the play, the constant repetition of a single joke, in this instance the husband, wife, and lover cast up on a desert island and the sharing of the wife’s affections by the two men, operated toward that tedium which spells doom at the box office.
It takes uncommon skill to play acceptable variations on a single comedy note, and the Pineros of a Preserving Mr. Panmure are very few and far between. Roussin managed it pretty well, since his instrument was the French language and since the French language is susceptible of droll shadings and saucy inflections which the English, save it be maneuvered by an expert prestidigitator, is not. Miss Mitford’s effort at duplication has gone amiss and what has resulted is something that sounds a lot like a Berlitz student awkwardly wooing a Parisian cocotte.
Another British import, Roger MacDougall’s comedy, Escapade, is better, but it is still only a moderately diverting comedy about the schoolboy sons of an impractical dreamer of world peace who take it into their own hands to do something they believe will actually serve the purpose. While containing several fairly amusing scenes and some fairly comical morsels of dialogue, it is not without its heavy dose of stereotypes and lackluster writing.
The wit endorsed by a number of London critical colleagues for the most part eludes me. Samples: 1. “One always thinks of what one should have said about five minutes later.” 2. “It’s bad for the moral fibre — like too many hot baths.” 3. “If people always said precisely what they meant and remained open-minded about whether they really meant what they’d said, half the politicians and all the generals would be looking for honest jobs.” 4. “Miss Betts, will you kindly get the janitor on the ‘phone ... so that he can throw you [another male character] out?” — “Old Curley? He couldn’t even throw out his chest.” 5. “It’s more difficult to forgive brutality when it comes from the wide-eyed innocence of age.”
The play was further endorsed by several London critics for its “toughly disputable arguments,” chief of which, apparently, is that a young schoolboy might accomplish what his dilatory elders could not by flying to a world peace conference and presenting to its members a protest against wars signed by his young schoolmates. The toughness of disputing the argument also eludes me, even allowing for possibly intended fantasy.
Nothing produced during the first half of the season has approached the thorough delight of John Fatrick’s The Teahouse of the A ugust Moon, dramatized from the Vern Sneider novel of the same title. Its critical defects, such as a middle act that a little too weakly bridges the first and third and an occasional infiltration of out-of-key vaudeville badinage, are lost sight of in its pervading wisdom and charms and the whole remains as likable and affecting a play as has come the way of the theatre in some time. Its humor for the most part is grounded on intelligence; its satire is healthily recognizable; and its sentiment is largely implied rather than, as in the more usual run, tortured into existence by an industrious scraping of violin strings.
The story is of the attempt of the American occupation forces to democratize the Oriental inhabitants of the island of Okinawa, and of the village of Tobiki in particular, and of the manner in which the intruders are persuaded they have much to learn from the natives. The wealth of detail and incident that embroider the story and assist it is enchanting, from the community teahouse that the American captain is cajoled into building in place of the schoolhouse specified by Washington to his reliance for prosperity upon the native brandy distilled from sweet potatoes instead of upon the pottery, inlaid boxes, and cricket cages deemed more practical by his military superiors; from the hilarious manner of travel by the natives and the desirability of misunderstood geishas to the social life of the Oriental village; and from the surrender to Oriental lure by a psychiatrist attached to the occupation forces to the handling of even that old chestnut, the final leave-taking of the young American officer and the Japanese lotus blossom.
The play, in short, develops a mood within itself that permeates its audience and that, in its avoidance of emphasis of its serious points and its smiling treatment of its subject matter, suggests at times a W. S. Gilbert not altogether dismayed by the absence of an Arthur Sullivan. And the stage settings by Peter Larkin, the direction by Robert Lewis, and the acting by a company headed by David Wayne as the narrator-interpreter, Paul Ford as the Colonel in charge of bringing democracy to the island, and John Forsythe as the Captain delegated to carry out his orders, are firstrate. All in all, an evening that whimsically defeats the strictures of criticism, however here and there justified, and that stubbornly achieves its happy end despite them.
The most commendable of the few plays with some serious dramatic purpose is Dorothy Parker’s and Arnaud D’Usseau’s The Ladies of the Corridor, which misses as tragic drama of stature on several counts, but which nonetheless is so understanding in its penetration of character and so apt in its clinical estimate of the pitiable females it deals with that it amounts in the aggregate to something considerably superior to what Broadway usually merchants in these days. The story concerns those women, now aging and without inner resources, who are cast by widowhood and hapless marriage upon the shores of life and who, with time hanging heavy and with empty futures, inevitably find themselves forlornly removed from life and at wits’ end what to do against the inexorable ticking of the clock. A lost lot, with their children married and gone off to lives of their own and with any new loving companionship far beyond their reach, they are driven to more or less desperate means to suffice them until the grave beckons them, and only in occasional visits to the movies and lending libraries, in idle chatter and consoling gossip and scandal, and in the more unendurable cases in drink, can they find nepenthe.
The strength of the play lies in Mrs. Parker’s customarily shrewd and revealing study of the female psyche; its weakness is in the dramaturgy, which presents the characters not in a cohesive story line but in a series of only superficially related episodes. Some of these are admirably managed, but others, like the overlong soliloquy of one of the women, who has tried to forget herself in alcohol and who seeks salvation in suicide, are devoid of the dramatic effect that organized and cumulative composition might have furthered. The performances of a company including Edna Best, Frances Starr, Betty Field, June Walker, Walter Matthau, and Shepperd Strudwick were, however, uniformly excellent, and so in greater part was the stage direction by Harold Clurman.
The rest of the panorama is of markedly inferior color. To picture it briefly, we comment on a few sample items. Kind Sir, by Norman Krasna, is a woefully negligible and very silly comedy maneuvered into a big box-office success by casting those popular favorites, Mary Martin and Charles Boyer, in its leading roles. Samuel Taylor’s Sabrina Fair, the story of a young American woman who returns after living in Paris and her trouble readjusting herself to life and love, is routine stuff attemptedly given a little stage vivacity by casting Margaret Sullavan as the girl. Howard Teichmann’s and George S. Kaufman’s The Solid Gold Cadillac is a job tailored for the ingratiating Josephine Hull as a small investor in a big industrial company who has some financial ideas of her own and, aside from some periodically comical dialogue, is just another rococo example of Broadway trade goods.
And that sums up the theatrical record to a very short distance from the season’s mid-point.