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An Open Letter to Mike Nichols

Dear Mike: Apropos your revival of The Little Foxes, I was going to write you a personal letter of suggestions for other American plays that I think it might be worth-while to revive, a letter that you would hardly be in a position to act upon right away but that you might put away in your files. Now Walter Kerr’s recent article in theatrical section of the Sunday New York Times empresses a reaction so close to my own in connection with this production that I think it may be a good idea to put these suggestions on public record in the hope that they may interest somebody.

The Little Foxes, says Mr. Kerr, “has left me filled with admiration and a kind of panic. Its one unmistakable message…is that we can have an American National Theater any time we want to. The materials are all there, ample and imperious and holding firm ground, on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont. My panic stems from the fear that we won’t get it, that we won’t hear what is being said, that, having come right to the edge of a discovery of our present powers, we will permit the decision to dissolve and the powers to scatter again as we always have through all of our long history.” He goes on to speak of the excellence of the play, of the cast and of your direction and to say that good actors would not be lacking for “five or six other companies just as good as the Little Foxes company…if anyone cared, or had the power, to call them together. We could have five or six productions a year just as rich, just as resonant, just as indigenous, just as serenely confident….”

With all of this I agree, and I would add that this production makes plain—what I have for a long time suspected—that you are something of a theatrical genius with an intelligence and imagination together with an ability to make them effective which are excessively rare on Broadway. You may remember that I used to see again and again—to a point at which I had almost ceased to laugh at the lines—your old show with Elaine May, in which you two were able, alone, to take command of the stage and put over on an enthusiastic audience original skits which were quite audacious in their unconventionality. Since them you seem to have brought a magic touch to three comedies which otherwise, I am told—I have only seen The Knack—could hardly have been so successful; you have managed, in the film you have made of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, to stimulate to some semblance of acting the attractive but—on her own admission—rather untalented Elizabeth Taylor; and you have directed Barbara Harris in a novel bill of three short musicals—one of them by Jules Feiffer but the other two, rather surprisingly, based on old stories by Mark Twain and Frank Stockton—which turned out to be—at any rate, for me—the most delightful show of its season and which is now still running in its second year. The revival of The Little Foxes was, I understand, Your own idea. You thought that here was an American play that ought to be a durable classic, and you and Mr. Saint Subber have given it a production which seems to establish it as one.

Now, what I have long had a vision of and what I want to propose to you is the possibility of producing a cycle of American plays which might also become stage classics. I will give you a tentative list in more or less chronological order. These are not merely once popular plays whose former fame is still remembered—Rip Van Winkle would surely be impossible without Joseph Jefferson or The Music Master without David Warfield—but all plays that I have seen or read and that I think might be made to work today.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is not ridiculous, The original scripts for Uncle Tom’s Cabin were none of them very good, and by the time of my boyhood it has been turned into a tent show, advertising two Topsies, who sang comic songs, two Uncle Toms, who did breakdowns, and, for a climax, Eliza crossing the ice, with the baying of bloodhounds offstage. But for the Players’ Club revival, in 1933, a special dramatization of Uncle Tom was made by Augustus Thomas, which at a time when I had not read the novel, revealed for me for the first time the real power of Mrs. Stowe’s drama. It was done by excellent actors: Otis Skinner was Uncle Tom; Thomas Chalmers was Simon Legree; and Topsy was done by Fay Bainter, one of the top “comédiennes” of her period. All the characters were played straight, including Topsy, who was not merely a figure of fun but a genuine plantation girl. Simon Legree was made, as he is in the novel, not merely a whip-cracking overseer but a sadistic New Englander with qualms, stranded on the Red River with an unsuccessful plantation and an unhappy mulatto mistress. This version has not been published but it ought to be available. I predict that, if properly directed and acted, it could not but be a success. It would be interesting to see how it would be received by the Black Power, people, who have stigmatized as “Uncle Toms” the Negroes who have accepted their humiliating situation but have forgotten that Uncle Tom rebels and is beaten to death for rebellion.

Fashion, or Life in New York, by Anna Cora Mowatt, was first done in New York in 1845, and traveled ad far as London. It was revived by the Provincetown Players in 1924, with such success that it was taken uptown. The play was interspersed with old songs—Walking down Broadway, Not for Joe, Call me pet names, dear, call me a dove, etc.—selected by Deems Taylor; and this proved to be an excellent idea. I do not know whether the comedy could stand by itself: it would have to be presented, with some ironic accent, as a period piece. But it does have dramatic merit. At the Provincetown, it ran off quite amusingly; and the speeches of Adam Trueman, the manly American farmer who denounces the New York swells, turned out to be quite rousing stage tirades.

I now come to what I regard as the two very best “Westerns” that I have seen in any medium. The Girl of the Golden West was produced in 1905 by Belasco. It was one of the plays that he wrote himself, and he boasted, no doubt correctly, that, from his early experience of California, he “knew the period of Forty-nine as I know my alphabet, and there are things in The Girl of the Golden West truer than many of the incidents in Bret Harte.” It is a melodrama, but does not depend on expected melodramatic devices, and the atmosphere of the Polka Saloon and the Girl’s cabin on Cloudy Mountain does create a compelling illusion even for a reader of the play, and without Belasco’s realistic staging. About this staging, more later.

The next year, 1906, saw a Western of a different kind, The Great Divide, by William Vaughn Moody. Moody was a poet who had been to Harvard and at first wrote poetic dramas. But he had been born in Indiana and knew something of the Far West. The Great Divide, a sensation is its day, is not a melodrama, but a dramatic confrontation of the American West with New England. The situation created between, on the one hand, the moral scruples and social conventions of Massachusetts and, on the other, the lawless independence and audacious speculation of Arizona brought out a conflict of forces that had been shaking the ideals of the East, and the play gave rise to much discussion. The then shocking First Act, in which a New England girl in a lonely cabin saves herself from being raped by three drunken invaders by offering herself to the most prepossessing, who buys off one of his companions and shoots the other, seems to have stunned people in their seats, and what follows to have kept them petrified. I am aware that this now sixty-year-old play would take a lot of doing, and, since rereading it just now, I have been haunted by a suspicion of the way in which some of the scenes would sound if played by Nichols and May. But I feel that The Great Divide possesses an artistic dignity which would make it stand up today. It has twice been made into a movie—not, of course, that this proves anything except that, like Little Women and Huckleberry Finn, it has the makings of an American legend.

THE MIDDLE of the first decade of the 1900s seems to have seen something in the nature of a belated fuller development on the part of the more serious American theater. Bernard Shaw, who had followed on the pretensions of Pinero and the wit of Oscar Wilde and had behind him the authority of Ibsen, was now a predominating influence; Man and Superman was first produced in New York in 1905. Langston Mitchell’s The New York Idea was performed in 1906, the same year as The Great Divide. Both Mitchell and Moody were literary men, and their plays were admirably written as well as well-constructed. The New York Idea, so far as I know, is the only really first-rate “comedy of manners”—Fashion does not quite make it—ever written by an American dramatist. I saw it done, when I had not read it and had never seen it before, in a loft building on lower Fifth Avenue, without a regular stage, by a company of excellent actors who were otherwise out of work for the summer, and was astonished to find how amusing it was and how well it was still working under what would seem conditions extremely adverse to representing the elegant milieu in which it is made to take place. The divorcing John and Cynthia Karslake are a smart Manhattan version of Congreve’s Mirabell and Millamant, and they are more effective on the stage than their Restoration counterparts. Their love story, with its bristling hostilities, makes far more human appeal, and is brought to its tumultuous conclusion with as much wit and as little sentimentality.

THIS WAS ALSO the heyday of Clyde Fitch, who was somewhat in the same line as Mitchell. But he wrote a great many plays and presents a particular problem. Which play of his should be revived? Fitch did not have the gift, as Mitchell did in his single original play, of charging his social comedy with a genuine emotional value. When Clyde Fitch is being funny with the special language and tone, the special preoccupations, of his period, he is natural and delightful. His American girls of the early 1900s are amusing in the same sort of way as Scott Fitzgerald’s flappers of the Twenties. But when he tries to write serious scenes—though never so pompous as Pinero—he is theatrical in the bad old ham way. His romantic historical plays—from Beau Brummel, written to order as a “vehicle” for Richard Mansfield, to Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which founded the reputation of Ethel Barrymore—would, I should think, be impossible today. Such a contemporary and rather ambitious comedy as The Climbers of 1901—which I never saw on the stage—is still readable for its social satire, but its straight dramatic scenes would be equally impossible. The Truth, of 1907, about a girl who is a compulsive liar, though coldly received in New York, became, on account, I suppose, of its pretensions to psychological interest, something of a European success. When I saw it revived in the spring of 1914—even with Ferdinand Gottschalk, that incomparably polished character actor that Fitch had brought from England for The Climbers and who was perfect for Fitch’s comedies—it did not make much of an impression in competition with a current theater that was more psychologically advanced. Fitch’s last and most ambitious play The City, in which he was making an effort to get away from his lively young girls and to appeal to the growing taste for the “unpleasant,” with its violent climactic showdown in the Second Act between the drug addict and the corrupt politician—at the age of fourteen, I used to pore on the sinister posters—was produced in 1909, not long after Fitch’s death. I read in the Dictionary of American Biography that “every seat was filled. The feeling was intense. By the end of the second act, the developing horror of impending catastrophe swept the audience into a demonstration seldom witnessed in a New York theater—a scene of hysterical confusion. Men were shouting, women fainted.” I might well have been thrilled if I had seen it then; but I have only read it since, and it seems to me pathetic that Fitch should have founded his final hope to be taken seriously as a dramatist on such a contrivance of claptrap. Where Clyde Fitch is really strong is not in such melodramatic moralities, but in his playing with his world of early motor cars, Cunarders, big houses on Fifth Avenue, Americans in the Vatican Museum, Americans coming home with many trunks. If a play of his is to be revived, it ought to be some such comedy as The Stubbornness of Geraldine or The Girl with the Green Eyes. I remember, also, with pleasure a comedy called Girls, about what were then known as “bachelor girls” living uncomfortably in a New York apartment; but this, I find, has not been included in the four-volume selection of Fitch’s plays published by Little, Brown.

The problem of reviving Clyde Fitch brings me naturally back to Belasco. It was characteristic of the period in which they both worked that material objects were tremendously important. Edith Wharton’s first published work was a treatise on interior decorating, and furniture, clothing, and ornaments are always solidly described in her novels. (One is reminded that she and Clyde Fitch collaborated on a dramatization of her novel, The House of Mirth, which in its day was not a success and of which W. D. Howells said to Mrs. Wharton, after the first night, that “what the American public always wanted was a tragedy with a happy ending.” The script of this has not been published, but it is available in the New York Theatrical Library and might be worth looking up in this connection.) It was the moment, par excellence, when Americans had begun to buy things, to be conscious of the acquisitions with which they had surrounded themselves. A revival of almost any play of Fitch’s is almost unimaginable without his sets and his props. “He was often criticized,” I learn from the Dictionary of American Biography, “for his insistence upon small details; once a man sitting in front at a scenic rehearsal, exclaimed, as Fitch climbed down from the stage into the orchestra stalls, disgusted because some ‘property’ had not arrived: ‘Why do you bother so much about such little things?’ ‘Because,’ answered Fitch, ‘I think they are very important; I believe in watching every bit of scenery, every action, every incidental blessed thing connected with the production. It is the “little things” that quickest show the lack of study and preparation.” “Even in such a simple comedy as Lover’s Lane,” says the Introduction to his published plays, “during rehearsals, he spent hours fastening apples and pinning blossoms in the orchard scene.” Belasco had the same preoccupation. He wanted to reconstruct a replica of every indoor or outdoor scene that had to be represented, and he loved collecting objects for this purpose. The sets of the Moscow Art Theater, which gave its first performance of Chekhov in 1898, also realized this ideal. In the case of an interior set, you were likely to see more than one room and to feel that the whole house existed. You came to feel that you were actually living with an old-fashioned Russian family and trying to size up personalities and to make out what was going on.

THIS IS a fashion, of course, that has passed. I first saw Shakespeare in the days when the plays, always brutally cut, were continually interrupted to change the scenery from “Venice, A Street” to “Belmont. A Room in Portia’s House,” or something of the kind; and I remember how delighted I was by a pioneer production of The Tempest at the New Theater in Columbus Circle, in which the piece was played through with no changes of scene. (The New Theater was an early attempt at serious repertory in New York, which, depending on the kind of rich subscribers who had been loyal to the Metropolitan but who did not care for serious plays any more than for serious opera, soon collapsed and fell back on Old Heidelberg, in which Gottschalk, Clyde Fitch now dead, had to do duty as a major domo.) I first saw Thornton Wilder’s Our Town when it was being tried out in Boston, and its effectiveness was not impaired by its being performed with no background save the back of the stage itself, with its system of dingy pipes. In fact, the play could not have been done with a soda fountain, a small town interior, a funeral in the rain, etc. We could, perhaps, have done without the pipes, but it had been written for a stage without scenery. I myself, when I write plays, usually revert to the older theater, and plan for a built-in Belasco set that will do for the whole play or will accommodate variations with a backdrop for a shallower stage.

Now, Lillian Hellman, though much younger than I, seems also in this respect to derive from the Belasco period. The Little Foxes, though performed on a projected stage that was partly surrounded by the audience, was not only laid in 1900 but more or less conformed to the methods of that era. The elaborate permanent set might almost have been built by Belasco: the staircase at the back that dominated the room and played a part in the action; the decanters and trays and glasses and the old wooden box for the bonds were in harmony with the characters’ costumes. And the play itself is a throwback to the model of an earlier decade. Miss Hellman says her critics complain that her plays are “well-constructed” and “melodramatic.” I do not regard these as valid reproaches; and the very important respect in which The Little Foxes is not old-fashioned is that Miss Hellman does not only not feel under any obligation to write “a tragedy with a happy ending” but is not even aware of any necessity for calling her play either a tragedy or a comedy. (I am not sure, however, that the old impedimenta of realistic staging did not to some extent interfere with the success of her more recent and for her quite novel piece My Mother and My Father and Me, which I saw in its first stages in Boston and which seemed to me then badly hampered by the machinery of too many changes.) What I am getting at, Mike, however, is that anyone who can stage so successfully the early twentieth-century Little Foxes should have no difficulty whatever, if someone would provide the backing, in coping with The Girl with the Green Eyes or The Girl of the Golden West. Uncle Tom could be done without scenery, and probably ought to be. Fashion can perfectly be done with one of those conventionalized hardly-furnished interiors such as I used to see in my youth in the Palais Royal farces in Paris and such as I suppose were made to serve for such drawing room dramas as Fashion. But if you are going to revive Clyde Fitch, you will have to provide Fitch’s paraphernalia.

I know that there is nothing so boring to the young as the theatrical memories of their elders. They don’t believe that the actors and plays were so good as the old people say, the feeble attempts of the old people to impersonate the old actors are unconvincing, and in any case the young people don’t want to hear about something they will never see. I find that I am getting close to indulging in this kind of thing, and you may be thankful that my narrowly American subject has not given me a chance to reminisce about the Abbey Theater’s first production of The Playboy of the Western World, Vasily Kachalov in An Enemy of the People, or Lucien Guitry in the plays of Sacha. So farewell at this point and plenty more success in whatever you undertake. If God were not thought to be dead, I should beg Him to speed you, my boy, and to preserve you from the fleshpots of Hollywood steeped in which so many fine talents have foundered. (You should have seen Lionel Barrymore do this scene.)

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