HomePast ColumnsAbout

Broadway 101

1920-1930
The American Theater

A new decade has begun. Like all of history, however, its currency lies in its antecedents. Like all history, we can pick out names and dates, the "prime movers" so to speak, but we also have to remember that "prime movers" move in context. America has just been through a traumatic experience and emerged as a "prime mover" in world politics. World War I will also show itself to be an experience that has changed the context itself. The farmboys have seen "Paree", and a new economic, social and intellectual world is emerging. America and its theater will reflect that new context.

This will be the decade that sees a push for genuine Repertory Theater with some success. It is the decade that sees blacks on Broadway - not as the secondary entertainment, but as stars in white productions and as stars of their own theater creation, black productions for white audiences. It is also the decade of the cry for a "morality police" for theater, and the new argument between what is "art" and what is not. This is an argument a lot older than this decade through which we are about to stroll, and which still hasn't been successfully resolved.

On July 24, 1915, just months after the sinking of the Lusitania, the St Louis sailed for New York. On board was Elsie Janis, who had been performing in England and would soon return. Perhaps Marlowe and Sothern, the Favershams, and Constance Collier, who were also bent on surviving the Zeppelin raids on London, were on board. Most certainly a young 16-year-old Eva LeGallienne was aboard. In a short career that had begun in the spring of 1915, she had twice appeared before the Queen. She had displayed quite a talent and developed an assurance that "fame and fortune" would be hers in America. She began working almost immediately after arriving, and the next decade would be hers.

Unlike European governments, America had never developed a national theater. In 1906, America's money barons stepped in to correct this oversight. With backing from names like Astor, Frick, Vanderbilt, Whitney and Morgan, a site was chosen uptown, away from the Times Square commercial theater, and a magnificent limestone palace was completed to house a theater for "the advancement of Art." When it opened in November of 1909, The New Theater on Central Park West at 62nd Street seated over 2300 people.

The New Theater was built with the latest innovations: a revolving stage, huge backstage spaces for dressing rooms (38 plus 4 chorus rooms), and, being neither a "rope" nor "motor" house, the flies were controlled by a lead-shot counterweight system. It was clearly designed for any form of theatrical production from drama to opera. On the roof was a second theater, originally used for rehearsal space, but conceived and designed as a second full performance space. It also had the worst acoustics of any theater in New York. Remodeling the interior didn't help. Actors and patrons alike soon shunned it.

The New Theater movement, as the conglomerate was known, sought out another site and chose to begin again rather than face the problems of correcting the New Theater. The backers chose a lot directly behind the Hotel Astor, but their interest waned, and the Shuberts bought the site before any construction began. The newly chosen site was to share a private roadway with the hotel. Shubert Alley was born and on the space of the abandoned national theater stand the current houses, the Shubert and Booth Theaters.

The New Theater hobbled along for another twenty years, featuring such shows as Yip Yip Yaphank and revivals of Rain, Florodora and the premier of Max Reinhardt's mime play, The Miracle, before finally being razed to accommodate an apartment house. There was still no national theater.

Eleonora Duse By 1920, Eva LeGallienne had set her star. Influenced by Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse (who had both become her friends and mentors) and Mrs. Fiske, LeGallienne had shown a passion for acting. Comparing her to Helen Hayes, a contemporary ingenue at the time, one critic, who had had the opportunity to observe both women over several years, wrote, "[Miss Hayes had] instinctive facility ... acting at high nervous tension and ... with infectious high spirits, but she was always the same." LeGallienne however, "is ... resourceful and apt with way and mean-voice, gesture, play of face and all the rest; who has plentiful charm, personality and high spirits, yet who keeps them steadily in the service of the play and to the part. Miss Hayes ... displays [herself]; Miss LeGallienne works as an artist in her medium."

After the war, the Theater Guild had resumed its efforts in producing shows of artistic merit and was becoming as successful in that endeavor as the commercial producers.

In 1920, LeGallienne retreated after a successful run and tour of Not So Long Ago, and vacationed with another of her friends, Alla Nazimova, in Hollywood. While she was resting from her tour, Joseph Shildkraut, actor-son of Rudolph Shildkraut, famous in German and Yiddish theater, proposed a production of Liliom to the Theater Guild, with the stipulation that LeGallienne co-star. Liliom, a play by Ferenc Molnar, was considered a great risk because of its subject matter and its strange construction. Langner and Helburn and The Theater Guild committee were making quite a bit of money with another successful production and decided to support the project.

In March of 1921, LeGallienne returned from California, and, with the approval of Lee Shubert with whom she had a contract, she committed to Liliom. Liliom had a bad career in London where a translation was produced under the title of The Daisy, but LeGallienne had seen something extraordinary in the role and wanted to do an American production. Liliom was well received and had a great run, followed by an equally successful road-tour.

In itself, this history of Liliom seems so unimportant, but it had two consequences. It introduced LeGallienne into the Theater Guild circle of Langner and Glaspell, and Liliom was later translated for the musical stage as Carousel.

She followed this with a long run in another Molnar play, The Swan, in which she acted opposite another European trained actor, Basil Rathbone. Next came a season in France where she played Jeanne d'Arc. LeGallienne was received wonderfully; the play was a failure. The redeeming graces were the modern minimalist sets and intricate lighting by Norman Bel Geddes.

By 1925, LeGallienne was ready to take a new (old) idea to Broadway: Repertory Theater - non-profit, endowed theater - where a body of outstanding plays could be presented by a group of exceptionally talented people. She envisioned this theater with an associated school where young and promising newcomers would learn the best possible skills of theatrical art. Taking heart from the success of other new institutions like the Theater Guild and the Provincetown Players, LeGallienne was convinced that America was ready to support this kind of experience.

She threw herself into two simultaneous productions of Ibsen. During the day, she performed matinees of John Gabriel Borkman at the Booth, and in the evening gave performances of The Master Builder at the Princess Theater on West 39th Street. Before taking these productions on tour, she announced special performances with ticket prices reduced to $.50-$1.50, and sold out the advertised seats instantly. The public supported her theory. Mencken's "great unwashed" were ready for intellectual nourishment.

Go to next page

The Civic Theater Rose-Marie




[ © 1998 Talkin' Broadway! | Produced by miner miracles ]