HomePast ColumnsAbout

Broadway 101

1920-1930
The American Theater

Part 3

Another change that Broadway undertook in the Twenties was the presentation of black life by black performers. Surely, black performers were previously seen on Broadway, either in Vaudeville, revues or in secondary entertainments like the Roof Garden show Clorindy ..., etc. And black theater had always existed parallel to white theater in New York, the first being The African Grove theater, established in the 1820's, first on Thomas Street in Greenwich Village and later moving to Mercer Street. But theater was always "separate", and black theater was performed uptown. The Lafayette Theater on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 131st Street was the most prestigious of Harlem's theaters. Black roles on Broadway were generally cast with white actors. LeGallienne's first American role in 1915 was as a black maid in a Harrison Fiske production of Mrs. Boltay's Daughters. She attempted to mimic the white concept of black inflection in a concoction of Irish brogue and cockney English. It must have been rather startling with her European accent.

In November of 1920, The Neighborhood Playhouse opened its production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Perhaps because of the nature of the play, in which the lead falls victim to his own fears and primitive nature, O'Neill chose to make the main character black. A sophisticated New York audience might be more willing to accept that a black man could be "haunted" than a white. Or, perhaps, they might better grasp and understand the haunting if it were more "removed" from their own lives. Rather than fill the role with a white actor in blackface, black actor Charles Gilpin was selected to star. Gilpin had played in the Williams and Walker company and with the Pekin Players and had considerable experience acting with black companies. The play was lauded, as was Gilpin.

The nature of theater and race relations at the time can be seen in the results of Gilpin's success. Based on the power that Gilpin brought to the role, The Drama League named him one of ten people who had done most to advance American Theater in 1920. It was suggested that the award be withdrawn or that Gilpin not attend the Awards dinner and ceremonies. Both the League and Gilpin stood firm. When presented, Gilpin drew applause and, when the evening was over without any other incident, Broadway and the theater community got on with life as usual.

After the War, Noble Sissel and Eubie Blake re-teamed and appeared on the Vaudeville circuit as "The Dixie Duo". In another break with tradition, the two did not perform in blackface, but dressed in fashionable tuxes, and they became very popular with white audiences. In 1920, they decided that in order to present a sincere view of black life to a white audience, it had to be done through musical comedy. They began working immediately and put together Shuffle Along. They applied to the Cort family who had become the owners of the 63rd Street Theater that had fallen on bad days. When offered this space, Sissel and Blake took it, with its collection of used scenery, props and costumes and opened on May 23, 1921, some $18,000.00 in debt.

Some of the music of that show has provided standards like "I'm Just Wild About Harry", "In Honeysuckle Time" and a love ballad, "Love Will Find a Way". A sensitive, honest and sincere love ballad between a black man and woman was considered inappropriate at the time, and, in reminiscences, Sissel said that he and others of the cast stood at the back door prepared to escape the riot that was sure to ensue. He then realized that Blake was in the pit and his bald head was the brightest target for any missile which might be thrown. There was no riot. The audience demanded encores.

Though Shuffle Along is described as "amateurish", without much of a plot and second hand sets and costumes, it was a smash hit and had a run of 502 performances. Even George Jean Nathan, who had a reputation for being one of the most vicious critics of Broadway, saw the show five times.

Shuffle Along is said to be the show that encouraged the Harlem Renaissance. Prior to its production, black music, ragtime, blues and jazz, was taken downtown for white patrons. Harlem clubs became favorite watering holes of white patrons after the production of Shuffle Along. There were several more Shuffle Along productions to follow this first attempt by Sissel and Blake to present a black show for a white audience. They were all as successful as the first.

This led to other productions of shows with black casts with true portraits of black life, though white playwrights wrote most of them. In 1927, a Pulitzer Prize was won by Paul Green's In Abraham's Bosom, a play in which a black farmer, after struggling against oppression from both white and black society to obtain an education and improve the lot of himself and his people, succumbs to the poverty and frustration. He kills his white half-brother and is hanged by a mob. Gilpin again starred on Broadway.

A new era, a new arena and a new appreciation for black talent were established. Cracks were appearing in a barrier once thought impervious, and the first small drops of a new social order were seeping through. It must be remembered that the barrier wasn't broken, only cracked. In 1926, the title role of Lulu Belle, a play about a black prostitute, was played by Lenore Ulric in blackface. To paraphrase Ethan Morrden, theater opens the mind, which is true, but it also reflects the society that produces and supports it. Hastened by the changes brought on by World War I, the Victorian social order was losing control, and changes were afoot. It would be another fifty years before America realized the harvest of these few small seeds.

If the "teens" were Cohan's, the "twenties" were O'Neill's. Having made inroads with the Provincetown Players, Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill's first full-length play, opened at a special matinee at the Morosco Theater in February of 1920. O'Neill had moved uptown. Beyond the Horizon gave O'Neill his first Pulitzer Prize. Later that year, The Emperor Jones opened on Broadway. These were followed by other smaller productions of his works at the Provincetown Playhouse, but he returned to Broadway with Anna Christie in 1921 for which he received his second Pulitzer. O'Neill continued his success through the Twenties with The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Marco Millions and Strange Interlude, which earned him a third Pulitzer in 1928. Many of these were in association with Lawrence Langner and the Theater Guild. It was this association that would produce O'Neill's best achievement, Morning Becomes Electra, in 1931. Alla Nazimova would undertake the role of the murderous wife.

The third issue of prominence of this decade was the question of what is morally acceptable in the public venue of theater and who is responsible to arbitrate that question. It was not a new question in theater; theater had always been considered a cauldron of unacceptable and unabashed moral turpitude. When Boston built its first theater in 1792, separate entrances were built for the upper tiers so that the prostitutes, who plied their trade there, wouldn't mingle with serious theatergoers in the orchestra and mezzanine seating. No matter how exemplary actresses chose to conduct their private lives, their respectability was always in question.

Camille had caused stirs of "immorality" in theater in the middle of the 19th Century. When Henry Irving replaced the final scene in a 1883 production of The Merchant of Venice, Miss Ellen Terry's Portia reached out and laid a hand on Bassanio's arm, creating a cry of "scandalous vulgarity". "Good Heavens, she's touching him!" was the cry of Fanny Kemble.

In 1900, New Yorkers were affronted by Sapho, in which Hamilton Revelle picked up Miss Olga Nethersole and carried her up a flight of stairs to what was obviously meant to be her boudoir. The city police arrested Miss Nethersole as a "corrupter of public morals" along with several other several other members of the company. A jury acquitted Miss Nethersole of any wrongful behavior and the play reopened. The Second Mrs. Tangueray raised eyebrows and accusing fingers in 1893, and Mrs. Warren's Profession was closed after one performance in 1905, in its first appearance on Broadway. For years, Belasco and Daly and Alf Woods had been producing plays with pandering names, from Getting Gertie's Garter to His Bridal Night. What was happening now?

America entered the "Jazz Age", though as Morrden points out, nobody is quit e sure what jazz is ... Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", or W. C. Handy's "Saint Louis Blues"? For Sergeant Rhoda Milliken of the Washington D.C. police department, jazz was "any music played on a saxophone", when that organization decided to enforce an old law against "immoral music". This is the decade when skirts went from six inches above the ankle to six inches above the knee. Governments from the national level to the local level tried to "preserve" moral decency in America. Prohibition had been proclaimed in 1919. Vice President (soon to be President) Calvin Coolidge was making speeches stating that of the "two fundamental motives which inspire motivation", righteousness and gain, the most important is righteousness.

In April of 1926, Mae West opened in Sex, which Variety defined as a "nasty red-light district show". Miss West would be arrested and serve ten days in the Women's Workhouse on Welfare Island - but not until after the show ran for 375 performances. Miss West's comment on the ordeal? The uniforms were uncomfortable. In Sex, Miss West played a Montreal Madame. This wasn't the only show on Broadway at the time with a prostitutes as a main character. The Shanghai Gesture, starring Florence Reed (331 performances), and Lulu Belle (461 performances) were also playing. The difference is that in the later two shows old Victorian "righteousness" won out. Even The Easiest Way, from the preceding decade, had a moral overtone. The (anti)heroine couldn't help but be morally disposed to "the easiest way". In fairness, though, it must be told that Lulu Belle was listed with Sex as one of the ten (yes, ten) dirtiest shows on Broadway.

Theater was given the option to police itself (the option the Motion Picture Industry had already adopted) or face governmental scrutiny and procedure. At the same time, the popular press lauded Ethel Waters for being able to deliver the "hot" song "Handy Man" with "cool demeanor". "How that girl can control her cooch should be rewarded somehow". The Palace management forced her to drop the song from her act. A list of words went up backstage that were not to be mentioned in a Keith-Albee house, lest they fall on delicate ears.

The end of the argument has not been seen, and may never have definitive conclusion. The controversy over what constitutes art is still an issue today. The decade of the Twenties was rich for theatergoers and theater in general. It was the decade in which Antoinette Perry starred in Broadway's longest running flop, (The Ladder, financed by an eccentric who could afford to lose $6,500 a week. In 1929, a college newspaper honored a freshman, Tennessee Williams, for his play Beauty is the Word. It was the decade of the "flapper", bathtub gin and speakeasies. But, most importantly, it was the decade that presented new issues, new talent and a new "American" theater. It was the decade that best displayed the challenge between the old guard and what was to come.


Next: 1930-1940: The Great Depression
Broadway 101 Virtual Tour


Wanna' talk to others about this column or anything else theatre related? Check out All That Chat!




[ © 1999 Talkin' Broadway! | Produced by miner miracles ]