While the period of the Thirties may look bleak on Broadway, it was an active period in terms of developing an American Drama and also in creating an atmosphere of escape from the problems of the Depression. It was also a period that expanded the Black presence on Broadway and in theater in general, throughout the country.
The evolution of Eugene O'Neill from creator of one-act plays in the Village to Pulitzer contender is an immense accomplishment for American Drama. His best work is yet to come. For Black performers, the success of plays like Porgy and Bess and Mamba's Daughters and Welles' all Black "Macbeth" had created a world of possibilities beyond porters and maids. LeGallienne's Civic Rep, The Theater Guild, and the Federal Theater Project were all important steps to both protect and advance American Theater in an extremely difficult environment. They all supported daring inventions and innovative theatrical forms under the most negative economic conditions. The political atmosphere that was generated during the Twenties and Thirties and ultimately ended the Federal Theater Project had yet to demonstrate the influence it will hold over theater in America.
The one part of theater in the Thirties that was only lightly discussed was the musical and comedy stage. Following a precedent set by Flo Ziegfeld, many of the musical and comic productions of the Thirties were co-opted by Hollywood directly from the stage, and film provided a much appreciated relief from the strain of the depression for a much larger population than the stage could reach. Already mentioned were the urbane and under-played comedies of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. Other writers who benefited from this practice were Kaufman and Ferber, whose entries Dinner at Eight in 1932, was filmed in 1933, and 1936's Stage Door which was filmed in 1937. Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur's 1932 entry, Twentieth Century was filmed in 1934, and of course, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's, Showboat was filmed in 1936, after a return engagement on Broadway. Other major vehicles which went directly from the stage to film were Claire Booth Luce's 1936 production of The Women, whose delightful bitchiness created another stir among the morally sensitive, was filmed in 1939, and The Philadelphia Story, the play written by Phillip Barry in 1939, specifically to return Katherine Hepburn to the stage, was filmed in 1940. The last major play of the decade was Howard Lindsay's Life with Father based on the Clarence Day stories. Hoping for a six month run, the play opened in December of 1939, and became the longest running non-musical comedy to date, logging over seven years of performances. The Thirties were a period of escapist theater. It was a period that inspired comedy from slapstick to farce. The laughter it generated helped ease the pain of the depression.
By the end of 1939, Russia had invaded Finland, Germany had invaded Poland and America, while dancing to avoid actual involvement in the "European War", was heavily engaged in aiding its allies. Perhaps because of the new pain of war that was soon to replace the pain of the depression, the Theater of the Forties will carry on in the same direction that has developed through the Thirties.
The decade of the Forties opens with productions of Claire Booth Luce's Margin for Error, in which a Jewish police officer (Sam Levine) is guarding the Nazi consul (Otto Preminger, who also directed). John Barrymore is also back on Broadway in My Dear Children, Katherine Hepburn "is" Tracy Lord (The Philadelphia Story), and Monty Woolley "is" The Man Who Came to Dinner. The New York Times says that Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady starring Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr, "make[s] vulgarity honestly exuberant". Pulitzer playwright Sidney Howard, actress Maxine Elliott and actor William Faversham died, and Jane Alexander, Raul Julia, and David Rabe were born. The Pulitzer committee and the Drama Critic's Circle were agreeing, and William Saroyan won both awards for, The Time of Your Life, and Rodgers and Hart's, Pal Joey, opened.
Perhaps because of the strain of the previous decade, or perhaps to escape the reality of war, comedy of the Forties was rich with farce, particularly in the first half of the decade. There were several farce-like comedies in the late thirties, I'd Rather be Right or The Star Wagon for instance, but with the Rogers and Hart entry I Married an Angel, in the spring of 1938, several high farces followed. Audiences were willing to accept the premise that a young man's vow to marry only a genuine angel could come true. The play was the first that Joshua Logan directed, and introduced ballerina Vera Zorina to the musical stage. Choreographed by George Balanchine, the play charmed audiences for over 300 performances.
Following close behind this in the new decade was George Washington Slept Here, or how NOT to start a bed and breakfast in Bucks County. For the uninitiated, the play set the premise for the popular television series "Green Acres" when a very urbane couple tries to renovate a very run down country house with the aid of the Handy man from Hell played by Percy Kilbride. This is the last of the collaborations between George Kaufman and Moss Hart and the final twist in the plot was that Benedict Arnold and not George was the "famous" over-night guest.
Opening just a few nights later (October 25th, 1940), was the Vernon Duke-John Latouche musical Cabin in the Sky, in which God gives a philandering husband one last chance to change his evil ways. Ethel Waters as the put-upon wife introduced the classic, "Taking a Chance on Love". Dooley Wilson, Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram, and Katherine Dunham as the "temptress" were the other leads in this all black production choreographed by George Balanchine. Cabin… was filmed in 1944, with Miss Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and a very young Lena Horne as "the temptress". It's warm, witty and the film is available should you choose to see this play. This was followed by several major farces throughout the rest of the decade.