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An Old Way to Play New Texts (Part II)

How the 1920s grew a Guild-edged repertory troupe.

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

Laura Hope Crews
The recent revival of Sidney Howard's The Silver Cord supplies useful leverage for looking back at the world in which The Theater Guild premiered it in 1926. 87 years ago, Freud's ideas had only begun to spread through the educated elite; moms were still sacred figures in popular culture, and the Oedipus complex was not yet a byword. The scandalous success that Howard's play scored was compounded by the Guild's having cast, as the psychopathically possessive mother, Laura Hope Crews, a Broadway star beloved for her featherweight performances in daffy comedy roles. The pained vulnerability and fury Crews unleashed were every bit as startling to theatergoers as the script's dark underpinnings.

The Guild premiered The Silver Cord in its ninth subscription season. It had begun, in 1919, with minimal assets and a few hundred subscriptions purchased by well-wishers; now it had over 20,000 subscribers in New York, and was sending its productions to subscribers in other cities. It had built its own lavish home on West 52nd Street and was, in addition, renting the Golden, a prime venue, for smaller-scale plays like The Silver Cord.

This meant the company could perform four plays in repertory. While The Silver Cord played alternate weeks at the Golden with another Howard play, Ned McCobb's Daughter, a revival of Shaw's Pygmalion, with Lynn Fontanne as Eliza Doolittle, alternated at the Guild with Copeau's The Brothers Karamazov. Subscribers could go one week to the Guild to see Alfred Lunt as the proud, dashing Dmitri, and the next week view him as the tough-talking, slangy bootlegger, Babe, in Ned McCobb's Daughter.

Because this arrangement left Crews collecting a star salary while taking every other week off, the Guild put up, in subscribers-only "special matinees," the American premiere of Pirandello's Right You Are, with Crews leading the covey of nosy neighbors and Edward G. Robinson as their tormented victim. Jo Mielziner's brilliantly stark/stage design (reusing elements of his Pygmalion set) kept costs so low that, when Crews' presence provoked added performances, even this afterthought of a production turned a profit. (The Guild's executive director, Theresa Helburn, wrote in 1930 that, "An ounce of imagination is worth a carload of scenery.")

The six managers whose joint decisions shaped the Guild's path during its great years were an odd lot. Lawrence Langner, a wealthy patent attorney and would-be playwright, was its driving force, the even wealthier investment banker Maurice Wertheim its chief enabler. In addition to Helburn, who began as the Guild's play reader and joined the board after its initial shakeup, the others were actress Helen Westley, director Philip Moeller, and designer Lee Simonson. The board took steps to prevent any of them from viewing the organization as a private fief. No play was chosen and no artistic personnel assigned unless all six directors agreed; no play was chosen for one individual's gratification, or rejected because of budget constraints.

This six-headed monster was not a fund-raising board that rubber-stamped someone else's artistic decisions; it was the Guild's entire artistic management. That its choices proved profitable, overall, in the less-pressured economic environment of seven or eight decades ago, and would have a far harder time doing so today may be less significant for us than the bold yet wisely informed way those choices were made. The Guild was formed because its members found themselves equally disappointed with the small and sometimes ingrown artistic thinking of the era's "little theatre" movement — subsisting on patrons' handouts while putting forth its own small notion of newness — and the commercially motivated thinking of Broadway, ready to try anything that might prove profitable but equally quick to retreat when it didn't.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
(© Lucy Media)
The Guild, in contrast, was willing to think big or small, conventional or far-out, American or foreign. It sampled British works and welcomed British artists without being driven by London taste; it knew the continent well enough to engage Komisarzhevsky and Soudeikine as well as Copeau. It had no fear of Molnar's box-office-booming gift for light comedy, happily coining cash from the Lunts' triumph with The Guardsman, but its kinship with Molnar began when it ventured on his ultra-risky and costly Liliom, which most Western European capitals had disdained.

The Guild readily ensconced in its acting troupe leading prewar figures like Richard Bennett (best remembered today as the father of screen lovelies Joan and Constance) and the Shavian pioneer Arnold Daly, while simultaneously nurturing, along with the street-bred hotheads who became the Group Theatre, a new generation of glossy Broadway leads (Glenn Anders, Margalo Gillmore, Earle Larimore, Tom Powers, June Walker), plus a rich crop of character actors who, when talkies came in, gradually migrated to Hollywood. Dudley Digges, Henry Travers, Edgar Stehli, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, and Albert Dekker are among Guild alumni whose names crop up on the credits of countless films.

At the end of its first decade, the Guild produced a book celebrating its accomplishments: The Theatre Guild: The First Ten Years. Along with an essay by each of its six directors and a cast list for each of its productions, it contains two anomalies strikingly worth pondering today. By far the largest segment of the volume is its introduction, by the theater critic and historian Walter Prichard Eaton, which goes through the organization's history, growth, and modus operandi, not hesitating to comment critically on its principles, its methods, or its results. When Eaton feels the Guild has made a bad move, he says so — and apparently nobody at the Guild tried to stop him. No theater today would leave itself so open to criticism in its own publication.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
(© Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)
And the book leaves one notable Guild production of the 1920s virtually unmentioned — one that may rank in some minds as the institution's most significant achievement. When the Guild Theatre was being built on 52nd Street, extra money was needed for tapestries to cover the bare lobby walls. To raise funds, Guild-affiliated youngsters put on a spoof-laden musical revue, intended to run two performances only, at the Guild's temporary home, the shabby old Garrick on 38th Street. And somebody had the bright idea of asking two kids not long out of Columbia, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, to write a few songs...

Well, you know what happened. The Garrick Gaieties ran through two editions then, and two more, with other songwriters, when the Crash made the Guild's portfolio fall short in the early 1930s. It put Rodgers & Hart on the map, spawning their first major hits, "Manhattan" and "Mountain Greenery." Yet the Guild's directors, preoccupied with their artistic mission, found this slight and amusing show not even worth listing among their decade's worth of achievement.

The omission amounts to both criticism and praise of the Guild: Too ambitious artistically to notice that they had produced a gem in the sheer-fun department, they were also too principled to boast of having perpetrated an event purely (and successfully) put on just to make money. If a nonprofit theater today stumbled across such a gold mine, you would never hear the end of it. The Guild, instead, silently pocketed the cash that Garrick Gaieties had garnered, and went back to its announced goals, producing Shaw and O'Neill, Volpone and Faust, George M. Cohan in Ah, Wilderness!, and the Lunts in The Sea Gull, with a newcomer named Uta Hagen as Nina. Without saying a word against Rodgers & Hart, of whom I am an intense devotee, I would assert that the Guild had its priorities right. I wish I could say the same about more of our theaters today.

Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays August 16 and August 23.