Famous Plays of 1931

by Michael Peverett

From a series of compilations published by Gollancz, beginning in 1929 with Famous Plays of Today, then continuing more or less annually until 1938-39 (and, anomalously, 1954).

1. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, by Rudolf Besier. The scene is the same throughout: as the author archly remarks in the headnote, this comedy took place in Elizabeth Barrett's room in 1845. It portrays her long-postponed meeting and romance with an irresistibly buoyant Robert Browning, the recovery of her health and spirits, and finally her escape from the repellent emotional blackmail of her ultra-disciplinarian father, an almost-insane Victorian paterfamilias whose relationship with her late mother, it's eventually revealed, had declined into long-term marital rape (Mr Barrett is the descendant of characters such as Soames Forsyte in The Man of Property (1906), and the Reverend Gregorius in Hjalmar Söderberg's Doktor Glas (1905)). This was Besier's only hit. Film adaptation in 1934. (Above, Basil Rathbone as Browning, in the 1933-34 tour of Katherine Cornell's US version, which converted Besier's five-act structure into a more convenient three acts.)

2. The Improper Duchess, by J.B. Fagan. Set in Washington D.C, and concerned with oil negotiations with the imaginary kingdom of Poldavia during the "next" presidency. The sprightly and resourceful duchess, mistress of the King, uses her charms to overturn a plot to wreck the negotiations by invoking puritanical US laws. (The King's hunting forest is sold as a valuable oil concession, apparently to the joy of all; a story-line that today can only prompt sombre reflections on Ecuador's unprecedented negotiations to try and preserve rainforest from the oil industry.) Film adaptation in 1936.

3. To See Ourselves, by E.M. Delafield. Caroline's marriage to Freddie, papermill owner in Devon, has gone stale; a visit by her sister and fiancé, themselves hoping to avoid the same dismal prospect, shakes it up. E.M Delafield was a prolific novelist who touched on social and feminist issues; upper-middle class, unconventional, entered a convent in her youth but eventually rebelled, still slightly remembered for "Diary of a Provincial Lady".

4. After All, by John van Druten. Play about the generation gap, in widely-spaced scenes covering a six-year period. Mr and Mrs Thomas have tried to bring up their son and daughter in a liberal and confiding spirit, but are dismayed to find that each feels stifled by the family home and is intent on moving out. By the end of the play (the parents now dead), the younger generation are showing signs of reverting to respectability, at the same time as they discover that their parents in earlier times were also forced to make a stand for freedom. Anyone now who reads the first two acts will take it for granted that young Ralph is gay (as John van Druten himself was), but in deference to the times his high-maintenance partner eventually steps forth in female form.

5. London Wall, also by John van Druten. Set in a lawyer's office, but focussed on the admin staff rather than the lawyers; in particular, registering the relative novelty of women in the workplace. The innocent, pretty Pat manages (just) to escape the sexually-predatory Brewer, the office manager. Meanwhile Miss Janus, after ten years in office-work, still unmarried and at the desperate age of 36, walks out to a life of freedom, insecurity and loneliness.

6. Autumn Crocus, by C.L. Anthony. Wistful Alpine romance in which for 24 hours Fanny, a lonely teacher in her mid-thirties, snatches at Life (in the form of the warm-hearted innkeeper Andreas, unfortunately already married) before reluctantly giving way to the sad compulsions of practicality, realism, respectability, etc. Sentimental, yes; yet perhaps I won't be the only reader to be reminded, just a little, of Káťa Kabanová. Light relief supplied by Alaric and Audrey, a hearty Kraft-Ebbing / Slade School couple who earnestly inform all the other guests about their non-marital relations. This was Dodie Smith's first play and it was a success; her pseudonym was soon cracked by journalists ("Shopgirl Writes Play!"). Film adapation in 1934. Like Fanny, Dodie Smith came from rainy Manchester. In later years she wrote (among other things) the fondly-remembered middlebrow novel I Capture the Castle(1949) and a children's story called The Hundred and One Dalmatians(1956).

These six popular plays build a fascinating picture of a moment in history, perhaps even a unique moment. Every one of these plays, even Fagan's Duchess, reflects and contributes to society-wide debate about the role of women, emancipation, a new model of relationships, family and society. A subsidiary theme in most of the plays is registering a plea for LIFE from (or at any rate on behalf of) dreary, Life-starved existences - women's lives, principally. Well, I said a unique moment. One key date is probably this: in the UK, universal suffrage for all adults over 21 years of age was not achieved until 1928 (1918 introduced votes for women, but only those aged over thirty, along with other restrictions). Another is the screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail in July 1929 - the first British talkie (though like most transitional films the sound was added later). There remained a timelag before the social impact of sound movies really started to erode areas recently occupied by theatre. But inexorably it happened. Today, the most direct line of descent from such plays as these, i.e. combining broad popularity with social debate, leads to EastEnders.

Chekhov complained about the difficulty of avoiding the pistol-shot. It's interesting that in these plays there is not a single death from any but natural or accidental causes. Detectives, policemen, mystery crimes, are entirely absent. That may be an unrepresentative curiosity of selection (perhaps Gollancz only went for relatively high-minded plays), but it's striking in contrast to our own cop-sated schedules.

Speaking of Gollancz prompts another observation: these plays were evidently, in part, intended for reading, and were read. Descriptions of scenery are elaborate; the physical appearance of the characters is described; stage directions are often novelistic rather than functional, aimed at a reader not an actor. Rudolf Besier describes Elizabeth Barrett's room by quoting one of her letters. "C.L. Anthony" even suppresses the usual cast-list with its names and explanations of relationships, instead referring enigmatically to "The Lady in the button-up boots", etc. This seems to be for the reader's benefit, i.e. because the usual sort of cast-list would give away too much of the plot.

In contrast, movie screenplays have never sold particularly well in book form. I suppose this is partly because it's easier to see a new film than a new play; Gollancz could anticipate a provincial market for these volumes. But the main reason is that moviemakers, from their silent outset, invented fluid narratorial styles that were not so dependent on language. And linguistic high-jinks went off to the musicals.

from A Brief History of Western Culture

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