Broadway Hits and Stage Stars, 1935-38

Broadway Theatre in the mid-1930’s was undergoing massive changes. The Great Depression had left many artists out of work due to a lack of demand. In 1935, The Federal Theatre Project was created to help ease the  problems being faced by the theatre community. The rise of government supported theatre coupled with the success of other theatre companies, lead to period of creativity. Many of the plays produced during this period often offer escape through comedy. There are also productions that provide snapshots of the changes that were occurring within the artistic community, as well as with the country as a whole. The following is a collection of plays, characters, and celebrities who might have inspired or influenced the women of Stage Door. 

Alfred Lunt in Idiot's Delight. (Theatre Collection: N.Y.P.L at Lincoln Center)

Alfred Lunt in Idiot’s Delight. (Theatre Collection: N.Y.P.L at Lincoln Center)

Idiot’s Delight (1936)

In 1935, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne found their next Broadway vehicle with the new comedy by Robert E. Sherwood Idiot’s Delight. Opening on March 24, 1936, Idiot’s Delight ran for over 300 performances and won Sherwood the first of three Pulitzer Prize Awards for Drama. The play follows Harry Van, who is traveling around Europe with a group of girls know as Les Blondes. While stranded at a hotel, Harry runs into Irene, a woman with whom Harry had once had an affair. Comedic mix-up abound juxtaposed against the serious backdrop of possible war. (Brown 230).

Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt

“Look at Katharine Cornell, and Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. They tramped Broadway in their day.” – Stage Door pg. 71

Fontanne and Lunt were a husband and wife team who starred in many Broadway productions during the first half of the 20th century. With a career that spanned over  six decades, the duo had become a Broadway staple by the 1930’s. Thou the pair has minimal success in Hollywood, and they are mainly associated with their stage work. After, their marriage in 1922, the pair rarely performed separately (Brown 102). They has a strong personal and working relationship with playwright Noel Coward, who crafted the 1933 comedy Design for Living specifically for the duo (Brown 205).

Original production of You Can't Take It with You. “Courtesy of The New York Public Library.  www.nypl.org”

Original production of You Can’t Take It with You. “Courtesy of The New York Public Library. http://www.nypl.org”

You Can’t Take it With You (1937)

The 1937 Pulitzer Prize winning play was George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s   You Cant Take It with You. The comedy centers on the young Tony Kirby and Alice Sycamore. The couple, planning to get married, introduce their parents to each other. The Kirby’s are straight laced and proper, in complete contrast to the seemingly wild Sycamore family. In a series of escalating situations the Kirby’s are convinced that marriage should be out of the question. After a run in with a former member of Russian royalty, the Kirby’s come to the realization that the Sycamore’s and their crazy antics are not that bad. The play puts a comedic spin on the financial hardships and the political problems faced in America during the 1930’s.

Frank Craven as the Stage Manager in the original production of Our Town. “Courtesy of The New York Public Library.  www.nypl.org”

Frank Craven as the Stage Manager in the original production of Our Town. “Courtesy of The New York Public Library. http://www.nypl.org”

Our Town (1938) 

In a radical departure from the comedies of the 1930’s, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town  follows the courtship, wedding, and eventual demies of Emily Webb. It’s radical structure allowed the production to experiment with minimalist sets and a new style of drama. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1938,  the play remains a much performed American classic.

The Federal Theatre Project

“The primary aim of the Federal Theatre Project is the reemployment of theatre workers now on the relief rolls; actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, stage technicians, and other workers in the theatre field (Manual for Federal Theatre Projects 2)”

The Federal Theatre Project was a government-supported organization that supported many Broadway productions from 1935-1939. During this period, the FTP supported companies, like the Mercury Theatre, in their endeavors. For more information on The Federal Theatre Project please view Broadway Working Conditions.

Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.

A scene from “voodoo” Macbeth.(Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection.)

Macbeth (1936) directed by Orson Welles

One of the most interesting productions produced by The Federal Theatre Project was Welles’ version of Macbeth, or as it came to be known, “voodoo Macbeth.” Using a cast of African-American actors, this production relocated the play from Scotland to Haiti, and used the mysticism of voodoo to create supernatural effects (Quinn 104). This production of Macbeth  provided African-American actors with a unique opportunity to appear in a high profile Broadway vehicle, a concept foreign to the theatrical community at the time.

Orson Welles in  Faust(National Archives and Records Administration)

Orson Welles in Faust(National Archives and Records Administration)

Orson Welles

During the 1930’s Welles worked extensively with theatrical productions. His work with the Mercurey Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project produced notable productions of Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Faust, and The Cradle Will Rock. His work with the Mercurey Theater lead to the now infamous radio production of The War of the World in 1938. An accomplished director and actor, Welles is now mostly remembered for his work in Hollywood. The 1941 film Citizen Kane is often ranked as one of the best movies ever produced. This film would provide Welles with an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Welles’ career spanned over six decades and provided exemplary contributions to both the cinematic and theatrical worlds.

A scene from from One-Third of a Nation. (National Archives and Records Administration)

A scene from from One-Third of a Nation. (National Archives and Records Administration)

One Third of a Nation (1939)

“…I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished…(Quinn 138).” –Franklin Delenore Roosevelt

One of the most critically and financially successful productions of the Federal Theatre Project was One-Third of a Nation. This production exemplified the popular Living Newspapers genera of the 1930’s. A Living Newspapers show dealt with current and factual issues to appeal to a mass audience. This technically advanced production, dealt specifically with horrors slum and tenement life. The set caught fire twice a show, to demonstrate how life does not change in the slums (Quinn 225). One-Third of a Nation dramatized many of the terrible conditions faced during the 1930s.

Members of the Group Theatre. “Courtesy of The New York Public Library.  www.nypl.org”

Members of the Group Theatre. “Courtesy of The New York Public Library. http://www.nypl.org”

The Group Theatre

Founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, The Group Theatre was a collective of actors who attempted to organize a new type of drama that would adequately give, “theatrical expression to… American dramatists…(Smith 5).” The group experimented with new theories of acting developed by Constantin Stanislavsky. Through the 1930’s this collective helped produce exciting new works by burgeoning playwrights such as Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley. Famous members of the group theatre include Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner, Marc Blitzstein, and Harry Morgan. While the Group Theatre officially disbanded in 1941, it’s legacy lives on in institutions, such as the Actors Studio, and in the development of the Stanislavsky system in America.

Golden Boy (1937)

The Group Theatre achieved the biggest success with the production of Clifford Odets new play. The production, directed by Harold Clurman, was a hit running for 250 performances and earning around $16,000 a week. This places the production along other hits from 1937, including You Can’t Take It With You (Smith 323). The show centers on Joe Bonaparte, a young man who is tempted away from his dream of becoming a violinist and becomes a prizefighter. He risks his future career to gain money and possessions. The lead female character, Lorna Moon, “is neither a floozy nor a good girl gone wrong but a flesh-and-blood woman, trying to do her best for others because she no longer cares for herself (Smith 316).” The production starred Frances Farmer as Lorna, Luther Adler as Joe, and Phoebe Brand, Elia Kazan, and Karl Malden as supporting characters.

Clifford Odets

Odets proved to be one of the most important playwrights produced by the Group Theatre. His first play produced was the 1935 one-act Waiting for Lefty. In addition to Goldne BoyOdets also wrote the dramas Awake and Sing and The Country Girl. Many of his plays dealt with radical and leftist ideas, many of these ideas would cause Odets problems later in life. His career lead him to find a semi-successful carrer as a screenwriter in Hollywood (Clurman). In Stage Door, Keith has similar political affiliations and career path as Odets.

Helen Hayes

A prolific star of the stage and screen, Helen Hayes remains one of the most important actresses of the early 20th century. Finding success in both Hollywood and in New York, Hayes is one of the few people to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. In the 1930’s Hayes spent a majority of her time split between these two cities. Major films include The Sin of Madeline Claudet (1931) and A Farewell to Arms (1932). She returned to Broadway, much like Jean’s return from Hollywood, in 1935 with the play Victoria Regina. Her time with Victoria Regina lasted for over three years. Many of the women of Stage Door would have seen this production and Hayse’s portrayal of the Queen. They last line of Stage Door is actually a misquote from a scene that happens early in Victoria Regina (Houseman 46). Due to her contributions to both stage and screen, Hayes reamins one of the most celebrated American Actresses and even has a Broadway theatre named after her (“The Official Web Site of Helen Hayes) .

Bibliography

Brown, Jared. The Fabulous Lunts: A Biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. New York: Author House, 2005. Print.
Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre And The Thirties. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. Print.
Housman, Laurence. Victoria Regina. London: Cape, 1937. Print.
“The Official Web Site of Helen Hayes.” The Official Web Site of Helen Hayes. The Estate of Helen Hayes, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.
Quinn, Susan. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times. Reprint.Walker & Company, 2009. Print.
“The New Deal Stage: Selection from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935-1939.” Federal Theatre Project Collection. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Niven, Penelope. Thornton Wilder: A Life. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.
Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940. New York: Grove Press, 1994. Print.