Thursday, January 31, 2019

BILLETED, A Popular British Comedy

Billeted was written by F. Tennyson Jesse (1888-1958) born Wynifred Margaret Jesse and H. M. Harwood (1874-1959 christened Harold Marsh). “Fryn,” as Wynifred dubbed herself, was a great niece of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Since several Jesse family members were also renown authors who had written books in diverse fields: history, poetry, natural history and theology, Fryn acknowledged both families in her nom de plume. In 1912, Fryn met Harwood when he wanted to adapt her first published short story, titled The Mask, into a one-act play.  Together they created a short play titled The Black Mask that became a successful drama.

                                                                F. TENNYSON JESSE
When World War One commenced, Fryn persuaded a London newspaper, The Daily Mail, to send her to Europe as a war correspondent. She was one of the first females hired to write about the war. She became a prominent journalist while continuing to write fiction.

                                                                     H.M. HARWOOD
During a weekend in early part of 1917, Fryn spent a weekend in the English countryside visiting a friend.  Her hostess had married a soldier who had been billeted at her home—billeted is the practice of housing soldiers in a private home during wartime. Fryn and Harwood thought the ideas of billeted combined with marriage provided a basis for creating a play.  Whenever they could meet, they worked on the script for this new comedy. Their play titled Billeted opened in London at the Royalty Theatre on August 21, 1917.

Act One of Billeted is set at a country manor house currently inhabited by Mrs. Betty Taradine, her friend Miss Penelope Moon, and one billeted officer named Colonel Preedy, who is expecting his adjutant, Captain Rymill, to arrive shortly. The house is in the small town of Petworthy, located in West Sussex, England. It is an afternoon in August of 1915. Reverend Liptrott and his sister, Emmaline, come to visit Mrs. Tardine who is unavailable. They learn from Penelope that Betty is not a widow as they thought. Betty’s husband had deserted her two years ago.  Emmaline believes that the military officers should no longer be billeted with this young, unattached woman. When Colonel Preedy learns about Betty’s actual marital status, he agrees to stay with the Liptrott’s starting the next day.  As a result, Betty decides to kill off her absent husband. Captain Peter Rymill arrives as Penelope tells them about the telegram Betty received stating that her husband died. When Betty comes into the room and is introduced to Captain Rymill, she faints. Rymill is Betty’s missing husband who has assumed a new surname.

Act Two takes place in the same location at nine o’clock the next morning. Peter Rymill has breakfast with Penelope, who shares with him her ideas relating to Betty’s marriage. Later Preedy learns that Betty is having financial difficulties and he quietly takes care of the problem unbeknownst to her.

                                                      CAPTAIN RYMILL and PENELOPE

Act Three remains in the same location, but it is three days later. The time is after dinner. The officers have continued to stay in Betty’s home. Over the past few days, Rymill and Betty have spent time together as have Preedy and Penelope. The play ends on an upbeat note for all four characters.

1917 was a difficult time to get approval from the English governmental censor for plays relating to war that mention death. Billeted did receive some criticism after it opened, however most newspaper reviews were positive and audiences loved the play.  The review in the Guardian on August 23, 1917 states: “The dialogue yields good entertainment, being very neat, nimble, and witty….”  The Observer claimed in its review on August 26, 1917: “‘Billeted’ is excellent light entertainment for a summer evening in London.”

The role of Betty Taradine was played by Iris Hoey (1885-1979) and Captain Rymill was Dennis Eadie (1869-1928).  Eadie was a leading British actor when he appeared in this role. The London production ran for more than 200 performances. Then it went on tour throughout England.

                                                                           IRIS HOEY

Billeted opened in New York City at the Playhouse on December 25, 1917. It moved to the Fulton Theatre in mid-January 1918 before closing in March 1918 after seventy-nine performances. Margaret Anglin, a Canadian actress who was a Broadway star, played Betty Taradine with Edward Emery (1861-1938) as Rymill.

After Billeted closed on Broadway it played for a lengthy run in Chicago. This production continued to tour throughout the United States. In late June it opened in Calgary, Canada with Margaret Anglin still in the role of Betty. The Calgary Herald on June 27, 1918 states: “Miss Anglin has a role which affords her every opportunity for her skill as a comedienne.” This tour played in San Francisco, California during late July,1918. Anglin continued to play the role of Betty and appeared in May,1919 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C.

On September 8, 1918 Jesse and Harwood were secretly married at St. Martin’s in London during a private ceremony.  She was thirty years old and he was forty-four. They had known each other for six years and enjoyed working together.  
In 1919 the film version of Billeted appeared under the title The Misleading Widow. The screen script was written by Frances Marion (1888-1973). Marion, an American who served in Europe as a combat correspondent during World War One, later became one of the most renown female screen writers of the twentieth century. She was the first screen writer to win two Academy Awards for her work. The Misleading Widow starred Billy Burke (1884-1970) as Betty. Burke was known for her charm and “remarkable dramatic talent.” James Crane (1889-1968) played the role of Peter Rymill. The film was produced by Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation later known as Paramount Pictures.
Billeted continue to have many professional staged revivals as well as productions mounted by local theatre groups.  A new professional production was mounted in New York City at the Greenwich Village Theatre in May,1922 by Grace Griswold (1867-1927). This production moved to Frazee auditorium, a larger venue.  It ran for a total of twenty-three performances.
Billeted was revived in London during late May,1926 at the Royalty Theatre. Dennis Eadie, who presented this production, appeared in his original role as Rymill and Laurence Hanray (1874-1947) reprised his character Reverend Ambrose Liptrott from the first London cast.
The script for Billeted was published in 1920 by Samuel French, Ltd. This was the official script used in both England and the United States. It is the version that I read.
Billeted continued to be staged occasionally throughout the 1920s and 1930s on both sides of the Atlantic. This comedy became very popular again in Great Britain throughout the years of World War Two.  There were touring companies that presented it as well as local theatre groups. Since Jesse and Harwood made what could be an uncomfortable wartime situation humorous, it once again allowed British audiences to laugh and have a short reprieve from the struggle and angst of living during a period of war.

     JESSE and HARWOOD photos from Joanna Colenbrander's Biography of 
          F. Tennyson Jesse titled A PORTRAIT OF FRYN. London: Andre Deutsch 
          Limited, 1984. 
            NEWS, September 8, 1917. Page 89.

           DRAMATIC NEWS, August 20,1917. Page 110.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


There was an article in London’s Observer on September 28, 1919 that captured what George Bernard Shaw’s newest published play could achieve.
‘Heartbreak House,’ Mr. Shaw writes in his preface, ‘is cultured, leisured Europe
 before the war,’ and the play, which is much better than the preface, fits that
 description very neatly.  It is his thirty-first play, and I am near in mind to call
 it his best play.  It certainly is the most bitter and wildly comic piece he has
 composed. When, in due time, it is performed, it will, I am sure, fill the theatre
 with explosions of laughter as loud as the explosions of the bombs with which
 the piece concludes.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote Heartbreak House between March 4, 1916 and May 1917. His subtitle for this play is “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” Shaw admired Anton Chekov and utilized the country house setting for his play as did the Russian playwright. Shaw also desired to utilize similar character shortcomings employed by Chekov such as a character’s inability to achieve a desired goal as well as to hold a realistic view of a situation.

                                                               GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

In June 1919, Shaw wrote the preface for Heartbreak House just prior to its publication. His earlier political pamphlet (November 1914) titled “Common Sense About War” was controversial. His antiwar speeches were met with criticism. His next approach was to reveal his feelings about how the conditions leading to World War One were overlooked by the British cultured and governing classes partially due to their laxed attitudes about the world situation. These are the classes to which Shaw’s major Heartbreak House characters belong. Shaw presents this serious situation embedded in one of the most humorous plays written in the English language.

Act One takes place “on a fine evening at the end of September.” The time is six o’clock. The location is in the middle of northern Sussex. The countryside can be seen through the windows of a room “which has been built so as to resemble the after part of an old fashion high-pooped ship, with a stern gallery.” This home belongs to an old sea captain named Captain Shotover, who is the father of Hesione Hushabye and Lady Utterword. The latter daughter lives in Australia. Hesione has invited as her dinner guests young Ellie Dunn, her father and his employer Boss Mangan, who is engaged to Ellie. Hesione does not believe Ellie should marry Mangan who is much too old for her. Chaos ensues when Lady Utterwood arrives after not visiting her family for decades.

Act II is set after dinner that same evening. The setting is the same room as Act One. The act opens with a scene between Ellie and Mangan discussing their future marriage. Ellie is determined to marry Mangan even though each one is smitten with someone else. Mangan is in love with Hesione and Ellie is enamored with Mr. Hushabye, Hesione’s husband. After everyone drifts on stage, there is a commotion and a burglar is discovered in one of the bedrooms stealing jewelry.  Ellie’s father captures the burglar who is recognized by Captain Shotover and Nurse Guinness. None of the characters are what they each appear to be in the beginning, the burglar was once married to Nurse Guinness and had sailed with Captain Shotover. At the conclusion of the act, several of the male/female relationships have been altered and new alliances are forming.

Act Three is set in the garden. It is later that evening. The characters are enjoying the outdoor environment as well as their new pairings when “A dull distant explosion is heard.” The planes come closer and bombs are dropped in the garden. One bomb explodes in the area where Captain Shotover stores his dynamite. Unfortunately, Boss Mangan and the Burglar were hiding there. The play ends as Hesione states: “What a glorious experience!  I hope they’ll come again tomorrow night.”

Heartbreak House premiered in New York City on November 10, 1920 and it was produced by The Theatre Guild at the Garrick Theatre. The production was staged by Dudley Digges (1879-1947) who was born in Dublin and immigrated to the United States in 1904. He also played the role of Boss Mangan. This production was successful and ran for 125 performances.  All the New York reviews of this production were extremely positive.

Since its New York premier Heartbreak House has had four major revivals on Broadway—1938, 1959-60, 1983-84, and 2006.  It has had hundreds of productions in cities throughout the United States and it continues to this day to garner laughs as the actors usually dressed in their flapper era attire cavort on stage.

The second production of Heartbreak House opened at the Burg Theatre in Vienna on November 17, 1920.  I read an interesting account of the first night audience’s reaction to the drama.  It appeared in London’s Daily Herald on November 18, 1920 and was signed by Reuter. “The first act was applauded, but afterward the interest of the audience dwindled, and the later acts were hissed.” Reuter believed the irony of the play was apparently unappreciated or not understood.  Perhaps the length of the play also contributed to the lack of enthusiasm. In New York the Theatre Guild’s production ran nearly five hours before the final curtain.

The third international production opened in Stockholm before Heartbreak House was staged at the Court Theatre in London, where it opened on October 18, 1921.  The November 17, 1921 London Daily Herald ran an article titled “Brilliant Play Receives Inadequate Support.”  Heartbreak House regarded by sound judges as one of Shaw’s best plays, is by no means drawing record houses and the end of the run appears to be in sight.”  This production had a run of only seven weeks.

However, Heartbreak House, did become a popular play in England after its initial run and it has 

had many productions in Great Britain over the past ninety-seven years. Worldwide, it may be 

the most produced play from this period.

PHOTO: taken from cover of reprinted copy of HEARTBREAK HOUSE that I read.  There was no
acknowledgement of source.