Thursday, April 16, 2015


Several years ago while researching the New York Times relative to one of the World War One plays I hope to publish later this year, I came across a headline for a review that claimed this new war play was one of many.  I was surprised by the feeling that the reviewer seemed bored and disgruntled with war plays, however, this comment did not interfere with my designated quest. Recently his words “one of many war plays” resurfaced in my mind.  I decided to go to the library to search the New York Times Theatre Reviews in book form.  I know it's old fashioned, but I enjoy being in a library and using books for research!

I started searching for war play reviews beginning in January, 1917. I wanted to know the names of plays appearing in New York City theatres related to the war during the first several months of the year, prior to the United States declaration of war.  I was amazed at the variety of plays and intrigued by several. The first play of interest is titled As It Was in the Beginning by Arture Giovannitti, a poet and playwright of international reputation.  It opened on January 28th at the Gaiety Theatre and was produced by the Stage Society. The play had been performed in Italian the previous Fall at the People’s Theatre in New York City.  It is “a study of hideous and brutalizing war . . .” stated the reviewer.

During the second week of February 1917, a new sketch in the revue titled Show of Wonders premiered. The sketch titled Submarine F-7 was touted to be “realistic and thrilling”.  The set represented a cross-section of the interior of a war submersible.  It was represented both on the surface of the water and then submerged when it engaged in underwater battle with an enemy ship.

In mid-March an article discussed a play that was “a big hit” in London.  General Post by J.E. Harold Terry was reported to be “an almost flawless comedy that is regarded as the best thing of its kind given in London in the last ten years”. The reviewer reported that the rights to this play were already secured for America.  The play opened in New York on December 24, 1917 and it played for seventy-two performances, which was considered to be a very successful run.

Another popular war play titled Out There opened March 27, 1917.  This play was written by J. Hartley Manners, who was married to the popular actress Laurette Taylor.  She starred in the production.  Shortly after the initial positive review of the play a second article appeared in the New York Times review section. This commentary was written by Alexander Woollcott, a renowned critic/journalist with a flamboyant personality. He reported that he was deeply touched by the act set in the field hospital.  He believed it “splendidly illuminates the picture” and represents “good journalist human interest.”  Impressive recommendation coming from Woollcott.

The United States declared war with Germany on April 7, 1917.  Many war plays of all types and from different periods of history including the Civil War were staged in New York City following that event. However, I want to mention two more New York productions focused on World War One. The first production is three one-act plays written by James M. Barrie that opened on May 14, 1917 at the Empire Theatre.  Two of the plays dealt with the current war. The New Word is set during the first year of the war and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals is set during the third year of the war.  These two plays were popular and The New Word reopened in 1918 as a revival production.

The second selected production is L’ElĂ©vation by Henri Bernstein, an accomplished internationally recognized French playwright. A New York Times article on June 7, 1917 mentioned that this play was causing a sensation in Paris.  It opened in New York on November 14, 1917.  The play’s theme dealt with the uplifting influence of war on the leading characters.  It is set in a hospital located in Salonica, Greece.

This recount of World War One plays presented on Broadway during the first six months of 1917 illustrates the variety of themes, genres, countries of origin, plots, and ideas these theatrical endeavors represented.  Several of these plays seem to deserve individual posts in the future since they spoke meaningfully to international audiences and appear to portray aspects of the war that audiences desired to understand and acknowledge.

If you have comments about any of the mentioned plays or know titles and playwrights of others written relating to World War One and performed during the first six months of 1917, please send your commentary to this blog.

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