Monday, April 20, 2015


In my previous post surveying World War One plays on Broadway during the first six months of 1917, I mention James M. Barrie’s (1860-1937) contribution of three one-act plays.  The New Word and The Old Lady Shows her Medals both dealt with situations relating to the war while the third play did not.  I remembered I had read “The Old Lady” sometime during my undergraduate education.  So I decided to read it again. What a delightful, heart-warming piece it is.  No wonder it became such a great success in Britain as well as North America playing in cities across the breadth of the North American continent.  It also opened October 1927 at the Comédie Française in Paris with the French title Vieille Madam. 

It was my intention to write a plot synopsis for “Old Lady” at this point, but I quickly realized that my description of the storyline felt flat, remote and lackluster. I realized the story needs to be experienced in order to capture its charm and warmth.  You can read the play or listen to a 1946 radio version of the play available on YouTube.  It stars Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  It was produced by Screen Guild Theatre Radio and it is about fifteen minutes of listening time.

In 1930 the script was adapted for film. Seven Days’ Leave was the North American title, but   Medals was its title in Great Britain.  The film stars Gary Cooper with an all British cast. The British newspaper advertisements claimed it “has been called the most human story ever written.  It is a story of War Time, but it is not a war story.”  

The play became popular as a television drama over the decades. It was filmed for British television in 1937 starring Jack Lambert, who was a Scottish character actor.  The script received six different productions on American television from 1952 to 1963.  The first production was created by the Theatre Guild for United States Steel and shown on CBS. The play continued to garner attention in the newspapers as advertisements and reviews for films, stage presentations and television productions from 1917 till 1982. Davis Rogers adapted the play into a one act musical in 1960. I was surprised that this play had such staying power. 

I haven’t forgotten The New Word.  It was considered a curtain raiser when it was initially produced.  The term “curtain-raiser” is rarely used today, but it is the opening act for the main attraction that follows it.  The New Word is a human interest piece that is set on the eve of the son’s departure for the army.  He dresses in his uniform for the first time and the family is moved by conflicting emotions, but the centerpiece of this short drama is the conversation between the father and son whose relationship previously had been devoid of shared emotional moments. You may be wondering what the new word is.  The father claims it is the rank of “2nd Lieutenant”.  For Roger, the son, it is placing “dear” before uttering “father”.  It is a domestic comedy that provides insight into a family’s reaction when the only son is leaving home to enter the war during its first months of engagement.

James M. Barrie was born in Scotland and he was educated at Dumfries Academy and the University of Edinburgh.  After graduating from the University, he worked as a journalist in Nottingham and later moved to London.  He wrote novels prior to turning his talents to playwriting which he started early in the 1890’s.  His first successful plays were staged between 1892 and 1895.  By 1902, he wrote one play a year until 1920 and many of them were staged successfully on both sides of the Atlantic.  He is best remembered for Peter Pan written in 1904.  I have always enjoyed his one-act comedy titled The Twelve Pound Look (1910).  His playlist is long and his plays provided a vitality that enriched British and American theatre during the first two decades of the twentieth century. 

Source for script I read:  
      Barrie, J. M. The Plays of J. M. Barrie.  The Old Lady Shows Her Medals and Other Plays. London: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1923.          

No comments:

Post a Comment