Monday, April 27, 2015


Jane Cowl (1884-1950) was an established Broadway ingĂ©nue in January of 1917 when the idea for a play about World War One began to germinate in her mind.  It would have been natural for Cowl to star in a play about the war, but the ideal role had not materialized. Cowl and Broadway producer, Henry Miller, were discussing a possible acting project for her when she began to pitch her idea for the war play she was creating in her mind.  He asked to read the script as soon as possible.  She did not disclose any information about the playwright, but she promised to deliver the script within a week.

Jane Cowl had already discussed the idea for the play briefly with her friend Jane Murfin (1884-1955).  The two young women had been friends for several years.  They began to work on developing the script that same afternoon after Miller expressed interest and it was delivered to him by the promised date.  While Miller decided not to produce the play, another Broadway producer did and Lilac Time opened on February 6, 1917 starring Jane Cowl.

The play had a successful run of 176 performances, but it was unusual in several ways.  It was written by women, a rarity during that era. It was written by individuals with no previous playwriting experience.  It was a play about World War One that spoke to American audiences without upsetting anyone in Washington, since the United States was continuing to maintain a position of neutrality. Cowl knew President Wilson was a fan of hers since he had seen her performances in many previous roles.  She did not want Lilac Time to create any problems for his stance on neutrality. After the play opened, Wilson sent word to her that he was too deeply touched by anything concerning the war and thought it best for him to not attend a performance of Lilac Time.

 What type of setting and story could accomplish an acceptable and timely war play that would not raise issues for Washington?  The setting was rural France, not far from the front. It was springtime and the lilacs were in bloom. The brave soldiers were British army men. The story centered on a budding romance between a lovely rural French maiden and a handsome, courageous British soldier.  Of course, Jane Cowl played the French maiden.

The play was entertaining and romantic, but it also made the audiences aware of some of the trials inflicted on people living in the war zone.  It portrayed war-related deaths of family members, both civilians and soldiers. Soldiers discussed the perils of being at the front lines.  The audience was exposed to the discomfort of the soldiers away from their homeland and to the anxieties that they did not reveal in front of the civilian population. The traumatic war situations are presented in a subtle manner that allows the play to live up to the promise it’s title implies.

Although Lilac Time was never published in play form, it was purchased in 1927 by film star, Colleen Moore, and her producer-husband John McCormick. The play-script was adapted by Willis Goldbeck for the silent screen.  Then, Guy Fowler novelized the screen-play. This practice  was commonly done and the novel included photos from scenes in the film.  The 1928 film starred Colleen Moore in Cowl’s role as Jeanne and Gary Cooper plays handsome Captain Phillip Blythe, who is transformed into an American fighter pilot. I saw part of this film on YouTube last year.  Cowl and Murfin were never consulted on the film version and they were disappointed with the changes in the script.

The success of Lilac Time encouraged Cowl and Murfin to continue their playwriting partnership despite the fact that there were very few women with Broadway credits. Their plays Daybreak (1917) and Information Please (1918) quickly followed Lilac Time.  It was their fourth play titled Smilin’ Through in 1919 that was a phenomenal success. It had a run on Broadway of 1,170 performances so it played there from 1919 until 1922.  Two films were made from the play.  The first in 1922 starring Norma Talmadge.  The second film was made in 1932 starring Norma Shearer, Fredric March and Leslie Howard.

Cowl continued to star on Broadway and Murfin continued to write screenplays throughout their playwriting years.  Cowl acted on Broadway until 1947.  Murfin was active in Hollywood and developed at least thirty films.  They remained close friends throughout their lives.      
Please send me questions you have about any of the plays and the playwrights in previous posts.  I also welcome suggestions about playwrights and plays to be discussed.

   King, Richard Abe. Jane Cowl Her Precious and Momentary Glory. Bloomington, IN, 2004.

Reference for photo:
    The Theatre. March, 1917. 162.

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