Friday, September 18, 2015

OVER HERE: A Drama of American Patriotism

This post discusses a play and its playwright that is in a different category from all the dramas I have addressed.  Walter Ben Hare (1880-1950) was for over thirty years a professional meteorologist; during these same years he wrote plays for rural North Americans.  His obituary claims he wrote “200 stage plays”.  These plays were performed by high school students, college students, church affiliated dramatic groups and amateur dramatic clubs.  

His most famous play written in 1919 is Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick. In 1938 Life magazine sent a staff member to Mikado, Michigan to see a “local-talent production of America’s best loved comedy.”* It was staged by the Mikado Dramatic Club, one of the 300,000 amateur play producing groups in the United States. At this time, “Aaron Slick” had been staged over 25,000 times and “Life” reported: “It has been seen by more people than have seen all Broadway productions for the last five years.” A film was made in 1952 by Paramount Pictures based on this play, starring Dinah Shore and Robert Merrill. It was a sure fire success since the play script had sold more than a million copies and had been produced more than 28,000 times.

So while Walter Ben Hare wrote for non-professional theatre and had a day job that was not in theatre, he earned his wealth from the sale of his scripts, published by Walter H. Baker & Company of Boston, and from the production of his plays.  He had been a professional actor for several years prior to commencing his work in 1905 as a meteorologist.  Throughout his lifetime, in addition to his playwriting, he continued to stage plays, to give dramatic readings from plays by Shakespeare as well as to act in productions. 

In the Life article, Hare claims he writes for small town audiences who want “the old, old tale of rural virtues triumphant and of city vices thwarted—the old farcical situations and action, action, ACTION.”  Hare used two nom de plumes in addition to his actual name. He assigned the name Lieutenant Beale Cormack, for plays he claimed to be ashamed of.  He used the name Mary Xodena Burns for religious plays. He used his real name for “the other stuff”. 

In 1919 his play, Over Here was published. The setting is River Landing, Missouri.  Hare was working as a local weatherman in Springfield Missouri at the time he wrote this play.  Act One is set in the village square the day that the United States declared war on Germany.  Act Two is the same location and it is three weeks later as fifty local men are leaving for military training. Act Three is that evening and set in the home of Mr. Eckert.  The first two acts are primarily a recruiting play with a spy subplot that sustains the third act. When I first read this play in 2005, I noted that Hare referenced two prior times in the history of United States when citizens departed for war.  The American Civil War (April, 1861-June, 1865) is memorable for several of the characters as is the Spanish American War (April, 1898-August, 1898).  A few of the play’s characters suffered the loss of loved ones during one or both wars. 

The play is filled with sentiments relating to love of country and service to it.  It also contains details supporting the sense of daily life such as the cost of items—five cents purchased a plug of tobacco. Ms. Finch was a housekeeper for Mr. Eckert earning fifteen dollars a month plus room and board. Hare effectively creates small town environment of the time as well as the thinking of its citizens.  He also stayed true to using city vice thwarted as well as lots of continuous action.  Despite the general seriousness of the plot, there is an element of comedy clearly carried throughout, primarily by Miss Lornie Davis—a giddy forty year old unmarried woman.

There is an indication in the printed copy of the script that the play was staged prior to the 1919 publication of the script. Also the topic of the play is truly intended to be timely for the purpose of recruiting as well as expressing the idea of patriotism in other ways. So I assume it was written in 1917.  I have found no newspaper announcements regarding the production of the play, therefore I have no knowledge of its production history.  I do find it an interesting piece of Americana.

·                  *LIFE, March 14, 1938, page 24.
       NOTE:  Many of Hare’s plays are available on-line and may be

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