Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Lawrence Langner (1890-1962) was a major influence in American theatre during the first half of the twentieth century. His significant role was as a producer rather than a playwright, but he wrote a number of plays throughout the years and The Broken Image, published in 1918, is his one-act play relating to World War One.
The play is set in an interior of a church in a Bavarian village during February of 1918. A priest is praying when a wood-carver from the city of Oberammergau, Bavaria enters. The wood-carver is very recognizable to many citizens in Bavaria, since he has played the part of Christ many times in the famous Oberammergau Passion Play.  He closely resembles the artistic images of Christ including the small wooden figure that stands on a ledge of this church.
The action of the play is centered upon Kaiser Wilhelm II, who comes to visit this small church in the hope of finding a little time to relax from the pressures of waging war.  He is interrupted from his thoughts by his two leading Generals, who want to escalate their military might on the Western front. One of the Generals proclaims, he does not believe in God and grabs the wooden image of Christ from its ledge.  Later he attempts to replace it, but the statue falls off the ledge and breaks.  The Generals are without remorse, but Wilhelm is shocked.  After the Generals leave, the wood-carver from Oberammergau walks through the sanctuary and sees the broken image.  He says “They have broken my image!” Wilhelm witnesses this moment and he is sure he has seen Christ.  He tries to cancel the western offensive, but the Generals laugh at him. It is clear that the title of this play is symbolic for both the loss of Kaiser Wilhelm’s authority as well as the loss of religious belief.
The published version of The Broken Image may not have appeared until 1919, since that was when it was mentioned in popular journals and magazines under New Book columns. The delay could have occurred due to Langner’s commitment to working on an international committee preparing clauses to be inserted into the Treaty of Versailles related to Patents, Trade-Marks and Copyrights.  He was also invited by the United States government to organize Patent Law reforms that would assist the United States Patent Office.
The play was reviewed as a book drama in several journals. The review in The Nation, volume 108, page 948 believed this one-act play, like several others at this time, relied on “the element of surprise” to capture the audience. The reviewer thought Langner did not create anything new in this play in terms of style and technique. A review of the play in The Unitarian Register, Volume 98, July 3, 1919 mentions “The theme is handled with delicacy, and reaches a strong climax naturally and unexpectedly. Decidedly superior to most of the plays suggested by the late conflict.”
I have found no record of this play being produced in any of the theatres Lawrence Langner was associated with at the time. He never mentioned this play in his 1951 autobiography titled The Magic Curtain.  I find this a bit of a mystery since he dedicated The Broken Image: “To WOODROW WILSON: A Great Leader at a Great Moment”. 
An announcement about the publication of The Broken Image appeared in The Flying Stage Plays-For Little Theatre. This information would have disseminated the availability of the play to the national community of Little Theatres, but the war would have been over for at least six months.  Interest in the subject of this play would have dwindled. I have seen no information regarding a production of this play undertaken by a Little Theatre company. 

While The Broken Image is an interesting minor work of Lawrence Langner’s, I was drawn to this play due to the other theatrical contributions this man had made. Langner was born in South Wales, but received most of his education in London.  He was sent to the United States by his employer, a large firm of Charter Patent Agents.  He was assigned to serve as the technical agent in the London firm’s New York office. He was twenty years old when he arrived in New York during January of 1910. Eventually Langner became a patent lawyer. 

In The Magic Curtain, Langner mentioned that he visited Oberammergau. This happened while he was traveling in Europe prior to World War One.  He looked out his hotel window one morning and saw the man who portrayed Christ, for many years, in the Passion Play. He was in the garden drinking and chatting with the man who played Judas.  This scene seems to have stayed with Langner and provided the inspiration for The Broken Image

By 1914 Langner became involved with the creation of the Washington Square Players.  This launched his second career as a theatrical producer and playwright.  Langner was able to bring many notable British and European plays to the United States for American audiences following the end of World War One.  His extensive travels in Europe and his upbringing in England made him able to bridge many theatre communities and bring the best of what he saw to the United States.  Many of these plays were produced by the Theatre Guild (1918-1965), another group that Langner established. The Theatre Guild produced 228 plays on Broadway in forty-seven years and introduced American audiences to many playwrights who gained worldwide recognition.  Lawrence Langner was an extraordinary individual and man of several outstanding talents.

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