Friday, November 6, 2015



Sir John Martin-Harvey
December, 1931

 The first production of this play was staged in Buenos Aries early in 1918.  Since the war was still raging across Europe, South America was an alternative location to launch this play. After this initial South American production, the play was produced in Great Britain.

The play opened in Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre on October 4, 1918.  The Burgomaster of Stilemonde was introduced to audiences throughout the provincial cities of Great Britain during the remainder of 1918.  These smaller English cities received the play prior to its London engagement as the result of a conversation Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) a noted actor and director, had with John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) the leading actor and producer of a British touring company. 

Granville-Barker suggested Martin-Harvey play the role of the Burgomaster. Granville-Barker sent him a script and urged Martin-Harvey to present this play on tour. Martin-Harvey had misgivings about taking on the Burgomaster role. Since he had played the role of PellĂ©as, he asked Maeterlinck what he thought. The playwright responded that he was sure Martin-Harvey could “understand and express” the soul of the character. 

Martin-Harvey and his cast were playing in Cardiff on November 11, 1918, when the Armistice was signed. But the end of the war did not curtail John Martin-Harvey’s association with the play and the role of the Burgomaster.  Martin-Harvey produced and starred in the play at London’s Scala Theatre in January, 1919 for the benefit of Belgian wounded. He once again produced and starred in the play at London’s Lyceum Theatre for twelve matinee performances during his company’s 1921 season in that theatre. The first performance was on October 26, 1921.  Martin-Harvey revived the production in London at the Ambassador’s Theatre during 1925.  By that time, London audiences were less interested in the play and its message.

The Burgomaster of Belgium opened in New York City’s Belmont Theatre on March 24, 1919. Why the name was changed, I do not know; however, it was the same script. The review written by John Corian in the New York Times the next day was positive. Although the war was over, Corian wrote: “It is more timely today, perhaps, than it ever could have been in wartime.”  He never offered a rationale supporting this statement, but it does show that the play remained relevant. He also mentioned that “it is played by obviously English actors.”  I have seen nothing to support this statement; however, the cast is not the same as the one that appeared in Martin-Harvey’s productions.

Corian again wrote about this play in the New York Times on March 30, 1919. It is a long article and I was intrigued when I read one particular statement: “But the present play is based on a characteristically brutal and bloody incident in the Belgian White Book.”  I am not sure if Corian is referring to The German Army in Belgium: The White Book of May 1915.  This book was Germany’s response to the conduct of its troops as it was documented in four other publications:
  1. The Report of the Belgian Commission of Inquiry
  2. The BelgianRapports sur la Violation du Droit des Gens en Beligique 
  3. The Belgian—Reply to the German White Bookperhaps Corian was referring to an account in this book. 
  4. The Bryce Report  
      The major cities in the United States had opportunity in 1923 to see Sir John Martin-Harvey* in his company’s production of The Burgomaster of Stilemonde.  The actual title of the play was used for his North American tour.  The New York Times review dated November 16, 1923 praised “Sir John.”  He “gave a really excellent interpretation of his role.” The reviewer mentioned that Martin-Harvey also appeared the previous week as Oedipus and the night prior to the Burgomaster, he played the role of Everyman. He was scheduled to appear the following week as Hamlet.  This provides a sense of Martin-Harvey range in roles at this time as well as his capabilities as an actor. 

Canadians admired Sir John Martin-Harvey and his company.  Martin-Harvey had been touring the country since the early 1890s and had a following. During his Canadian tour in 1921, the “Burgomaster” was performed to acclaim both for the leading actor and the play.  This troupe again toured parts of Canada after the United States 1923-24 tour and “Burgomaster” was still in the repertoire. 

“Burgomaster” was also performed in Europe.  I read one recount relating to the Paris premiere. After the final curtain, the orchestra played the Marseillaise. A well-dressed woman in black moved to the orchestra rail and began singing the Belgian National Anthem. The orchestra switched music and the audience stopped leaving their seats. When the woman finished the song, she quickly left the theatre.  Several other sources mentioned that after the war French censorship banned performance of “Burgomaster” from their theatres since it stirred the animosity that the French held toward the Germans.

In 1929 The Burgomaster of Stilemonde was released as a silent film in Britain. It was made by British Filmcraft and starred Sir John Martin-Harvey.  There were many scenes shot on location in the city of Diest, Belgium.  It was well received by the public and critics.

Sir John Martin-Harvey continued to tour “the Burgomaster” in England throughout the 1920s and 1930s.   He was still appearing in the role on May 5, 1939 when his touring company played in Northumberland, England.  He had to have played the role several thousand times since he originated it in 1918. Martin-Harvey kept this play before appreciative audiences for decades.

*Martin-Harvey was knighted in 1921 and that is when he hyphenated his name.

The image above of Sir John Martin-Harvey was taken by Bassano Ltd.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
It is licensed by Creative Commons:
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
 Creative Commons License 

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