Friday, January 15, 2016


Since William Archer was an advocate for the New Drama--realistic social drama and drama of ideas, a highbrow theatre critic and the English translator of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, no one ever expected him to write an adventure driven lowbrow melodrama.  

Archer entrusted the script of his new play “The Raja of Rukh” to Granville-Barker (1877-1946) a well-known man of the theatre in Britain, who was travelling to America. Granville-Barker presented the play to Winthrop Ames, a Broadway producer, who agreed to present this play in the States.  Archer visited New York in late July of 1920, while an actor was being sought to play the part of the Raja. This was a difficult role to cast and the success of the production would rest on the shoulders of the selected actor.  Archer returned to America in November to attend rehearsals and see the late December trial run of his play, retitled The Green Goddess, at Philadelphia’s famous Walnut Street Theatre.  

Ames had cast George Arliss, age fifty-three years, as the Raja.  Arliss was born in London, but he had spent the past eighteen years acting in America.  He was a prominent actor on Broadway, but he was not a star.  The character of the Raja was not the typical Broadway leading role. This character neither wins the affection of the heroine nor does he reform his beliefs and alter his unacceptable behavioral pattern. Arliss with his British accent and slightly disproportional physical attributes, large head on a slight body, presented a convincing image for this character.

The trial run of the play in Philadelphia was extremely successful.  The performances of George Arliss and Ivan Simpson, who played Watkins the Raja’s cockney valet, were credited with making this production extremely entertaining. It was a perception that would be echoed throughout the long run of the play.

The Green Goddess opened at the Booth Theatre in Manhattan on January 18, 1921.  The Booth, located just off Broadway, was a small theatre with about 760 seats.  Following opening night, the play sold out until the end of March.  It received excellent reviews and the New York Times had dubbed it as “a thriller that really thrills.” It was also talked about everywhere society people gathered. They loved the lavish sets, exotic decorative pieces like the Green Goddess shrine and the fabulous costumes. 

The review on January 19, 1921 that appeared in the New York Times was written by the sardonic Alexander Woollcott who lauded the play, the producer, the playwright and the leading actors, especially George Arliss.  “Mr. Archer has built his play fairly well and written it smoothly and then had the immense good fortune to fall into the hands of Mr. Ames, . . .”  Woollcott labeled The Green Goddess as unmistakably good entertainment.  He also mentions that this is a perfect vehicle for George Arliss and it is likely “to trundle him” far.  This was a prediction that proved to come true since Arliss gained stardom in the role of the Raja.

The Green Goddess played at the Booth Theatre for fourteen months where it was presented 415 times during its run. The production then moved to Boston for eleven weeks and ninety performances.  In the Fall, it moved to Chicago for sixty-five performances.  It was estimated in the Indianapolis Star on December 24, 1922 that when this play’s “two year cycle is completed, ‘The Green Goddess’ will have been acted 625 times in the United States.”  The article further speculates: “it is estimated that Archer’s drama will be acted at least 1,000 times before Mr. Ames seeks its successor for Mr. Arliss.” 

On September 6, 1923 George Arliss returned to London, England after twenty-two years in America to play the Raja in The Green Goddess. The play was presented at the Saint James Theatre and the play as well as its star received an ovation. The rest of the cast members from the American production were not in the London presentation. The play was a sensation in London.  The star of the production was one attraction, but the playwright was the other. Archer had served for decades as London’s scowling critic of lowbrow theatre and now he was the playwright of a delightful lowbrow melodrama.

George Arliss also managed the time to play the Raja in the first film version of The Green Goddess released on August 14, 1923. This is a silent black and white film made by Distinctive Productions. In January of 1925, the British advertisements for this film proclaimed it was “One of the strongest melodramas ever presented on the screen.”

A second film version was released in the United States on February 13, 1930. William Archer never had the opportunity to enjoy the continuing success of his play and this film since he died on December 27, 1924.  This new film starred Arliss and included Ivan Simpson, who continued to play the Raja’s valet. This version was the first of the all-talking Vitaphone pictures for Warner Brothers.  

The Green Goddess was a sensation in the English speaking theatre both as a play and a film. It also was published as a book and presented in newspapers as a serial presentation.  The Altoona Tribune announced on February 26, 1930 that the first installment of The Green Goddess would be published the next day. The play continued to have a life with touring companies in both the United States and England well into the 1930s.  The BBC presented the play in 1932 on the radio where it was billed as “a thriller”.  It was a thriller that showed how the newer weapons of war changed the game, how the world was quickly changing after World War One and how readily wars can start.

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