Friday, February 26, 2016

SEVEN DAYS LEAVE—A HUGE SUCCESS!



During a time of war audiences often desire to see a play that gives them hope, romance, humor and spectacle to boost their morale. Seven Days Leave by Walter Howard (1866-1922) met every one of those requirements.   Howard claimed, during an interview in 1918 with ‘The Era’ weekly, to have written this play “to please his brave young soldier son.”  Seven Days Leave opened on February 14, 1917 in London at the Lyceum Theatre and played for 711 performances.  This outstanding number of consecutive performances made it one of the most popular London plays in the years of 1875 through 1919.

The Lyceum Theatre was known during the years of 1909 through 1938 as the West End London theatre that presented pantomimes and melodramas. The Lyceum’s producers during this period were two brothers, Walter (1975-1937) and Frederick (1879-1938) Melville.  They built a reputation for staging sensational scenes. Seven Days Leave is a full blown melodrama with a third act that must have been spectacular.  Just the perfect play for the Lyceum Theatre.

Walter Howard was a highly recognized playwright of melodramas when he wrote Seven Days Leave.  He was a well-known actor and playwright in Great Britain and also Australia, where he had lived as a young man for several years. He had developed an international reputation as a playwright by 1917 with at least twenty plays to his credit. 

Seven Days Leave is set in a quiet East Coast village of England, where Captain Terence Fielding, a British officer, is spending his seven days leave. The villagers are being very charitable to two Belgian refugees.  A lovely young woman, Lady Mary Heather, to whom Captain Fielding is engaged, is leading the village’s efforts to assist the refugees. Captain Fielding had been previously imprisoned in Germany and he recognizes the two refugees. They are treacherous German spies. He does not share his information, but watches their activities. He discovers they are trying to steal a new invention that relates to “salting the tail of a U-boat.” Since U-boats were nearly impossible to detect, it was thought that if a device could be attached to its fin to serve as a detector, it would allow a torpedo to be launched that would entirely destroy this underwater menace.

The engagement of Captain Fielding and Lady Mary is dissolved due to his attention to a female refugee. His flirtation is part of Fielding’s plan to foil the plot being hatched by the spies. The amazing third act is staged in the waters where the U-boat is surrounded by British destroyers. Lady Mary, the heroine, swims out to the U-boat and helps to save the new invention from the German spies. There is a very dramatic ending with fire, smoke, ship guns blazing and the racket they cause. The brave hero and heroine live to rekindle their romance, the U-boat is destroyed and the British navy has a new secret U-boat detector.

During the run of Seven Days Leave at the Lyceum, this play was also toured to cities throughout Great Britain. The tour commenced in 1917 and it was still in progress in November, 1920. Newspaper advertisements showed that the play sometimes returned to a city where it had played previously. The reviews were excellent. An example is from the Sheffield Independent dated August 25, 1917: “Never before have we had such a War Play, with such daring deeds, so brave a hero and so fair a heroine.”  The reviews were filled with accolades: “It is a great military play with an intensely interesting story.”  “Howard’s masterpiece.” “The piece teems with comic lines, while the love interest is, of course, particularly strong.”  

During the fall of 1917, Seven Days Leave was playing in both Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. It would take until January 17, 1918 before Seven Days Leave opened at Broadway’s Park Theatre where it played until June, 1918 for a total of 156 performances. It then toured several major American cities. The January 18, 1918 review of  Seven Days Leave in the New York Times mentions that “The American element has been hypodermically injected by Max Marcin.” Apparently Captain Fielding became Captain William J. Kelly an American officer. The other Americanization is that the U-boat is not surrounded by British destroyers, but it is guarded by a lone American destroyer. These major changes were cited in the review, but undoubtedly there were other minor ones also made by Max Marcin (1879-1948) playwright, screen writer and film director.

There are two American films titled Seven Days Leave, however; neither one relates to this play. The 1930 film is a renamed film version of James M. Barrie’s play The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, starring Gary Cooper. (Please see Post dated April 20, 2015 titled “Two Sir James M. Barrie Theatrical Successes” for more information.)  The 1942 film titled the same as this play stars Lucille Ball and Victor Mature and is a totally different story-line.

NOTE: I understand that the script for Seven Days Leave was never published.  The plot description in this Post is gleaned from bits and pieces that appeared in various reviews I have read. Also I have not found a script for any of the plays written by Walter Howard even though his plays were highly successful on stage.  Please COMMENT if you know any publications of Walter Howard’s work.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rhoda-Gale
    Thank you so much for documenting this. I'm interested in Seven Days Leave, as I have acquired some postcards sent to/from members of the cast or crew whilst on tour during March 1919. The recipients may have been involved in other plays by Howard, as other cards are addressed via "Snez Howard's Company". I'm interested in finding a cast list, so I can find out if my couple, George and Nellie West were actor or stage crew and what other productions they may have been involved with. Kind regards, Vanessa, England

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