Sunday, March 20, 2016


 M.Alden             Nazimova
War Brides is a 1914 one-act play that resurfaced in 1999, when it was published in a volume titled War Plays by Women: An International Anthology edited by Claire M. Tylee with Elaine Turner and Agnes Cardinal. The playwright is Marion Craig Wentworth (1872-1942). 

War Brides has a unique message.  The playwright was an American woman who was progressive for her time.  As a staunch supporter of women’s rights, she expressed her thoughts in War Brides about this position in three meaningful ways.  First she portrayed how the women supported the war through their work on the home front such as raising and harvesting crops. Second she discussed that the women were expected to birth the next crop of soldiers for the country’s future wars.

A page later in the script Hedwig tells the women “don’t bear any more children until they promise there will be no more war.”  Hedwig, an extremely intelligent woman, clearly understood the situation and she had the strength to voice her third point to a military officer: “If we can bring forth the men for the nation, we can sit with you in your councils and shape the destiny of the nation, and say whether it is to war or peace we give the sons we bear.”  This short play with its compelling major character addressed two huge topics of that era—anti-war and women’s rights. 

The play is set in a peasant’s cottage in “a war-ridden country.”  Wentworth established the time for the play as the “present” which was 1915.  She named the protagonist Hedwig, but at some point she changed it to Joan in order to make it less Germanic. Hedwig’s young sister-in-law was originally named Amelia and she was renamed Amy. The two army officers who came to the cottage also underwent name changes: Hertz became Captain Bragg and Hoffman is renamed Joseph Kerman. I am not aware of when these changes occurred, but they are noted in the 1915 publication of the script. 

War Brides depicts how the young women were harassed into quick marriages with the men who were about to leave for the front.  These women were given iron wedding rings to show that they were war brides.  Hedwig was against this practice and all it implied relating to war. When she heard that her husband was killed as were his two brothers, she determines not to add more life to this war machine.  War Brides is a hard hitting, fast moving drama that takes about thirty-five minutes to perform.

The play was published in The Century Magazine (1881-1930) in its February, 1915 issue, pages 527-544.  It included two illustrations by John Sloan (1871-1951), an established early twentieth century American painter and illustrator, who was sympathetic with the political views expressed in this play. The script was also published as a book in 1915 by The Century Company, New York.  This version has photographs from the production of the play. It was unusual to have two publications in one year of the same play script.

The fact that a renowned actress accepted the leading role in a one-act play is also unique. Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) was born in Crimea, a part of the Russian Empire. She studied acting with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre.  She was playing leading roles in Russia by 1903, but in 1905 she moved to the United States.  She quickly learned English and made her 1906 Broadway debut in a play by Henrik Ibsen. Nazimova rapidly became a star.  Just prior to playing Hedwig, she had played several roles that diminished her reputation as an exceptional actress, so she considered the strong role of Hedwig as an opportunity for re-establishing her stardom.  It was amazing to acquire a renowned actress, known across the breadth of America, to play a role in a one-act play.

Another surprising factor is that Nazimova would agree to play in theatres that were a part of the popular Vaudeville circuit. Vaudeville shows presented a series of unrelated acts during the course of one performance—it was a variety show. War Brides opened January 25, 1915 at B.F. Keith’s Palace Theatre, New York City. This theatre was the premier theatre on the vaudeville circuit.  War Brides played twice a day for four weeks and that established a new record for a dramatic attraction at that theatre.  Nazimova followed the New York run with a six-month tour on the Keith-Orpheum circuit across the United States.  The play drew new audiences, especially women, who did not normally frequent vaudeville performances. This was another remarkable achievement.

War Brides rebooted Nazimova’s career and she was willing to undertake another challenge related to this play that many reviewers were touting as “the greatest peace play of our time.”  This next step for Nazimova was to star in the silent film version of the play.  This was her first film and it opened in November, 1916 for a long run in New York City. It became available across the rest of the United States about a month before the country declared war on Germany—April, 1917.  The film was extremely successful, but the pacifist message was suddenly wrong for a country at war. Lewis J. Selznick (1870-1933), the producer, withdrew the film and changed the titles to set the story in Germany. The film was newly released and it continued to be successful.

War Brides was a remarkable play for its time and it continues to be worth reading.

The photograph above is from the original production of War Brides.

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