Friday, June 24, 2016


The Sacred Flame premiered in New York City at the Henry Miller Theatre on November 19, 1928.  It ran for 24 performances.  The review in the New York Times on November 20, 1928 was titled “Murder Will Out at 11.”  Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984--who was using J. Brooks Atkinson as his byline) was the reviewer. The title reveals his take on the play and his lack of enthusiasm regarding it.  He called it “Another of Mr. Maugham’s highly cultivated shilling-schockers.”  Maugham was surprised by this reaction and obviously very disappointed by his play being taken merely as another murder mystery.

The play opened in London at the Playhouse Theatre on February 8, 1929 and the reaction was very different.  By the end of the evening Maugham had another hit and this production ran for 209 performances.  In London the play was considered by J. T. Grein of the Illustrated London News to be “one of Maugham finest.”  Grein’s title for his review dated February 23, 1929 is “Three Leading Ladies.”  This play has three major roles for women and the leading role of Stella was played by Gladys Cooper (1888-1971). 

Miss Cooper, in addition to being a major London stage and film actress, was the manager of the Playhouse from 1917 to 1933. She was joined on stage in The Sacred Flame by two women who also played in the New York production. American born Clare Eames (1896-1930) reprised the role of Nurse Wayland and British actress Mary Jerrold (1877-1955) played Mrs. Tabret.  Grein’s review states: “Here was a case in which there was not one star, but three.”

An article titled “London Once More Reverses A New York Verdict: Maugham’s “The Sacred. . .” in the New York Times dated March 3, 1929 was a reprint of an article from London dated February 14, 1929.  This article praises Maugham’s “dignity and a freedom from sensationalism” even though the topic could have lent itself to those characteristics. It provides a long analysis of the style before it praises the work of the three actresses. It was unusual for plays in this period to have three outstanding roles for women.

The play was still selling tickets at the Playhouse’s box office, when the Bishop of London denounced it as shockingly immoral. This sent ticket sales soaring and extended the length of The Sacred Flame run. A similar incident happened in 1930 during the play’s performances in Rome. The Sacred Flame was denounced on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of Vatican City State, and tickets sales rebounded. 

The Era in its 7 October 1931 issue reported that Maugham’s play “The Sacred Flame” has been produced at the Theatre des Ambassadeurs in Paris under the title of “Cyclone.”  It mentioned that the Parisian critics are “enthusiastic”. 

The play continued to be presented throughout the United Kingdom during the 1930’s. A review in the Sidney Morning Herald dated September 15, 1934 called it “a splendid play, very beautifully presented.”  The Sacred Flame was also produced again in London at the “Q” Theatre in July, 1936.

This drama was produced throughout the 1940’s during World War Two and following it. 1945 marked another London revival of The Sacred Flame at St. Martin’s Theatre. I mentioned in the previous post about this play, the book titled “Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living.” Hitler adopted some of the philosophy from the book and utilized it as early as 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. He instituted the practice of killing individuals who could not contribute to the war effort due to illness. They were bused to killing centers and killed by lethal injection. By 1940 carbon monoxide gas became the preferred method.  Once this knowledge became known throughout the rest of the western world, the theme of The Sacred Flame continued to be relevant. 

The Sacred Flame was revived in New York City during October, 1952 at the President Theatre starring Frances Starr (1886 -1973) as Mrs. Tabret.  Once again, Brooks Atkinson reviewed it for the New York Times.  He still did not like the play and he stated: “The situation in ‘The Sacred Flame’ is morbid and mechanical.  The characters are hackneyed.”

While the play was popular on the stage, two films were produced by Warner Brothers.  The first film was released in November, 1929 and the second, titled The Right to Live, was released January, 1935.  These films were shown throughout the United States and Great Britain.

The popularity of The Sacred Flame continued to spread. In February 1949, there was a radio broadcast to audiences in Great Britain. The British Broadcasting Company made a movie for television of the play with its original title and it was shown in early 1951. In the Northampton Mercury newspaper on June 1, 1951, the reporter’s story about the TV movie said it was based on “one of our popular plays—and one with a wealth of philosophy for those who follow it line by line.”  Then in 1955 the BBC made another television version with a new cast. 

The Sacred Flame succeeded in receiving productions in every available mode of media. This included publication in book form of the script by Doubleday and Company in the United States during 1928. The British edition was published in 1929 around the time the play was first presented on the London stage. The script has been reprinted in a number of collected plays editions since that time.  The Sacred Flame was produced sporadically throughout the rest of the twentieth century.

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