Sunday, February 12, 2017


Hal Caine’s (1853-1931) plot for his play titled The Prime Minister was originally inspired in 1910 or 1911, while he was on a writing retreat in Switzerland near St. Moritz. Once he conceived of the plot, he quickly wrote the play within a week. Then he packed it away with other papers and did not think about it for another three years. After World War One commenced, Caine was further inspired during a breakfast with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lloyd George (1863-1945), who told a story that Caine envisioned as the Prologue to his play.

He rewrote the manuscript several times and eventually the play was optioned by Charles Frohman Production Company in New York City.  When the forthcoming production was announced in the New York Times on September 18, 1915 it was titled The Prime Minister.  However, when it opened for its out-of-town tryouts and later at the Amsterdam Theatre in New York City on January 31, 1916, it was titled Margaret Schiller.

Caine was a renowned British playwright/novelist who was well known in North America. His previous plays and novels had been highly successful in cities across the United States and Canada. Caine claims the reason the play did not premier originally in Great Britain was “the difficulty of finding, among our many accomplished actresses, a woman who at once by her personality and training seemed to the author to meet precisely the needs . . .” The American actress Elsie Ferguson (1883-1961) seemed to be suited perfectly for the title role.

Margaret Schiller is a play in four acts with a Prologue. The Prologue is set in the residence of the Prime Minister.  The room is at the back of the house and it faces the garden. It is a night in late summer. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Temple, and four gentlemen are awaiting word from Germany regarding whether the Ultimatum the British Government sent earlier that day had been accepted or rejected.  The deadline is midnight. What these gentlemen had forgotten was that Germany is on mid-European time and Great Britain is an hour earlier on Greenwich-time. The result was that Great Britain had been at war an hour before the government was aware of it.

Caine also published a book in 1915 titled The Drama of 365 Days. In the chapter titled “The Night of Our Ultimatum” Caine described the same scene that the Prime Minister recounted. 

Act One occurs one month later. The setting is Dr. Gottfried Schiller’s apartment in Soho Square.  It is a late afternoon in August.  Schiller, a Professor at the College of Music, and his wife have been living in London for thirty years. Margaret Schiller, the niece of the doctor, receives a telegram from her Swiss friend, Freda Michel. Freda is coming to London to take a post as a governess. It is Freda’s arrival at the Schiller’s apartment that sets up the opportunity for the creation of the dramatic action since Margaret impersonates Freda to become the governess to the Prime Minister’s daughter.

Act Two is the Prime Minister’s residence the same afternoon. The Prime Minister is informed at the beginning of the act that there are many enemy aliens living in Great Britain. Margaret and her brother Otto, both born in Great Britain, are named as dangerous. The reality of the situation is Margaret wants to avenge her father’s death which she believes was requested by the Prime Minister. Margaret arrives as Freda at the Prime Minister’s residence. During her interview with the Prime Minister, he realizes who Margaret is. After an understanding develops between them, Margaret is hired as his daughter’s governess.

Act Three is set at the Schiller’s apartment. Two month have nearly passed since Margaret joined the Prime Minister’s household. Her uncle and his group are expecting her to arrive at any moment.  They are planning to kill the Prime Minister at his home and they need her assistance.

Act Four is at the Prime Minister’s home immediately following the previous act. This is a melodramatic act. I do not wish to reveal its many twists and turns thereby spoiling the play’s conclusion.
The Vancouver Daily News in an article dated November 2, 1915 states: “Hall Caine is an acknowledged master in the art of stimulating the public’s emotions.”  His play Margaret Schiller underlines this statement. Caine incorporates several opposing perspectives related to the given situation. It is what makes this play interesting.

As I stated above, Margaret Schiller premiered in the United States. Julia Chandler’s article in the Washington Herald dated January 16, 1916 mentions that the play opened in Atlantic City and ran for three days before touring to Washington, D.C. where it opened on January 17th. Chandler explains that Caine has “long since taught us that he is a master in the analysis of emotions.” Chandler expected Margaret Schiller to be “an intensely emotional character” and she was correct. 
However, Margaret Schiller, the play, received mixed reviews following its opening in New York City at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The production moved to the Empire Theatre on March 13, 1916.  It totaled a run of seventy-two New York City performances.  The February 1, 1916 edition of the New York Sun newspaper ran a story about the play with the heading “Elise Ferguson Delights Many at New Amsterdam.” New York Times on the same day called the play “A Wildly Improbable Melodrama”.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s title for the review proclaimed “ELSIE FERGUSON IN TRIFLING WAR PLAY”. While the reviewers were not taken with the play, obviously the audiences were since the production had a respectable run.

The title of the play reverted to its original one, The Prime Minister, when it opened in London three years after playing in the United States. The London production played at the Royalty Theatre and it opened on March 31, 1918. The role of Margaret Schiller was played by Ethel Irving (1869-1963) who received praise for her performance. The Times (London) review on April 1, 1918 focused on the characters and performances rather than the play. An article in the Indianapolis Star titled “The Wartime Stage in London” on May 12, 1918, announced Caine’s play opened in London and that it was “rewritten since its presentation here.”

The Prime Minister was published in London by William Heinemann in 1918. This script is available on-line. I read a hard copy available through Forgotten Books.

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