Wednesday, March 14, 2018


A Bill of Divorcement written in 1921 was Clemence Dane’s (1888-1965) first play and it was the sensation of the 1921 London theatre season. Clemence Dane is the nom de plume for Winifred Ashton, who was raised in South London.  She was more than adequately educated for a female of her generation and taught French at schools for girls in Geneva and Ireland.  In 1917 Dane wrote her first novel Regimen of Women. This novel with its lesbian theme created a lot of interest and Dane became a recognized writer whose work discussed social issues.  It was with women’s rights and fair divorce laws on her mind that she turned to her next major project--A Bill of Divorcement.
Following World War One there was a pressing need for the divorce laws in England to be modernized to accommodate the major social changes the country faced. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act in England allowed both men and women to petition for divorce. The High Court in London was the only place one could request a divorce. A divorce was a very expensive undertaking and a woman could only seek one on the grounds of her husband’s adultery. Also she was required to provide absolute proof of an aggravating incident such as rape or incest. These proceedings were held in open court and the personal details were revealed to one and all.

Following the popularity of A Bill of Divorcement and the contentious issue of divorce that it publically discussed, the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act provided a simpler avenue for divorce on the basis of spousal adultery.  It is important to realize that Clemence Dane is arguing in A Bill of Divorcement for a woman to have the right to divorce a husband on the grounds of either cruelty, desertion, incurable insanity or adultery. It took until 1937, when a revised Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, before a woman could initiate divorce proceedings on any one of these grounds.

A Bill of Divorcement is a three-act play set in a “small country house.” The play takes place in December, 1933 (twelve years into the future) since Dane desired to demonstrate the unfair and negative impact a delayed revision of English divorce laws could have on the lives of responsible individuals. She also envisioned that a more just divorce bill could be passed by this time.  Thus in Act One, thirty-five years old Margaret had recently divorced her insane husband Hilary. He has been in an asylum since World War One with a diagnosis of severe shell-shock and recognizes no one.  Margaret is about to marry again. Her seventeen year old daughter, Sydney, is also planning to marry soon. The family is informed that Hilary suddenly recovered his memory and escaped from the asylum.

Act Two has the family trying to cope with this new twist of fate.  Hilary arrived at the country house prior to the start of the act. It is mid-day mealtime and the family realizes that his clarity of mind places him in the time when he married Margaret before he was shipped to France.  He never knew of Sydney’s birth and, of course, he does not know that Margaret divorced him twelve months ago.  The characters commence to seek a solution to this situation.

Act Three is the same day at teatime. A new issue is introduced into the situation while different solutions are considered. Sydney learns that insanity is inherent in her father’s family. She decides not to marry and to take care of Hilary instead. While this all sounds like a dark drama, it is not.  The characters are lively and attractive. The language moves along at a brisk clip as does the situation which never lapses into melodrama. 

A Bill of Divorcement opened on March 14, 1921 at St. Martin’s Theatre in London and it ran for 402 performances. It was produced by Basil Dean (1888-1978) who later became associated with the motion picture industry. On June 30, 1921 The Times (London) mentioned in an article “A Bill of Divorcement has undoubtedly been the most-talked-of play of the year.”

There was a London revival of A Bill of Divorcement in the summer of 1929. A theatre column in The Times (London) states “The revival was to run for six weeks only, but the public interest has been so great that management is extending it for another three weeks.”

A Bill of Divorcement opened in New York City in October, 1921 at the George M. Cohan’s Theatre and later moved to Times Square Theatre. This Broadway production ran for a 173 performances despite the fact that not all audience members understood how the English divorce laws differed from those practiced in the United States.  Katherine Cornell (1893-1974) played Sydney.  It was Cornell’s second role on Broadway and it catapulted her to stardom.  After this production closed, it toured to several of the major cities in the United States. Productions of this play continued to be created by local theatre groups in America throughout the 1940s.

A lengthy review in The Baltimore Sun on March 14, 1922 comments about the touring production and makes several statements that coincide with my thoughts about the play. “It is tense, gripping; always dramatic without ever being theatric.” The final paragraph states that it is “an adroit handling of an engrossing domestic situation; a fine piece of dramatic craftsmanship, well-acted, and one of the most satisfying serious productions of the current local season.”

Despite the popularity of A Bill of Divorcement on stage, it received three separate film treatments over a span of eighteen years. The 1922 film was made in England by Ideal Pictures and it starred Constance Binney (1896-1989). Binney was the first American actress to star in a British film. 

The 1932 film was made in the United States by RKO Radio Pictures.  It was directed by George Cukor (1899-1983). He was especially skilled at interpreting stage plays for screen. He had a star studded cast headed by John Barrymore (1882-1942) as Hilary, Billie Burke (1884-1970) as Margaret and Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), who made her film debut as Sydney. Hepburn was instantly a star.

The 1940 Hollywood film version was produced once more by RKO with John Farrow (1904-1963) as director of this remake film. Adolphe Menjou (1890-1963) played Hilary, Fay Bainter (1893-1968) as Margaret and Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015) as Sydney.

A Bill of Divorcement also was broadcast during the first week of December of 1935 as the principle dramatic radio program by National Programs for British audiences.  In the United States, Helen Hays (1900-1993) starred as Sydney in a radio adaptation of “Bill” during April, 1941. The Theatre Guild created a radio version of the play that was aired on December 1, 1946 on ABC stations across the United States.  The headliner of this production was James Mason (1909-1984) as Hilary.

A Bill of Divorcement had a long successful run as a play, radio drama and film.  Clemence Dane wrote twenty-one more plays after this one as well as novels and film scripts over the remainder of her life. Although highly successful during her lifetime, she is rarely remembered today.

Photo from New York Herald: May 15, 1921, page 89.

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