Thursday, August 16, 2018


Under Fire (1915) became Roi Cooper Megrue’s (1882-1927) fourth play produced on Broadway in less than four years. He was becoming a very successful American playwright. The topic for Under Fire was unlike his earlier plays since it dramatized many of the headlines and stories from 1914 newspapers.

Under Fire--A Play of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in Three Acts is a melodrama that dramatizes World War One through a story about spies. Since the United States was not involved in the war when the play opened, a spy story was an entertaining and seemingly neutral avenue for approaching a hot political topic. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on August 16, 1915: “In order to discourage the audiences at the Hudson Theater from taking sides during the performances of Roi Cooper Megrue’s ‘Under Fire,’ Selwyn and company (Producer) have inserted a notice in the program requesting that no member in the audience indulge in any unpleasant demonstrations which might be offensive to others in the audience, or to those on the stage.”

The Samuel French 1918 edition of the play included a separate page titled “A REQUEST.” In the first paragraph it states: “Under Fire while dealing with certain phases of the Great War, attempts to be neutral, although its characters being English, Belgian, French and German, are naturally partisan.” The second paragraph resembles the one noted in the theatre program at the Hudson Theater.

Act One is set in the living room of Sir George Wagstaff’s home in London.  It is a summer afternoon in August of 1914. The suspense of uncertainty is evident since war seems imminent. Sir George is a member of the British Admiralty so he knows when the British Fleet will change its position to a defensive one.  This is information that the Germans want to know. The Butler, named Brewster, is a German spy as is Henry Streetman, whose real name is Heinrich Strassman.  Streetman visits the Wagstaff household on the pretext that he is in love with Ethel Willoughby. Ethel is the governess/companion for Georgy Wagstaff, Sir George’s outspoken adult daughter.

                                                    Violet Heming as Ethel Willoughby

The discussion in this act is focused on the possibilities of war.  The German spies are under orders to deliver the current information about the location and movement of the British fleet.  Captain Larry Redmond of the Irish Guards, who truly loves Ethel Willoughby, visits the household to say good-by to her before he leaves England for Belgium. There is also an American newsman named Charlie Brown, who visits the household. As the act concludes, it is revealed that, under secret orders, the great British Fleet has sailed.

Act Two is an afternoon in August several days later. The location is the interior of a Belgian Inn. This act illustrates the arrival of the German soldiers in this town and their treatment of the Belgian citizens. However, the major focus is on the spies and their various missions—Larry Redmond is a spy for the British and Ethel has joined him as his wife and co-spy. Charlie Brown arrives to report on what is happening for his New York newspaper. The German spy Henry Streetman also arrives at the Inn. This act is filled with intrigue, action and the sense of the early days of war.

Act Three, Scene One is a section of an English trench in France. The time is 11:30 P.M. on a clear August night. The wall of the trench is about seven feet from the curtain line. The audience experiences the feeling of being in the trench with the soldiers. This is the section of the play filled with the action of battle and the intrigue of the games played by spies. The fear is that the Germans will overrun this area of France and easily proceed to take Paris. The trench is bombed during the scene and nearly everyone is killed including the spy Henry Streetman. The only exception to instant death is Larry Redmond, who is wounded.

Act Three, Scene Two is set in a damaged French church being used as a field station for wounded English soldiers.  It is about three or four in the morning. Larry has his head bandaged and he is lying on the floor. There are other wounded soldiers, attendants to the wounded and a Priest. Larry and Ethel are reunited in this scene and they learn that the German plan to take Paris failed.

Under Fire opened in August of 1915 at the Hudson Theatre in New York City. The New York Times review on August 13, 1915 begins with the headline “Stirring War Play by Roi C. Megrue.” The review lauds Megrue for writing about the two most dramatic turning points in the history of those momentous months—"the entry of England into the war, and he has used the turning of the German hosts at the battle of the Marne.”  It also states: “It is like turning back the files of the newspapers to that week a year and a fortnight ago.”

The review is also favorable for two of the leading actors.  William Courtenay (1875-1933) played Captain Redmond of the Irish Guards. “He is satisfyingly romantic” and his Irish accent was successful. Violet Heming (1895-1981) “is beautiful and adequate” as Ethel Willoughby. A young actor making his Broadway debut was also mention—Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) who played four different roles—a Frenchman, a Belgian, a German and a Cockney. Robinson played in thirty-nine more Broadway plays and starred in one hundred Hollywood films during his fifty-year acting career.

Many reviews ignored the work of Felix Krembs, who played Henry Streetman.  Krembs (1882-1970) worked diligently to perfect his British and German accents. The other actor frequently mentioned was Frank Craven (1875-1945) who played the New York reporter named Charlie Brown. 

The trench scene in Under Fire was also mentioned in several reviews. The Austin American Statement ran a review of the Broadway production written by Brett Page, who thought the most powerful and striking scene is the one in the trench. He states: it “is a masterpiece of the stage architect. As one critic put it, ‘A sky brilliant with stars, a soldiers’ game of cards, the sentries on watch, the bursting of bombs and signal lights, and finally the aerial mine that ends all—Belasco never created anything more perfect.’” This is high praise for the creator of the sets and lighting. I do not know who designed the sets and lighting for Under Fire. It certainly was not David Belasco (1853-1931) who did not care for Megrue’s style of drama. However, Belasco was one of the most significant talents on Broadway whose career stretched over forty years. Among many of Belasco’s achievements was his development of naturalistic stage sets and authentic lighting effects. 
After the Broadway production of Under Fire ran for 129 performances, it went on tour with its stars playing their original roles. I have found references to Under Fire playing in Boston and other cities in the northeast, but I did not find any references to it touring to the rest of the United States. There was a silent film made of it in 1915, but the movie seems to no longer exist.

Under Fire appeared as a novel published in June,1916. The book version was created by Megrue and Richard Parker. It was published by The Macaulay Company. Then Parker serialized the book for newspapers. It was distributed to cities across the United States. The installment I read was dated October 13, 1916 and it appeared in the Brandon Union. This was the newspaper for the city of Brandon, Vermont.

Under Fire illustrates the start of World War One in a convincing and vivid manner even though it is melodramatic.  It is a play that I believe will continue to portray in my mind that time in the history of the war.

PHOTO of Violet Heming: Ira Hill of New York Portrait Photograph. This photo may have                been taken for the 1915 film of "Under Fire" since it appears on Silent 

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