Thursday, January 31, 2019

BILLETED, A Popular British Comedy

Billeted was written by F. Tennyson Jesse (1888-1958) born Wynifred Margaret Jesse and H. M. Harwood (1874-1959 christened Harold Marsh). “Fryn,” as Wynifred dubbed herself, was a great niece of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Since several Jesse family members were also renown authors who had written books in diverse fields: history, poetry, natural history and theology, Fryn acknowledged both families in her nom de plume. In 1912, Fryn met Harwood when he wanted to adapt her first published short story, titled The Mask, into a one-act play.  Together they created a short play titled The Black Mask that became a successful drama.

                                                                F. TENNYSON JESSE
When World War One commenced, Fryn persuaded a London newspaper, The Daily Mail, to send her to Europe as a war correspondent. She was one of the first females hired to write about the war. She became a prominent journalist while continuing to write fiction.

                                                                     H.M. HARWOOD
During a weekend in early part of 1917, Fryn spent a weekend in the English countryside visiting a friend.  Her hostess had married a soldier who had been billeted at her home—billeted is the practice of housing soldiers in a private home during wartime. Fryn and Harwood thought the ideas of billeted combined with marriage provided a basis for creating a play.  Whenever they could meet, they worked on the script for this new comedy. Their play titled Billeted opened in London at the Royalty Theatre on August 21, 1917.

Act One of Billeted is set at a country manor house currently inhabited by Mrs. Betty Taradine, her friend Miss Penelope Moon, and one billeted officer named Colonel Preedy, who is expecting his adjutant, Captain Rymill, to arrive shortly. The house is in the small town of Petworthy, located in West Sussex, England. It is an afternoon in August of 1915. Reverend Liptrott and his sister, Emmaline, come to visit Mrs. Tardine who is unavailable. They learn from Penelope that Betty is not a widow as they thought. Betty’s husband had deserted her two years ago.  Emmaline believes that the military officers should no longer be billeted with this young, unattached woman. When Colonel Preedy learns about Betty’s actual marital status, he agrees to stay with the Liptrott’s starting the next day.  As a result, Betty decides to kill off her absent husband. Captain Peter Rymill arrives as Penelope tells them about the telegram Betty received stating that her husband died. When Betty comes into the room and is introduced to Captain Rymill, she faints. Rymill is Betty’s missing husband who has assumed a new surname.

Act Two takes place in the same location at nine o’clock the next morning. Peter Rymill has breakfast with Penelope, who shares with him her ideas relating to Betty’s marriage. Later Preedy learns that Betty is having financial difficulties and he quietly takes care of the problem unbeknownst to her.

                                                      CAPTAIN RYMILL and PENELOPE

Act Three remains in the same location, but it is three days later. The time is after dinner. The officers have continued to stay in Betty’s home. Over the past few days, Rymill and Betty have spent time together as have Preedy and Penelope. The play ends on an upbeat note for all four characters.

1917 was a difficult time to get approval from the English governmental censor for plays relating to war that mention death. Billeted did receive some criticism after it opened, however most newspaper reviews were positive and audiences loved the play.  The review in the Guardian on August 23, 1917 states: “The dialogue yields good entertainment, being very neat, nimble, and witty….”  The Observer claimed in its review on August 26, 1917: “‘Billeted’ is excellent light entertainment for a summer evening in London.”

The role of Betty Taradine was played by Iris Hoey (1885-1979) and Captain Rymill was Dennis Eadie (1869-1928).  Eadie was a leading British actor when he appeared in this role. The London production ran for more than 200 performances. Then it went on tour throughout England.

                                                                           IRIS HOEY

Billeted opened in New York City at the Playhouse on December 25, 1917. It moved to the Fulton Theatre in mid-January 1918 before closing in March 1918 after seventy-nine performances. Margaret Anglin, a Canadian actress who was a Broadway star, played Betty Taradine with Edward Emery (1861-1938) as Rymill.

After Billeted closed on Broadway it played for a lengthy run in Chicago. This production continued to tour throughout the United States. In late June it opened in Calgary, Canada with Margaret Anglin still in the role of Betty. The Calgary Herald on June 27, 1918 states: “Miss Anglin has a role which affords her every opportunity for her skill as a comedienne.” This tour played in San Francisco, California during late July,1918. Anglin continued to play the role of Betty and appeared in May,1919 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C.

On September 8, 1918 Jesse and Harwood were secretly married at St. Martin’s in London during a private ceremony.  She was thirty years old and he was forty-four. They had known each other for six years and enjoyed working together.  
In 1919 the film version of Billeted appeared under the title The Misleading Widow. The screen script was written by Frances Marion (1888-1973). Marion, an American who served in Europe as a combat correspondent during World War One, later became one of the most renown female screen writers of the twentieth century. She was the first screen writer to win two Academy Awards for her work. The Misleading Widow starred Billy Burke (1884-1970) as Betty. Burke was known for her charm and “remarkable dramatic talent.” James Crane (1889-1968) played the role of Peter Rymill. The film was produced by Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation later known as Paramount Pictures.
Billeted continue to have many professional staged revivals as well as productions mounted by local theatre groups.  A new professional production was mounted in New York City at the Greenwich Village Theatre in May,1922 by Grace Griswold (1867-1927). This production moved to Frazee auditorium, a larger venue.  It ran for a total of twenty-three performances.
Billeted was revived in London during late May,1926 at the Royalty Theatre. Dennis Eadie, who presented this production, appeared in his original role as Rymill and Laurence Hanray (1874-1947) reprised his character Reverend Ambrose Liptrott from the first London cast.
The script for Billeted was published in 1920 by Samuel French, Ltd. This was the official script used in both England and the United States. It is the version that I read.
Billeted continued to be staged occasionally throughout the 1920s and 1930s on both sides of the Atlantic. This comedy became very popular again in Great Britain throughout the years of World War Two.  There were touring companies that presented it as well as local theatre groups. Since Jesse and Harwood made what could be an uncomfortable wartime situation humorous, it once again allowed British audiences to laugh and have a short reprieve from the struggle and angst of living during a period of war.

     JESSE and HARWOOD photos from Joanna Colenbrander's Biography of 
          F. Tennyson Jesse titled A PORTRAIT OF FRYN. London: Andre Deutsch 
          Limited, 1984. 
            NEWS, September 8, 1917. Page 89.

           DRAMATIC NEWS, August 20,1917. Page 110.

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