Thursday, February 3, 2022

GILBERT EMERY’S THE HERO

 

The Hero, written in 1920, was Gilbert Emery’s (1875-1945) first play. Emery was thirty- nine years old when he served during World War I as an American Ambulance Driver. He was stationed in France for nine months during 1914-15.  Emery was a multi-talented person who acted in at least eighty films. He also wrote novels, poetry and had seven of his plays produced on Broadway. 

                                                                         GILBERT EMERY

The Hero is a unique story that focuses on a soldier, Oswald Lane, who in 1919 returns home to a small suburban town near New York City. His Mother, Sarah, and older brother, Andrew, have not seen Oswald since he ran away from home twelve years earlier at the age of sixteen. The family has had no contact with him since that time.

Andrew, about forty years old, works as an insurance clerk and is married to Hester who is twenty-six years old. They have a six-year-old son named Andy. There are two other persons who live with this family in their “small rented, jerry-built house.” Sarah Lane is Andrew’s mother, who was a farm woman, and Marthe Roche, a young, pretty orphan from Belgian. She helps with the household chores as well as providing some care for Andy. Hester and Marthe are immediately enamored of handsome, brave Oswald who returns unexpectedly from a hospital in France.

Act Two is in the “Sitting Room of the House.” It is three months after Oswald’s arrival home. He had spoken at the church earlier this evening about his war experiences. Oswald’s heroism is established in the minds of the people of this town, while his character at home reveals a man who is without scruples.

Act Three is in the same location. It is 8 AM the next morning. Oswald is determined to leave this house and return to France.  He plans to steal the church collection that resulted from his talk the previous evening. Since Andrew oversees the church’s money, last night’s collection has been locked away in his home. Oswald takes it and leaves. Just as he sets out to depart from their small town for France, the kindergarten where little Andy goes to school catches on fire. Once again Oswald proves to be heroic. This time it is at the cost of his own life; however, Andrew can now neatly explain the loss of the Church’s money so no further disgrace from Oswald’s latest misdeed falls upon his family.

The Hero never openly discusses what is to be done with the man who is a “hero” in war and an “undesirable citizen” when at home?  But in acts two and three, Oswald’s attitude and actions strip him of his former glory until the play’s conclusion. This is obviously an unusual and unsentimental topic for the decade immediately following World War One.

The Hero premiered in New York City at the Longacre Theatre on March 14,1921, one year after the end of the Spanish flu. It was a short engagement of five “special matinee” performances.   Its main Broadway production opened at the Belmont Theatre on September 5, 1921, where it ran for eighty performances. Sam H. Harris (1872-1941) was producer of both productions as well as owner of the Longacre Theatre. There were only two actors who appeared in both productions—Robert Ames (1889-1931) played Oswald and Blanche Friderici (1878-1933) played Sarah Lane.  The other four roles were recast, and Richard Bennett (1870-1944) played Andrew Lane.

The Hero was published in Arthur Hobson Quinn’s “Contemporary American Plays” and in Burns Mantle’s “Best American Plays of 1921-22.”  During the 1920s, The Hero was produced in numerous American cities.

On January 1, 1923 an American silent film was released and the storyline was based on The Hero. It starred Oswalt Glass (18??-19?? ) as Oswald and Barbara La Marr (1896-1926) as Hester Lane.  When the film was released in Great Britain during the second week in November 1923, its title was changed to His Brother’s Wife. It had good reviews and played throughout the country for three years.

On April 8,1930 the “Evening Express” newspaper in Los Angeles California reported “two of the largest audiences ever to witness a legitimate stage play in California are expected at the Shrine Civic Auditorium” to attend two performances of “The Hero.”  The seating capacity of this auditorium was 6500 persons.  This production starring Broadway actor Grant Mitchell (1874-1957) was already being performed in Los Angeles by the Civic Repertory Theatre at the Music Box Theatre, but the entire cast and production were moved to the Shriner’s theatre and the two performances were free of charge to the Shriners and their families.

During March 2014, there was an Off-Broadway production of The Hero at the Metropolitan Playhouse. It opened on March 8 and closed on March 30th.  Christian Rozakis played the role of Oswald. The New York Times review on March 10th states:

           There’s a lot to watch in “The Hero.”  But the real action is under the surface.

           This exceptional revival of Gilbert Emery’s 1921 play is steeped in subtext

           and repressed emotions: confusion, regret, desire and despair. Here, the silent

           moments are among the most moving.     

 

The most recent undertaking of this play was part of a celebration of Gilbert Emery’s life and works in his birth city of Naples, New York. The Bristol Valley Theatre presented a live stage reading of The Hero on October 24, 2021.

There is something about this play that lingers with you after even a single reading. The copy I read is in “Modern American and British Plays” by S. Marion Tucker. (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931)    

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