- Historic Sites
Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
Though Hopkins had retained a one-third interest in the production, he did not direct the play, as I had expected that he would. That task was entrusted to Sam Forrest, a member of the Cohan & Harris staff, who had staged many Broadway successes. Hopkins, however, made an invaluable contribution to the production. From the time I had begun work on the play, I had been worried about the mechanical problem of making the changes from the courtroom to the interior scenes and back again. I knew that it would take several minutes, at least, to strike and set the scenes: an interminable wait during which the attention of the audience could not possibly be maintained. The only solution that I could think of was to have the interior scenes played in darkness, with only the actors’ voices carrying the story; but that was certainly far from satisfactory. The problem was solved by Hopkins. He had been to Europe, where he had studied the mechanics of the continental stages, then as now far in advance of ours. He proposed the use of two platforms, placed upstage and downstage on either side of the proscenium, whence they could readily be pivoted to fill the proscenium opening. On one platform, the courtroom scene was set permanently. While it was in play, there was ample time to change the scenes on the other platform, so that the transitions from scene to scene required only the swinging back of one platform and its replacement by the other, an operation that took less than a minute. This simple device, known as a jackknife stage, had never before been used in America.
The cast was selected by Forrest. I was not consulted. Had I been, I would have had nothing to contribute, for the only actors whose names I was familiar with were those whom I had seen perform from my seat in the gallery. The principal players were Frederick Perry, a popular leading man; Frederick Truesdell, a suave portrayer of heavies; and Mary Ryan, who was Forrest’s wife. None of them was a brilliant performer, but they were all competent enough to portray characters born of the exigencies of a melodramatic plot.
I sat through all the rehearsals, but my participation in the production was an occasional minor cut or a change in a line, made at Forrest’s request. Watching Forrest in action was an extraordinary experience. He was a type that has almost disappeared from our theatre: a real Thespian, long-haired, sonorous, given to striking attitudes. He seemed to me a lineal descendant of Vincent Crummles. Like most directors who were once actors, he was not content with telling the members of the cast what to do; he found it necessary to get up on the stage and show them how. There was a ten-year-old in the play, and whenever Forrest gave her an object lesson in the enactment of her role Hopkins and I, safe in the rear of the dark auditorium, shook with silent laughter. (Incidentally, when the play was subsequently performed by a Washington stock company, the part of the child was played by a young actress named Helen Hayes Brown—she later dropped the Brown from her name.) But Forrest’s methods were effective. He had a good sense of movement and of tempo, and he kept the ball in the air.
I had almost no contact with the actors, and I am sure that they thought me unfriendly and standoffish. But my aloofness was due to timidity, and to the fear of seeming intrusive. It took me a while to learn that actors are among the most approachable of human beings, and that they like nothing better than having attention paid to them. Many producers, directors, and authors have contempt for actors, but I have found most of them to be warm-hearted, generous, and often good company.
The rehearsal of On Trial was not the only event that made July, 1914, memorable. Late in the month, war broke out in Europe: a conflict now known as World War I, though at the time the distinguishing Roman numeral was not required. A Socialist and an ardent pacifist, I was horrified by an outbreak of hostilities that Norman Angell had assured us, in The Great Illusion, could not possibly occur. But Europe in 1914 was unbelievably far away. Besides, like every intelligent student of world events, I knew that military operations on such a scale could not be long maintained, and that in a few months the whole thing would be over. So I focussed my attention upon my play, and let the world wag.
The New York opening was set for August 19, following a weekend tryout in Stamford, Connecticut. On the fourteenth, I went to Stamford, accompanied by my mother and a friend, Bertram Bloch, and put up at a hotel. Though Stamford is less than forty miles from New York, it was the first time I had ever crossed the Connecticut line. In fact, except for occasional trips to Baltimore to visit my mother’s family and brief vacations in the Catskills, I had never been anywhere.
It was a big night in Stamford, not because of the opening of On Trial, but because it marked the inauguration of the Stamford Theatre, a new $200,000 playhouse. (The repertory theatre at Lincoln Center will cost $9,250,000.) The large theatre was packed. The proceedings began with a speech by a Mr. Robert Whitaker, who hailed this addition to the cultural life of Stamford. “In these hurly-burly days of 1914,” he said, in part, “with war scares bothering us and business troubles pressing us, we had need of something to keep us from . . . the sanitariums.”