- Historic Sites
Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
Throughout the performance the interest kept mounting. As one paper put it, next morning: “During the intermission, the sidewalk was crowded with men from the audience, smoking and talking. The carriage starter called: ‘Curtain up, gentlemen.’ Usually when this call is heard, the smokers saunter back leisurely to their seats. Last night, there was a rush to get back into the theatre, every man seeming to fear that he would miss the rise of the curtain.” (It will be noted that reference is made only to men. Women did not smoke in public; nor did they leave their seats, where they sat sedately holding their large hats in their laps.)
At the end of the play, there was hearty applause, even cries of “Author!”—a practice now happily obsolete in New York, though it survives in London. Someone jerked me to my feet. I stood at the edge of the box, blinking, sweating, murmuring inaudibly—and it was over! Cohan & Harris’ business manager took me to Churchill’s, a popular after-theatre resort, where I had a chicken sandwich and a bottle of ginger ale; then I took the subway uptown and went to bed.
The press confirmed the verdict of the first-night audience. Today there are only six dailies of general circulation in New York. This concentration of power is a continuing nightmare for authors, actors, and producers. Unless a production has a large advance sale or a popular star, it can hardly survive adverse notices in the New York Times and Herald Tribune. In 1914, there was no such lethal concentration. There were fifteen English-language dailies in Manhattan, another half dozen in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Newark, as well as an influential German, Yiddish, and Italian press. That made for a diffusion and diversity of opinion that gave a play a fighting chance, especially since operating costs were a tenth of what they are today.
However, in the case of On Trial, there was hardly a dissenting voice. Here are a few brief excerpts from the general chorus of “raves”: “A play which upsets all rules and precedents and is cheered by first night audience”; “Strong and gripping play”; “All that is melodramatic in the criminal courts is in this new play”; “The dramatic sensation of the season”; “A sensational success”; “The first ‘retroactive’ melodrama inspires an excited audience to arise in its seats and cheer the author”; “A remarkable example of dramatic construction”; “Has novelty, thrills and suspense”; “Thrills from start to finish; unique in stage effects.” Though I did not altogether share the enthusiasm of some of the reviewers, I was not offended by their praise.
Since mid-August is not a popular theatregoing season in New York, the management had sought to protect itself against playing to empty houses by giving away most of the tickets for the second night. They offered me a hundred free seats. But my circle of acquaintances was small and I could use only a few. However, the favorable press instantly attracted crowds to the box office and with no seats available hundreds of people had to be turned away. Of course, there could have been no better advertisement for the play. Nothing is more provocative to theatregoers than the news that tickets are unobtainable.
The play ran in New York until the following July, for a total of 365 performances. In December, a second company opened in Chicago, where it ran for nearly five months. The following season there were three companies on tour. One of them was headed by Pauline Lord, who had succeeded Mary Ryan in New York. She became one of the finest actresses in the American theatre, particularly memorable for her performances in Anna Christie, They Knew What They Wanted, and The Late Christopher Bean. Eventually the play had numerous performances in stock and abroad. The motion picture rights were sold, and then resold when the talkies came in. Recently there was a television production in Italy. All in all, my earnings from the play have come to something like $100,000. I did not make a mistake in rejecting Cohan’s offer.