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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

"Clarence": A History

Speaking of Tarkington Dept.: Syracuse Stage presented a revival of Booth Tarkington’s play Clarence during its 1983-84 season (if I’m remembering correctly), and I got wind of this and persuaded them to let me write program notes for the piece. I can’t find a copy of the program, but my original draft is at hand and shows the obsessive enthusiasm I had developed for Tarkington’s work. In other words, I wrote this for them for free. Just as well: it's a pretty dry piece of work.


John Flood, Alfred Lunt, and Helen Hayes
in Clarence, 1919
“WHEN WE WENT to the theatre,” wrote Booth Tarkington about his life in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, “we paid a dollar and a half for an orchestra seat; though when Sarah Bernhardt came  over that winter the impressive charge for such a seat was three dollars. . . . There were table d’hôte dinners with wine for thirty-five cents at Italian restaurants; a dollar and half paid for a Sunday evening table d’hôte, with music, under the great gas chandeliers of the best hotels in the town.”1

Like so many young novelists, Tarkington developed an interest in the stage. He had gathered a reputation as a talented actor while at Princeton, where he co-authored a successful satiric revue. His second novel, Monsieur Beaucaire, achieved enough popularity to invite interest in a stage version, so the author travelled to New York City in 1900 to assist in that project. To his delight, he was sponsored for membership in the Players Club, where he met such theatrical luminaries as Richard Mansfield, John Drew, and Joe Jefferson. Tarkington described the experience of seeing Jefferson in The Rivals: “(He) was an elderly man, but there was no elderliness in his ‘Bob Acres.’ A fresh-colored country youth came before us, inimitably the funniest young coward ever seen on the stage, and not until he played that part with increasingly fierce electric light glaring upon him was the illusion of youth dispelled.”2

A critical pattern which was to persevere began with the opening of Beaucaire in 1901: audiences and critics in Philadelphia and Boston were very enthusiastic, but in New York the critics praised only Mansfield, in the title role, and panned the play.

Tarkington spent the years 1907-1910 as a playwright, beginning with the highly successful The Man From Home, written with Harry Leon Wilson. This portrait of a simple middle-western bumpkin who exposes the deceits of European bigwigs delighted audiences, who applauded the character’s homilies and patriotism.

Booth Tarkington
“No playwright ever enjoyed his trade more than Tarkington,” wrote his biographer, James Woodress. “Having been stage-struck since 1882 when he dramatized the story of Jesse James in his father’s stable, he delighted in all aspects of a theatrical presentment. Casting, rehearsing, directing, and costuming were perenially fascinating, and during the initial stage of any play’s production he worked eagerly with the actors and director. He mastered the craft of play-making perhaps better than any of his novelist contemporaries because he regarded the author as only one third of the team which created the drama. When competently urged by actors and directors, he never objected to changing lines, rewriting scenes, or adding business.”3

It was during this period that Tarkington met producer George C. Tyler, who became a life-long friend and correspondant, and who inspired characters in two Tarkington novels. Tyler produced many of Tarkington’s plays, and the author proved a help in doctoring the failing scripts of others.

Tarkington’s return to Broadway began in 1915, with Mr. Antonio, a successful vehicle for Otis Skinner. As before, the New York critics found the play flat and the characters stereotyped. At Tyler’s suggestion, Tarkington’s next play reworked the idea of The Man from Home, with an Ohio girl placed in the midst of sophisticated Europeans. The Country Cousin had a long period of rewriting and recasting, finally arriving on Broadway in 1917 with Alexandra Carlisle and Eugene O’Brien in the leads. Its popularity was, as usual, dampened by the critics, who found little in the play’s favor.

An important cast change occurred as the play was readied for its road tour: Miss Carlisle suggested a newcomer she wished to take over for the departing O’Brien, and so Alfred Lunt was given one of his first important roles. Tarkington was so impressed with the young man’s performance that Lunt was invited to the author’s home in Indianapolis during the play’s engagement in that city. Tarkington had a play in mind to write for the young man, and after a session in the study duscussing ideas, Lunt burst from the room crying, “He’s going to write a play for me! I’m made! I’m made!” The play, to be titled Clarence, would become Tarkington’s greatest theatrical success.


Glenn Hunter, Alfred Lunt, and Helen Hayes
in Clarence, 1919
George Tyler was once manager for James O’Neill, and would attempt to produce an early script (The Straw) by O’Neill’s son Eugene. But Tyler believed in a different, more stylized theatre. Alan S. Downer wrote of Tyler, “With his partner, Abe Erlanger, he might have as many as six plays in rehearsal at one time” which would try out in a number of cities. “He hired actors by the year, and assumed that they would stay with him for many more; he had a warehouse of sets, from which he could draw the scenery of any new play he chose to present.”4

Tyler believed in a theatre which was built around characters placed in highly dramatic situations – but the characters were more important. Although Tarkington was benevolent to the “new realism” that would become the battle-cry of O’Neill and Shaw and Ibsen and others, he too believed in placing character before situation. He also chose to emphasize comedy, and found it most effective to start with an actor who had comic talent and design the play around him.

In 1918, he wrote to Tyler, “You’ve tried to work my material your way – let me try it my way, for ‘next year perhaps.’ LUNT and a girl like Miss Hayes. . . . Let me write a play for Lunt of my own kind – without telling me anything at all. . . . Lunt’s got his own style; it’s a gorgeous one.”5

The progress of the play was reported to Tyler in a series of letters in February, 1919, from which these excerpts are taken:
I’ve got three acts and the title of the Lunt play done. The title is “Clarence.”
It’s a simple, somewhat whimsical thing – for gaiety – real and “modern.”. . . And, if this play is played, Got to have Helen Hayes for the sister: Got to! This is the best girl or woman part I ever managed to write – it isn’t the part that the Lunt-part “falls in love with” – but it’s as near as a real thing as you’ll ever see from me and needs just that one young genius-person H. H. to play it.  . . .
I hope you’ll “see” it – as it is – it can’t be altered substantially; because its whole substance is character and detail; and there’s only one thing certain about it; no critic will ever succeed in telling the story of it, to fill his space, because it can’t be done. They’ve got to fall back on “the plot is of the flimsiest”! But it isn’t: it’s a darn sight harder plot to build than a million mystery & murder plots – and it’s just an odd sort of real thing. The people who play it have got to be real – and they’ve got to be of ‘good breeding’. . . if these weren’t right we’d flivver!
Lovely pictures of Helen Hayes in “Current Opinion” – confirming me in MY opnion of her at first sight that she could be the coming first lady of the stage – she ought to take careful care of herself. . . . The part of “Cora” in “Clarence” is as different from this Barrie “Margaret” as she could play. . . . There must be a kind of funny sweetness about “Cora” – and Helen Hayes would strike that note center.
You’ll see I’ve made use of Lunt’s extraordinary good looks, by leading UP to them: disguising them for a time – partly at least. I believe he has the full limit of “manly beauty”: my idea was to take full comedy value of this endowment and not sell it for a nickel at first sight.6

Helen Hayes in Clarence, 1919
Despite his enthusiasm for the script, Tarkington was wary of the damage the critics could be counted on to perform. Alexander Woollcott, drama critic for the New York Times, had publicly proclaimed that Tarkington was incapable of writing a play. In a letter to John Peter Toohey, Tyler’s press secretary, Tarkington said, “About ‘Clarence,’ if it is ever produced, I intend to use a nom de plume – lots of reasons to do this for any next play of mine.” He later amplified this statement: “I could not imagine a play, bearing my name, which could shake what seemed in a fair way to become a substantial mortuary monument; and I understand the power of preconceived impression because I am subject to it myself. . . . I had the strong impression that a dramatic critic, entering a theatre to see a play of mine, had himself so strong an impression against the piece that he would be unable to see it except as another demonstration of his previous pronunciamentoes in my favor as a novelist. And there is something disquieting in getting dramatic critics so heartily convinced you are a novelist: you begin to wonder of your books may not persuade literary critics that you are a playwright. Therefore, I thought a pen name might give a play of mine a fairer hearing.”7


“He was a Beau Brummel, thoughtful and kind to everyone. . . . So many fine writers never reveal their humor in ordinary conversation, but Tarkington always did, never holding back a good line because he thought he could sell it in manuscript the next week.”8 Actress Billie Burke’s recollections of Tarkington confirm his reputation as a man of wit and kindliness. Modesty, too; when Clarence opened in New York in September, 1919 to great acclaim – including that of the critics, with the pompous Woollcott recanting his previous opinion of Tarkington’s talent – the playwright gave all the credit to his cast. They were so good,  he said, that they “could play the Telephone Directory and make a hit with it.”9

It ran for 300 performances on Broadway. Woollcott found the play, “as American as ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or pumpkin pie. It is as delightful as any native comedy which has tried to lure the laughter of this community in the last ten seasons.” He noted that the opening night performance prompted a standing ovation and “about twenty-five curtain calls.”10

The Chicago company, which included Ruth Gordon and Gregory Kelly, began its run four months later, and the subsequent tour kept many actors, particularly Lunt, busy for the next few years.

Clarence was also a rare example of a Tarkington play being presented almost exactly as he had written it: Tyler uncharacteristically followed the author’s request to do so, and hardly a line was changed between the time the manuscript was delivered to Tyler in June and the play opened in September.

Although Clarence allowed Tarkington to make peace with the critics, he was soon damned again for his highly political next script, Poldekin, created in response to what he saw as the threat of the Russian Revolution. Written for George Arliss, it pleased neither audiences nor critics.

His next play, The Wren, featured another choice role for Helen Hayes. But this low-key study of summer life in a Maine boardinghouse failed to click with audiences too accustomed to comedy or outright melodrama. His last successes, both written for Billie Burke, were The Intimate Strangers and Rose Briar. He soon returned full time to the business of writing novels.

Wrote Woodress, “Clarence was the one perfect instant in Tarkington’s dramatic career. He wrote it exactly as he wanted it, and Tyler staged it just as it was written. . . . the play was a felicitous combination of inspiration and technical control at Tarkington’s most creative moment.”11

Bea Martin, Elsie Mackay, Barlowe Borland, Helen Hayes,
Alfred Lunt, Glenn Hunter, John Flood, and Mary Boland
in Booth Tarkington's Clarence, 1919

This production of Clarence by the Syracuse Stage is the play’s first professional revival since those auspicious beginnings. “I first heard of Booth Tarkington the same way so many others did – I discovered the Penrod books when I was a boy,” says director Arthur Storch. “I was fifteen, and I found Penrod in the school library, read it one semester, and fell in love with it. Now we move forward a few years. I was looking through one of John Gassner’s books of collected plays, and came across Clarence. I read it, interested to see what Tarkington could do, and fell in love with that, too. It’s a wonderful piece of Americana, something which couldn’t have taken place at any time other than 1919, but at the same time it’s like a brand-new play, and it’s continued to delight both myself and the cast.

“We’ve done no updating, and very little cutting. It was written in four acts, and first performed with three intermissions; we’re presenting it with one intermission. That’s about the only difference.”

The challenge of reaching back almost 65 years is formidable, especially in the theatre, where tastes and standards have changed so much. Storch finds that to be only more of an inspiration. “We’ve collected magazines from the era to help the cast recreate the atmosphere. I believe it would be a big mistake to treat the play as something not rooted in its own reality. We’re not interesting in camping it up or spoofing it in any way. You have to remember that this play was accepted by a sophisticated New York audience back then, so we’re looking at this play in terms of the real circumstances it offers, made up of real people. By doing so there’s no need to be condescending about it: it’s an honest look at what truly was an age of innocence, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“In addition, there’s the delight of obtaining a 65-year-old perspective on life in this country. We’re dealing with a returned veteran, and with him come Army jokes, which really haven’t changed all that much. We learn that, even in 1919, aviation was the glamorous branch of the service. We see the businessman as an object of amusement as well as admiration – he’s too busy to solve the problems in his own family, and that’s a situation which won’t seem unfamiliar.”

Storch is taking pains to make the setting as authentic as the characters themselves: the design of the home in which Clarence takes place was based on a house by Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1918 in Englewood, New Jersey.

Booth Tarkington’s novels too often suffer (as did his plays) at the hands of critics, who now declare that the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner’s work is “too sentimental.” Is this true of Clarence?

“I don’t find it so,” says Storch. “It’s very charming. There’s an obliqueness to the writing which I find interesting. The love affair in the play, for example, is so tangential – not confrontational at all. And the character of Clarence, a character Tarkington enjoyed creating, had an impact on American theatre and films: he’s the ne’er-do-well who turns out to be full of wisdom and education, the seeming hick who is rooted in old-fashioned knowledge, which may be the most valuable kind of intellect.”


1. Booth Tarkington, The World Does Move, Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, NY, 1928, pp. 7-8.
2. ibid, p. 9.
3. James Woodress, Booth Tarkington, Greenwood Press, NY, 1969, p. 149.
4. Alan S. Downer, ed., On Plays, Playwrights, and Playgoers, Princeton University Library, Princeton, NJ, 1959, p. 5.
5. ibid, p. 7.
6. ibid, pp. 9-10.
7. ibid, p. 17.
8. Billie Burke, With a Feather on My Nose, Appleton-Century-Crofts, NY, 1949, p. 198.
9. Woodress, op. cit., p. 213.
10. Quoted by Woodress, op. cit., p. 213.
11. Woodress, op. cit., p. 213.

1 comment:

Harry Minot said...

Thanks for keeping Tarkington Consciousness alive. His work should always be revered. His contribution to the American culture is as potent as Twain's. It's a pity that his two Pulitzers haven't assured his endurance in the popular Memory Bank.