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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Country Cousin

State of the Stage Dept.: Even before winning Pulitzer Prizes for the novels Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington racked up several Broadway successes as a playwright. Here’s an unsigned NY Times piece from 1917 that gives a fascinating look at the craft, as Tarkington perceived it.


BUDDING and aspiring playwrights who cherish the fond delusion that the writing of plays is merely a “knack” which can be mastered by almost any one, and who wonder why the brain children which they are constantly bearing never seem to interest the unfeeling and unsympathetic managers, are respectfully referred by George C. Tyler to certain letters from Booth Tarkington, coauthor with Julian Street of “The Country Cousin,” the new play which the former produced last Monday night at the Gaiety.

Booth Tarkington
The Tarkington-Tyler correspondence might be labeled “A Play in the Making.” There are more than a hundred letters from the playwright-novelist in Mr. Tyler’s files directly bearing on “The Country Cousin,” and they cover a period of more than two years. They reveal, in an interesting and diverting manner, something of the worries, something of the intensive labor, and something of the meticulous care which enter into the writing of a play by an experienced playwright, and into the successful production of it by the much-abused producer.

A perusal of excerpts from them should dissipate the prevailing idea that successful plays can be “dashed off,” and the printing of them may not be in vain. If a contemplation of the labors therein set forth leads even a single foreordained shoe clerk to give up the notion of becoming the American Pinero and to settle down to his good little job and his nice little wife, Mr. Tarkington reveals in his delightful letters that the profession of playwrights entails the hardest kind of hard work and that it is far from being all the proverbial beer and skittles.

The writing of “The Country Cousin” was commenced in the Summer of 1915 at Kennebunkport, Me., where Mr. Tarkington has his country place. Mr. Street was his house guest, and together they began the construction of the play, the general details of the story having been worked out beforehand and having been accepted by Mr. Tyler. Here is a fragment from the first letter directly bearing on the actu4 writing of the play:

“Finished Act 1 last night at 2 o’clock. Julian is all in. He calls me Simon Legree, and is evidently having a. new experience. My way of plug-plug straight on is hard on him, and he’s hollow-eyed and weak-voiced. He yields sweetly when I reject suggestions for trips to Biddeford Pool for dinner and ‘come right home to work afterward.’ First act looks pretty fair.”

The first draft of the play was finished two months afterward. Then the authors developed a revision version. Elsie Ferguson was at that time being considered for the leading role by Mr. Tyler, and we find Mr. Tarkington writing about her possible reception of the play. He says:

“I think you will find the revision shows considerably more character—it’s in bits and changes of phrasing; insertions here and there. If Miss Ferguson is to read the play, wait till she has the revised manuscript. It may be wholly unsympathetic to her—as ‘The Man from Home’ was to Nat Goodwin. There’s no hurry about this play; the important thing, of course, is to find just the type of actress. Unless Miss Ferguson isn’t instantly enthusiastic about the part, she isn’t the type. I don’t think anyone should be urged to play it. The girl to play it will be one who’s crazy about it. It’s not that every actress who might be enthusiastic about it would be right, but any actress who isn’t would certainly be wrong for it.”

When Miss Ferguson’s plans necessitated her appearing in another play and
Marjorie Rambeau was being considered for the leading role, Mr. Tarkington wrote:

“I have a hunch toward Miss Rambeau. I’d a great, great deal rather have an actress not so well known as a star. She’d probably be more amenable to managerial plans and advice and always 1,000 per cent. better for the play, if personally effective.”

The difficulty of properly casting the now finished play continued, Miss Rambeau not being able to arrange her affairs so as to create the leading role, and in December, 1915, Mr. Tarkington wrote:

“I know your anxiety to cast rightly is greater than mine, even: but I want to be a prop to your elbow. For all our sakes and heaven’s, don’t yield to the temptation to take the best the market affords if that best isn’t right! Above all for ‘ George.’ Don’t put the play on at all if you don’t get THE ‘George.’ If he isn’t right we haven’t a smell. If he’s better than right we hit bullseye. Look out—look out! He’s got to have something damn sweet and fetching about him that grabs people in spite of his snob lines. The person and soul of the actor must be the reverse of snob, so that from the start they’ll long for him and Nancy to come together. The man must have charm—we must feel good sense, humor and geniality underneath his surface, and that must be in the texture of the actor’s personality. He must be good looking and a ‘gentleman.’”

“The Country Cousin,” then known as “The Ohio Lady,” finally reached the stage in Chicago early in 1916 with Mary Nash and Eugene O’Brien as Nancy and George respectively. The production was made entirely for “tryout” purposes, so that some idea might he had of its values and of its characters. It revealed the need of drastic alteration, and this Mr. Tarkington set himself out to do early in the Summer of 1916. The present first act of the play was not in the original version at all. Its setting, as those who have seen the present version will recall, is laid in the small town in Ohio from which the Country Cousin halls. Here is the first inkling Mr. Tyler had of this serious change:

“I think we should have Act 1 In Ohio with George Tewksberry and any other characters we wish having accompanied Howitt there on a motor trip to get Eleanor. The only effective scene in the old Act 1 was that between Nancy and George, wasn’t it? That can be transplanted to Ohio. of course. A new Act 1 would mean another character—the mother. As I write this I see it—the hotel parlor in Centreville—gives George his chance for comment on the Middle West on the spot. Eleanor to be turned over to her father. You’d show that the mother stipulated with Eleanor that Nancy may come to visit her. It’s very clear to me.”

Later, when it came to writing the act, the scene was laid in the home of Eleanor and not in the hotel. Early in July Mr. Tyler decided to take the strenuous course of physical training in force at a famous sanatorium at White Plains. Mr. Tarkington, desirous of reaching him there with a letter, found that he could not remember the address and so he sent the note to Mr. Tyler’s office. It contains some delicious raillery. Part of it follows:

“I send this in care of your New York office because I can’t remember the curious name of Mr. — ’s town. All I can think of when I remember your telling it is that you said ‘I guess you can recall that, can’t you?’ All that comes into my mind Is Peruna. And if I should write the address, ‘George C. Tyler, Peruna, N. Y.,’ you are so well known that it would probably get to
you, but Mr. — would probably kick the gymnasium trunks off you for receiving such mail.

“I am like Julian. I love to think of your fat a-melting and your little back a-sweating and your spirit a-breaking under the lash. I can see you now, crying yourself to sleep on a horse-hide pillow only to wake to more blows and insults in the morning while I go skimming the roads in our new supercilious six or cresting the Summer seas in my new motor boat, the Zan Tee. I imagine it’s hot and dusty at Peruna, too. It’s pleasant to think of your being slave-driven to run back and forth over a plowed field for seven hours; then being forced to eat a quart of bran;
then being harnessed to a set of chest weights till dark, followed by more bran, one raw egg and a rhubarb leaf before you’re whipped into your little night cell. The wonderful thing is that you up and went and asked for it yourself.

“I hope your thoughts will sometimes dwell on the happy past. How would Janet Beecher do for Nancy? You remember you once thought of her rather seriously. Nancy can be 27, but Janet could be 23, which is one big lift. Don’t forget it’s not enough for the actress to be the part—we’ve got to have a girl that people, (not us,) can be mashed on. We can’t make the part carry the actress. I wish there were some fascinating creature entirely or almost new to the public. She must be fresh-looking, youthful, not a kid, but young womanhood. There must be some new ones somewhere, though I think Miss Beecher would be a pretty safe play.

“I only suggest this, mark you. She’d be lovely with O’Brien—dark and fair. We hang by that love story. Give them a pair of lovers and it’s all over but the shouting. Those two are a pair an audience would love to see being intelligent and un-ordinary lovers. They’d be crazy about ‘em. Think it over while you’re taking your nineteen-mile trot at 4 A. M. and later when you’re
having your daily noon cry. I hear they hit you with a tarred sapling if your sobbing disturbs the others. Give Mr. — my best wishes and try to keep him from finding where you keep your last dish of cocainized cigarettes as long as you can. Julian’s going to ship you some more.”

A little later the entirely new version was practically completed, and we find Mr. Tarkington writing:

“In the last act I can imagine an actress wanting Nancy to have more to do. I think she’s got enough in her bearing the attack; that silent taking it is always pretty effective if done well. I don’t know any stage—or life—attitude that is more appealing or gets one stronger. Are you plumb satisfied with the new title, ‘ The Country Cousin’? I think it’s good, but if there’s a better possible one, we ought to discover it. Consider within yourself: How did ‘The Country Cousin’ strike you at first? First impressions of titles are usually best—not always, of course.”

Probably no author ever before insisted so insistingly upon having the right actress play the leading role in a play of his as did Mr. Tarkington. In nearly every one of his letters there was some mention of the necessities of the role. Hear him a week or two later:

“Always keep in mind that you want an intelligent-looking and handsome—lovely rather than handsome—person for Nancy: one who suggests or is a girl not beyond the possibility of a Princeton senior wanting to take her down to a college dance. Then you’d have this play about nine-tenths over, with O’Brien to play opposite. There’s a Maude Adams somewhere playing small parts and able to do bigger, and you might stumble on her or she might just happen in.”

Mr. Tarkington had a prophetic soul. For Alexandra Carlisle, who gives such a charming portrayal of Nancy at the Gaiety, did “just happen in,” but, of course, she was an established actress and not a beginner. All this, however, is another story.

In the completed revised version, Mr Tarkington, following the suggestion of Mr. Tyler, left George completely out of the first act. Later Mr. Tyler felt that this was a mistake and wrote him
to think over the idea of following out his (Tarkington’s) original plan of introducing him in this situation. Followed this somewhat eruptive communication from the author:

“Why, gosh darn your silly old hide: You’re quoting some one else as having suggested putting George into the first act. I told you precisely that months ago, but you wouldn’t listen to me. You
take up with the last thing any one tells you unless any one is ME! I suppose you know that I’ve done about $24,000 worth of work on your darn old play already. When you declined to consider my idea that it was necessary to bring George into Act I I didn’t argue with you. (Have you noticed that I never argue with you any more? I suppose not.) I said: ‘All right—I can make a play out of it somehow,’ and did the best possible without George.

“Of course, it’s better with George, but I wish you hadn’t discovered it. Now I’ve got to remodel the damn thing. I’ll do it. but you’ve got to promise me not to offer it to any actress over fifty.”

Those who have seen the play will recall that one of the most delightful scenes in the entire play is that between George and the small town juvenile egotist in the last act. This was written at the suggestion of Mr. Tyler, but Mr. Tarkington, at the outset, couldn’t “see” it at all. Hear him:

“I don’t see a scene between George and Sammy. It may THINK funny, but I don’t visualize it as funny—not unless you force it. It will be forcing things to bring Sammy on in the last act and devilish awkward to write, but it can, of course, be done.”

Mr. Tarkington is one author who isn’t ashamed of his own work. Here’s an extract from one of his letters written at about this time:

“I’ve just completed the seventy-eighth or one hundred and seventy-eighth remodeling (I forget which) of ‘The Country Cousin,’ and, while I think there was the manuscript of a very respectable and probably successful play before. I’m inclined, for the first time, to chuckle over this new edition.”

In commenting a little later on about the need of an attractive girl for the ingenue role of Eleanor, Mr. Tarkington wrote:

“What makes ‘The Boomerang’ a success? The one ‘funny’ scene in the doctor’s office? No, Sir! Love story amusingly and cunningly developed between ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE. And PRETTY GIRL. The doctor comedy stuff BACKED UP by pretty girl does it. WOULDN’T do it WITHOUT—never! An audience is made up of two sexes, and they are CONSCIOUSLY ‘sexed’ the instant a love-theme is introduced to their eyes and ears. The very fact that we use a ‘love interest’ shows that we depend on rousing that sex consciousness for our results.

“If our actors are attractive enough to make the ‘love story’ a glamour to the audience we’ve got a walloper. You can’t get away from it because it’s fundamental psychology. So accept it and
‘act accordingly.’ We’re trying to produce an illusion, and the only means we have is the personal beauty of our materials.”

Finally, when Miss Carlisle had been selected for the leading role and a second “try-out production” in Philadelphia impended last Spring, Mr. Tarkington wrote concerning the cadences which make up the speech of the typical Middle Westerner, a theme touched upon in still another letter recently reprinted in these columns. Hear him:

“With O’Brien and a good support you ought to be able to see what’s in the play, if Miss Carlisle and your Eleanor can SOUND LIKE OHIO. A subtle, but actually vital, effect will be lost if they don’t. Reading the play over, after a long forgetting of it, I perceive that it hangs on the love-story first, but almost as much on a mid-westerness contrast which, if not audible in manner of speech (audible but not unpleasant) will cost us heavily. The audience would not consciously know whether the Middle West is there or not. It lies in cadence and in distinctness, but not
burring the ‘Rs.’

“Tell Miss Carlisle to listen to you when you talk and not to notice the meaning of anything you say but the sound and cadence and pronunciation. You ought to give her a great deal of time and talk continuously. Get Julian to do the same thing—his accent and cadence are still untainted by New York. If she heard the Midland speech several hours a day for a week or so it would seep into her, and she couldn’t help speaking it correctly.”

NY Times, 9 September 1917

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