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July 2024
19min read

Or, How to Write a Smash Hit the First Time You Try

On a certain day in December, 1913, I went up to the ornate courthouse of the Appellate Division, on Madison Square, to join a numerous company of youths who, like myself, had survived the bar examinations and the scrutiny of the Character Committee of the Bar Association, and were now being admitted to the practice of law in the state of New York. Aged twenty-one, I had been employed for more than five years in a large law office. In the course of my employment I had worked my way through night law school, advanced by stages from file clerk to managing clerk, and had had my weekly wage increased, with all deliberate speed, from five dollars to fifteen.

I should have been elated by my attainment of the goal toward which I had been travelling for so long, but I was not. On the contrary, I was dismally depressed. I had grown to hate the law, and the prospect of devoting the rest of my life to its practice was a gloomy one indeed. For I wanted to be a writer, and I foresaw that once I embarked seriously upon a legal career, I would become more and more involved and, finally, would find myself inextricably hooked. If I were to escape at all, the time to quit was now.

That is precisely what I did. Early in January, 1914, a few weeks after I was sworn in, I informed my employers that I was giving up my job. They were astounded, as well they might have been. From any common-sense point of view, my precipitate resignation was an act of folly. My future in the office was assured. By the exercise of reasonable diligence I was certain to progress and, in due course, to become a member of the firm. Yet here I was throwing away security and abandoning a steady professional career to devote myself to the most precarious of all activities.

My family too received the news with amazement and, I am sure, with consternation. We were far from destitute, but it was not easy to make ends meet. My father, a chronic invalid, could earn little. The chief source of income was the board paid by my grandfather and my uncle, who lived with us. Out of my fifteen dollars per week, I contributed nine to the family budget. It was tacitly understood that as my economic status improved, I would take over an increasingly larger share of the financial burden. My impulsive action and, even more, my determination to become a writer were incomprehensible to my elders. They had no conception of the literary life—in fact, no acquaintance whatever with the arts. But they were decent people and they were fond of me. They never reproached or questioned me: a forbearance that did much to ease my path.

But having made my decisive move, I began to question it myself. I had a passionate desire to be a writer, preferably a playwright, but very little except hope to go on with. My literary experience had been, to put it mildly, limited. I had sold an O. Henryish short story to Argosy Magazine for twenty dollars; and a play, written in collaboration with an officemate, had won honorable mention (no cash) in a contest conducted by a ladies’ theatre club. The outlook was not only not promising; it was almost nonexistent.

Conscious of my obligations to my family, I set about seeking a stopgap job to keep me going while my literary career was developing. I took two examinations: one to qualify as a teacher of English to foreigners in the city’s night schools; the other a competitive New York State examination for proofreader. I had no equipment for either post. I had never gone beyond the second year of high school; and my proofreading experience consisted of holding copy when briefs were read for correction. While I was awaiting the results of the examinations I continued to pay my nine dollars weekly out of some money I had accumulated in a savings bank. There was enough to last for six months or so; beyond that I did not look.

Since I was determined to be a writer, my immediate problem was to find something to write about. I threshed about for days and weeks, waiting for lightning to strike; but it failed to do so. Then one day I read a magazine article by the dramatic critic and lecturer Clayton Hamilton that captured my interest. Hamilton suggested the possibility of writing a play “backward,” that is to say, a play in which each successive act antedates the preceding one. I found it an attractive notion and began exploring it. But it did not take me long to discover that Hamilton’s ingenious idea was not practicable. A veteran theatregoer—I had begun at the age of eight—and an assiduous student of dramatic literature, I knew that any effective play must deal with the resolution of a situation, and must therefore move forward and not backward. But I saw too that if the story were set in a framework, the interior action could be inverted, so that the play seemingly moved backward.

The framework that immediately suggested itself to a newly admitted member of the bar was, of course, a court trial. With that established, progress was rapid. The setting is a courtroom. A man is on trial for murder. A witness for the prosecution is called. The scene changes, and the testimony of the witness is enacted: testimony that seems to leave no doubt of the defendant’s guilt. Back to the courtroom, where it is now the defense’s turn. The first witness testifies to events immediately preceding the murder, and the case takes on a different aspect. Again the courtroom, and again the enactment of still earlier events which tend to exonerate the accused. And finally the end of the trial and the inevitable acquittal. It will be seen at once that this device was nothing more nor less than the "flashback” technique, already employed in motion pictures but never before used on the stage.

All that was needed now was something with which to flesh out this sturdy skeleton: in other words, a story. So I invented one. It dealt with incidents arising out of a Kentucky feud. That is all I can remember about it, and I have been unable to locate a script. I had never been in Kentucky and knew nothing about feuds or the people who engaged in them. But that did not deter me. I had seen and read many melodramas, and what was required were melodramatic characters and situations. So without very much cogitation, I sat down at an old, battered typewriter I had acquired somewhere and began to write the play. It was titled According to the Evidence.

When I finished the play, early in May, I did not quite know what to do with it. I was not acquainted with anyone in the theatre and had no means of access. I did not even know that there were agents who specialized in the marketing of plays. So I could think only of taking the script around to the offices of the several producers with whose names I was familiar. As a beginning, I chose Selwyn & Company, who had recently produced a sensationally successful melodrama, Within the Law, in which the young Jane Cowl had appeared; and Arthur Hopkins, whose production of a fantasy, The Poor Little Rich Girl, had caught my fancy. On a Tuesday morning, I left scripts at both offices. I had been told that it took about six months for a producer to get around to reading a play. So I was prepared to turn my attention to something else: another play, perhaps. The economic pressure had eased a little. I had passed the teaching examination and had finished seventh in a list of two hundred who took the proofreading exam. (A sad commentary, by the way, on the standards of our civil service!) That meant the certainty of paid employment within a few months.

However, I did not have to wait six months to hear from my producers. On Thursday, two days after I submitted the scripts, I received a note from Hopkins and another from Crosby Gaige, then playreader for the Selwyns. Each curtly asked me to come in. I was not only disheartened but enraged. It seemed that far from taking their time to read your plays, the producers simply flung them back at you unread. So I went glumly down to Times Square to pick up the scripts.

Gaige was out to lunch. I then went to Hopkins’ office, which was located in the dilapidated Putnam Building, on the site of the present Paramount Theatre. (The building housed Shanley’s Restaurant, the Sardi’s of its day, which served an excellent sixty-fivecent lunch. Martinis were two for a quarter.) Hopkins’ offices consisted of a small reception room and a somewhat larger private room, and his staff, of a young scenic designer who was receptionist, office boy, and secretary. I was shown in at once. Hopkins, a roundfaced, double-chinned, benign man, had already gained a reputation for laconism. Our conversation was indeed brief. He asked me point-blank if the play I had submitted was original with me. I replied that it was. His next question was: “What are your terms?” Even if I had known what he meant by “terms,” I would have been bowled over by this abrupt announcement of his intention to produce my play. I mumbled something or other, and, aware of my confusion and inexperience, Hopkins told me to come back in a few days to sign the contract he would have prepared. Then he rose to indicate that the interview was over.

I left in a state of bewilderment and disbelief. But when I went back early the next week, there was the contract, ready for my signature. This was long before the days of the Dramatists Guild and its minimum basic agreement. Contracts were usually drawn by the producers’ attorneys. Unscrupulous producers often took advantage of beginning authors. But Hopkins was a man of great integrity. The contract he offered me was quite up to prevailing standards. What interested me most about it was that it called for an advance of $500. Half was paid to me on the signing of the contract; the balance was to be paid later. I did not expect that the play would ever be produced, but that $250 was a real windfall.

My skepticism about the play’s chances of production would have been even greater had I known more about the state of Hopkins’ finances. Some weeks after the signing of the contract, he sent for me and told me that while he was enthusiastic about the play’s format, he felt that the story should be improved, or that perhaps a new story should be devised. What he did not tell me was that he had no capital with which to produce the play, and that his efforts to obtain backing from more prosperous producers had been unsuccessful.

It was not hard for him to persuade me to rewrite the play. I had no allegiance to Kentucky and no interest in its feuds. As long as the device was kept intact, I did not care what went into it. I had high ideals about the theatre, and high aspirations, but this play did not represent them. I never thought of it as anything but a technical tour de force. So I set to work inventing new plot material. I wrote and rewrote, always in close consultation with Hopkins. In the course of a month or so, I must have written the equivalent of half a dozen plays. At length there emerged a script that satisfied us both. Except for the mechanics of the story’s development, it contained no vestige of my original play. Locale, characters, situations, dialogue—all were wholly new.

Shortly afterward, Hopkins told me that Cohan & Harris was interested in coproducing the play. He asked me to consent to an assignment of the production contract. It was only much later that I learned that his attempt to interest them in the original script had failed. I had no objection to the assignment, for Cohan & Harris ranked with Charles Frohman, A. H. Woods, William A. Brady, and David Belasco as Broadway’s most active and successful producers. When the papers were signed, Hopkins gave me his check for $150, the final installment of my advance royalty. I deposited it immediately, but it came back. I redeposited it, for I had seen Hopkins receive a check for the advance from Cohan & Harris. Now his check to me cleared. But it was a bit of an eye opener to me to learn that a well-known producer had not had $150 in his bank account.

Cohan & Harris not only undertook to finance the play but assumed all the details of production and management, for the firm had a large staff and owned two theatres besides, in one of which, the Candler in West Forty-second Street, my play, rechristened On Trial, was to open. George M. Cohan, the Yankee-Doodle Boy, was probably the most celebrated figure that the Broadway theatre has ever known. Actor, composer, lyric writer, playwright, stage director, producer, theatre owner, he was the Noel Coward of his day. At one time, too, he was the most beloved figure. But when, in 1919, he bitterly opposed the formation of the Actors’ Equity Association and refused to join it, the actors who had idolized him turned against him, and he never recaptured their love. His philosophy, his mentality, and the secret of his success may be discerned in two of his aphorisms: “Always leave them laughing when you say goodbye,” and “The American flag has saved many a bum show.” At the time I met him he was about thirty-five, at the top of his form and at the height of his success. His hit plays are, I suppose, no longer performed (except perhaps Seven Keys to Baldpate), but his performances in Ah, Wilderness and I’d Rather Be Right will be remembered by anyone who saw them. Some twenty-five years after I became acquainted with him, I persuaded him to appear in the Playwrights Company production of Sidney Howard’s posthumous play, Madam, Will You Walk? But his old Broadway cronies, who came down to see the Washington tryout, talked him out of opening in New York. I think it was his last stage appearance.

With Cohan & Harris in the picture and rehearsals scheduled for October, I began to feel that the play might be produced after all. I had two job offers now: a night-school teaching assignment, and a post as proofreader in the State Hospital for the Insane in Albany, at twenty-five dollars a week. The teaching job did not begin until September, so I did not have to decide immediately about that. But the Albany post had to be accepted or rejected at once. I did not hesitate long. The pay was attractive but, on the other hand, my expenses in Albany would have been greater than they were at home. Besides, I did not want to live in Albany. So I turned it down. I have never regretted that decision, though I must admit that I have never ceased to puzzle over the nature of a proofreader’s duties in an insane asylum.

Things had been moving fast; but again the pace was accelerated. Word reached Cohan & Harris that A. H. Woods had in preparation a play called Innocent, which employed the flashback device that was the mainstay of On Trial. My producers felt that it was imperative to beat Woods to the gun. It was decided to put my play into rehearsal in mid-July, two months ahead of the planned date. Hardly six months had elapsed since I had quixotically abandoned a safe career, with no prospects and no visible asset except, stubborn determination to become a writer. Yet here I was with a play on the way to Broadway. It was all so bewildering that my only reaction was one of numb incredulity.

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.”

He was followed by the Mayor, the Honorable William G. Austin, who spoke, not without pride, of the civic achievements that had attended his administration: “New public schools, a fine new Congregational church edifice, the completion of the new Stamford Hospital, the initiation of a plan for proper sewage disposal, the change of the post office to a more desirable location, a new home for our principal men’s club, the Suburban Club, two new bank buildings, a new clubhouse for the Stamford Yacht Club, a new hotel and a new theatre.” He introduced Mrs. Emily Wakeman Hartley, who had been mainly responsible for the erection of the theatre and who was to manage it. She was greeted enthusiastically.

To those of us who were concerned with the fate of the play, it all seemed to take quite a long time. From my seat in a stage box, I could see Cohan, Harris, and Hopkins pacing the rear of the auditorium. But at last the speeches came to an end and the audience settled down for the secondary business of the evening.

When the curtain rose, the crowded courtroom and the opening maneuvers of the murder trial quickly engaged the attention of the audience. But as the first witness, in widow’s weeds, finished saying: “As I entered my home, the telephone in the library rang,” the lights went out and the curtain came down. There were murmurs of disappointment; it was evident that something backstage had gone wrong: a cue missed, a switch accidentally pulled. Thirty seconds later the curtain rose upon the library scene, with the telephone ringing and the witness, now in an evening gown, entering to answer it. Amazement, excitement, prolonged applause! Hopkins’ jackknife stage had scored a triumphant success. From that point on the play was “in.” The audience not only eagerly followed the twists of the melodramatic story, but awaited the rapid alternation of the scenes.

During the second intermission, I went into the lobby. There was no danger of my being recognized, for no one knew of my existence. My producers were there, looking pleased. When Cohan saw me, he came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Kid, if you want to sell your rights in the play, I’ll give you thirty thousand dollars for them.” I looked at him in astonishment and disbelief, then hastily concluded that he could not be serious. I did not believe that anyone possessed thirty thousand dollars, or having it, would offer it for a beginning author’s rights in an untried play. At my law office salary, it would have taken me forty years to earn thirty thousand dollars. I was sure that Cohan was having me on, hoping that my gullible acceptance would give him a good story with which to regale his cronies at the Friars Club. So, with a smile that must have been sickly, I said that I would take my chances. Cohan nodded and walked away.

Next day, the Stamford Morning News (“The price of the Morning News is One Cent everywhere. Pay no more”) did full justice to the opening, under a page one, seven-column banner head that read: “Atlantic Street Turned into a Broadway.” Several subheads were followed by four solid columns of copy:

The Stamford Theatre was “On Trial” last night, before a jury composed of the Stamford public, and to say that the jury was unanimous in agreeing that the city of Stamford had a theatre of which they have abundant reason to be proud would be putting the case mildly … If there was a list of those present, it would include the business, professional and social directory of Stamford’s citizenship. Everybody was there. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, artisans, mechanics, businessmen, in fact every representative that could be thought of. And the play was such that they enjoyed every minute of it. . . . The town looked like Broadway when the show was over. There was the lineup of automobiles, the dress suits of the men providing the background for the stunning dresses of the Stamford women.

The speeches of Mr. Whitaker, Mayor Austin, and Mrs. Hartley were quoted at considerable length. Nor was the play ignored: an entire laudatory paragraph was devoted to it. There were large and responsive audiences at the Saturday performances. All in all, it was an opening that gave satisfaction to everyone.

We were opening a new theatre in New York too. The Candler was owned by Cohan & Harris. (It later became the Sam H. Harris, and has long been one of the wretched “grind” movie houses defacing Forty-second Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.)

August 19, 1914, was a sweltering night. For some reason, I thought it necessary to dress for the occasion. I had, of course, no dress suit of my own. But an uncle gave me one that he had outgrown, and I had it cut down to fit my skinny figure. Again I was in a stage box, crowded in with my parents, grandfather, two uncles, and an aunt. Air-conditioning was unknown; the theatre was stifling. In my heavy suit and boiled shirt, with no room for elbows or knees, I was more aware of my discomfort than of the evening’s proceedings.

This time the theatre was opened without ceremonies. If the mayor was there he had the decency to keep the news about sewage disposal to himself. The performance closely followed the Stamford pattern. The audience was obviously interested in the courtroom scene. But the first blackout evoked groans of annoyance and of commiseration. Such a mishap at a New York opening could well be fatal. Half a minute later, the rising curtain and the new scene brought applause and exclamations of surprise and delight.

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.

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