May 24, 1885– Arthur Wing Pinero:
I believe the future is only the past again, entered through another gate.
He is rather obscure, even for this writer with his degree in Theatre and being an Anglophile savant, and all that. Sir Arthur Wing Pinero was a late 19th century and early 20th century actor, director and playwright. I don’t know all that much about the gentleman except that he was queer and Jewish which couldn’t have been an easy life in Victorian and Edwardian England. Many of his plays show women battling with their situation in society. These plays not only created good roles for female actors but also demanded sympathy for women, who were judged by stricter standards than men at turn of the century society and for the next 100 years.
I have two small connections to him. Pinero authored a charming play, The Enchanted Cottage (1921), in which I gave a rather good performance in college, plus I saw a very young Meryl Streep doing a small role in a nifty production of the delightful, frighteningly seldom produced comedy, Trelawny Of The ‘Wells’ in 1975. Streep’s fellow cast members included unknowns: Mandy Patinkin, John Lithgow, and Mary Beth Hurt. My good close personal friend, Gretchen Rumbaugh was featured in a production of this chestnut at Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in 1903, opposite John Barrymore, with whom she had a torrid, if short-lived affair.
The play orinally opened on Broadway in 1923, starring Katharine Cornell, running for 65 performances. In April 1925, The Enchanted Cottage was the opening play for the famed Omaha Community Playhouse, starring Dodie Brando, mother of Marlon Brando. It has been adapted for the screen three times, in 1924, 1945 and 2016.
The 1945, and best, version starring Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young, is an A+ film watching experience. I recommend going out of your way to find it. The theme of Pinero’s sweet drama concerns the illusion of beauty and the moral courage which are mutually tested by a homely girl and a maimed war veteran when they view each other through the eyes of love. Even in this age of easy plastic surgery, the theme is still quite appealing, just as it was when it was first presented and one which can bear repeating; a timely story involving physical and emotional disabilities following World War I.
RKO producer Harriet Parsons (daughter of gossip columnist Louella Parsons) acquired the rights for her studio for an updated World War II version set in New England. When RKO management took the film away from her and gave it to producer Dudley Nichols, columnist Hedda Hopper wrote an editorial criticizing RKO for gender bias. The outcry from the column led RKO to give the property back to Parsons.
Parsons wrote an outline of the updated story about a disfigured (rather than disabled) World War II veteran. She engaged gay screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People) for the screenplay, and the two became lifelong friends. Parsons chose John Cromwell as director. David O. Selznick allowed RKO to cast McGuire for the film, and MGM lent Young.
Composer Roy Webb wrote a piano concerto for the film that a blinded World War I veteran (Herbert Marshall in the role I played) uses to describe the story of the two protagonists. Webb was nominated for an Academy Award in 1945 and performed the concerto at the Hollywood Bowl later that year.
McGuire insisted her character wear no makeup, ill-fitting clothes and a drab hairstyle. When McGuire was filmed looking beautiful to Young, her character had the same costumes, except they were well tailored.
The film was popular enough in our culture that on her show Carol Burnett performed a parody, “The Enchanted Hovel“, with Dick Van Dyke in the Robert Young role.
In his era, Pinero was prodigious, prolific, and a stupendous success, a peer of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Today he is mostly forgotten, and his works are seldom revived.
His biggest success was The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) another of the “Woman with a past” plots so popular at the end of the 19th century. It caused a sensation when it opened in London and on Broadway in 1902. Both productions starred the charismatic Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Shaw’s main squeeze (In 1914, she played Eliza Doolittle in the original production of Pygmalion which Shaw had written for her.
In an episode of Downton Abbey Lady Edith Crawley responds to announcement of her sympathetic aunt Lady Rosamund Painswick that she will support Edith through her pregnancy of an illegitimate child, as a result of her affair with Michael Gregson, despite her niece’s unmarried status by saying: “That sounds like a speech from The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, but you don’t mean a word of it.”
Pinero’s work, even his farces and social comedies are surprisingly moving, amazingly theatrical and deeply human. They still have the power to astonish and delight more than a century after they first created such a stir.
I like that among Pinero’s 60 plays are the titles:
Dandy Dick (1887), Sweet Lavender (1888) and The Gay Lord Quex (1899).