June 1, 1901– John Van Druten:
I think if I were a woman, I would wear coffee as a perfume.
In the early 1930s, John Van Druten was one of the most successful playwrights in London with star studded West End productions of four different sparkling social comedies in a decade. He is one of the most influential playwrights that no one has ever heard of.
From the very beginning of his time on this planet, Van Druten lived with the pressures that society places on someone who doesnt fit in and who is unwilling to follow the rules, ultimately resulting in him conforming to what others expected him to be.
Born in London, he displayed a keen passion for writing even at a young age, showing an especially adept aptitude for plays. But his father wasn‘t thrilled that his son was contemplating a life as a playwright, so instead, his father forced him to study and take up a career as a lawyer, and so he became a one in 1923. He took a position as a professor of Legal History at the University College of Wales.
Van Druten, of course, continued to write and in 1925, his first full-length play was produced. Titled Young Woodley, it marked the end of his career as a legal scholar and the beginning of his life in the theatre. The play centers on a schoolboy at a British public school (what we call private school) who falls in love with the headmaster‘s wife and is eventually expelled. Due to the depiction of school life and a sensitive, reticent young man who experiences sexual attraction towards an older woman, the play was banned in London in 1928. It received a 1930 Broadway production, however, and it was a huge success. Van Druten had the pleasure of witnessing his first play push back against English social norms and eventually it was produced in London in 1931 where it ran for more than 400 performances.
His career as a playwright proved that his special gift was writing first-class comedies that focus on women and their relationships with men.
Among his works you may have heard of are: I Am A Camera (1951) based on The Berlin Stories (1945) by Christopher Isherwood, which would later be adapted to the Broadway musical Cabaret and its film version; The Voice Of The Turtle (1947) which ran for nearly 1,600 performances making it the ninth longest-running show on Broadway before being made into a popular film starring Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Parker, and Eve Arden; Bell, Book And Candle (1958) and I Remember Mama (1944), both made into first-rate films.
As a director, Van Druten was acclaimed for his direction of his own plays on Broadway, along with the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King And I (1951).
As you might suspect, Van Druten was gay; gay and English is always a winning combination as far as I am concerned. Yet only a few people in his closest circle were aware of his sexuality. But that doesn’t mean that Van Druten’s work wasn’t heavily influenced by his place as an outsider in a world that scorned him. As with most gay men of the period, a direct assault on homophobia would likely have ended badly, so Van Druten, like so many of gay playwrights before him (Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Truman Capote), used the onlyweapon he had in hand: his brilliant wit.
What Van Druten did best was literate, high comedy formed to an outsider’s confrontation with a majority culture, whether it be Brits in a changing Germany (I Am A Camera); a hack novelist among Manhattan literati in Old Acquaintance (1940); or an immigrant family’s coping with an unwelcoming America in I Remember Mama. As a closeted gay guy, Van Druten knew something about being outside looking in.
He also wrote smart screenplays including Unfaithful (1931) directed by John Cromwell (1931); Night Must Fall (1937) directed by Richard Thorpe (1937); and the classic Gaslight (1944), directed by George Cukor.
Bell, Book And Candle serves as an allegory for queerness. It is about the gay underground in New York City‘s Greenwich Village, with witches and their magic substituting for gay and ”special”. The characters socialize at special ”witch bars”, and they are always worrying about being outed. Van Druten explored this ”looking in” most nimbly, with Bell, Book And Candle standing in for living a closeted gay life in NYC in the 1950s. It is sophisticated, camp, and charming, but I also believe that Van Druten wrote the play as a protest work; by using the metaphor of witches and warlocks, and by putting his perspective into a female protagonist, Van Druten was able to say a number of things to his audience: outsiders have a right to exist; outsiders can have a community even if the rest of the world doesn’t understand it; being an outsider can create deep loneliness; and, that being an outsider can actually be a whole lot of fun.
During his lifetime, Van Druten was well-regarded, but not esteemed; his work was often overshadowed by more artistically ambitious plays and playwrights. He just happens to be one of those playwrights who do not evoke lengthy critical ponderings. He does weave substance and commentary into his works, particularly about women and by using female characters to speak about silenced cultures, and about sexual and personal identity. He was interested in how societal structures impact individual lives, about personal choices, and about how people search and struggle for meaning and value in their lives.
Van Druten‘s work is described as amusing, light, and bewitched with beguiling style, and I agree. Yet, the idea that something that is lightly touched and stylish isn’t necessarily empty of meaning.
The original Broadway cast included Jean Adair, Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer as Gillian Holroyd, a witch who casts a spell on her neighbor. The film version of Bell, Book And Candle, directed by Richard Quine, stars Kim Novak as Gillian, and the neighbor is played by James Stewart, with a supporting cast of Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester.
It is hard not to feel connected to Gillian, and her witch family; to the quick dismissive wit, the high style and camp, but we all also know what it means to be afraid to be seen for who we really are, what value we place on the few people in our lives who are like us. What queer person doesn’t get what it’s like to feel incomplete, to feel like there is something bigger out there, if only we knew how to find it, and if only we weren‘t afraid to show the world who we really are?
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Van Druten’s partner was Carter Lodge, who died 1995. They lived mostly in the Coachella Valley at their AJC Ranch, which Lodge and van Druten purchased in the early 1940s with British actor Auriol Lee (1880 –1941). Lee had a close working relationship with Van Druten, directing all his Broadway productions between 1931 and her death ten years later. Their most successful collaboration was Old Acquaintance (1940/41). She took an interest in aviation and became the first woman pilot to cross the Equator while flying over Africa and was noted for flying 1,000 miles across the Mediterranean Sea.
After van Druten and Lodge split, they lived part of the year together on the ranch with their new, respective, lovers, writer Walter Starcke and actor Dick Foote. How about that for a modern arrangement? Lodge managed the ranch and handled his own and Van Druten’s financial affairs.
When Van Druten died in 1957, he left the entire property of the ranch to Lodge and also the rights to his work, including I Am A Camera, which entitled Lodge to earn a percentage from the film of Cabaret. They are all buried together in the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery.