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Plays

From Edward Albee to Tennessee Williams: American drama on the British small screen

1956 Eartha Kitt in The ValiantOne of the things I’m working on at the moment is turning my Arthur Miller blog posts into an essay for the Screen Plays collection Theatre Plays on British Television which John Wyver and I are editing for publication with Manchester University Press. It strikes me that, for context, it would be very good to get a better idea of how other American plays have been presented on British television in the twentieth century.

The corpus of productions is pretty extensive but, regrettably, so many of the broadcast productions were never recorded or no longer exist in the archives. For example, there seem to be no recordings of productions of plays by Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959), S. N. Behrman (1893-1973), Elmer Rice (1892-1967), Robert E. Sherwood (1896-1955) John Van Druten (1901-1957; a Brit who became an American citizen) and Thornton Wilder (1897-1975).

These gaps in the archival holdings are significant, but I am nevertheless going to focus on those productions which exist as recordings in the archives, as a quick way of getting a sense of the various approaches taken in producing American plays on British television. Amongst available recordings, there are rich pickings from Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. In addition, extant productions of plays by other American playwrights call out for consideration: The Green Pastures by Marc Connelly (BBC, 1958), South by Julien Green (Granada for ITV, 1959), Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s Once in a Lifetime (BBC, 1988) and Charles Sebree and Greer Johnson’s Mrs Patterson (BBC, 1956). I offer a thumbprint of these 20+ productions below as a prelude to more detailed discussion of selected titles here on the blog in the future.

1965 ITV The American DreamEdward Albee (1928-)
At least three productions of Albee’s plays were produced on British television, all by Granada for ITV in the first half of the 1960s, and, remarkably, all three of these productions exist. In 1961, Henry Kaplan produced The Zoo Story for transmission in the Television Playhouse strand on 12 January (9.40-10.35pm). This exploration of the isolation that attends the modern world and the search for connection and meaning had premiered on the stage only three years earlier. Henry Kaplan, the Canadian producer of the Granada television version, first saw it in an off-Broadway theatre, after which he decided to direct it at London’s Arts Theatre on his return from New York. The television production followed on from that Arts production, with Peter Sallis and Kenneth Haigh playing the roles (of Peter and Jerry respectively) they had taken on the stage. In the TV Times issue of 6 January 1961, p. 12, Kaplan notes that this play, with just two characters and one set, may have encouraged ‘smart camerawork’ or ‘tricks’ but that these would have ‘only distract[ed] the viewer from the play. […] Television is enough in itself to carry this play because, for once, I feel that it is more exciting on TV than in the theatre’.

The two other plays by Albee known to have been adapted for television were given a week apart in 1965: The Death of Bessie Smith on 28 June (9.40-10.50pm) and The American Dream on 5 July (9.40-11.00pm)The 1960 play The Death of Bessie Smith focuses on the reputed turning away of the famous Blues singer of the play’s title from two ‘Whites Only’ hospitals in Tennessee after sustaining serious injuries in a car crash in 1937; although the claim that these hospitals refused to treat her was later proven to be mistaken, it nevertheless furnishes this drama with the all too real theme of racial discrimination.

The Death of Bessie Smith was directed by Julian Amyes, who served as the producer on the following week’s offering from Albee’s repertoire. Paul Almond’s production of the semi-autobiographical The American Dream served up a comic caricature of American society, questioning dominant social values and uncomplicated positivity.

1958 The Green PasturesMarc Connelly (1890-1980)
The only known British television production of a play by Marc Connelly was transmitted by the BBC in 1958, in a production by Eric Fawcett in association with the playwright himself. Connelly’s 1930 play The Green Pastures, adapted from short stories by Roark Bradford, was a re-telling of episodes from the Old Testament from the point of view of an African-American child in the Depression-era South. It was a landmark in American theatre, featuring the first all-black Broadway cast and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Sunday-Night Theatre production, transmitted on 14 September 1958 (8.00pm-9.45pm), starred American actors, such as William Marshall, who had appeared in theatre and television versions of the play across the Atlantic.

Julien Green (1900-1998)
Last year’s 27th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (14-24 March 2013) featured what is considered to be ‘Possibly the earliest surviving British gay television drama’, a 1959 Granada Television production of Julien Green’s Sud, under the translated title South, for ITV (festival programme, p. 23, online here). This Play of the Week was produced by the Canadian Mario Prizek (tx. 24 November 1959). The play’s gradual realisation of the sexual orientation of soldiers on the eve of the American Civil War, starring Peter Wyngarde, challenged the comfort zone of some critics: a writer in The Daily Sketch thought that ‘There are some indecencies in life that are best covered up’, citing ‘the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert’. Today this television broadcast is rightly recognised as an important ‘milestone in gay cultural history’ (Mark Brown, ‘Newly Unearthed ITV Play Could be First Ever Gay Television Drama’, The Guardian, 16 March 2013; online here).

1988 BBC Once in a LifetimeMoss Hart (1904-1961) and George S. Kaufman (1889-1961)
Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1930 play Once in a Lifetime was first produced on BBC television by Eric Crozier in 1937. There was a further production, by Julian Amyes, in 1953, and in 1988 the BBC returned to this satirical comedy in a Christmas Day production by Robin Midgely (8.30-10.15pm). It is this 1988 production that exists in the archives. The Radio Times listing, illustrated with a production photograph with Niall Buggy, Kristoffer Tabori and Zoe Wanamaker, summarizes the plot neatly: ‘Talking pictures have come to Hollywood, threatening the careers of top stars and multi-million-dollar studio magnates alike. Silent pictures are over – how can the stars learn to talk? An out-of-work vaudeville team comes to the rescue . . .’ (15 December 1988, p. 99).

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
At least twelve productions of Arthur Miller’s plays were broadcast on British television networks over the forty-year period from the late 1950s, a fact which is unsurprising given his overwhelming popularity on the British stage and in English literature curricula. Last year I wrote five blogs which discussed productions of Death of a SalesmanThe CrucibleA View from the Bridge and Broken Glass, as well as other productions by Granada Television in the late 1950s. Five of these productions appear to be extant in the archives. The earliest of these is Granada’s A Memory of Two Mondays, transmitted on 27 February 1959. This play is an elegy to the difficult lives of the workers in a New York warehouse at the time of the Great Depression. The reviewer in The Times admired the ‘moments of dramatic resonance’ and ‘sombre performances’, particularly that of Alan Bates as Kenneth (‘Demand for Pity: Defects in Memory of Two Mondays’, The Times, 28 February 1959, p. 4).

In this, its second year of broadcasting, the north of England franchise Granada actually mounted four of Miller’s plays, all of which were British television premieres. The last of these was The Crucible, Miller’s 1953 dramatization of the late 17th-century witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, which famously serve as an allegory of contemporary McCarthyism. This production by Henry Kaplan, broadcast in November 1959, starred Susannah York as Abigail and Sean Connery as her master John Proctor. Fifty minutes of this exist on umatic tape at the BFI but – alas – for preservation purposes it is not available for viewing.

Mary Warren returns to the fold (BBC, 1981)

Mary Warren returns to the fold in The Crucible (BBC, 1981)

A recording does exist of the BBC’s production of The Crucible from 1981. This accomplished production by Don Taylor, broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday 12 April (7.15-8.45pm) features English regional accents which may have meant that the story of the plot, for those viewers coming to the play fresh, may have been divested almost entirely of its historical and allegorical American contexts. I have posted a long write-up of this production elsewhere on the blog.

Also extant is the 1996 BBC Death of a Salesman, a five-part BBC English File production by David Thacker which, transmitted in half-hour segments in the middle of the day, was intended for schoolchildren aged 14-17. Despite the educational intent lying behind the production, The Times featured it in its television ‘Choice’ column on the days of both the first and the last of the five transmissions (on 19 April and 17 May 1996), the anonymous writer noting that this production for schools ‘deserves a wider audience’ (The Times, 19 April 1996, p. 47). There is more from me on this production here.

Broken Glass

Broken Glass (BBC, 1997)

In the following year Thacker, who had a long and close working relationship with Miller, produced another of his plays, Broken Glass for the BBC, in association with WGBH Boston (a non-commercial educational Public Broadcasting Service television station located in Boston, Massachusetts). Broken Glass received both its American and British stage premieres in 1994, at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut and the Royal National Theatre’s Lyttleton, respectively. It was just three years later, on 29 March 1997, that BBC2 screened a studio version of the RNT production in its Performance strand. Interestingly, and importantly, in addition to Thacker directing both the RNT production and the BBC / WGBH television adaptation, the English actors Margot Leicester and Henry Goodman played the roles of Sylvia and Philip both on the stage and on television; the role of Dr Hyman was, however, on television taken by the American Mandy Patinkin (most recently on our screens as Saul in Homeland). See my write-up of the production here.

Clifford Odets (1906-1963)
In 1986 Limehouse Studios produced for the American Public Broadcasting System Clifford Odets’ 1938 Rocket to the Moon, a play about a failing dentist having an affair whilst grappling with a mid-life crisis; the production was also screened by Channel 4 on Thursday 4 September 1986 (9.30-11.35pm). Mark Lawson, for one, was impressed: ‘Directed by John Jacobs, the play has none of the proscenium archness of many theatre-to-screen adaptations and it possesses an intensity which seems set to melt the glass. In a jewel-box crop of actors, John Malkovich plays Ben Stark, the dentist, Judy Davis his flossy hygenist and Connie Booth the wronged wife. The play has its fortune cookie moments but, at its best, establishes Odets as a lower-key Eugene O’Neill and this work as a shorter, jauntier day trip into night’ (‘Thursday’, The Sunday Times, 31 August 1986, p. 44). Read here a long review from a slightly less impressed American critic: John J. O’Connor, ‘Odets’s Rocket to the Moon on 13′, The New York Times, 5 May 1986.

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
Moving on to O’Neill himself, we find a good number of survivals amongst the c. 25 British television productions of his work. Three exist from the 1950s. The first is an Associated-Rediffusion production for ITV of O’Neill’s Anna Christie, transmitted on 29 August 1957 (9.15-10.15pm). This Television Playhouse presentation, produced by Philip Saville, tells the story of a prostitute trying to to turn her life around, with Diane Cilento in the title role (his first dramatic performance on British television), Leo McKern as her father and Sean Connery her boyfriend.

1958 BBC Strange Interlude

1958 BBC Strange Interlude

In March of the following year two O’Neill plays were offered – but by different networks. The BBC got in first with its 23 and 30 March 1958 two-part transmission of his 1928 play Strange Interlude, also with Diane Cilento in the lead roleThis was, as John notes in his excellent and extensive blog piece on this production, the culmination of the World Theatre series. John discusses how the producer John Jacobs chose to represent the high level of soliloquy in the play by voice-over rather than, say, direct address to camera, a choice which renders the production remarkable and experimental: he considers that ‘at this date it must have been a considerable technical challenge to play, as I assume was done, the numerous “voice-over recordings” into the as-live production. For it seems highly unlikely that sound mixing at the time would have been sufficiently sophisticated to allow this to be achieved in post-production, and in any case the timings and cues are precise enough to indicate that the actors in the studio can hear the thoughts of themselves and each of the others’.

Quite remarkably, a section of the second part of Strange Interlude overlapped with ITV’s broadcast of the ABC production of The Emperor Jones shown in the Armchair Theatre strand on 30 March 1958 (9.30-10.50pm). (The week also featured Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset on ITV.) This 1920 play tells of how the African-American Brutus Jones kills a man but subsequently escapes from prison and sets himself up as emperor on a Caribbean island. This production featured the American actor Kenneth Spencer in the lead role. The TV Times records the difficulties faced by Timothy O’Brien’s Head of Design who had to erect a large-scale tropical jungle set: ‘I am filling the entire studio with trees, foilage and creepers; erecting mudbanks, swamps and scrub jungle. And I am, here and there, leaving clearings where Jones will meet a chain gang, or where he will watch a slave auction. For one scene I am building an altar and erecting a 20ft god’ (‘A Silver Bullet in the African Jungle’, TV Times, 28 March 1958, p. 21).

1973 Long Day's Journey into NightThe next broadcast of O’Neill to survive in the archives is the 1973 Associated-Rediffusion production for ITV of Long Day’s Journey into Night, a semi-autobiographical play of addiction and dysfunction first performed in 1956 and broadcast in this television version on Easter Sunday, 22 April. This studio adaptation of the play was in 2011 released on DVD by Network and John has contributed a thoughtful review of it here on the Screen Plays blog. The production starred Laurence Olivier (then director of the National Theatre) as James Tyrone and the TV Times includes a long biographical interview which includes some of his thoughts on the production of theatre plays on the small screen: Olivier considers, for example, that ‘there is this almost unavoidable bugbear of television: simply, the smallness of the screen. Any good stage production will rely greatly for its effect on what one might call the space between the words, on the way in which all the actors on stage can be seen to react to every word a character speaks. […] But you simply can’t keep showing shots of the whole stage on television – the screen’s too tiny. Instead, you have those endless close-ups dedicated only to the speaker’ (read more in the 19 April 1973 issue, pp. 6-8).

1988 Strange InterludeIn 1988 Channel 4 broadcast a three-part HTV mini-series adaptation of Strange Interlude from 13 July (9pm). Herbert Wise directed Glenda Jackson as Nina, David Dukes as her doctor and Kenneth Branagh her son. Interestingly, this production was based on a stage version of the play from three years earlier and the soliloquys were therefore given as if the characters were on stage: ‘The problem’, notes Peter Waymark in The Times of 13 July 1988, p. 23, ‘is to transpose O’Neill’s theatricality to an intimate, naturalistic medium. It is a tension which runs throughout Herbert Wise’s production without quite being resolved’. Peter Lennon, writing in The Listener (21 July 1988, p. 38), is fascinated by the serialisation of this great play, finding that ‘the similarities of material and of construction’ between serialised O’Neill and (especially American) soap opera series ‘are inescapable’. He finds the delivery of soliloquys before other actors who feign not to hear the words being spoken ‘no more than the kind of eccentricity we find in any Texas mansion, and one to which we rapidly become accustomed’. Despite the similarities in form and content, he concludes that O’Neill’s ‘serial’ is far more weighty than, say, Dynasty in terms of psychology and poetry.

Charles Sebree and Greer Johnson
On 17 June 1956 the BBC broadcast Charles Sebree and Greer Johnson’s play about race in the deep South, Mrs Patterson, which had premiered on stage just two years earlier. Eartha Kitt stars as Teddy (as she had in the stage premiere, which was her first straight starring role): Teddy is a poor, black teenage girl who aspires to live a life of luxury like her mother’s white employer, Mrs Patterson of the title. Several songs, sung by Kitt, effect the transition between scenes portraying reality and those set in her reveries. Anthony Pelissier produced this play for the Sunday Night Theatre series. (This was Kitt’s second appearance in a straight play on BBC television. Her first was as the mysterious murderer Jane Dyke in the 1926 American play The Valiant by Holworthy Hall and Robert Middlemass, adapted for television by Anthony Pelissier and transmitted on 15 May 1956; no recording of it seems to survive, but see the first image at the top of this page for the prominent place accorded to the play in the advance issue of the Radio Times.)

1976 Granada Cat on a...Tennessee Williams (1911-1983)
There have been ten or so productions of Tennessee Williams’ plays, two of which appear to exist. The earlier of the two is the 12 December 1976 (9.05-11.00pm) broadcast of Robert Moore’s Granada for ITV production of the 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Natalie Wood as Margaret, (her real-life husband) Robert Wagner as the alcoholic Brick and Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy. This lavish production, from which a still is shown adjacent, was the second in Olivier’s ‘best plays’ series put together for Granada. Elkan Allan, writing in The Sunday Times (12 December 1976, p. 52), considered the production to have possessed ‘the sweep of grand opera’ and B. A. Young in The Financial Times thought ‘The playing of the principals […] as good as one is likely to see often on television’. In this case you can see for yourself by searching for the production on YouTube. As an aside, a couple of months earlier, extracts from theatre productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie were shown in the 3 October 1976 episode of BBC2’s The Lively Arts series, in which the playwright is interviewed by Melvyn Bragg.

And, finally, the 1958 play Suddenly, Last Summer was given in BBC2’s Performance strand on 6 November 1993. The production, by Richard Eyre and starring Maggie Smith, Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe, also attracted the eye of press critics. Lynne Truss in The Times (‘Feast for Sore Psyches’, 8 November 1993, p. 29) notes the ‘highly visual’ nature of the design and camera-work, with ‘warm pink-and-peach costumes, dreamy short-focus lighting, cinematic close-ups’.

If you are still reading, I salute you! And later this summer, do watch out for more posts about American plays on the British small screen…

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “From Edward Albee to Tennessee Williams: American drama on the British small screen

  1. Already, of course, I’m coming across further titles which should be added to this survey. A 1968 BBC production of George Abbott and Philip Dunning’s play Broadway, a crime drama set in the New York underworld during Prohibition, exists as a film master in the BBC archives. The production was the first in the new BBC2 series The Jazz Age, which presented plays and adaptations of short stories and novels from, or about, the 1920s.

    Further titles are bound to emerge and I’ll add each as a comment to this blog post.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 25 June 2014, 8:39 am
  2. Another offering from The Jazz Age series that exists in the BBC archives is the musical comedy Tip-Toes (music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin; book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson), which was transmitted on BBC2 on 10 December 1968. The musical tells the story of a small-time vaudeville threesome who crash in on Miami high society.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 25 June 2014, 9:29 am
  3. Further data entry on the Screen Plays database brings to my attention another American play which was produced on British television and for which a recording exists in the archives. Thunder Rock by the American Robert Ardrey (1908-1980) is a 1939 drama about a newspaper journalist who, having failed to alert Britain to the dangers of fascism, retreats from the world to take up the role of keeper of the lighthouse at Thunder Rock in the middle of Lake Michigan. During his stay he is persuaded, by ghosts of a shipwreck which took place nearly a century earlier, to return to continue his campaigning. It was produced by the BBC three times, in 1946, 1955 and 1985. It is a recording of the latest production exists in the archive, a production in which Charles Dance plays the leading role.

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 7 July 2014, 10:57 am

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