The fourth Screen Plays season of theatre plays on television will be shown at BFI Southbank in January 2015. The season, titled Classics on TV: Great American Playwrights, presents six rarely-seen television productions of theatre plays by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets, and others. The productions collectively demonstrate how theatre in the United States has spoken with honesty and conviction about the elusiveness of the American dream and the individual’s search for meaning amid swirling political and social changes. The season showcases work which grapples with questions of personal identity, ideas of exile and rootedness, and the politics of race and gender.
I will be writing blog posts about the four of these productions which have only received minimal discussion on this blog – namely, in my survey essay on American drama on the British small screen which I compiled in the summer. The two other productions, Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill (BBC, 1958) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (BBC, 1981) have already been the topic of substantial blogs written by my colleague John Wyver and myself respectively.
Today I begin this new series of posts by considering the BBC’s 1956 Sunday Night Theatre production of Mrs Patterson, a play about race and adolescence in the Deep South by the African-American painter-playwright Charles Sebree and Greer Johnson (about whom less is known). This production was something of a landmark in an era when plays on British television were almost exclusively written by white authors – and on this the crucial reading is Stephen Bourne’s Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television, published by Continuum in 2001. Mrs Patterson is also a beautifully preserved gem from the early years of extant drama on television. This rarity opens the season at 6.00pm on Wednesday 7 January 2015, and the 75-minute production will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A (details to be announced).
Mrs Patterson had premiered on Broadway just two years before Anthony Pelissier’s BBC production for the Sunday Night Theatre series. The summary of reviews of the theatre production offered by the 16 December 1954 issue of the magazine JET can be summed up in the by-line ‘N.Y. critics cool on Mrs Patterson, Hot on Eartha’. Eartha Kitt was the star of this Broadway production which gave her her first straight starring role. Brooks Atkinson, for example, writing in The New York Times, declared Kitt to be ‘an incandescent young woman with lively intelligence, a darting style of movement, keen eyes and an instinct for the theater’.
In the television production, too, Kitt gives a captivating performance. She is Teddy Hicks, a poor, illegitimate, black fifteen-year-old girl who spends much of her days daydreaming about living a life of luxury like her mother’s wealthy and well-travelled white employer, the ‘Mrs Patterson’ of the play’s title. Songs from Kitt and Elisabeth Welch (playing Bessie Bolt) characterize the fantasy sequences arising from Teddy’s rich imagination, giving the performance a rich fantastical dimension which, with ease, permits her to play cards with the Devil and be included in Mrs Patterson’s sophisticated social gatherings. The reality of her life breaks in increasingly, however, and a crisis point is reached at the end of the play when she agrees to agrees to run off to Chicago with Willie B., the boy-next-door, played by Neville Crabbe. Evelyn Dove plays Teddy’s mother with grace and poise and Estelle Winwood is the Mrs Patterson of Teddy’s fantasies.
The anonymous reviewer in The Times captures the mood of the production thus:
The air is sultry with undischarged energy: a recurring train whistle conjures up Chicago and the wide world’ and ‘the sustained atmosphere of being “betwixt” that Miss Kitt invested in the play. Half formed and contradictory notions of sophistication, spoken with pert self-possession in the imaginary world, were alternated with awkwardness and spasmodic charm. (Anon., ‘BBC Television Play: Mrs Patterson‘, The Times, 18 June 1956, p. 5)
Play and performance both revealed Teddy’s growing pains without descent to sickliness. The well-arranged close-ups of Eartha Kitt, with her quick flutters of childish anxiety and expectation, her sudden delights and bitter disenchantments, proved extremely effective. The husky voice and the easy passage from childish jubilation to the pathos of childhood cheated of its romance lifted a small and obvious story on to the plane of social tragedy. (Ivor Brown, ‘Drama: Miss Kitt and the Deep South’, The Listener, 21 June 1956, p. 867)
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. No recording of it seems to survive, but that it was considered to be a production of note is indicated by the fact that it featured on the cover of the advance issue of the Radio Times, pictured adjacent.
Do please come and join us in watching this rare screening at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 7 January 2015 and enjoy the panel discussion and Q&A afterwards.