MANSFIELD -- A small audience of curious people gathered Thursday evening in Founders Auditorium on the campus the Mansfield branch of The Ohio State University to catch a rare glimpse of a work shelved for the last 86 years.
The piece was “De Luxe,” a play written by Louis Bromfield and John Gearon. It played for a short run on Broadway in 1935, then sank into obscurity.
Locals (and people all over the world) know Bromfield from his later — and much more successful creation — Malabar Farm. Malabar turned out to be Bromfield's magnum opus, and today he is much more famous as a grandfather of the modern conservation movement than as a writer, which was his original claim to fame.
But throughout his life and his myriad interests, Bromfield always had a fondness for live theater, and after he'd become a prominent novelist, the temptation to tackle Broadway must have been irresistible.
After all, Bromfield had risen from strictly middle-class origins in Mansfield, to working the high society set in New York City, winning the Pulitzer Prize, writing in Hollywood, and charming the salons of Paris.
In the 1920s and 30s, Bromfield was everywhere, hobnobbing with the movers and shakers of the world. But the theme that repeatedly creeps up in his literary works of this period is the hollowness he found after he'd clawed his way to the top.
Readers lapped it up when Bromfield skewered the “international white trash” as he called the dissipated socialites and broke royals he met in his explorations of a high society that was being destroyed by economic depression and changing societies.
Bromfield could tell middle and working class people that those who appeared rich and glamorous were actually corrupt, miserable, and not very bright.
Such people are the core characters of “De Luxe,” which premiered — and closed — in March of 1935. The play traces the events of a day in Paris where a nouveau riche former chorus girl named Sophie Bashley is introduced to “the flower of Europe” in an expensive party.
The drinks and witticisms flow as we meet hyper party planners, insane royals, and broke socialites trying to angle for ways to survive by affairs or well-connected marriages.
We meet Pat Dantry, a charming rogue of a war veteran who lives off the wealthy ladies he cheats on.
We meet his ex-wife Daisy, who is fatalistic and tired of it all, and Sabine Brandon, a sophisticated woman about to lose her luxurious house because of the economic collapse.
We meet the bullying businessman Ogden Travis and his debutante daughter Janey, who is fighting off being swept away by the poor but good-hearted young journalist Hank Cameron.
Bromfield probably would have wanted to claim that the character who most reflects Bromfield himself was Hank, though I think the real Bromfield doppelganger in the play is Pat Dantry, who eggs on Sophie when she finally denounces the stuck-up scoundrels getting drunk on her champagne.
Pat gives Sophie the courage to say the things Bromfield really thought about the hypocrites of high society. By the end of the play, the flower of Europe has wilted.
Eventually, Bromfield makes it clear that the only ones who will have a chance at finding happiness are the ones who dare to leave it all behind and strike out on their own into entirely new directions — what he himself was soon to do by leaving Europe and starting Malabar Farm in rural Ohio.
For all of Bromfield's cynicism about high society, he was pretty naïve when he figured that he could triumph on Broadway with this. For the performing arts are far more dependent upon wealthy sponsors than books are, and many of the “international white trash” that Bromfield mocked were the very people most likely to attend a Bromfield play on Broadway.
Certainly the audience was not filled with the American middle-class masses who bought up his novels and attended the movies made from his books.
Since there were forces who stood to lose a lot if Bromfield had a hit mocking them, it's no surprise that powerful critics who defended that social order were ready to pounce and seize on any perceived weakness in Bromfield's armor.
One New York critic wrote, “De Luxe is a pleasant enough piece for the first 20 minutes. Then it’s over. The rest is repetitious: Endless conversation, filled with nostalgic bitterness and repetition. Eventually it becomes so bitter and so repetitious that it becomes downright bad. And then truly awful. By the end, it is so embarrassingly dreadful that it makes the playgoer’s flesh crawl.”
Is it really that bad?
That is a question I'd been wondering about for many years. But it wasn't one that was easily answered, considering that the play was never published, and it was certainly never revived.
Thanks to the staged reading at OSU-M last week, I can finally take a stab at answering that question, considering that not only was I there, I participated in the reading.
But first I have a little behind-the-scenes story which I can now tell for the first time.
As many reading this know, for years I directed at Malabar Farm State Park a series of historical dramas which I wrote.
The Malabar Trilogy started with “Ceely,” about the murderous Ceely Rose. It was followed by “Phoebe,” the story of Mansfield's most famous eccentric, Phoebe Wise, who also happened to be a cousin of Bromfield's. I capped the series with “Louie,” about Bromfield himself and his remarkable career. These shows repeatedly sold out for over a decade, played in the Big Barn as a dinner theatre evening.
At one point, in the midst of these projects, I toyed with the idea of actually producing one of Bromfield's own works in the barn. Park manager Louis Andres referred the idea to Bromfield's daughter, Ellen Bromfield Geld, who was still involved with the park and with her father's legacy, even though she lived in Brazil.
I had talked with Ellen, and she had even given me some inside tips on how to tell her father's story, which I have written about previously in a History Knox column. I hoped that she would be supportive of the idea of reviving one of her father's plays.
She was, to a point. What I mean to say is that while Ellen was in favor of promoting her father's work, she was also very protective of it. Instead of granting permission to further explore the possibility of mounting a production, Ellen asked her lawyers for advice, and ended up having them send us a contract that would require me to sign a paper saying that I would produce her father's play without altering a single word of the written script.
Considering that A) I still hadn't had a chance to so much as glance at a script, let alone get to know it, and B) No theatrical production ever presents any play without practical alterations, I was taken aback.
I knew there was no way that I could agree to be creatively hamstrung while attempting to shape a play into an effective theatrical experience, so I simply let the project drop.
In retrospect, I'd say that Ellen had good intentions, wanting to protect her father's writing. Unfortunately, she had even less familiarity with the stage than her father, and that would only have compounded difficulties.
Perhaps in more recent years, as Bromfield's literary star has begun to regain at least a little bit of its luster, she would have been more open to the practical matters of staging a revival, but by that time, I was no longer staging plays at Malabar, and Ellen herself passed away last year.
This year, for the 125th anniversary of Bromfield's birth, a series of events was held at OSU-Mansfield. OSU head librarian Andrea Wittmer proposed that a staged reading of the long-forgotten “De Luxe” would be an excellent event, and OSU-Mansfield theater director Dr. Joseph Fahey came on board to direct and produce.
The Malabar Farm Foundation, who now controls the rights, gave permission, and the event was scheduled.
I was asked to participate along with Drew Traxler, Chevy Bond, Dan and Victoria O'Brien, Candy Boyd, Haley Bedocs, Josie Schave, Jennifer Hurst, Norman Jones, Aiden McLaughlin, Jennifer Walters, and Andrea Wittmer herself.
We gathered to bring these long-dormant words to life, with Dr. Fahey reading in stage directions to help create the picture, in the manner of an audio book. We presented it to a small but very interested audience.
So, was it as bad as the critic said? The answer is actually, no, not at all.
Was I sad that I didn't sign legal papers and proceed with a production years ago? Absolutely not.
“De Luxe” is not a stage-ready piece, and if the surviving script accurately reflects what was presented on Broadway in March of 1935, I can understand why it failed. It's too long, and certain passages are meandering and repetitious.
Keep in mind, Louis Bromfield was a novelist. His way of operating in a book was to go inside characters' heads and explore their thoughts. The only way he could do that on stage was by having the characters voice their innermost thoughts.
In fact, that's how the piece got its start: as Bromfield's novella “Fourteen Years After,” part of the book “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” which was published in 1934. In that story, many of the characters of “De Luxe” are presented (some with different names), but the action takes places on a ship steaming to New York.
In that context, it's very easy for Bromfield to go into the characters' thoughts. On stage, it isn't the same.
Think about it: Would you want every word of your own inner monologue to be presented? It's telling instead of showing a story, and it's visually static. That's a major problem for a stage work.
And another question has to be asked. Just who was responsible for every word and every idea in this script? The play is billed as being co-written by John Gearon.
Who is John Gearon? Was he an experienced theater writer? Was he someone brought in to rewrite or punch up Bromfield's work?
As it turns out, not at all. John Gearon was simply Bromfield's secretary at the time.
If I had to make a guess, considering Bromfield's fame for delegating during his days as an Associated Press journalist, I would surmise that Bromfield sketched out how he wanted his novella reinvented for the stage, and then had Gearon sketch out the scenes.
Then Bromfield himself would come in and correct and improve the scenes, rather like the way a major Renaissance painter like Rembrandt would train his assistants to work on his paintings while he supervised. When necessary, the master would step in and give the work the deft brush stroke needed to bring it to life.
Only, here there aren't enough of those deft brush strokes, though there certainly are some. There are lines in the play that reflect Bromfield's way with words, and there are other lines that seem awkward and cobbled together.
There are careless edits at times introducing direct repetition of phrases just a few lines apart, and there are places where certain phrasings or jokes just don't work. As Bromfield was the supervisor, the onus was certainly on him to make sure such issues were ironed out, but they clearly never were.
My guess would be he was simply too busy with all his irons in the fire to closely supervise “De Luxe,” and the final script shows it. As for Gearon, he went on to have a minor career writing cliched spy novels. He certainly never approached Bromfield's literary prominence, and he never wrote for theater again.
To successfully shape this script into a satisfying piece, it would need to lose about 30 minutes of its two and a half hour running time. That would mean cutting a lot of words, streamlining scenes and focusing the writing.
It could be done, but not without major alterations to the original. Short of such pruning, no one will ever want to produce the script as it stands. But such editing could salvage them pointed and affecting story that lurks here: finding new hope in the midst of a collapsing social order.
It was pertinent then, and is pertinent today. We need that hope.
I'm glad I had a hand (or a voice, as Ogden Travis) in bringing this rarity back to the stage for a second look, 86 years after it premiered. I would love to see it make the full transition back to a complete staging, one that — just maybe — might finally do full justice to Bromfield's original idea.