After making her stage debut at 16 and her film debut at 22 Luise waited until she was 42 years of age to add another creative ‘first’ to her resumé: theatre director.
In 1952, a year after her final appearance as Saint Joan (at the Ivar Theatre in Los Angeles) Luise returned once again to the East Coast and the touring Straw Hat Circuit in a production of S. N. Behrman’s 1932 play Biography, which she directed as well as taking the lead role. This is (so far) the first and only directorial assignment I have discovered and I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who may have seen the production or who may know of other work directed by Luise.
Behrman’s play was written in 1932, five years after his first great success The Second Man (1927) which had been produced by New York’s Theatre Guild starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. With this success and star power behind him he attracted the attention of other leading actors and directors and throughout the 1930s his work was regularly seen on stage in the US, most often produced by the Guild. In the UK, Noel Coward appeared in The Second Man and directed Biography in 1934 with Ina Claire (as Marion) and Laurence Olivier (as Richard). Behrman was prolific for over 35 years, which included brief spells in Hollywood (he wrote the screenplays for A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Waterloo Bridge (1940) and Quo Vadis (1951) amongst others, and also contributed dialogue work on Queen Christina (1933). Biography itself was adpated for the screen in 1935 as Biography of a Bachelor Girl, starring Ann Harding, although he wasn’t directly involved in the screenplay.
The play offers a great part for an actress, that of Marion Froude, a successful artist about to embark on writing her autobiography. Richard Kurt, a magazine editor is keen to get her story for his influential publication and just as keen to expose the absurdity of her superficial, casual and irresponsible way of life, living as she does in luxury at a time of depression. Her childhood sweetheart and first lover, Leander Nolan, a prospective senator, is less than enthusiastic about the venture, fearing damaging and embarrassing revelations which may sully his path to the White House. He’s not the only one, and Marion must question her own values and loyalties before deciding whether to publish. Nowadays the play is rarely performed and is certainly a product of its time which hasn’t dated well. The last London production was staged in 1985 with Sheila Gish as Marion and critics felt that the piece hadn’t weathered well over the years. In fact, when Luise played the part in 1952 Behrman was said to have considered rewriting the play, updating it for a modern audience and with a view to run in New York. As with much of Luise’s work this was another of those projects that wasn’t to be and she never played it on Broadway. In truth most of the productions which take place on the Straw Hat touring circuit are hopeful of a Broadway transfer and most fail. As it is, I know of only two venues where the play was definitely seen: it played at the Falmouth Playhouse in Coonamessett in June 1952 and at the Olney Theatre in Olney, Maryland for one week in August 1952. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who knows other venues for this tour and any extant reviews.
What is most interesting about the production is Luise’s director credit. Given her artistic drive it is perhaps more surprising that she didn’t direct more. Without reviews it is difficult to conclude whether the experience was one she relished or regretted, however, when I asked Luise about this production almost fifty years later (in 2010) she had no recollection of it whatsoever. Maybe this tells us everything we need to know!
I am indebted to Deb Fiscella at the Olney Theatre Center for providing information about this production.
Credits for the 1952 production at the Olney Theatre
Evelyn Freyman and Kenneth Banghart
A Comedy by S. N. Behrman
Alan Shayne Dora Weissman
DIRECTED BY MISS RAINER
Setting and Lighting by Robert O’Hearn
Press Representative Scott Kirkpatrick
Resident Director and Production Stage Manager Arthur Marlowe
Scenic Designer Robert O’Hearn
Technical Director Bernhard Works
Stage Manager Danny Butt
Executive Secretary Mary Elizabeth Aurelius
Auditor Benjamin F. Goodman
Treasurers Helen Brooks, P. A. Booth, Adolphe Meyer
Properties Clare St. Jacques
Stage Technicians William Tracey, Richard Crane, Kenneth Sickinger, Wiliam Hauser, Jr.
Head Usher Christina Morgan
Driver Walter Johnson
Apprentices Gay Fullerton, Harold Cohen, Sally Christenberry, Howard Lehman, Clarita Watkins, Helen Opie
Superintendent Porterfield Bradby
Producers Evelyn Freyman and Kenneth Banghart
General Manager Warren P. Munsell, Jr. (In Memoriam)
Resident Manager Howard Atlee
Root Jewellers, Arlington, Virginia
Martin Manning, Washington, D. C.
Displays signs by Gunther Kilsheimer of Art Display Company
Alan Shayne as Richard Kurt
Dora Weissman as Minnie
Richard Bowler as Melchior Feydak
Luise Rainer as Marion Froude
Philip Huston as Leander Nolan
Geoffrey Barr as Warwick Wilson
Marshall Smith as Orrin Kinnicutt
Anne Pearson as Slade Kinnicutt