The Lady from the Sea (1950)
Since parting ways with MGM in 1939 Luise Rainer, contrary to popular myth, didn’t simply disappear from public view. She finalised her divorce with Clifford Odets on 4th May 1940 and made a conscious decision to return to the stage. She made only one film in the 1940s (Hostages), but she appeared in several stage productions, including her Broadway debut in A Kiss For Cinderella (1942)
In 1950 she returned to Broadway to appear in Sam Wanamaker’s production of The Lady from the Sea. Ibsen’s classic drama is the perfect example of the type of work that Luise was seeking out in her post-Hollywood career. Written in 1888, the play is set in a small Norwegian coastal town where the widowed Doctor Wangel resides with his two daughters and his new young wife, Ellida. The newly-married couple have suffered the loss of their newborn son and the doctor has concerns for his wife’s mental well-being. He calls an old friend, and ex-tutor to his daughter, Boletta, to visit Ellida in the hope that this may alleviate some of her depression. The tutor, Arnholm, misunderstands and believes that he is their to woo his ex-pupil, whereupon he proposes. Boletta, reluctantly, but in the knowledge that this may be her only chance to escape into the wider world, agrees to the marriage. A stranger appears in the town, a former lover and fiancé to Ellida. This man, a sailor, had murdered a sea-captain and had made his escape, promising to return to Ellida one day. Although she had tried to break off the engagement he refused and despite ten years away he still holds a compelling power over her. Dr. Wangel believes he must give her the freedom to choose her own path; she does so, choosing to stay with the doctor and sending the stranger away.
Luise played Ellida, the titular ‘lady from the sea’, daughter of a lighthouse keeper, born by the ocean. She now bathes daily in the “dead and tainted” fjords, but she is drawn to the open water of the sea which represents her old, unconstrained life. Her husband describes her as having a particular nervous energy. The role is said to be based on Ibsen’s friend, the 19th century feminist and writer Camilla Collett. The play can be seen as part of Ibsen’s debate about the freedom (or otherwise) of marriage, and Ellida stands alongside Nora from A Doll’s House as another great female role in the theatre. Luise strived to play Nora too, begging Louis B. Mayer (unsuccessfully) to adapt it for the screen for her.
This production played at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, MA from 24th to 29th July 1950, before transferring to the Fulton Theatre, New York for 16 performances from 7th to 19th August 1950. I would be interested to find out if there were more performances at other venues prior to the Broadway transfer; please get in touch if you have any further information. Director Sam Wanamaker cast a number of actors from the The Actor’s Studio, which had recently been formed in New York. From the studio’s founding members he cast Herbert Berghof, later an acting coach and director himself, as ‘Doctor Wangel’, Steven Hill (now probably best known for playing DA Adam Schiff in Law & Order) as ‘Lyngstrand’ and Joan Chandler as ‘Boletta’. The production also included Eli Wallach (as ‘Ballested’) and his wife Anne Jackson (as ‘Hilda’), in one of their many professional appearances together. Luise and Herbert Berghof, both fellow Europeans and former members of Max Reinhardt’s company, appeared together 16 years earlier on stage in Vienna in August Strindberg’s Rausch (Crime for Crime).
This was Luise’s final appearance on Broadway, in a play at least (she would take part in several gala evenings and recitals throughout her career).
The Festival Theatre
(Sam Wanamaker – Terese Hayden)
in association with Harriett Ames
The Lady from the Sea
by Henrik Ibsen
Art Director: Howard Bay
Play Directed by Sam Wanamaker
Settings by May Callas
Costumes by Paul du Pont
Eli Wallach as Ballested (Fulton Theatre)
William Sanders as Ballested (Cape Playhouse)
Steven Hill as Lyngstrand
Anne Jackson as Hilda
Joan Chandler as Boletta
Herbert Berghof as Dr. Wangel
Theodore Newton as Arnholm
Luise Rainer as Ellida
Jeff Morrow as Friman-Johnston