From the Archive: Eva LeGallienne

By: Katie Birenboim (She/Her/Hers)

 

Devoted fans of BTG may gasp to discover that until doing a first round of research in the amazing BTG archives, I had never heard the name “Eva Le Gallienne.”  I knew that the Playhouse “opened” officially on June 4, 1928, and that the illustrious opening night, besides being an event attended by the who’s who of the American theatre at the time, marked the first phase of BTG’s artistic history, one colored by figures like Tallulah Bankhead, Thornton Wilder, James Cagney, Montgomery Clift, and Claude Rains and the apprenticeship of then-unknown actress Katherine Hepburn.  But unlike many devoted BTG fans, or even just historians of the theatre who are likely shaking their heads in disbelief as they read, I was not familiar with Eva Le Gallienne’s work or the significance of her performance of The Cradle Song all those years ago.  As something of an actress/director/producer/writer myself, however, I’ve come to be fascinated with all things Eva Le Gallienne, and, after reading Helen Sheehy’s fantastic biography (courtesy of Kate Maguire) and doing some research of my own, I’ve found there’s so much more to her than even a casual BTG fan may know.  I’ve also come to believe that her connection with BTG and its history is one the theater should loudly proclaim and cultivate.  

Eva Le Gallienne in The Cradle Song, 1928.

Eva Le Gallienne, born in 1899, was the daughter of famed English poet Richard Le Gallienne and ahead-of-her-time Danish journalist Julie Nørregard.  By the time she was twenty-two, Eva had established herself as a veritable Broadway star, garnering universal praise for roles in Arthur Richman’s Not So Long Ago and Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom; more may know her for her roles as the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Peter in Peter Pan, Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Stuart, or for her Oscar-nominated work in the 1980 film Resurrection.  It’s virtually impossible to cover all of the highlights of Eva Le Gallienne’s life and career because she worked in so many different genres: she wrote several books, including two autobiographies, definitive translations of the work of Henrik Ibsen and Hans Christian Anderson, as well as a children’s book about country hens; she was an out-and-proud lesbian before virtually anybody was talking about gender or sexuality, a sexual assault survivor, an avid fan of gardening and animals, and a voracious reader.  But the quality of Eva Le Gallienne by which I’m most fascinated, and which most connects to Berkshire Theatre Group and its history, nay, the history of the American theatre in general, is her failed theater company, the Civic Repertory, with which she opened Cradle Song and the Berkshire Playhouse on that fateful night in 1928.

Fed up with the Broadway system, Eva wrote in the 1920s that “here in America…the theatre is a business like any other business. Its sole reason for existing [is] to make money.”  Beyond that, she wondered why opera houses, symphony houses, and art museums were funded by the federal and state governments, but theatre “was an outcast.”  Why was there no National Theatre, Moscow Art Theater, or Comedie-Francaise equivalent in America?  From these questions Eva built a company with a simple mission: “To have a People’s Repertory Theatre, presenting the best plays – with fine acting and productions – at the lowest possible prices.”  “Don’t speak of this to anyone,” Eva admonished her mother in a 1926 letter.  It must be “correctly handled.”

Despite her secrecy and sense of insecurity on the subject – indeed, Eva had only directed one play prior to forming the Civic, and had never managed money in her life – by October 25, 1926 the was born, complete with a large, storied space on Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue and a company of some fifteen-odd actors who would rehearse and perform plays in true repertory fashion (rehearsing one during the day, while performing the one you learned the week before at night).  Ticket prices were capped at $1.50 (adjusted for inflation, that’s well below even the best 30-under-30 deals on Broadway today), and because the Civic was located “far too downtown for Broadway audiences,” it attracted a truly diverse group of patrons, many of whom were blue collar workers who traveled into the heart of the city on the IRT, the BMT, the Hudson Tubes, or the Sixth Avenue Elevated.  In its heyday, the Civic enjoyed great success – critics “raved” about the quality of the plays presented, the directing, and the “brilliance of the ensemble” structure; the house was almost always selling at 95% capacity; and subsequent tours after the twenty-week New York City season (most often consisting of SEVEN plays performed in rep) gave the Civic notoriety far and wide.  Brooks Atkinson called it the most “interesting theater in New York.”  

In 1932, however, the Civic fell victim to the Great Depression: Eva refused to compromise on the price issue, and the fortunes of backers like Otto Kahn and Mary Bok began to dwindle.  Indeed, while the Civic was one of the first American theaters to be subsidized – the blueprint for the nonprofit model we have today, Eva was never able to garner the public funding she craved, and truly create a “National Theatre.”  In fact, while FDR offered her the job of heading up the Federal Theater Project in 1933, Le Gallienne refused.  Eva reportedly felt that an initiative predicated solely on giving out-of-work artists jobs would “encourage [artistic] mediocrity…”  To cultivate a “theatre-mindedness in the American public comparable to that in European countries,” Eva wrote, “it was mandatory to bring them only the highest possible standard of performance.” And indeed, when the Federal Theatre Project itself failed after just four years, its dynamic leader Hallie Flanagan said that its “double identity as a relief organization and artistic enterprise” was the cause.  

The Civic failed too – but it had, as Helen Sheehy writes, successfully “united a young American theatre tradition with a rich European heritage,” introducing the United States to the works of Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and in many ways to the “repertory” approach.  What’s more, as Sheehy explains, Eva and the Civic “formed the philosophical bedrock for Off-Broadway and nonprofit institutional theatres…”  In that way, almost every nonprofit theater in the country, from the smallest Off-Broadway blackbox to the biggest LORT house, owes a major debt to Eva Le Gallienne.  Helen Sheehy goes on to write that Eva and the Civic “flung out a challenge yet to be answered,” a thesis I believe points to Eva’s ambitions at establishing not only a subsidized, “people’s theatre,” but a NATIONAL theatre of the United States.  And perhaps through its connection to Eva Le Gallienne and the Civic Repertory company, as well as its history of producing and cultivating some of the greatest works and talent of American theatre since that first production of Cradle Song in June 1928, the Berkshire Theatre Group can attempt to meet that “challenge” in its new century.

 

Sources:

Sheehy, Helen.  Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography.  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Krienik, Barrie.  “Not Only For Amusement: Eva Le Gallienne and the Civic Repertory Theatre.”  Medium.  https://theaterhound1.medium.com/not-only-for-amusement-eva-le-gallienne-and-the-civic-repertory-theatre-fa8a7e4e331e.

The Berkshire theatre Group Archives

 

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From the Archive: Eva LeGallienne

By: Katie Birenboim (She/Her/Hers)   Devoted fans of BTG may gasp to discover that until doing a first round of research in the amazing BTG archives, I had never heard … Read On

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Georgia Douglas Johnson was a well-known figure in the National Black Theatre movement in the early twentieth century, assembling and inspiring the intellectuals and artists who generated the next group of Black Theatre and rising education. Johnson wrote about 28 plays that were published under the pen name John Temple due to the fact that most of her writings were denied publication because of gender and race. By the end of her time, Johnson had written 200 poems, 28 plays and 31 short stories. She published her last poetry book, entitled Share My World, in 1962.
Are you and the kids feeling the February blues? Get out of the house and join us for “Magic Tree House: The Knight At Dawn” February 18th at 2pm! Author Mary Pope Osborne will be signing books from 1pm to 1:45pm in The Colonial Theatre lobby prior to the performance. Books will be available for purchase provided by The Bookloft in Great Barrington! Tickets on sale now!
There are still a few days to grab your tickets for “Draw The Line: A Tribute To Aerosmith!”
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Tickets through the link in our bio!
You won’t want to miss “Hyprov” on March 25! From the brilliant minds of Improv and Comedy Legend Colin Mochrie and Master Hypnotist Asad Mecci comes a brand new, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, side-splitting show! Twenty random volunteers from the audience will be put under hypnosis, their inhibitions evaporated and their minds no longer their own. The contestants will be methodically and hysterically whittled down until the five best are left on stage when one of the world’s leading improvisers enters! Colin Mochrie will take the stage to improvise with the top five while they are still under hypnosis, which will turn the show into an improv extravaganza!
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Join us March 24 for “Song and Dance.” Highlighting Berkshire women in the Arts, this show features performances by Gina Coleman, Olga Dunn Dance Co., Wanda Houston, Mary Ann Palermo and The All-Star Women’s Band, along with more of our extraordinary region’s unsung female heroes in the art, business, social and medical communities. Join us for an evening of celebrating women of the Berkshires!
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Katie Birenboim is back on the blog this week highlighting some more of the rich history found in BTG's archives! A recent trip uncovered this essay from long-time president of the board and fixture of the Berkshires, Jane Fitzpatrick, outlining the formative years of what we now call the Playhouse on our Stockbridge campus! Read more from both Katie and Jane through the link in our bio!
Want to change things up this year for St. Patrick’s Day? Join us March 17 at 7:30 for The Young Dubliners! This American rock band have been recording albums and touring since 1993. Their style of music has come to be called Celtic Rock for the fusion of Irish traditional music with modern rock ‘n’ roll!
We are so honored to have been a part of such amazing theatre over the past year! Congratulations Kimille and DeAnna!
Buckle up and hold on tight as Berkshire Theatre Group presents The 2023 Berkshire Mountain Guitar Summit on Saturday, March 11! Enjoy workshops, demos and a luthier’s expo in The Colonial Theatre Lobby followed by a concert on the Colonial stage hosted by BTG’s very own Rev Tor and featuring performances by a handful of the region’s most beloved guitar heroes.
This year’s line-up includes: Fuzz of Deep Banana Blackout, Rob Sanzone of The Picky Bastards, Garrett Lechowski of Harvest, and RustSeth Fleischmann of Misty Blues! More announced soon so stay tuned!
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Join us Friday, March 3rd for “Ivy League Stand Up!” Known for their elite brand of clever comedy, the members of The Ivy League of Comedy can be seen on late-night TV, Comedy Central and now on stage at the Colonial. This hilarious comedy show features original, well-written comedy that doesn’t resort to playing on stereotypes or picking on the audience. This is stand-up comedy’s funniest and brightest!
Today we remember a magnificent man. His words were extremely important then and they are still extremely important now.
"Photograph 51" is an intriguing portrait of British scientist Rosalind Franklin and her often overlooked role in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. A balance of the historical, romantic and scientific, it is a touching play about ambition, isolation and the race for greatness. The show first opened in the West End in 2015 and starred Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin. We are excited to bring this show to The Berkshires June 15th-July 1st. Tickets on sale now via the link in our bio!
February 25th we’ve got “Tapestry, The Carole King Songbook Featuring Suzanne O. Davis.” In addition to featuring all the music from Tapestry, the show will also feature many songs that Carole King and her husband, Gerry Goffin, wrote in the 1960s as one of the most successful songwriting teams in pop music history. The more than 400 songs were recorded by over 1,000 artists, including The Drifters, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Donnie Osmond, Aretha Franklin, The Shirelles, Bobby Vee and many more.

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Are you looking for something fun to do with the whole family but don’t want to brave the cold days of winter? Join us February 18th for “Magic Tree House: The Knight At Dawn.” Based off of Mary Pope Osborne’s Award Winning book series, this show is wonderful for all ages! Mary Pope Osborne will be signing books from 1pm to 1:45pm in The Colonial Theatre lobby prior to the performance. Books will be available for purchase provided by The Bookloft in Great Barrington!

link in bio!
Mark your calendars for February 10th! We’ve got Draw The Line: A Tribute To Aerosmith! Combining the same blues-based, hard rock sounds of Aerosmith, Draw The Line performs  classic hits like “Walk this Way,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Dream On” and many others with stunning accuracy. Tickets on sale now via the link in our bio!
Join us February 3rd at 7:30pm for Rev Tor’s 11th Annual Dead of Winter Jam. Interweaving the classic songs and jams of The Grateful Dead, Dead Man’s Waltz is an all-star collective from the Northeast festival scene. Dead Man’s Waltz features top-notch musicianship and offers a refreshing twist to the music of The Grateful Dead. While staying true to the spirit of the music, the band members put their own dynamic spin on a vast catalog of beloved songs that are now part of the new American songbook. This show will feature some of your local favorites like Mark Mercier (Max Creek), Jen Durkin (Deep Banana Blackout), Mark Paradis (The Marks Brothers/Lobsters From Mars), Mike “Woody” Wood (Rebel Alliance) and Them Bastards (Chris Merenda & Dave Brown). 
Tickets on sale now via the link in our bio!
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