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

 

Plan Your Visit

Read our suggestions on where to dine, and where to hang your hat.

Get Started
Did You Know?
Just like NPR, Berkshire Theatre Group depends on the generous giving of its members!
Join Today!
We believe the performing arts can transform a community.
Learn More
Of the 16,000 Berkshire County school children, we serve 13,000 through our BTG PLAYS! Year-Round Educational Programs.
Learn More
Theatre is the place where we go to understand what lies in the human heart.
About Us
BTG's buildings, on two campuses in Stockbridge and Pittsfield, are historic treasures.
Theatre Info
Berkshire Theatre Group believes that the creative arts encourage freedom of speech and debate.
Get Involved
"Out of need will come the way. Once the pandemic ebbs, whenever that is, there will be an incredible need to gather again." - Artistic Director, Kate Maguire
Join Today!
The theatre has existed from the time of the Greeks. We will go on.
Learn More
Join Our Mailing List

Receive the latest BTG News, Updates, Special Offers, and more right to your inbox.

Subscribe

News & Articles

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

If you liked our 80s/90s Dance Party, come join us again TONIGHT at The Colonial Theatre for our Dawn of the Divas Dance Party with the legendary DJ BFG (Gabby Squailia) at the Colonial Theatre! ✨

To purchase tickets visit berkshiretheatre.org.
For the last day of Black History Month, we would like to highlight Felicia Curry (@thefeliciacurry), who starred as Nina Simone in BTG's 2021 production of Nina Simone: Four Women. 

An award-winning, DC-based actor and singer and Emmy-nominated host of PBS's WETA Arts, Felicia has won numerous awards, including being named one of "DC's Biggest Theatre Stars" by Washington Magazine and named one of "12 DC Stage Dynamos" by The Washington Post.
TOMORROW, March 1, dance like nobody is watching to iconic diva anthems at the Dawn of the Divas Dance Party at The Colonial Theatre!

If you enjoyed our 80s/90s Dancy Party and our other dance parties in the past, come join us again, as the legendary DJ BFG is BACK to spin the beats that will make you move and groove all night long! ✨

Limited tickets are available, so get yours today at berkshiretheatre.org.
LAST FEW DAYS to buy tickets for Zep & Co THIS SATURDAY, March 2, at The Colonial Theatre!

Combining the power of not one, but TWO legendary rock bands, prepare for an electrifying rock experience with Zep & Co as they merge the best of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company into an epic performance not to be missed!

Don't delay! Purchase tickets today by visiting berkshiretheatre.org.
BTG is remembers with a heavy heart the life of R. Michael Miller, a beloved scenic designer that worked with us for many shows, including Souvenir (2005), Sick (2009), A Delicate Balance (2010) and Babes in Arms (2010). His talents and bright light will be missed, and we are honored to have worked with him over the years.
Coming to the Colonial on Saturday, March 9, prepare to be spellbound and mesmerized by Andy Gross, who is not only a comedian, but also a magician and ventriloquist with over 1 billion views of his viral magic videos! ✨

Captivating audiences across the country, his live shows are hailed as some of the best touring comedy magic spectacles today that must be seen to be believed.

Grab your tickets today at berkshiretheatre.org and prepare for an unforgettable evening of laughter and intrigue!
Tomorrow, February 24 at the Colonial, discover the ultimate tribute to Jimmy Buffett, with Changes In Latitudes, fit for the Mayor of Margaritaville himself! 🌴🎵

Get ready to sway to beloved classics like “Margaritaville,” “Cheeseburger In Paradise” and “Volcano,” alongside Buffett’s iconic hits such as “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes.”

Don't miss out! Grab your tickets today at berkshiretheatre.org today!
This week for Black History Month, BTG would like to highlight Lauren Ridloff (@laurenridloff), a deaf American actress who starred as Sarah Norman in BTG's 2017 production of Children of a Lesser God, which transferred in April 2018 to New York City's Studio 54 as the first Broadway revival of the play since 1980. 

Her exceptional, emotional performance earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play. Today, she is best known for her roles as Connie in the TV series The Walking Dead (2018-2022) and as Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Comics Universe, in the film Eternals (2021).
Happy Presidents Day! All of BTG's offices will be closed today, February 19, but we will see you tomorrow!
Whether you’re a disco darling, a pop princess, or a soulful songstress, come join us at the Dawn of the Divas Dance Party on the Colonial stage on March 1! ✨

Bringing together divas from every era, DJ BFG will curate a playlist that spans the ages, blending everything from disco divas to pop queens with songs like Beyonce’s “Break My Soul,” Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

Get your tickets today at berkshiretheatre.org and just dance like nobody’s watching!
Hailed as “The Next Best Thing to Def Leppard,” Leppard: The Def Leppard Experience, featuring Andrew Freeman and with special guest Randy Cormier’s “Best of the ’80s”, will hit the Colonial stage on March 16! 🎸🌟

Join Leppard as they faithfully recreate one of rock’s most iconic bands and their legendary songs, including “Rock of Ages,” “Photograph,” “Animal” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” 

Get your tickets today at berkshiretheatre.org!
This week for Black History Month, BTG would like to highlight Gerry McIntyre (@mayorgerrymac), a performer, director and choreographer who has won widespread acclaim for choreographing BTG's 2020 production of Godspell, the only Equity sanctioned show in the country at the start of Covid.

Gerry has worked on and off Broadway for a number of shows, including directing and choreographing Once On This Island and Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He also directed the regional premiere of The Cher Show at Ogunquit Playhouse. Currently he is the Associate Artistic Director of the York Theatre.

BTG has had the honor of working with Gerry over the years on many productions, including My Fair Lady (2001), Side by Side (2005), The Who's Tommy (2011), A Chorus Line (2012), Oklahoma! (2013), Godspell (2020), Nina Simone: Four Women (2021), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (2021) and Songs for a New World (2022), and we are proud to welcome him back as the choreographer for our production of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein this summer at the Colonial.
Happy Valentine's Day from the bottom of our hearts! 💖💕
Looking for a band that combines the power of not one, but TWO legendary rock bands?

On Saturday, March 2, prepare for an electrifying rock experience with Zep & Co. as they merge the best of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company into an epic, powerhouse performance. This full-throttle rock show unleashes the monumental hits and cherished deep cuts that defined the era of these iconic arena rock legends.

To purchase tickets, visit berkshiretheatre.org!
TOMORROW, as well as the second Saturdays in March and April, join the drummer for folk legend Arlo Guthrie, Terry A La Berry, for a musical kids concert series that will sweep your family off their feet! Terry A La Berry’s shows are not just concerts; they are immersive experiences where kids become part of the music-making magic 🎵🥁🎸

Availability is limited, so get your FREE tickets today at berkshiretheatre.org!
A week into Black History Month, BTG has been reflecting on the talented individuals in the Black community that we have had the honor of working alongside over the years. 

Each Thursday for the rest of this month, we would like to shine a spotlight on a few of the many extraordinary Black creatives that continue to be a part of our story and have helped make BTG what it is today. 

Stay tuned for our first Black History Month spotlight post next week! ✨
Follow Us