Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” 1930

Just a year before, in another production, Vanya had suffered an ignominiously short run of only two performances. (The Moscow Art Theater had brought the play, in Russian, to America in 1923.) Eva Le Gallienne had put on The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard at her Civic Repertory company in 1929. Chekhov would begin to attract New York audiences when American and British actors found the style to play him. Lillian reacted positively to the young and charismatic producer Harris. “I had never heard anyone like him. It seemed to me that he knew the theatre as no one I had ever met. Later, when I went with Ruth to get my hat, I said: ‘Ruth, he’s wonderful! I’d work for such a man for nothing ” Unpredictable, difficult, sometimes cruel, thirty-year-old Harris had already produced such hits as Broadway, Coquette, The Royal Family, and The Front Page. He had not yet received full directorial credit, though he had taken over Coquette from George Abbott. Uncle Vanya was designed to bring Harris prestige in a theatrical season filled with such plays as Shaw’s The Apple Cart, Sean O’ Casey’s The Silver Tassie, O’Neill’s Marco Millions, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Nazimova in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, Frank Morgan in Pagnol’s Topaze. With over two hundred plays opening in the 1929-30 season, Broadway was alive and well.

— Charles Affron —

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish
Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

“Uncle Vanya was a result of a bottle of Clos Vouget wine. While lunching with Ruth Gordon and George Jean Nathan I said it was my favorite of red French wines. She replied that her friend, Jed Harris, had the same opinion. We agreed to a foursome with the first one to find a bottle. It was a thrilling evening for me to listen to Jed’s inspired talk about the theatre. When I said goodnight, I whispered to Ruth that I would work for him for nothing. By the end of our first week on the road I had not changed my mind and was surprised to be handed an envelope with, I felt, too much money. To be able to play “Helena” convincingly in a distiguished classic with the best actors in New York was worth more than any salary. Dorothy and I both had the privilege of working with the wonder boy of the theatre, Jed Harris; an association that was never marred by one moment of dissension” (Dorothy and Lillian Gish – By Lillian Gish)

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  • Osgood Perkins and Miss Lillian Gish in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” 1930

(Scene: Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”—end of second act. Lillian Gish as Helena) First Woman in Front of Me: “They say she’s been playing over twenty-five years.” Second Woman in Front of Me: “Goodness! How old is she?” “The piece I read said about thirty or so . . .” “Oh, began as a child; is Gish her real name?” “I believe so; the piece said . . .” “Do you like these Russian plays?” “I like her, in anything. I loved her in ‘Broken Blossoms,’ though it nearly killed me.” “I wonder why she left the movies.” “Oh, lots of ’em do; the piece said . . .” “Do you suppose that is all her own hair?” “Oh, I think so; the piece said . . .” (Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

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“Jed Harris had selected a well-nigh perfect cast. With Walter Connolly in the title role, the tired, tearful, disillusioned Vanya; with Osgood Perkins, as Astroff, the hard-riding, hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; with Eugene Powers, as Serebrakoff, the ailing, fat-headed, city professor; with Lillian, as Helena, his young, beautiful, disillusioned wife; with Joanna Roos, as Sonia, his unhappy, love-lorn daughter; with Kate Mayhew, as Nurse Marina; with Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud—one must travel far to find a group of players better suited to a Chekhov play, or one more congenial to work with. Ruth Gordon was not in the cast, but she came to Lillian’s apartment and worked with her. So did Mr. Harris. They believed in her, and encouraged her to believe in herself. Going back to the stage had its difficulties.

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For one thing, it had been seventeen years since she had appeared before an audience, and then had never played a leading part. The audience did not matter so much—she had never been audience conscious. But the rehearsing. In the pictures, the scene was shot, the film developed, and put on the screen for judgment, all within a brief time.” (Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Jed Harris’s assistant Worthington Miner provides a different slant on the director-star dynamics, or lack thereof. “Few people ever recognized Jed’s satanic compulsion to destroy female stars, particularly, though not exclusively, those who had shown no interest in him outside the theatre.” Miner, in fact, sued Harris for denying him directorial credit on Uncle Vanya. He had been the play’s director, not Harris. Miner, who worked on Broadway and in Hollywood through the 1930s, later served as producer-director for the highly regarded television dramatic series Studio One. He categorically stated that he was the official director of Uncle Vanya until the New Haven opening on April 7, 1930. The theatre program gives no indication of directorial credit for this “Jed Harris Production.” Miner held that Harris had Miner’s name excised from the program because Harris was afraid Lillian would be inadequate and Nathan would blame Harris for her failure. “When it became evident that Lillian was not going to fail—was, in fact, on the road to succeeding beyond his wildest anticipation, he panicked. He had never appreciated Lillian’s hidden strength, nor had he ever envisaged the possibility of my creating an atmosphere in which Lillian Gish, and Chekhov, could be at home, in tune and instinctively responsive.”

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Harris did not intervene until the third week of rehearsals when he claimed the invention of some bit of business that made Lillian’s performance “sensational,” although Miner noticed no new business and thought she had been sensational all along. “Whatever I saw was entirely attributable to her own marvelous invention which day after day kept building and enriching her performance.” Thirty years later, Lillian reiterated to Miner that Harris had offered her no assistance.

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya (Harris)

After the New Haven opening night, at which she gave a wonderful performance, Miner found Lillian sobbing in her dressing room, in despair over the prospect of trying to repeat what she had done. “That was my performance! I’ll never be able to do it again!” Lillian’s was the reaction of a movie actress who recorded her one and only best performance for posterity. “My efforts to comfort her, to assure her, had carried no weight whatever. Only time was going to persuade her that she could do it again and again and even again.” Proof that Lillian was able to “do it again” was the euphoric reception accorded her by the feared New York critics. Percy Hammond stated that Lillian “establishes herself in Uncle Vanya as an actress of Moscow caliber. . . .

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya (Harris)
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya (Harris)

She reproduces the character as something between a phantom and a pretty woman, warm though glacial, and moving here and there with the powerful reticence of a gifted artist. … In future when I am told that association with the films is a destructive influence I shall cite Miss Gish’s appearance in Uncle Vanya to prove the contention wrong.” Charles Darnton said, “It is the woman, rather than the actress, whom you see and feel. Always she is there, and just being there she holds you, even though she sits silent in the shadows.

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

And so, in a single night, Lillian Gish has made herself the most interesting actress on our stage.” Darnton was not the only one to indulge in superlatives. John Mason Brown, in spite of an important caveat, found her exceptional: “Though Miss Gish’s voice is small and often colorless, her acting is intelligent in its understatement. … At times … it rises to moments that are as gently poignant as anything that the season has produced.” Only Richard Lockridge found Lillian’s restraint a shortcoming. “She brings a still, small performance and the sense that she is being very careful to a role which, I am a little afraid, requires somewhat more vigorous qualities.”

— Charles Affron —

Jed Harris may have had little impact on Lillian’s performance in Uncle Vanya, but he had presided over her brilliant reintroduction to live theatre. Lillian, who never forgot what she owed him, spoke at Harris’s funeral, on May 4, 1980. “[Arnold] Weissberger introduced Miss Gish as if she were the saint of the silver screen She startled the audience. ‘Jed!’ she cried. ‘Wherever you are! There are a lot of people here that love you.’ She caressed the microphone. ‘Oooh, you had a genius for making enemies but I don’t think you disliked anybody in the world as much as you disliked Jed.’ She was quaint and melodramatic, yet she had been the first to venture into reality.”

— Charles Affron —

Uncle Vanya 1930 Playbill d whos who

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