When Life with Father opened in New York in November 1939, no one could have predicted that it would become the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway’s history—3,224 performances in more than six years. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s family comedy meant to raise no earthshaking issues. At a time when war news was crowding the daily press, its depiction of the life of an affluent New York family in the “gilded” 1880s delighted audiences nostalgic for crises no larger than those touched off by the irascible but good-natured ” Father.
Lindsay and Crouse urged Lillian not to sign a run-of-the-play contract since they were about to produce a vehicle that would be ideal for the two sisters. The Gishes did not heed their advice and lost out on the chance to create the hit Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway. Life with Father kept them gainfully employed for far longer than they had anticipated.
Lillian’s company opened in Chicago on February 19, 1940, where it stayed, with her, for a record-breaking sixty-six weeks. “Mother” Vinnie Day suited Lillian in many ways. She had no trouble passing for “a charming, lovable, and spirited woman of forty.” She certainly had Vinnie’s “lively mind,” even if hers did not dart “quickly away from any practical matter.” There was also the “bustled” era of the play, when women comported themselves with a gentility and grace that Lillian enacted with ease. She knew something of that world, and she loved it. She also shared Vinnie’s strong religious convictions.
After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Town (LLOYD LEWIS – Chicago)
Lillian Gish, by virtue of sixty-six weeks in “Life With Father” at Chicago Blackstone Theatre, now takes her place beside the Lunts, Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell as a truly national star.
She has achieved this position by merely spending well over a year at the crossroads of America, the railroad center, whereas the others have had to tour arduously from Tulsa to Des Moines to Seattle to Atlanta. An amazing number of transcontinental travelers stopped off in Chicago long enough to see this Chicago company of “Life With Father,” and the Pullman people say the show did a lot for midnight bookings.
The Lily Maid of Astolat is no longer a dream creature in an ivory belfry nor a flower-decked vision on a dark barge. She is now Mrs. Day, mother, wife and housekeeper. Lillian Gish has come from the unreal to the real. She has made people laugh, she has made people adore her for the simplicity and humor as well with the truly great charm with which she has worn the manners and costumes of the past century. She has identified herself with a character, a scene and a play wholly American, wholly practical and realistic so far as atmosphere is concerned.
“I don’t know, if I should play ‘Life With Father’ any longer; Helen Hayes tells me seventy-two weeks straight is too long for an actress. Other theatrical people tell me that I have thus set a new American record for an actress playing a principal role. I don’t know about this. I do know that I grew weary toward the end and only the enthusiasm of those crowds kept me going. I felt, too, that is was good for the theatre, especially in the midlands, to have a play run in one house for more than a year. That could mean the education of new thousands to the value of the drama.” – Lillian Gish