Maxwell Anderson’s ‘The Star Wagon’ – By Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times, Sep 30, 1937)

The New York Times, Sep 30, 1937

Maxwell Anderson’s ‘The Star Wagon’

By Brooks Atkinson

The Star Wagon, a play in three acts and eight scenes, by Maxwell Anderson. Settings by Jo Mielziner; staged and produced by Guthrie McClintic. At the Empire Theatre.

  • Hanus Wicks ……………… Russell Collins
  • Martha Minch ………………… Lillian Gish
  • Stephen Minch ……. Burgess Meredith
  • Park ……………………….…. Whither Bissell
  • Ripple …………………………. Alan Anderson
  • Angela ………………………….… Muriel Starr
  • Apfel …………………..…. Howard Freeman
  • Duffy ………………………………… Kent Smith
  • First thug ……………………….. Barry Kelley
  • Second thug ………..… Charles Forrester
  • Misty ……………………………. John Philliber
  • Hallie Arlington ………… Jane Buchanan
  • Mr. Arlington …………….…. Arthur Young
  • Mrs. Rutledge ………… Mildred Natwick
  • Paul Rieger ……………… Edmond O’Brien
  • Cristabel ………………………. Evelyn Abbott
  • Delia …………………………………. Edith Smith
  • Oglethorpe ………………… William Garner
Lillian Gish by Eric Pape 1937 Charcoal on Paper (Starwagon)
Lillian Gish by Eric Pape 1937 Charcoal on Paper (Starwagon)

Maxwell Anderson and his crew of playmakers are back. They put on “The Star Wagon” at the Empire last evening and restored theatre – going to the status of a privileged profession. Although Mr. Anderson is not the most original playwright in the world, nor the most unctuous craftsman, he writes with considerable bone and muscle. To put it in its simplest terms, “The Star Wagon” is one of his most interesting plays. Taking the hackneyed theme of the time-machine and operating it clumsily at times, he manages to grind some characters out of it who are enormously absorbing people to be with in the theatre and who speculate on the cosmic subjects that arouse a man’s normal wonder. It is a vigorous and variegated play, written with the tang of good prose; and it is superbly acted by Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish in one of Mr. McClintic’s master performances. Of the new plays of the season this is the first to be worth a serious discussion.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With Burgess Meredith in The Star Wagon — with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish.

In “High Tor” last year Mr. Anderson was advising his contemporaries not to try to hold time back. Although his style is less grandiloquent this season, his point of view is much the same. There is no such thing as good and bad fortune, he says; if we follow our natural instincts, we are doing as well by ourselves as we can. To prove this point, Mr. Anderson offers us an impractical laboratory inventor who constructs a machine that can carry him back and forth in time. He goes back specifically to the day in 1902 when he made his choice for a wife. Since she has been insisting that both of them married the wrong person, he tries the experiment of marrying the other girl and letting his present wife marry the other man she might have chosen. The results are ghastly; they all turn out to be jangled people. By operating the time machine again, he restores everything to its present condition and now everyone feels fine.

The Star Wagon 2

As a dramatic device, the time-machine is not the subtlest tool of imagination. Mr. Anderson departs from the magic-carpet tradition by permitting his chief characters to be aware of their privilege and by endowing them with the power to make different choices at the crucial moments in their past history. When they return to the present they also retain the memory of their excursions into what might have been, which gives them a perspective denied to the ordinary mortals of the world. The new play leaves the mind rather discontented.

The Star Wagon 3

But the dramatic device is not the interesting aspect of “The Star Wagon.” What absorbs an audience is the power Mr. Anderson has to create vital characters, write lively scenes and scribble robust conversation. He can manage a flight of fancy but preserving his common sense about people. And the people of “The Star Wagon” are some of the best he has gathered under his dramatic roof-plain people with queer twists of personality, comic people with a touch of the ludicrous in their habits, mean people and generous people, and at least one who is inspired. As for the scenes, they are penny plain and tuppence colored, some of them grubby, some of them overflowing with sentimental nostalgia and many of them democratically humorous. Mr. Anderson’s play is steeped in people and stuffed full of giddy scenes.

The Star Wagon 1

His colleagues have been his most appreciative friends. Mr. McClintic and Mr. Mielziner have kept his fancy squarely set on the stage of a theatre. In the last two seasons Mr. Meredith has had a chance to show what he can do with bravura parts in an Anderson play. Now he skips through the whole gallery of man-the lack-lustre present, the dewy past, and back to now again; and all this he acts with infinite resource, personal magnetism and the gusto of a fully awakened actor. Although Miss Gish has given many fine performances, put this one down as in the top flight, a conscientious and shining characterization. In “Candida” Mr. McClintic gave Mildred Natwick a chance to radiate comedy without wearing grandma’s old costumes, and here she is again proving herself to be the perfect comedienne. Last year Russell Collins was distinguishing himself as the chief character in “Johnny Johnson.” As he who gets slapped in the current play he is in his best form, a likable and humorously straightforward actor.

The Star Wagon 5

Expertly staged, beautifully acted, written with the tenacity of an independent – minded playwright, “The Star Wagon” is the first job of the season worth discussing. As a craftsman Mr. Anderson is no perfectionist, but when he sits down to his table he can write for the theatre.

Photo Lillian Gish Star-Wagon 9 x 13 B

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