The Chalk Garden – 1956

“We will always be grateful to Charles Bowden and Richard Barr for our tour of “The Chalk Garden”. Later Richard went on to produce the Edward Albee plays and Charles produced several Tennessee Williams plays as well as “The Changing Room” by David Storey.” “Posing for publicity stills by Bert and Richard Morgan in Palm Beach, Florida.” (Dorothy and Lillian Gish – By Lillian Gish)

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

Released same year with the play “The Day Lincoln Was Shot – Gish, Massey, Lemmon” The Chalk Garden – by Enid Bagnold; D.Charles Bowden; P.Bowden, Barr and Bullock, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, O.Z.Whitehead, Neil Fitzgerald, Frances Ingallis, Charron Follett Summer tour opened at Niagara Falls 6/4

Dorothy Gish, left, and Lillian Gish are shown in their dressing room at the Lakewood Theatre preparing for curtain time on opening night of The Chalk Garden.
Dorothy Gish, left, and Lillian Gish are shown in their dressing room at the Lakewood Theatre preparing for curtain time on opening night of The Chalk Garden.

The Chalk Garden is a play by Enid Bagnold that premiered on Broadway in 1955. The play tells the story of Mrs. St Maugham and her granddaughter Laurel, a disturbed child under the care of Miss Madrigal, a governess. The setting of the play was inspired by Bagnold’s own garden at North End House in Rottingdean, near Brighton, Sussex, the former home of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The work has since been revived numerous times internationally, including a film adaptation in 1964. The Chalk Garden 1956 – The last courtain for Lillian and Dorothy Gish together.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) arriving in Palm Beach to appear in The Chalk Garden — with Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish.

Choosing a play for a summer tour requires special thought and care. Nothing too heavy or demanding would do. Summer theatre audiences were non-New York based people who lived away from the city. The play Lillian and Dorothy needed had to give audiences a good chance to see them in different costume changes, as well as providing good individual scenes for each sister and a few good scenes of them together.
Wisely, Lillian acquired the rights to Enid Bagnold’s British high comedy, The Chalk Garden, which had been a recent success on Broadway, achieving a run of 182 performances in a season which also presented other quality plays: Tiger at the Gates and The Lark. Both characters in The Chalk Garden – the socialite with the Lady Macbeth-like wish to dominate people as if they were flowers in her garden, and the ex-convict hired to supervise the socialite’s granddaughter (who likes to set fires)were well-drawn. Originally, it was thought that Lillian and Dorothy would alternate playing the parts, but those plans were dropped.
Dorothy had problems learning her lines almost from the very beginning. At first, Lillian thought Dorothy, who had not played on a stage since The Man (1950), was having temporary “blocks.” Dorothy would stop in mid-sentence and, if Lillian were onstage, look to her for help. Lillian, by virtue of the play’s construction, could not be onstage when Dorothy suddenly went “blank.” She knew something was amiss, but she couldn’t identify the source of the problem. Dorothy wasn’t drinking. Her lines were easy enough to say. Lillian knew Dorothy’s timing well enough to sense when something was wrong. She would “feed” her the line in the same way Dorothy supplied Louis Calhern his lines during The Great Big Doorstep (1942). Although Lillian had the showier role, it was important that Dorothy be able to hold the stage in her scenes. Without her lines, the scene would come to a dead stop. Dorothy had the leading role. The play revolved around her. The audience wanted to see the two of them. Lillian took matters into her own hands before the play went on tour. She “adjusted” Dorothy’s part by removing some of the sentences from the longer speeches, hoping a shorter part would be easier to learn. Somehow Dorothy managed to learn her lines, but the insecurity among the supporting cast was always there. Hopefully they would be able to steer her through the performances. The opening night in Toronto wasn’t very successful. In Niagara Falls, Dorothy’s mastery was still shaky. The “adjustments” Lillian made in Dorothy’s role angered author Enid Bagnold’s office. No adjustments were to be made without her approval, and she threatened to stop the production. Lillian disclosed that she was not using the printed Bagnold script. She had secured a copy of Sir John Gielgud’s script for the production he directed in London. His script already contained adjustments! She said to producer Charles Boeden, “You bought the rights to the play for a tour of the summer theatre. She [author Enid Bagnold] has no control over what changes we might make!”

“When Dorothy and I played in The Chalk Garden at the Bucks County Playhouse in the 50s, there also was a good ice-cream place in the vicinity. That is one of the joys of touring. You meet nice people, and you find good places that have ice-cream. I love icecream!”

Dorothy wasn’t always silent when Lillian was around. In praise of her sister, she would sometimes say, “I have nowhere near what Lillian has.” Lillian would respond, “Listen to the audience laugh at Dorothy. She has so much charm on the stage. I have a definite tendency to draw away from people. I can feel myself doing it.” Now Dorothy was doing it. What neither Lillian, nor Dorothy, nor their closest friends and associates could predict was just how far it would go for Dorothy. If there were any ideas about a stage team of Lillian and Dorothy, they were crushed. The Chalk Garden was their first and final attempt. The spool was slowly beginning to unravel. (Lillian Gish – A life on stage and screen, by Stuart Oderman.)


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The Chalk Garden July 23, 1956 Program

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