The Singing Empress (Stuart Oderman)
Lillian had returned to the Broadway theatre after a 3 year absence to appear in Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father, which concerned itself with the animosity between a father and son, and the son’s lack of feeling as the father dies alone, wheelchair-ridden and filled with hate. The play opened in New York on January 25, 1968, after having done good business during its pre-Broadway engagement in Boston. Lillian told an interviewer from The Boston Herald Traveler how she prepares:
When I work on a part, I don’t have a pat formula. I wait for the director to tell me what he wants – then I do it. A strong director like Alan [Schneider] pulls all the performances together. In any medium you need a Boss Man, whether it’s films or theatre or on TY. I learned that early with Griffith.
Clive Barnes, reviewing I Never Sang for My Father for The New York Times, slaughtered any potential the play might have had for a successful run with his opening line: “A soap opera is a soap opera whichever way you slice the soap.” While citing the acting as often admirable, and acknowledging the believable poignancy of the situation, Barnes complained that the playwright’s intentions were “betrayed by its over obviousness.” Lillian’s performance was singled out for special mention: Lillian Gish’s delicately fluttering mother, warm and attractive, is another performance worthy of a more productive cause. Lillian spoke to this biographer during the first week of the play’s 124-performance run. I Never Sang for My Father, like All the Way Home, is a work with autobiographical overtones. Both plays aren’t what you would call happy Saturday night fare. The lack of communication between father and son is a mighty theme that will forever be constantly explored.
Many things in I Never Sang were stated, as if that should be enough. This is not an Arthur Miller play with a lot of shrieking and fingerpointing accusations and somebody not being there during hard times. Robert Anderson is obviously not a New York thirties protest writer. He writes with restraint and grace and he doesn’t skirt the issues. It took courage to mount this play in a Broadway theatre instead of an off-Broadway house.
Hal Holbrook, playing the son who doubles as narrator, does a splendid job of holding everything together, like the Stage Manager did in Our Town. I always felt, when I read the script for the first time, that Anderson’s play should have been a novel, too. So much of the narration plays like prose. I think the play would have a larger audience. Although the play kept Lillian living and working in New York while Dorothy was in Rapollo, Italy, there were weekly visits.
Lillian’s understudy, former silent film actress Lois Wilson, who had starred in Miss Lulu Bett, The Covered Wagon, and The Great Gatsby, recalled Lillian’s often repeated pattern after the Sunday matinee:
We were playing 3 mats a weekWednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. As soon as the curtain comes down: boom! Lillian dashes down the stairs and right into the taxi waiting to scoot her to Kennedy for a flight to Rome. She’d arrive early the next day, get to Rapollo and stay a day with Dorothy, and then fly back here. Somehow she’d grab a few hours of sleep on the cot in her dressing room and manage to do her show. Thank God for time zones.
Playing eight shows a week were demanding in themselves, but the visits to Dorothy were beginning to sap her strength. During one of her visits to Rapollo, Lillian was invited to co-star with her longtime friend, actress Helen Hayes, in a television production of Joseph Kesselring’s hit homicidal comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace. Lillian and Helen would be playing two sweet, elderly ladies, sisters, who murder lonely old men after extending an invitation to them to visit and sample their special elderberry wine. Helen Hayes jokingly told this author at their first meeting that she and Lillian had known each other forever.41 In actuality, their friendship, according to close friends, started around 1930. When Lillian had become frustrated with Hollywood after her sound debut in One Romantic Night and decided to return to New York, stage star Helen Hayes had just signed a film contract and was on her way to the coast to begin shooting what was later released as The Sin of Madeline Claudet.
Helen Hayes said: Lillian and I both came up the same way: touring in shows when we were children. Lillian went into films, and I kept on doing stage work.
Lillian came back to work for Jed Harris in Uncle Vanya, which was her Broadway debut, although she had done stage work many years earlier. She said her voice didn’t record right [on film], and not to expect very much. In those early days of sound, if the studio felt your voice didn’t match your look, you had no future, no chance. Luckily, I came from the stage, and I have no previous silent film career. There were no preconceptions on the part of any producer regarding how I sound on film. I knew that stage people were in demand, and they took us as we were. I spoke 8 shows a week. No amplification. If producers or their scouts could hear us in the last row of the balcony, we were approached with a contract.
Voices were what landed the contract. Faces were what maintained them. Lillian’s voice didn’t register then or now as the sound of a damsel-in-distress, the type she played in those Griffith films. Lillian in those days was a face. I was never a face. I was a stage character.
Lillian’s three weeks of rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace required that she rise before eight in the morning, report to the television studio at ten, rehearse until six, have something to eat, and get back to the theatre by seven, the required half-hour before the curtain went up. It was well after midnight when she would arrive home. With Sunday rehearsals, it meant she was working without a day off. Working straight through the week was nothing unusual for Lillian. A 7-day workweek was commonplace when she began acting in one-reelers for Mr. Griffith in 1912. A full day in a full week in 1968, more than half a century later, made Lillian realize she had come full circle. As long as work was available, she would take it! During rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace, Lillian preferred to dine at Longchamps because of their flattering lighting. Lillian had maintained her annual overseas trips for injections of lamb embryos in an effort to keep her looking young. Longchamps had low lights, which didn’t throw too much attention on anyone. Lillian was fearful of looking older and not being able to get any work.
Helen observed: Sometimes she [Lillian Gish] is so closely in tune with her own drummer she misses the beat of what is going on around her…. All her clothes date from 40 years, but the dresses are still elegant … and they still fit. When it came to work, she’s still sharp as a tack.
For the final week of rehearsals, prior to the actual taping, Lillian was rising at five to be ready for makeup at seven. Because the taping went beyond the usual time, Lillian missed two performances of the play. Lois Wilson played them. I Never Sang for My Father ended its run on May 11. Shortly afterwards a telephone call from Rapollo informed Lillian that Dorothy had contracted bronchial pneumonia. Three hours later, Lillian was on a plane bound for Italy. With Lillian at her bedside, 70-yearold Dorothy died on June 5, 1968. Next to the passing of her mother, Lillian would regard Dorothy’s death as the second greatest tragedy of her life. Lillian had been raised by her mother to always look after Dorothy because she was younger and more playful. Now that Lillian was alone, she would only have to look after herself. Otherwise they’ll hire another little girl…
Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen by STUART 0DERMAN