Uncle Vanya – Albert Bigelow Paine 1932

Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

Uncle Vanya

It was at the end of May, 1930, at the Rivoli Theatre,New York City, that Lillian was presented in her first, probably her only, talking picture. For during those months since she had finished it, something had happened—something of epochal proportions: she had returned to the stage! A block down Broadway, in 48th Street, at the Cort Theatre, since April 15, she had been appearing six nights and two afternoons a week, as Helena, in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

It had all come about naturally enough. When it became known that Lillian Gish was closing her contract with the United Artists, proposals arrived plentifully. The distinguished Russian manager, director, author, Dantchenko, wrote that he had begun a story with her especially in mind; Basil Rathbone sent a manuscript and wrote: “I need not say how happy I should be to do a play with you, a privilege denied me even in my very own play, ‘The Swan.’ ” A cable from Germany stated that a motion picture company had been formed of those who believed in Reinhardt, and that Jannings and all the best of Germany’s artists had signed; that the first picture was to be “La Vie Parisienne,” by Offenbach—three versions to be made, French, English and German, Lillian to have the position of production manager. But then came an opportunity such as she had hoped for: One day, George Jean Nathan spoke to her of the actress Ruth Gordon, of how much Lillian would like her. “Couldn’t you arrange a meeting?” she asked. He could, and did. He asked them both to tea, at the Colony Restaurant. Lillian was not disappointed in Ruth Gordon. They had one love in common: France. They talked a great deal about that pleasant land, its beauties, its castles, its wines —especially its wines—one of which in particular, they both loved, Clos Veugeot. Ruth Gordon said:

“And I know a man who has the same taste: Jed Harris, the theatrical producer.” Someone proposed: “We must try to get a bottle. The first one of us who finds it, to give a dinner, and invite Mr. Harris.” Said Lillian, remembering:

“But of course no one could get a bottle of Clos Veugeot, any more. One day, Ruth telephoned that she had a bottle of Rhine wine, and that Mr. Harris loved that, too. So we had a small dinner in her apartment, with Rhine wine and strawberry ice-cream. For the first time, I heard Jed Harris talk. I thought 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.’ Ruth agreed. She had worked for him in ‘Serena Blandish,’ and told me how fine he had been. “A few weeks later, George Nathan called up to say that Jed Harris had a part for me: ‘That’s splendid,’ I said, ‘but do you think I could do it?’ “‘Of course. It’s Helena, in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” ‘ “

“I said I would read it over at once, and see if I could do it. I adored Chekhov, and had a volume of his plays, but it didn’t contain ‘Vanya.’ I was very excited. For ten years—from the time of working with Victor Maurel, I had hoped to get back to the stage.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

She ran out to a bookshop, and presently was back, deep in the play. She thought Helena a hard part—wondered if she could do it. Her stage work lay far behind her — really counted for little, though for more, perhaps, than she realized. This was at the end of February, or early in March. Almost immediately, they went into rehearsal. 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. 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. If unsat isfactory, it could be made over, and over again. Furthermore, it could be “edited.” Now, it was all quite different. You could not see how well, or how badly, you had done a thing; you only knew what the director told you. She had moments of misgiving. Perhaps it would have been better, certainly safer, to remain in the pictures — even the talking pictures that had offended her as incongruous. They were new, crude—Arliss in his “Disraeli” had taken a long step towards something that, in the end, might mean, if not perfection, at least  something as near it as the silent film had reached. Oh, well . . . It was in New Haven, on the evening of April 6 (1930), that the curtain went up on Lillian’s first night in “Uncle Vanya.” She was nervous, after all. The moment came when Helena enters, merely to drift voicelessly across the stage. There was a burst of applause from the audience—she was not prepared for that, and was almost as frightened as on that long-ago night of the explosion at Risingsun. She quickened her step, quickened it still more—was almost running, at the exit. Jed Harris still gives amusing imitations of this first entrance across the threshold of her new-old career. Never mind—it was a success. The leading New Haven paper, which never before had given an editorial to a theatrical performance, gave one next morning, to “Vanya.” Professor William Lyon Phelps invited her to luncheon, and was full of enthusiasm. He had seen nothing, he declared, since Mary Anderson, to impress him so much as Lillian’s Helena. He wrote a letter to the “People’s Forum,” calling the public’s attention to the play.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

All very gratifying: To Lillian, however, one of the most satisfactory features of her new venture was the absence of the money element—always, after the Griffith days, a foremost consideration. The word “salary” had never been mentioned between her and Mr. Harris. She did not even know what she was to have until she got her envelope at the end of the week. It was a gray afternoon, in the little den which has become so much a part of our story, that Lillian recounted these things. She owed a heavy debt to Ruth Gordon, she insisted, and thought of Helena as “Ruth’s child.” And just here came one of those coincidences which are always being popped into plays and stories. In another room, the telephone rang. A maid appeared at the door. “Will you speak to Miss Gordon?” she said.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

HELENA IN NEW YORK

The New Haven Register, after commenting on the “superb piece of staging done by Jed Harris, and the quite indescribable beauty and magic of Lillian Gish’s performance as Helena,” spoke of “Uncle Vanya” as “surely one of the few really great plays in existence … a richly polyphonic drama, in which one watches the drift and flow of human life as one listens to the different voices in a Bach fugue.” True enough, though “Uncle Vanya” is hardly a play at all, but a succession of incidents with no more plot than a picture, which is precisely what it is—a tapestry of exquisite workmanship, a cartoon of human futility — in this case, on a Russian farm.

1930 Uncle Vanya - Helena
1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena

Mark Twain once wrote:

“God, who could have made every one of His children happy . . . yet never made a single happy one.”

Chekhov might have taken that as a text for any of his plays. In “Vanya,” no one of the characters is even passably happy, except Marina, the nurse, and Marina’s happiness lies in strong tea and hope in the hereafter. All the rest are actively unhappy, especially Vanya himself, who is hopelessly in love with Helena, wife of a querulous egotist twice her age—Helena being a little in love with “the Doctor,” who is drinking too much, himself heedless of the love of Sonia, who is too good for him, and breaking her heart for him, and is about the unhappiest of all. The late R. K. Munkittrick, of Puck, had a poem beginning: “All the house is full of sorrow, all the house is full of gloom”; the rest of it will not bear quotation, but in its entirety, it would make a typical Chekhovian chant. Chekhov’s houses all were full of sorrow—the pathetic gloom of thwarted human ambitions and desires, of blasted human ideals. Like any of us who happens to think about it, Chekhov did not at all know whether life was a tragedy or a comedy, so he called his plays comedies, and laughed them off on us, letting the tragedy take care of itself, and sink in, and add itself to our own, to make certain that we had our share. And in doing this, he created pictures of which, as the Register remarked, “one is forever thinking: ‘These things cannot have been written, they must have been lived.’ ” With the possible exception of “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya” is, I should think, the choicest of Chekhov’s tapestries, and the part of Helena, the subtlest example of his artistry. Certainly, no role could have been better suited to Lillian.

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

Helena’s beauty, her elusive, eerie personality, her mild, impersonal attitude toward much of what went on about her—it was as if the part had been created for her, or she for the part. It is the advent of Helena, and her gouty, insufferable husband, Serabrakoff, that is the catastrophe of the play—a calamity, in Astroff’s phrase, as definite as the ruin wrought by a herd of elephants—and misses being complete only because Vanya’s attempt to shoot Serabrakoff hurries them away. There is no special reason why sympathy should be with Helena, except that she is beautiful, and indifferent, and only passively to blame for the trouble she causes, and for the fact that she is bound for life to the bewhiskered Serabrakoff. Perhaps that is enough; perhaps the fact that Lillian played the part had something to do with it. The scene between the two, which opens the second act, is one of the high spots in the play.

The contrast between Lillian in a canary-colored dressinggown, her splendid hair loose, and her trumpery husband, reveals an entire epic, as tragical as any in the human story; and wherever the blame may lie interests the audience not at all, the chief desire being that the whining old human disaster may pass away as promptly as possible —overnight—leaving the lovely Helena and the doctor, or somebody, to live happy ever after. It was at the Cort Theatre, on the evening of April 15, that “Uncle Vanya” opened in New York City. It was the event of the Spring season. A first-night audience in New York is a different matter from one in New Haven. New Haven being a university town, a Chekhov first-night audience would be largely intellectual, with a good sprinkling of picture fans who had “adored Lillian on the screen.” In New York, there would be all the typical first-nighters, who get a thrill out of any first night, and especially where it is the first appearance of a comely lady, famous in a different, even if kindred, field. Also, there would be the professionals of stage and screen, each with a very special interest; and all the Chekhovians, some of them doubtful and critical, resolved not to be carried off their feet by any trick of beauty and spotlight, but to stand firm for art only; after these, an army of fans, who all the years had longed to see Lillian perform in the flesh, and, of course, there would be intellectuals, too—and critics—on the whole, I submit, except for the fans, a rather hard-boiled audience, one calculated to put fear into the troubled heart. . . . But then the curtain went up … on a Russian garden scene, and presently, across the stage, floated a vision of loveliness, and all the fans broke loose. And all the Chekhovians, and first-nighters, and professionals, and critics of high and low degree, forgot they were hardboiled, and broke loose, too, and pounded their hands together long after the vision had passed, as if they hoped it might return, if only to bow.

Lillian Gish as Helena in Uncle Vanya HiRes2
circa 1921: Lillian Diana Gish, originally Lillian de Guiche (1893 – 1993), made her stage debut at the age of 5. She played a lot of waif type heroines during her silent film career but never quite made the successful transition to talking pictures.

The Times next morning spoke of “the storminess of the greeting at her entrance,” and Charles Darnton, in his afternoon column, had this to say of it, and of the play as a whole:

The applause that greeted her at her appearance not only followed her every step of the way but into the wings. Even then it kept up warmly, strongly, insistently. For a moment I was seized with the sickening fear she might pop into view again, like a grand opera singer after an aria, to bow to the tribute. Evidently, the audience expected no less of her. But it might just as well have expected to call back the Ghost in “Hamlet.”

The event had its peculiar phase. Walter Connolly was playing the principal character, and playing it finely, whereas Lillian Gish was appearing in a minor role, or what would have been a minor role in the hands of an ordinary actress. Yet throughout the whole performance interest centered in Miss Gish.

This is said with every consideration for Mr. Connolly. He could not help himself. He was as powerless, and blameless, in the matter as though he had been playing with Duse. But I couldn’t help wondering how he felt about it. Not that I suspected him of professional jealousy. It was just that the gods, or Jed Harris, had set down an artist touched by genius, and there was nothing to be done about it. When Miss Gish again appeared, this time to stay and let us hear as well as see her, when the presence of her filled the stage like light flooding through a window into a room, she was so luminous that the others, including Mr. Connolly, faded into the background. Never before had I seen quite the same thing done in quite the same way.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Certainly, she is not a pushing person. Instead of crowding into the limelight, she seems always to be withdrawing from it. Yet wherever she goes her own radiance follows her and lights her up. Try as you may, you cannot get her out of your eye. Just what this rare thing is I hesitate to say. But a first-nighter did say to me, “She is sublime.” Whatever it may be, it is there in the eyes, the face, the hair, the voice, the form of Lillian Gish. True enough, but it was a qualification that in future would make it difficult for her to get a part in any play having more than one major role. Mr. Darnton says that he was assured by Mr. Harris that bringing Lillian Gish back to the stage was the finest thing he had been able to do in the theatre, adding: “I am convinced that her performance is one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.”

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

If there was any dissenting voice as to Lillian’s triumph, I have been unable to discover it. But I think there was none. She had everything demanded by the part: the personality,  the subtle understanding, the years of training which had equipped her for its perfect interpretation.

Percy Hammond, of the Herald Tribune, wrote:

“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.”

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