Uncle Vanya (Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya

(Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

In the 1920s Jed Harris was the boy wonder of Broadway. Every play he produced was a great success. I met him indirectly through George Jean Nathan. George introduced me to Ruth Gordon, an actress whom I greatly admired. He invited the two of us to lunch, and we took an immediate liking to each other. We were both Francophiles, and we both liked a special wine, Clos Vougeot. Ruth said that she had a friend, Jed Harris, who shared our taste for this wine, and it was agreed that each of us would try to find a bottle and that whoever found it first would give a dinner and invite Jed Harris. Not long after I met him at dinner in Ruth’s apartment.

Theater Producer Jed Harris
Theater Producer Jed Harris

George Jean Nathan was an articulate man, and I had learned much about the theater from him. He knew the drama better than anyone I had ever met. He could take any given scene and tell you in detail how twenty different dramatists had treated it, so prodigious was his memory. But that night, I was even more enthralled listening to Jed Harris. He glowed with love of the theater. When I said goodnight to Ruth, I whispered: “He’s wonderful! I’d work for that man for nothing.” Three weeks later he called and asked me to play Helena in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

For Uncle Vanya Jed, with his fine instinct, had gathered a superb cast. Walter Connolly was the weary, disillusioned Vanya; Osgood Perkins, father of Tony Perkins, was Astroff, the hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; Eugene Power played the ailing city professor; Joanna Roos was Sonia, his unhappy daughter; Kate Mayhew was Nurse Marina; and Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud played the other roles. Rose Caylor—Mrs. Ben Hecht and herself Russian—did the translation, with Jed working on the adaptation. George read the acts as they were completed. He read the first act and approved of it. He read the second act and was enthusiastic. When he finished the third act, however, he said, “Lillian, you cannot do this play.”

We had been in rehearsal for two weeks before the third act was completed. His statement was so contradictory to what he had said before that I was astounded.

“You will have to get out of this play,” he repeated.

“How can I? We open in less than two weeks.”

“That’s immaterial,” he persisted. “You get out of it, get sick, go out of town. You can’t hold your own against that last great speech they’ve given Sonia. She will wipe up the floor with you.”

“That’s too bad,” I said, “but I promised to do the play, and I shall do it.”

“That doesn’t mean a thing; you haven’t signed a contract.”

“My word is my contract.”

“Well, if you don’t step out now, you’ll never get another job in the theater as long as you live.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

His judgment, which I valued, made me dread opening night. Worthington Miner, Jed’s assistant, was in charge of many rehearsals, but neither he nor Jed gave me much direction. When my scenes came up, Jed would say: “You’ve directed a movie. Take this scene, and do it as you would in films.” I was too frightened to protest, only hurt that he helped everyone but me, who needed it most. My character represented that quality that all men search for and is always just beyond their reach, and it was not an easy assignment. I wondered if he was sorry that he had chosen me. I asked him years later why he had neglected me when I had needed guidance so badly. “I felt that I had a frightened bird in my hand, and if I gave it direction it would fly away,” he said.

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

I never had a contract with him; I had said that I would work for nothing for the chance to make such a distinguished re-entry into the theater, and I meant it. I was surprised when an envelope was handed to me at the end of the first week with a large sum of money. I heard later that Jed’s staff was worried for fear that I would walk out. But apparently Jed counted on my professionalism and knew that I would carry on.

Uncle Vanya 1930 Playbill b

In that period there was enmity between films and the theater, and, as I had long acted in films, I was anxious about the critics’ reactions. I wanted to slip quietly back into the theater. I asked Jed not to use my name on the marquee. Richard Maney, Jed’s press agent, told me afterward that it took him three days to get up the courage to ask me if they could use my name on the road. When we took Uncle Vanya to Boston, Maestro Serge Koussevitsky came to see the play, and later he and his wife had dinner with us at the Ritz. The Maestro had been a friend of Chekhov’s; he had seen the first performance of Uncle Vanya in Moscow. He related the story of the performance and the audience’s reactions, and we sat listening until dawn. Where American audiences laughed, the Russians had wept; their laughter was matched by our tears. He could not have been more flattering to us when he compared the two renditions. We were very taken with the Maestro. His eyes had that look of wonder that is common among children but that most of us lose with maturity. He made us feel personally involved in the Boston Symphony, then a little world of its own, and we were allowed to come to rehearsals, which were always more interesting to us than the finished concerts.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

The cast of Uncle Vanya was inspiring, particularly Kate Mayhew. Kate was in her eighties and still a joyous woman. To be associated with her was to relive American theatrical history, for she had come to the theater as a child. She had once been the understudy of Lotta Crabtree. She and her sister had no money; they had given all their valuables to their friends before they had grown old. Some years later, Jed said to me: “Remember Kate Mayhew in Vanya? She was so right—the pivot—around her everything else fell into place.”

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

Not wanting to see the bad news in print, I resolved not to read the notices until the play closed. If they said I was terrible I would despair. If they were good I would wonder what I had done that night that was right, looking backward instead of forward. Later I read that Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune had written, “In the 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.”

The night that Uncle Vanya ended its engagement at the Biltmore on November 29, 1930, D. W. Griffith came backstage to congratulate me. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time. It was more than eighteen years since that midsummer day when Mother, Dorothy, and I had entered the old Biograph Studio. He made no mention of his plans; his departure from the payroll of United Artists had made his future a question mark. He talked mainly about the D. W. Griffith Corporation, which had been set up in his name in 1920 to sell stock to the public. He told me: “These are people who saw and loved my pictures and because they believed in them, they have invested all their savings. Hard-working men. Widows with children. How can I let them down? It keeps me awake at night, trying to figure out which story will make money.”

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack

Lillian Gish, signing her book “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” photographed by Peter Warrack

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