WITHIN THE GATES, Pretentious rubbish, or A very Christian Play …

  • FLETCHER, Bramwell – Supporter actor in the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • GISH, Lillian – Leading actress of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • KELLEY, Harry – Leading actor of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • MORRIS, Mary – Supporting actress of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • O’CASEY, Sean – Irish Playwright of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.

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Within The Gates (Stuart Oderman)

Back on The Boards

Sean O’Casey’s writing was a blend of “downright humor and unrestrained horror.” O’Casey, not a devotee of “contrived theatricality’s” or the formal techniques of dramaturgy, believed in scenes from the streets and their ability to be shown on the stage via good observation. Within the Gates, set in London’s Hyde Park, was a combination of realism and abstraction. Lillian played the role of a nameless character described as “Young Whore.” It would cause problems in the minds of some New York theatregoers when they read the names of the characters in their Play bill. Within the Gates did not come to New York without its pre-opening night gossip and raised eyebrows.

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Photo: Lillian Gish’s costume sketch, designed for Within The Gates

The original London production had lasted one week. The British reviews called Within the Gates “anti-moral and antiChristian, with cheap irony for making the Bishop and father of the woman” (Lillian’s character). Within the Gates was dismissed as “pretentious rubbish,” and “O’Casey’s charade.” In its defense, Within the Gates was also called a very Christian play, as it attacked celibacy in the ministry, which did not exist for the first three centuries. What O’Casey was doing was “attacking a church that was unable to relate to natural, sexual energies.” Within the Gates marked a radical departure from the realism of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which concerned itself with the uprising during Easter Week 1916 and its effect on the residents living in the tenements of Dublin. Within the Gates centered on people from the city streets, but the setting of the play was the Hyde Park section of London. The characters served as a representation, a microcosm of society: a Dreamer representing the idealists, a Bishop who is confused by some of the church’s teachings, and a Young Whore who pleads for the more vulnerable. By themselves and in groups they gravitate to the park to express themselves. There are debates and discussions about the existence or non -existence of God, and a yearning for fulfillment in religion. It all comes to an end when the Young Whore dies in her father’s (the Bishop’s) arms. O’Casey, who came to New York for the rehearsals and stayed at the Royalton Hotel (where George Jean Nathan lived in two dingy, book-cluttered, rarely cleaned rooms), often sought shelter from questions about the play in Lillian Gish’s dressing room. Often he would answer that he didn’t know what to say. He had no answer about the “plot” of the “story” of the play. The play Within the Gates, he would say, “simply is.”

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While Lillian and O’Casey acknowledged that the play would not have been produced in New York if not for the efforts of George Jean Nathan, Lillian would also add that George was not the reason she was cast in the play. She had landed the part herself.

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Within the Gates opened at New York’s National Theatre on October 22, 1934. It was received with respect by a divided press,32 but a press that was generally kinder and more tolerant than the original London reviewers. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, perhaps in anticipation of a public who might attack the play on grounds without ever having seen it, opened his review by announcing his intention in the first sentence: “Let us face this thing boldly. Sean O’Casey has written a great play.”

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No mention was made of the play’s problems since its inception, or the controversy and discussions that had taken place in London prior to the New York production starring Lillian. Within the Gates … [is] a testament to Mr. O’Caseys abiding faith in life. Nothing so grand has risen in our impoverished theatre since this reporter first began writing of plays …. This is a great play. There is iron in its bones and blood in its veins and lustre in its flesh, and its feet rest on the good brown earth. In fact it is a humbling job to write about a dynamic drama like Within the Gates.

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Lillian came in for special praise: As the tortured young woman, Lillian Gish give the performance instinct with the spirit of the drama. Never did an actress play a part with more sincerity or deeper comprehension.

It was a dream review for the actress Lillian Gish and the playwright Sean O’Casey. Yet the prospects of a successful touring production were bleak. Early reactions centering on the handling of the relationship between the Bishop and the Young Whore, and the alleged anti-Catholic bias, made the likelihood of audience acceptance in less cosmopolitan cities very remote. That the play was banned in Boston was a fait accompli, and perhaps a portent of things to come. Recalled Lillian about the Boston mayor’s action: Theatre people used to say when a play was banned in Boston before it came to New York it meant that producers had a possible hit on their hands because the newspapers would give it free publicity, and some nontheatregoers might want to see it out of curiosity.

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Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

To ban a play in Boston after it had been in New York for over 100 performances sometimes had an adverse effect. Plays on the road sometimes could recoup the losses in New York. In the case of Within the Gates, it might not attract a Boston audience willing to go into the suburbs. We didn’t want to lose money. Strange Interlude was banned, but it found an audience because of its notoriety. It was different. It was a novelty because of the dinner hour intermission. Within the Gates had a conventional length, but it had other problems because of the portrayal of the Bishop. If any member of the clergy were depicted as anything but sacrosanct and inviolable, there were grounds for demonstrations and protests. The Bishop in Within the Gates fathered an illegitimate child.

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American literature certainly wasn’t without its book-banning and even book-burning in some areas the United States. Hawthorne’s [The] Scarlet Letter had it problems. Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware [1896] was considered immoral. Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry was denounced from the pulpits. Those ministers and preachers were Protestant! The Bishop in O’Casey’s Within the Gates was an Irish Catholic! Boston had a significant Irish Catholic population and Within the Gates was a very Catholic play. Attacking or questioning or challenging the legitimacy or validity of the policies within the Catholic Church wasn’t permitted or even tolerated. The Church was infallible. That O’Casey would even hint or suggest that anything in the Church was immoral was out of the question. Did O’Casey think this kind of questioning would be tolerated in the United States? Had anybody in Boston known Sean O’Casey wasn’t a Catholic, but and Irish Protestant and a Communist … ? The playwright’s wife, Eileen O’Casey, believed the play might have been accepted in Boston if the Mayor had seen the Bishop the was Sean O’Casey had created him: a symbol, and part of the fantasy of the play. Within the Gates, after a Philadelphia engagement, returned to New York for an additional 40 performances, making a total run 141 performances. Its success was more artistic than commercial.

Chapter – Back on The Boards

Lillian Gish, A Life on Stage and Screen – By Stuart Oderman

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Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Within The Gates (Charles Affron)

Before rehearsals of The Joyous Season began, George Jean Nathan had asked Lillian to read Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates. O’Casey’s New York champion, Nathan was actively involved in the play’s production. Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, which had established O’Casey’s reputation in New York in the 1920s, had nevertheless not won him a wide audience. A failure in its London engagement, the expressionistic and symbolic Within the Gates would have had even less chance of commercial success had it not become something of a scandal. The principal female character is known only as The Young Whore. Down on her luck, dying of a heart ailment, she is the illegitimate daughter of the Bishop, who struggles with the Dreamer for possession of her soul. As O’Casey describes her, “You have read a little, but not enough; you have thought a little, but not enough; you are deficient in self-assurance, and are too generous and sensitive to be a clever whore, and your heart is not in the business.” The New York papers had trouble even mentioning “The Young Whore.” Some called her “harlot.” The Herald Tribune removed the character’s name from the cast but left the star’s name in first position, billing it “with Miss Lillian Gish as the leading player.” The New York American referred to her as “A Young Girl Who Has Gone Astray.”

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Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

A striking photograph by Edward Steichen shows Lillian in character, sprawled on the ground, her stockings ripped, her hair disheveled, her hat awry, looking anxiously over her shoulder. But, lest her public forget her true nature, Lillian interrupted her stint as The Young Whore by making a guest appearance, pantomiming The Queen of Heaven in a holiday staging of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Within the Gates opened on October 22, 1934, and its run of one hundred performances far exceeded that of any other O’Casey play in New York. The success was such that a tour was planned, from Philadelphia to Chicago, Toronto, and Boston. The play received an enormous boost in publicity when it was banned in Boston and Toronto. Bostonians wishing to see the play in New York could profit from a special weekend trip that included train fare, hotel accommodations, and an orchestra seat. Forty-four of them, including the Boston critics, took advantage of the deal. “Mr. Melvin of the Transcript, thought it ‘a very intersting play.’ Mr. Gaffney of the Advertiser, saw ‘nothing irreligious or immoral about it.’ Miss Hughes, of the Herald, called it ‘very different and extremely interesting.’ Mr. Cook, of the Harvard Dramatic Club, was ‘very much moved by it.’ ” On the strength of the notoriety, after an abbreviated tour, Within the Gates returned to New York for forty additional performances.

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Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Even those reviewers critical of O’Casey’s play were enthusiastic about its star. She finally converted her nemesis Richard Lockridge. “The Lillian Gish of the old, over-praised days would have had not the faintest idea how to begin; the playing of today’s Miss Gish is the one certain satisfaction of the play.” John Mason Brown asserted that she brought “a new strength—yes, a new and much deeper voice—to a part that abounds in difficulties.” Bosley Crowther rhapsodized: “Let us face this thing boldly, Sean O’Casey has written a great play in Within the Gates. … As the tortured young woman, Lillian Gish gives a performance instinct with the spirit of the drama. Never did an actress play a part with more sincerity or deeper comprehension.” The direction of Within the Gates was entrusted to actor Melvyn Douglas, who would, soon thereafter resume his career in Hollywood (he had already costarred with Garbo and would again in her last two movies), where he became a popular leading man, in addition to being a superb actor.

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Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Douglas clashed with Nathan over the staging of Within the Gates. “In retrospect Nathan probably was concerned about striking a safe, commercial note, a consideration I later concluded was rarely far from his consciousness.” Douglas’s only “problem with Miss Gish was trying to get her to be heard beyond the second row. The two of us had many talks about it, and I kept sitting farther and farther back in the auditorium saying, T can’t hear you, Miss Gish. I can’t hear you/ On opening night she was suddenly as clear as a bell and could easily be heard at the back of the house. She fully deserved her excellent notices.” Within the Gates marked the beginning of Lillian’s long friendship with Sean O’Casey. When she met O’Casey during rehearsals, on November 18, 1934, she thought him “a god-like man.” Their lively correspondence lasted until the playwright’s death in 1964.

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life (By Charles Affron)

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Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Within The Gates (Lillian Gish)

George Jean Nathan considered Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill the greatest playwrights in the world. George wrote a great deal about O’Casey and was disappointed when his play Within the Gates closed after a week’s run in London. But he helped to bring the play over to the United States. I was grateful to George for doing this, although he was not responsible for my getting the role of the Young Whore in the production. O’Casey came to this country for the rehearsals. During the first few months of production, he spent most of his time in my dressing room. “I can’t stay out there,” he would say, gesturing toward the lobby, his eyes twinkling behind their heavy glasses. “They keep asking me what my play is about, and I don’t know what to tell them.”

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George arranged for him to stay at the Royalton Hotel, his own headquarters. O’Casey brought so few possessions—a few shirts, socks, and underwear—that he would put one sock in one drawer and its partner in another drawer. He seemed to own only the brown suit and cap that he wore. He spoke with an Irish lilt, and it was a joy to listen to the poetry in his speech. He was fascinated by electric gadgets, amazed by the different ways in which one could switch on a light—push, pull, twist, turn. He would go about, trying them all like a child. His poetic turn of mind evidently appealed to our audiences, for the play ran in New York for six months. When we left to go on tour, word came to us in Philadelphia that the play had been banned in Boston.

A short time later O’Casey wrote me:

The last performance must have been a strange experience and I should have given a lot to be there, though not so much as I should have given to be present when the ban was declared in Boston. I got a whole pile of correspondence about it, and a lot of press-cuttings, but these couldn’t give the thrill I’d have got from standing and hitting out in the center of the fight. Though the ban caused some excitement and a lot of talk, I should have preferred the tour and it is a pity that the Jesuits of Boston were able to stop it.

He added:

Let me thank you, Lillian, for a grand and a great performance; for your gentle patience throughout the rehearsals, and for the grand way you dived into the long and strenuous part of “The Young Whore.”

The beautifully bound copy of Within the Gates that rests in my library has this inscription:

In Remembrance of Things Past, of this play’s production and performance When we all, at least, battled together for the return of some of the great things that belong to Drama A bad thing well done can never feel success; A good thing well done can never feel failure.

With love,

Sean O’Casey

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

The Play of The Week - Within The Gates
The Play of The Week – Within The Gates

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