Edna Ferber Goes to War

Edna Ferber was a prolific writer, by any measure. She wrote numerous best-selling novels, including Show Boat, Giant, and Cimmaron. Most of her plays were Broadway hits, including Stage Door, Dinner at Eight, and The Royal Family. She even worked on the screen adaptations of both. She was a member of the Algonquin Round Circle, and especially between the 1920s and the 1940s, she was a celebrity of the written word.

As a playwright, Edna was a master of the sumptuous drawing-room melodrama. Many of her plays involved wealthy families, Manhattan penthouse suites, family scandals, and a world probably out of reach to most playgoers. Her novels were no less extravagant, but they often told multi-generational stories about families across the American landscape. Broad Western vistas were a popular locale for her epics.

Still from the 1951 film adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat.

Still from the 1951 film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat.

Perhaps Edna never tried to adapt her novels to the stage because such epic stories were not common on Broadway at the time. However, her plays often carried enormous casts by current nonmusical theater standards; her plays featured an average of 22 actors, and twice more than 30 actors at a time. Her sets were packed with furniture and art, and her plays were dense webs of relationships, actions, and motives. This reached its peak with Stage Door, a melodrama about young women aspiring to the theater.

6 of the 19 ingenues in the play Stage Door, at the Music Box Theatre, 1936. [Photo by Vandamm Studio.]

6 of the 19 ingenues in the play Stage Door, at the Music Box Theatre, 1936. [Photo by Vandamm Studio.]

But Edna perhaps came closest to combining the multigenerational epics of her novels and the packed plays of the theater with her 1941 play, The Land is Bright. The play has many similarities to earlier plays by Ferber and Kaufman. It has a large cast, a dense plot, and many set-pieces. It tells a story of wealth, greed, and corruption set among the upper-class of New York City, but hearkening back to the origin of the family’s wealth in the American West. It tells the story of the Kincaid family across three generations, from its success in the mining industry of the late 19th century, the debauchery of the 1920s, and the sobriety of the present day. Two acts end with shootings. The final act ends not with tragedy, however, but with a rousing speech for patriotic action in the face of the rising Nazi Germany.

Linda Kincaid (Diana Barrymore) is a 1920s flapper with a gangster boyfriend in The Land is Bright.

Linda Kincaid (Diana Barrymore) is a 1920s flapper with a gangster boyfriend in The Land is Bright.

Edna Ferber was proud of her Jewish heritage and troubled by the rise of Nazism. In February 1939 she wrote a condemning letter to Stanton Griffis, chairman of the board at Madison Square Garden, for his having allowed a meeting of the German American Bund, an organization that sought to promote the Nazi party in the United States. By 1941, Edna was trying desperately to get her two cousins out of Haselmere, Surrey, in advance of a feared invasion of England. She had also become a pen pal to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had promised to come see the play The Man Who Came to Dinner, written by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. It was understandable that her latest play would condemn Hitler and call for young men to join the war effort.

Still from the Oct. 29, 1941 performance of The Land is Bright. [Photo by Eileen Darby - Graphic House.]

Still from the Oct. 29, 1941 performance of The Land is Bright. [Photo by Eileen Darby – Graphic House.]

Critics gave the play a mixed reception. Some admired the sense of patriotism in its third act, while others felt that it was a poor fit with the lurid material of the first two acts, which had been a hallmark of Ferber/Kaufman collaborations. The Land is Bright was the second-to-last play Edna wrote. At a total cast of 31 actors, it was just one person short of Stage Door.  It ran for only 79 performances; as far as original productions of Edna’s plays, only Bravo! would do worse. No major revivals of the play have been staged. It’s a shame this is true, because The Land is Bright might just be the missing link between Edna Ferber the novelist and Edna Ferber the playwright.

Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber.

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