Friday, October 15, 2010

Ada Gray in "East Lynne" Comes to Town

On this day in 1888, Ada Gray played Ypsilanti's downtown Opera House--yet to be destroyed by a tornado--in the play that made her famous, "East Lynne." Based on an 1861 novel by Ellen Wood, the story details scandalous goings-on in a middle-class family. Excerpt from this review:

"Isabel Vane, the novel’s aristocratic heroine, is refined and virtuous, but in ‘a moment of passion’ allows herself to be seduced from her husband and children by a worthless lover. Abandoned and tormented with remorse, she is involved in a railway accident and left for dead. She then returns to her former home, unrecognisable because of a scarred mouth, a sorrow-stricken air and blue spectacles, and acts as governess to her own children. Her son dies without knowing who she really is (her expression of understandable agitation, ‘Dead! dead! And never called me mother,’ which remained a popular gag with music-hall comedians well into the 20th century, belongs to a stage version, not the novel). After this cruel blow she falls into a decline, but refrains from revealing herself to her husband until she is at her last gasp: ‘Keep a little corner in your heart for your poor lost Isabel.’"

The play was panned by one New York drama critic years earlier who criticized Ada's manager-husband's delusion that New Yorkers would like what he cast as unsophisticated fare:

"You all chaffed me when I gave Ada Gray and he "East Lynne" a good notice to go travelling with, and took the trouble to explain to Manager Watkins how it was that a week of his star would be enough for advertising purposes and too much for the New York public.

"Watkins thought that he knew more about it than I did, and so, instead of going away quietly at the end of a week, he lingered near, like Mary's lamb, in the wild hope that ultimately the public would appear.

"Of course he insisted that the house was crowded. They all do it. And equally, of course, the Telegram put in paralyzing paragraphs about his big business. They always do it on the Telegram for so many lines of advertising.

"Then, in consequence of the crowded houses, the popular enthusiasm, the money turned away, and all that sort of thing, Manager Watkins reduced his prices. That settled the business. Last Saturday the gates of the Fifth Avenue softly shut up, never to reopen upon Ada Gray and "East Lynne" any more.

"How much more profitable it would have been to skip away after the first week, before anybody could tell whether the star was a failure or not, instead of braving the losses of the past fortnight and being boosted out of town ignominiously on the eve of Independence Day ? But every country manager thinks that he knows New York. The only managers who frankly confess that they do not know it all are the New Yorkers."

Despite that sneer, "East Lynne" was hugely popular in its day and inspired multiple stage and later film adaptations, one as late as 1931. Dusty D wonders why such a seemingly silly story (as if her husband would not recognize her) was such a smash hit. I'll have to ponder that.

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