O MISTRESS MINE [Comedy/British/Family/Politics/Romance/Sex/Youth] A: Terence Rattigan; D: Alfred Lunt; S: Robert Davison; C: (gowns) Molyneux; P: Theatre Guild and John C. Wilson; T: Empire Theatre; 1/23/46 (452)
Terence Rattigan's lightweight domestic comedy--chosen as one of the ten best plays of the season--had been produced during the V-2 bombing in wartime London as Love in Idleness, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the leads. It was meant to divert theatregoers' minds from the destruction going on about them. The piece was then performed for the GIs in their European camps following the Allied victory. When it arrived on Broadway, the stars were the same but the title different. It rang up a robust number of performances before embarking on a lengthy national tour.
The Lunts turned the piece into a delightful romp for their own delicious talents. The run epitomized the Lunts' extraordinarily disciplined approach to keeping a popular production fresh and exciting. According to Lawrence Langner The Magic Curtain, just before the play was about to close, Lunt said to juvenile actor Dick (formerly Dickie) Van Patten, "I have a new idea for this scene. I think it will improve it. We have one more chance to try it before we close the play."
Lunt played Sir John Fletcher, a wealthy British cabinet minister, married to a worthless and unfaithful woman ( Ann Lee) who refuses to divorce him, and living stylishly in 1944 with the charming widow Olivia Brown (Fontanne) in a Westminster house. The widow's seventeen-year-old son Michael ( Dick Van Patten), a disciple of socialist Harold Laski, returns from Canada, where he was sent for safety's sake when considerably younger. He forces a rift between his mother and the minister because of his holier-than-thou moral and political ideas; he is offended not only by the immoral liaison but by the minister's conservative ideas. Olivia and Michael move into a simple flat in Baron's Court, but when the son matures over the period of several months and falls in love himself, his manner toward his mother's alliance greatly, softens. Sir John arrives to offer his hand in legal marriage to Olivia, announcing that he will divorce Lady Fletcher regardless of the consequences to his position.
The play's many weaknesses and flaws were especially evident when the Lunts were not present, which, fortunately, was infrequent. Rosamond Gilder ( TAM) judged the piece "a smooth, gay, highly polished vehicle for their very special high jinks. The Great Lovers of the American theatre have never been in better form, never more beguiling and deft." John Mason Brown ( SR) rejected the opinions of those, such as George Jean Nathan ( TBY), who dismissed the play as beneath the Lunts. ( Nathan said that the play was "minus invention and wit.") He, instead, approved it because "its unimportance is the point of Mr. Rattigan's play, and one of the sources of its pleasures." He preferred to think of it in terms of the opportunities it afforded the stars and the laughter it stimulated among the spectators. According to Lewis Nichols ( NYT), "They build up to jokes, snap their fingers, and the jokes seem hilarious. They take part of O Mistress Mine as high comedy, part as farce, and they are not too