The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950

By Samuel L. Leiter | Go to book overview
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UNCLE HARRY [Drama/Crime/Family/Legacy/Mystery/Period/Prison/Small Town] A: Thomas Job; D: Lem Ward; S/L: Howard Bay; C: Peggy Clark; P: Clifford Hayman i/a/w Lennie Hatten; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 5/20/42 (430)

Toward the end of what had proved to be an uninspiring season arrived this effective murder mystery that turned into a major hit and was also selected as one of Burns Mantle's ten best of the year. Written by a Yale University professor, the play previously had had an unsuccessful road tryout with Russell Collins. The playwright, however, disagreed with the casting of Joseph Schildkraut, a slender Continental, believing that the role required "a sandy-haired, blue-eyed, slightly pot-bellied Welshman," as Schildkraut wrote in My Father and I. He talked the writer into perceiving the role in a new way and even persuaded him to move the action from Wales to French Canada and to change the period. Schildkraut, moreover, convinced the producer to cast his close friend and former costar, Eva Le Gallienne, instead of Pauline Lord, in the female lead.

Schildkraut and his wife raised the money for the show themselves, but were barely able to raise enough to open. There was no money for an out-of-town tryout, so they opened "cold." Playwright Job was dissatisfied with the interpretation because the melodramatic elements had been toned down in favor of the romantic and comical. Then, just before the opening, Schildkraut's wife said, "I wouldn't give you a dollar fifty for the whole play. The end was terribly anticlimactic. For heaven's sake, cut out the epilogue." The furious actor argued that it was this scene that had inspired him to do the play in the first place. But the epilogue was cut, the prologue was rewritten, and the play was a hit.

Using a flashback device, the play begins in the back room of a tavern in a small Quebec town with middle-aged Harry Quincy ( Schildkraut) telling a stranger ( Guy Sampsel) about a killing he committed and quoting from Thomas De Quincey's Murder as One of the Fine Arts. The scene moves back in time to 1909 and the home in which the gentle and repressed bachelor lives with his domineering spinster sisters, Hester ( Adelaide Klein) and Lettie ( Le Gallienne), and where his ex- fiancée, Lucy ( Beverly Roberts), has come to declare that she is going to marry someone else. Harry's sisters have interfered in his love life because the terms of their father's legacy decreed that all three siblings share equally in the estate. Harry blames his jealous sisters for his having lost Lucy and begins to plan the perfect crime to get rid of them. His scheme involves tricking Lettie into purchasing prussic acid (presumably to kill their dog) and then having her serve a cup of poisoned cocoa to Hester. The evidence having been concocted to make Lettie appear guilty (a maid [ Leona Roberts] is a crucial witness), she is accused, convicted, and sentenced to hang. When Harry learns that Lucy will never wed him, even with his sisters out of the way, his conscience begins to bother him so badly that he writes out a confession, and gives it to the prison warden. But when Lettie is shown the confession she refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to punish her brother by going to her


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