Thoughts & Musings

A Plague of Vultures:
Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean (1932)

©2010 by Eileen Warburton

There’s an old tale, attributed to Aesop, about the city mouse and the country mouse, wherein the slick city mouse visits his unsophisticated country cousin and, by devaluing the good things of the country life, bamboozles him into giving up his riches (and his life). That’s pretty much what’s going on in The Late Christopher Bean, in which the predatory city slickers–forgers and swindlers–arrive at the rural farm of kindly Doctor Haggett and his family to corrupt and tempt them into sacrificing their values for easy money.

It’s the depths of the Great Depression and Dr. Haggett, like his neighbors, is scraping for cash. He’s a decent country doctor who has always treated his patients whether they can pay or not. Mrs. Haggett and her older daughter Ada have grander ambitions that are thwarted by their lack of the wherewithal. But a younger Mrs Haggett was once kind enough to allow an itinerant artist to live in their barn, while the doctor was concerned enough to treat the young man’s alcoholism and TB. The modernist pictures painted by Christopher Bean that he left after his death have moldered, forgotten and misunderstood in the doctor’s barn for over ten years.

The rediscovery of Christopher Bean as a modernist master by the critics and museum curators of New York sets off a firestorm of deception, greed, and temptation as the vultures descend on the small town rubes who may or may not have possession of the known paintings of the artist.

But the division into sheep and goats in this play is not between the sharp con-men from the city and the victimized pastoral family. It’s between those who can see with the eyes of the artist, with the vision that encompasses the simple, natural world, and those “Philistines” for whom art is nonsense unless it translates into dollars and cents.

So, of course, there is the actual forger who would deceive the entire world and there is the petty dealer who simply wants to steal the paintings at the lowest price by lying about their provenance. But there are also the members of the family who quickly learn to sell out, indeed becoming swindlers themselves who would rob their servant, Abby, of her most treasured possession for their own gain.

Not surprisingly, those with the eyes to see as Chris Bean could see in his paintings are also those directed by love and who have some integrity. There’s Abby, the uneducated maid-servant who learned to see through Chris’ eyes and became his beloved. There’s Warren, the painter and paperhanger who was Chris’ student as a boy and who yearns to become a real artist (and has the talent to do so). And there’s the younger Haggett daughter Susie, who loves Warren, is truly fond of Abby, and also has the capacity to see the world around her through the eyes of art. There is even the unselfish critic, Davenport, who cares only that Christopher Bean’s vision is made accessible to the world. These characters, ultimately, are the inheritors—although it takes the entire comedy to reveal their legacy.

In addition to dealing with a story about the “lost” pictures painted by a great artist, The Late Christopher Bean is itself considered a “lost” play, only recently rediscovered and performed. After a good run in 1932, it virtually disappeared for 77 years. Only last fall, 2009, was it unearthed by the TACT Company of New York (specializing in resurrecting the forgotten of theatre) and performed to great acclaim. So, the play is old and it’s new.

This was the second mega-hit of the talented Sidney Howard (1891 – 1939), who had a distinguished (albeit, brief) career as a Hollywood screenwriter, creating sophisticated dialogue for the likes of Ronald Colman. He is credited with returning emotive silence and visible acting movements to the “talkies,” which he felt had gone too far in sheer talkiness. After his premature death in a freak farm accident, he won the 1939 Academy Award for the screenplay for Gone With the Wind, the first time an Oscar had been awarded posthumously.

On the stage (his first love), he won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for They Knew What They Wanted (1924), which reappeared in 1956 as the popular Broadway musical, The Most Happy Fella. This play treated adultery with maturity and sensitivity, as most of his other plays looked at adult relationships with tender realism and sophistication.

Howard, who served in World War I as an ambulance driver and then as a flyer in the air force, was also a gifted linguist who translated and adapted works from German, French, Spanish, and Hungarian. The Late Christopher Bean was inspired (and partly adapted) from a French comedy by the playwright Rene Fauchois.

But there seems to have been plenty of American inspiration as well. In 1931 the brand-spanking-new Museum of Modern Art devoted its first solo show to the great modernist American artist Charles Burchfield. Specifically, MOMA focused on Burchfield’s 1917 “Golden Year” of “impassioned renderings of woods and meadows and humble townscapes in an audaciously styled near abstraction that was influenced by Japanese and Chinese art.” (1) Like Christopher Bean’s paintings of rural Massachusetts, Burchfield’s ambivalent portraits of Salem, Ohio left his first viewers confused. It would take more than a decade for critics and curators to recognize the power and clarity of these works. Writing in 1931 and ‘32, surely Sidney Howard must have been aware of the growing tidal wave of praise for paintings misunderstood years before. The speculative “what if” of what might have happened had Burchfield died leaving a cache of great paintings in lowly Salem, Ohio must have stimulated Howard’s imagination.

Sidney Howard left a considerable legacy, although he was only 48 at his death. But his daughter Jennifer married her dad’s boss in Hollywood, Samuel Goldwyn. All those little Goldwyns who still control major parts of the American film industry are Howard’s children and grandchildren.

(1) Peter Schjeldahl, “Life in a Small Town: Charles Burchfield, homebody modernist,” The New Yorker, July 5, 2010. Many thanks to Mr. Anonymous for drawing my attention to the coincidence between Chris Bean and Charles Burchfield as published in The New Yorker.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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