Gilbert Miller and His World

The following is a guest post by Senior Theater Specialist Walter Zvonchenko.

Gilbert Miller (1884-1969) was one of the most active and successful theatrical producers of the 20th century.  He had offices in New York and London, had many connections with theatrical offices across Europe, and was responsible for presenting some of the finest in American, English and continental theater, featuring many of the most outstanding theater artists of the time.

The holdings of the Library of Congress include a collection of Gilbert Miller papers, primarily correspondence chronicling many of the highlights of modern theater history.  The collection is not large, but is tightly packed with letters having to do predominantly with the business of the modern stage.  The letters are largely chronologically arranged, enabling the researcher to read through aspects of many theater seasons as they evolved.   The letters are a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in modern drama.  Miller’s career was truly international in scope.  The letters are a grand tour of the theater capitals of the world, reflecting Miller’s very cosmopolitan life.

Miller was fluent in several languages including, and notably Hungarian – Budapest was a lively theatrical center in the period between the world wars, with a great many gifted dramatists.  His ability with languages gave him a distinct advantage in identifying plays of worth and negotiating for play production in London and New York.  The main stages in the major continental cities were every bit as vibrant as the English-speaking stages and it was through Miller that some of the most notable continental authors had a hearing in New York and London.

Miller was noted for presentation of the kind of polite social comedy and drama in which civilized conversation and quick witty repartee were the overriding characteristics of the evening.  Favored authors included Frederick Lonsdale, Édouard Bourdet, Somerset Maugham, Jacques Deval, Siegfried Geyer, and Ferenc Molnár all European.

Below is highlighted background on just two of Miller’s productions, chosen as indications of some of the kinds of problems encountered in modern theatrical production.

CANDLELIGHT

The German language original of CandlelightKleine Komödie, also known as Bei Kerzenlicht, by Siegfried Geyer opened first in Vienna in 1927.  It was quite successful and was followed by many productions across Europe.

Bei Kerzenlicht was adapted for Miller for New York under the title Candlelight by P.  G. Wodehouse, opening on September 30, 1929 at the Empire Theatre in New York.  Leslie Howard and Gertrude Lawrence played the lead roles.

Miller Collection Folder 1/43 includes a considerable amount of correspondence regarding Candelight, including questions of casting and governance of rights to specific aspects of the play’s production.

These include insight into many of the complexities that have to do with touring.  In the United States, Miller organized a touring production with Eugenie Leontovich in the lead.  The production company’s affairs were handled by Gregory Ratoff (Leontovich’s husband at the time), and some of the many difficulties encountered are closely detailed in the Miller papers.  There were many problems that had to do with mapping out the tour, the financial complexities, monies owed and theaters selected for the tour.   In one instance it was found rather late in the game that two theaters that were to host the touring production were to be torn down necessitating a scramble for a home for the play.

ANNE OF ENGLAND

Scene from Anne of England by Mary Cass Canfield and Ethel Borden, based on the Norman Ginsbury play Viceroy Sarah. (L-R) Barbara Everest as Queen Anne; Flora Robson as Sarah Churchill; and Margery Maude as Mrs. Danford. From the Gilbert Miller Papers.

Gilbert Miller presented the play Anne of England beginning October 7, 1941 at the St. James Theatre in New York.  The play by Mary Cass Canfield and Ethel Borden was based on the play Viceroy Sarah by Norman Ginsbury.  The role of Sarah, Duchess of Marlboro, was played by Flora Robson.  The folder for the year 1941 of the Miller collection includes a lengthy series of letters about the production of Anne of England.  The letters are in themselves a prehistory of the play’s production and include letters from and about Robson, letters from Miller and others all having to do with the circumstances of the production. The play had to do with the complexities of relationships among Queen Anne of England, Abigail Masham, and Sarah Duchess of Marlborough.  Much of the correspondence has to do with consideration of which, if any role, Robson would play.  Robson at the time was involved in the latter stages of a film for Paramount, possibly with Errol Flynn, from which her contract with paramount would not release her until completion of the film.  Miller indicates concern for how long Anne could be postponed in the event Robson remained unavailable for a length of time.

Scene from Anne of England by Mary Cass Canfield and Ethel Borden, based on the Norman Ginsbury play Viceroy Sarah. (L-R) Flora Robson as Sarah Churchill; Barbara Everest as Anne of England; Jessica Tandy as Abigail Hill; and Frederick Worlock as John Churchill.

Robson considers which of the roles in Anne she prefers, finally deciding on Sarah, or whether alternatively she would prefer to take the role of Lady Macbeth in a production of Macbeth with Maurice Evans.   Robson initially decides to do Macbeth and then changes her mind and does Anne.

The letters discuss which role in the play would be Flora Robson’s; who else would be in the play; whether she would prefer to commit herself to another producer’s  production of Macbeth in which she would play Lady Macbeth in preference to doing Anne; Miller’s doubt that Anne of England could be postponed indefinitely to permit Robson to undertake her other commitments; Robson’s strong wish to play when she would be available; her obligation to Paramount for the film which may have been The Sea Hawk  with Errol Flynn; her happiness at being allowed by Miller to come back to the Anne production after having walked away from it, and that she will not play Abigail Masham  (who happens to have been an ancestress) but the Duchess.

Ultimately, the play was done in New York with Robson as the Duchess of Marlborough, opening at the St. James Theatre with Jessica Tandy and Robson. The Miller collection includes a great many photographs of the New York production.

There is a vast store of comparable material throughout the Miller collection, making it a fascinating source for exploration of a critical part of modern theatrical history.

The collection is available to researchers through the Performing Arts Reading Room in the Library’s Madison Building, Room 113.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.