A History of the American Film

01 Durang

Christopher Durang (born 1950) started writing A History of the American Film at Yale. But it’s no heavy academic tome: it’s a revue-style musical telling the life story of Loretta Moran, an orphan who has grown too tall to stay in the orphanage. Dismissed with only a nickel, she begins her adult life destitute on the unforgiving streets of Depression-era America…

The conceit of the play is that its style and genre develop through the history of cinema, so that Loretta’s birth and childhood are done in the sentimental melodrama mode of Orphans of the Storm (1921), staged as a silent ‘movie’ with projected captions, after which sound arrives. We have to wait until the second act for the coming of color, so in the earlier part of the play everyone is costumed in monochrome. There are also allusions to famous movie moments, such as when Loretta is having a breakfast argument with her boyfriend Jimmy, and he pushes a grapefruit into her face, as James Cagney famously did to Mae Clark in The Public Enemy (1931):

02 Cagney

After Jimmy gets Loretta pregnant, he is drawn into gangsterism and she becomes the embodiment of the Hays Code. She demands, among other things, that every transgression shall be punished, whereupon Jimmy finds himself on the wrong end of a colleague’s machine gun and a caption flashes up: ‘THE END’. Unfortunately for Loretta, it isn’t: she’s wrongfully accused of the murder, convicted, and sentenced to a long term of hard labor on a chain gang.

Enter the idle rich, engaged on a scavenger hunt like the one that starts off My Man Godfrey (1936). Yes, we’ve gone from a gangster film to a screwball comedy. In the movie, the challenge is to find a tramp (and they duly pick up William Powell, who is so unimpressed by arrogant socialite Gail Patrick that he threatens to spank her). In the play, the challenge was harder, to find a fugitive from a chain gang – but scatterbrained Allison Mortimer, abetted by a Turkish hanger-on, has managed to find two! Her husband Edward is unimpressed by the idea of bringing escaped convicts into the house, but their daughter, the madcap heiress Clara, thinks it’s wonderful: ‘I’ve never been in love with a criminal before.’ She’s out of luck with one of the escapees, because (obviously) it’s Loretta, but at least the other one is the personable Hank.

Loretta’s problem is that she hates screwball comedies. She just wants it finished: ‘I want the music to soar and the sign to come down and it can be over.’ So she resorts to telling everyone how the rest of the story will go. Hank and Loretta can get married: ‘they’re screwballs and social class doesn’t matter’. She herself will marry Abdhul the parasite Turk and live miserably ever after.

LORETTA: But Mr Mortimer, on the other hand, is so happy that Abdhul is leaving his house that he takes Mrs Mortimer over his knee and he spanks her. And we all laugh and laugh, and then the The End sign comes down and we don’t feel anything any more.

(There is a long pause while everybody looks at Loretta as if she’s crazy. Loretta seems relieved that she’s discovered a way to end things. Suddenly the expressions on Edward, Allison, Clara and Abdhul’s faces change, and they begin to act out what Loretta has just described as if it were the most natural thing in the world and as if anything should be tried once. Edward now grabs Allison, puts her over his knee and spanks her.)

ALLISON: Edward, stop this! Stop this!!


Then Viola the black maid comes in.

EDWARD (with Allison still over his knee): I’m not talking any more of your foolish behavior, Allison Mortimer. You bring home one more Turkey, or rajah, or any other foreigner in a turban, and you’ll get a paddling from me you’ll never forget.

VIOLA: Thash tellin’ huh, Mr Morimer.

ALLISON (sternly): Viola. (Thrilled.) Oh, Edward, I’ve never seen you like this!

CLARA: Oh, mother, I’m so happy. At last I’m in love too. (To Hank.) And I hope when I’m bad you’ll spank me.

The scenes then proceed onward to pastiches of westerns, science fiction and biblical epics, and Loretta ends up in a screaming, swearing marriage straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

The play was first produced in 1976 as a workshop staged reading at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, after which it had three regional productions in the spring of 1977 (at Hartford, Connecticut, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC) and then came triumphantly to Broadway in 1978.

04 Broadway Cast

The Tony-nominated production opened at the ANTA Theatre on March 30, with a cast including, as Hank, Brent Spiner, later best known as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

05 Broadway 1978

More to the point, Bryan Clark played Edward and Allison was Kate McGregor-Stewart, on the right here:

06 Broadway 1978

The play is still intermittently revived all over North America, by provincial companies and schools. To finish off, here’s a school production from Fairfax, Virginia, that played in May 2008.

2008 Northern Virginia Cast 1 (1)2008 Northern Virginia Cast 1 (2)

And this was a production that used two casts – and (hurrah!) photographed them both:

2008 Northern Virginia Cast 2 (1)2008 Northern Virginia Cast 2 (2)2008 Northern Virginia Cast 2 (3)2008 Northern Virginia Cast 2 (4)2008 Northern Virginia Cast 2 (5)

One thought on “A History of the American Film

  1. jimc says:

    Quite an interesting story about this show. I live in Fairfax and wish I had known about the school production as I would have liked to have seen it. Thanks for the great backstory and also the pics. Have a great day.


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