‘Carnality has seldom been so purely epigrammatic,’ wrote one New York critic about Another Love Story, a late play by the British dramatist Frederick Lonsdale (1881-1954). Some reviewers compared it with the sexual excesses of Restoration comedy, others thought it a smart, louche piece of a kind that would have done well in the 1920s – which wasn’t a compliment, for the play premiered in 1943. In short, the critics turned their thumbs down – and yet Another Love Story played to capacity houses at the Fulton Theatre (now the Helen Hayes Theatre) for 104 performances across three wartime months.
The title is arguably a misnomer, since the play deals with three love stories (and the lack of a coherent connection between them was one of the reviewers’ objections). At the center of one of them is Diana Flynn, who arrives on a visit to a country house on Long Island, to find the daughter of the family preparing to get married. Unfortunately, Michael Foxx, the suave European who is to be the bridegroom, for financial expediency rather than love, happens to be Diana’s ex-beau, who jilted her some years ago.
Determined to take her revenge, Diana conspires with Michael’s prospective father-in-law, who recognizes him for the fortune-hunter he is, to trap him in a compromising situation: they will lure him to her bedroom after she has retired, enabling her successively to win him back, expose him as a cad and then jilt him. But Michael is forewarned by the drunken butler and arrives expecting feminine skulduggery. And that sets us up for what one British reviewer described as ‘a bedroom scene in which a young woman gets what she more deserves than expects’.
The conversation turns to what happens to women who cheat, and Michael remarks that, in old Yugoslavia, she would get her throat cut, whereas ‘The most that would happen to her today would be three hard smacks on the backside.’
DIANA (laughs): I would rather have my throat cut.
Michael puts out one light, looks at her, puts out another, walks towards her slowly and deliberately.
DIANA: If you come an inch closer, I shall scream!
Michael turns the light out. The stage is in complete darkness.
DIANA: What are you doing? Go away, you beast, go away!
MICHAEL: Would you, Diana?
DIANA: Don’t be ridiculous – any woman would!
MICHAEL: Well, well, well! I find that most interesting! It’s a pity you never went to Yugoslavia.
MICHAEL: Scream! I tell you!
He walks slowly towards her.
MICHAEL: When you tell the story I shall be contemptible forever. But for your sake I will bear it.
He puts his hand on the light alongside the bed.
DIANA (in anguish): Go away, go away, do you hear? Will you leave that light alone?
MICHAEL: Will you stop loving me so much, you little beast?
Three loud smacks are heard. Diana is heard screaming.
DIANA: You beast! You beast! You beast!
So Diana’s plot goes awry – and in the end she succeeds in one of her objectives, winning Michael back, and no longer cares about the others.
Lonsdale, who was spending the war years in the US, got financial backing for the play from his friend Joseph Kennedy, the former American Ambassador to Britain and patriarch of the political dynasty that produced President John F. Kennedy. Rehearsals were set to begin on September 1, before the initial tryout performance in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 24. So during the summer, he had to find an actress to play Diana.
Margaret Lindsay had been acting professionally for ten years and grown to star status in Hollywood without having once set foot on the stage of a theater. She was vacationing in New York that summer, and happened to encounter Lonsdale. As she later told it:
He asked me to read the play and I fell in love with it. I realized then that this was the sort of play I came to New York to see – and there wasn’t anything like it to be seen. I knew, too, that the part Mr Lonsdale offered me was what I had been wanting to do for years, and simply hadn’t had the courage to try.
She also, of course, needed the courage to allow her fellow actor Philip Ober to give her what one first-night reviewer called ‘a resounding spanking’!
The rehearsal period was difficult, as they often are, but it’s unusual for a production to get through three different directors in as many weeks! It began with the British screenwriter Edmund Goulding in the director’s chair. He did some work on the story, and started off rehearsals, but clashed with Lonsdale and ended up fired. The next director was a playwright, Clare Boothe Luce, but, since she was also a Republican Congresswoman, she had a few other things on her plate, and was only looking after things for a few days. Finally a new permanent director was appointed – and it was none other than Frederick Lonsdale himself!
After Delaware, where it smashed box office records and filled every seat, the production played for a week each in Washington and Boston, before opening in New York on October 12. It closed on January 8, 1944, but Philip Ober didn’t stay the course: savaged by the critics for a lackluster performance as Michael, he was replaced at the end of October by Joel Ashley. But though the play too was panned, audiences still came, attracted by its naughty reputation and its starry cast, including not only Margaret Lindsay but also Roland Young, seen here together on the cover of the playbill:
After the New York production closed, the story of Another Love Story goes three ways. To the provinces, where it had some repertory productions, such as at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1944, with Robert Carleton as Michael, and dark-haired Beverly Sparrow being spanked as Diana. To Hollywood, where Columbia Pictures acquired the rights for $35,000 and floated the idea of a movie in which Rosalind Russell would be spanked by Cary Grant.
Or maybe it would be Marguerite Chapman…
But the film was never made, leaving the play with one more destination: London!
Its first British exposure came on St George’s Day, 1944, when the BBC broadcast a recorded sound excerpt from the New York production. By then, the rights had already been bought by the production company H. M. Tennent, who submitted the script to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office on November 18, 1943.
In view of the play’s ‘naughty’ reputation, and given the Lord Chamberlain’s aversion to onstage spanking scenes, it got a surprisingly easy ride from the censor. Here’s the key passage from the reader’s report:
What seems important from our point of view is that although the dialogue is sophisticated and there is a good deal of seduction and divorce in the background, what happens on the stage is harmless enough – we have had spankings off before and here it is in a blackout, the same thing, and the bedroom scene is inoffensive.
So Lonsdale’s decision to have the spanking played in total darkness saved it from being censored!
The play opened for a provincial tryout at the Royal Court in Liverpool on November 6, 1944, then played in Manchester, and opened at the Phoenix in London on December 13. Austrian actor Anton Walbrook played Michael (he was later replaced by Max Kirby), and Diana was Judy Campbell, the future mother of Jane Birkin.
The critics were no kinder than in New York, with the great James Agate lamenting in the Sunday Times that Lonsdale’s standards were on the decline:
The culminating point of the comedy was when in a darkened bedroom the romantic young man turned down the bedclothes and gave the lion-tameress three resounding smacks. Can we doubt that the old Lonsdale would have had the wit to call his piece ‘She Who Gets Slapped’?
But did Agate actually see Michael turn down the bedclothes, in violation of the Lord Chamberlain’s expectation that the spanking would be done in the dark? Probably not, for in May 1945 the production was the subject of a complaint by the Public Morality Council, which described the sequence in these terms: ‘Michael learns of the plan and fails to be enticed in spite of all the allurements of Diana, and we are left to suppose that he smacks her, at any rate we hear the smacks.’ So maybe Agate’s account of the turned-down bedclothes was equally suppositious.
In any event, the London theatergoing public were more contented than the London critics, and more tolerant (or more immoral) than the Public Morality Council. The play’s West End run exceeded that in New York: it closed on May 12, 1945, four days after VE Day, having received 173 performances. And so began the gradual diminuendo that was the fate of all successful stage plays: repertory productions followed, and the amateur rights were released in 1947.
But then, in 1990, Another Love Story came briefly back to life, thanks to Lonsdale’s grandson, the actor Edward Fox, who directed a production at the Leicester Haymarket. Michael was played by Patrick Fiery and Diana was Lalla Ward, best known as the sometimes school-uniformed companion to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who.
Here they are in the powder-pink bedroom set, dressed for what the Financial Times reviewer called ‘a passionate spanking of the ravishing Lalla Ward’:
To be precise, Lalla’s costume was a white silk nightie through which, according to one eye-witness, her white panties were visible. As indeed was the spanking itself: although Michael dutifully put out the lights as the script directed, the result was not a complete blackout but a moonlit room. And that meant that the Observer’s theater critic, Michael Coveney, could leaven a generally dismissive review with the following choice remark:
I enjoyed seeing Lalla Ward having her bottom smacked, but only because it was the least she deserved.
After nearly half a century, audiences finally got to see the spanking in Another Love Story!