If the name John Van Druten doesn't mean much to today's theatregoers, it's mainly due to his date of birth being 117 years ago (June 1, 1901), and having died 60 years ago (December 19, 1957). But in his day, he was an eminent writer and director on both the British and American stages. He directed the original Broadway production of The King and I, and his name has been in every program for Cabaret since it premiered in 1966, as Joe Masteroff's book of that musical was based on I Am a Camera, Van Druten's stage adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. He adapted and directed I Remember Mama from Kathryn Forbes's book Mama's Bank Account, which was a major hit in 1944 (and featured the Broadway debut of Marlon Brando). And his 1943 comedy The Voice of the Turtle, after all these years, still ranks as the 9th longest running play in Broadway history with 1,557 performances. Those are just a few of the highlights of the nearly thirty plays on which he put his imprint, in what was sadly, only a twenty-seven year career.
John Van Druten (1901-1957).
John Van Druten was born June 1, 1901 in London. A love of writing was in evidence when at age seven, he wrote a three-page play about Mary, Queen of Scots. However, his parents didn't nurture this passion, and instead, owing to their insistence, Van Druten studied law, becoming a solicitor in 1923. Uninterested in practicing, he took to lecturing on legal history at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth.
But that didn't stop him from eagerly pursuing his writing passion, and in 1924 (and at age twenty-three), Young Woodley, was Van Druten's first produced play. It proved a sizable hit, though it took a rather circuitous path. Its plot concerned a schoolboy who falls in love with his headmaster's wife, leading to his expulsion. As this was hot stuff back then, it led to the play being banned in the United Kingdom. With one man's meat being another man's poison, it was done on Broadway the following year, where it was met with great success. Not to be outdone, London subsequently embraced it three years later, where it ran even longer in the West End than it did in New York.
"A too big, too soon success, is a bad thing. It happened to me," Van Druten told the New York Times in 1953. "It calls too much attention to the author. Too many people can't wait until he comes crashing down. A false standard is set up, which is dreadful." Van Druten should know: it took eight produced Broadway plays until he got another set of good reviews with Old Acquaintance, a well-fashioned comedy that starred Peggy Wood and Jane Cowl as writing rivals. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote "For quality it is superb. Mr. Van Druten writes with enviable grace, humor and compassion." It became a motion picture in 1943 (Van Druten wrote the screenplay), proving a terrific vehicle for Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins to tear up the screen, and was rich enough territory for a 1981 remake titled Rich and Famous, with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen (George Cukor's final film). It was also revived by the Roundabout Theatre at the American Airlines Theatre in 2007, with Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris.
Peggy Wood and Jane Cowl, the stars of Old Acquaintance (1940).
The aforementioned Voice of the Turtle was a three-character romantic comedy set during World War II. Opening as it did in 1943 at the war's midpoint, its plot concerning a soldier and an actress forced to share her apartment for the weekend gave audiences an escape they desperately craved. The play was risqué enough for its time that the titillation went a long way, and once again, the great Margaret Sullavan triumphed in a part perfectly suited to her considerable comedic talent.
Producer Alfred De Liagre, Jr., with Elliott Nugent (in uniform), Margaret Sullavan,
John Van Druten and Audrey Christie; The Voice of the Turtle (1943).
Rex Harrison and his then wife, Lilli Palmer, starred in Van Druten's 1950 Bell, Book and Candle, a comedy the 1960s TV series Bewitched owed a great deal, dealing as it did with a man surprised to discover that the woman with whom he's fallen in love is a witch. Brooks Atkinson double-downed on his praised for Van Druten calling him "our most dextrous playwright [who] has put together a wonderfully suave and impish fancy that begins like well-mannered horseplay and ends like romance." The 1958 film version starred James Stewart and Kim Novak, with Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs and Hermoine Gingold in able support.
Lilli Palmer and Rex Harrison in Bell, Book and Candle (1950).
Then came Van Druten’s hire to direct The King and I, hand-picked by Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, who for the first time, were producing one of their own musicals. Instead of going with Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed both Oklahoma! and Carousel, or Josh Logan, who directed South Pacific, they went with a choice that gave them what they desired most at this heady stage of their careers: control (for more on this, the newly published Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, by Todd Purdham, is a must-read). Considering it was the first musical Van Druten had ever directed, he couldn’t have had a bigger success if he scripted it himself.
I Am a Camera followed in the same season as The King and I (1951), which made him two for two. Then in 1952, in what would turn out to be the final play he wrote and directed, Van Druten flopped with I've Got Sixpence. Not to be confused with the musical Half a Sixpence, which ran for over five hundred performances, I've Got Sixpence closed after twenty-three. Ill health then took him home to his ranch outside Palm Springs, California, where he had been living since he became an American citizen in 1944. In 1953, he published a book, The Way to the Present, which funnily enough, didn't take his life to the present, but just up to his first success, Young Woodley, which he achieved by age twenty-six. "All autobiographies are best when they are about childhood and adolescence," he said, "Everything fades out later."
In 1957, Van Druten faded away from heart failure, far too young at fifty-six.
Interesting fact: At the 1952 Tony Awards, Van Druten was responsible for directing four actors to Tony winning performances: Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in The King and I, and Julie Harris and Marian Winters in I Am a Camera. With the Tonys for Best Director not split between plays and musicals until 1960, Van Druten lost his best shot at the award for The King and I to José Ferrer, who had directed three plays that season (Stalag 17, The Fourposter and The Shrike) and was cited for all of them, something that never happened in Tony history again.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.