The Theatre Guild 1923 New York City Premiere of Saint Joan

The following is a post to from Patrick Mackaronis. Patrick is the Director of Business Development for New York City-based social network Brabble. In this post, Patrick speaks about 1923 New York City Premiere of Saint Joan. Patrick can be best reached on Twitter at @patty__mack.

Theatre Guild Premiere of Shaw’s Saint Joan

George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan premiered in New York in 1923 rather than in England where his popularity declined after he wrote Common Sense About the War in 1914. The socialist playwright may have wanted to test the play prior to presenting it in England. Critics expressed their concerns that the irreverent Shaw would not produce an appropriate play about the Christian saint and martyr.

The Theatre Guild, founded in New York City in 1918, selected old and contemporary, intellectually stimulating plays that commercial producers ignored. Some of its early productions were Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple staged at the Garrick Theatre. The Guild, selected to produce the world premiere of Saint Joan, eventually became the official Shaw interpreter in the U. S.


Saint Joan Rehearsals and Revised Script

Rehearsals with young actress Winifred Lenihan in the lead role proceeded with the usual problems inherent in theatrical productions. Lawrence Langner, co-director of the Guild recounted that the script’s length presented considerable difficulty.

Another problem arose when the Guild began rehearsing with the first script received from Shaw, and learned that the playwright would be sending a revised version. In response to their protest, Shaw reproached them for rehearsing from a copy they knew to be only a first proof.

“Begin at Eight – Or Run Later Trains”

Saint Joan opened at New York’s Garrick Theatre December 28, 1923 to mixed reviews. Some audience members and critics complained the length of three-and-a-half-hours was too much. Co-Director Theresa Helburn asked Shaw if he would consider making some cuts so that suburban visitors would not miss the last trains home if they stayed for the full performance. Famously, Shaw replied, “Begin at eight – or run later trains”.

Thoughtfully, the playwright sent an article to be printed if business dropped off because of the play’s length. The article, unpublished for 28 years, was printed by Life magazine in its October 22, 1951 issue as a “memento of the late, great G. B. S.”

Shaw’s Response to Recommendations and Nobel Prize

In that article, Shaw wrote, “…there seems to be a misunderstanding in the New York press of my intention in writing Saint Joan…”. He commented on the assumption made that he was “providing the paying public with a pleasant theatrical entertainment whilst keeping the working hours of professional critics within their customary limits”. Having worked as a critic, Shaw understood the job’s time restraints, but refused to “cut the cackle and come to the burning…”so that the curtain could rise at eight-thirty and descend at ten minutes to eleven.

Though cautiously accepted during its first run, the play eventually gained recognition as a modern masterpiece. Acclaim for Saint Joan led to the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to George Bernard Shaw, who gave the money to charity.