Wednesday, May 5, 2010
On the Boards and Riding the Rails
Playwright and Connecticut native Eugene O’Neill probably arrived in Provincetown, Massachusetts on the tip of Cape Cod by train when he first met up with the Provincetown Players. He wrote in his Nobel Prize autobiographical note that as the son of a stage actor:
First seven years of my life spent mostly in hotels and railroad trains, my mother accompanying my father on his tours of the United States….
In celebration of National Train Day this Saturday, we might observe that for much of the 20th Century, theatre was brought to most small towns and large cities by train. When Gertrude Lawrence played the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, or when Dion Boucicault played at the Boston Museum, they arrived by train. When Joseph Cotten played at the summer theater in Surrey, Maine, a young apprentice named Henry Fonda picked up his trunk at the railroad depot.
Much later on theaters which had been habitually been built close to train stations developed into large entertainment complexes built by interstate highways, but our formative years of theatre in this country have a lot to do with train travel.
Ruth Gordon, in her My Side - The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon (Harper & Row, NY 1976) recalls the amazement on first taking the ultra swank Twentieth Century Limited from New York to Chicago, a step up from the days of rattling train coaches and butcher boys hawking sandwiches in the aisle,
“Memories of damp linen handerkerchiefs on our faces to keep the cinders off were a thing of the past.”
We have another more whimsical episode on the train called the Twentieth Century Limited when John Barrymore rode the rails to his next gig (referred to last year in this Another Old Movie Blog post). Biographer John Kobler writes in his biography of John Barrymore, Damned in Paradise - The Life of John Barrymore (Athenaeum, NY 1977):
“Ensconced in his stateroom aboard the eastbound Twentieth Century, John sent for two Pullman porters, old friends from previous trips. Handing one of them a book, he explained, ‘Now, this is really the skull of Yorick and you are the grave digger.’ And to the other, ‘You are Polonius.’ Fed his cues in this fashion, he rehearsed himself all the way across the continent.”
This Saturday marks National Train Day, sponsored by Amtrak. For more on National Train Day, have a look at this website.