“Not Only For Amusement”: Eva Le Gallienne and the Civic Repertory Theatre

Theaterhound
May 15, 2018 · 11 min read
The exterior of the Civic Repertory Theatre, late 1920s

Imagine a theatre — a large, old theatre. A thousand velvet seats face a proscenium arch that soars a hundred feet high. A vast web of fly-ropes stretches across the grid, where stagehands traverse a catwalk seamed with lights. An orchestra tunes up in a pit rimmed with gleaming brass railings. Polished oak boxes shine in the chandeliers’ glow. Audience members begin to trickle in, clutching their programs and pulsing with excitement. At this theatre, you can see a different play every night of the week: Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Goldoni, Molière…a living library of plays, performed by a single company of actors, night after night after night.

And a ticket can be bought with a handful of coins.

No, you are not in Paris, London, or Moscow; you are in New York City. The year is 1926, and this is the Civic Repertory Theatre.

I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it. Its name, sadly, has faded into obscurity. But for those who were there, it was a phenomenon never seen before in the New York cultural landscape. And for those who are in New York now, it is a phenomenon we may never see again. It paved the way for the non-profit theatre movement that swept this country in the mid-twentieth century…but its role in that sweep has largely been lost to history. Though the privations of the Depression ultimately caused its downfall, the colossal success of its six seasons was due entirely to its founder: an actress, director, and trailblazer named Eva Le Gallienne — who in 1926 was just twenty-seven years old.

Eva Le Gallienne, photographed by Edward Steichen in 1928

Born in London in 1899, Le Gallienne grew up in Paris and Copenhagen with her mother, Danish journalist Julie Nørregaard, who had separated from her father, poet Richard Le Gallienne, when Eva was three. A dramatic child from birth, she set her heart on a theatrical career at age seven, after seeing Sarah Bernhardt perform in Paris. At fourteen, Le Gallienne met the acclaimed actress Constance Collier, a member of her mother’s circle of artistic friends. Collier became Le Gallienne’s first mentor and encouraged her aspirations by giving her a walk-on role in a London production of Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna. At age fifteen, after a brief period of training at Tree’s Academy — later the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art — Le Gallienne was cast in the role of a cockney servant in a new play called The Laughter of Fools. The laughter, as it happened, was all hers: the newspapers proclaimed her a “brilliant new comedienne,” and Eva Le Gallienne was suddenly a star. She gave interviews, played benefit performances, and received job offers from no fewer than seven producers. But with World War I raging in Europe, Le Gallienne decided to heed her desire for adventure and set out for unknown and exciting territory: New York City.

Eva Le Gallienne as a child on holiday in Denmark, 1900s

When Le Gallienne arrived here in 1915, Broadway was the only game in town, and its fare consisted largely of farces, musicals, and melodramas. After four years of playing bit parts and making the rounds, she made her first major success in Not So Long Ago by Arthur Richman, which ran for several months before embarking on a national tour. This was followed by critically acclaimed performances in two dramas by Ferenc Molnar — Liliom and The Swan — each of which played first on Broadway and then on tour. In between, Le Gallienne found time to travel to Europe…where she saw legendary actress Eleonora Duse for the first time.

Eva Le Gallienne as Princess Alexandra in The Swan, 1923

In 1921, Le Gallienne had acquired a photograph of Duse inscribed with the French words “force et confiance” — strength and faith. That phrase became Le Gallienne’s motto, and after seeing Duse perform in London, Le Gallienne elevated her to goddess status. As she later discussed in her book The Mystic in the Theatre, her friendship with Duse — though it lasted less than a year — was the most formative of her young life. Upon meeting in New York in the fall of 1923, the two developed an instant bond, and they continued to correspond after Duse left the city. So Le Gallienne was understandably devastated when Duse died of pneumonia in Pittsburgh just six months later. Their friendship — and Duse’s mastery of the art of acting — continued to inspire Le Gallienne for the rest of her days.

By age twenty-four, Le Gallienne had become a bona fide Broadway star — but she was beginning to feel stifled by the American system of playing one show eight times a week for a year or more. Throughout her meteoric rise, one thought kept nagging at her: where were the repertory theatres in America? Le Gallienne had grown up attending first-rate state-subsidized theatres in the great cities of Europe, but “here in America,” she wrote, “I found that the theatre was a business like any other business. Its sole reason for existing was to make money.” She could not understand why operas, symphonies, and museums were considered worthy of endowment, but “the theatre was an outcast.” So she decided that once she’d won the “Battle of Broadway” and made a name for herself as an actress, she would create a theatre of her own. And like all of her goals in life, she approached this one with single-minded assurance and laser-sharp focus.

Le Gallienne’s vision was a clear one: hers would be a theatre “for the people.” Its fourfold purpose was to produce great plays, with high production standards, at affordable prices, under the repertory system. While the word “repertory” is now found in the names of many of this country’s theatre companies, Le Gallienne’s definition of “true repertory” meant only one thing (which few of those theatres have actually achieved): one group of actors presenting multiple productions in constant rotation over a long period of time. She was keen to point out that the word repertory derives from the Latin word reperio: “to find again.” “A repertory theatre,” she wrote, “is a collection or treasury of plays which may be ‘found again’ — in a day or two, in a week or two, in a month, perhaps for years.” She believed that such variety was vital to the sustenance of both audiences and actors. So at the end of its first season, the Civic Rep had seven plays in rotation; many of those plays continued to be performed throughout the proceeding five seasons, and the company added more productions each year. This had never before been done in America — and to my knowledge, it has never been done since.

Eva le Gallienne in 1926

At a time when government subsidy for theatre was nonexistent, Le Gallienne knew that she would have to subsidize her theatre through private means. She “wheedled, bullied, or cajoled” wealthy acquaintances into donating funds. (Her favorite pitch was, “If I’m prepared to donate nine-tenths of my earning capacity to this venture, surely you can give me $10,000?”) She “had no qualms about asking rich people for their money, for it was money for a cause in which I passionately believed.” That passion paid off, and Le Gallienne soon raised enough money to fund her theatre’s premiere season.

Of course, she didn’t do it alone. Although Le Gallienne later joked that the Civic Rep was an “autocracy” — she directed, performed in, and produced nearly all of the company’s plays — she was also careful to acknowledge the other people who contributed to its success. One of the most important of these collaborators was Mary Dugget Benson — Le Gallienne’s business manager, close friend, and first love.

As Katharine Hepburn is said to have quipped: “I knew Eva was queer, but I didn’t think it queer that she was.” Le Gallienne had romantic relationships with women all her life, beginning at age eighteen with the woman she called “Mimsey.” Though they parted ways in 1921 when Mary Dugget married Stuart Benson, the two soon reconciled, and Mimsey became Le Gallienne’s principal partner in the running of the Civic Rep. Mimsey oversaw the company’s finances, brought in wealthy donors, and smoothed things over when Le Gallienne’s quick temper got the better of her. As Le Gallienne later reminisced: “We made a good team.” (So much for autocracy.) Benson was also instrumental in helping Le Gallienne acquire the most important ingredient for the creation of her company: a theatre in which to house it.

The beautiful house described above began as a dusty old wreck called the Fourteenth Street Theatre. It had opened in 1866, and for the remainder of the nineteenth century played host to some of the greatest actors of the day. By 1926, it had fallen into disrepair and disrepute — but Le Gallienne fell in love with the place at first sight. After a tricky negotiation with the theatre’s tenants — conducted by Mimsey while Le Gallienne was in Europe — the Fourteenth Street Theatre was rented and renovated. It opened as the Civic Repertory Theatre on October 25th, 1926.

A sketch of the Civic Repertory Theatre, early 1930s

Le Gallienne was adamant that her aim was not to compete with the commercial theatre, but to provide New Yorkers with a different type of theatre altogether — one that would not only entertain, but feed the soul. She believed that the real intelligentsia were the workers and students to whom literature and art were as essential as bread. She refused to believe that American audiences were any less intelligent or discerning, any less hungry for soul-feeding art, than European audiences. “An appreciation for the best in any art is something that has to be acquired,” she wrote, “but how can people acquire it if it is never shown them?” She believed in the ability of the arts to “stimulate our imagination, broaden our horizon, deepen our awareness, [and] contribute powerfully to a richer, fuller life.” As proclaimed by the motto of Le Gallienne’s beloved Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, the art of the theatre was “ej blot til lyst“not only for amusement.”

Le Gallienne also believed, with fanatic intensity, that the people of New York deserved to see truly great theatre at affordable prices. In 1926, the top Broadway ticket price was $3.50; Le Gallienne never charged more than $1.50, with balcony seats selling for fifty cents. (In a 1965 interview, she lambasted a newly exorbitant ticket price of $6.00. I shudder to think what she’d make of our prices today.) The main point, she declared, was that “the standard must be high, and the prices must be low.” When people told her this feat was impossible, she replied: “The word ‘impossible’ should never be allowed to play too great a part in one’s vocabulary.”

Despite her non-profit scheme, Le Gallienne did not skimp on remuneration. For her first season, she assembled a company of thirty actors who were paid an average of $100 per week. In today’s money, that amounts to about $1400 — more than most Off-Broadway contracts offer now! While some of the Civic Rep actors ultimately returned to Broadway or fled to Hollywood, many remained with the company for multiple seasons. These included such famous names as Joseph Schildkraut, Richard Waring, Alla Nazimova, and Josephine Hutchinson…who for six years was both the Civic Rep’s ingénue and Le Gallienne’s lover.

Eva Le Gallienne as the White Queen and Josephine Hutchinson as Alice in Alice in Wonderland at the Civic Repertory Theatre, 1932

Le Gallienne also understood the importance of educating aspiring actors. In 1929, she founded a free training program called the Apprentice Group, whose earliest participants included Burgess Meredith, Robert Lewis, and May Sarton. They put on plays, took classes, and played small parts in mainstage productions — just as many young actors now do in MFA programs. Le Gallienne was ahead of her time in every way.

Eva Le Gallienne as Peter Pan on the cover of Theatre magazine, 1929

Highlights of the Civic Rep’s six seasons included the first American production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters; the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Alison’s House by Susan Glaspell; the premiere of Le Gallienne’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, which went on to have two Broadway revivals; and the very first Peter Pan in which the leading lady flew out over the audience. In a week that she began by playing Peter, Le Gallienne might also play Camille, Juliet, Hedda, Masha, and the White Queen. The variety and scope of her roles, and of the productions in which she played them, was staggering. Few actors in today’s theatre can hope to play as many plum parts in a lifetime as Le Gallienne did in six seasons.

Prior to founding the Civic Rep, Le Gallienne had directed only one play. She had produced a few “special matinees” as experiments, but otherwise had no experience in what we would now term “theatre administration.” As she later declared, “I swept in where angels feared to tread!” Her most striking quality was her determination. When she saw something she wanted done, she did it. When she believed in something, she pursued it. There was no waffling, no hesitation — no fear. In the face of widespread skepticism, against all odds, and in defiance of resistance, she triumphed. And by its fifth season, the Civic had an average attendance rate of 95%.

Eva Le Gallienne as Hedda Gabler at the Civic Repertory Theatre, 1927

Le Gallienne closed the Civic Rep for one season, from 1931–32, in order to recover from an enormous case of fatigue. (Autocracy is admittedly exhausting.) During that time, she suffered severe burns in a water heater explosion at her home in Connecticut, which scarred her face and nearly destroyed her hands. But with “strength and faith” inspired by her beloved Duse, Le Gallienne recovered, reopening the Civic Rep in 1932.

By the end of that year, however, the Depression had crippled her wealthy donors so deeply, there was no more money for subsidy. She tried a Broadway transfer and a national tour, but nothing worked. Gradually, heavily, she admitted defeat. By 1934, the Civic Repertory Theatre was no more.

In 1938, the Fourteenth Street Theatre was demolished. No trace of it remains.

Rubble from the demolition of the 14th Street Theatre, 1938

Le Gallienne’s star didn’t fade with the Civic Rep; her career continued for fifty-plus years, during which time she worked consistently as an actress, director, translator, and author. In 1964, she won a special Tony Award in recognition of her important work in the theatre. At the 1981 Oscars, she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in the film Resurrection. In 1986, she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. And in all that time, she never gave up on her dream of a people’s repertory theatre. As she wrote in her first autobiography, At 33: “It may be that others will achieve my dream. That doesn’t matter as long as the dream materializes.” And in her second, With a Quiet Heart: “How can anything come about unless you dream it first?”

Eva le Gallienne died at her home in Connecticut on June 3, 1991. She was 92 years old.

Eva Le Gallienne at her home in Connecticut in the 1980s

Barrie Kreinik is an actress, singer, writer, and audiobook narrator based in New York City. She is currently writing a play about Eva Le Gallienne.

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