The Show-Off might have been the title of one of the comedies that put George Kelly atop Broadway for a time in the 1920s, but it certainly did not describe either his writing style or his approach to media. That might account at this point for why he is not as well-known as two other Irish-American dramatists who started around the same time, Eugene O’Neill and Philip Barry.
Today, because he brooked neither outside interference in producing his work nor outside intrusion into his complicated personal life, he is all but forgotten to the general public. If recalled at all, it is because perhaps his greatest success, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Craig’s Wife, was adapted into the 1950 Joan Crawford film, Harriet Craig (he abominated both the star and the production), and because you might have heard of a niece who credited him with encouraging her to pursue an acting career: Grace Kelly.
What to make of this enigma? I found answers, at both professional and personal levels, at a matinee performance in September of his 1931 dramedy Philip Goes Forth, which closed last weekend at the Off-Broadway Mint Theater. I figured that if any theater troupe could re-awaken interest in his work, it was the Mint: A few years ago, they had turned in sterling work on another play by another largely forgotten figure, the Anglo-Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, in the comedy Is Life Worth Living? (See my 2009 review of the latter.)
Philip Goes Forth is infinitely trickier stuff, part of the reason why it flopped on Broadway at its premiere in 1931. The critical reaction was so discouraging that Kelly swore off the Great White Way and decamped for Tinseltown for several years.
The action of the title—“going forth”—occurs after recent college grad Philip argues with his father on his writing ambitions, and leaves for New York in a huff, choosing the Joycean course of trying himself “against the powers of the world.” In vain does his kindly Aunt Marion (played marvelously by Cynthia Toy Johnson), concerned that he hasn’t even written anything yet, warn about the chance of “wasted years.”
It soon becomes apparent that Philip has far more affinity for the business world he flees than for the artistic world he hopes to join. He collaborates with a poseur with the Dickensian surname Shronk on a “Chinese fantasy”—Kelly’s satiric vision of avant-garde. All of this is happening at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher: Philip’s father has warned him not to come crawling back to his old job, and the worsening Great Depression is reducing many to despair (including a musician in Philip’s boardinghouse). The play’s swipes at artists manque flooding New York did not sit well with critics, but Kelly did not care: Playwriting, like the other arts, was almost a kind of priesthood, he felt, requiring not just commitment but talent, and anyone without these should find other callings immediately.
The Mint production was the first time that Philip Goes Forth was mounted in New York since its original Broadway run, but adept direction by Jerry Ruiz, with the help of an uncommonly well-cast troupe of actors, will go a long way towards assuring that this and other Kelly plays will receive serious consideration in the future. In addition to Ms. Johnson, particularly noteworthy were Jennifer Harmon as Philip’s kindly but realistic landlady, Cliff Bemis as his father, and Natalie Kuhn as his love interest.
In a fascinating post-show “Talk Back” discussion with the audience, Professor Fulton Hirsch of Brooklyn College spoke of his visit in the early 1970s to the 84-year-old Kelly, in what might have been the last interview given by the long-retired playwright. The interview, though long (four hours) and civil enough, was also a mite peculiar: not once did Kelly offer the young academic even a glass of water! In fact, Hirsch came away with the impression that he had inadvertently invaded Kelly’s space
What has become increasingly apparent over time is that Kelly loathed publicity because he wanted to avoid questions about his personal life. His valet-companion of more than 50 years, William E. Weagly, was, in all likelihood, his lover. Kelly’s family (brother John was an Olympic sculling champion and Philadelphia construction magnate) made Weagly eat in the servants’ quarters when they visited, and they did not invite him to George’s funeral in 1974.
Hirsch acknowledged Kelly’s extreme reticence about his private life, his quirkiness as a theater professional (directing his own work, he used a metronome to make actors time words to each second), his snobbery, even his rumored anti-Semitism. Yet Hirsch also agreed with Mary McCarthy’s assessment: "It is difficult to describe a George Kelly play...simply because it is not like anything else while on the surface it resembles every play one has ever been to."
Kelly’s astringent moral sense, let alone his snobbery, may be difficult for a more libertarian age to accept. But his abundant wit and his abiding concern for dramatic structure (a counterpart to his early training as a draftsman) offer distinct possibilities for posthumous rediscovery, a process surely hastened by this fine Mint Theater revival.