Time for a look at another of the Baz’s theatre-credits today. This time it’s the deeply controversial (in its time) play THE CAPTIVE. Written by the French dramatist Edouard Bourdet and known in French as La Prisonniere, translated by Arthur Hornblow Jr, it was the talk and scandal of New York when it opened on September 29 1926 – because its central theme was lesbian love and the struggle of one woman (the “captive” of the title) to live within the constraints of a society that could only condemn.
The great Broadway Diva Helen Menken played the heroine, Irene; Rathbone her tortured and conflicted husband Jacques. There was also an appearance by Arthur Wontner as a mutual friend (which makes this play a landmark for Holmes buffs).
Despite its controversy, and “unpleasant” theme, Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times’ no.1 critic (the Ben Brantley of his day) loved the play and raved about it in his review. He loved the Baz too, describing him as acting with “rare dignity and understanding” as the unhappy Jacques. But even this high praise and the warmly attentive reception of its audience didn’t save this play from the moral guardian of the time. The NYT announced on Feb 10 1927:
“… Police Raid Three Shows: Hold Actors & Managers
Warrants issued during the day by Chief City Magistrate McAdoo for the arrest of producers, manager and actors in “The Captive” playing at the Empire Theatre, “Sex” in Daly’s Sixty-third Street Theatre and “The Virgin Man” at the Princess Theatre were executed last night by the police detectives at the conclusion of those three performances…The prisoners were taken to Night Court….”
And here’s the Baz’s description of that event from his autobiography:
“…As we walked out onto the stage to await our first entrances we were stopped by a plainclothes policeman who showed his badge and said, ‘Please don’t let it disturb your performance tonight but consider yourself under arrest!’ At the close of the play the cast were all ordered to dress and stand by to be escorted in police cars to a night court.”
“…infamous example of the imposition of political censorship on a democratic society ever known in the history of responsible creative theater; this cold-blooded unscrupulous sabotage of an important contemporary work of art; this cheap political expedient to gain votes by humiliating and despoiling the right of public opinion to express itself and act upon its considered judgment as respected and respectable citizens.”
It wasn’t his last flirtation with representing alternative sexual orientations. In 1941 he and Martin Kosleck “gayed up” The Mad Doctor so brazenly (if not hysterically) it’s a miracle it got past the censors. In fact, Rathbone seems to have had a tolerance for and an openness about homosexuality that was – like his questioning of religious orthodoxy – quite ahead of its time.
Go HERE for Brooks Atkinson’s review of THE CAPTIVE in full.