The Captive (1926), THEATRE
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The Captive (1926)

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.”

The malefactors were released later that night. But THE CAPTIVE closed. Rathbone was massively indignant about this attempt at censorship, calling it a “hideous betrayal,”

“…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.

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103 Comments

  1. Eugenia says

    This is very interesting, there’s a book about this subject called “We Could Call Them Bulgarians” well worth the read, and Helen Menken’s autobiography also talks about it

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  2. Pingback: The Captive (1926) redux « The Baz

  3. Thomas Dekker says

    This is a very fascinating and well-written article. I’m prompted to do some research on the topic of censorship on Broadway in the 1920s. The very idea they could think if staging a play called “Sex” seems counterintuitve. I enjoy your blog by the way and suspect I am on of the handful of males who are regular visitors!

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      Yes, I read that in “Universal Horrors”. Kosleck comments wryly that the friend ended up a millionaire. This was during filming Pursuit to Algiers.

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      • I think Basil and Martin are so cute in The Mad Doctor, you are almost rooting for them because they seem such a couple and so in love in a weird way.

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  4. I vote for Benedict Cumberbatch to play Basil *dies at the thought of uniting two of the most beautiful men who ever lived*

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  5. Hannah says

    Go to 3.33! I always think Ann Brandon should fall in love with Holmes in this movie. It’s like they are set up to have a love affair! Just like in The Woman In Green, where you think he’s going to actually kiss her at one minute….*dying* Why couldn’t Basil’s Holmes have a love affair like in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I always imagine it’s Basil in that film whenever I watch it. Try it. Put the movie on and just transpose Basil into the Robert Stephens part. Once you start hearing him in your head saying those lines and seeing him in those scenes you will just collapse on the floor and make moaning noises. OMG, when the woman is naked!Oh, Basil you should have made that movie!

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    • PennyfromVermont says

      I think Ida Loupino should have played the girl in The Speckled Band. She just has the right look to me. I was always casting the canon stories from the cast of Basil’s films and from the actors of the time, and I had her as Irene Adler, and Leslie Howard as Colonel Sebastian Moran (not sure why, I just pictured him), and Joan Fontaine as Irene Adler, and I would have recast Watson, and given it to Charles Laughton

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      • Hannah says

        I’m a huge fan of Ida Lupino, she was a real pioneer too. She was like only the second female director in Hollywood. She was so cool.

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  6. JaneyKaye says

    What a fascinating article, and what a fascinating man. Did someone say they should make a movie of his life? I absolutely agree. And Uma Thurman should play Dietrich.

    But who would play Ouida? 😀

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      • Anita Vaudricort says

        Yes he had such unusual good looks. His face was both very masculine and yet almost androgynously beautiful from some angles, especially when he was younger. Those amazing eyes were almost vampish. And that long lean athlete’s body is essential in any portrayal of him. I’d say almost more important than the face is that body-type

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        • Eliza DoMuch says

          Does anyone know what his first wife looked like? What would the focus of the movie be?

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        • rosebette says

          There’s an English actor, Charles Dance — he’s older, now — . I remember him well from The Jewel in the Crown and a PBS adaptaition of Rebecca. If you look up his pictures in Google, his eyes and bone structure are the spitting image of Basil — the only diffference is that the actor is blonde. I saw him in Bleak House a couple of years ago on PBS in a villainous role, and I thought he was Basil reincarnated because even the voices were similar.

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            • Ellen Foley says

              Def agree,he’s the one I always think of as so like the Baz.And I love CDance,too!Always great,even in China Lake w/Ed Harris

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  7. FredaKowlie says

    I didn’t know Basil felt so strongly about things. I always saw him as quite reserved and British. It’s amazing what different images I am getting of him lately.

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    • Bambi Martin says

      There’s a gorgeous cap of Holmes smoking a cigarette from the second Holmes movie on this site somewhere, and it’s very sexy, do a search for it

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  8. AnnaPindurka says

    “Sex” was revived off-Broadway in 1999, it seems, to great reviews.
    “Sex is the story of an ambitious working-class prostitute who beats the system. In her search for a better life, Margy Lamont travels from Montreal brothel to Trinidad nightclub to Connecticut mansion. The broadly comic play is filled with gangsters and molls, sailors and society matrons, and the language ricochets like bullets. Sex examines the relationship between sexuality and commerce, and the myriad of forms that prostitution takes. It balances the dark realities of the 1920s underworld with high comedy, and, of course, innuendo. ”
    http://www.hourglassgroup.org/mae.html has all the info.

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  9. Claude Rains says

    Quote the Article:
    “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.”

    Does anyone wonder why?

    Like

    • AnnaPindurka says

      Remember, he also says this (in his autobiography): “Shocked, disturbed, frightened by this appalling exposé of a social sickness, not so freely discussed or accepted as it is today, audiences were, however, deeply appreciative…”
      In and Out of Character has over 10 pages about the production (starts at page 97 in the new edition).

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    • rosebette says

      Perhaps because he was in theater and knew many people who were gay and lesbian in his profession and was therefore accepting. I have several friends in music and theater, some of them straight older people well into their 70s and even 80s, who were aware of gay and lesbian colleagues from their earliest careers, and as a result, have a lifelong acceptance of people of different sexual orientations. This acceptance was developed ahead of our own cultural acceptance because of the necessity of these artists working with and respecting many types of people within one’s profession. Being accepting of those who are gay and lesbian does not imply being gay and lesbian oneself.

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      • ParkerFan says

        I think this is a very good point. He was raised as an Edwardian, but he lived most of his life in the bohemian world of the theatre and film. People were much more relaxed morally. By the way does anyone know what ended his first marriage and why he was estranged from his son. Was Marian unfaithful?

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  10. Margaret G says

    I want to watch Basil Rathbone playing poor tortured Jacques. I can already see in my mind how beautifully he would do it.

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  11. Jeremy Bentham says

    How explicit was this play? (And indeed “Sex?” and “Virgin Man?”) I’m not being prurient, simply marveling at there being such plays at that time

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    • rosebette says

      I found this customer review in Amazon, and I gather the play is not too explicit. It sounds as if the relationship is strongly suggested and that the metaphor of violets is used to indicate the relationship:

      “This play was a cause celebre and notorious when it played in Paris and New York in 1926; it was revived in the 1950s. A scandalous hit, it is the story of an unhappy young woman, Irene, who spends most of the play in conflict and emotional pain but it’s not clear why. For sanctuary she marries a man who loves her but she cannot love him back with passion so he suffers. The cause of all this pain is always off stage so we’re not quite sure what it is. There is an insistent motif of violet flowers throughout the play. All is slowly revealed and we learn what the violets signify at the end of the play – although they have already cleverly pointed to the real life inspiration of the main characters*.

      “Viewing the play from 2007, it is slight but interesting because of its subject matter which, even now, is rare to see on stage or in film. It is about the repression of lesbian love. It is an important play in terms of gay history because it was the first lesbian focused play to be performed in the USA. It is virtually lost now and waiting to be rediscovered because of its historical subject matter rather than the quality of the drama (which is pretty good). The writing is elegant and spare and the absence of the main driver of the drama is a clever device. Whether the play is moralistic or progressive is for the reader/audience to decide. I found it ambiguous and that in itself is interesting to me given the age of the play.”

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      • “Virtually lost now and waiting to be rediscovered” – well come on guys, here it is!!!! Rediscover The Captive today!!

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  12. Melanie says

    Amazing how modern he was in so many ways. I wonder if he would have been happy to see the LGBT movement and gay marriage. I think so. Was Basil a Christian?

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  13. Thanks for posting on this! I had heard of the play and its reputation, but didn’t know that Rathbone was in the Broadway cast. What a varied and rich theater career he had. The NYT reviewer seems quite conflicted about the play’s subject by today’s standards, liking the drama but finding its subject “loathsome” (on the other hand, maybe his reaction is not so out of date…).

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  14. So the play opened near the end of September, but the warrants were not issued until February of the next year. I can’t help but wonder why it took authorities so long to decide that the play was violating the law. I suspect that some very conservative NYC citizen with lots of money and influence persuaded a judge that the play was immoral.

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    • My French is pretty crap, but I’ve read the first few pages. The stage is quite bare except for a few bits of lovely old furniture, and someone called Gisele is saying she doesn’t know what to wear for dinner and someone called Madame Marchand is telling her to wear the yellow dress that will do fine, and Gisele is saying she’s mad.

      I’m guessing either the meaty bits haven’t started yet or they were really easily shocked in 1926 😉

      Like

    • rosebette says

      There is a used copy of Hornblow’s play available on amazon.com and also via WorldCat at several university libraries.

      Like

  15. Juanita says

    I love Basil in that first photo, he looks so preoccupied and so vulnerable. I would love to have seen this play

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  16. Winnie the Pooh says

    Was the cast actually put in jail? It’s so amazing something like that could happen!

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  17. ParkerFan says

    I believe my grandmother saw this play! I will ask my mother tomorrow to make sure, but if so how exciting

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  18. I had some vague knowledge that BR was in a play that got shut down by the police, but was unaware of the details, or how willing our hero was to challenge convention through art. Awesome post, Neve.

    Like

    • rosebette says

      The play may have been, but not the review! Look at the words used to describe the lesbian relationship — “warped infatuation,” “revolting theme,” etc. Of course, my esteem for the Baz has increased by reading about this production.

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