Treading the Boards with “The World We Live In” at the Figueroa Playhouse, Los Angeles, May 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While Hollywood, a part of Los Angeles, was the motion picture capital of the world and progressing rapidly in sophistication in the late 1920s, the Angel City was also experiencing a major transformation in its theater world. Among the troupes that advanced the art of the local stage was the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre, headed by the ubiquitous Lynden E. Behymer, a force in the arts for many years.

The sixth production of the organization was the unusual allegorical and satirical play by the brothers Josef and Karel Capek called The World We Live In and which ran for two weeks in the last half of May 1929 at the Figueroa Playhouse, situated along the main downtown thoroughfare at its intersection with 9th Street, and lately the Variety Arts Theatre.

Los Angeles Record, 11 May 1929.

The work used the insect world as a lens for examining human attitudes and behavior and, known originally as Pictures from the Insects’ Life when it premiered in Prague in 1922, the play was rendered into English the following year. One wonders what influence was wrought on the Capeks by Prague native Franz Kafka’s famous novella, The Metamorphosis, published in 1915.

The work had a long and successful run at the Jolson Theatre in New York, a Shubert venue named after Al Jolson, known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” and there was significant coverage of the play before and during its Los Angeles engagement. The star of the piece was Robert Edeson (1868-1931), son of an actor and manager and who was well-known in vaudeville and to some extent in film. Edeson, who had the role in New York, played a vagrant whose dreams formed the basis for the play.

Express, 11 May 1929.

Paul Irving (1877-1959) was the director as well as performer of three insect characters, including a butterfly (this creature forming the basis for the first act), the “thieving beetle” among “The Marauders” in the second act, and the blind ant for the third act, featuring these critters.. He had a brief film career and was best known for his appearance in 1934’s The Count of Monte Cristo.

Edgar Norton (1868-1953) also had a featured role and the Englishman’s stage career went back to his appearance as a teen in the first production of Alice in Wonderland, produced with the involvement of Lewis Carroll. Norton had a long career in movies, as well, often as butlers, but here he was the “Ichneumon Fly,” a role that required the actor to go through two hours of makeup, but which made him a notable character in the play.

Los Angeles Times, 12 May 1929.

On 11 May, the Los Angeles Record ran a notice about the pending opening of the play by discussing Edeson’s pedigree, recording that when the actor was born, his father was appearing in a play in New Orleans and, at two days old, the babe was brought to the theater and raised such a ruckus that he was left alone in his father’s dressing room, making him “a ‘star’ for a minute!” The paper also noted that the Los Angeles engagement was the first in America outside of New York, after the work was performed in Prague and Berlin.

That day’s Los Angeles Express repeated the tale of the infant Edeson’s theatrical debut, but added that his father was insistent that he “should prepare for a business career and stay away from the theater.” Even when Edeson proved adept at learning lines in his father’s performances, he was given an assistant treasurer role with the troupe instead, but, when an actor failed to appear for a performance, Edeson was reluctantly given the part and his long career was launched.

Record, 14 May 1929. Note the photo of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” one of the most popular “blackface” vaudeville and then film acts of the era.

The Los Angeles Times then offered its feature of Edeson on the 12th, writing that the “debonair bon vivant” was returning to the stage after seven years exclusively doing film work, noting that the actor appeared in an early Cecil B. de Mille picture, “The Call of the Wild” (1914). It added that the return in The World We Live In was appropriate because that was the last play in which Edeson appeared before turning to movies.

He praised the work, saying “it bristles with sly cynicism, artful innuendo” and added “it’s better today . . . because changing times have brought it right up to date.” He added it was a challenge speaking “to the tenth row” instead of the low tone on the studio soundstage and said his return to the stage was temporary as he was committed to his film career. Edeson indicated that intended to try directing.

Express, 14 May 1929.

The day of the opening, the 13th, the Record referred to the play as “the most pretentious” of the Repertory’s offerings and that, after two months of intensive rehearsals, the production “will show multi-colored butterflies, moths, beetles, crickets and other inhabitants of the insect world, symbolizing and satirizing human beings, with feminine pulchritude predominant in the colorful investiture, and a vagrant philosopher looking on.”

The Times, in its society pages the prior day, listed some of the elite Angelenos who were to be in the crowd on opening night, including such well-known names of the era as Eli P. Clark, Arthur S. Bent, William Rhodes Hervey, Orra E. Monnette, Leiland Atherton Irish, Homer Laughlin, Fred H. Bixby, Sarah Bixby Smith, Samuel T. Clover, A.G. Bartlett, J.F. Sartori, Isaac Milbank, Marco Hellman, H.M. Baruch, Rabbi Edgar Magnin, and Rufus von KleinSmid. Another name that stands out is A.B. Macbeth!

Times, 14 May 1929.

Reviews were generally quite positive. The Record‘s Llewellyn Miller noted that the play offered,

Spectacular enchantment, swift passionate dramas of life and death, heated interludes of desire, the crushing submergence of individuals to an organization, the foolish felicity of newlyweds, life in little made important [importance?] by translation into terms of an allegory . . .

He added that this was the type of intellectual theatrical work “that the west has not found courage or capability to do, to this striking event, before.” The play was such that adjectives and adverbs could not do it justice, but Miller gave it a try, going into detail about the inanity and insularity of the insects as analogs to humans and emphasized the third act and the brutal efficiency of the machinery of the ant world in stamping out any individual sense of freedom in a battle over a blade of grass.

Times, 18 May 1929.

Edeson was praised to the skies as “so completely right” in his role “that ‘magnificent’ is the only word my exhausted vocabulary can summon to describe his characterization.” Irving’s direction was also lauded, as were John Decker’s costumes, though the forest sets were considered “fussy.” All Miller could end with was to implore readers to see the production “and that I can give an enthusiasm that I have not bettered in months.”

Monroe Lathrop of the Express found the play “weird” but called it “a spectacular allegory” which “afforded a unique pleasure” to the audience. Notably, Lathrop revealed that this was not the first staging of the work in Los Angeles, as the experimental Potboiler Art Theatre performed it, though “only in a feeble sophomoric way.” The reviewer added that “the entomological parallels are striking as the allegory is worked out before the eyes” and “weird and amusing is the spectacle as the grotesque magnified figures parade their ignoble traits. But [these are] fraught with profound underlying meaning.”

Record, 18 May 1929.

Lathrop did point out, though, that the story was one-sided as there was no reference to “man’s philanthropies and sacrifices, his achievements in the arts and sciences.” Still, he continued, “the dramatic form vitalizes the lesson and drives it home as no printed word could do, and it is a theatrical experience not to be missed.” The performances were “on the plane of its unstinted scenic beauty” and Edeson was singled out as “the splendid diction for which he was always noted is shot through with a mellow humor which gives way finally to a death scene in which his serious dramatic abilities are signally displayed.”

Norton’s “Ichneumon Fly” was praised as “the most active figure in the grotesque mass as he weaves in and out seeking prey for his voracious physical desires,” while director Irving lent “humorous flavor” to his three roles. Other actors were also given kudos for their work “in a piece of a spectacular novelty that, because of the difficulty of staging, expense and talent requirements, few cities of the world can see.”

Times, 19 May 1929.

The Times‘ Edwin Schallert called The World We Live In “unusual in theme and quality” and labeled the Capek brothers’ “imaginative creation” a production that “is perhaps their most elaborate and exacting play.” There was a beauty in the symbolism that “is an exquisite and delicate fabric in theme and word” even if the work “may fall short of being the conventional popular and entertaining play, but it is unquestionably stimulating and unusual.” Charm and power were employed throughout that the work “is bound to prove alluring to those who like a departure from the eternal norm of showgoing.”

Continuing that the performance “is distinctively one of the ablest undertakings that the Los Angeles Repertory Theater has to its credit,” Schallert denoted it a stroke of good luck that Irving, Norton and Edeson reprised their roles, though he interestingly judged that the latter was “exceptionally adequate” while acknowledging the challenge of being on stage the entire time. Norton was credited as having “accomplished the grotesque most admirably.

Express, 20 May 1929.

Four of the women actors were said to be “distinctly satisfying” or “charming” while two other male performers were identified for their good work and Irving “supplied amusement” in his roles. While the final act “achieves beauty of a radiant sort,” Schallert criticized the “occasionally indulging in a philosophy of platitudes.” Still, he ended by observing that the play constituted “a rare expression in the theater” and “will delight those who like their entertainment in artistic form.”

A decided naysayer was Alma Whitaker of the Times who, in the edition of the 18th, labeled the work as “a rather cynical, discouraging sort of a play—clever but highly disturbing.” Writing that the main point seemed to be “What’s the use?”, Whitaker added that “if one were to take it as serious ‘enlightenment,’ [we] should all decide to get drunk at once [wait, wasn’t this the Prohibition era?] and remain drunk until the crack of doom.”

Whitaker allowed that the satire was spot on, but kept wishing to yell out, “Yes, yes, of course . . . but” and professed “I suppose I was resenting this clever slap at my enthusiasm for life as it is.” She asked what was it about The World We Live In that made it “so diabolically truthful and yet so damnably false?” but accounted its pessimism as a “limited truth” and proclaimed it an “outrage” to do this under such a title, given that “only some of us behave like insects some of the time.” If only there could have some nobility amid the litany of pettiness. She concluded,

You see, that play has no soul . . . not a drip. It omits all hope, without which life would be intolerable. It belittles and derides the whole scheme of nature . . . It’s maddeningly clever . . . but it stops there . . . Great plays must be so much more than just a clever sneer. So this one . . . oh, well, it was written by two clever ants.

The attempt at presenting a play with realistic violence led to a strange incident, in which actor W.A. Howell, who played the dictator of the ants, was actually stabbed by one of the seven “Soldiers of the Ant Realm” and was taken to a hospital for treatment of the wound. Also notable was that, while there were several women’s groups who attended performances, including the City Teachers’ Club, sororities, and the Junior Progressives, so did thirty-five disabled children from Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital, who, one wonders, may have had some trouble with the allegorical and satirical nature of the work.

Another notable attendee was Jiddu Krishnamurthi, who came to California in 1922 from his native India because of tuberculosis and was deemed by Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society to be a “world teacher” with an Order of the Star in the East created for him. Krishnamurthi, however, left the theosophical movement and established his own organization in the Ventura County town of Ojai.

The spiritual figure told the Express, as reported in its edition of 20 May, that The World We Live In “is one of the most impressive and interesting plays I have ever seen” and he added that “the vivid analogy between human and insect life was revealed so delightfully through the play.” Moreover, Krishnamurthi lauded the way in which the latter creatures were delineated “in their own dramatic and humorous world so similar to man’s” that he was determined to return and see the production again.

The next day’s edition of the paper heaped praise on the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre for staging “one of the most outstanding plays presented in Los Angeles in recent years” with Behymer and associates congratulated “for their efforts to give Los Angeles the caliber of entertainment they have given this season.”

It was pointed out that, while other repertory companies had large numbers of subscribers, including 38,000 in New York, 20,000 in Detroit, and 12,000 in Boston, the Angel City counterpart had only 3,000 in a city of 1.5 million. The goal of the company was to double that number by the next season, “in order to make this commendable organization more or less self-sustaining and self-supporting.”

It was added that, in Europe, such companies were supported by national or city governments or subsidized by individuals or organizations “interested in giving their community the finest in theatrical fare.” The Los Angeles troupe, the piece ended, “is deserving of support from the general public” and continued that “every one should consider it a civic duty, and a matter of civic pride” to support its work and aims. The goal was that the theatre should “establish itself permanently on a solid foundation, and to proceed for years to come with the presentation of such commendable plays as they have given to the city of Los Angeles.”

Apparently, the organization lasted just one more season, but 1930 marked the early stages of the Great Depression, so it is not surprising that the company went under given the dire financial circumstances of the era. The featured program, ad flyer and postcard, however, are representative of an effort to bring a new type of theatrical presentation to the Angel City at the end of the Roaring Twenties.

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