The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Notes

Jay Presson Allen was an innovative playwright and screenwriter whose success, in what were at the time almost entirely male-dominated professions, inspired the efforts of women for generations. Born Jacqueline Presson in March 3, 1922, in San Angelo, Texas, Allen developed an interest in film and cinema at a young age. At 18, she married “the first grown man who asked [her]” and left for New York and later Southern California to pursue what would ultimately be a short-lived career as an actress under the name “Jay Presson.” However, she soon became disenchanted with both acting and her marriage. Seeking a way out of both, Allen turned to writing novels and plays as a way to support herself financially. She wrote several television scripts, a play for the stage called The First Wife (that was never produced) and a novel called Spring Riot. Frustrated at her lack of immediate success in writing, she left the business and married Lewis Allen, the producer who had rejected her play. The couple had a daughter, Brooke, who Allen spent a few years raising before she returned to her writing career. This time, she found more success and soon became a celebrated writer for screen and stage.

Her most widely acclaimed work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was an adaptation of Muriel Spark’s short novel. Spark, a Scottish author and poet born in 1928, was a brilliant author who accumulated many awards and titles throughout her career, receiving eight honorary doctorates throughout her life and becoming a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Miss Jean Brodie, however, was recognized her most successful and lasting work by critics both at its publication in 1961 and now. Both Spark’s novel and Allen’s stage play center around a young, charismatic schoolteacher named Miss Jean Brodie working at a prestigious Edinburgh girl’s school in the 1930s. Brodie, an unusual woman with sympathies toward fascist figureheads and radical notions about love and seduction, uses her alluring personality to cultivate a group of her favorite students: her “Brodie girls.” She manipulates these girls without remorse, provoking dangerous results.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie first premiered at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London in 1966. The play was lauded an “excellent adaptation” as well as “an immaculate stage comedy” by drama critics at The London Times. Vanessa Redgrave, who originated the role of Brodie, was especially praised for her “superb and unexpected” performance, for which she won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress. When the production moved to Broadway in 1968, Zoe Caldwell won the Tony Award for her portrayal of Brodie. The next year, the play was adapted into a film, also written by Allen, which starred Maggie Smith. The film was a triumph as well. After Smith received the Academy Award for her role as Brodie, Allen said: “All the women who played Brodie got whatever prize was going around at that time.” The play was revived in London at the Strand Theatre with Patricia Hodges (1995), and then again at the Royal National Theatre starring Fiona Shaw (1998). It last returned to New York in 2006 with an Off-Broadway revival staring Cynthia Nixon as Miss Brodie.

Though the role of Miss Jean Brodie has been played by many powerful, inspiring actresses over the years, the schoolteacher herself is far from a symbol of feminism (or, for that matter, anti-feminism). Between her fascination with fascism and figures like Hitler and Mussolini, and her willingness to put her students in physical or sexual danger to advance her own motives, it would be hard to label her a feminist figure. At the same time, it’s difficult to label Brodie at all. An empowered, alluring woman “in her prime,” Brodie challenges both those portraying her and audiences alike with the complexity and ambiguity of her character and morality. Even today, the play continues to examine the relationships between teachers and students and how these interactions shape young people emotionally, politically, and sexually.

In addition to playwriting, Allen wrote a number of highly acclaimed screenplays. She worked closely with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, for whom she wrote the psychological thriller Marnie (1964). She adapted two of her stage plays, Wives and Lovers (1963) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) for the screen, as well as one of her novels, Just Tell Me What You Want (1980). Her other notable works in cinema include Cabaret (1972), 40 Carats (1973), Funny Lady (1975), and Prince of the City (1981). Her last screenplay was a 1990 remake of Lord of the Flies, which she disliked so much she insisted on being credited under the pseudonym Sara Schiff.

In 1982, Allen was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award, which is presented to outstanding women who have, through their work, expanded the role of women in media and entertainment. Jay Presson Allen lived in Manhattan until her death on May 1, 2006, following a stroke. She was 84 years old.