John Mortimer calls himself “the best playwright ever to have defended a murderer at the Central Criminal Court.” Mortimer’s double career in theatre and law can be traced back to his father, a barrister who had gone blind by the time John was thirteen. Reading aloud to his father became a daily ritual and the young Mortimer was rewarded with frequent trips to the theater. Mortimer decided early on that a career as an actor might be a bit impractical, so he decided to become a writer instead. That career path was not practical enough for his father, who insisted that Mortimer follow in his footsteps and study law.
A graduate of Oxford, Mortimer began working as a barrister in 1948. He specialized at first in divorce cases and then progressed to criminal law–spousal homicide in particular. Of his job as a barrister, he wrote: “I never thought of the law, really, as anything other than a day job.” He made it a practice to begin writing around four in the morning, setting down a thousand words or so, before heading off to the Old Bailey for trial. His early novels, such as Like Men Betrayed (1953) and The Narrowing Stream (1954), used his “day job” as barrister for inspiration, but lacked the sense of humor that would become a trademark in his later work.
Nesta Pain, head writer and director in the BBC Radio Features Department, saw potential in the idea of a writer-barrister. She commissioned a short radio play from Mortimer in 1956. “I wanted to write something about the lawyer’s almost pathetic dependence on the criminal classes,” wrote Mortimer, “without whom he would be unemployed, and I wanted to find a criminal who would be sorrier for his luckless advocate than he was for himself.”
The radio play was titled Dock Brief and aired on BBC Radio 3 on May 12th, 1957. It starred Michael Hordern as Morganhall the barrister and David Kossoff as accused murderer Fowle. Michael Hordern was an established and acclaimed character actor, with celebrated performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Jacques, As You Like It and Sir Politick, Volpone, 1952) and at the Old Vic (Polonius in Richard Burton’s Hamlet, 1953). Hordern also had dozens of appearances in film, including Jacob Marley’s ghost in Allistair Sim’s The Christmas Carol (1951). Today, Hordern is especially remembered for his voice-over work (Badger in 1983’s The Wind in the Willows, Gandalf in BBC’s The Lord of the Rings, 1981). David Kossoff was a member of the BBC Repertory Company where he acted in hundreds of radio plays, such as the series Journey Into Space.
The Dock Brief was a great success, winning the oldest and most prestigious international award for radio, the Italia Prize. In September of 1957, Nesta Pain produced the play for television, in which Hordern and Kossoff reprised their roles. The following year, producer Michael Codron brought The Dock Brief to the stage. The play was billed along with another Mortimer one-act, called What Shall We Tell Caroline? It opened at the Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith, on April 9th, 1958 and then moved to the larger Garrick Theatre on May 10th.
Michael Hordern again reprised his role as Morganhall. Maurice Denham, “man of a thousand voices,” took over the role of Fowle. A brilliant character actor and voice over artist, Denham had already performed in seventy films, most notably providing all of the voices for 1954’s animated film Animal Farm, based on George Orwell’s novel.
Harold Hobson of The Times, London, called Mortimer “a potential dramatist of very high rank…he can make a phrase do the work of twenty pages and he can make a word do the work of twenty phrases.” The Stage wrote that The Dock Brief “fits the stage as snugly as it formerly fitted radio and television…the prose has a brisk Dickensian bounce.” The show was again adapted for television, this time for Kultur Films. Again, Michael Hordern took the role of Morganhall. Fowle was played by British actor and Broadway veteran George Rose. John P. Shanley of the New York Times called it “a laudable effort to do something original on the television screen.” The program went on to be a hit for PBS in the United States. In 1962, a feature film was adapted by Pierre Rouve, directed by James Hill. The film, called Trial and Error, starred Peter Sellers as Morganhall and Richard Attenborough as Fowle (BAFTA nomination for Best British Actor). Variety called the screenplay “a literate job with a deft mixture of comedy and pathos.”
The success of The Dock Brief attracted the attention of several prominent American producers. The show, again double-billed with What Shall We Tell Caroline?, seemed destined for Broadway. Maurice Evans bid on the rights, but lost to David Susskind and Albert Selden. They announced that they were seeking Michael Redgrave and Hugh Griffiths for the lead roles and planned on a February, 1959 opening. The production never came to fruition and Susskind and Selden gave up the rights.
Producer Rose Lynch acquired the rights in 1961 and produced the show off-Broadway at the Midway Theatre. Anthony Dearden, a British export who had appeared in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930), Pride and Prejudice (1936) and French Without Tears (1936) on the West End stage, made his American debut as Morganhall. Joseph Boley took the role of Fowle. Boley had received excellent reviews for his work as Dan Hillbury in William Saroyan’s The Beautiful People (Theatre East, 1956) and as the title role in Tartuffe (Theatre Marquee, 1957) and is remembered today for his portrayal of Woody Guthrie in Alice’s Restaurant (1969).
Lewis Funke of The New York Times found the play too wordy, but admitted that “some of the blame for the threat of drowsiness must be charged to Mr. Dearden, who…has adopted a delivery of the words that has a numbing repetitive cadence…The Dock Brief has been done with reported success in other cities abroad. It would be interesting to know how that was accomplished.” To the charge of wordiness, Mortimer plead guilty as charged. “I write for the ear,” he admits, the result of his father’s blindness and his own vision impairment. Though the British productions realized this—and thus cast actors specializing in voice-over work—Lynch’s cast struggled with the dense dialogue.
Mortimer went on to have numerous successes in the West End with plays like Come As You Are (1970) and Voyage Round My Father (1971) but Mortimer’s most famous creation is the eccentric but loveable old barrister, Horace Rumpole. The television series Rumpole of the Bailey ran from 1978-1992, with Leo McKern in the title role. The show also became a radio success for BBC, with Maurice Denham as Rumpole. Fans of the series will have no trouble recognizing Mortimer’s first draft of Rumpole in Dock Brief’s Morganhall.
Despite the huge success Dock Brief enjoyed in Great Britain, no major production was ever launched in the U.S. The disappointing off-Broadway production in 1961 did not help the play’s reputation and neither did the lukewarm reception of the Sellers/Attenborough film. Mortimer has often remarked that Dock Brief is where he first found his voice as a writer. Now, forty years later, we finally have the chance to listen.
TACT has wanted to produce George S. Kaufman’s If Men Played Cards As Women Do for many years but had not found a great one-act to partner with it until discovering Dock Brief. Anne Kaufman Schneider has granted TACT special permission to present one of her father’s earliest works, originally performed in Irving Berlin’s 1923 Music Box Revue.
The art of the musical revue was at its peak in the early twentieth century, with acts like Ziegfeld’s Follies and George White’s Scandals selling out theater houses. Composer Irving Berlin, who had worked for Ziegfeld in the 1910s, decided to create his own musical revue. All he needed was a venue. Sam H. Harris, producer of more than forty plays on Broadway, came up with a unique but risky idea: to build their own theater. Designed by architect C. Howard Crane, The Music Box Theatre was built on West 45th Street and Broadway in 1920. The theater opened in 1921 with Berlin’s aptly titled show, The Music Box Revue of 1921.
George S. Kaufman was at the very beginning of his illustrious career with hits like Dulcy with Lynn Fontanne (1921) and To the Ladies with Helen Hayes (1922), both co-written with Marc Connelly. As drama reporter for the New York Times, Kaufman had occasion to mingle with many of Broadway’s biggest celebrities in the “Algonquin Round Table,” a group of New York literati who gathered at the Algonquin hotel in the newspaper district. One of the Round Table members was Irving Berlin. If Men Played Cards As Women Do, a rare solo project by Kaufman, was featured in the 1923 season of The Music Box Revue. It would be the beginning of a long series of hits for Kaufman in Berlin’s theater, including Once in a Lifetime (1930), Merrily We Roll Along (1934), First Lady (1935), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1938), all with Moss Hart, as well as Dinner at Eight (1932) and Stage Door (1936) with Edna Ferber. Berlin and Kaufman collaborated on the musical The Cocoanuts, starring the Marx Brothers and later made into a feature film, in 1929.
If Men Played Cards As Women Do was included in the 1946 anthology A Treasury of Laughter and was featured in George Marshall’s 1942 film Star Spangled Rhythm with Ray Milland, Fred McMurray and Franchot Tone as the card players.