Ladies in Retirement
by Edward Percy & Reginald Denham
DIRECTED BY JENN THOMPSON
Saturday, Jan. 10 @ 2:00 & 7:30
Sunday, Jan. 11 @ 2:00
Monday, Jan. 12 @ 7:30
Leonora Fiske, a retired “actress” with a bevy of wealthy male admirers, gets along splendidly with her housekeeper, Ellen Creed. That is, until Ellen invites her two simpleton sisters as houseguests. When the visit turns into an extended stay that threatens to become permanent, Miss Fiske furiously insists that the sisters be sent away. Ellen has the perfect solution with only one less than savory compromise of her morals. No one seems to notice Fiske’s mysterious disappearance until Ellen’s nephew, Albert, turns up. Rather than familial affection, he brings with him a criminal record and a suspicion that Miss Fiske’s sudden departure may not have been as voluntary as Ellen claims. In the original production directed by co-author Reginald Denham, Dame Flore Robson gave a career-defining performance as Ellen Creed.
“Just what the spook-doctor prescribed…shrewdly conceived and compactly written.” Variety
“A tense, taut and properly literate melodrama.” New York Herald-Tribune
“No childish thriller…[with] a plot that doubles its tension by steadfastly refusing to follow an expected course.”
Lucy Gilham MARY BACON+
Leonora Fiske CYNTHIA HARRIS+
CYNTHIA DARLOW+Ellen Creed
MARK ALHADEFF+Albert Feather
FRANCESCA DI MAURO+Louisa Creed
DARRIE LAWRENCE+Emily Creed
JOAN SHEPARDSister Theresa
Kristen VaphidesProduction Stage Manager
Original music by Amir Khosrowpour+
Little did Elodie Menetret know when she walked into Euphrasie Mercier’s boot shop in Paris one day in the last quarter of the nineteenth century that her decomposing body would eventually find itself resting underneath the dahlia bed in her own yard. Menetret, who made her living off a devoted ring of male admirers willing to pay for her favors, was chasing her lost dog and camped out in the boot shop, hoping the dog would return to the area she last saw it. History has forgotten what became of the dog, but it was in this way that Menetret the murderee met Mercier the murderess. What followed was as bizarre as the strange French names of the primary protagonists. The two E.M’s became friendly and Menetret invited Mercier to come serve as her housekeeper, unaware of Mercier’s spotty family history and her cadre of three demented siblings, two sisters and a brother. Within a year, the three siblings had invaded Elodie Menetret’s home and Menetret had apparently, according to Mercier, run off to join a convent whose location Mercier was forbidden to reveal. Menetret also “bequeathed” her entire estate to Mercier in a lovely little letter dated “Wednesday Evening” that was adequate evidence for a rather lazy inquiring policeman. Meanwhile, Menetret’s circle of boyfriends, noted for their poor skills in the recognition of handwriting, continued receiving written requests for money, which they promptly paid. This could have gone on indefinitely if Mercier’s suspicious nephew, Chatcauneuf, had not shown up firing off questions. From the gibbering of the lunatic siblings, Chatcauneuf discovered the truth: his aunt had slaughtered Menetret down and put the body six feet under. After a blackmail attempt failed, Chatcauneuf turned his good aunt in to the police. The poor dahlias were unearthed and given a premature death, Mercier was locked up, and her manic relations were carted off to the insane asylum.
When, in 1939, Reginald Denham and Edward Percy read the account of this real-life crime in H.B. Irving’s 1901 book, Studies of French Criminals, they knew no one would ever believe it on the stage. Too outrageous for the customary suspension of disbelief that accompanies most drama, Denham and Percy smelled a great play if the story could be toned down and retooled for the stage. They condensed the action, reduced the murderer’s family to two loony sisters and one relatively sane nephew, moved the body’s hiding place to a bake oven (Denham sensed that having a body hidden onstage is always more dramatic than having one buried offstage), and added an innocent young maid so they’d have someone to scream loudly at an opportune moment. Denham recalled that they wrote the play in a “white heat,” so quickly he cannot remember who wrote what. England was starting a war, London was in a blackout, theaters were closed, and Denham and Percy were told that the last thing the public wanted was a suspenseful melodrama. One of the few theaters that did stay open, the Richmond Theatre, let Denham stage the newly titled Ladies in Retirement merely because they had nothing else to put in its place. The play was a massive hit, surprising all, and transferred to the St. James’s Theatre for 311 performances. Denham even makes the dubious claim in his memoirs that Ladies in Retirement was “the first serious play to be done in wartime.”
Reginald Denham, born in 1894 in Brixton to a civil servant and a housewife/piano teacher, grew up with a love of ornithology inherited from his father and a love of choral music instilled by his mother. Denham underwent a difficult audition procedure and joined the Temple Church choir, a prestigious position at a major congregation that counted politicians such as Arthur Balfour and David Lloyd George among its attendees. Then, around the age of ten, Denham lost his voice and his choral position. He says in his memoir, Stars in My Hair, that he contemplated suicide (I leave it up to the individual to evaluate this claim as honest confession or dramatic license). Instead, he did the next best thing to singing and took acting classes, learning how to melodramatically wave one’s arm in time to over-enunciated proclamations from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. After training, Denham “hung around stage doors” and started picking up bit parts in London theaters with some of that era’s most notable actor-managers, including Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Francis Robert Benson. Benson, who ran the Stratford-on-Avon Festival and in his lifetime staged all but two of Shakespeare’s plays, cut Denham’s teeth on a grueling schedule. His first week with the company, Denham appeared in seven Shakespeare plays and sung all the music. Compared to that, the trenches must have been a relief.
Denham returned from World War I with an Irish wife, an actress named Moyna Macgill. When he returned to London, he found the theater a changed place. The old generation of actor-managers was mainly dead and costume plays had been replaced with contemporary dramas and comedies. Denham drifted around in small roles, broke for long stretches and supported by his wife, who started to achieve a measure of success. It was during his struggle as an actor that Denham met Edward Percy Smith, another struggling actor and a closet writer who passed Denham a manuscript. In 1922, Denham attempted to join a company called The Repertory Players, a group of actors who loved to act and decided to stage their own productions, not unlike TACT. As he recounts in his book, Denham felt a sinking sensation when the Committee informed him they had no use for him as an actor. Then, a light bulb went off in his head and, desperate for money, he quickly switched tactics. As Denham remembers saying: “Pardon my frankness…but I want to do something to your productions that they most sorely need…Direct them.” For his first directing job, Denham chose Edward Percy Smith’s If Four Walls Told.
Edward Percy Smith used the name “Edward Percy” for his stage work, reserving the “Smith” for his activities in the world of politics. Born in 1891, Percy wrote poems and novels as well as plays, but had his greatest successes in the theater. His biggest play without Denham was The Shop At Sly Corner, about an antiques dealer who also fences stolen goods, which ran in London for two years and was made into a film in 1947. Denham described Percy as having an encyclopedic knowledge of criminology, explaining his almost exclusive devotion to the thriller and crime genre. On top of this, Percy managed to live a double life as Edward Percy Smith, a Conservative Member of Parliament for the district of Ashford from 1943 until 1950. While Denham directed several of Percy’s solo plays from 1922-onwards, the two friends didn’t try writing a play together until 1936.
By that time, Denham’s career had grown considerably. Building on his work with The Repertory Players, he moved on to the commercial London theater. Denham directed the hit play Rope in London in 1929, the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s film. That same year, he came to New York to direct a production. It got poor notices and didn’t play long, but Denham began a love affair with the city that would last his entire life. His theater directing took a side-step when Paramount hired him a producer for their English unit. Denham is humorously self-deprecating in his biography about his work in the film industry. At that time, British law required a certain percentage of movies released to be made in Britain, leading to so-called “quota quickies,” cheap requirements churned out to counter the importation of money-making Hollywood product. Denham, writing in 1958 about watching his old movies on television, said, “occasionally one of those dreadful abortions will float up out of its celluloid grave on to the screen – a ghostly, tattered boggart come to mock me.” Still, he found of the movie-making experience rewarding, particularly when he got to write the orchestral music for some of his films. His adventures in the film industry included nearly killing a stuntman when, on an overnight shoot for a railroad murder mystery, he “played trains on Liverpool Street Station, moving them in and out of platforms like a child on the floor with a toy railway.” On another occasion, he found himself shooting a war movie in Spain in 1936. Stopped by the military, he was forced to call off his battle scenes, staged with false ammunition and movie extras. When the real revolution broke a month later, he realized that had he been allowed to film his movie on location, he very well could have started the war early.
When Denham returned to his true love, the theater, he tried his hand at writing. Denham’s first plays with Percy were not earth-shaking successes, but the pair enjoyed the process and garnered enough attention to continue collaborating. With Ladies in Retirement, they finally hit it big. The London production starred Mary Clare and Mary Merrall, and the cast boldly ventured to the theater each night during the London blackouts (the ladies in the play took to carrying hatpins with them to stab at street attackers). Since the play was packing houses in London, producer Gilbert Miller hired Denham to come to New York and direct it for a 1940 Broadway opening with a new cast. Starring as Ellen Creed, the murderer, was Dame Flora Robson (she received her DBE in 1960), making her Broadway debut. The New York production also starred Isobel Elsom as Leonora Fiske, Patrick O’Moore as Albert Feather, and Estelle Winwood and Jessamine Newcombe as the two Creed sisters. Ladies in Retirement was praised for its suspenseful atmosphere, particular attention going to Robson’s bravura performance, in a hot and sultry summer and a world tense with conflict. The New York Journal-American wrote, “[the play’s] chills should settle the theatre’s problem of summer air conditioning,” the New York Post stated it was “the murder play New York has been starved for these many, many months,” and Variety called Robson, “quiet and closely-reined, yet with range, shading, emotional depth and persuasive sincerity.” This was rare praise for the part of an unapologetic murderer, but well-earned for Robson, well-known as a London stage actress and for her film roles, including Queen Elizabeth I in Fire Over England (1937) and Ellen in Wuthering Heights (1939), with Laurence Olivier.
The only tepid review came from Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times. Denham, who recalls suffering an “alcoholic haze” during first night, woke the next morning with a telephone call congratulating him on the positive press, “except Atkinson’s, and even he admits that everyone liked it but himself.” Unfortunately from Denham, this did not translate into financial success. Under legal requirements, his royalties went to England where, due to the war effort and money regulation, Denham was unable to get his money sent back to New York. As a bizarre footnote, Denham would sign over the rights to the play to his second wife, Lilian, as part of an alimony agreement. When Edward Percy in turn married Lilian, Percy effectively owned the play. According to Denham, the entire thing was perfectly amicable; “[Bitterness] is a destructive acid that corrodes the soul.” In his memoirs, Denham expressed happiness that Lilian and Percy got along so well, and he viewed them both as good friends. Besides, Denham had fallen in love with actress Mary Orr, his third wife who remained by his side until his death in 1983.
After the success of Ladies in Retirement on Broadway, Denham and Percy parted ways. Percy continued to pursue his political career and then, in Denham’s words, became a “retired gentleman farmer.” He passed away in 1968. On the other hand, Reginald Denham stayed actively involved in the theater. He had become disenchanted with the film world, but reluctantly accepted an offer to co-write a screenplay adaptation of Ladies in Retirement with Garrett Fort, a Hollywood screenwriter who specialized in horror and had co-written the original Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) movies. The resulting film, released in 1941 by Columbia Pictures, was directed by Charles Vidor and received positive reviews. Ida Lupino, playing Ellen Creed, was praised by the Los Angeles Times as a more sympathetic version of Robson’s stage portrayal, a move intended to Americanize a cold British ambivalence towards homicide. Another sure sign of Hollywood, Ida Lupino was fifteen years younger than Robson. Also appearing in the film were Louis Hayward, Edith Barrett, Elsa Lanchester, and Isobel Elsom, reprising her Broadway role as Leonora Fiske. The film received two Oscar nominations, for music and art direction. Since then, Denham avoided film except for a brief jaunt to Rome in 1958 to direct the English version of an Italian comedy starring Gina Lollobrigida and Vittorio De Sica. A low budget horror movie from 1969 starring Shelley Winters, The Mad Room, was loosely based on Ladies in Retirement but had no direct involvement from Denham. Instead, he devoted himself to bird-watching, writing suspense plays for television (indeed, mostly for a program called ‘Suspense’), and directing the occasional Broadway hit, such as the comedy Janus (1955) and the thrillers Dial “M” For Murder (1952) and The Bad Seed (1954), both of which would later become legendary films. When Denham died in 1983, it was with an enviable and varied career as an actor, playwright, filmmaker, and, most of all, masterful stage director.
One year after Denham’s death, the Apple Corps Theater, a small New York group specializing in mysteries, revived Ladies in Retirement. While the New York Times panned the production, it was notable for featuring Denham’s widow, Mary Orr, as Leonora Fiske. In the twenty-five years since then, the play has had no notable professional New York productions. The movie is also neglected and unavailable on DVD, although it was shown on Turner Classic Movies as part of an Ida Lupino retrospective. The TCM website suggests that the film may be overlooked due to a bad marketing campaign, intended to sell the film as an Arsenic and Old Lace style madcap comedy. The play, too, hides beneath a title suggesting domestic comedy among elderly widows. Instead, prepare for a creepy gothic trip with powerhouse female leads wrapped around a cold-blooded act of murder. Scheming, secrets, and screams abound in the old, dark house of Ms. Fiske – with one or two dead seagulls thrown in for good measure. It is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride TACT is proud to uncover from beneath the dahlia bed.