The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse
by Barre Lyndon
DIRECTED BY DREW BARR
Friday, May 14 at 7:30
Saturday, May 15 at 2:00 and 7:30
Sunday, May 16 at 2:00
Monday, May 17 at 7:30
Dr. Clitterhouse has a secret. By day, in his prestigious Harley Street medical practice, he attends to a wealthy and influential clientele. By night, however, he conducts experiments in studying the criminal mind, using himself as the guinea pig. The good doctor sees himself as a pioneer in medical science, but can even the best intentions justify murder? The original production featured Cedric Hardwicke as the eponymous Clitterhouse, a role taken over by Edward G. Robinson for the subsequent film version.
GREGORY SALATA+Dr. Clitterhouse
JAMES PRENDERGAST+Inspector Charles
SCOTT SCHAFER+Benny Kellerman
JEFFREY HAWKINSPal Green
JAMIE BENNETT+Sgt. Bates
JAMES PRENDERGAST+Tug Wilson
JAMIE BENNETT+“Badger” Lee
SIMON JONES+Sir William Grant
Original Music by WALLY GUNN
Production Stage Manager KELSEY DAYE LUTZ
Pianist Youngwoo Yoo
Do parts make the actor, or does an actor make the part? Dr. Clitterhouse, the criminally curious physician invented by Barre Lyndon, is a role that some might die for. Yet the names of the three actors who portrayed the doctor in his West End, Broadway, and movie appearances at first seem at odds with one another. Sir Ralph Richardson, the West End Clitterhouse, and his Broadway counterpart, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, were friends and colleagues, coming from a common theatrical tradition. Compare them, however, to the movie Clitterhouse, Edward G. Robinson, a nice Jewish boy (born Emmanuel Goldenberg) who became famous for playing a vicious mafia criminal in Little Caesar. That such diverse actors could take on the role of Dr. Clitterhouse speaks to one of the key subjects of the play itself - impersonation and the art of acting. Dr. Clitterhouse wants to understand the criminal mind, much in the same way a method actor wants to understand a part, and so places himself in the role of criminal mastermind. Yet, the play asks, when does acting turn into real life? Is Dr. Clitterhouse a phony, or has he simply become a criminal?
It is fitting, then, to take a look at these outstanding actors and how they fit into the Clitterhouse role. The first of the Clitterhouses, Sir Ralph Richardson, was born in 1902. The young Richardson floundered around after school trying to find a career path, taking a hand at the insurance business and nursing aspirations to become a painter and book illustrator. Richardson's life was changed forever when he saw actor Frank Benson play Hamlet, an experience that made him think, he wrote, "By Jove, that's the job for me, not books, and illustrate not by drawing or painting, but by acting!" Of course, having an epiphany and realizing a dream are two very different things. Richardson had to convince Frank Growcott, the leader of a theater company in Brighton, to take him on by paying Growcott ten shillings a week! Eventually, Richardson graduated to larger parts and the flow of money was reversed, although from what is known of Growcott's productions, they must have been exceedingly eccentric - Richardson somehow managed to play both the parts of Banquo and Macduff in a production of Macbeth, somewhat difficult since they appear on stage at the same time. Richardson moved on to a touring company led by Charles Doran, which gave Richardson a more professional experience and introduced him to future wife, Kit.
In 1925, Richardson and his wife both joined the Brimingham Repertory Company, led by the venerable Sir Barry Jackson. Jackson's company proved to be a breeding ground for new talent, and he list of alumni includes such luminaries as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Richardson's fellow Clitterhouse, Cedric Hardwicke. Richardson had a few minor parts in the West End, but his eminence as one of Britain's top actors only occurred after he was invited to join the Old Vic in 1929. Richardson was being groomed to succeed Gielgud as leading man, and Richardson was soon gaining attention as a formidable actor, playing Caliban in The Tempest and Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra. In his second season, his roles included Bottom, Iago, and Sir Toby Belch. Outside of Shakespeare, the play that finally established Richardson as a West End leading man was George Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good (1932), which the Sunday Times called a "grand performance" that was "beyond all praise."
Richardson followed this with several other West End outings, but while he received critical plaudits, his plays failed to achieve much commercial success. The play that broke this pattern was none other than The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. The play, a modern thriller, was written by Barre Lyndon, a pseudonym for Alfred Elgar. Lyndon, who began his career as a journalist covering car racing, built on the success he achieved with Dr. Clitterhouse to move from Britain to Hollywood, where he achieved success as a screenwriter. Among his many film credits, most of which were crime pictures, are The Lodger (1944), The House on 92nd Street (1945), and the film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1953). Lyndon owes much to Richardson, whose performance assured box office success. The Observer declared the play absurd, a fun criminal romp that does not take itself too seriously, but Richardson, with "real star-quality" is able to "hold [the play together." Another critic praised Richardson's "lop-sided glide," "the lumbering, professional bedside manner" and his "confident, authoritative air." Harold Hobson, the most famous critic of his day, adored Richardson, although he thought Lyndon's play was beneath him. Certainly, Richardson would go on to receive far more praise for his later roles, including his second stint at the Old Vic with Laurence Olivier immediately following World War II, and much later in his career, two plays with co-star John Gielgud, David Storey's Home (1970/TACT Production 2006) and Pinter's No Man's Land (1975). Without Clitterhouse, however, such later achievements would not have been possible. Opening in August 1936, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse proved that Richardson could draw an audience as well as charm the critics, and the play ran for just under 500 performances (Richardson, who got 5% of the box office, did quite well). In addition, Richardson also met his second wife as a direct result of Clitterhouse, hand-picking Meriel Forbes to play the role of Daisy after seeing her audition.
After the London success, a Broadway transfer was inevitable. It was fitting that the role of Clitterhouse in New York should go to Cedric Hardwicke. Hardwicke's second New York outing, Clitterhouse opened in New York on Mar 2, 1937 and played for eighty performances, a healthy run. Hardwicke, born in 1893, had served as an early role-model for Richardson when they both worked with Barry Jackson's company in Birmingham. The two, who became lifelong friends, shared a love of automobiles. Richardson can even thank Hardwicke for his first speaking film role, getting him a small bit in the 1933 Boris Karloff horror film The Ghoul. Unlike Richardson, Hardwicke spent more time shuttling between Hollywood films and the theater, and between Britain and the United States, both acting and directing on Broadway until his death in 1964. Among his Broadway credits were several George Bernard Shaw plays, including a revival of Caesar and Cleopatra (1949) which he both directed and starred in, and the premiere of Don Juan in Hell (1951). Of his performance in Clitterhouse, produced by Gilbert Miller and co-starring Muriel Hutchinson and Edward Fielding, Brooks Atkinson wrote that Hardwicke "acts his part with the greatest of ease" in a "gay and slyly scribbled play."
The only thing left was for Clitterhouse to conquer was the cinema. Clitterhouse came to Edward G. Robinson at the perfect time in his career. Born in 1893, Robinson began on the stage with touring companies, and thanks to a working knowledge of German and French was able to get a small part in a Broadway play, Under Fire, in 1915 (where he played a Frenchman, a Belgian, a German, and a Brit with a Cockney accent). Robinson was incredibly versatile and able to play many ethnic types and a great variety of roles, from comedy to melodrama. He slowly built a reputation on Broadway, and by 1927 had the leading role in Bartlett Cormack’s crime play, The Racket. Unfortunately, the praise Robinson obtained for his convincing gangster led to the typecasting that plagued him his entire career. Hollywood came calling, and Robinson, then a star on the stage, was able to obtain a very generous contract with Warner Brothers, which paid off for the studio with the legendary Little Caesar (1931). Robinson wrote that he saw the film as a modern-day Shakespearian tragedy, the character of Rico being similar to Macbeth or Othello. Robinson continued making films, but found himself tired of the gangster roles. He was garnering praise for films like Barbary Coast (1935, directed by Howard Hawks), but he longed to undo his image as a villain. In Bullets or Ballots (1936), the first of a handful of films co-starring Humphrey Bogart, Robinson was still stuck in a crime picture, but at least he was now the good guy.
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) provided a kind of compromise, and was seen as a good vehicle for Robinson. Here, Robinson was playing the hero, but a hero who disguises himself as a villain. It is a crime picture, but it is also a comedy. Humphrey Bogart played the actual criminal, and Claire Trevor was the romantic interest. Typical of most movie versions of popular plays, the script was altered to suit the stars, but it was in good hands with John Wexley and a pre-Maltese Falcon John Huston. Anatole Litvak took the directing chores. Today, the movie is remembered mainly as a bizarre sidenote in the careers of Robinson and Bogart, with a Turner Classic Movies reviewer declaring it "the worst-titled Warner Bros. picture of the 1930s." At the time, however, many of the reviews were positive, praising the film for its comedic take on the crime genre. The Washington Post wrote that Robinson was "unfailingly interesting." The Los Angeles Times called him "at once suave and masterful." The New York Times, however, was less enthusiastic, and unfortunately pointed out a major flaw in the casting, one which kept audiences away and is partly to explain for the film's obscurity (it has only recently been released on DVD, as part of a gangster film box set). While the play and film both had a "jocular, impudent tone," the Times critic was unable to accept Robinson in the role. Too convincing playing a real gangster in Little Caesar, it was simply impossible to see Robinson as a fake gangster. He did not seem like a doctor play-acting, and thus the entire basis of the story-line was undercut by audience perception of Robinson from his previous triumph. It is typecasting of the worst kind, but one that seems impossible to overcome. Too good at portraying an actual gangster, Robinson could not be believed as a dilettante criminal.
At TACT, we recognize the major role this play had on the lives of these three actors. It might not have been their most celebrated role, but it provided something else - for Richardson, financial security and a respite from Shakespeare, for Hardwicke a Broadway break, and for Robinson an opportunity to extend his acting chops into comedy. The play is worth a second look, providing, at it does, a meaty main part (and juicy supporting roles as well). With its tongue-in-cheek take on the crime genre, it comes across as smarter and more self-aware than similar plays from its time period, and holds up remarkably well as a piece of entertainment. Hopefully, the dust will stay off of Lyndon's clever and fast-paced tale so that many more actors can follow in the venerable footsteps of Richardson, Hardwicke, and Robinson.