In a preview of upcoming fine art auctions from the May 1st New York Times, Carol Vogel began, “Two Madoff victims and a hedge fund manager are among the sellers at this spring’s important auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art.” The headlines throughout the summer of 2009 signified at best a tepid and at worst a rapidly declining art market. The New York Times screamed disaster: “Bidding is Thin at Christie’s in London,” “At Sotherby’s, Enthusiasm Wanes,” and, most shockingly, “Modern Masters Suffer at Auction,” which brings to mind images of Matisse and Picasso being mercilessly tortured in front of indifferent bankers with empty pocketbooks. In May, a sale of 36 works brought Sotherby’s a mere $61.3 million, when half a year earlier 45 works sold for $223.8 million. A Giacometti sculpture and a Picasso painting, offered by one of the Madoff victims, failed to sell. No two ways about it, the sky was falling.
For normal people, the trials and tribulations of the art market appear preposterous. After all, why would someone spend even a thousand dollars for a Picasso when several are on view at the Museum of Modern Art? The average American has to worry about health insurance or paying the rent. In these tough economic times, it is hard to have sympathy for the art collector with an $8 million Picasso that used to be worth $12 million. Yet, at the same time, the art collector’s predicament is perfectly understandable. Who would not, in his position, feel a sort of loss? It is a loss of hypothetical money, a loss of something that never was. And it hurts. The Hackett family in Mr. Howard’s play never looked at or enjoyed those painting left to them by Christopher Bean. They never even thought about them. They were worthless to them until someone told them otherwise. And that’s when the trouble begins. Not respected as art, the paintings are dollar signs on the wall, measured in importance by their equivalent in cash instead of their intrinsic aesthetic merits. When the number of equivalent dollar signs goes up or down, it changes how one views the work. The painting, in this context, is an investment.
The Late Christopher Bean is almost eighty years old, but the characters could be torn from the art world today. Included in Sidney Howard’s cast are a young struggling artist not yet discovered, a doctor who knows nothing about art outside of what someone tells him, an art critic with a deep appreciation of painting as an art-form, two shady New York dealers who are only in it for the money, and Abby, the heroine and the heart of the piece, whose interest in both money and art take a back seat to her love for people. The play is a frantic and fast-paced comedy about the battle between greed and humanity, written during the bleakest of economic times, the Great Depression, but equally applicable to any society and time period when the focus of living is making money, keeping money, and spending money. For the majority of the characters in Christopher Bean, money is viewed as a prerequisite to happiness.
The Late Christopher Bean began life in Paris as Prenez garde á la peinture (roughly translated as Beware the Painting) in February of 1932. Prenez was written by French dramatist René Fauchois and quickly became a critically acclaimed success in France, seen both as an entertaining satire and a celebration of French Provincial life. It was common practice in those days for Broadway producers to rewrite European hits for American audiences. (Indeed, the practice is not at all unheard of today given the sold-out run of God of Carnage, the American version of Yasmina Reza’s original French play). It would be unfair, however, to call The Late Christopher Bean a translation. The basic structure of the play is the same, about a family discovering valuable paintings by a former tenant long deceased. A servant girl, Abby in Howard’s play and Ursule in the original, provides the play’s soul. Yet aside from this, Howard’s play is unique. Theater critic Burns Mantle wrote that it was “a complete rewriting of the play in terms of American folk comedy.” Gone are the French provinces, replaced with distinctly American character types, completely changing the tone and flavor of the play.
Gilbert Miller, the producer of the Broadway production, made an inspired choice when hiring Sidney Howard. Howard, born in 1891, began his career as a journalist and quickly progressed to writing plays. Throughout the 20’s, Howard gained a reputation as a writer of earnest social dramas with comedic elements, the high point of which was his 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted. The original production of the play was staged the same year of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and set off a fury of angry moralists demanding the production be closed and censorship boards be established. The controversy, which prompted Howard to become a lifelong champion of the rights of the playwright, probably helped the box office, and the play ran for 414 performances to great reviews, later becoming the basis of the Tony Award winning musical The Most Happy Fella.
As a Pulitzer Prize winner, Howard had the talent and clout to make a career out of playwriting, and the next few years offered a variety of plays, some hits and some failures, as well as a steady stream of movie work. In 1928, Howard procured a messy and painful divorce from his wife of six years, actor Clare Eames (the whole fascinating story can be read in Arthur Gewirtz’s book, Sidney Howard and Clare Eames). In December 1929, Howard’s play Half Gods ran in New York for only 17 performances. Based on his marriage to Eames, the play was a major failure. Howard, in the aftermath of the divorce, was unable to find the inspiration he needed to write plays. He wrote, “I don’t know what will happen to me now that Clare’s let go.”
Luckily, Howard found love again and re-married in 1931 to Leopoldine Blaine Damrosch. Re-invigorated, Howard lived the rest of his life to the fullest. Not only did he write Christopher Bean and several other Broadway plays, including the acclaimed Alien Corn (1933) and Dodsworth (based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis) (1934). Sidney Howard was hand-picked to adapt the latter by Lewis himself after writing the screenplay for the movie of Lewis’ Arrowsmith in 1931, which won Howard his first Academy Award. When not busy writing, Howard also found the time to champion young playwrights and advocate for his peers, both as president of the Dramatists Guild from 1935-37 and as one of the founders of the Playwrights’ Producing Co., dedicated to staging plays under the control of the writers and the creative team rather than the whims of producers. Tragically, Howard was killed at an early age after a horrific tractor accident on his farm in 1939. His career held a bittersweet postscript – at the 1939 Academy Awards, Howard won his second Oscar posthumously for Gone With the Wind.
How is it that a two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize winner is nearly forgotten today? Once spoken of in the same breath as Eugene O’Neill, Howard has fallen below the radar. One wonders whether, if he had lived past 1939 and continued writing, he might not today be ranked as one of the top American playwrights of the 20th century. As it is, however, he has left behind an impressive body of work that should not be ignored. Audiences at the time fell in love with Howard’s writing, as did critics. The reason was simple – Howard wrote expertly crafted plays with relatable characters that exhibited his gentle and intelligent view of life, a slightly melancholy but ultimately uplifting celebration of the human spirit.
Throughout his career, Howard also managed to attract a number of prominent and well-respected actors. He was known for writing intelligent, thoughtful, and powerful parts for women, and Abby in Christopher Bean is no exception. Pauline Lord, who also starred in They Knew What They Wanted, took the role in the first production. Lord, who eschewed film work in favor of the stage, is best known for her work with Howard and as the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (1921-22). A 1933 film version of Christopher Bean starred Marie Dressler and Lionel Barrymore. Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Thelma Ritter also portrayed Abby, in live television versions of the play, but neither the film nor these television versions are still in print or readily available. The only major revival of the play in recent years took place in 1983 at the Kennedy Center and starred Jean Stapleton.
The questions that Howard asks about art are, of course, still relevant. When we look at a painting regarded as a masterpiece, we should try to figure out what it says to us as individuals, not why it is worth so much money. Art is far more than an investment. Its worth lies in the pleasure it gives us. More than even the technical skill or the aesthetic merits involved, art is intensely personal, as Abby so clearly demonstrates. Art is better than money – but there is something even better than art: family, enjoying life, spending time with the one you love, and human compassion. All the framed masterpieces in the world can be thrown in the trashcan in exchange for what really matters. Would you rather spend hours staring at the Mona Lisa, or at the actual face of someone you love?