Boleslavsky, Barrymore and Broadway



The turning point in Treadwell’s theatrical career came in 1923. As her first Broadway play, Gringo, was completing its modest run, Treadwell sat in on a series of lectures given by Richard Boleslavsky, a Russian actor recently emigrated to New York after working with the renowned Moscow Art Theatre. Boleslavsky provided American theatre artists with their first extensive exposure to the teachings and practices of Konstantin Stanislavsky, and Treadwell quickly joined a small group of artists accompanying Boleslavsky for a summer of intensive study of all aspects of theatre production.

At the completion of her summer study, Treadwell wrote her most exuberant comedy, initially titled Loney Lee. The play proved a resounding hit in tryout cities with Helen Hayes in the title role. To Treadwell’s dismay, however, the play’s producer, George C. Tyler, offered no explanation for his lack of interest in transferring it to Broadway. 

Buoyed by her summer of study with Boleslavsky, Treadwell now believed that she possessed the requisite skills to produce her own work on Broadway. She bought Tyler’s option for the comedy and, under the new title O Nightingale, the play opened at the 49th Street Theatre in 1925, with Treadwell as co-producer. Treadwell also acted a supporting role in the play under the pseudonym Constance Eliot

Treadwell’s dissatisfaction with Tyler was not to be her first or last one with commercial theatre production. Her early mentor, Helena Modjeska, had urged her to submit plays to producers under a male pseudonym, believing that producers would be less apt to demand revisions from a male playwright. Treadwell’s resistance of suggested revisions often led to disagreements with producers. In addition, in the year between Loney Lee and O Nightingale Treadwell brought a lawsuit for plagiarism against one of the most famous actors in the country, John Barrymore.

As far back as 1920, prior to her first Broadway production, Treadwell was delighted to learn that Barrymore loved the play about Edgar Allan Poe she had sent him. Yet, despite his promise to produce the play and act the role of Poe, Barrymore never offered a contract or returned the manuscript. When Treadwell read in 1924 that Barrymore was preparing to premiere a new play about Poe written by his wife, Michael Strange, Treadwell grew suspicious. After meeting with Barrymore and hearing the play read, Treadwell filed suit to stop production of Strange’s play and to have her original manuscript returned.

The lawsuit brought intense media scrutiny. To an overwhelming degree, Treadwell was vilified in the press, accused of being an unknown opportunist preying on the rich and famous. It should be noted, however, that Treadwell did not sue for damages, only for the stoppage of production. When Treadwell refused to drop the suit, Barrymore relented and ceased plans for production. Treadwell’s play, Plumes in the Dust, was eventually produced on Broadway in 1936 with Henry Hull as Poe.

Through her experiences with commercial producers and stars, Treadwell believed that the playwright was viewed as an expendable commodity. In her lectures to Boleslavsky’s American Laboratory Theatre in 1923, Treadwell decried Broadway’s habits of employing "script doctors," type casting, and hasty demands for revisions. Treadwell began an untiring campaign to protect the artistic and economic rights of playwrights, a cause that would eventually lead to her becoming the first American playwright to win royalty payments from the Soviet Union for play production.

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