Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), or Mrs Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the conventions of the time usually called her, reported in her influential and very widely syndicated ‘My Day’ column that she had been to see Greenwood (and Gow’s) play in the Broadway production the evening before, on 1 April 1936. (1) Though the ‘My Day’ feature was as always concise in scale, Roosevelt nevertheless used her space very economically and precisely to give a detailed account of her response, seeing the play as dealing with tragic circumstances all too familiar in the depression-era US as well. She felt the play worked through characters who typified the personal and family tragedies bought about by unemployment and the inadequacy of state support. These situations were so undermining of a decent life that they constituted, she wrote, ‘a challenge to our civilisation’. Of Mr Hardcastle she says, ‘the father is remarkably well-played and his cry for help still lingers in my ears. How many men have felt as he does!’. Of Harry and Sally Hardcastle she writes acutely, bringing out one of the ways in which the play critiques the sheer abnormality of the life which unemployment and poverty force upon all their victims, and their need to live somehow, and to make what limited choices they can:
[There is] the boy who got married and was put out by his father for marrying, and the girl who lost her lover, and turning reckless, decided to take what she could of the material things, killing her real self, and yet giving her dearly bought cash for the happiness of those she loved.
She argues, indeed, that these ‘old stories … when presented with such force and ability … are a very valuable contribution to social thinking’. The one thing she does not seem to see is the comic or comi-tragic contribution of the chorus, seeing them as literal realist transcriptions of existing characters: ‘the three old women in the play are familiar sights in the slums of any big industrial city’. She does, however, frame her serious report on the play by suggesting to her readers that there are still other experiences in contemporary life too: she goes to see a protégé dance before attending the play, and comes back to this after the play, observing that:
When we came out, I was very glad we had been to the frivolous dancing before the play as it would have been hard to adjust one’s trend of thought without it’.
Perhaps she felt she should never leave her readers too downbeat?
Overall, this seems a remarkably aware notice, likely to be widely listened to by the politically sympathetic across the US. Given her evident support for her husband’s New Deal policies to address the impacts of the Depression, it is no wonder she found the play’s appeal for outside help for Hanky Park highly sympathetic, but her incisive comments on the play itself are also impressive.
Eleanor Roosevelt is very clear that she thought it a good play which was also well acted and produced. Below, reproduced from the US Samuel French Standard Library edition of the play (New York, 1934, 1936), is the cast she will have seen. From the Garrick London production in 1935, Wendy Hiller came to the US to play her role as Sally Hardcastle, as did Alec Grandison to play her brother Harry. The rest of the cast though is entirely different, no doubt largely because the British production kept running simultaneously. This cast is made up of actors who were largely all working in the US already by 1936, though a significant proportion had British origins. This presumably helped with the question of accents and authenticity in the production.
Scanned from copy in the Author’s collection
Note 1. I am referring to the Indianapolis Times publication of this ‘My Day’ column from 2/4/1936, p.13, but it was also of course published in papers across the USA (accessed via the invaluable Library of Congress Historic American Newspapers database: All Digitized Newspapers « Chronicling America « Library of Congress (loc.gov)).