By Ryan D. Paul
Submitted for your approval—one Miss Cora Dick Gantt, a stenographer for the local Y.M.C.A. preparing herself to enjoy a night at the theatre. The year is 1920. The date is September 27. The play, The Tavern based upon her manuscript, The Choice of a Superman. She had sent this unsolicited work to Broadway producer Arthur Hopkins who had already produced over twenty shows, many of them huge hits. Hopkins passed on Gantt’s work, believing it too strange and unusual. However, he thought his friend George M. Cohan would find it worth a laugh or two. In fact, the very things that Hopkins distained, Cohan loved. Cohan would later say it was “the damnedest play I have every read in my life.” However, what Miss Gantt was about to see, would have little resemblance to her original work. At this point, you would begin to hear Rod Serling’s famous voice-over, “You are travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, The Twilight Zone!”
Cohan had become strangely obsessed with Gantt’s play, especially some of her characters. According to The Actor’s Company Theatre, “He offered Gantt $40,000 for the complete rights to the play, including the right to make any revisions he deemed necessary. Gantt thought highly of her play and was opposed to alterations, but she liked $40,000 better” (The Actors Company Theatre, The Tavern Notes, http://tactnyc.org/the-tavern-notes/). Cohan tossed the original plot in the trash and started all over. In his autobiography, he refers to this plot dissection as “sprinkling the Cohan salt and pepper all over the script” (Ibid). What emerged that night on the stage became one of the first of its kind, a parody of a melodrama—in early twentieth-century speak, a burlesque. In our modern lexicon, the word burlesque has connotations of risqué behavior, but for Cohan’s generation, it meant something else. “Burlesque comes from burla, Spanish for “joke.” Comedy has always been an essential part of burlesque art, but it’s comedy of a particular kind. Burlesque is satirical, and it uses exaggeration that can be extreme” (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/burlesque). The Tavern, essentially, became a parody of many of the serious dramatic works on the stage at the time. The catch, however, was that none of this was communicated to the audience. They were left to figure out, to process, what they were seeing on the stage for themselves.
The Tavern soon became the hit of Broadway and would run for 252 performances. Life Magazine theatre critic Robert Benchley would write of opening night “There can no longer be any doubt that George M. Cohan is the greatest man in the world. Anyone who can write The Tavern and produce it as The Tavern is produced places himself automatically in the class with the gods who sit on Olympus and emit Jovian (or is it Shavian) laughter at the tiny tots below on earth. In fact, George M. Cohan’s laughter is much more intelligent than that of any god I ever heard of. . . . Every line and situation in it can be either serious or burlesque, according to the individual powers of discernment of the listener. In the second act even the most naive of the newspaper writers felt the force of the burlesque and commented on it indulgently" (http://davecol8.tripod.com/id37.htm).
The Tavern takes place on a dark and stormy night (how’s that for melodrama) in a remote tavern. A wild wind blows in all sorts of oddball characters—a mysterious vagabond, who delights in the theatrics that surround the night’s events, a damsel in distress, with a mysterious past, a politician, his daughter, and her fiancé. A thief is on the loose, suspicions abound, and no one is who they seem! The Vagabond soon became Cohan’s favorite character and when original actor Arthur Daly left the show, “Cohan himself stepped in, turning the Vagabond into one of his most celebrated roles. He performed on Broadway for over a year, and continued playing the role on tour afterwards. Recognizing a virtuoso comic role to die for, Cohan revived the play ten years later in 1930, reprising his role. Even at the end of his career, Cohan couldn’t escape The Tavern, and his last completed show was a 1940 sequel called The Return of the Vagabond” (The Actors Company Theatre).
This fall, in true Cohan fashion, the Utah Shakespeare Festival will present a world-premiere adaptation of The Tavern adapted and directed by Joseph Hanreddy who recently helmed 2016’s production of Julius Caesar and co-adapted both Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the latter of which he directed for the Festival. This year’s production of The Tavern, is “set in Old West southern Utah. The whimsy and broadness of the comedy are such that there is only a superficial nod to accurate history. As to specific period, Utah was a US Territory and not a state until 1896. Governors prior to 1896 were appointed by the U.S. President as part of a “spoils system” where government jobs, including Governorships, were given to supporters, friends and relatives as a reward for working toward political victory. Understandably, appointed governors were not always beloved of or respected by, the first settlers.” (Joseph Hanreddy, Director’s Notes, unpublished).
Hanreddy’s adaptation of The Tavern is a mash-up of local and regional history, romantic melodramas, classic Western fiction and film, the physical comedy of silent film greats such as Buster Keaton, (check out the cyclone scene in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmyNiMjXMUw), with a little bit of Shakespeare on top. I can guarantee that as this madcap farce reaches its conclusion you will be laughing outloud.