By Daniel Frezza
Take a second to recall the taste of a special dessert your grandmother used to make when you were a child. That’s the way to approach savoring this nostalgic confection. Peg o’ My Heart is like a home-made lemon meringue pie: light, sweet, and with enough tang to make you want a second helping.
The play is a love letter from author J. Hartley Manners to his leading lady, Laurette Taylor. They were courting when he wrote it, and he incorporated a number of Taylor’s personal traits into Peg’s character: her Irish ancestry, her fear of lightning (important at the play’s end), her innocence, and especially her prickly frankness. Noel Coward, often a guest in the Manners home in the early 1920s, said of his hostess: “Laurette . . . was frequently blunt to the point of embarrassment. She was naive, intolerant, lovable, and entirely devoid of tact. Her humour was quick as lightning, and she could pounce from a great height with all the swift accuracy of a pelican diving into the sea, seldom failing to spear some poor, wriggling fish” (Noel Coward, Present Indicative [New York: Doubleday, 1937], 135). Taylor’s friend, author/journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams, saw her the same way: “She was mirthful, arrogant, capricious, . . . with a flashing and acquisitive intelligence. . . . She could be quite startlingly free of speech” (Marguerite Courtney, Laurette. [New York: Rinehart, 1955], vii). All of that describes the character of Peg to a “T.” Taylor’s daughter, Marguerite Courtney, confirmed that impression: Relating that Taylor once told a reviewer that Peg was based on her grandmother, Courtney added, “But Peg was also Laurette” (Courtney, 107). Eighteen-year-old Peg is innocent, wise beyond her years, and feisty beyond the bounds of good manners. Part of the play’s fun is trying to guess if her unsettling frankness is sometimes intentional or just the inevitable friction that results when an outspoken Irish-American lass is unexpectedly thrust into the lives of her highly refined English relatives.
The plot is a variation on the Cinderella story. Peg’s late mother was disowned by her upper-class English family when she married a poor Irish farmer. Feeling remorse at the end of his life, Peg’s uncle left Peg his fortune on condition that she be brought up “respectably,” preferably by his other sister, an aristocratic aunt whom Peg has never met. Neither the aunt nor Peg (who is unaware of the will) likes the arrangement but they agree to try it for a month. (The aunt has an ulterior motive.) Peg meets Jerry, a friend of the family, and they soon fall in love. Eventually she learns that the will gives her aunt a considerable sum of money for rearing Peg and that Jerry is Sir Gerald, her uncle’s executor and her guardian. Feeling deceived, she starts off to return to her father but a storm (she’s afraid of lightning, remember) drives her back to the house. Her impetuous departure thwarted, she realizes that Jerry really is the man for her. (It’s not difficult to see Jerry as representing the English-born Hartley Manners.) A subplot adds a touch of seriousness but the overall tone is light, with Manners fully exploiting the comic sparks when stuffy propriety runs head-on into spunky self-assuredness.
Taylor and Manners had already established careers as actress and playwright respectively but the phenomenal success of Peg o’ My Heart made their fame and fortunes. It premiered in Los Angeles in May of 1912 and “was a winner from the start, smashing the record for stock runs in Los Angeles by playing 101 performances to standing room only.” (Courtney, 119) Before the start of the New York rehearsals, Taylor and Manners were married. The play opened in New York on December 21, 1912 and ran through May 1914, for a total of 604 performances. That was only the start. During the 1914–15 season, eight companies were touring it, and by 1918 it had amassed 5,987 performances, proof that its success didn’t depend on one star. In June of 1914 Taylor and Manners sailed for London for a year-and-a half run of the play. England entered World War I that August. Peg O’ My Heart was just the thing to lift the spirits of war-stressed audiences, though one performance in May 1915 was interrupted by a Zeppelin bombing raid. Soldiers at the front wrote to Taylor as Peg, as if she were their own sweethearts. Taylor kept those letters all her life even though she burned most of her other personal papers (Courtney, 143). In 1921 Taylor revived the show on Broadway. Altogether she played Peg 1,107 times. Even more remarkable: her pet dog Michael, rescued from a pound for the Los Angeles premiere, appeared with her in every performance (Courtney, 218).
Peg o’ My Heart was popular in many countries around the world, and by 1919 it had earned the Manners family over a million dollars (Courtney, 219). Naturally, such a lucrative property attracted the attention of Hollywood, and various studios attempted to negotiate the rights. Eventually Metro Picture Corporation released Peg o’ My Heart in 1922, starring Taylor (with Michael) and directed by King Vidor. Taylor was in her forties at the time; yet the magic of lighting, makeup, camera angles, and lens turned her into a convincing teenager, as a still shot from the movie attests (David W. Menefee, The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era. [Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004], 186). She was highly pleased with the film and often screened it for her guests. (Taylor made only two other films: Happiness and One Night in Rome, both based on her husband’s plays. Unfortunately for posterity, she never filmed the crowning role of her career—Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.) In 1933 a talking-picture remake of Peg o’ My Heart was released starring Marion Davies (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024433/).
The song “Peg o’ My Heart” (words by Alfred Bryan, music by Fred Fisher) is not from the play. It was first featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913 and it proved highly popular too: the sheet music and three different recordings of it were released that same year. (http://www.fact-library.com/peg_o_my_heart.html)
Peg o’ My Heart is revived from time to time by regional theaters and, judging from the reviews, proves durable good fun. In the New York area it was produced by the Long Island Stage in 1987 and the Equity Library Theater in 1988. A musical version was done at the Irish Repertory Theater in 2003. A search on the Internet turns up other productions around the country. There hasn’t been a major, long-running revival yet, but the time may be ripe. Meanwhile, the Utah Shakespeare Festival offers an opportunity to enjoy the charms of this early-twentieth-century blockbuster.