Arriving on the scene of a massive theater boom in both London and New York, John William Van Druten’s sophisticated comedies filled a space between the serious dramas and typical comedies of the time. Although Van Druten’s plays were driven by character rather than plot, he more than mastered the devices of effective theater. His use of telephone conversations to establish characters who never appeared on the stage helped to flesh out small casts and created a world beyond the one-setting interiors.
Later, in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, when the economics of theater became problematic, Van Druten’s use of small casts in single settings made him commercially viable without sacrificing quality. As the commercial theater began to dry up and the only plays audiences cared to see were musicals, Van Druten’s plays continued to attract playgoers.
Taking his cue from the drawing room comedies of an earlier age, Van Druten never descended into low comedy or farce. His was the high comedy of British plays, remodeled for modern times and American people. As Van Druten often repeated, he wrote about people. His audiences recognized the people he wrote about and responded. He was never issue minded and wrote to change neither society nor the theater. Van Druten’s plays exist to amuse. In his memoirs, Van Druten seldom mentions his novels or screenplays: He was a playwright, first and foremost, and he reveled in that fact.
Van Druten’s first professional play failed to pass the British censor because it was deemed to be critical of the British school system. The discussion of sex between the schoolboy characters also raised objections. George Tyler arranged for the American rights to Young Woodley with Basil Dean, the British producer. The production started in Boston and, in November of 1925, moved to New York, where it played to full houses and critical praise.
American audiences took exception to neither the subject matter nor the dialogue of the play. The three-act comedy with a cast of nine is set in a boys’ school. The conflict is between the title character, a romantic, imaginative, eighteen-year-old poet and a staid, prosaic, controlling, and dour schoolmaster who has no time or sympathy for poets or poetry. Indeed, this headmaster stifles all attempts at creativity and is also stifling his pretty, young wife, who...
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