Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
Marcus Cook Connelly was born December 13, 1890. The year before, his parents, Patrick Joseph and Mabel Louise Fowler (Cook) Connelly, two touring actors, had settled in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, blaming the death of their first child on the hardships of the touring life. His father managed the White Hotel, a favorite stop for traveling circus troupes and theatrical companies, who imbued young Marc with what he later described as “the early feeling that going to the theatre is like going to an unusual church, where the spirit is nourished in mysterious ways, and pure magic may occur at any moment.”
Connelly’s father died of pneumonia when his son was twelve, and following the failure of the White Hotel in 1908, Connelly’s hopes for college were dashed. When he and his mother moved to Pittsburgh, Connelly began a career with local newspapers, finally becoming second-string drama critic and author of a humorous weekly column, “Jots and Tittles,” for the Pittsburgh Gazette Times. He also spent his evenings writing, directing, and stage-managing skits for the Pittsburgh Athletic Association. In 1913, Connelly wrote the lyrics for Alfred Ward Birdsall’s The Lady of Luzon, which so impressed local steel magnate Joseph Riter that Connelly was commissioned to write the lyrics and libretto for a play that Riter was producing on Broadway, The Amber Princess. The play, which after two years of rewriting finally contained only Connelly’s title and the lyrics to one song, failed, and the hopeful young playwright was forced to return to newspaper work, this time far from home.
While covering the theater district for the New York Morning Telegraph in 1917, Connelly met George S. Kaufman , who was then second-string drama critic for The New York Times. At the suggestion of the producer George C. Tyler, Connelly and Kaufman collaborated on a vehicle for Lynn Fontanne entitled Dulcy, which opened August 13, 1921, and was so popular (running for 246 performances) that they immediately created a sequel as a vehicle for another young star, Helen Hayes, entitled To the Ladies (which ran for 128 performances). The team again collaborated on a misguided effort, The Deep Tangled Wildwood, which was shelved following a disastrous out-of-town tryout in May, 1922, and later reworked and produced on Broadway on November 5, 1923, running for only sixteen performances. Their greatest success as a team came with Merton of the Movies, the story of an innocent shop clerk who seeks stardom in Hollywood. It opened in November 13, 1922, and played for 398 performances.
At this same time, Connelly was firmly entrenched as a member of that group of literary and theatrical wits who lunched together at the Algonquin Hotel . In addition to the charter members, Franklin P. Adams, Jane Grant, Harold Ross, and Alexander Woolcott, the group included Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Robert E. Sherwood, and others. In 1925, Grant, Ross, Woollcott, Kaufman, Connelly, and others founded The New Yorker, to which Connelly contributed numerous essays and pieces of short fiction between 1927 and 1930.
Kaufman and Connelly collaborated on three more plays, two of them musicals: Helen of Troy, N.Y., with songs by Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby, and Be Yourself, which starred Queenie Smith; the third was the fantasy Beggar on Horseback. When Be Yourself closed, the partnership was effectively over, although the two remained friends and were said to have been working on a musical about a union boss at the time of Kaufman’s death.
Connelly went to Hollywood in 1925 to write the screenplay of a Beatrice Lillie vehicle, Exit Smiling (1926), returning to Broadway for his directorial debut in his play The Wisdom Tooth, a showcase for the actor Thomas Mitchell, which ran for 160 performances. Connelly next collaborated with Herman J. Mankiewicz on a failed production, The Wild Man of Borneo, which closed after fifteen nights. For the next two years, Connelly avoided the theater and concentrated his efforts on The New Yorker.
In the fall of 1928, Connelly’s cartoonist friend Rollin Kirby recommended that he read a book by a New Orleans newspaperman, Roark Bradford, entitled Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, a series of stories from the Old Testament told in the language of a black Southern preacher. Connelly immediately took to the book and visited Bradford in Louisiana, where he refined his knowledge of the dialect and found the spirituals a chorus would sing between the scenes. Once the play was written, Connelly spent the better part of a year seeking financial backing, as most producers feared offending both blacks and whites, the religious and the nonreligious. Finally, a broker, Rowland Stebbins, put up the necessary money, and on February 26, 1930, The Green Pastures had the first of its more than sixteen hundred performances. This play, for which he derived not only great financial rewards but also the deepest sense of fulfillment, formed the summary moment of his long career in the theater, a moment he never approached later in his life.
In 1930, Connelly married the actress Madeline Hurlock; they were divorced in 1935. It was during this period that Connelly wrote his last hit, The Farmer Takes a Wife, written with Frank B. Elser from his play Rome Haul (based on Walter D. Edmond’s novel) and starring Henry Fonda. None of Connelly’s remaining plays—Everywhere I Roam (written with Arnold Sundgaard), The Flowers of Virtue, A Story for Strangers, Hunter’s Moon, and The Portable Yenberry—played more than fifteen performances. During this time, Connelly became involved in projects outside the theater. He directed his own adaptation of The Green Pastures for film (1936) and wrote several other screenplays as well, including Captains Courageous (1937). He also wrote a successful radio play, The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek, and, much later, a humorous novel, A Souvenir from Qam, as well as his autobiography, Voices Offstage, all the while contributing numerous pieces, mostly on his travels, to popular magazines. He occasionally acted, playing the Stage Manager in a 1944 production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Professor Charles Osnan in Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay’s The Tall Story, both on Broadway (1959) and in the film (1960). He also served as the Narrator for the Off-Broadway revue The Beast in Me (1963), drawn from the writings of James Thurber. A founder of the Dramatists Guild, past president of the Authors’ League of America, he was president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters from 1953 to 1956. From 1946 to 1950, he taught playwriting at Yale and frequently conducted seminars in the years following. Connelly’s quiet humor remained keen to the end. On his ninetieth birthday, after receiving a certificate of appreciation from Mayor Ed Koch of New York, he said, “Some days I feel like an old man of 137, and other days like a mere boy of 136.”
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