July 23, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

With the premiere this past July 3rd of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton on Disney Plus still fresh in my mind (it’s sensational), I began an internet dig on whether or not Lin-Manuel Miranda was the first to bring the larger than life character of Alexander Hamilton, patriot and Founding Father, to the stage. So, imagine my surprise when I Googled and found that a play called Hamilton opened 103 years ago in 1917—which also happens to have been the year of the last great pandemic.

And yes, it was about that Hamilton.

It was co-written (along with Mary P. Hamlin) by the British actor George Arliss, who also starred in the play. A renowned stage actor in his time, Arliss also made a number of films and was the winner of Best Actor at the third Academy Awards ceremony in 1930 for his portrayal of the title role in Disraeli. By the time Arliss created the role of Hamilton on Broadway his credits totaled two dozen over a twenty-six year period—in America alone. He was something of a Renaissance man in that he had complete control over most of what he appeared in, often writing, directing and producing. This extended to the time Hollywood beckoned when talkies came to prominence, grabbing every stage actor around who could speak well. Arliss was given free reign by studio head Daryl Zanuck first at Warner Bros., then later during his time running 20th Century Fox Films, where he saw to that Arliss personally adapt many of his Broadway successes. This included his success as Hamilton, renamed Alexander Hamilton for the screen.

At sixty-three years old when the film was shot, I’m sure Arliss displays far less of the youthful vigor Lin-Manuel Miranda brought to the role in his musical. It had to have been strange to tell the story of a man who's life ended before he turned fifty by someone sixty-three, but that's Hollywood. Still, I’m curious to see how it plays, though as far as I can tell, it’s not available on DVD or on demand, though it was broadcast once upon a time on Turner Classic Movies (it cleverly aired the night the other Hamilton swept the Tony Awards in 2016). Since I never knew of the film’s existence until today, I’m going to be keeping an eye out for it on the TCM schedule in the future.

George Arliss as Alexander Hamilton in the 1931 film.

As for 1917’s Hamilton’s production, it only ran one month, but not because it wasn’t well received. It was. In its review, the New York Times wrote: "The play is likely to prove as popular as it is historically inspiring" (something that could be said for the 2015 Hamilton as well). As already mentioned, this Hamilton closed due to having the bad fortune of opening during the influenza pandemic which led to dozens of theaters closing (remember this was when there were nearly a hundred theatres throughout a widely dispersed theatre district back in the day).

Arliss had two important female collaborators on the play. One was his wife, the actress Florence Arliss (billed in the program as simply "Mrs. Arliss"—ah, a different time). The other important woman was Mary P. Hamlin, a 46-year-old mother of four from Canandaigua, New York who wrote the play. She lived and worked her whole life in Canadaigua until she passed away in 1964 at the age of ninety-three. With no agent or entrée to show business, she sent Arliss a working draft of a play she was writing about Alexander Hamilton, having a keen interest in the subject being distantly related by marriage to Lincoln’s first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin. To her great surprise, Arliss was interested in bringing Hamlin’s play to the stage. It wound up being her sole effort as a playwright.

In a New York Post article from June of 2016, a quote from Mary Hamlin summed up her brief career, citing a memoir she wrote when she was eighty-two: “There are a few writers among women who can surmount family and make a successful business of playwriting, but I don’t seem to have been one of them.” The Post also makes clear that according to Hamlin, “Mr. Arliss did little writing of my play. He knew nothing of American politics, did not even know, at first, that Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States.”

If you’ve ever seen George Arliss on film he offered a very strange personality. He was odd looking and sounding and extremely theatrical, as if he cared little to adapt to a movie camera. His Oscar for “Disraeli” is a head scratcher viewed through the modern lens of today’s sensibilities on acting. But since it was the early day of talking pictures, and things were still relatively new, maybe some slack needs to be cut.

My research also found some curious soul who has painstakingly devoted a website to the life and career of George Arliss, which can be viewed here:

The site even includes alerts when any of Arliss’s films are playing on TCM, evidently one of the few places where the work of this once famous actor can be viewed. With film preservation vitally important to the arts, it’s comforting to know that the works of such long forgotten actors such as Arliss have a home.

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."