S. N. Behrman
New York: Brentano’s, 1930
First edition in dust jacket

For those who expected continuing comedy from Behrman, Meteor, produced in 1929, must have come as something of a shock; both the playwright and the Lunts, whose deft playing of light comedy had already become something of a legend, chose this high-tensioned drama for their second joint venture. Under the Guild’s patronage, Philip Moeller, who staged The Second Man and who suited Behrman "perfectly," directed. In Meteor, a chance reading of a book written by a college professor brings Raphael Lord to the small New England college where his self-assurance both fascinates and infuriates. Claiming the powers of clairvoyance, Lord insists that his destiny must be fulfilled as a businessman in New York rather than as a scholar. Events during the next five years have proven Lord correct; he has built a multimillion-dollar empire on South American oil speculation. Treachery exists within the temple, and owing to his misinterpretation of one of his visions, the structure collapses and Lord loses all, including his wife. The drama concludes with Lord making his first move to crush his enemies. Written in 1926, this third solo Behrman script to reach Broadway marks his first attempt with a megalomanic personality, Raphael Lord, whose close kin are recognized later as Clay Rainier in Dunnigan’s Daughter (1945), Alvin Connors in "Let Me Hear the Melody" (1951), and, to a degree, Lord Pengo. Although actor Lunt crafted his makeup to strongly resemble Serena Blandish’s producer Jed Harris, Behrman continued to insist that an egoist far greater than Harris provided the genesis for the character of Raphael Lord. Perhaps Behrman had in mind famed Boston swindler Charles Ponzi, whose nefarious career fascinated the writer and whose name still denotes a scheme involving a pyramid swindle. In any event, the late 1920s provided scores of ersatz Napoleons of monetary greed and their spawn as prototypes. Behrman, who would meet many more of their kind in Hollywood, sensed a need to capture this phenomenon. Meteor arrived on Broadway two months following the stock market crash – a most inopportune moment. The Guild advertisements promised "Even though you were ruined in the recent Stock Exchange landslide, you will still like this play." Production problems plagued the unit. The Lunts had not expressed overwhelming enthusiasm for the script when the Theatre Guild originally presented it to them, proposing that the Guild request a major revision of the text. Behrman later wrote: "Lynn Fontanne played the daughter only to give her husband a chance to be meteoric. She hated the part. Gentleness is not a satisfying attribute for an actress as dynamic as Miss Fontanne." Lunt adds: "The play wasn’t ready to be shown, and we wanted to postpone it, but [Guild producer] Miss Helburn insisted that it had to go on as planned. So on Monday, the day of the opening at the Tremont [sic] Theatre (in Boston) about ten minutes of the end of the play was not written and therefore unrehearsed, as Mr. Moeller and Mr. Behrman had quarreled, and both had left the theater. This was about 4:30 in the afternoon, so we literally ‘ad libbed’ the end of the play." Reviewing the New York opening, one critic concluded with "My guess is that Mr. Behrman wrote the play the way he liked it best and during rehearsals it got in places to be something else." Just so. At the time of publication, Behrman offered a reading text which differed from the playing version. However, ninety-two Broadway performances must not be considered a failure during an era in which the long Broadway run had not established itself as a yardstick of success, a time when troupers such as the Lunts regarded Broadway (as did Mrs. Fisk) merely as "a stand." Further, whatever responsibility must be borne by the production team’s creative personalities – the stars, the director, the producers – in altering the true course of the script, the always accommodating Behrman could hardly have found himself in top form.

Copyright © 2009