Amphitryon 38

A Comedy in a Prologue
and Three Acts
Adapted from the French
of Jean Giraudoux

S. N. Behrman
New York: Random House, 1938
First edition in dust jacket

    (On front flyleaf) BHC

Barrett H. Clark's copy. Clark was a board member of the Theatre Guild and the executive director of the Dramatists Play Service and Samuel French.

On 20 June 1936, shortly after celebrating his forty-third birthday, Behrman married Elza Heifetz, sister of the famed violinist. The press did not learn of the nuptials for three days. Behrman continued jealously to guard his private life. They had one son, David Arthur, born in 1937, who later selected music as his forte. Early in 1937, Behrman had completed his adaptation of Amphitryon 38 by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux. The "38" in the title was Giraudoux’s tribute to the play’s original author, Plautus; by Giraudoux’s count, his was the thirty-eighth version of this durable Latin comedy. It also represents Behrman’s first departure from original material since Serena Blandish, which itself almost exhibits a wholly primary work except for the story line. However, translating Giraudoux from the French, being truthful to the original, and attempting to capture inflexible nuances presenting both linguistic and imagistic differences, raised a different set of problems. There followed later the refining of the adaptation itself; transferring a work of theatrical art from one cultural milieu to another for the drama remains a communal event. This can result in two quite different plays. Indeed, Giraudoux’s belief that his was the thirty-eighth dramatized version of the Amphitryon legend appears to be in error; subsequent research reveals it to be the fifty-second, and Behrman’s adaptation is listed as fifty-third. Yet dean of critics George Jean Nathan found Behrman’s play superior to Giraudoux’s, and the French playwright endorsed Behrman’s version as the closest approximation in feeling and spirit of the original as any he had seen. Noting only that the tempo had increased considerably, the French author observed, "In France, to write a successful play, one needs only to write a very long play." The Latin original is hardly subtle. From Olympus, Jupiter determines that the earthling Alkmena shall bear his son Hercules. Unfortunately her vow of chastity to her husband Amphitryon, even to the point of death, calls for a complicated strategy. First a war is declared, resulting in General Amphitryon’s departure. Then Jupiter assumes the physical form of Amphitryon, informing Alkmena that he will return to her bed. Jupiter’s mission has been barely accomplished when Alkmena learns of what she assumes will be Jupiter’s arrival. Certain that he will take the shape of her husband in order to successfully seduce her, she sends her own returned Amphitryon into the bedroom where Leda awaits Jupiter, this time, she hopes, not in the shape of a swan. This dual infidelity turns on the word "unknowingly," and, at her request, Alkmena has Jupiter erase the past from her memory. The theme of marriage and love takes the dominant role in this work, with success/achievement limited to seduction and subsequent cover-up; money makes no appearance at all. Additionally, it marks the only Behrman work where father and son (Jupiter and Mercury) share affection and a cordial, working relationship. One may anticipate such divergence with an adaptation; still, the material suited Behrman’s philosophy quite admirably, aside from the inherent comic view-point, wit, and gaiety of the original French. Behrman experienced a unique departure from typical production practice with this endeavor. The Lunts, touring the United States and playing evening and matinee performances of Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight, gathered nine members of that company, under the "direction" of the tenth, in afternoon rehearsals of the Giraudoux-Behrman piece. As "conceivers and supervisors" of this production, the Lunts’ dependency on a director becomes a moot point. (In their next venture, The Pirate, Lunt shares credit for the staging of Behrman’s comedy; and in their final enterprise, I Know My Love, Lunt directs.) Behrman visited various rehearsal sites throughout the United States, but in the main conducted rewrites via the mail, receiving altered versions of his text with accompanying pleas from the director as "Please, Santa Claus, fix us up pretty as we are stuck." At their bidding, Behrman always complied, attempting to meet the demands of others while fulfilling his own sort of integrity. When the tour of Idiot’s Delight closed on the West Coast, Amphitryon 38 sprang forth in San Francisco full-blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. It required only some fine honing to shape the Lunts’ technique and glamour for its production on Broadway in November 1937. In the usual turmoil of preproduction, Lunt maintained his sense of humor by observing that his Zeus wig and beard made him appear as if he had swallowed Shirley Temple.

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