|The Blue Flame|
Theda Bara as Ruth Gordon
|Date premiered||March 15, 1920|
|Place premiered||Shubert Theatre|
|Genre||Science fiction, Melodrama|
|Setting||New York City|
The Blue Flame is a four-act play written by George V. Hobart and John Willard, who revised an earlier version by Leta Vance Nicholson. In 1920, producer Albert H. Woods staged the play on Broadway and on tour across the United States. Ruth Gordon, the main character, is a religious young woman who dies and is revived by her scientist fiancé as a soulless femme fatale. She seduces several men and involves them in crimes, including drug use and murder. In the final act, her death and resurrection are revealed to be a dream. The production starred Theda Bara, a popular silent film actress who was known for playing similar roles in movies.
Critics panned the play, ridiculing the plot, dialogue, and Bara's acting. Theater historian Ward Morehouse called it "one of the worst plays ever written". Bara's movie fame drew large crowds to theaters, and the play was a commercial success, breaking attendance records at some venues. Ruth Gordon was Bara's only Broadway role, and The Blue Flame was one of her last professional acting projects.
In the first act, irreligious scientist John Varnum has developed a device to bring the recently dead back to life. His sweet, religious fiancée, Ruth Gordon, does not approve of his experiments and hopes to reform him. When she is struck by lightning and killed, she becomes the first person to be revived by his machine. Before she is reanimated, the audience sees her soul visibly leave her body as the "blue flame" of the title. With no soul, the revived Ruth has an entirely different personality. Upon waking, she asks John for a kiss, then suggests they marry immediately so they can begin having sex.
In the second and third acts, Ruth seduces a young man named Larry Winston and steals him away from his fiancée. She takes Larry to New York's Chinatown, where she gets him hooked on cocaine and steals an emerald from an idol. She meets another young man, Ned Maddox, whom she seduces and kills for insurance money, framing another man for the murder. In the final act, Ruth's death and revival is revealed to be a dream John was having. Upon waking he understands the importance of the soul; he embraces religion and destroys his life-restoration device.
The characters and cast from the Broadway production are listed below:
|John Varnum||Alan Dinehart|
|Ah Foo||Jack Gibson|
|Ruth Gordon||Theda Bara|
|Cicely Varnum||Helen Curry|
|Larry Winston||Donald Gallaher|
|Quong Toy||Henry Herbert|
|Ned Maddox||Kenneth Hill|
|The Stranger||Earl House|
|Inspector Ryan||DeWitt C. Jennings|
|Nora Macree||Tessie Lawrence|
|Clarissa Archibald||Thais Lawton|
|Wung Ming||Robert Lee|
|Tom Dorgan||Harry Minturn|
|Ling Foo||Royal Stout|
Leta Vance Nicholson, a movie scenario writer, wrote the first version of The Blue Flame. She sold it to theatrical agent Walter C. Jordan, who had it rewritten by George V. Hobart and John Willard. Jordan paid the three writers $10,000 for their work (about $96,000 in 2018 dollars),[a] then resold the play to producer Albert H. Woods for $35,000.
Actress Theda Bara was one of the most popular stars of silent films. From her first leading role as "the Vampire" in the 1915 movie A Fool There Was, Bara had been typecast as a "vamp" or femme fatale who seduced and ruined innocent men.[b] Although she sometimes performed in films playing other types of roles, these were not as successful commercially as her "vamp" films. She played dozens of similar roles while contracted with Fox Film from 1915 to 1919.
After Bara's contract with Fox ended, Woods approached her about appearing in a play. She had performed on stage early in her career, working with touring companies and in summer stock, but had not performed on Broadway. Bara told a reporter that she was offered a few scripts to consider, and chose The Blue Flame (at that time titled The Lost Soul) because it allowed her to play two versions of the character, one good and the other bad. She also hoped moving to the stage would bring her new career opportunities. Woods gave Bara a lucrative contract. Each week she received a salary of $1500. This was considerably less than the $4000 per week she had earned in her last year with Fox, but Bara was also promised half the production's net profits. For example, the play's two-week run in Boston netted Bara $10,700. Woods also provided a finely appointed private railroad car to take her from city to city when the show toured.
Woods hired two directors, J. C. Huffman and W. H. Gilmore, to assist with the production. The production began with a series of preview performances in February 1920, appearing in Pittsburgh; Washington, D.C.; Stamford, Connecticut; and Chicago. The final performances before the Broadway premier were in Boston in early March.
While the show was still in previews, writer Owen Davis claimed the story had been lifted from his earlier play Lola, which had appeared briefly on Broadway in March 1911, then was adapted as a movie in 1914. He filed a lawsuit, but by the end of May it was settled with a cash payment to Davis.
The show opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre on March 15, 1920. It had a run of 48 performances and closed in late April. The show then continued to other cities on tour. The play was further promoted by the release of sheet music for a theme song, with Bara's image featured prominently on the cover. William Frederic Peters wrote the music and Ballard MacDonald wrote the lyrics for the song, which was published in April by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.
The tour closed on January 1, 1921. The Blue Flame was Bara's last Broadway performance and her last acting tour. She did a season of vaudeville touring, but did not act in it; instead she talked with audiences and told stories about her career. Her only subsequent stage acting was in a Little Theatre production of Bella Donna in 1934. Bara's film career was also waning. She acted in only one feature film after The Blue Flame ended, the 1925 drama The Unchastened Woman.
The play received overwhelmingly negative reviews, although some critics had minor compliments for Bara. Biographer Eve Golden described the reviews of Bara's acting as "nothing less than vicious", but the commentary about the play as a whole was even more negative. Variety expected Bara to draw audiences to the theater for at least a few weeks, but said opinions in the daily press were united about how bad the play was. In The New York Times, Alexander Woollcott mocked the dialogue, which included lines such as, "Have you brought the cocaine?" and "You make my heart laugh and I feel like a woman of the streets." Delivered seriously, this dialogue drew laughter from the audience. Woollcott highlighted one particular line: "I'm going to be so bad, I'll be remembered always." He said Bara was bad, but not bad enough to be memorable. He credited her for speaking clearly and for not losing her composure when the audience laughed at her. Other reviewers gave Bara similarly faint praise: she had "average competence" or "was not so bad". Some complimented her looks or her glamorous wardrobe.
Other reviewers were even more negative, condemning Bara along with the play generally. The theater critic for Munsey's Magazine quoted several negative reviews and compared Bara's acting unfavorably to that of drama school students. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle said she fulfilled the promise to be unforgettably bad, calling her acting "freakish". The Sun and New York Herald said Bara's acting was disappointing and the play was "abysmal in intelligence and all that touches the art of the theatre". In Ainslee's Magazine, Dorothy Parker said the play's authors had taken the line about being remembered for badness "as their working motto", and suggested the crowds at the performances were there to attack the playwrights. In the New-York Tribune, Heywood Broun suggested that the entire production company should fear the wrath of God for such a terrible play.
Historians and critics looking back on the play have affirmed the negative assessment. Biographer Ronald Genini called the play "painfully bad" and described the reviews as "a panning orgy". Theater historian Ward Morehouse described it as "one of the worst plays ever written". Literary critic Edward Wagenknecht said Bara's participation helped end her acting career. Golden wondered why Bara took the role, speculating that only "desperation and incredibly poor judgement" could have explained her participation.
Overall the play was a tremendous financial success; the previews broke attendance records. In Boston, the show sold out even after the addition of extra matinées. The first week on Broadway took in nearly $20,000, close to the maximum the Shubert Theatre could generate at normal prices. However, ticket sales fell off rapidly following the strongly negative reviews. Woods pre-sold four weeks of tickets to local ticket brokers, which helped the box office totals, but the brokers were left with unsold seats even after offering deep discounts. After leaving New York, the show returned to strong sales on the road.