Christopher Durang

Full Length Plays

A History of the American Film


A History of the American Film had its Broadway premiere on March 30, 1978 at the ANTA Theatre (now called The Virginia).  Produced by Richard S. Bright and Judith Gordon, it was directed by David Chambers; music by Mel Marvin; lyrics by Christopher Durang; scenery by Tony Straiges; lighting by William Mintzer; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; musical staging by Graciela Daniele.  The cast was:


...............................  April Shawhan
Jimmy ...............................  Gary Bayer
Bette ...............................  Swoosie Kurtz
Hank ...............................  Brent Spiner
Eve ...............................  Joan Pape

The Contract Players:

Ma Joad, Blessed Mother, etc  ...............................  Maureen Anderman
Michael O’Reilly, Salad Chef, etc  ...............................  Walter Bobbie 
Mickey, Newsboy, etc  ...............................  Jeff Brooks
Edward Mortimer, Victor Henreid, etc  ...............................  Bryan Clark
Pa Joad, Abdhul, etc  ...............................  David Cromwell
Minstrel, Sailor, etc  ...............................  David Garrison
Piano Man, Viola, etc  ...............................  Ben Halley, Jr
Allison Mortimer, Ma O’Reilly  ...............................  Kate McGregor-Stewart
God, Telegram Boy, etc   ...............................  Eric Weitz
Clara Mortimer, Silent Movie Mother  ...............................  Mary Catherine Wright


The title sounds serious, but the show is playful and funny. It’s full of music and madcap comedy and movie parody. It helps if you’re a movie buff. But even if you’re not, you can have fun with the crazy comedy in this play.

loretta young.jpg (18581 bytes)It follows the stories of 5 archetypal Hollywood characters – Loretta the good girl, Jimmy the tough guy, Bette the tough gal, Hank the good guy, and Eve the wisecracking friend – as their lives crash through American history and American film styles. (The prototypes are Loretta Young, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Eve Arden.)

The story – in which characters die only to show up again later, just fine – dashes through four decades and has several songs, including the falling-in-love song Shanty Town Romance, the speakeasy song They Can’t Prohibit Love, the Busby Berkeley extravaganza We’re in a Salad, the provocative nightclub song Euphemism for Sale, and the World War II celebration song Apple Blossom Victory.

The many supporting roles (nearly 60) are divvied up among 8 actors (or more if you want). In Hollywood movies from the 30s and 40s, the same person often played the same kind of role in movie after movie: Spring Byington was always the warm mother, Paul Henreid was the suave European, Edna May Oliver was the eccentric, oppionated old aunt, S.Z. Sakall was the adorable, soft-hearted boss. So all the supporting roles are split among the so-called Contract Players (since the major studios kept everybody under contract), and the actors double like crazy.

james cagney.jpg (7997 bytes) bette davis yunggd.jpg (20781 bytes) Fonda good.jpg (48335 bytes) evearden.jpg (5148 bytes)
James Cagney Bette Davis Henry Fonda Eve Arden

This play had a long history getting to Broadway. It was first presented in summer 1976 at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, directed by Peter Mark Schifter, music by Jack Gaughan, and featuring Cynthia Herman as Loretta, Jerry Zaks as Jimmy, Gale Garnett as Bette, Richard Backus as Hank, Dianne Wiest as Eve, Bryan Clark as Victor Henreid, Robert Christian as Piano Man/Viola, Jo Henderson as Blessed Mother, Gary Bayer as Mickey, Cara Duff McCormack as Clara.

The play then had an unsual “triple premiere,” presented by three major regional theatres with staggered openings in February, March and April at the Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, Connecticut, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

At the Hartford Stage, the play was directed by Paul Weidner, music by Jack Gaughan, and featured Cynthia Herman as Loretta, Jerry Zaks as Jimmy, Alice White as Bette, Stephen Stout as Hank, Mary McTigue as Eve, Jeff Brooks as Jimmy, Mel Johnson, Jr. as Piano Man/Viola, Dan Diggles as Michael O’Reilly, Veronica Castang as Clara, Ann Shropshire as Allison, Ted Graeber as Edward, 
Ruth Maynard as Ma Joad, David O. Peterson as Pa Joad/God.

At the Mark Taper Forum, the play was directed by Mark Peter Schifter, music by Murray Grand, and music by Jack Gaughan; and featured Udana Power as Loretta, Robert Waldron as Jimmy, June Gable as Bette, Rick Lenz as Hank, Teri Ralston as Eve, Lu Leonard as Allison Mortimer/Blessed Mother, Frank O’Brien as Michael O’Reilly, James Gleason as Mickey, Alice Playten as Clara, Barry Dennen as Victor Henreid, Roger Robinson as Piano Man/Viola, Jane Connell as Ma Joad/Ma O’Reilly, Gordon Connell as God/Fritz von Leffing.

At the Arena Stage, the play was directed by David Chambers, music by Mel Marvin, and featured April Shawhan as Loretta, Gary Bayer as Jimmy, Swoosie Kurtz as Bette, Terry Quinn as Hank, Joan Pape as Eve, Leslie Cass as Allison, Halo Wines as Ma Joad/Blessed Mother, Chuck Patterson as Piano Man/Viola, Richard Bauer as Abdhul/Pa Joad, Stanley Anderson as Victor Henreid, Terrence Currier as Edward, Jobeth Williams as Clara, Lance Davis as Mickey, Christopher McHale as Michael O’Reilly, Howard Witt as Fritz von Leffing, David Garrison and Eric Weitz in various roles.

For the Broadway production Durang was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical.  And Swoosie Kurtz won a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of Bette.

Some reviews included:

The only fair word for Christopher Durang’s “A History of the American Film” is “mythic.” The tone is satiric but affectionate.  It is a tour de force of writing. 
Clive Barnes, New York Times (on Hartford Stage Co. production)

…youthful playwright Christopher Durang has accomplished what I’d have thought was impossible: The crafting of an intelligent, noncampy, cleverly constructed spoof of the way our movies have mirrored – and perhaps molded – our modes and moods these past six decades.  … As Loretta, Udana Power…is as fresh and pretty and perplexed and sexy as any of the legion of leading ladies she is called upon to spoof.” 
     – Dick Lochte, Los Angeles Magazine (on Mark Taper Forum production)

…Christopher Durang has written one of the funniest, zaniest, most entertaining plays of the last decade.  …What we see is the American way of life reflected through a distortion mirror.  … It’s true that Durang has serious points to make…but this is no message play, thank goodness.  Most everything in it is pure, unadulterated, uproarious fun. And  the Mark Taper cast is uniformly excellent.  …[Durang’s] witty comedy about the movies is a splendid, constantly surprising treat.  
Stanley Eichelbaum, San Francisco Examiner (on Mark Taper production)

…a grand popular entertainment. …a significant act of film criticism as well as wise social commentary.  Mr. Durang has the waggishness of four Marxes and the malice of Jonathan Swift.  Through the history of the American film, we see a history of America – the turn from patriotism to cynicism, from optimism to sensationalism. …The clown-sharp company of comic actors strikes precisely the correct stance – total conviction and not camp.   … As Loretta and Bette, April Shawhan and Swoosie Kurtz are, quite simply, adorable.  Guided by Mr. Durang, Chuck Patterson offers his own concise history of the American film Negro – leaping, with the panache of a Richard Pryor, from a back-talking maid to a Japanese house boy to sitting bull of an Indian to a soft-soaping “Piano Man” in “Casablanca.”  “A History of the American Film” is an A-movie, a glorious montage of myth-America.
Mel Gussow, New York Times  (on Arena Stage production)

…this is a deep and powerful work which also happens, almost as an after-thought, to be extraordinarily funny.  This isn’t just another funny movie play; it is a disturbing, wonderfully observant essay on how Movieland’s distorted truths have become national ideals. …a stupendous piece of social satire behind a front of wild hilarity. 
Alan Rich, New York Magazine (on Arena Stage production)

The Story:

The play reflects the changes in American self-image from the early 1930s up through the 1970s. (Note: Durang did an updating of the ending for a Juilliard production in 1995, which takes the material more or less up to the late 90s. This rewrite is only published in the Smith and Kraus book Christopher Durang – Complete Full Length Plays, 1975-1995.)

Loretta starts out as a pathetic orphan girl in the opening silent section of the play (acted with titles and piano underscoring). She then finds herself in the Depression, where tough guy Jimmy takes her under his wing and they fall in love. (Song: Shanty Town Romance

However, Jimmy’s gun moll girlfriend Bette shows up, and isn’t too pleased to meet Loretta. Jimmy deserts Loretta, and she tracks him down to a sleazy speakeasy where she explains what she wants out of life by reciting the Production Code (all evil doers must be punished; there must be no themes of incest or white slavery; a bed scene must always have at least one foot on the floor). 

Jimmy, though, is killed by gangsters; and Loretta is nightmarishly mistaken for his killer, and is sentenced to a chain gang.

Loretta and sweet Hank (like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath) escape the chain gang, and are picked up by a wealthy family from a screwball comedy who are on a scavenger hunt. So the tone of depression and gangster are gone, and now Loretta is in a nutty comedy with heiresses and people acting silly, and she doesn’t like it one bit. (“I hate screwball comedies!” she screams.) Then Jimmy shows up – he’s alive after all (“they just nicked me”) and now he’s married to Bette, who’s become like Jean Harlow.

As the play goes on, Jimmy dies several times, but keeps coming back to life. And Loretta goes to Hollywood and joins a Busby Berkeley musical (song: We’re in a Salad), but breaks a leg. Then World War II happens and everyone gets noble, and goes off to Casablanca for a while. Then there’s the first atom bomb; and in the postwar period, Jimmy and Loretta become troubled - he becomes a motorcycle punk (like Marlon Brando), she becomes an alcoholic (like Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow), and they keep struggling and struggling to find the happiness they used to have back in Shanty Town.

The play ends with all the characters watching The Ten Commandments in a movie theatre, while their identities keep changing as they try to figure out who they are or want to be, until the disaster films of the 70s cause the movie theatre to fall apart due to an earthquake. And Loretta, Jimmy, Hank, Bette and Eve crawl out of the rubble, and sing a song about planning how to rebuild for the future.

The plot description may sound torturous; and it does help if you know movies (or watch Turner Classic Movies). But the tone of the play is lighthearted, and usually is successful with audiences.

Durang rewrote the final scene with some updates.  For more information Click on Essay on Updating

Cast size: 7 men, 6 women (1 male character is black)
Rights: Samuel French


photo by Martha Swope

photo by Steven Keull

photo by George de Vincent
 Wright and Halley, Jr.
(Broadway Production)
(bottom) Playten, Connell,
(top) Robinson, Gable
(Mark Taper Forum)

Bayer and Shawhan
 (Arena Stage)

click images to enlarge

photo by George de Vincent

photo by Martha Swope

Photo at left:

Top: Mary Catherine Wright, David Cromwell, Maureen Anderman, Jeff Brooks, Eric Weitz, 
David Garrison, Joan Pape, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Ben Halley, Jr., Brent Spiner.  

Bottom: Walter Bobbie, Swoosie Kurtz, Gary Bayer, April Shawhan, Bryan Clark.

Kurtz and Bayer
Bette needs an Exorcist
(Arena Stage)
Curtain Call
(Broadway Production)

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