Changing a play’s ending in the final rehearsals

by carl on August 21, 2011

When Jan de Hartog wrote the first draft of his Tony-award-winning play The Four Poster, he was in hiding from the German occupation in Holland in a room with a four poster bed.

The play was written to record his dream of a married life he was sure he would never live to enjoy: the escape route he was to take from Holland to England during the Second World War had an 80 per cent casualty rate. The play portrayed the passions and the conflicts of a married couple over the course of 35 years. De Hartog later wrote that he was astonished when one married man came up to him and told him ,“You must have had a microphone under my bed.”

Yesterday, when de Hartog’s widow Marjorie spoke to the audience after the Saturday matinee of the play, part of the Classic Theatre Festival in Perth, Ontario, she said that her husband had the uncanny knack of knowing things that a writer is not supposed to know.

Yet the success of the play was long in coming. An earlier run of the play in London had bombed, and when the Broadway production was in rehearsal in 1951, the pre-Broadway run was in trouble. Somehow, the audiences were not moved. The company flew de Hartog from Europe to the United States in hopes that he could rescue the production. After several days of working with the play and the company, the playwright agreed to change his ending.

In his first draft, the wife had died early and her spirit came back to haunt her husband in a Blythe-Spirit style. In time for the New York run, De Hartog kept the character alive and set the final act on the day that the couple moved out of the house where they had raised their children.

The metamorphosis of the play was something is was only possible in theatre. While an editor, a spouse or a stranger can read the draft of a novel or a short story, there is never the do-or-die moment of an out-of-town preview to give the writer a second chance to fix a major problem with his draft.

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