Although not as well known as some of his more famous contemporaries, John van Druten, a British-born playwright and director, produced in his short 56 years a body of work that left a lasting legacy to modern theatre and film. Indeed, as the author of The Voice of the Turtle, he holds claim to having written the 9th-longest running show in Broadway history. If this weren’t enough, his play I Am A Camera, in conjunction with the stories of Christopher Isherwood, became the inspiration for the hit musical Cabaret. And then there’s the heartwarming I Remember Mama (also filmed), and the beloved comedy Bell, Book and Candle (later a film starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak), that also featured the mischievous cat Pyewacket. This comic masterpiece is considered by many to have been the inspiration for the 1960s television series Bewitched.
Originally a lawyer, van Druten entered the world of the stage with no small bit of notoriety. His first work, Young Woodley, was banned in London in 1925 by the Lord Chamberlain's office both for its critique of the public school system and for its depiction of the romantic entanglements of a young man who falls in love with an older, married woman. Once the ban was lifted, it did enjoy a successful run and was made into a film in 1930. It was not the first time van Druten would court controversy, as his 1940s hit The Voice of the Turtle also challenged rigid social and sexual mores and shocked some audiences, though not enough to keep them from coming in record numbers.
Upon moving to America, he continued his prolific ways, scoring hits in New York along with film adaptations both of his own works and of other playwrights (van Druten did the screenplay for the classic Ingrid Bergman thriller, Gaslight).
His plays were always witty and humane explorations of the human condition, and the foibles that drive us to make decisions that would make objective observers blush. But van Druten was no polemicist, preferring to draw out the problems of modern life through rich and evocative characterization.
As the legendary American theatre writer and anthologist John Gassner commented in 1947, “Mr. van Druten happens to be one of those playwrights who do not evoke lengthy critical ponderings. This is the case because instead of heaving with the world’s problems and proffering political or philosophical comment, he has been content to study people and mores, and to set them down for what they are rather than for what they may be worth as symbols….he has always been an acute observer and a master of civilized dialogue. Since there is never a superabundance of these qualities in the American theatre, America has welcomed him.”
The Classic Theatre Festival welcomes the opportunity to perform the work of this masterful yet somewhat underappreciated playwright whose life was, unfortunately, cut so short at the height of his creativity.