Director’s Notes on The Royal Family

The simple three word phrase that inspired my selection of plays for 2015 has seemed more and more apt and meaningful each day of this special season for me – my 25th here at The Shakespeare Theatre.  Kith and Kin.  Those little words carry such vast significance and weight in the life of each and every human being, and for professions like mine, they seem to carry even greater significance, for no theatre artist can exist without the second family that forms around us by virtue of the nature of our work.  So, there seemed to me no better play than The Royal Family to launch this anniversary year.  Kaufman and Ferber’s grand, exuberant ode to the American theatre, and the wonderful tribe that “struts and frets” upon our stages, is a play that not only celebrates life in the theatre, but deals lovingly and frankly, with both the upside and downside of that existence.  And, like all great classics, the issues and themes contained within its pages transcend the particular circumstances of its colorful characters and speak to us all – both through its wild humor and through its more serious dilemmas.  What a great play about family this is – our blood families and those we gather round us over the course of our life and work – and how bubbling over it is with all the noise, distress, affection, competition, annoyance, jealousies, sadness, fun, and love that is part and parcel of each family unit on earth.  I’m sure you will see glimpses of your own family as you witness these three days in the life of the Cavendish clan as they “shout and murmer” together.

Cavendish and Barrymore

Though Kaufman and Ferber denied that the Cavendish family of the play was based on the very real and very famous Barrymore acting dynasty – one that ruled the American stage (and film) scene for decades — the similarities are too copious, and no one was fooled.  The Barrymore’s long and distinguished theatrical heritage had earned them the title “Royal Family of the American Show World” and that alone seemed to provide obvious evidence for the parallel. The Barrymore legacy began way back in the late 1700’s, though Louisa Lane (1820–1897) is credited with being the indomitable founder of the clan.  The Royal Family takes place in 1927, a time when three of the four most famous Barrymore’s were at the height of their careers – John, Ethel and Lionel.  John is depicted in The Royal Family by the character of Tony; and Ethel, by the character of Julie.  An exact equivalent for Lionel does not exist in the play, though aspects of him appear in other characters. The characters of Gwen, Oscar, Herbert and Kitty also have real-life Barrymore equivalents.  In actuality however, the history of the Barrymore’s is far more outrageous and scandal-laden than that of the Cavendish family, and scores of books have been written on the family and its individual members.  The Audience Guide on our website provides a list of books that one can seek out to discover more about the fascinating lives of this wild dynasty and their often tortured existence.  Suffice to say for these brief notes, that the Barrymore family was the first that provided the then emerging tabloids with ample fodder!

Kaufman and Ferber

Between 1921 and 1957, George S. Kaufman (1889–1961) collaborated on 41 plays with 14 different writers, earning himself the title “The Great Collaborator.”  Many of those plays were Broadway hits and he had unrivalled status on Broadway during the period between the two World Wars.  The drama critic Alexander Wolcott (who, along with Kaufman, was a founding member of the famous Algonquin Round Table) described Kaufman as “the first wit of his time.”  He collaborated with the Gershwin brothers on Of Thee I Sing and it won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a musical.  He received another Pulitzer in 1937 for You Can’t Take It With You, written in partnership with Moss Hart, with whom he also collaborated on The Man Who Came To Dinner.  Ferber and Kaufman initially met at the Algonquin Round Table.  When they decided to work together on The Royal Family, Ferber was concurrently working on a stage adaptation of her novel of Show Boat, which ended up opening on Broadway the night before The Royal Family opened on December 27, 1927.  Both Ferber and Kaufman began their writing careers on newspapers, but ultimately, both found their way to the stage.  Ferber also co-authored Stage Door and Dinner at Eight with Kaufman, and went on to write the novel Giant, from which the famous film was adapted, and in which James Dean played his last role. 

Production History

The play’s journey to Broadway was not an easy one.  There were numerous setbacks along the way, the most notable being the casting challenges.  The production was originally offered to John and Ethel Barrymore, but both refused (they were not happy about the play) and many other leading actresses turned the roles down in deference to Ethel.  Despite the troubles, the first Broadway production was a hit, running for 345 performances.  It was later adapted for the screen with Ina Claire.  The play opened in London in 1934 at the Lyric Theatre under the title of Theatre Royal, with Laurence Olivier as Tony, and was a huge hit in London as wellAn interesting tidbit for our New Jersey audiences is that in 1940, the Maplewood Theatre in Maplewood, NJ, commenced a one-week run of The Royal Family with Edna Ferber in the role of Fanny Cavendish.  Finally realizing her life-long desire to act, she ironically found the life of an actress far less exciting than she did when she first imagined their existence.  She later stated that she was “bored by the routine of coming down to the theatre nightly and twice on matinee days; making up, putting on and taking off those clothes; going on stage to say those same lines, night after night. [She said] of actors who play two years, three years in the long run of a successful play…pertrification must set in.”  At the end of the Maplewood run, Ferber never returned to the stage.

Topical References

There are many references in The Royal Family to people, products, conventions and places of the late 1920’s.  For example, The Lamb’s Club was a private club on West 44th Street, founded in 1874 as a refuge for actors and other members of the theatre world.  The Graphic refers to the New York Graphic, a well-known tabloid newspaper of the time.  “Pink lights” refers to the practice of using pink gel in the footlights, which helped make an actor appear younger.  For a complete list of topical references, check out our Audience Guide on our website at www.shakespearenj.org.