The Play's the Thing

Java has been reading a few plays to understand the filmmakers' adaptations. It's reverse engineering in a way, figuring out why the screenwriter left out this scene and kept that one, etc. It's fun.


As yours truly pointed out in a review of The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman (author of both the play and the screenplay), adds a few other characters to the film version. In this case, the most influential new character is David - the love interest of Alexandra Giddens.

Naive little Alexandra is meant to mature more than any other character in the story. She is meant to awaken to the fact that her family is irredeemably corrupt. In the play she does so through her own critical thinking. There's little doubt that she will forever examine herself and those around her instead of assuming that everything is fine.

Battling for Alexandra
In the film, however, the catalyst for her growth comes from the love interest. That's all well and good, but you wonder if Alexandra has actually matured in the film or simply switched from one Svengali - her domineering mother-  to another - her doctrinaire boyfriend.

Alexandra doesn't really need a boyfriend. David is, thus, superfluous. Was David added for that Hollywood "happily ever after" ending?   Most likely.

After buying The Seven Year Itch: A Romantic Comedy In Three Acts, I was bursting -Bursting!- to discover how they pull off those hilarious dream sequences on the stage.

The protagonist, Richard, is a Walter Mitty-like character - daydreaming about the grand things that could happen to him if only his life were different. In the film, Richard dreams that he has taken Burt Lancaster's place in that torrid love-affair-on-the-beach scene in From Here To Eternity. He later dreams that the woman upstairs doesn't have to open a door, the door simply disappears (from the power of her sultriness, I suppose) and she glides over the threshold. I knew these elaborate dream sequences  wouldn't be possible onstage.

So what do the theater actors do instead? Lots of descriptive dialogue, of course, secret entryways for the dream characters and something called "dream lighting" whenever the dream characters are on -a device which is left up to the imagination of whoever is putting on the play.

It's all very practical and intuitive. I don't know why I expected something more. Dry ice, perhaps. Doesn't matter.  The play is still funny.


Unlike onscreen, a play might end without all the romantic knots tied up with a nice, neat bow. 
In The Tender Trap, for instance, at the end of the play, Charlie, the protagonist, jilts his charming, long-time girlfriend, Sylvia for someone else. She makes a quip then exits. It might be more realistic, and it might be better theater, yet reading it leaves a slightly bitter taste in your mouth.

So I love it -love it!- when Celeste Holm's version of Sylvia in the MGM movie ends up with a man who matches her in sophistication and wit. You wonder why she even looks twice at that womanizer Charlie.

Sometimes when a film adapts a play and adds new characters the new roles seem flat and one-dimensional. Or if you later read the play, the stage version stands well without those extra players.

However, in Driving Miss Daisy, - a three-person play which features only the characters Daisy Werthan, her son and her chauffeur - I miss Esther Rolle's Idella - the maid in the movie. 

In the play, Idella is always just offstage and characters talk to her as they exit. However, I am so accustomed to her voice from the movie that I expected an offstage response. Nope. Doesn't happen.

When reading the play I miss Idella's wit. She seems to be the only character who isn't the least bit deceptive; she speaks for the audience. The most iconic scene in the film for me includes the slow motion shot of Idella's lap (and those sagging stockings) from which a bowl of green peas crashes to the black and white checkered floor in the kitchen. Just sums up the era, the place and the ubiquitous themes of age and death in the story.
More coarse language and activities are allowed to be used or suggested onstage than onscreen. Call me a prude, but I was stunned when in the stage version of The Seven Year Itch Richard has, without a doubt, slept with the girl next door while his wife is away.

To be frank, the rest of the play wasn't as funny to me after that point. Perhaps because I kept searching for a scene that suggests it was all a dream.  It wasn't.

There is no way that they did "it" in the movie, not even a little bit.


There is adultery in The Little Foxes as well. Horace Giddens, the dying husband of Regina Giddens who refuses to allow his wife to invest in corrupt business practices, has, in the play, actually fooled around with several women. This explains a good deal of the wife's anger towards him. As crooked as she is, the audience still pities her for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her  "wronged woman" status.

In the film, there's not a hint of adultery, plus, Herbert Marshall plays Horace with such nobility you cannot help but be on his side. Cheating on his wife in the play makes him a  much more complex character. Instead of the clear cut good vs.evil (as in the film), there is room for doubt as to just who has the moral high ground. No one has. Very interesting.


  1. Good for you. An intelligent and imaginative way to explore the craft of film/stage storytelling. It all starts on the page.

  2. It's always a pleasure to read your comments.
    Thank you for the retweets.

    - Java


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