Professor David Mayer, Theatre Historian, on the poster for the play, Blue Jeans by Joseph Arthur.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
DM This is something that is instantly and universally intelligible. Joseph Arthur takes what in some respects are the standard cliches, things that are familiar with an American melodrama and orchestrates them into a very original work that holds the stage from its debut in 1890 well into the 20th Century. It’s that craftsmanship and what is accomplished by that craftsmanship that I find so satisfying. It is a melodrama and given that it is a melodrama, it is going to have a villain. Melodrama is invariably villain-led. But this is within a domestic framework, so the villain is a local in an Indiana town. The title of the play by the way, Blue Jeans, doesn’t refer to what they’re wearing. It refers to a district in southern Indiana on the Ohio River that is probably, to its shame now, absolutely saturated with Trump supporters. Joseph Arthur was born and lived much of his life in Rising Sun, Indiana, the setting of this drama. This is the first American play to work with a rural setting that instead of being located on the East Coast is set in the Midwest. So, by that very fact it is innovative, but it also has two plots that are very adroitly woven together.
You have a young man, the hero, Perry Bascom, who returns home to manage the family sawmill. Now the name Bascom has become a disgrace because of a previous man named Bascom eloping with a local girl. Perry encounters a young girl who has left the orphanage and is untutored in manners and civility. Indeed, her character grows out of an American tradition of the ‘hoydon’, a word that derives from the Dutch word for heathen. So, here is a girl from the orphanage, in the film she’s in men’s overalls that she’s taken from a scarecrow. Her name is June and she and Perry meet fall in love and marry, but Perry is accused of bigamy even though he is guiltless of it. But it takes a great deal of effort to free him of that charge.
Meanwhile, this girl who’s grown up rough, becomes more and more mature, more and more loving, more and more supportive, so that she is the one to rescue him. If you look at that poster, you see that the hero on the bed of a saw being pushed by the villain toward the whirling blade. But if you look to the left of that, standing in the door of the shop, where she’s been locked by the villain is June, and she becomes a heroine, bashing her way out of the office in which she’s been locked and rescuing her husband. This play marks a moment in feminism with a heroine who has agency. When this play is turned into a film, you begin to see how much feminism has taken a hold of America in 1917. You have the dual plot of the husband trying to free himself from these artificial entanglements, and the heroine, maturing, becoming supportive, then active and assertive and finally rescuing him.
What has also happened is that she is the daughter of a couple who eloped, and she gradually learns that the elderly couple who have taken her in are her grandparents. There’s a partial reconciliation, but the accusation of Bascom’s adultery with her causes them to reject her. But eventually, there is a reconciliation.
So, it’s the skill of that plot that’s beautiful. Now, the play also came about within another tradition of American theatre at this time, which is what we know as the “combination company”. America had experienced a depression, a financial crash with huge losses of major businesses, including the railways and many local theatres. The railways came to the theatres, and they said, look, you can probably only open one theatre in the town, but we’ll work out a way so that you can travel and carry the play with around. But because the variety theatre is gone, and the more serious theatre is struggling, you’d better think about including variety acts within the drama. So, this play has barbershop quartet and a local town band playing badly, but they constitute variety and so they are incorporated as well – and that’s enormously important. Melodrama is musical. Joseph Arthur is an astounding playwright, and he manages to bring all these elements together. And finally, he creates the scene that you see on the poster of the unconscious hero slowly moving towards the blade of the saw and that’s been copied in film right down to Bond films, where you see the hero – Bond – held down and menaced by an infernal machine.
GB Do you find the visual aesthetic of the poster beautiful or is it just because of its association with this incredible, incredibly clever play?
DM I think it is beautiful enough to hang it in our home. We have probably 100 posters in the house and that’s one of them. It’s the admiration of the skill, the dexterity, of bringing together these elements and creating an original and compelling drama of it. that I find beauty in. Yes, aesthetically, you know that it’s perhaps second rate. I first saw that poster when I had my first (I wouldn’t say legal drink), but my first drink in the company of my parents in 1945 in a bar in Aspen, Colorado. It was framed and on the wall. Obviously, it stayed with me. Even now you’ll find that image on T shirts, mugs and mousepads. Whether or not it meets the aesthetic qualifications for beauty, I can’t begin to really argue that point. In terms of its association with the play, I find it astonishingly beautiful and moving. In the reconciliation of June with her grandparents, the ability of this couple to stay together, I find there’s a romantic beauty. You might say that the word beautiful is being distorted, misused somehow or perhaps misapplied. But nonetheless, I will stand by it because I find the play so exquisite in its skill.
GB The sawmill scene is hard to watch, especially because the saw it’s not just going to chop off his head, it’s going to go vertically all the way through him. Do you not find it horrific?
DM It is horrific. The photograph below is the earliest photograph to survive that was made in a theatre and that was placed on an easel outside the theatre. You’d be sitting in an audience watching the belts go around and the blades turn, and obviously they had the rasp of the saw as it cut through wood. And before Perry is on the saw bed the villain pushes some piece of lumber through, obviously pre-cut and ready to fall apart, so that audiences believed the saw worked.
GB Do you think plays like this can ever make a comeback?
DM I don’t know. I’ve seen it done by amateurs. One of one of the problems about melodrama now is that there, although it’s still our language, we still see so many detective films, war films, all kinds of films that are melodramatic, but if you describe it as melodrama, it gets sent up – ridiculed. That’s a problem which I as a theatre historian encounter with some frequency; trying to say, look, this is still our language, we think this is a serious play. It is contrived and we do watch it, in part knowing that we’re going to see things work out. Look at what happened to Shakespeare’s plays in the in the Restoration era. There King Lear lives, and Cordelia marries Edgar. You have an impulse toward turning a dreadfully serious play into melodrama.
GB Do you think our notions of Camp have kind of ruined it for melodrama.
DM What there is in camp and in melodrama, is people assuming a kind of mental superiority to it. If you watch the Diehard films, for example, you don’t feel superior to the lurid plots until perhaps you think about it afterwards. It really couldn’t happen. But camp is an undermining of the work.
Because this play is an instantly and universally intelligible, that might be considered a flaw rather than a virtue. But 19th-century theatre is about being accessible, it’s about being one of the ubiquitous forms of entertainment. Every town had a theatre. I’ve repeatedly stressed that Blue Jeans is a melodrama and mentioned that works described as melodramas are subject to ridicule – as if there is something old fashioned, phoney and stagey about melodrama to which people can feel superior. But today we – individually and collectively as NATO and the UK and US – are attempting to find ways of reading the horrid tragedy of the Russo-Ukrainian war as a melodrama-in-progress. We want “a happy ending” with the triumph of the hero Zelenskyy and an absolute and humiliating defeat of the villain Putin. There is little doubt that there are, overall, thousands of personal tragedies in Ukraine, but we look to an overall pattern of justice restored, of good overcoming evil and seeing wickedness punished and permanently incapacitated and scorned.
GB Going back to the time when the play was put on, it’s like you say, it was the beginning of feminism. Now you look at the place where it’s set and it’s full of Trump supporters, and they’re probably not the greatest feminists in the world. It seems to represent a time of hope.
DM The feminism of the film is much more overt than that of the play. Of course, the film follows on from women being employed in factories and so forth during the First World War. But the very fact that you see her breaking through that window, the word that is so often used now with feminism is agency. She has agency. Part of the play is her discovery of agency. She changes. There’s an evolution in her character. The hero, not as much. He’s simply a good romantic man, with good intentions and good behaviour, but she is something again. She comes from a dreadful background and develops a real compassion and real agency. And I found find that very moving.
GB I was assuming that you’ve found beauty in this because you’re such a specialist in it, because you’re because you’re an academic and it holds so much meaning for you. But you would think that people at the time found beauty in this? Would you think people nowadays would find beauty in this?
DM I would hope so. Helen and I went to George Eastman House in Upstate New York where they have a huge archive and looked at the films for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival’s programme. What we found is how much people were moved by the film. I’d expected to be moved, but my daughters who knew nothing about it were also moved. Maybe it’s the triumph of this girl, the development of this girl who comes from when you first see in the scarecrows overalls to a woman who has the courage and the power and the love to save her husband. I find beauty in that.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
DM I would say my range of beauty is rather substantial. I’ve been reading Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography and his description of the Medici salt cellar. That’s a kind of beauty, but I wouldn’t want to have it in my house. Part of beauty for me is the uniqueness, the singularity of it. Part of it is the vision, of somebody else’s view of the world that I can respond to because they’ve created something that I couldn’t begin to imagine. They’ve startled me. They’ve brought something to me that is unique. It is it is theirs, but there’s some mechanism through which I respond to it. It’s not mine. Beauty is for me, altogether external. It sits at a distance from me, I have to encounter it.