THE PRODUCTION OF EUGENE BRIEUX'S PLAY, "LES AVARIES," OR, TO GIVE IT ITS ENGLISH TITLE, "DAMAGED GOODS," HAS INITIATED A MOVEMENT IN THIS COUNTRY WHICH MUST BE REGARDED AS EPOCH-MAKING.
–New York Times
My endeavor has been to tell a simple story, preserving as closely as possible the spirit and feeling of the original. I have tried, as it were, to take the play to pieces, and build a novel out of the same material. I have not felt at liberty to embellish M. Brieux's ideas, and I have used his dialogue word for word wherever possible. Unless I have mis-read the author, his sole purpose in writing LES AVARIES was to place a number of most important facts before the minds of the public, and to drive them home by means of intense emotion. If I have been able to assist him, this bit of literary carpentering will be worth while. I have to thank M. Brieux for his kind permission to make the attempt, and for the cordial spirit which he has manifested.
DAMAGED GOODS was first presented in America at a Friday matinee on March 14th, 1913, in the Fulton Theater, New York, before members of the Sociological Fund. Immediately it was acclaimed by public press and pulpit as the greatest contribution ever made by the Stage to the cause of humanity. Mr. Richard Bennett, the producer, who had the courage to present the play, with the aid of his co-workers, in the face of most savage criticism from the ignorant, was overwhelmed with requests for a repetition of the performance.
Before deciding whether of not to present DAMAGED GOODS before the general public, it was arranged that the highest officials in the United States should pass judgment upon the manner in which the play teaches its vital lesson. A special guest performance for members of the Cabinet, members of both houses of Congress, members of the United States Supreme Court, representatives of the Diplomatic corps and others prominent in national life was given in Washington, D.C.
Although the performance was given on a Sunday afternoon (April 6, 1913), the National Theater was crowded to the very doors with the most distinguished audience ever assembled in America, including exclusively the foremost men and women of the Capital. The most noted clergymen of Washington were among the spectators.
The result of this remarkable performance was a tremendous endorsement of the play and of the manner in which Mr. Bennett and his co-workers were presenting it.
This reception resulted in the continuance of the New York performances until mid-summer and is responsible for the decision on the part of Mr. Bennett to offer the play in every city in America where citizens feel that the ultimate welfare of the community is dependent upon a higher standard of morality and clearer understanding of the laws of health.
The WASHINGTON POST, commenting on the Washington performance, said:
The play was presented with all the impressiveness of a sermon; with all the vigor and dynamic force of a great drama; with all the earnestness and power of a vital truth.
In many respects the presentation of this dramatization of a great social evil assumed the aspects of a religious service. Dr. Donald C. Macleod, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, mounted the rostrum usually occupied by the leader of the orchestra, and announced that the nature of the performance, the sacredness of the play, and the character of the audience gave to the play the significance of a tremendous sermon in behalf of mankind, and that as such it was eminently fitting that a divine blessing be invoked. Dr. Earle Wilfley, pastor of the Vermont Avenue Christian Church, asked all persons in the audience to bow their heads in a prayer for the proper reception of the message to be presented from the stage. Dr. MacLeod then read the Bernard Shaw preface to the play, and asked that there be no applause during the performance, a suggestion which was rigidly followed, thus adding greatly to the effectiveness and the seriousness of the dramatic portrayal.
The impression made upon the audience by the remarkable play is reflected in such comments as the following expressions voiced after the performance:
RABBI SIMON, OF THE WASHINGTON HEBREW CONGREGATION–If I could preach from my pulpit a sermon one tenth as powerful, as convincing, as far-reaching, and as helpful as this performance of DAMAGED GOODS must be, I would consider that I had achieved the triumph of my life.
COMMISSIONER CUNO H. RUDOLPH–I was deeply impressed by what I saw, and I think that the drama should be repeated in every city, a matinee one day for father and son and the next day for mother and daughter.
REV. EARLE WILFLEY–I am confirmed in the opinion that we must take up our cudgels in a crusade against the modern problems brought to the fore by DAMAGED GOODS. The report that these diseases are increasing is enough to make us get busy on a campaign against them.
SURGEON GENERAL BLUE–It was a most striking and telling lesson. For years we have been fighting these condition in the navy. It is high time that civilians awakened to the dangers surrounding them and crusaded against them in a proper manner.
MRS. ARCHIBALD HOPKINS–The play was a powerful presentation of a very important question and was handled in a most admirable manner. The drama is a fine entering wedge for this crusade and is bound to do considerable good in conveying information of a very serious nature.
MINISTER PEZET, OF PERU–There can be no doubt but that the performance will have great uplifting power, and accomplish the good for which it was created. Fortunately, we do not have the prudery in South America that you of the north possess, and have open minds to consider these serious questions.
JUSTICE DANIEL THEW WRIGHT–I feel quite sure that DAMAGED GOODS will have considerable effect in educating the people of the nature of the danger that surrounds them.
SENATOR KERN, OF INDIANA–There can be no denial of the fact that it is time to look at the serious problems presented in the play with an open mind.
Brieux has been hailed by Bernard Shaw as "incomparably the greatest writer France has produced since Moliere," and perhaps no writer ever wielded his pen more earnestly in the service of the race. To quote from an article by Edwin E. Slosson in the INDEPENDENT:
Brieux in not one who believes that social evils are to be cured by laws and yet more laws. He believes that most of the trouble is caused by ignorance and urges education, public enlightenment and franker recognition of existing conditions. All this may be needed, but still we may well doubt its effectiveness as a remedy. The drunken Helot argument is not a strong one, and those who lead a vicious life know more about its risks than any teacher or preacher could tell them. Brieux also urges the requirement of health certificates for marriage, such as many clergymen now insist upon and which doubtless will be made compulsory before long in many of our States.
Brieux paints in black colors yet is no fanatic; in fact, he will be criticised by many as being too tolerant of human weakness. The conditions of society and the moral standards of France are so different from those of America that his point of view and his proposals for reform will not meet with general acceptance, but it is encouraging to find a dramatist who realizes the importance of being earnest and who uses his art in defense of virtue instead of its destruction.
Other comments follow, showing the great interest manifested in the play and the belief in the highest seriousness of its purpose:
There is no uncleanness in facts. The uncleanness is in the glamour, in the secret imagination. It is in hints, half-truths, and suggestions the threat to life lies.
This play puts the horrible truth in so living a way, with such clean, artistic force, that the mind is impressed as it could possibly be impressed in no other manner.
Best of all, it is the physician who dominates the action. There is no sentimentalizing. There is no weak and morbid handling of the theme. The doctor appears in his ideal function, as the modern high-priest of truth. Around him writhe the victims of ignorance and the criminals of conventional cruelty. Kind, stern, high-minded, clear-headed, yet human-hearted, he towers over all, as the master.
This is as it should be. The man to say the word to save the world of ignorant wretches, cursed by the clouds and darkness a mistaken modesty has thrown around a life-and-death instinct, is the physician.
The only question is this: Is this play decent? My answer is that it is the decentest play that has been in New York for a year. It is so decent that it is religious.
The play is, above all, a powerful plea for the tearing away of the veil of mystery that has so universally shrouded this subject of the penalty of sexual immorality. It is a plea for light on this hidden danger, that fathers and mothers, young men and young women, may know the terrible price that must be paid, not only by the generation that violates the law, but by the generations to come. It is a serious question just how the education of men and women, especially young men and young women, in the vital matters of sex relationship should be carried on. One thing is sure, however. The worst possible way is the one which has so often been followed in the past–not to carry it on at all but to ignore it.
It (DAMAGED GOODS) is, of course, a masterpiece of "thesis drama,"–an argument, dogmatic, insistent, inescapable, cumulative, between science and common sense, on one side, and love, of various types, on the other. It is what Mr. Bernard Shaw has called a "drama of discussion"; it has the splendid movement of the best Shaw plays, unrelieved–and undiluted–by Shavian paradox, wit, and irony. We imagine that many audiences at the Fulton Theater were astonished at the play's showing of sheer strength as acted drama. Possibly it might not interest the general public; probably it would be inadvisable to present it to them. But no thinking person, with the most casual interest in current social evils, could listen to the version of Richard Bennett, Wilton Lackaye, and their associates, without being gripped by the power of Brieux's message.
It is a wonder that the world has been so long in getting hold of this play, which is one of France's most valuable contributions to the drama. Its history is interesting. Brieux wrote it over ten years ago. Antoine produced it at his theater and Paris immediately censored it, but soon thought better of it and removed the ban. During the summer of 1910 it was played in Brussels before crowded houses, for then the city was thronged with visitors to the exposition. Finally New York got it last spring and eugenic enthusiasts and doctors everywhere have welcomed it.
A letter to Mr. Bennett from Dr. Hills, Pastor of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn.
23 Monroe Street Bklyn. August 1, 1913.
Mr. Richard Bennett, New York City, N.Y. My Dear Mr. Bennett:
During the past twenty-one years since I entered public life, I have experienced many exciting hours under the influence of reformer, orator and actor, but, in this mood of retrospection, I do not know that I have ever passed through a more thrilling, terrible, and yet hopeful experience than last evening, while I listened to your interpretation of Eugene Brieux' "DAMAGED GOODS."
I have been following your work with ever deepening interest. It is not too much to say that you have changed the thinking of the people of our country as to the social evil. At last, thank God, this conspiracy of silence is ended. No young man who sees "Damaged Goods" will ever be the same again. If I wanted to build around an innocent boy buttresses of fire and granite, and lend him triple armour against temptation and the assaults of evil, I would put him for one evening under your influence. That which the teacher, the preacher and the parent have failed to accomplish it has been given to you to achieve. You have done a work for which your generation owes you an immeasurable debt of gratitude.
I shall be delighted to have you use my Study of Social Diseases and Heredity in connection with your great reform.
With all good wishes, I am, my dear Mr. Bennett, Faithfully yours,
Newell Dwight Hillis