If Elmer Rice’s latest play, “Between Two Worlds,” which is now housed at the ancient and faintly dusty-smelling Belasco Theatre, is not a success much of the loss will be the public’s. Rice is at his best in this semi-serious drama of the young Communist and the rich American girl and at his best Rice is a playwright who has few equals.
In “Between Two Worlds” Rice is at once a propagandist a dramatist and a fine showman. He has written for this piece some of the best dialogue I have heard this season and that concerned with a fine cast and intelligent directing, makes the play something to be remembered.
“Street Scene” and “Counsellor-at-Law” were Rice’s most successful works. In both he set down before the eyes of his audiences transcripts of life as we know it. His characters were created from reality and not entirely from the mind. We could understand these people and feel with them. Recently Mr. Rice has become convinced that the stage should be used to show the injustice of our social and political system. In “We The People” and in “Judgment Day” he pointed directly at some of the more glaring weaknesses in our way of treating other human beings. Both these plays screamed their message, in fact so loud was the shouting that a good idea of the effectiveness was lost, but in “Between Two Worlds” he has done a more subtle and hence a better job.
“Between Two Worlds” is a three-act play with nine scenes, although the same set is used in all the scenes. The action takes place on the deck of a trans-Atlantic ocean liner while it makes the trip from New York to Europe. The charactersâ€”there are forty of themâ€”are brought together in the ship’s bar and they are typical of the people you meet aboard ship. All the types are present; the stupid Hollywood movie star and her educated but browbeaten Negro maid, the man-about-town a Russian princess whose family was shot by the Bolsheviks, the impotent son of a once wealthy man who writes verse nobody reads, a too clever advertising man who realizes what he stands for is worthless, the gay but inane ship’s officers, a rich American girl and a Communist movie director who after six months in America is returning to Russia.
Joseph Schildkraut, who plays the role of the intense Communist and who thinks only in terms of Communist ideology, and Rachel Hartzell as the rich young American girl both give brilliant, intelligent and sharp performances. It is their affair around which the play revolves. At first the American girl will not speak to him because she is a friend of the Princess, but the Communist is ruthless. He breaks down her reserve and shows her she is a silly snob afraid to face reality. He finally, by appealing to her sense of justice, arouses her interest and awakens within her a sense of social consciousness. By playing on her ego he seduces this virgin, only to tell her, when she tries to explain her consent was meaningless, that he too considered it but an unimportant incident. Both know they are deluding themselves and he finds he has fallen in love with her but finally realizes that to a Communist there are many women but only one Party and his duty is to the Revolution. He allows her to go off and marry the advertising man.
In addition to this motif there are many side-lights: the love of the princess for the poet and the tragedy of their affair; the advertising man’s dissatisfaction with his life and his love for the American girl; the widow and her fierce desire to have a good time. All these things become under the capable hands of Mr. Rice an integral part of this stirring and entirely absorbing drama.
“Between Two Worlds” is a significant play in the light of the present day tendencies of dramatic criticism. A play such as Kaufman’s and Hart’s “Merrily We Roll Along” receives an enthusiastic and almost reverent reception from the press. It is labeled clever, brilliant, dramatic, unusual and entertaining.
Compare it with Rice’s playâ€”certainly his dialogue is brighter, his characters more clearly drawn, his wise-cracks more penetrating, but Rice is not satisfied with cleverness and sophistication for its own sake. When he makes his characters indulge in wisecracks he shows what is behind this petty cynicismâ€”nothing but an escape and an unwillingness to look at the problems of life.
Yet most of the reviewers sniff disdainfully at Rice’s effortsâ€” they pat him on the back lightly with one hand while with the other they deliver blows in the form of derogatory terms, stating he is verbose, a trifle dull, rambling propagandistic, etc.
Mr. Rice makes his audience think. He drives them out of their complacency, he makes them evaluate their ideas. To most dramatic critics these are the cardinal sins. They insist that the first test of drama is entertainment, and that vague term had become to mean either something sentimental or decadently smart.
No doubt there is room for that sort of play but certainly in these turbulent times there are other, more important plays that deserve a hearing and a sympathetic welcome, especially when, like this play they are well acted, cleverly directed and brilliantly written.