October 13, 2010

Aldrich: no dramatic ambition

Today he is mostly known for his novel, The Story of a Bad Boy (based on his years in Louisiana), and his many poems, but Thomas Bailey Aldrich experimented in all types of writing. His first play, Judith and Holfernes, premiered at the Tremont Street Theatre in Boston on October 13, 1904.

Aldrich began writing the play to overcome his grief after the death of his son, Charles. Charles died of tuberculosis at the age of 34; the entire family had rallied around him, moving with him to Saranac Lake for treatment. Finding his home "crowded with ghosts," he met with the actress Nance O'Neil and her manager, the Canadian-born McKee Rankin. "Miss O'Neil... has fallen in love with my narrative poem 'Judith and Holofernes," he wrote in a letter, "which she desires me to dramatize for her." At the time, he doubted he would bother attempting the project, noting "I've no dramatic ambition, or ambition of any kind. If everything I have written should be absolutely obliterated I shouldn't cry."

Once it was finally performed, however, Aldrich was happy with his experiment as a playwright. To the star of his show, he wrote, "I am glad that I did so rash a thing as attempt to be a dramatist!"

A contemporary critic wrote that the Boston performance was "sumptuous" and, despite the demands of the audience, the playwright refused to speak on stage. Even so, the critic noted that, though it made a good dramatic poem, "it is not a great play." Later productions in New York were unsuccessful.

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