By Elmer Rice
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Drama, four acts.
Produced in New York at the Candler Theatre by George Cohan and Sam Harris, August 19, 1914, directed by Arthur Hopkins. 365 performances.
STRICKLAND, THE DEFENDANT (Frederick Perry)
STRICKLAND'S DAUGHTER (Constance Wolfe)
STRICKLAND'S WIFE (Mary Ryan)
WIFE'S FATHER (Thomas Findlay)
TRASK, THE DEAD MAN (Frederick Truesdell)
TRASK'S WIDOW (Helene Lackaye)
GLOVER, TRASK'S SECRETARY (Hans Robert)
A NEWS AGENT (J. Wallace Clinton)
A HOTEL PROPRIETOR (Lawrence Eddinger)
A PHYSICIAN (George Barr)
A MAID (Florence Walcott)
A WAITER (John Adams)
THE JUDGE (Frank Young)
THE CLERK (John Klendon)
THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY (William Walcott)
THE DEFENDANT'S COUNSEL (Gardner Crane)
THE COURT STENOGRAPHER (J.M. Brooks)
THE COURT ATTENDANTS (Charles Walt and James Herbert)
THE JURY (Howard Hall: Foreman, R.A. Thayer, Robert Dudley, Edmund Purdy, Harry Friend, Arthur Tobell, Nat Levitt, Samuel Reichner, J.H. Matthews, Anson Adams, Joseph McKenna and George Spivins)
Elmer (Reizenstein) Rice (1892-1967) was born in New York and graduated from New York Law School in 1912. He practiced law before turning to theatre, and his theatre career spanned 40 years with more than 20 plays on Broadway. "On Trial" was his first drama. Rice's skill in writing expressionistic drama was praised in his play "The Adding Machine" (1923). In 1929, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play "Street Scene." He served as regional director of the Federal Theatre Project and was one of the founders of the Playwrights' Company.
This play covers the course of a trial through its use of flashbacks. Strickland is on trial, accused of murdering Trask. Allegedly Strickland repaid a $10,000 loan to Trask, then returned to Trask's home later to steal the money. Supposedly when Trask caught Strickland, Strickland killed him.
In the interim, Strickland's wife is missing, and when she appears, she admits that Trask had seduced her years ago. She claims that on the night of Trask's murder she had gone to him to convince him to keep her past a secret. She also denies killing him.
Trask's secretary, Glover, gives conflicting statements and he eventually admits he stole the money, but he denies killing Trask. At the culmination of the trial, Strickland is found not guilty.
This potboiler-themed play is considered a "pivotal" drama because it is one of the first to depict an entire trial, and the first to use flashback scenes. This technique was found in cinema at that time. The play's very structure was a milestone for its period, and exhibited the coexistence between theatre and film, a sharing of dramatic styles.
The production was during the season of 1914-1915, during the Great War, later known as the First World War, so it is curious that the theatregoing public was receptive of a sober-minded play. Perhaps the promise of witnessing a sensational trial on stage and the hook of the flashback method overrode the public's doubt about attending a serious play. Another relevant sign of the times was that the play's jury was of course, all men.
A notable fact: the play's original incarnation was very different from what finally appeared on stage. Director Arthur Hopkins had Rice perform several rewrites to this play, which had been originally titled "According to the Evidence," and was about conflicting Kentucky mountaineers. Potential producers had repeatedly rejected this version, and the rewrites developed into a play that became more marketable. Also of note: one of the producers, Cohan, was the famous showman and songwriter.
. Bordman, Gerald, "Oxford Companion to American Theatre," New York: Oxford, 1984.
. Bronner, Edwin, "Encyclopedia of American Theatre 1900-1975," New York: A.S. Barnes, 1980.
. Henderson, Mary, "Theater in America," New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986.
. Mantle, Burns, "Best Plays of 1909-1919," New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1945.
. Wilmeth, Don and Bigsby, Christopher, editors, "Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. II: 1870-1945," New York: Cambridge, 1999.
. Wilson, Garff B., "Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre," Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
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