the tragic story of John Van Druten

“I think you have a great talent for love, and you try to squander it and waste it… because it’s been trampled before. And if you continue like this, you’ll destroy it. And… I think that that’s a talent you can’t hide.”

So says a character in The Voice of the Turtle, a 1943 play by John Van Druten, which I am currently directing for the Jermyn Street Theater in London. This is a rare revival of one of theater’s forgotten voices, but his name may sound familiar. That’s because he wrote the 1951 play I Am A Camera – based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin – which formed the basis for the book for the musical Cabaret, which is currently enjoying great success in the West End and on Broadway.

Most people, however, would be hard-pressed to name any of his other works. Yet he was a celebrated playwright from the 1930s through the 1950s. Highlights include the San Francisco-set immigrant family saga I Remember Mama (1944), which marked Marlon Brando’s Broadway debut; and the contemporary witch comedy Bell, Book and Candle (1950), later made into a film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

And then there is The Voice of the Turtle. Set in 1943 New York, it centers on Sally Middleton – a young aspiring actress recently dumped by an older, married Broadway producer – who has renounced sex and committed herself to her life instead. focus on your career. When Sally’s more worldly friend and fellow actress Olive Lashbrooke discovers that an old flame is in town on leave, she abandons her current boyfriend, Sergeant Bill Page, and leaves him in Sally’s company. Over the course of a weekend, Sally must choose whether to remain calm and untethered, or allow herself to become vulnerable again.

The original production ran for 1,557 performances—still making it one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history—before it was adapted into a film starring Ronald Reagan. But now it, and Van Druten’s other work, is effectively unknown. So what happened?

John Van Druten, author of The Voice of the Turtle

John Van Druten, author of The Voice of the Turtle – Alamy

Although Van Druten is often seen as an American writer, he was born in London in June 1901. His father, Wilhelmus – a Dutch banker with an English wife, Eva – wanted his son to study law, so John qualified as a lawyer in 1923. For the next three years he taught legal history at the University of Wales.

But while at Aberystwyth, Van Druten used his time as a teacher to write (age 24) Young Woodley – which tells the story of an adolescent prefect at a boarding school who falls in love with his headmaster’s wife, with lifelong problems. changing consequences. This idea was so controversial that although the play was produced in New York in 1925, it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (which censored plays in this country until 1968). But when the production was given private performances in London, it was received with such overwhelming enthusiasm that the Lord Chamberlain relented and the play was given an extended run in the West End at the Savoy Theater in the late 1920s.

In the meantime, Van Druten left law and had numerous successes in New York and London. He was also an eminent director who, among other things, staged the original Broadway production of The King and I.

A poster for the 1947 film adaptation of The Voice of the TurtleA poster for the 1947 film adaptation of The Voice of the Turtle

A poster for the 1947 film adaptation of The Voice of the Turtle – Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

But then came the downturn. His work was seen as too light and his epitaph became for many the New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr’s scathing, epigrammatic review of I Am A Camera. “Me no Leica”.

Van Druten himself foresaw this fall from grace: in his Playwright at Work (1955) he acknowledges that “the theater is transitory, and plays are a transitory good”. And that’s what happened: his success was fleeting. Together with Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan and Somerset Maugham, his work was pushed aside by the theatrical revolution of the ‘Angry Young Men’ at the Royal Court led by John Osborne. But like the work of Coward, Rattigan and Maugham, Van Druten’s work is certainly worth reevaluating.

I first came across The Voice of the Turtle about 15 years ago. When I read the play’s Broadway success, I expected a light comedy and a classic, well-crafted play. And although it is well made – beautifully constructed even – I was shocked when I noticed how nuanced the dialogue is, such as in this conversation about meeting an ex:

SALLY: Was that so? horrible…see her again?

BILL: No. Not after the first moment. And that was funny, because… last night at the restaurant, it made me sad, remembering everything. And the moment we finished saying hello, the corner of my mouth suddenly stopped twitching, and I found myself looking at her and wondering what it was all about. Don’t know when I didn’t love her anymore. I just stopped thinking about her, I guess, and didn’t realize I had…until tonight.

Behind the scenes: rehearsals for Jermyn Street Theatre's The Voice of the TurtleBehind the scenes: rehearsals for Jermyn Street Theatre's The Voice of the Turtle

Behind the Scenes: Rehearsals for Jermyn Street Theater’s The Voice of the Turtle – Steve Gregson

There’s a hint of sadness and longing lurking beneath the surface of the bright comedy; and a simple premise unfolds in such a beautiful, moving and above all sincere way. Although the context is unmistakably wartime America, the theme transcends time. It’s still a comedy, but one that’s saturated with emotion, longing and loss, and with a woman at its centre. Van Druten revealed a contemporary attitude in other plays too – such as London Wall (1931), which dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace, and Flowers of the Forest (1934), a love story with JB Priestley-esque timeslips.

The Voice of the Turtle also shows love in wartime, adding an extra layer of vulnerability and “seizing the moment”, perhaps best expressed in that famous line from WH Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939 (written in New York): “We must love each other or die.”

Love is of course a common theme, but for Van Druten it was especially poignant. Like Coward and Rattigan and Maugham, Van Druten was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Each hid their own experiences in their work under a veneer of acceptable, heterosexual love. For example, one only has to think of Rattigan invoking his doomed feud with actor Kenny Morgan for Hester Collyer’s fragile fear in The Deep Blue Sea.

Likewise, Van Druten sublimates his experiences into Sally and Bill’s tentative explorations in The Voice of the Turtle. The result is that there is something encoded in the delicacy, the hesitation with which these two characters gauge each other’s feelings. But also something daring in the way Sally, in particular, invites Bill to stay; and something deeply passionate in the way both she and Bill express their desires.

As for finding love himself, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Van Druten dated Carter Lodge, the manager of the AJC Ranch that British actress Auriol Lee, the playwright and Lodge bought together in Southern California’s Coachella Valley and named after himself – with Lee’s involvement undoubtedly allowing the two men to live together without question. When that relationship ended, Lodge continued to handle Van Druten’s financial affairs, and when the writer died of heart failure in 1957 at age 56, he left the ranch and the rights to his work, including The Voice of the Turtle, to Lodge.

This act of generosity indicates how much Lodge meant to Van Druten. And yet it is difficult to know whether the writer ever really found love in the way he wanted; the attitudes of society at the time made secrecy necessary, and, unlike Isherwood, Van Druten’s diaries were never published. Moreover, in Playwright at Work he points out the restrictions under which he lived, writing: “A play which advocated homosexuality, or took a tolerant view of it (did not regard it as a form of illness), would be difficult to accept. It may not last forever.” But what is clear is that Van Druten explored the search for love in his work with a delicacy that, eighty years later, makes a play like The Voice of the Turtle well worth revisiting.

The Voice of the Turtle runs from June 27 to July 20 at the Jermyn Street Theater

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