Set aboard a houseboat on a fashionable reach of the Thames in 1911, The New Morality tells the story of how the brazen Betty Jones restores dignity to her household and harmony to her marriage, by losing her temper and making a scene.

A rising star, Harold Chapin had numerous one-acts and three full-length plays produced before he was killed on the battlefield in 1915 at the age of 29. “When Harold Chapin fell in France the modern British theatre lost a comic writer of high order,” declared the Sunday Times. “For intellectual foolery his New Morality has no equal in present-day work.” The play was produced five years after his death to great acclaim, and then languished in obscurity for decades until our “lavishly crafted”1 revival introduced New York theatergoers to Chapin’s “unabashed comedy with bite.”2

“The Mint’s eminently satisfying production of The New Morality may spur renewed interest in Chapin’s output and cause us to wonder what else he might have achieved had his life not been cut short before his 30th birthday,”3 wrote Talkin’ Broadway. “The script combines a jigger or two of Harley Granville Barker, a measure of Shaw, a dash of Wilde and stirs as needed,” remarked The New York Times. “The writing is charming and finely observed…The direction, by the Mint’s artistic director, Jonathan Bank, is appealing and apposite. The acting is adept, with particularly impressive turns by Brenda Meaney as Betty and Ned Noyes as the husband of her putative rival.”4

A writer of “wit, gaiety and skillful craftsmanship,”[1] the Brooklyn-born British playwright Harold Chapin (1886-1915) wrote ten one-act plays and four complete, full-length works before falling as a WWI soldier at the age of twenty-nine. With Chapin’s tragic early death, the British and American theater lost an already assured comic talent. Revolving around the whims and wits of candid female characters, Chapin’s philosophical comedies of manners brim with “imagination and sympathy,”[2] sparkling dialogue, and a sense of humor at once sharp-edged and fanciful.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 15, 1886, Harold and his sister Elsie were raised by a remarkable, iconoclastic mother: the American-born actress, playwright, and feminist activist Alice Chapin (who, in 1909, spent four months in prison after pouring acid into anti-suffrage ballot boxes). When Harold was two years old, Alice scandalously divorced his father Harry Clarke, and expatriated with her son to London, where she nurtured the theatrical talents of her children. Playing young Marcus to his mother’s Volumnia, Harold made his stage debut at the age of seven in Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford-on-Avon. While permitted to appear in plays during “special holiday weeks,” Harold received his education at the Norwich Grammar School and graduated from University College School in 1902.

Upon graduation, Chapin devoted himself to the London theatre, where he proved himself versatile as an actor, stage manager, and producer. In 1908, Chapin joined Charles Frohman’s management team at the Duke of York’s Theatre, where he originated roles in plays by J.M. Barrie (What Every Woman Knows, 1908) and John Galsworthy (Strife, 1909). In June of 1910, Chapin married Calypso Valetta, who also acted in the Frohman company and was especially noted for her performances in the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Their son, Harold Jr. (nicknamed “Vallie”), was born the next year in Scotland. Here, Harold served as a producer at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre, where both he and Calypso also performed.

Starting with his debut one-act play, 1910’s Augustus in Search of a Father, Chapin gained prominence as a dramatist. Chapin also started a lasting association with the actor-manager Harley Granville-Barker, whom he joined as stage manager at the Savoy Theatre. Like both Shaw and Granville-Barker, Chapin “desired to use the theatre to stimulate the desire for social reform,” according to historian John Simkin. In one-act comedies like The Autocrat of the Coffee Stall and Muddle Annie (1910), Chapin humorously portrayed the realities of working-class London life, while his short dramas included The Dumb and the Blind (1911) and It’s the Poor That ‘Elps the Poor (1913). Critics regarded these short plays as “models of the Cockney sketch, alive with authentic dialogue and tender compassion.”[3]

While praised for his short plays, Chapin most excelled with his full-length comedies of manners, distinguished by their “originality and deft technical skill,”[4] as well as by their bold and candid female protagonists. In The Marriage of Columbine (1910), Elaine (1912), Art and Opportunity (1912), and The New Morality (written c. 1911-1912), Chapin channeled the modern, independent figure of “the New Woman” through “delicious ladies” that are “seductive and contradictory and childish and cunning” (as described by J.M. Barrie). Crackling with “fireworks of wit,”[5] Art and Opportunity was written for the West End actress-manager Marie Tempest, who starred as Pauline Cheverell, an “adventuress” who exposes Edwardian hypocrisies about money and marriage. Tempest, who later called Art and Opportunity “the most brilliant comedy I have produced,” scored a great success in the play at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre.

The onset of World War I put an untimely halt to Chapin’s playwriting career, just as his plays started to earn transatlantic success. In 1914—the same year that The Marriage of Columbine and The Dumb and the Blind introduced Chapin to New York audiences—the playwright enlisted in Great Britain’s Royal Army Medical Corps. Working first as a cook, and then as a nurse and stretcher-bearer, Chapin was killed in an act of heroism on the front, on September 26th, 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Attempting to rescue an injured man from the trenches, Chapin was shot in the foot and then suffered a mortal head wound. “Full of ideas of all shapes and sizes” at the time of his death (according to one letter written to Calypso), Chapin left behind one unfinished, full-length comedy: The Well-Made Dress Coat, adapted from an Austrian farce. The tragedy also shelved plans for the Charles Frohman, Inc.’s Broadway production of a “new comedy” by Chapin, to star Marie Tempest. Announced in July 1915, this play was presumably The New Morality.

Chapin’s early death devastated a wide circle of family, friends, and colleagues, while contributing to his posthumous fame. Harold Fisher, a fellow soldier, wrote of Chapin: “Truly he did his duty, if ever man did. I shall always remember him as the most cheerful man I ever met, even in the most adverse circumstances.” The London theater community, too, lamented his death with a December 1915 memorial performance at the Queens’s Theater, where the bill of four short plays by Chapin included The Philosopher of Butterbiggins. As directed by Harold’s sister, Elsie Chapin, The Philosopher of Butterbiggins eventually made its way in 1919 to New York’s Provincetown Playhouse (with Edna St. Vincent Millay among the cast). The next year, The New Morality finally arrived on stage, due to the efforts of the newly revived Play Actors. A London stage society with which Chapin had been closely associated, the Play Actors had gone dark for several years during the war. With the Play Actors, The New Morality earned praise as a “remarkable comedy… For intellectual foolery, The New Morality has no equal in present-day work.”[6] In 1921, the play also debuted on Broadway, as produced by and starring Grace George.

These theatrical premieres followed the 1916 publication of Chapin’s wartime letters, collected under the title Soldier and Dramatist. Written variously to his wife, mother, and four-year old Vallie, Chapin’s letters in Soldier and Dramatist inspired wide acclaim for their humor and “gallant pathos,”[7] as well as sharp observations of wartime hardships and soldiers’ lives. Dated April 15th, 1915, one letter to Calypso reads:

You ask what is the most striking feature of the (French) country under war. It is easy to answer: its peacefulness… One takes for granted trenches, horse lines, ruined villages, great and small guns, khaki and grey dead, barbed wire, smoke and noise…You must convince yourself that there are skylarks above the sand dunes near Ostend, just as there used to be, pigeons in ruined Louvain, early butterflies in the air among the bullets, crows and rooks around Ypres, violets in the ruins of Givenchy, primroses at La Bassée and so on. Nature carries on business as usual.

While Chapin’s poignant short dramas and collected letters in Soldier and Dramatist also await rediscovery, the playwright left behind his most vibrant legacy with his effervescent yet substantial comedies of manners. Saluting the “abounding vitality” of Chapin’s talent, critic William Archer memorialized him as a playwright “of unusual power and sympathy and of great promise.” Likewise, the London theatre critic Bennitt Gardiner, in a 1957 article for The Stage, called the little-known Chapin “one of the first comic dramatists of quality to work in our (London) theatre after Oscar Wilde,” and praised the playwright’s contributions to “an unbroken tradition of satiric high comedy” stretching back to the Restoration. Dexterously blending British and American theatrical traditions—sprinkling teatime artifice with Yankee candor—Chapin’s plays continue to scintillate with both mirth and matter.

 

By Maya Cantu

 

 

 

[1] “The Embassy: The New Morality,” The Stage, June 28, 1945, pg. 5.

[2] “Harold Chapin, Soldier and Dramatist,” The New York Times, November 12, 1916, pg. 78.

[3] Bennitt Gardiner, “Why Not Revive Harold Chapin’s Plays?,” The Stage, July 4, 1957, pg. 10.

[4] Allardyce Nicoll, English Drama, 1900-1930: The Beginnings of the Modern Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973, pg. 281.

[5]Art and Opportunity at the Prince of Wales Theatre,” The Illustrated London News, September 14, 1912.

[6] Sydney W. Carroll, “The Dramatic World: The New Morality,” The Sunday Times, December 5, 1920, pg. 6.

[7] “Harold Chapin, Soldier and Dramatist,” The New York Times, November 12, 1916, pg. 78.

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Cast

  • Christian Campbell
  • Clemmie Evans
  • Michael Frederic
  • Kelly McCready
  • Brenda Meaney
  • Ned Noyes
  • Douglas Rees

Creatives

  • Sets Steven C. Kemp
  • Costumes Carisa Kelly
  • Lights Christian DeAngelis
  • Original Music & Sound Jane Shaw
  • Props Joshua Yocom
  • Casting Judy Bowman
  • Dialects & Dramaturgy Amy Stoller
  • Production Stage Manager Kathy Snyder
  • Assistant Stage Manager Arthur Atkinson
  • Illustration Stefano Imbert
  • Graphics Hey Jude Design, Inc.
  • Advertising The Pekoe Group
  • Press David Gersten & Associates

SHAW AND MORALITY, NEW AND OLD
DAVID STALLER, GINGOLD THEATRICAL GROUP

David Staller is Founding Artistic Director of Gingold Theatrical Group, which presents work championing human rights with the writings of George Bernard Shaw as its guide. Since 2010, he has given the annual keynote address at the International Shaw Society symposium at Canada’s Shaw Festival. David will discuss Shaw’s views on morality, which may have influenced Chapin.

BETTY JONES: WICKED OR WONDERFUL?
SARAH APPLETON, OLD DOMINION UNIVERSITY

Sarah Appleton is Senior Lecturer of English at Old Dominion University. Her 2001 book The Bitch is Back: Wicked Women in Literature examines the archetypal “bitch” character in literature: the woman who is willfully and unapologetically ‘bad’ by societal standards. Sarah’s post-show discussion will examine the character of Betty Jones through this lens.

"THEY DO PUT YOU IN THE DOCK FOR LIBEL, DON'T THEY?"
BENJAMIN C. ZIPURSKY, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY

Benjamin C. Zipursky is Professor of Law and James H. Quinn ’49 Chair at Fordham Law School.  In The New Morality, Betty Jones insults her neighbor and refuses to apologize, resulting in the threat of a “criminal libel” lawsuit. Ben’s post-show discussion will focus on the play’s interweaving of feminist themes and defamation law.

LIFE ON A HOUSEBOAT
LESLIE DAY, NATURALIST

Leslie Day is the author of three nature guides to New York City. She taught science for 20 years and currently leads nature walks in the city. The New Morality takes place on a houseboat on the River Thames. Leslie will cull from her 40-year history as a resident of the 79th Street Boat Basin, to discuss daily life on a houseboat.

"BECAUSE SHE LIVES IN THE 20TH CENTURY": THE NEW MORALITY AND THE NEW WOMAN
VLASTA VRANJES, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY

Vlasta Vranjes is a professor in the English Department at Fordham University. She is currently writing a book titledEnglish Vows: Marriage Law and National Identity in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Vlasta’s post-show discussion will focus on The New Morality‘s treatment of gender relations and will provide historical and cultural context for the play.

"YOU'RE NOT A SUFFRAGETTE": THE SOCIAL POLITICS OF HAROLD CHAPIN
J. ELLEN GAINOR, CORNELL UNIVERSITY

J. Ellen Gainor is Professor of Theatre and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Cornell. A specialist in British and American drama of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and women’s dramaturgy, she most recently co-edited The Norton Anthology of Drama. Professor Gainor will discuss the social and political context of Harold Chapin’s work.

HAROLD CHAPIN'S CANDID COMEDIES
MAYA CANTU, THEATER HISTORIAN AND DRAMATURG

Maya Cantu is a theater historian, scholar and dramaturg. She received a D.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama. Her book American Cinderellas on the Broadway Musical Stage: Imagining the Working Girl from “Irene” to “Gypsy” will be available through Palgrave Macmillan this October. Maya will discuss the life and work of Harold Chapin.

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