In 2009, the Mint headed downtown to the Lucille Lortel Theater for a production of the wickedly witty backstage comedy, SO HELP ME GOD! by Maurine Dallas Watkins. The production starred two-time Emmy Award-winner Kristen Johnston as the temperamental star who tramples everyone who stands in her way.

Best known for her 1926 play CHICAGO, which is the basis for the Broadway musical, Ms. Watkins was re-introduced to New York audiences through our lauded production of SO HELP ME GOD! Watkins drew much of her inspiration from the rehearsals of CHICAGO in which the temperamental star, Jeanne Eagels, dropped out, after first driving her director to quit.

“The deliciously sour SO HELP ME GOD! a long-lost comedy from 1929, provides the same startled pleasure that comes from discovering a good, pre-code Hollywood film,” said Ben Brantley of theNew York Times, “A backstage story of a back-stabbing diva (played here with a gourmand’s relish by Kristen Johnston), this strychnine-laced bonbon makes other theater satires of its era look like fluffy marshmallows.”1 The production was nominated for four Drama Desk Awards and Clint Ramos won a Lucille Lortel Award for his decadent period costumes.

Maurine Dallas Watkins (1896-1969) wrote the 1926 play CHICAGO, upon which the musical is based.  Winner of six Tonys and a Best Picture Oscar for 2002 film, the musical CHICAGO would seem a “sure thing” from the start. But its beginnings were very much in doubt. Had Watkins got her way, CHICAGO the musical would not exist at all.

She penned the dark comedy while still a student in George Pierce Baker’s Drama 47 Workshop at Yale, the same workshop that spawned Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice .  CHICAGO’s tale of two “jazz slayers” who become instant celebrities struck a chord with a public newly weaned on sensationalist trials such as the Leopold and Loeb case.  Watkins herself had covered Leopold and Loeb while a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  Indeed, Watkins’ Tribune experiences provided CHICAGO’s foundation.  Her tongue-in-cheek features on the “beautiful murderesses” turned media darlings, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner—the stories that won her first Tribune by-line—directly inspired CHICAGO’s cynical charmers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.

CHICAGO ran for 172 performances on Broadway.  Burns Mantle included it in his annual Best Plays anthology of 1926-1927.  An acclaimed silent film version appeared in 1927.  That year, CHICAGO was re-published as the inaugural play in Theatre of Today, a new series showcasing the best in contemporary American drama.  Series editor George Jean Nathan wrote that CHICAGO “discloses a talent that will go considerable distance in the drama of the land.”

In her later years, Watkins did her best to disown CHICAGO.  She had become a Born-Again Christian, and paradoxically, obsessed with astrology.  She now felt embarrassed by the play, fearing it could be misinterpreted as glamorizing crime.  As a result, Watkins actually paid her agent $500 a year not to have CHICAGO produced.  When Bob Fosse started to call in the mid-1950s, begging to turn the play into a musical, Watkins repeatedly denied him.  It was only after Watkins’ death from cancer in 1969, and her mother’s death in 1970, that the estate was persuaded to sell the rights.  CHICAGO:  A MUSICAL VAUDEVILLE, with music by Kander and Ebb and direction and choreography by Fosse, premiered in 1975.  Its success was overshadowed by A CHORUS LINE, but the 1996 revival thrust CHICAGO back into the spotlight.

Watkins’ neglected legacy is partially her own doing.  In her final decades, she not only distanced herself from CHICAGO, she withdrew from the world.  If she went out at all, she was heavily veiled.  She showed no interest in reviving her plays.  Upon her death, she left the bulk of her fortune to endow prizes in classical languages at various universities, reflecting a lifelong obsession with the classics.

It was a sad, quiet end to a vibrant career.  CHICAGO was her first and biggest success, but Watkins began writing plays in college.  She left school and moved to Chicago, hoping to hit the theatrical big time.  When this didn’t happen, she applied to the Chicago Tribune.  Within days, despite no professional experience, she landed a job on the murder beat.  Gutsy and good-looking, her intrepid reporting and sardonic humor made her a star.

Eight months later, the restless Watkins moved east. She enrolled briefly at Radcliffe, beginning a PhD in her beloved classics.  Then, Watkins gave up her PhD and moved to New York, where she began commuting to Baker’s 47 Workshop in New Haven.  There, she wrote CHICAGO, It earned a grade of 98%, the highest grade Baker had yet given in his prestigious course.

When CHICAGO bowed on Broadway, directed by George Abbott, Watkins suddenly found herself the toast of the town.  Reporters played up the contrast between the play’s hard-boiled heroines and its modest author, who’d been born a minister’s daughter.  Watkins was prim—she refused to write profanity in her typescripts, leaving a string of “blankety-blanks” for directors to fill in—but she was hardly a shrinking violet.  Her portraits show a laughing, confident woman who stares directly into the camera.

For her next Broadway outing, Watkins adapted REVELRY, Samuel Hopkins Adams’ notorious novel about corruption in the Harding administration.  Watkins’ resultant 1927 play, a satire about a poker-playing, liquor-swilling President was deemed “unpatriotic” and “un-American.” An injunction was threatened.  Producers withdrew it from Philadelphia tryouts.  The subsequent Broadway run lasted only 48 performances.

Despite REVELRY, Watkins was still ranked among America’s most promising playwrights.  In 1929, Burns Mantle devoted several pages to Watkins in American Playwrights of Today, notably more than the passing mention given contemporaries Susan Glaspell, Ben Hecht, and S.N. Behrman.

In late 1928 or early 1929, Watkins began work on SO HELP ME GOD! which was derailed on its journey to Broadway by the Great Depression.  Watkins, who had already moved to Hollywood, then focused on screenwriting.  Over the next ten years, she wrote or contributed to at least ten films, writing for the era’s most iconic talents. Watkins is credited with the story for UP THE RIVER (Best Picture nominee, 1930), directed by John Ford and starring Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.  She contributed to another Best Picture nominee, LIBELED LADY (1937), which starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. She wrote for the lively screwball comedies NO MAN OF HER OWN (1932), starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and I LOVE YOU AGAIN (1940), starring William Powell and Myrna Loy once more. She also worked on HELLO, SISTER!, the ill-fated 1933 Erich Von Stroheim adaptation of Dawn Powell’s play, WALKING DOWN BROADWAY (revived by the Mint in 2005).

Watkins worked hard to erase her legacy, but her talent is too great to be ignored.  She may not have had the lasting impact on American drama as her contemporaries, but her sparkling satire and witty screwball comedies represent the apex of the form.


More photos »


  • Lily Darnlet Kristen Johnston
  • Mose Jason Allen Lewis Rickman
  • Dave Hobart Brad Bellamy
  • Glenn Kraig Swartz
  • George Herrick Ned Noyes
  • Goby Peter Van Wagner
  • Blake Jeremy Lawrence
  • Belle Catherine Curtain
  • Bart Henley John G. Preston
  • Mr. Chester Burleigh John Windsor-Cunningham
  • Jules Meredith Kevin O’Donnell
  • Desmond Armstrong Matthew Waterson
  • Judith Hudson Margot White
  • Kerren-Heppuch Lane Anna Chlumsky
  • Eloise Amy Fitts
  • Frou-Frou Velma & Roxie
  • Electrician Matthew Waterson


  • Set Design Bill Clarke
  • Costume Design Clint Ramos
  • Lighting Design Robert Wierzel
  • Sound Design Jane Shaw
  • Properties Design Deborah Gaouette
  • Hair and Makeup Design Jon Carter
  • Associate Costume Design Luke Brown
  • Associate Lighting Design Greg Goff
  • Casting
    Stuart Howard, Amy Schecter & Paul Hardt
  • Production Stage Manager Samone B. Weissman
  • Assistant Stage Manager Lauren McArthur
  • Press Representative David Gersten & Associates
  • Illustration Stefano Imbert
  • Graphics Hunter Kaczorowski


From SO HELP ME GOD’s Lily Darnley; created by Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1929 to her sister-in-Terpsichore-and-temperament Lily Garland of TWENTIETH CENTURY; created by Hecht and MacArthur just five years later; and on to Margo Channing, Helen Lawson, Neely O’Hara and even BULLETS OVER BROADWAY’s Helen Sinclair; audiences simply dote on those over-the-top dramatic divas who drive lovers to distraction and directors to drink. What is our fascination with these women behaving badly?

Catherine Sheehy is Resident Dramaturg of Yale Repertory Theatre and chair of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama. At Yale she has worked as dramaturg on numerous productions and was co-adaptor of the Rep production of King Stag. Her Pride & Prejudice has been produced at the Asolo Theatre in Florida and at Dallas Theater Center. As a dramaturg she has worked throughout the US and in Ireland. She teaches seminars in American Stage and Screen Comedy, Restoration and 18th-Century British Comedy, Comic Theory, the Collaborative Process, Models of Dramaturgy, and Satire. She is also a former associate editor of American Theatre and a former managing editor of Theater magazine. She received her doctorate from Yale for her dissertation, If You Care to Blast for It: Excavating the Lost Comic Masterpieces of the American Canon.


Susan Jonas has extensive experience in theatre as an administrator, dramaturg, producer, director, scholar and educator. During her decade as Art Analyst with the Theatre Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, she developed numerous field-wide initiatives, including a three-year national study which culminated in “The Report on the Status of Women in Theatre,” co-authored with Suzanne Bennett. She has also taught courses on women in theatre and dramaturgy at New York University. Dr. Jonas is a graduate of Princeton University and earned her doctorate in Dramaturgy at the Yale School of Drama. She is a board member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, and the co-founder of “50/50 in 2020,” a grassroots advocacy enterprise which has set the goal of parity for women in theatre to be achieved by the 100th anniversary of American suffrage.