The Captive

A drama in three acts adapted by Arther Hornblow, Jr., from "La Prisonnire" by Edouard Bourdet. Opened at the Empire Theatre, New York City, September 29, 1926, and ran for 160 performances. Produced by the Charles Frohman Company. Staged by Gilbert Miller.

Cast of characters

Gisele De Montcel Ann Trevor
Mlle. Marchand Winifred Fraser
Josephine Minna Phillips
De Montcel Norman Trevor
Irene De Montcel Helen Menken
Jacques Virieu Basil Rathbone
Georges Arthur Lewis
Franois Meillant Ann Andrews
D'Aiguines Arthur Wontner
Act I Irene De Montcel's Room

Act II The Study in Jacques Virieu's Apartment

Act III The Study in Jacques Virieu's Apartment

Basil Rathbone and Arthur Wontner*
in "The Captive"

"Irene de Montcel, ordered by her diplomatist father to be prepared to move from Paris to Brussels, refuses to go. De Montcel, suspecting Irene is held by the fascination a degenerate woman companion exerts for her, insists upon her going. to escape submission Irene begs a girlhood sweetheart, Jacques Virieu, to marry her. Jacques, though warned by the husband of the degenerate that such a marriage cannot be successful, agrees to Irene's proposal. A year later they are returned from their honeymoon. Their marriage has been a failure and Irene, still under the influence of her friend, deserts her husband."
[from The Best Plays of 1926-27, ed. by Burns Mantle (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1927), page 390.]

Touching on the subject of a lesbian relationship (the "degenerate" mentioned above was in fact Irene's lover), "The Captive" was a daring play to produce in the 1920s. The public loved the play, however, and it was a huge success. After seventeen weeks a local politician decided to make a point and close down three "immoral' plays running on Broadway at the time, and that resulted in the arrest of the cast of "The Captive" on a morals charge. The other two plays involved were "Sex" (a story of a prostitute's revenge upon a society mother who had sent her to jail) and "The Virgin Man" (a story of an innocent youth from Yale beset with temptation in New York).

Rathbone has quite a bit to say about "The Captive" in his autobiography In and Out of Character. "The play was produced without any preproduction publicity with Helen Menken as Irene and myself as Jacques. Of course there were rumors as to what it was all about since a limited number of Americans had seen the play in Paris, but our first night audience was completely ignorant of its theme. They were stunned by its power and the persuasiveness of its argument. We were an immediate success and for seventeen weeks we played to standing room only at every performance. At no time was it ever suggested that we were salacious or sordid or seeking sensation." (pp 101-102) The night of the arrest Rathbone went to the Empire Theatre as usual. Looking out his dressing room window, Rathbone saw "an unusual number of people outside and more policemen than I had ever seen anywhere at one time in New York. . . .  As we walked out onto the stage to await our first entrances we were stopped by a plainclothes policeman who showed his badge and said, 'Please don't let it disturb your performance tonight but consider yourself under arrest!' At the close of the play the cast were all ordered to dress and stand by to be escorted in police cars to a night court." (p. 103) The cast was released on bail and ordered to appear in court a few days later. At the court hearing the management of the play announced its voluntary withdrawal from the stage. The cast had no choice but to accept this decision. Rathbone felt that the closing of the play was a "hideous betrayal, this most infamous example of the imposition of political censorship on a democratic society ever known in the history of responsible creative theater; this cold-blooded unscrupulous sabotage of an important contemporary work of art; this cheap political expedient to gain votes by humiliating and despoiling the right of public opinion to express itself and act upon its considered judgment as respected and respectable citizens." (p. 105)

Basil Rathbone and Helen Menken
in "The Captive"

Basil Rathbone and Helen Menken
in "The Captive"


*Arthur Wontner later played Sherlock Holmes in films from 1931 to 1937.


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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2007