A comedy in three acts by S.N. Behrman, suggested by an original story by Somerset Maugham. Opened at the Coronet Theatre, New York City, February 1, 1952, and ran for 100 performances. Produced by the Theatre Guild, Inc., under the supervision of Theresa Helburn and Lawrence Langner. Directed by Cyril Ritchard and Associate Director Armina Marshall. Setting and costumes designed by Elfi von Kantzow.

Cast of characters

Ann Tower Adrienne Corri
Peter Crewe William Whitman
Wilson Al Collins
William Tower Basil Rathbone
Millicent Tower Irene Browne
Jane Fowler Edna Best
Maid Sarah Marshall
Lord Frobisher Howard St. John
Gilbert Dabney Philip Friend

The entire action takes place in Mrs. Tower's drawing room, Regents Park, London.

Act I September 1937

Act II Late March 1938

Act III Ten days later

Rathbone and Edna Best

Based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. The comedy "Jane" was first written in 1947, but not performed on Broadway until 1952. Rathbone's character, William Tower, is a writer, and is based on W. Somerset Maugham. In fact, the stage directions state: "The actor who plays William Tower would do well to study the portraits and read the works of W. Somerset Maugham. . . . Tower wears a monocle on a broad black ribbon with which he habitually fixes people." [from The Best Plays of 1951-52, ed. by Burns Mantle (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1952), page 210]

In Act I we learn that William Tower's daughter Ann and her boyfriend Peter, a poet, are in love. Their relationship faces two challenges, however: 1) Ann's mother can't stand Peter, and she hopes that her ex-husband Willie can do something to break up Ann and Peter; and 2) Peter has married a girl in order for her to obtain a passport. She was being persecuted because of her father's political opinions, and is now in a concentration camp.

Mrs. Tower is horrified to learn that her middle-aged sister-in-law Jane Fowler will arrive shortly. Jane, the widow of Mrs. Tower's brother, appears old and frumpy, an actual "plain Jane." Mrs. Tower declares, "She looks twenty years older than I do and she's perfectly capable of telling anyone she meets that we were at school together. When she comes to London it never occurs to her to stay anywhere but here-she thinks it would hurt my feelings." 

Also visiting are Willie Tower, who has just returned from a trip to Africa, and Lord Frobisher, a friend and chain-paper publisher. Jane gets along well with Willie. She surprises everyone by announcing that she is going to get married. Her intended (Gilbert Dabney) is about 30 years old, so everyone assumes that he is marrying Jane for her money.

Act II takes place six months later. Peter has had a book of poems published, so he is enjoying some success as a writer. Jane, who had been dowdy and dull, is now the reigning social success of London. She describes her young husband Gilbert as "old-fashioned."

Jane appeals to Lord Frobisher to use his influence to get Peter's wife out of the prison camp. Jane offers to pay the costs, if only Frobisher can make the arrangements. Then Peter and his wife can get a divorce, and Peter will be free to marry Ann Tower.

When Gilbert hears about Jane's meddling in Peter's business, he is angry with her. He decides to take Mrs. Tower to the opera instead of Jane. Willie Tower invites Jane and Frobisher to dinner.

When the curtain rises for Act III, it is ten days later. Tower speaks to Jane, expressing concern for Ann and Peter. Jane says she plans to adopt Peter's wife, who is out of prison and on her way to England. Gilbert responds to this news by saying, "This time Jane has gone too far." After confronting Jane, Gilbert leaves her.

Frobisher comes in just as Gilbert is leaving, and Tower explains what happened. "Serves her right," remarks Frobisher. Tower observes that Frobisher is so rude to Jane that he must be very taken with her. Tower appalls Frobisher by suggesting that he might enjoy being married to Jane. "Last man on earth for anyone to marry," says Frobisher. Tower states that he'd be a better husband than Frobisher, and the two men continue to banter about who should marry Jane.

The play ends with Jane admitting that she loves Frobisher, and he proposes.

Edna Best and Basil Rathbone
(photo by Vandamm)
Rathbone and Edna Best
Rathbone and Edna Best

When Jane opened on Broadway in February 1952, one critic then wrote: ''High comedy has almost vanished from the American theater, which for the past few seasons has been so busy with problems and depressing people that it has almost forgotten how to induce laughter.'' —from the New York Times, 1987

The character of William Tower, was fashioned after W. Somerset Maugham, the author of the short story from which the play was adapted. Tower's ex-wife, Millicent, was patterned after Maugham's wife, Syrie. The character of Allan Frobisher also had a real-life counterpart:  Canadian newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook.

 Review in Time magazine, February 11, 1952:

Jane (adapted by S. N. Behrman from a Somerset Maugham short story) is an urbane but upsy-downsy drawing-room comedy. Its three acts of intended laughter rather suggest three sets of tennis, with Jane narrowly losing the match, 6-2, 1-6, 4-6. Jane (Edna Best) is a rich, frumpish, middle-aged Liverpool widow, hard of head and blunt of speech. In a jolly first act she descends on her London relatives to announce that she is marrying a penniless architect half her age. There is consternation, opposition, and the sense of a cheerful future for the play, if perhaps a checkered one for the heroine.

In Act II, Jane's talent for dropping hot bricks has apparently made her the rage of London, though nothing is actually shown but her incurring the rage of Londoners. There is no verve in it: things merely dribble along, with Jane tiring of society and the young husband tiring of Jane. In the last act, by flanking Jane with a worldly writer who might be Maugham (Basil Rathbone) and a philandering newspaper tycoon (Howard St. John), the play manages a few rallies, but never quite comes right.

Only the air of the drawing room persists to the end; despite Edna Best's smooth playing, the charm of Jane fades out. Halfway along, she stops seeming faintly absurd and at once stops seeming alive. And she doesn't cut a wide enough swath, cause enough contretemps, shake up enough lives. In the end, the strong point of the play seems almost as much comment as character.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,815980,00.html#ixzz1XhP8fD00

Dramatist S. N. Behrman, one of the Theatre Guild's foremost writers, was frequently referred to as an American Noel Coward. In addition to Jane, he wrote Biography, No Time for Comedy and The Second Man.

Rathbone and Edna Best
Rathbone and Edna Best
Rathbone and Irene Browne

Review of "Jane" in Billboard, February 9, 1952: 

Behrman's "Jane" Sparkles Wit, But Somewhere a Play is Missing
by Bob Francis

No playwright around these days can handle a comedy of manners better than S.N. Behrman, and it is a treat again to listen to a polished, witty dialog. He has put a lot of it into his comedy Jane." Conversationally, it sparkles a great deal of the time. But unfortunately its premise is frail and rather silly, and gets nowhere beyond engendering a certain genial warmth—certainly not enough to put the heat on the Coronet's box office for any protracted period.

Behrman's plot is based on a story of Somerset Maugham's about a middle-aged ugly duckling who belatedly takes on swan plumage. In this case, she is an elderly provincial widow who descends on a Mayfair menage and turns it end-over-end via sheer charm. She marries a lad half her age, lets him desert her, and angles herself into a third set of wedding bells with a tycoon as well known for his bedroom antics as for his ability as a publisher. Along the way, she serenely arranges the marital happiness of a niece, utterly confounds a meanish sister-in-law, and almost snares a cynical brother-in-law. All of which is accomplished in the most naively ingenious manner, even if it is quaintly unbelievable. It is, however, played for the most part on a wonderfully brittle, high-comedy plane by its principals.

Edna Best creates a delightful portrait of the guilefully guileless lady who charms by merely telling the truth. She is particularly adept at this type of comedy. Adept, also, is her co-star, Basil Rathbone. As a sort of bystander to the story, in which he gets involved in spite of himself, Rathbone plays one of Maugham's typical suave, cynical writing men.

You do not often meet a man with such a singularly continuous flow of wit, but Behrman has given him amusing things to say, and he gets all the best out of them. But it is Howard St. John's teaming with Miss Best which gives the play its best moments. The former's growing frustration as a self-confessed roue, as he falls under the lady's spell, are real high spots in an otherwise conversational evening.

Irene Browne contributes excellently as a Mayfair divorcee with all the silly conceits and deceits of her class, and Philip Friend plays the selfish young husband who walks out on Jane with a fine relish. Adrienne Corri and William Whitman pair adequately in the secondary love interests which is the basis of the frail plot.

Having knowing players to work with, plus a high-comedy perception of his own, Cyril Ritchard has staged these drawing-room doings effectively, although there are considerable stretches of chit-chat that get his inventiveness down.
The Theater Guild has given "Jane" a plush production, with a high-power Hyde Park drawing-room background by Elfi von Kantzow who is also responsible for costumes, except those supplied for Miss Best's metamorphosis by Valentina. It is too bad that there is not a better play to go with it all.

The New York Times article from February 10, 1952 (S. N. BEHRMAN'S 'JANE'; Edna Best and Basil Rathbone Playing in a Theatre Guild Production, by Brooks Atkinson) is available to purchase. Click here for more information:

Edna Best and Basil Rathbone
(photo by Vandamm)

Edna Best and Basil Rathbone
(photo by Vandamm)

Basil Rathbone, Edna Best, and Howard St. John
(photo by Vandamm)

The following is an article from The New York Times, March 30, 1952:

Dramatist, Scenarist, Biographer

I know that the press agent for my new play at the Coronet Theatre will be unhappy if I don't mention "Jane," and it is a primary function of the playwright to keep the press agent in amiable spirits. Maugham's short story, on which the play is based, tells about an elderly frump from Liverpool who marries a very young and very attractive man. Miss Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild wished me to adapt it. Mr. Maugham, who is one of the canniest of men, has sold the film rights to everything he has ever written—he has recently even been selling the rights to his fascinating personality; but he never sold the film rights to "Jane," although it is over thirty years old; because he felt that it would one day make a play.

Difficult Task

Although he is a brilliant playwright, he did not want to dramatize it himself because he has long since quit the theatre, which is perhaps an even profounder demonstration of his canniness. It looked to me like an attractive job but it was very hard to do. The theatre is the most naked of mediums; it is a two-and-a-half-hour close-up, and questions which Maugham never had to answer—nor even to raise—in the compass of a short story, pop up uncomfortably when you come to write a play. Why does a sensible woman like Jane marry a man so much younger? Maugham describes her as witty and as making a sensation by always telling the truth. Nice work if you can get it!

Also, and this is the nub, instead of the young man's eventually leaving Jane, as everyone predicts, Jane leaves the young man. This was a puzzler. Why? I gave this as much thought as Newton and Satan gave the apple—with somewhat less epochal results. One line gave the play to me and the answer. When Gilbert asks Jane why she is leaving him, she says: "Because you are too old for me!" This line was, originally, the curtain of Act Two, the climax of the play. In the prolonged neurasthenic hypochondria which constitutes a try-out tour, I allowed this line to be shifted to Act Three. The point I wanted to make in the play is that youth is a question of vitality, generosity, warmth and general sympathy in point of view. A stuffed shirt may be old at 20. Jane is alive and vital and will be young at 80.

source: http://snbehrman.com/library/nytimes/52.3.30.htm

Rathbone with Irene Browne and Sarah Marshall


Howard St. John, Edna Best and Basil Rathbone
(photo by Vandamm)

This review is from Billboard, January 26, 1952:

It would be stretching imagination a bit to rate "Jane"—the delightful old gal that she pans out to be—as headed for the hit class. However, the artful S.N. Behrman may well be able to tie some new knots, point up the punches and weave together its scattered virtues so that his high comedy doesn't remain as utterly shallow as the British high society that it mocks.

For this venture, Behrman has turned to another high-handed writer of high comedy, by using as his theme W. Somerset Maugham's original story of the same name as his theme. Completely delightful and entirely amusing, Behrman has made his lady of the title warm and human even if she isn't real. But there isn't enough overall substance to last a full-length theater evening, nor does the comedy build into any lasting crescendo to make for any sort of sustained sock to take "Jane" out of its present element of lightness that leaves a pew sitter with a singularly empty feeling.

Story-wise, there isn't much to tell. But Behrman takes a lot of words—too many—to tell the tale of "Jane," the dowdy provincial woman who comes to London to visit her sister-in-law. Capturing the fancy of a man young enough to be her son rather than her husband, the country widow subsequently undergoes a complete transformation physically. But while she loses her Queen Victoria luster, she never loses her capacity for telling the truth—even to the loss of a husband—and in turn wins the heart of a newspaper publisher who loses his confidence as a rake and philanderer once he falls under her spell.

It is Edna Best, as Jane, and Howard St. John, as the hard-drinking and romantically inclined publisher, who provide the play with its highest moments both in character and in comedy. Both score decisively.

Basil Rathbone, who plays the "I" of the original short story, a writer named William Tower, is supposed to have surface resemblances to Maugham, but seems ill at ease with the part. Nor is he able to capture the comedy spirit of the play. Primarily he is Basil Rathbone playing at being the carefree, colorful writer-world-traveler who comes back to visit a divorced wife, only to fall in love with his sister-in-law, Jane. And his biggest miss is when he comes in second best in the race for the latter's hand. . . .

As a whole, the casting and acting is excellent, with Cyril Ritchard establishing a tempo that moves plausibly even if the verbiage tends to slow it down in too many spots. . . . It must be said that "Jane" tries hard and with good intentions. But good intentions are not enough to jam a box office window.



click to go to top of page
Top of

Site Map

All original content is © Marcia Jessen, 2012