He’s on nobody’s list of great playwrights, and it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen a play of his in performance. Yet David Belasco is perhaps the most prolific playwright in our history. He claimed to have had a hand in 374 productions, most of which he wrote or adapted himself. He was famous for introducing new technologies into the playhouse and making stars out of unknown actors. His name appeared on theaters built in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. He was the first producer whose name alone attracted audiences. Between 1890-1930 he utterly dominated American theatre. He was the man, the celebrated “Bishop of Broadway.”
Now he is all but forgotten. His name still appears on a Broadway playhouse, but one of his theaters spent its last days screening pornographic films, and another was a home for burlesque. If he is remembered at all, it is for bringing a higher standard of production to the theatre. He was the first producer to create a staged restaurant where fresh coffee was brewed and actual pancakes were served. He refused to use canvas flats. He allegedly had a wall cut out of a flophouse and put on the set of his new play. He was the first to eliminate the standard footlights which gave melodramas their unnaturally lurid look. He realized blondes and brunettes needed different lightning, and his dressing rooms were equipped with lamps of different colors so his performers could adjust their makeup to different conditions. He spent a month creating the perfect sunset for Girl of the Golden West but then abandoned it when he realized his perfect sunset belonged to southern not northern California. His theatres were technologically state of the art, built with enormous fly spaces, sophisticated hydraulics, and comprehensive lighting rigs. His scenic and costume descriptions were almost maniacal in their attention to visual detail.
For the most part his obsessive scenic realism was dedicated to drama that was sensational and artificial. Many of his plays may have been plausible then, but time has stripped away their thin veneer of truth, and now most of them seem empty and formulaic. It’s perhaps inevitable that we should judge Belasco’s drama by the high standards of realism he brought to production, and by these standards his plays fall short. But realistic drama was not really what Belasco had in mind. What he was after was a distinctive marriage of scenic verisimilitude with classic melodrama. That might seem a dubious achievement since melodrama hardly has a good reputation these days. It suggests the corny, the false, and the clichéd. It’s theatre that is ridiculously over the top, worthy only of being mocked and laughed at. Belasco himself was thoroughly melodramatic both in life and art. Though of Jewish origins he wore a priest’s collar almost as a public uniform—that’s the source of his being called “The Bishop.” He was famous for throwing passionate tantrums, taking off his watch and stomping it to smithereens—only his close associates knew he kept a stock of second hand watches for just these occasions.
This theatricalizing of reality has given melodrama a bad name since it’s designed to produce a sensational effect which falsifies the reality the art claims to mirror. But what if the sensational simply heightens a deeper reality? Very long ago, in the second show I directed, at a technical rehearsal I was so furious with the sloppiness of the stage crew I picked up a club—a stage property—and hurled it with such force it went right through the cloth backdrop. It was my version of the Belasco watch stomp. It felt entirely genuine and spontaneous, but of course it was in some way calculated. It was intended to make an impression—and it did. It became the stuff of legend. But though completely over the top, my tantrum was prompted by a passionate feeling of rage and betrayal. And in this sense it was truthful and revelatory, accelerating well beyond the confines of everyday reality and tapping into something more primal—and perhaps ultimately more real. And is not this reality also the proper domain of theatre?
It’s no accident that two of Belasco’s best works became Puccini operas, since opera is the apotheosis of melodrama, the genre that best serves its deepest impulses. What are you to do with feelings so potent, so overwhelming they cannot be expressed in everyday language? You turn them into music and song. La Fanciulla del West is a terrific opera, written nine years after The Girl of the Golden West, and first directed by Belasco himself. It’s coming to Santa Fe this summer in a great production from London, and I suggest you go. But see the play first in our theatre. It’s great fun, wonderfully dramatic and just possibly Belasco’s best, mixing historical detail with sensational effect. As a young man Belasco apprenticed at an opera house in Virginia City, Nevada, where he found “more reckless women and desperadoes than anywhere else in the world.” In Girl of the Golden West he captured the real and iconic flavor of a California gold rush mining camp—and then gave it a brilliant twist. There are 18 men—and one woman (not counting the nearly mute Indian servant). The woman is The Girl, of course, and this is her story. She’s not a victim of sexual abuse or wage discrimination. She runs the Polka Saloon, with savvy and flair. Every man in the camp is in love with her, and she has to figure out how to deal with all that energy without compromising herself or provoking testosterone rampage. It’s a rough town, and she knows she’s uneducated, but she also realizes she is the light and hope of the little world where she is queen, goddess, girlfriend and mom.
The girl has an unstained character which she cherishes and is loved for. She serially flirts with every miner, but she has yet to give her first kiss. Needless to say her purity will be threatened, both by an outlaw and a sheriff. And needless to say, in the end her virtue will be recognized and ultimately rewarded. This is a classic melodrama after all. And yet, surprisingly, the girl’s virtue does not survive untainted. She is not the Lady of the Camellias, the whore with the heart of gold. She is just the opposite—the golden girl soiled by making a crucial choice which compromises her unblemished conscience. And while the ending is indeed a happy one, it is also shaded with the melancholy of regret and loss.
The Girl of the Golden West is a classic romance of the old west, which means it was a deeply American play before it became an Italian opera. The characters are recognizable, driven by circumstance, trying their luck panning for gold, and succeeding only in barely surviving. They are a community of men, bonding with a common goal, facing the harsh realities of winter, isolation and economic disappointment. They are, mostly, decent folks with tendencies towards violence when provoked. They are capable both of vengeance and forgiveness. They like to laugh, and they dance too. They tend to racism, and are unapologetically dismissive of Mexicans and Native Americans. Give them 150 more years and they’ll look very much like the many disenchanted middle aged white men surfacing in our current elections.
They form one side of the play’s balance beam—on the other side of the teeter totter, all alone, is our girl. It’s a radical and dramatically charged axis. She seems unfairly positioned, but trust me, she’s more than up to the challenge. She’s a winner, and her charm and passion will win you over. Theatrical? For sure. Melodramatic? You bet. But also deeply felt, truly sincere, richly colored, and positively sensational. This is an old fashioned play with real gold in its snowy mountains—and beating hearts too. Come on down to the Polka Saloon. They’ve got a piano in there, lots of booze, cards and cigars. And then there’s The Girl.