Power: The American Way

By Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
February 21, 2014
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, co-authors of some of Broadway’s most enduringly funny comedies, also collaborated on a topical pageant, The American Way, which opened at Broadway’s Center Theater, January 1939. Pageant, not play, because of the enormous cast on an extra wide stage, but also because the approach to its subject matter—a German immigrant representing all immigrants, and his courage and patriotism. Created and staged in the years of the European War, but before it became World War II, it was one of a genre that preached tolerance and respect for American values as represented by the German immigrant family, led by Frederic March. It was an all-star production team, with sets by Donald Oenslager and lighting by Hassard Short, and a rare directorial assignment for Kaufman.


Frederic March as Martin Gunther entreats his grandson Karl not to join the Nazi Brigade in the stage production The American Way.

Image ID: psnypl_the_4520

The climactic scene shows March attempting to dissuade his grandson Karl (in a light shirt) from joining a pro-Fascist youth group, whose leader stands on the highest platform. This image has been cropped, probably for newspaper use, to focus on the individual (and, in this case, star). Another version of the photograph extends further to stage left, showing more men on a larger platform, literally backing up the grandson. In both cases, the diagonal platform points mid-stage right, towards the corps leader. The mob on the platform represents power; March and his small platform interrupt the diagonal, but provide a bridge between him and Karl. Short’s lighting, probably enhanced for the photograph, reinforces the Fascist sweep of history, ratcheting up the audience' fear and suspense. No spoiler alert with this post—I'm leaving you in suspense.

The production would be accused of “prematurely anti-Fascism” and forgotten. The Vandamm Collection photographs document the production well, and give us glimpses into Oenslager at his most experimental and Short’s best work in drama, rather than revues. However, only this image and one of the Ellis Island opening (image ID psnypl_the_4521) are currently in the Digital Collections. If interested in the play, you can see the other photographs and read much more about the play, other Broadway anti-Fascism, or Kaufman & Hart's comedies at LPA's Billy Rose Theatre Division.