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Augustus Thomas

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Augustus Thomas
(1857-1934)


" A more searching analysis of Thomas's work reveals a basic interest in those situations in which a human being becomes the center of a struggle between the intense desire for personal liberty and the circumstances which obstruct that desire in its fulfillment. the root of all significant drama have, of course, lain in the struggle of the individual against fate or his surroundings. But the importance of Thomas's contribution lies in the distinctly American way he has treated that theme." Quinn

Thomas, Augustus (1857-1934) The American playwright of distinctly American themes was born in St. Louis to a doctor. In his youth he was a page boy to the 41st Congress. He thought briefly of becoming a lawyer, but later spent six years working on the railroad.

He turned to journalism and became a writer for newspapers in St. Louis and New York. He began writing plays as an adolescent and organized an amateur dramatic company with which he toured. His first real job in the theatre was as assistant treasurer for Pope’s Theatre where he received an inside education into the workings of the theatre.

His first produced play Editha’s Burglar, an adaptation of a novel by Mrs. F. Hodgson Burnett was mounted by an amateur company in his home town and in which Thomas played the burglar, Bill Lewis. Rewritten with the help of Edgar Smith, a budding fellow actor who went on to become a playwright, and expanded into four acts it was done successfully on Broadway in 1889. It was fortunate to have Maurice Barrymore in the title role and with this success Thomas’s career was launched.

Shortly thereafter he supplanted Dion Boucicault as play doctor and adapter for the Madison Square Theatre. His first totally original success was Alabama (1891), which focused on the relationship between an unregenerate old Confederate and his more nationalistic son, and which signaled Thomas’s interest in plays based on American themes. Among his more notable achievements were In Mizzoura (1893) which centered on the love of a kindly sheriff for a thoughtless girl; Arizona (1900) a saga of love and treachery among soldiers in Arizona Territory; The Witching Hour (1907), in which the occult is employed to solve a murder; As a Man Thinks (1911), in which a doctor can reconcile feuding spouses, but cannot prevent his own daughter’s elopement; and The Copperhead (1988), which details the story of an Illinois farmer who, at the request of President Lincoln, pretends to be a sympathizer with the Confederacy. It was also the play for which Lionel Barrymore became known as America's character actor for his performance as Mitt Shanks.

Thomas also wrote several popular comedies the best of which were The Earl of Pawtucket (1903), in which an English nobleman tries to pass himself off as a Yankee; and Mrs. Leffingwell’s Boots (1905), recounting the comic complications following the discovery of a lady’s silk slippers in a bachelor’s apartment. During his forty year career he wrote more than 60 plays, all of which always dealt with well documented American scenes and had a markedly American flavor.

He served as president of the Society of American Dramatists for many years and after the death of Charles Frohman became active in the firm that the producer left behind. Thomas’s autobiography The Print of My Remembrance was published in 1922.

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Sketch Alabama Poster later in life
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JosephWilliam Haworth & Augustus Thomas

Joseph Haworth acted in Augustus Thomas’ early success A Man of the World. A. M. Palmer’s company at the Madison Square Theatre introduced the play to New York in October 1889. Maurice Barrymore played the leading role of Captain Bradley with great success. The character of a sophisticated gray haired soldier, who has learned many of life’s lessons from his own past mistakes, fit Barrymore perfectly. The action of the one-act play involved Captain Bradley’s maneuvers to save his young ward’s endangered marriage. A Man of the World was paired with a three-act British farce called Aunt Jack, which told the story of a barrister prosecuting a breech of promise case involving a woman with whom he is totally smitten. Barrymore was considered inappropriate for the role of the elderly lovesick barrister Bentley Brue, and gave the second half of the evening over to actor E. M. Holland.

However, when A. M. Palmer toured the two plays, Joseph Haworth played both Captain Bradley and Bentley Brue. It was a dazzling display of versatility, and an almost unheard of theatrical hat trick for a leading man. Despite the original production’s long run, Palmer brought Haworth’s company back to New York in October 1890 for an engagement at the Grand Opera House. Following this, Haworth took the two plays back on tour for the rest of the 1889-1900 season. Joseph Haworth then adopted A Man of the World as his own, and acted the Augustus Thomas play at benefit performances for the rest of his career.

William Haworth’s plays influenced Augustus Thomas as a writer. Although Thomas was a versatile playwright who had successes in many different genres, his early hits Alabama (1891), Arizona (1900), and Colorado (1901) were American plays in setting, theme, and acting style. These plays adopted the spectacular effects of William Haworth’s The Ensign, A Nutmeg Match, A Flag of Truce, and On the Mississippi. Both authors took advantage of all the latest theatrical technology while seeking a natural and intimate acting style against their vast scenic backdrops. William Haworth’s underplaying as Jim in Ferncliff and A Flag of Truce was a template for this style.

It is not surprising that in 1901 Augustus Thomas sought William Haworth out, and persuaded him to return to the stage as an actor in the spectacular remounting of Arizona at the Academy of Music in New York. William’s subtle non-acting style was perfect for the play’s western American setting. His success as Sergeant Kellar was immediate in New York, and was equally well received in London the following year.

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