Friday, September 27th, 2013...9:30 am

Auspicious Debuts: Dear Liar

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Jerome Kilty and Cavada Humphrey in Dear Liar, 1960. Angus McBean Photograph (MS Thr 581). © Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard UniversityOn July 31, 1957, a thin crowd at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, Mass. listened as Jerome Kilty (Harvard ’41) and Cavada Humphrey read—or pretended to read—from the correspondence of George Bernard Shaw, “the well-known vegetarian,” and famed English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

Campbell.   Perhaps some day, if you are very good and behave properly at rehearsal I will write you a love letter.

Shaw.   A love letter! Sancta Simplicitas! When did you ever write me anything else? No; let me write; and do you pray for us both; for there is always danger when that devilment Love is at work!

Kilty had himself adapted their letters for the stage, distilling into two acts forty years of ardent and intimate—not to mention illicit—exchanges between two of the theatre’s most titanic personalities. Both were consummate egoists: “lustless lions at play,” was the phrase Campbell used. And their feuds were riddled with stinging barbs and broadsides, sometimes directed in good humor and at others with deadly-serious aim. Words may not have been Mrs. Campbell’s métier, but she proved a surprisingly fit antagonist for Shaw; and on occasion her wit even matched his own.

Campbell.   Oh darling! It’s too late to do anything but accept you and love you—but when you were quite a little boy somebody ought to have said “hush” just once.

Dear Liar poster. Designed by Nikolaĭ Pavlovich Akimov. St. Petersburg Comedy Theatre, 1961. ppfMS Thr 968

 Campbell.   You don’t deserve to be as clever as you are, and it’s not that you are so clever—it’s just your exuberant and mischievous mind . . . and the beloved Irish accent, which I believe the serpent had or Eve would never have noticed the apple, far less eat it.

“Dear Liar” is hardly a full-blooded drama. After all, nothing really happens. Brooks Atkinson called it “savory scraps from the Shavian larder.” But even he admitted that the letters were expertly framed and stitched together.

Audiences didn’t seem to mind. The show played in sixty cities across the U.S. before landing on Broadway with Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne. Only there did its reception temper. But abroad, under Kilty’s continued direction, the play achieved wild success. By 1961 one New York critic wondered if there was any place left in the free world where “Dear Liar” had not been staged.

Shaw.   I must go now and read this letter to my wife, Charlotte. My love affairs are her unfailing amusement. Besides, I love an audience.

The papers of Jerome Kilty were received as a gift from the playwright’s estate in April and include correspondence from Thornton Wilder, T. S. Eliot, Gore Vidal, Alfred Lunt, Maria Casares, and Jean Cocteau, as well as numerous scripts, compositions, and photographs.

This post is part of a series called “Auspicious Debuts.” Houghton staff members will feature “firsts” from the Library’s collections ranging from first editions and first appearances in print and on stage to novelties, innovations, and the unprecedented. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the AuspiciousDebuts tag.

[Thanks to Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, for contributing this post.]

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