The Wren, 1921

The Wren, a comedy in three acts by Booth Tarkington
(read the play online)

A.L. Erlanger (Producer); George C. Tyler (Producer); Howard Lindsay (Director)

Gaiety Theatre, 1547 Broadway at W. 46th St., New York

October 10, 1921
24 performances


Cap’n Olds George Fawcett
Mrs. Freehart Marion Abbott
Frazee John Flood
Francis Sam Reed
Mrs. Frazee Pauline Armitage
Roddy Leslie Howard
Seeby Helen Hayes

The Wren

Helen Hayes and George Fawcett in “The Wren”

Eusebia (” Seeby “) Olds is the ” general manager ” of Cap’n Olds’ Place, a summer boarding house on the New England coast.  Mr. Roddy is a young Canadian artist who spends his summers there. Until Mrs. Frazee arrived Roddy seemed to be interested in Seeby. But Mrs. Frazee seemed to fascinate the boy and he was by way of being ” lost” until Mr. Frazee appeared and caused a bit of a row. Then, naturally, he turned back to Seeby, who really had been sorta managin’ the whole affair — knowin’ men were mostly like children, any how, and needed a lota managin’.

(Burns Mantle, The Best Plays of 1921-1922, p.438)


“Helen Hayes, the talented Washington girl, will be starred next  season by George C. Tylor in “The Wren,” a play written expressly for  her by Booth Tarkington.  …  “The Wren” is a three act play with its scenes laid in Maine, a section  of the country with which Mr. Tarkington is especially familiar, because of  his summer residence there for many years. In the play he has told a  very simple, but dramatic love story. Some idea of the character of the  heroine may be gathered from the title. “The wren, racist diminutive of  birds,” says Shakespeare, “will fight, her young ones in her nest, against  the owl.” In the bird kingdom, she represents the very spirit of motherhood,  and when Dickens in “Our Mutual Friend,” wanted a name for the  little cripple who was so eager to mother and protect everyone who came  near her, he called her Jenny Wren. Seeby Olds, in this new Tarkjagton  play, is just that sort—a girl filled with the mothering impulse toward her  father, her school children and her lover. It is a role entirely different  from any that Miss Hayes has previously played. “ (The Washington Post, May 15, 1921)

“Helen Hayes, remembered for her charming characterization of the subdeb, “Bab,” will come to the Hollis Street Theatre tomorrow evening in a new play by Booth Tarkington entitled, “The Wren”.
The new Tarkington play with its scenes laid in Main, with deft character drawings and quaint comedy, is said to give her, as Seeby Olds, the daughter of a crochety, invalided old sea captain, opportunities that surpass her splendid successes in “Dear Brutus”, “Clarence” and “Bab.”
George C. Tyler, in association with A.L. Erlanger, is producing the play and has selected a company of merit. George-Fawcett, who is known to all cinema fans, has deserted that field and returns to the speaking stage which he adorned for may years and will be seen as the old Maine sea captain. There will also be the young English actor, Leslie Howard, who scored great success last season in “Just Suppose,” as the friend of the Prince. Sam Reed, who will be remembered for his engaging characterization in “Turn to the Right”; Pauline Armitage, John Flood and Marion Abbott are other members of the cast.”
(The Boston Globe, September 18, 1921)

“In “The Wren” the “gentleman from Indiana,” who in this case might be called the ‘gentleman from Maine,’ has told a placid story in rather a tame way. Of course anything that Tarkington does is interesting, yet the story of “The Wren” seems better suited for a summer novel, to be read at Cap’n Olds place on the coast of Maine than for the theater.
It is a simple little tale about a young girl who runs a summer hotel for her sick father and who just has to “mother” people. One of the people that she picks out to “mother” is a young Canadian artist. She is doing quite well with the job when there appears upon the scene the wife of a New York business man. The artist and the wife carry on a little affair. Finally, the little “wren” wins out and the final curtain comes down on her again leading the youthful Canadian.
Not being very brilliant people. Mr. Tarkington has had the good sense to make his characters talk in a natural if rather mediocre manner. It is just like a bit of life, but unfortunately this bit of life needed a little bit of things theatrical to make it interesting behind the footlights. The saving grace of the whole performance was the excellent acting of the company. It was decidedly better than the play.
Leslie Howard, the young English actor, who did so well in “Just Suppose” last year, was the youthful artist. He was natural and delightful. In less capable hands Roddy might have become a little rotter trying to make love to two girls at once– and one a married woman at that. Helen Jayes– whose name appears in electric lights outside the theater, was Seeby the little girl who just has to run every one’s affairs. She also was excellent. So also were George Fawcett as old Cap’n Olds, Paulin Armitage as the “other woman” and John Flood as her husband. All is all. “The Wren” is rather light but perfectly nice theatrical entertainment. It is just as quiet as the ocean off old Cap’n Olds place on a real, warm summer’s day.”
(L. de C., Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 11, 1921)

“Booth Tarkington would have done something at least noticeable if he had called his Kennebunkport comedy “Spilling the Beans.” But because Helen Hayes is in it, and because Miss Hayes is young, birdlike, demure, and all the rest of the sweety-sweet adjectives, Mr. Tarkington called his ladylike attempt at humor “The Wren.” The language in the play comes from aquamarine Maine types and is very infrequent and very forced.
The story has to do with an Amurrican business man who shanghais his wife from a situation with an artistling in a seashore boarding house. Since witnessing “Poldekin,” Mr. Tarkington’s ferocious onslaught on Bolshevism, I am sure all his characters are 100 per cent Amurrican. The daughter of the house aids the husband in tearing his squaw away from the daisy chains of romance, and, incidentally, nets the artist-lobster for herself. (I have no wish to be slangy, but since Mr. Tarkington’s folks are fishermen and sailors I thought I would try to stay in the picture. Hence “shanghai” and “lobster.” “Aquamarine” is a little deep and I doubt if you get what I mean by it.)
Miss Hayes, with much of her saccharinity squeezed out, was “The Wren.” Her face was daubed with two spots of rouge the evening I saw the play, and they made her look as if she was in constant pain. There is no excuse for such careless or sloppy makeup. Miss Hayes must know how to blend rouge and how to treat her eyes. They looked like shoe buttons. Otherwise she was more natural than I have ever seen her, and if she gets rid of the mannerisms of face contortion she will be twice as effective. It must be a desperate thing to be a “sweet little thing”! Sam Reed was very good as a conventional Down East type, and George Fawcett, a sturdy and able actor, was utterly wasted on the paralytic sea captain. Leslie Howard was a pleasantly irresponsible artist. John Flood looks and acts like a he-man. Pauline Armitage looked sumptuously exotic and can not act at all. At least she gave no sign of being able to do so. The first fall of snow will drive “The Wren” out into the cold, cold world. it is not a sturdy bird.
(Patterson James, The Billboard, October 29, 1921)

“Miss Hayes is charming in her part. She has that rare ability of going from one part to another without carrying mannerisms around forever. Her personality is charming. It lends itself to characterizations. Miss Hayes has understanding and technique. She is living in an artistic atmosphere of the theater, and she is growing. Her voice is a pleasant combination of soft American accents and tones that are brilliantly full and Arm in texture, her voice has natural expressiveness, and it is well placed for clear, articulate speech. Everything about her suggests that delightful thing, “breding” and inherent sensibility. 
My romance begins with the entrance of Leslie Howard in the part of the lover. I would have been equally happy to have been an American boy in the part of the “summer visitor,” but I would have missed my romance. Mr. Howard was born in London. He was graduated from Dulwich, one of England’s largest public schools. Last spring an English actor called my attention to Howard, who was then playing in “Just Suppose.” We were discussing pronunciations and manners in the two countries. The actor was speaking of Chartes Hawtrey and of the “breding” which an English boy gets at the public schools. He spoke of Leslie Howard as England’s ideal of a British schoolboy, “a delightful English gentleman.”
Mr. Howard came to this country only three years ago, and, barring the war, he was just out of college. He has always lived in London. He represents in speech and manner the culture of England. He stands approved by this English actor, a gentleman and university man, who knows English culture in its purity. 1 go into this detail because I hear ignorant allusions to British speech. I like to have people know what they are talking about. I like to have British speech judged by British standards. Mr. Howard represents British standards.
Mr. Howard plays opposite Helen Hayes in “The Wren.” Altho his speech is British in intonation it blends very gracefully with the New England setting. Miss Hayes, a representative American girl, with the pronunciation of the Eastern States, and Mr. Howard, a representative English boy, with the speech of Southern England, are not ridiculously far apart in the ordinary mechanics of pronunciation. There are all kinds of British actors just as there are all kinds of American actors, and we must be honest in saying what is British just as we must be honest in saying what is American.
When I talked with Mr. Howard after the play—it was the first time I had met him—I had one question which I put first. It was this: “How did Sam Reed’s speech and the New England dialect in the play impress you?”
Mr. Howard flashed his reply in an instant: “The speech of Mr. Reed and of all these New England people reminds me of the Cornish Coast of England. Their pronunciation is surprisingly British. You can hear it anywhere along the coast. If this play and this company were to go to London, I believe the London audience would accept this as a coast play of Old England.”
… As a study of comparative English “The Wren” Is the prettiest play in town. It suggests to me that New England has kept the nearest to Old England of any of the colonies and that the Atlantic has not entirely washed away the conservative shores of either country.
At the end of the play Helen Hayes and Leslie Howard Walk out on the beach hand in hand. It is a pretty ending. They are kith and kin, and they speak a common language.”

(Windsor P. Daggett, “The Spoken Word”, in The Billboard, October 29, 1921 – read the full review)

” Booth Tarkington’s “The Wren”  gives the impression that it is a bright, vivacious Tarkington comedy suffering from low blood pressure. It does not seem to be quite its normal self. It should have much of the whimsicality and caprice of “Clarence”, but is so subdued, so very discreet that it is not whimsical or capricious at all. It is as though the chill New England atmosphere, with which the author has suffused his play, has had an inhibitory effect on him, causing him to check himself cautiously at just the places where he had meant to be gayest. Seeby, the very industrious young person who manages everything and everybody in Cap’n Olds’s summer hotel, was surely just the person for Mr. Tarkington to write a play about. But he somehow fails to make of her the bustling, wistful, Barriesque little  figure she might well have been. Perhaps  her portrait is a little too lifelike;  she is no more or less appealing  than any youthful New England  school teacher who runs her father’s  hotel in the summer time. And the  rest of the play seems similarly underdeveloped.  The material is there,  but not much is done with it. The affair  between Mrs. Frazee, from the  city, and Roddy, the painter of terrible  pictures, is such a very circumspect  affair that it can scarcely serve  as the axis around which to turn even  so slight a play. Koddy does not care  particularly for Mrs. Frazee, he just  likes to talk to someone while he is  painting. And she does not care much  for him. Frazee who, naturally, turns  up unexpectedly, is most perfunctory  in his jealousy. He does not care  much either. It was a violinist last  winter, and now it is an artist; and  he is not quite sure that he would  mind if his wife did run away from  him. Little Seeby adores Roddy, but  he is so preoccupied with his financial  difficulties that he cannot keep his  mind on his love making. Frazee  takes his wife back to the city, and  Seeby goes up the beach with Roddy  to talk to him while he paints; and  that is the end of the story.  It is a provokingly absent-minded  play.   “
(Kenneth Andrews, The Bookman, December 1921, p. 375-376)

The Wren - The Scene (from Samuel French edition, 1922)

The Wren – The Scene (from Samuel French edition, 1922)

The Wren, 1921
The Wren, 1921