This Side Idolatry (1933)

This Side Idolatry by Talbot L. Jennings

Gilbert Miller and Leslie Howard (producers)

Lyric Theatre, London, October 19, 1933

The Cast

William Shakespeare Leslie Howard
Christopher Marlowe Edgar Norfolk
Richard Burbage Gyles Isham
Mary Fitton Margaret Rawlings
The Earl of Southampton Glen Byam Shaw
Robert Greene Esmé Percy
Bankside Kate Yolande Jackson
Thomas Kyd Carlfton Hobbs
Sir Walter Raleigh Earl Grey
Sir Fulke Greville Douglas Jefferies
Ingram Frizer Wilfred Fletcher
Will Kempe Mark Stone
Puck Alfred Ayre
Philip Henslowe Townsend Whitling
Ben Jonson Arthur Young
Anne Shakespeare Dorothy Hamilton
Judith Shakespeare Virginia Field
John Fletcher Terence Downing

The play is still unpublished. The manuscript text is owned by the Rare Book Literary and Historical Papers, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Author

Talbot L.  Jennings (1894-1985) was born Shoshone, Idaho. He graduated at the University of Idaho in 1924. He received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Yale University, and earned a master’s degree at Harvard University. In 1930 attended the Yale School of Drama.  In 1931 he published a play in prologue and three acts, No More Frontiers (New York, Samuel French).
Talbot Jennings wrote or co-wrote many screenplays for cinema and television (Mutiny of the Bounty, 1935; Romeo and Juliet, 1936; The Good Earth, 1937; Northwest Passage, 1940; Frenchman’s Creek, 1944; Anna and the King of Siam, 1946; The Knights of the Round Table, 1953). He was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Writing and Screenplay, for Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935 and Anna and the King of Siam in 1946.


Any dramatist who sets out to impose his Shakespeare on ours is entitled to a liberal measure of sympathy and forbearance. We have to accept it that, at best, he can show us no more than a few facets of that mind which created a crowd of fictitious persons who are as real to us as our neighbours. We must be content if he can devise an action with some regard to the known facts of Shakespeare’s life and set in motion a character who is neither dummy nor idol. And this Mr. Jennings has very skilfully contrived to do.
This Shakespeare is without the glorious garments that posterity has woven for him. Mr. Leslie Howard makes him “a handsome, well-shaped man, and very good company,” and the author gives him “a very ready and pleasant, smooth wit.” His wit is tinged with modernity, but since it is probable that the prosperous actor-dramatist in his moments of triumph and failure is much the same in all ages, there is no great harm in that. He is a over whose spiritual temper is tested by the loss of the mistress he idealizes to a powerful aristocratic patron; he is a poet who regrets that such poetry as he has been able to write must be buried in fugitive plays; but he is above all, determined to live a man of property and to die a gentleman. “I have manor houses in my blood,” he cries at one unguarded and not very Shakespearian moment. But this man is alive, and without doing much violence to our preconceived notions, we may suppose him to be the kind of man that the real Shakespeare was. How spontaneously do Shakespearian phrases, or, better still, faint adumbration of them, spring to his lips, especially while making love to the Dark Lady in Southampton’s gardens, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream being played (for the first time, Mr. Jennings would have us believe) on the other side of the edge.
In spachcocking fragments of the text into the dialogue of his play Mr. Jennings is nearly always happy, and there is a nice sense of irony in letting the failing Robert Greene suggest to the ‘prentice Shakespeare (a young man ruthlessly determined to get on) the “To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow” soliloquy on dusty death. In the early scenes of Marlowe dying in front of his eyes and of the young man whose wordly means are unequal to the qualities of his mind (a bit of a snob, perhaps), this Shakespeare is more acceptable than he becomes later.
His love affair with Mary Fitton does not go deep enough, so far as we can see, to justify the tragic poet who can no longer write comedies that will draw the public. For in the final and weakest of his scenes, Mr Jennings reveals that The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest were dead failures and that the whilom king of Elizabethan stage was forced by his company to abdicate in favour of another “upstart crowd,” John Fletcher. But Shakespeare, as we are all glad to see, takes it magnanimously. Mr. Leslie Howard, beginning as a beardless youth slightly reminiscent of the Grafton portrait, and ending as a refined version of the Droeshout engraving, pierces as deeply into the character as the author will allow him; Miss Margaret Rawlings gives us a credible mixture of hardness and sensibility in her portrait of the Dark Lady; Mr. Edgar Norfolk imposes his Mercutio-like Marlowe; and the rest of Shakespeare’s contemporary dramatists and players are played variously and well. (The Times, October 20, 1933)

How does Mr. Talbot Jennings, an American author, fare in his play “This Side Idolatry,” presented at the Lyric Theatre last night?
On the whole, he does well. With the valuable assistance of Leslie Howard, an actor of great charm, he makes Will Shakespeare a sad and lovable man.
We are with him–off and on–from the time he held horses on Bankside to the sumptuous evening of his life at Stratford-on-Avon.
In the view of Mr. Jennings, it was always the dignity of squiredom at Stratford which was the driving force of Shakespeare’s ambition.
His plays he thought little of. They were a means to an end. He wanted money and actors wanted plays. Therefore he wrote them. His sonnets meant more to him, and, though he was modest, he was confident. He knew what men and women were like and he realised that the comedy of life was shot through with tragedy. He was, in this sense, a reformer, and an iconoclast in the theatre of his day.
“This Side Idolatry” draws Shakespeare in a manner which almost satisfies. (B.B., Daily Mirror, October 20, 1933)

There is nothing stilted or ponderously reverent about his [Talbot Jenning’s] play. His study has gravity and reverence enough; but it is conveyed in the sensitive and appropriate weaving of Shakespeare’s own words into the fabric of the piece, and not by mannered solemnity. On the contrary, the dramatised legend of the nonchalant young man from Stratford, who hammers on Marlowe’s door and insists on reading to him a play that he carries under his arm, goes with a spontaneous zest; as if a man were relating with delight the exploits of an intimate. We see Shakespeare first in Marlowe’s lodgings, having arrived at the fortunate moment when Robert Greene has broken down, and Burbage (Mr. Gyles Isharn) is clamouring for a play to go on with. And we see Marlowe and the confident youth who should have been down in the street holding the head of the manager’s horse drawn by necessity and the young man’s boldness into a hurried collaboration. We see the Dark Lady (Miss Margaret Rawlings) presently in the Earl of Southampton’s garden, and we see Shakespeare’s love betrayed. We, see the death of Marlowe (Mr. Edgar Norfolk); the stage of the Globe Theatre; Shakespeare in middle age at the house at Stratford-on-Avon; and finally the stage of the Globe again, when “The Tempest” has failed and the company is urgent in their demands that Shakespeare who has had his days shall be replaced by the modern playwright, who knows how to please the public taste, John Fletcher. The play is best in its earlier scenes. The young Shakespeare, one feels, might have said this and done that, as Mr. Leslie Howard who played the part, and the author presented him. Mr. Howard’s acting gave a superb impression of nervous power, of emotional reserve, and of a profoundly humane personality. But with it all he kept the clear outline of a portrait of an ambitious energetic, young man, who has something to sell, and plenty to do with the money when he gets it.  Mr. Edgar Norfolk’s Marlowe was the man of letters, not the robustious frequenter of taverns, The passages with Mary Fitton were like pages of a book that the passage of time has blurred. Miss Margaret Rawlings was exquisite to look upon as the Dark Lady, but the picture was vague and cold. As the play proceeded its inspiration faltered and the fine, sweeping, movement of its early scenes was checked; but the central figure preserved the nobility and integrity of the author’s and actor’s conception. Mr. Leslie Howard’s Shakespeare should be seen. It is a magnificent performance. (V. S.-J., The Yorkshire Post, October 20, 1933)

Mrs. Leslie Howard is almost as happy as her famous husband to be back in a London theatre again.
At the Lyric, after the first night of the Shakespeare play, “This Side Idolatry,” she looked most attractive in a black gown with a novel double collar of white chiffon, and was busy helping her husband to open telegrams.
Meanwhile, Leslie confessed that the production realised his greatest wish of the past two years. The play first came under his notice in New York, but it was not till now that he had been able to get it done. It will probably be seen in America later. (Daily Mirror, October 21, 1933)

To write a play about an artist of genius is probably the most difficult task a dramatist can set himself, and it is all the more to the credit of Mr. Talbot Jennings that he has made such a satisfactory job of his play on Shakespeare, “This Side Idolatry”, at the Lyric Theatre. He follows the sensible prevalent fashion of using modern English, and although he lapses now and then both in the direction of his native American an of his subject’s native Elizabethan, the trasition is perfectly done and one’s ear is never offended.
Even more sensibly he treats Shakespeare as a man rather than as a dramatist or a poet, with the result that one is willing to take on trust the literary genius, seeing that the portrait is so fully filled in. If some of his subsidiary characters, especially Burbage, Marlowe and Ben Jonson, tend to stand out more than the central figure, that is not so much the fault of Mr. Jennings, though he shows signs of a certain natural timidity of approach, as of Mr. Leslie Howard, who plays the part in undertones throughout.
To my mind, however, the play does not suffer from this, as Mr. Howard quickly convinces one of Shakespeare’s quiet sensibility and intelligence, qualities in which he rightly surpasses his contemporaries.
The production is a joy and the acting brilliant throughout. Mr. Aubrey Hammond’s settings are both beautiful and flawlessly accurate, and I have seldom seen a more perfect historical group than that presented by Mr. Gyles Isham’s robust Burbage, Mr. Edgar Norfolk’s Marlowe, Mr. Arthur Young’s Jonson, and Miss Margaret Rawlings’ Dark Lady of the Sonnets. (The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, October 23, 1933)

It is more or less an axiom that you cannot represent genius on the stage with much hope of success. Mr. Talbot Jennings has made a very discreet attempt to do so in his play “This Side Idolatry,” produced last week at the Lyric Theatre. The quota­tion, from Ben Jonson , which he has taken for a title is a clue to his attitude to the Shakespeare who is the central figure of the play. He very wisely concentrates on the human figure whose world was bounded by the Globe Theatre and Stratford-on-Avon, rather than on that other who was not for an age but for all time. In other words, he tries to show us Shakespeare as he imagines his contemporaries saw him. Mr. Leslie Howard, who plays the leading part, bears himself very modestly, and, if anything, is given to understatement. I tho­roughly enjoyed tire play, and hope it will  be well supported. It is a much more convincing piece than Miss Clemence Dane’s “ Will Shakespeare.” (The Church Times, October 27, 1933)

Mr. Jennings honors the memory of Shakespeare well on this side idolatry, a position which gives a dramatist the best chance of imposing his Shakespeare on ours. If the character is not an idol but a living creature, it may be easier to allow him genius when he picks up his pen to write. Well, this Shakespeare is, outwardly, a slick fellow, cool, masterful and observant in his dealings with men, determined to live a man of property and to be recognized in Stratford as a gentleman, something of a Congreve in his desire to be considered a man of breeding rather than an actor-dramatist, with a Noel Cowardish turn of wit for everyday use. So far as externals go, this is an excellent beginning. Mr. Jennings, perhaps taking a hint from Professor Dover Wilson, takes care to bring home to us something which is often forgotten, that Shakespeare (for most people the Grand Old Man of Literature) was once young and in fact was never really old. The early scenes of this play are much the most rewarding. Greene is near the dusty end of his life, and the alert young Shakespeare, quite ruthless in his determination to make good, seizes the chance of a quarrel between Burbage and Greene to get his manuscript of “Love Labour’s Lost” read. It is a vivid, probable though quite unhistorical little scene, and Mr. Jennings here lets the disconsolate Greene murmur the words: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” thus turning to effective mimic use his illustration of how chance phrases might enter the poet’s eager mind to be transmuted later into great tragic utterances.
Throughout the play Mr. Jennings is particularly adroit in bringing fragments of the text of, better still, faint adumbrations of them spontaneously off the lips of his hero. And another example of his method may be found in the scene in which Marlowe, the original Mercutio, is killed, much as Mercutio at a later date is to be killed. The method is skilfully applied in all the earlier scenes and in some of the later ones with the result that we get a living portrait of the kind of man Shakespeare might have seemed to his contemporaries. But at the inner life of this man we can only guess. Mary Fitton and he love and kiss and part, and for the poet it is a disillusioning experience, but the disillusionment scarcely goes deep enough to justify his development into the tragic poet who can no longer write comedies that will draw the public.
For Mr. Jennings ends his chronicle (with weak theatricality) on the dead failure of “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” and the forced abdication of the whilom king of the Elizabethan stage in favor of Fletcher, on a Shakespeare wistfully tearing up his version of “Lancelot and Guinevere” in which he has written that poetry which his lifelong preoccupation with the stage has never allowed him to write. The play is gaily dressed by Aubrey Hammond and wll acted by a distinguished cast, Leslie Howard seeming to achieve precisely the effect at which the author has aimed and Margaret Rawlings giving us an attractive sketch of a Dark Lady whose passion for the good things of life defeats her natural sensibility. (A.V. Cookman, The New York Times, November 5, 1933)

The most startling items from the London front concern Talbot Jennings’s “This Side Idolatry.” It closed a week ago last night after only ten days’ run. The reception was mixed and business was improving, but Mr. Miller decided to take it off anyhow. The settings and costumes are being shipped to New York, to see what they–and the play–can do here. (The New York Times, November 5, 1933)

Almost at the close of Mr. Talbot Jennings’s play, This Side Idolatry (which deserved a better fate than a few days’ run), Shakespeare, having had three failures at the Globe Theatre, is seen giving place to John Fletcher. He is slowly tearing up the script of his latest, unwanted play, when Ben Jonson says, “ Why not print it? ” Shakespeare replies, “ Print a play! Who wants to read a play ? ” (The Church Times, November 10, 1933)

A play by an American author, Talbot Jennings, that may not see Broadway until Leslie Howard disposes of sundry movie contracts, is “This Side Idolatry.”
It has been recently played in London by Mr. Howard and received very favorable notice.
Mr. Jennings is from the State of Idaho, and came East to study in Professor Baker’s play-writing course at Yale. His play deals with Shakespeare the man rather than the genius. Stage biographers of Shakespeare fail usually, it is pointed out over there, because the genius so overshadows the man of whom so little is known; but Mr. Jennings has “succeeded better than most.” He has, moreover, to a large extent overcome a handicap suggested by a writer in the Manchester Guardian who remarked that it is inevitable that “an author would to some extent fail, if the poet is to walk about reciting his own lines, leaving little chance for the lines that are not by him.” (Literary Digest, November 25, 1933)

Talbot Jennings’ play, “This Side Idolatry,” is to be brought to New York for a tryout this season, according to word received by his friends in this city recently. The play was launched in London, where it received a very favorable report by the London Times, but was taken off by its manager. Gilbert Miller, after a 10 days’ run. Mr. Miller shipped settings and costumes to New York, where he plans to produce it. “This Side Idolatry” is based on the life of Shakespeare. Its premiere in London was witnessed by Mr. Jennings and his wife. Mr. Jennings is a native of Shoshone, although he has lived outside the state for a number of years, and has become known in the field of arts and letters. (The Salt Lake Tribune, December 17, 1933)

 This Side Idolatry  rid2