Notes on Tovarich

Jacques Deval (1890 – 1972) was an extremely prolific and popular French playwright who experimented with many styles in his writing. He combined a passionate love for Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky with an avid interest in realism and an enthusiasm for light comedy and cinematic techniques. Many of his plays, like Tovaritch (1933 and spelled with a “t” in the French original) provide a comic treatment to an underlying tragic situation. His creative output spanned five decades and he wrote approximately 40 original plays, ten theatrical adaptations, ten books, and worked on six films. His plays were adapted for English-speaking audiences by the likes of Robert E. Sherwood and P. G. Wodehouse. He was sometimes a reluctant man of the theatre, claiming that it would ultimately “harm his salvation.” Fond of women, he was married five times. Passionate about travel, he would often take off for foreign shores, neglecting not only the more mundane demands of life, but ostentation and self-promotion as well. He died in Paris at the age of 82.

Robert E. Sherwood (1896 –1955) was an American playwright whose work emphasized the role of personal sacrifice in times of war and peace. In 1917, he dropped out of Harvard to enlist in Canada’s Black Watch Battalion and served in France. After his discharge, he became the drama editor of Vanity Fair (1919-1920). He was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. Sherwood’s first success as a playwright came in 1927 with Road to Rome, an anti-war satire about Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. He won the Pulitzer Prize for three of his most notable works, There Shall Be No Night (1935), Idiot’s Delight (1936) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938). During WWII, Sherwood became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech writer and subsequently, the head of the overseas branch of the Office of War Information.  In 1946, he wrote the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives, which won seven Academy Awards. His screenplay of the film Rebecca was also nominated for an Academy Award. In 1949, he received a fourth Pulitzer Prize for his book Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History

Kissing Russians: “[Russians] seem to have a kiss appropriate to every emotion. I noticed a young lady rush into the arms of an old lady and passionately kiss her upon the left shoulder again and again. One man before leaving the train, with much show of affection, kissed six men who came to bid him good-bye.  Each special kind of kiss had its peculiar meaning! Kissing is governed somewhat by caste, an inferior kissing a superior in a prescribed way. Equals have their significant kiss, while relatives and families kiss also according to custom.” George C. Bartlett  (1892)

On fleeing from Russia watching the Crimean shore disappear: “‘No one, the people or the children, wept or talked or made so much as a motion. They stood there absolutely still, facing northeast toward Russia, like a shipload of robots in a dream.’ Then the came the singing of the Orthodox hymn, ‘Lord have mercy on us,’ and finally everyone began to weep.” Vera Lebedeff (1943) quoted by James E. Hassell

“…the brilliance of Deval and his original American translator, the dramatist Robert Sherwood, was to unite these domestic and political themes in a social satire of
elegant and tremendous expertise.”  Sheridan Morley, in The New York Times (1991)

“The world of Russian exiles is now mythology, but the play – very well done and very funny – remains a study of manners that could, particularly in the last act,
inspire in a director a modern perspective.”  Le Monde (1974)

Director’s Thoughts on Tovarich
tovarich – Russian for comrade; friend

Over the many years that I have been responsible for selecting the roster of plays to present for you each season, I have developed a kind of “treasure seeker” mentality.  I have read thousands of plays over the course of my life, and yet I have only skimmed the surface of the rich lodes that I doggedly mine each year. Those “expeditions” to discover precious theatrical gems that can be dug out, dusted off and shined anew for our audience is one of the most exciting parts of my artistic life. It is also one of the most frustrating, for much of what one extracts from the past has rightfully been buried — plays that have not withstood the test of time and will, and often should, remain relics of the past. Every once in a great while, however, my sifting for “gold” pays off, and upon reading Tovarich for the first time three years ago, I felt like I had extracted a rare jewel whose colors shifted and intensified upon each subsequent reading.
With the aid of many a reference book and website, I found that Tovarich, during the period between the Great Wars, was one of the most popular and widely produced plays in the world. It has an astonishing history. Written by French playwright Jacques Deval and adapted for an English speaking audience by the great American author Robert E. Sherwood, it had a meteoric life – blazing a bright trail through the theatrical sky for several decades. It also made its way to the silver screen, and eventually was adapted into musical form in the early 1960’s, after which it seemed to suddenly and mysteriously plummet from sight. It seems to me that this disappearance was mostly due to the radical shift in dramatic form, style, and content that hit the world in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. It was the onset of the avant-garde movement; theatre of the absurd; the “angry young men plays”;  the super-realism of Pinter; the poetically brutal work of Williams, Miller, and Albee; and of the abstractions created by The Living Theatre, Mabou Mines, and many other such companies. It was a global shift – theatre was moving into new territory all over the world, and plays like Tovarich were considered old dinosaurs from a naïve and more superficial time. I think nothing could be further from the truth, but sometimes things have to vanish for a while before their worth can be reassessed.  In the best of circumstances, they gain value; they gain “weight.” Tovarich is such a case. I think it is a play that has, by virtue of the passage of time, acquired dramatic mass, import, and substance. Now, with new eyes, we can see that the romantic and comedic veneer of the play, while a beautiful and delightful one, and worth much on its own, is only one of its many colors. Underneath, in the play’s heart, there lies a darker fairy tale — a fairy tale for adults — replete with all the elements inherent in the best of those tales.  It is a fairy tale in reverse. These characters do not go from rags to riches, but from riches of the most elevated ilk, to a life with only the promise of anonymity, hard work, exile, and surprisingly, happiness. 

Robert E. Sherwood himself was somewhat mystified by the play’s popularity.  I think it can be accounted for in two ways.  First, this backwards fairy tale presents a formula for happiness that is achievable, and while idealistic, does indeed seem within the realm of true possibility. Secondly, the story’s two heroes are people that we adore. We want to be like them. They embody so many of the qualities that are universally admired, but they are flawed and real, and therefore enough like us that we can aspire to emulate their journey and their decisions. I find their ultimate decision, at play’s end, to be revolutionary. It bucks tradition, it is based on a moral revelation, and it defies typical human behavior. That does not make it unbelievable, however. 
I have fallen in love with this play. With each rehearsal session, I saw more and more complex layers within the piece, and my admiration for its profundity and skilled writing has grown tremendously. It is part biting social commentary; tremendously Chekhovian in its rich sub-text and odd humor; part French farce; sprinkled with dramatic Russian melodrama; saturated with Tolstoyian romance; and bristling with shades of Dostoyevsky. All of those colors have been skillfully melted together by a brilliant American writer who was preoccupied with the themes of personal sacrifice, war, and true happiness. Robert E. Sherwood is one of America’s greatest dramatists, and yet, as with Tovarich, we have to some extent, forgotten him.  A spotlight needs to be aimed on his extraordinary body of work once again, and I fully plan to do so, starting with this play.

There has been much written lately about the resurgence in popularity of The Great Gatsby, and popular opinion has it that it’s due to the fact that the book’s tale of the obsessions and preoccupations of the 1920’s are ours once again. Almost 100 years later, we find ourselves in the same place, dealing with the same issues in a very similar way. I can say the same for Tovarich, and this is what interests me most about the play. For all its froth, it is a piece of work that contains a plethora of what we are seeing all around us, everywhere in the world. It deals with revolution, exile, homelessness, poverty, greed, class struggles, prejudice, the plight of the working class, oil, torture, entitlement, and with the quest for wealth, power, and domination.  It also portrays people who have courage, loyalty, perseverance, pluck, humility, generosity, intelligence, a moral center, and the ability to learn and change. It depicts choices that demand tolerance, compromise, balance, reason, and compassion. Unlike Gatsby’s anti-heroes, Tovarich’s central couples find hope, promise and happiness. That is why it is a fairy tale. And like many fairy tales, true love is the divining rod that guides the journey; and that journey contains lessons and a moral.  Fairy tales teach children about the perils of life, the pitfalls that lie in our way, and about the demons, both within and without, that must be vanquished. This adult fairy tale provides those same lessons, as well as the most iconic message of all such tales — it urges us to remember where true happiness lies, and we should heed it.