How Eva Le Gallienne Revolutionized Early 20th-Century Theater

It’s the eyes I see first. That clear, direct gaze. Come and get it, she seems to be saying. Or maybe, I dare you.

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Then the arms, bent at the elbows and wrists, with tapered fingers set on narrow hips. A defiant pose. Defy is a word I often associate with her. She defied convention, odds, an entire industry. She knew what she wanted and went after it.

The photo is black-and-white, but I’m sure her blouse is blue, her favorite color. It’s buttoned to the neck, held fast by a brooch, with one breast pocket to store a pen or cigarette. Her lower half is out of frame; she might be wearing a skirt to attend rehearsal, or trousers for her daily fencing lesson. Low-heeled shoes would complete the ensemble, allowing her to move with elfin agility.

She’s not quite 30 years old here, her skin as yet unscarred by the fire that would severely wound her three years later. Her short hair flips out at the edges, unruly and unfashionable, as it would remain. She kept it cropped, she said, because she wore so many wigs onstage. The style might have been a signal, too, to those in the know.

Her name is Eva Le Gallienne. I’ve never met her, but I know her well.

The work of the theatre is ephemeral, but sometimes its lost treasures can be revived.

At the time she was photographed by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair in December 1928, Le Gallienne had already become a West End sensation, a Broadway star, and the founding manager of New York’s first non-profit classical repertory theatre. In total, her career spanned most of the 20th century, during which she worked continuously as an actor, director, producer, writer, and translator. But I’ve always been most captivated by the third decade of her life, when this audacious young lesbian took Manhattan by storm.

The work of the theatre is ephemeral, but sometimes its lost treasures can be revived. This was my aim when I decided to dramatize Le Gallienne’s story.

In the fall of 2016, I was cast in an Off-Broadway show with Carole Shelley, a British-born actress then in her seventies who had made her Broadway debut in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. On the rainy autumn day that marked the beginning of our friendship, we were crawling up Sixth Avenue on a city bus, chatting about all things acting, when she mentioned that she’d performed in the 1976 national tour of Kaufman and Ferber’s play The Royal Family, a comedy about an eccentric clan of actors based on the Barrymores.

“And I got to work with a wonderful actress called Eva Le Gallienne,” said Carole.

“I’m obsessed with Eva Le Gallienne!” I replied. “Tell me everything.”

Nine years earlier, shortly after graduating from college, I’d read a 1996 biography of Le Gallienne written by Helen Sheehy and had been riveted by her action-packed life story. Born in London, raised in Paris and Copenhagen, the multilingual Le Gallienne devoted herself to the theatre at seven years old, upon seeing a performance by the blazingly charismatic French actress Sarah Bernhardt. She made her London stage debut at age 15 and was instantly hailed as an up-and-coming star, but opportunity soon beckoned from across the Atlantic, where a family friend promised to introduce her to the New York theatre scene.

Lured by the prospect of adventure, she and her mother set sail for America, where Le Gallienne spent the next five years playing supporting roles on Broadway and on tour. At 21, she made her first big success in a comedy called Not So Long Ago, followed by acclaimed performances in two dramas, Liliom and The Swan. By age 24, she had become a Broadway sensation and a national celebrity.

Over the next seven decades, Le Gallienne played numerous leading roles on Broadway, crisscrossed America in touring productions, performed scenes from Shakespeare as the “class act” in vaudeville shows, and appeared on radio, film, and television. She was mentored by Italian actress Eleonora Duse, the originator of naturalistic acting, whom she met during Duse’s final American tour. She also directed and produced dozens of plays in New York and the regions. A perpetual seeker of knowledge, she penned new translations of the works of Ibsen and Chekhov and authored two autobiographies, a children’s book, and a paean to Duse called The Mystic in the Theatre.

Most famously, in 1926 Le Gallienne established the nationally acclaimed Civic Repertory Theatre, where for seven years she served as lead actor, director, and producer. The non-profit company, located on Fourteenth Street at Sixth Avenue, was subsidized by wealthy donors, facilitating its mission to offer tickets at affordable prices. The Civic put on classic plays by the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, and Ibsen, as well as the work of new American playwrights, including Susan Glaspell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Alison’s House. Its resident actors included celebrated names of the time, such as Alla Nazimova, Joseph Schildkraut, and Josephine Hutchinson, as well as those who earned later fame, like Burgess Meredith and Norman Lloyd. Le Gallienne’s dream was that every city in America should have such a theatre, prefiguring the Off-Broadway and regional theatre movements that would sweep the country decades later.

Sheehy’s biography revealed not only Le Gallienne’s accomplishments, but also the inner workings of her mind and heart. Bold, ambitious, and confident, she was ardently feminist and openly gay. Her bohemian upbringing at the hands of her mother, a pioneering Danish journalist, gave her an innate sense of self-assurance that bordered on arrogance. As such, she was never in doubt about her sexuality, always knowing that she preferred women to men. There was no lavender marriage, no secrecy, no shame.

As a young queer actress, all aspects of her story were inspiring to me. And now here I was, chatting with someone who had actually worked with her.

For her part, Carole was surprised that I even knew of Le Gallienne: despite her prodigious accomplishments, she’d largely fallen into obscurity since her death in 1991.

“Well, firstly,” she said, “you must call her ‘LeG.’ That’s what everyone called her.”

Carole described how the then 77-year-old LeG had sailed down a flight of stairs with an ingenue’s verve. How the two of them had sparred playfully onstage, prodding each other to greater heights of comic ingenuity. How gnarled and expressive LeG’s hands were, injured in 1931 when a faulty water heater exploded at her Connecticut home. How one day, when Carole, then in her thirties, was sitting with LeG in her dressing room between performances, the older woman quietly asked, “Will you hold my hand until I fall asleep?”

Seeing how enchanted I was by these stories, Carole lent me her signed copy of At 33, LeG’s first autobiography. I took it home and read it in a single sitting.

I’ve been an actor since I could talk, a writer since I could read. My passion for both—as well as singing, which to me is like breath—has always pervaded my life. That selfsame passion radiated from the pages of LeG’s book. I knew many of the stories in it already, but reading them from her perspective gave me a new sense of identification with her. Like LeG, my desire to be an actor blossomed when I was a child; like her, I hero-worshipped the actors I most admired and dedicated myself to learning their craft. Also like her, I loved language and literature, losing myself in the world of books.

But what moved me most was her belief that the theatre was both a fine art and a social necessity—that it should be “an instrument for giving, not a machinery for getting.” Her goal in founding the Civic Rep was to serve the audience that she called “the real intelligentsia”: not the privileged elite who paid top dollar to see Broadway hits, but the working people for whom the arts were a source of enrichment and edification. She’d been perplexed, upon arriving in America, to find that in this country, all theatre was “show business,” its survival dependent on box office returns. She believed that actors should be able to stretch their abilities by playing many roles at once, rather than a single role eight times a week in a long Broadway run. She decided to use her power and influence to create the kind of theatre in which she dreamed of playing.

I was so swept away by the drama of the book—particularly her experience as a young woman running a theatre company in the macho world of 1920s New York—that I decided to try my hand at turning it into a play.

I realized I was accomplishing one of LeG’s most treasured aims: to make great theatre accessible to as many people as possible.

I plunged into a six-month research journey, viewing photographs of LeG at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, reading her diaries and letters at the Library of Congress, and paging through the Civic Rep records at Yale’s Beinecke Library. I immersed myself in the rich resonance of LeG’s voice, listening to her spoken word recordings and watching as many video clips as I could find.

Her accent was all crisp consonants and rounded vowels, a synthesis of the Queen’s English and Mid-Atlantic American. She maintained her trim five-foot-four figure throughout her life, proud not of what it looked like, but what it enabled her to do, whether she was flying out over the audience as Peter Pan, expiring elegantly as the tubercular Lady of the Camellias, or clowning around as Wonderland’s White Queen. To her, all acting was character acting: playing a part was no fun unless she could disappear into it. At the same time, her performances seemed effortless, supported by her agile body and a voice that conveyed every facet of her inner life.

I was most intrigued by her diaries, which revealed her deepest principles and passions. I’d read excerpts from them in the biography, but holding them in my hands was spellbinding—particularly the one from 1918, in which LeG wrote about her first love affair with a woman: Mary Duggett, whom she dubbed “Mimsey.” As I read her scribbled words of adoration, I marveled that she’d understood herself so much better than I had as a teenager. (It took four years of my early adulthood for me to come out, first to myself and then to others.)

Mimsey soon gave in to familial pressure and married a man, but the two remained close friends, and Mimsey later served as business manager of the Civic Rep. By then, LeG was ensconced in a love affair with Josephine Hutchinson, a bright young actress four years her junior who joined the company during its first season. The two women lived together for six years, shuttling between an apartment above the theatre on Fourteenth Street and a small house in the woods of Weston, Connecticut. At their country idyll, they grew roses, bred Cairn terriers, and relished the tranquility that made such a contrast to their busy urban lives.

In December 1932, the Civic Rep was poised to open an innovative new production of Alice in Wonderland, in which Jo Hutchinson was to play the title role. But the company’s survival was threatened by the economic hardships of the Depression: its wealthy donors were running out of funds and season subscriptions didn’t offset operating costs. Faced with the prospect of losing her life’s work, LeG began to take out her frustration and fear on those around her, endangering her relationships with the two women she loved most: Mimsey and Jo.

It was at this pivotal moment that I decided to set my play. After a few false starts, I was struck by inspiration: the theatre was LeG’s world, so the piece had to be as theatrical as possible—fast-paced, transformational, adventurous. I would play LeG, with four actors playing everyone else. Scene after scene poured out of me as I zigzagged between research and imagination, interweaving LeG’s attempts to save her company with flashbacks to the key events that shaped her. The piece was no longer an adaptation of At 33; it had its own life force. I workshopped and revised it for three years, until the pandemic shutdowns killed all the momentum I’d been building toward production. Finally, in 2022, I sat down with an audiobook producer who had attended the play’s first public reading and told me that it would make a great audio drama.

“I want to make this happen,” I said. “Can we do that?”

So we did. And as I adapted the audio version of the script, converting stage directions to sound cues and clarifying the characters’ conflicts, I realized I was accomplishing one of LeG’s most treasured aims: to make great theatre accessible to as many people as possible. Today, live performance tickets are often prohibitively expensive, but digital audio is widely distributed at affordable prices. Audio drama stimulates listeners’ imaginations, bringing entire worlds to life with sound alone. It seems fitting, then, that this should be the medium through which I introduce Eva Le Gallienne to new audiences, illuminating not just what she accomplished, but who she was: beautiful, flawed, audacious, vulnerable, brilliant.

I see her now, defiant as ever, hands on hips as she gazes out of her photograph—every inch the Queen of Fourteenth Street.

Here you are, I tell her. Welcome home.


The Queen of Fourteenth Street by Barrie Kreinik is available from Hachette Audio, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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