Death Takes a Bow

Special Features   Death Takes a Bow Playbill's resident historian Louis Botto explores plays that deal with "undiscovered country" — death.
Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in Death of a Salesman
Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in Death of a Salesman Photo by Fred Fehl

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From Noël Coward to Arthur Miller, playwrights have always been fascinated by the notion of death, and through the years the subject — either depicted as a character or a happening — has been explored imaginatively on Broadway.

In 1929 Death Takes a Holiday, an Italian play translated by Walter Ferris, proved to be a hit at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The clever plot presented death as a character named Prince Sirki who comes to earth for a three-day holiday. He is an honored guest at a party in a castle where he enchants guests and falls in love with a beautiful woman named Grazia. When it is revealed who he is, Grazia, who loves him, decides to return to the otherworld with him. The eminent British actor Philip Merivale played Sirki and Rose Hobart his beloved. The play was made into a successful film with Fredric March and Evelyn Venable and is rumored to be coming to Broadway as a musical.

The character of death was also charmingly portrayed in Paul Osborn's 1938 hit play On Borrowed Time. Death, called Mr. Brink, comes to earth to take a grandfather, but the salty man does not wish to leave his grandson, chases Mr. Brink up a tree and traps him there. When his grandson suffers a fatal accident, however, Gramps lets Mr. Brink out of the tree and tells him to take him and his grandson so they can be together for all eternity. In 1939 the play was made into a wonderful MGM film starring Lionel Barrymore as Gramps, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink and Bobs Watson as the grandson.

Although death did not appear as a character in Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize–winning play Death of a Salesman, it was a major element of the plot. When Miller wrote the famous play, he was warned that plays with "death" in the title were not box office hits; he wisely refused to change it. His drama became world famous and the final scene of Willy Loman's death brought tears to playgoers' eyes. Another Pulitzer play that contained a heartbreaking death scene was Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town. When the heroine, Emily, dies in childbirth, she is given a chance to return to earth on any special day of her life. She chooses her 12th birthday, but it becomes a sad choice when she returns and realizes that people don't appreciate how precious life's small moments are.

Leave it to Noël Coward to treat death with great hilarity. In his famous comedy Blithe Spirit, he presented a novelist, Charles (Clifton Webb), who holds a séance with his second wife, Ruth (Peggy Wood), conducted by a truly batty medium, Madame Arcati (Mildred Natwick). During the séance, the medium manages to bring back Charles' first wife, Elvira (Leonora Corbett), who really stirs up trouble and causes the death of Ruth, leaving Charles haunted by not one but two dead wives. This was undoubtedly the funniest depiction of death ever presented on the Broadway stage.

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