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Friday, January 22, 2010

The Witching Hour by Augustus Thomas 1908

On page 329 of the book, professional gambler and protagonist of “The Witching Hour” Jack Brookfield says: “Wouldn’t it be a pretty finish if you took my hand and I could walk you up to the camera and say: I told you so --!”

The how of the prescience of this allusion by the playwright Augustus Thomas immediately became clear once I read the Wikipedia entry. Before reading the Big W, I was flipping back and forth between the copyright and page 329, trying to figure out how this writer foresaw talkies a couple decades ahead of their existence.

Gus Thomas was at the center of showbiz in his day. His plays were popular hits. He also replaced Dion Boucicault as the adapter of foreign plays for theatrical presentation at Madison Square Garden. The concept of sound recordings and nickelodeons in combination must have been floating around in his world. He heard the idea from someone in conversation; he imagined it one afternoon while lying on his divan – makes no difference. He put it into one of his scripts as an idea for the hoi polloi to mull over. The hoi polloi mulling something over and making it real then becomes part of the plot of "The Witching Hour".

(Interestingly enough, Gus Thomas wrote for the movies 12 years later, albeit when they were still silent.)

Well-developed telepathic skills in a gambler remain unrealized until a Supreme Court justice comes a calling hoping to purchase a Corot that Jack owns, and that he just happens to consider a good luck piece. (A reference to the Corot forgeries that flooded America at that time -- knowing the pictures actual provenance or not. Interesting that Jack acquired his Corot from Knoedler.) After the judge leaves, Jack’s niece’s fiancée kills someone while flailing in fear at a cat’s eye stick pin. That’s just the first act.

(And I got in a reference to death by flailing, which I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post about “The Scarecrow”. You would have to know both plays to know how different the situations are in the two dramas.)

The drama that ensues is more about ESP and will power than it is about the first act curtain death and the death sentence the young perp is facing – though the “proof” that mind power exists is played out against these melodramatic circumstances. It’s an interesting trick getting the audience (in this case me as a reader) to slowly accept the “reality” of these mind powers; at which point Thomas raises the stakes by raising the issue of responsibility for what occurs as the result of exerting the powers, even unknowingly.

I’m not going to argue whether mind connections exist or visualization leads to realization. However, if they actually existed in some individuals to the degree that “The Witching Hour” suggests, casinos would all have some kind of brain scanners at the door.

Based on this play, I’d say that Gus Thomas did what he did quite well and I can see why he was popular in his day. He is dissed for this in the Wikipedia entry: “According to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, his plays are "on the whole, not profound, and provided entertainment of a kind acceptable to his audiences."

Just reading this play was quite an interesting diversion. The playwright put something in it for everyone and he followed through on all the various threads. Good stuff for a winter evening near the stove.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon" by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan"
by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass"
by William Butler Yeats

"Riders to the Sea" J. M. Synge

"The Scarecrow -- a tragedy of the ludicrous" by Percy Mackaye.

"The Witching Hour"
by Augustus Thomas

-- Uke Jackson


  1. An email about this post came in from Spats, who gave me the book I'm reading and blogging:

    Just to remind you, per your current blog entry, that Tom Edison was presenting
    "talking" motion pictures (albeit a projector synched-up with a behind-the-screen
    Victrola) as early as 1910. Color, too!

    But more likely than prophesy is the fact that the term "talking to the camera"
    or "look at the camera and say" were commonly used script terms in silent films
    even though subtitles or intertitles were still being used and there was no sound.

    Just some annoying, picayune minutia from The Prince of Nostalgia!

  2. Also, I have to note that there are 2 or 3 more or lessw gratuitous uses of the "N" word in the 4th act. The play is set in Kentucky.