For almost 40 years, the Theatre Guild, which proclaimed the desire to advance theater as an art, as opposed to pursuing commercial reward at the box office, was among the most influential producing organizations in America.
The Guild arose in 1919 from the ashes of the earlier, experimentally inclined Washington Square Players. The Guild’s two prime movers, Lawrence Langner and Theresa Helburn, had been key figures in the earlier organization; with the formation of the Guild, they assumed the roles they would maintain throughout their careers: Langner was in charge of the business end of the organization, and Helburn was chiefly responsible for casting and script selection.
The Guild moved into the Garrick Theatre on West 35th Street, which earlier had been revamped to suit the minimalist tastes of French director Jacques Copeau, sojourning in New York during World War I. Restoring, as best their limited funds would allow, the theater to its earlier, more traditional configuration, they opened in 1919 with Spanish playwright Jacinto Benavente’s The Bonds of Interest (Los intereses creados ), which featured Edna St. Vincent Millay in the role of Columbine. Undaunted when the play failed to draw an audience, the Guild persisted, and their second production, St. John Ervine’s tragic John Ferguson (1919), proved to be a major success. The play, set in northern Ireland, concerns a young girl’s seduction by an unscrupulous landowner and the man’s subsequent murder by the girl’s brother.
The success of the play came about through events of an extraordinary nature: Broadway actors, seeking to improve their lot through unionization, went on strike in August of 1919, closing every play in New York City. Because the Guild was organized as a cooperative, with actors receiving a percentage of the box office, the fledgling union, Actors Equity, left the group alone. Thus, for a period of time, the Guild’s John Ferguson was the only professional production in town, virtually guaranteeing an audience.
Ervine was to become the liaison between the Guild and George Bernard Shaw, who raised the artistic profile of the organization by granting them the rights to premiere his play Heartbreak House (1920). The Guild was eager to undertake the project, and the play was staged amid a great deal of fanfare. Their next Shaw production was Back to Methuselah (1922), a gargantuan drama requiring three evenings to be staged in its entirety. Although the production lost money, the Guild claimed that they were willing to sacrifice profit for art and then went on to produce Shaw’s St. Joan more successfully in 1923.
During its early years, the Guild was faulted for producing the work of European dramatists exclusively. This trend was reversed with the 1923 production of Elmer Rice’s expressionistic The Adding Machine and Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted the following year. In 1927, they added to their prestige by becoming the exclusive producers of Eugene O’Neill, staging that season two major works, Marco Millions and the enormously successful Strange Interlude. Other O’Neill productions included Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and The Iceman Cometh (1946).
At the outset of their professional existence, the Guild established a business mechanism that was to serve them well over the years: They initiated a “subscription season,” thereby generating, through advance ticket sales, a financial cushion that somewhat reduced the uncertainties of the box office. So successful were they in developing a list of subscribers that in 1925 they had sufficient backing to open their own 1,100- seat Guild Theatre on 52nd Street.
Two years later, the Guild took to the road, offering a repertory “season” of plays in Chicago and Baltimore. The circumstances behind this expansion were as follows: A “Guild School of the Theatre,” established in 1926 and soon abandoned, left adrift their acting teacher, Rouben Mamoulian, who was then recruited to direct an all-black cast in DuBois and Dorothy Heyward’s play Porgy. The popularity of the drama meant that, during the fall of 1927, time would weigh heavily on the hands of the Guild’s regular acting company, and it was determined that they would travel to Chicago and Baltimore with several of their plays where short repertory “seasons” would be presented.
Buoyed by the success of this venture, in 1928, the Guild extended their reach, adding subscription series in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Philadelphia. With subscribers now numbering some 60,000 and advance sales of $600,000, the Guild had become a hugely successful enterprise, but they were still vulnerable to the criticism that they were indistinguishable from any other large-scale commercial producing organization. Critics complained that they selected scripts that would showcase their most popular stars while hypocritically cloaking box office ambitions in the rhetoric of art.
Within the organization itself there was discord. In 1931, two Guild employees, Cheryl Crawford and Harold Clurman, rejecting what they regarded as conservatism and timidity in production decisions, left the Guild to form their own Group Theatre, which proved to be the most innovative production company of the 1930s. In 1938, a group of Guild playwrights that included Robert E. Sherwood (Reunion in Vienna  and Idiot’s Delight ) and Maxwell Anderson (Elizabeth the Queen  and Winterset ), provoked by what they regarded as the organization’s high-handed treatment of their work, withdrew to form their own Playwright’s Production Company.
Despite high-water marks during the 1930s (the George Gershwin Porgy and Bess of 1935, culled from the Heywards’ 1927 play, to name one of the most financially successful and artistically enduring, as well as the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Time of Your Life  by William Saroyan), the Guild was confronting a $60,000 debt and imminent demise in 1939. The play that bailed them out was their production that year of The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn, but the real turnabout came several years later with Oklahoma!, based on Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs, a Guild production from 1931. The show, which teamed Rodgers and Hammerstein for the first time, opened in 1943 under Rouben Mamoulian’s direction with choreography by Agnes de Mille. Transforming a straight play into a musical had paid off once more. The show ran for more than five years on Broadway, making millions for the Guild and for its investors. (Sales of the recording were also highly lucrative: Oklahoma! pioneered the now standard practice of recording—and selling—Broadway musicals with the original cast.) In 1945, Mamoulian, de Mille, and Rodgers and Hammerstein were again teamed in the production of Carousel, adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, which the Guild had produced in 1921. Recycling played a major role in the Guild’s continuing operation.
The enormous success of Oklahoma! provided the cash infusion the Guild needed to expand their dominion in the early postwar years. The first new market to be developed was radio, with the premiere of “The Theatre Guild on the Air” in September 1945. The program, produced in conjunction with ABC radio, featured one-hour truncations of Theatre Guild favorites, among them Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The move to television was made in 1947, in collaboration with the developing NBC Television Network. The first play to be televised was the drama responsible for the Guild’s initial success, St. John Ervine’s John Ferguson. This initial project was to lead, in 1953, to the Guild-produced dramatic program, The United States Steel Hour, which existed for a decade, ceasing production in 1963. On Broadway, the 1950s also saw the Theatre Guild’s career-launching production of William Inge’s melancholy Come Back, Little Sheba (1950).
By the late 1940s, the Guild was at its peak, with 31 subscription cities and a reputed 150,000 subscribers. Increasingly, however, the organization was coming under fire for announcing shows and then not delivering, using in their promotional material phrases such as “among the prospects” in selling a season’s shows. At mid-century, the Guild was reputed to be the richest producing organization in America; it was also generally regarded as no different from any other production company. Indeed, the organization was decried for not financing its own productions; for its failure to produce a permanent acting company, a school, or a studio; and its apparent inability to advance the careers of new American dramatists. Disturbingly, in the view of its critics, the Guild was not investing in its institutional future.
With the deaths of founding members Helburn in 1959 and Langner in 1962, Guild productions severely declined and in 1964, for the first time in its 45-year history, there were no Guild productions whatsoever. Management of the Guild fell to Langner’s son, and the company produced an occasional play or film in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the Guild’s newsworthy activities were reported, not in the theater columns of the press, but in the travel section: The organization was promoting cruise line holidays featuring evening entertainments—plays, songs, and sketches—performed by “distinguished actors.”
Eaton, Walter Prichard. The Theatre Guild; the First Ten Years. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Helburn, Theresa. A Wayward Quest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. Langner, Lawrence. The Magic Curtain. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1951. Nadel, Norman. A Pictorial History of the Theatre Guild. New York: Crown, 1969.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.