Friday, September 21, 2007

Foregoing Fame for Family

Posted by Bruce Miller
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers opens tonight as the latest production in Barksdale’s ongoing Women’s Theatre Project. In celebration, I’ve been researching the four remarkable women playwrights whose work made it onto our stage during Barksdale’s first decade (1953 – 1962). Two weeks ago, I profiled Nancy Mitford (see Barksdale’s First Woman Playwright – Nancy Mitford, Sept 6), and last week we explored the life of playwright and social activist Vera Caspary (see Femme Fatale / Femme Fantastique, Sept 10).

Today I introduce you to a third woman author whose relative anonymity today is emblematic of the challenges faced by women playwrights in the mid-1900s. This remarkable woman was a first-rate actress on the international stage, and the author of two smash hit plays and a novel that inspired a classic film. She was the lifelong wife of one of the world’s greatest actors, and the mother of a film star who became Hollywood’s reigning adolescent icon in the 1960s. Like Vera Caspary, this author wrote a story that was later "musical-ized" by one of the world’s foremost theatre composers—in her case, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Can’t guess who this forgotten woman author is? Allow me to introduce you to …

MARY HAYLEY BELL (1911 – 2005)

The daughter of a well-to-do British official in the Chinese customs service, Mary Hayley Bell was born in Shanghai in 1911. She spent her childhood in the Far East, moving at an early age to Tientsin, China (now Tianjin). When she was nine, she began writing plays, most of them focusing on a person challenged by physical or mental disabilities. “I don’t know why,” she later said, “but I suppose they were heroes to me.”

As a teenager, she met a young actor named John Mills. Mills was just beginning his career in a touring company known as the Quaints. When the Quaints toured to Tientsin, Colonel Francis Haley Bell, Mary Hayley’s father, hosted a tennis party for the touring British actors at his home. Mills met the Colonel’s daughter only briefly. He later remembered her as “the ball-boy with flaming red hair.” (She was a strawberry blond.) She later remembered him as “the young man I rescued from the courts when he became incapacitated by my father’s lethal punch.”

Mills went on his way, and Mary Hayley Bell eventually returned to England to be educated at Malvern Girls’ College and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When her father lost nearly all his money in misguided Far Eastern business ventures, she had to fend for herself, and set out to become an actress. She was cast in an American touring production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street in 1932. As fate would have it, her first touring performance was in Shanghai.

She was awarded her first London role in 1934 in the popular West End comedy Vintage Wine, a role she would later recreate on film. This was followed by other West End roles, a tour of Australia, and a Broadway debut in 1939.

Later that year, Mary Hayley Bell and John Mills were both working again on the London stage. As he was making an early exit alone one night from a party, he bumped into “a beautiful girl with red hair” stepping out of the elevator. He recognized Bell at once, and “offered to escort her down the corridor and back to the party.”

Mills was at the time working his way out of an unhappy early marriage. Mary Hayley Bell was on the rebound from an ill-conceived Australian engagement. Their relationship blossomed quickly. Just before WWII, Mills enlisted and the two sweethearts staged the mock “illicit weekend” that was required to gain Mills’ British divorce.

They were married in 1941 while Mills was on a 48-hour leave. Despite initial hardships during the war, their marriage lasted 64 years, turning out to be one of the longest, closest and happiest unions in show business. Mary Hayley Bell decided to give up acting for marriage and motherhood. The young couple had three children, Juliet, Hayley and Johnathan. Both of the Mills’ daughters became notable actresses, Juliet starring on American television in the hit 60s series, Nanny and the Professor, and Hayley becoming an international star by age 14, and Disney’s favorite heroine in films including Pollyanna (pictured to the right) and The Parent Trap.

When Mary Haley Bell gave up acting, she took up playwriting. “It was something I could do,” she said, “while staying home and looking after my children.” She penned four hit dramas, three of which became star vehicles for her husband: Men in Shadow (1942), Duet for Two Hands (1945), Angel (1945), and The Uninvited Guest (1953). Men in Shadow was so authentic in its depiction of French resistance fighters trapped behind enemy lines that the war censors at MI5 required Bell to make certain cuts so as to not give away classified secrets. The play was a smash hit in London, with simultaneous hit productions running in Moscow and New York.

Duet for Two Hands (the play that Barksdale produced in 1959, starring Pete Kilgore with his hair dyed blond) was an even bigger success. Delving into those dark realms of the imagination that had fascinated Ms Bell since adolescence, Duet told the story of a maimed young poet onto whom were transplanted the hands of a murderer. Duet was London’s biggest hit during the post-war years, and transferred to Broadway before making its way to Hanover Tavern.

In 1961, Mary Hayley Bell wrote her first novel, Whistle Down the Wind. It was immediately made into what has become one of England’s most cherished films (starring a young Hayley Mills alongside Alan Bates). Decades later, Whistle was adapted into a major musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lloyd Webber’s revival of his version of Whistle Down the Wind will be playing Chrysler Hall in Norfolk in the winter of 2008.

After a lifelong and legendary acting career (winning an Oscar for Ryan’s Daughter in 1970), John Mills became Sir John Mills (and Mary Haley Bell became Lady Mills) sometime in the 1970s. They lived happily and scandal-free well into their 90s. Mills died in 2004, and less than six months later, Mary Hayley Bell died in 2005.

She achieved international success as an author and actress, but Mary Hayley Bell regarded her greatest triumphs to involve her family. She expressed little regret and a great deal of pride when, later in life, she was recognized mostly as John Mills’ wife and Hayley Mills’ mother.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Just playing devil's advocate for a moment (and politically incorrect), isn't the reason why we have never heard of these women authors (Mary Hayley Bell, Vera Caspary, and Nancy Mitford) because their work isn't very good and therefore hasn't stood the test of time? Aren't there also a lot of male authors from mid-century whose names have been forgotten?

Bruce Miller said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think you are dead wrong to say that "their work isn't very good." Have you read their work? All three women wrote major plays, novels and, in the case of Vera Caspary, screenplays that became classics and helped to establish the literary trends of their times. They all wrote with unique and compelling voices that stood out from the male perspectives of the vast majority of their literary contemporaries. Despite the obstacles they faced in a male dominated industry, they all achieved international success.

As far as their work standing up to "the test of time," Nancy Mitford's major novels are still in print, as are Vera Caspary's, more than a half-century after their initial publication. How many authors can claim that? And the films of "Laura" (Caspary) and "Whistle Down the Wind" (Bell) are still regarded as timeless classics.

You are of course correct to say that there are "a lot of male authors from mid-century whose names have been forgotten." Hopefully we'll be able to bring some of them back into the spotlight in future productions as well.

Thanks for your comment. Debate is good.