Tarkington, Terrorism, and Broadway

1920.  September 9: Tarkington’s play Poldekin, a polemic tragicomedy-satire about a Bolshevik who is sent to America to foment revolution but instead learns to love democracy, opens at the Park Theatre on Broadway.

September 16: a letter-carrier on Wall Street discovers red-inked flyers reading, “Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you,” and carrying the signature of “American Anarchist Fighters.”  At 12:01 that afternoon, a blast rips the corner outside the J.P. Morgan bank on Wall Street. 38 people die, with another 143 wounded.  The incident, at the time, was the deadliest bombing on U.S. soil, and was called an “Act of War” by the Washington Post.

Shortly thereafter, two anti-Communist “broadsheet” flyers appear in Manhattan, citing both the incident and the text and title of Tarkington’s play, and titled “Direct Action” and “The Bullet or the Ballot.”  Both conclude with the rhetorical question, “Are you for Lincoln or Lenine?”

The flyers praise Poldekin and Tarkington for their bravery in calling “Bolshevists” out for their narrow-mindedness and thuggery.   “‘POLDEKIN’ ‘unfortunately displeases,’ irritates and annoys a great many ‘parlor radicals’ and half-baked theorists whose ‘viewpoints’ are outraged because Tarkington’s ideas run counter to their own particular opinions. ISN’T THAT TOO BAD?” The unknown authors of the flyers refer, of course, to the polemic-laced reviews of Tarkington’s polemic-laced play.

The odd publicity did not in any event help draw audiences to the timely but nonetheless topically uncomfortable play.  It closed after only 44 performances.

The September 16th bombing is remarkable on its own, of course, for its significance in the history of terrorist action on American soil, whether of domestic or international source.  It is further remarkable because no one was ever brought to trial for the crime.

Within the Tarkington oeuvre, the play is remarkable for a number of reasons.  First, while Tarkington was an eager participant in leveraging his talents for war-time pro-American propaganda, Poldekin stands out as his most overtly political work.  However tenuous the connection may be between the play and the bombing—and it’s not too tenuous, probably, given that the hero’s test of loyalty in the play is printing flyers very much like the one that announced the Wall Street attack—the play is also clearly Tarkington’s most controversial.

Biographer James Woodress (pp. 215-218) reports that Tarkington wrote an open letter to one New York drama critic in which he made it clear that liberal reaction to the play was, well, reactionary.  “To any man inclined towards individual freedom what we have is more pleasing, and seems to work for more progress than what the Bolshevists offer us at a price of bloody revolution.”  That’s the not the same thing, Tarkington pointed out, as claiming that America had the best possible system of government.

Interestingly, the play featured, in addition to George Arliss in the lead role, Edward G. Robinson in a supporting performance.

I’m almost 100% certain that I read Poldekin at one point.  Yet I clearly do not own a manuscript of the play, as it was never published in book form.  It did appear serially in McClure’s magazine (March-July 1920), but I know I have never seen microfilm of those issues.  My attempts today to locate an online version of the text (it is in the public domain) have been fruitless.

I have, however stumbled across the following very interesting links and references:

  • Booktryst’s complete report on the incident and related labor unrest, which was the inspiration for this news item.
  • A September 12, 1920 New York Times article about the changes made in bringing the play to Broadway from Baltimore.  The article is notable for details of correspondence between producer George Tyler and Tarkington; for comments by Arliss about Tarkington; and for comments by Tarkington about Arliss.
  • A March 3, 1920 New York Clipper article about the play’s trial opening in New Haven, Connecticut.
  • An issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle (Autumn 1955) which, starting on page 15, includes a very detailed account of the run of the play, critical reception, and reaction from producers, cast, and Tarkington.  A must for Tarkington enthusiasts, as these details do not appear in Woodress’ biography.
  • Russo and Sullivan (footnote on p. 256) note that Tarkington rewrote the play as Karabash for a Kennebunkport company in 1939.

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