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Inside "Trying": Charles Paolino Talks With Joanna McClelland Glass

By Charles Paolino

originally published: 03/26/2018

Inside "Trying": Charles Paolino Talks With Joanna McClelland Glass

It’s a long way from Saskatoon to Georgetown, and that doesn’t mean only 1600 miles as the crow flies.

It’s a long way culturally, too, and that was even more true in 1967, when Joanna McClelland Glass, a child of the prairie, became the personal assistant of Francis Biddle, an erudite and eminent former attorney and judge.

Her experience as the last of a series of aides to the often cranky Biddle was the basis for her two-character play, Trying, at the George Street Playhouse on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick through April 8.

Broadway veteran Philip Goodwin plays Biddle, and Carly Zien plays Sarah, who represents Joanna Glass.



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The playwright’s family—from Austria on her mother’s side and Nova Scotia on her father’s side—settled in Saskatchewan in the late 19th century and, although she is often cited now as a quintessential Canadian playwright, she came to the United States as a young adult, leaving behind an abusive father and a rugged environment.

Biddle’s pedigree could not have contrasted more sharply.

By his account, his family were well-to-do Quakers living unhappily in England; after crossing the Atlantic they bought from William Penn four hundred thousand acres of what is now New Jersey.

That and the fact that Biddle was to be “ensconced in Philadelphia society” weighed against a smooth relationship between the scion of old money and tradition and the product of homesteading, trail-blazing pioneers.

“That was in his DNA,” Glass said. “He couldn’t relate to the Canadian prairie, so we couldn’t relate. I was very young, but this wasn’t only a clasH of ages; it was a clash of geographical differences.”

Biddle was also a descendant of the first attorney-general of the United States and the son of a Philadelphia law professor.

He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and was a clerk to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; a federal judge; solicitor-general and attorney-general in the Franklin Roosevelt administration; and chief American judge at the Nuremberg trials.

But when Glass met him he was convinced, accurately, that he would die within a year, and he brooded over the fact that he had allowed himself, as attorney-general, to be goaded into sanctioning internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and on a more personal level, the facts that he hadn’t known his father, who died young, and that he and his wife had lost a son while he was still a child.

He was also done with moving on with the times, according to Glass:

“The modern world was beyond him. I think of the fact that kids are no longer being taught cursive. He was the kind of man who would like to go to the British Museum and to read some of the original manuscripts of, let’s say, Charles Dickens. The Dictaphone was beyond him at 82.”

The play portrays Biddle as losing some of the fine tuning on his faculties and that, too, was an irritant.

“He was really a very difficult man to be with,” said Glass, who nonetheless developed both fondness and admiration for him.

“It was almost like a husband-and-wife situation,” she said of their working relationship. “We weren’t in the house. We were working in what had been the stable of a carriage house in Georgetown, sort of away from everybody.

“He would start to make a phone call and then not remember who he was calling. When that happened, my stomach would be full of dread, because then he would be angry for the rest of the day.”

She said she mused at the time over whether Biddle’s discomfiture was partly due to the fact that position and power were irrevocably behind him and intellectual prowess was deserting him.

“I used to go home most nights thinking, ‘I wonder if he is this difficult because he has more to lose than the rest of us as far as mental capacity is concerned.’ It must be all the more frustrating. The entire business of being ‘emeritus’ is very difficult.”

In spite of Biddle’s decline, Glass said, he and his wife, the poet Katherine Garrison Chapin, “led an active intellectual life right up to the end,” including salons they hosted in Georgetown and at their home on Cape Cod. Their circle included personalities such as the poet Archibald MacLeish and the composer-critic Virgil Thomson.

Glass said she had been warned of the pitfalls of working with Biddle by his wife—an unseen character with whom “Sarah” consults by telephone in the play.

“Mrs. Biddle had warned me,” Glass said, “you have to have spine, and you have to deal with him. Three others before me had caved and left.’’

Biddle was aware of the effect he had on these women; when he pointed out the bathroom to Glass he told her that was where the others “went to cry.”

But Glass, now a Florida resident, had prairie toughness, and she didn’t cave. After Biddle’s death in 1968, she said, she kept in touch with his widow and to this day is close to members of his family.

Trying had its premiere  in Chicago in 2004; Glass said there have been 150 productions of the play, including a BBC Radio presentation last summer.

Two of her one-act plays, Canadian Gothic and American Modern, are frequently performed together. 

Another, Play Memory, directed by Harold Prince, was nominated for a Tony Award for best play in 1984.



Trying is on stage now through April 8th at George Street Playhouse

103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Box office: 732-246-7717

boxoffice@georgestplayhouse.org



 





Centenary Stage Presents "Apples In Winter" - a National New Play Rolling World Premiere
(HACKETTSTOWN, NJ) -- Centenary Stage Company’s 2018 – 19 theatrical season continues with the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Jennifer Fawcett’s award winning Apples in Winter. Limited performances will run November 8 through November 18 at the Centenary Stage Company Lackland Performing Arts Center at 715 Grand Ave. Hackettstown, NJ.
Trojan Women: JCTC Reinvents Classic Tragedy for Today’s Times
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC) presents Trojan Women, a multimedia and multilingual adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy reimagined for today’s turbulent times. Trojan Women  opens Friday November 2nd for an 11-show run that closes on Sunday November 18 at Merseles Studios, 339 Newark Avenue, Jersey City. Tickets are $25 ($15/ Student and Senior Discount – must show valid ID).
Douglas Taurel To Perform "An American Soldier's Journey Home" On Veteran's Day
(HOBOKEN, NJ) -- On November 11, 2018 (Veterans Day), Douglas Taurel, actor and creator of the acclaimed solo show The American Soldier, will perform his new play An American Soldier’s Journey Home at the Hoboken Museum in Hoboken, NJ at 4:00pm. The play was commissioned by the Library of Congress Veteran History Project. It was invited to performed at the Library of Congress both on Veterans Day and Memorial Day of 2017. The play will commemorate 100 years when the Great War ended and the last shot was fired.
Fair Moon Stages Presents "Wishes & Dreams: A Celebration of the Music that Animates our Lives"
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Menopause The Musical Comes To State Theatre
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) --  GFour Productions, winner of 44 Tony Awards and 54 Drama Desk Awards,  brings the international hit show Menopause The Musical® to State Theatre in New Brunswick for two performances on Saturday, November 10 at 2:00pm and 8:00pm. This a groundbreaking celebration of women who are on the brink of, in the middle of, or have survived “The Change.” 


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Event calendar
Sunday, Oct 21, 2018


MUSIC

DiTrani Bros: Folk, Swing, Jazz, Ragtime!! @ Roxy and Dukes Roadhouse, Dunellen - 7:00pm

Jazz Guitarist Abe Ovadia @ Englewood Public Library, Englewood - 7:00pm

Gypsy Jazz Brunch with Pyrenesia and Max Hansen Buffet @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

Dryden Ensemble: Bach Cantata Fest @ Miller Chapel (Princeton), Princeton - 3:00pm

Suzzanne Douglas @ South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), South Orange - 7:30pm


THEATRE

The Ghost Princess @ Pax Amicus Castle Theatre, Budd Lake - 2:00pm

The Shuck @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 3:00pm

CDC Theatre presents A Few Good Men @ CDC Theatre, Cranford - 2:00pm

Wait Until Dark @ Somerset Valley Playhouse, Hillsborough - 8:00pm

World Premier of, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, A Horror of a Play @ Forum Theatre (Metuchen), Metuchen - 3:00pm

The Color Purple @ Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn - 1:30pm and 7:00pm

Almost, Maine @ Jay & Linda Grunin Center For The Arts At Ocean County College, Toms River - 2:00pm

Black Tom Island @ The 1882 Carriage House, Liberty Hall Museum, Union - 3:00pm

*Uncle Vanya, Scenes from a Jersey Life in Four Acts @ Hudson Theatre Works, Weehawken - 7:00pm

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie @ Westfield Community Players, Westfield - 2:00pm







DANCE

DRACULA - THE ATLANTIC CITY BALLET @ The Strand Theater, Lakewood - 4:00pm


FILM

A conversation with John Cusack Following a screening of Say Anything @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:00pm


KIDS

Summit Farmers Market Pumpkin Painting @ Summit Farmers Market, Summit - 10:00am


POETRY

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival @ Victoria Theater @ New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Newark - 9:00am


MISC

HAUNTED ILLUSIONS LIVE @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 3:00pm

THE MAGIC OF BILL BLAGG LIVE! @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 2:00pm

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