This article was originally designed to be read in the September 2014 issue of
New Jersey Stage magazine. To read it in its original format, click here
The theme of this year's season at East Lynne Theater Company in Cape May is "What is legal?" That theme continues with Bayard Veiller's "Within The Law". It's a play that was one of the most popular on Broadway in the early 20th century but is rarely produced today. The plot involves Mary Turner, a store clerk who is wrongly convicted for stealing and given a prison sentence to make her an "example" to other employees. While behind bars, she learns how to be a real criminal. When her prison term is over, she seeks revenge on those who wronged her while staying within the boundaries of the law.
Performances are at The First Presbyterian Church (500 Hughes Street) in Cape May from September 17 through October 12. New Jersey Stage spoke with Artistic Director, Gayle Stahlhuth, about the play which she describes as a crime drama as relevant today as it was when written 100 years ago, filled with mystery, romance, humor, and unforgettable characters.
"Within the Law" was a highly successful play on Broadway over a hundred years ago, but rarely done today. What attracted East Lynne Theater Company to the play?
Looking at today's television shows and films, it's apparent that criminals and lawyers are popular subjects, so in 2011, I began looking into early American plays involving such characters. One name that came up early in the Internet search was playwright Bayard Veiller. Online, I easily ordered copies of his plays "The Trial of Mary Dugan" and "The Thirteenth Chair," but "Within the Law" was not so simple. The book version was available through Project Gutenberg. Many plays first opened on Broadway, and then were adapted into novels in the early 1900s.
My next go-to source [for a copy of the play] was the New York City Library system, and since I live there half the year, I have a card. Again, this proved futile.
I then explored the theatrical licensing companies, and Samuel French had this 1912 play listed in their archives. Happily, I ordered a copy, and waited. And waited. Since these plays are old enough to be royalty-free, French does not keep them on the shelf. After a year, I called French to ask what happened to "Within the Law," only to be told that they didn't have it, which seemed odd since the year before they had it listed. I tried again a few months later, and this time, the woman answering the phone was not so dismissive. She was curious why the script had been listed in 2011, but was not in 2012. In a few weeks, she found it, and mailed me a copy. When I read it – finally – I was struck by the still relevant themes of social inequality, the pursuit of a living wage, and a legal system that favors those who have enough money to hire the best council. As the lawyer in the play states, "Nowadays, we don't call them ‘courts of justice.' We call them ‘courts of law.'"
The play is often seen as a story of income inequality, a subject that has been dominating the news for the past few years again. Do you see parallels between the time period the play was written in and today?
I certainly do. With the rise of industrialization and people moving from farms to cities in this country in the late 1800s, a different type of society was being formed, along with a heightened set of social problems that included poverty, class warfare, violence, greed, and racism. "Progressives" like Jane Addams, believed that life would be better for everyone if corporate greed was exposed, immigrants were not despised, everyone had the opportunity for a good education, and the workplace provided a clean and safe environment with a living wage. The Progressive Era was beginning to make strides until the movement was overshadowed by The First World War.
Currently, those working for fast-food chains are speaking up for a decent wage. In "Within the Law," Mary Turner pleads the case for better wages to Edward Gilder, wealthy owner of a Manhattan department store when she says, "And when you're real sick and have to stop work, what are you going to do then? Do you know that the first time an honest girl steals, it's often because she needs a doctor, or some luxury like that?"
I love the play's concept of someone innocent being jailed and returning to society as a criminal. What do you think of the character of Mary Turner?
I admire her. She's brilliant – and flawed. Her thirst for revenge for being sent to prison for three years is paramount. Will true love save her? After all,