Called the “'Top Man' on Broadway” by the New York Woman, Theresa Helburn created a venue for great American playwrights as director of the Theatre Guild and played a key role in the history of the modern American musical. Helburn studied playwriting at Radcliffe and the Sorbonne and worked as a drama critic for The Nation before becoming executive director of the newly formed Theatre Guild in 1919, which she ran for over forty years. She was responsible for putting Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Agnes De Mille to work on adapting Lynn Riggs’s novel into the wildly successful Oklahoma! in 1943. While she wrote plays of her own throughout the 1920s, Helburn is most remembered for the many ways she furthered the talents of others.
Named “‘Top Man’ on Broadway” in 1936 by the New York Woman, Theresa Helburn, the intrepid administrative director of the Theatre Guild for almost forty years, dedicated herself to raising the artistic standards of the American theater. She played a major role in creating the modern American musical.
Early Life & Education
Helburn was born on January 12, 1887, in New York City, the younger of two children of Hannah (Peyser) and Julius Helburn. Her father was a leather merchant; her mother, who became Helburn’s role model, established her own experimental elementary school. An assimilated Jew, Helburn attended Horace Mann, the fashionable Windsor School in Boston, and Bryn Mawr College. She graduated in 1908 with many senior prizes, having organized, directed, and acted in all the school plays. She continued her education at Radcliffe College, in George Pierce Baker’s celebrated playwriting workshop, English 47, and at the Sorbonne. She joined the Poetry Society of America, created a course in Shakespearean acting at Miss Merrill’s Finishing School in Mamaroneck, New York, and wrote drama criticism for The Nation.
Helburn’s varied interests coalesced when she volunteered to head the nascent Theatre Guild, a position no one else wanted. She learned on the job. The Guild, formally organized in 1919, grew out of the recently disbanded Washington Square Players, founded in 1914 by patent attorney and playwright Lawrence Langner, actor Helen Westley, director Philip Moeller, and Rollo Peters. In 1921, the Guild’s governing board of managers consisted of Helburn, banker Maurice Wertheim, and four of its founders: set designer Lee Simonson, Langner, Westley, and Moeller. Helburn credited the Guild’s high rate of successful productions to this mixture of diverse backgrounds and tastes. Her title changed from executive director (1919–1932) to administrative director in 1933 after a reorganization that left Helburn, Langner, and his wife, the actor Armina Marshall, at the helm.
The Guild was established to prove that a theater devoted to art could attract talent and a broad-based audience. During the first four years, the Guild staged primarily modern European drama. After producing Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, which won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize, the Guild began to concentrate on producing the works of native talent, such as Eugene O’Neill, S.N. Behrman, and Maxwell Anderson, as well as European innovators such as George Bernard Shaw. Under Helburn’s guidance, New York subscriptions grew from 135 to 6000 in five years. By 1940, the Guild had developed ten subscription cities for their road shows.
Innovations in Theater
Helburn’s individual theater contributions were equally impressive. Envisioning a new musical theater, she tried for years to bring song teams and dramatists together. Her first success was in uniting Lynn Riggs, who wrote Green Grow the Lilacs, with Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Agnes de Mille to create Oklahoma! (1943), the musical based on that book, which ran for 2,212 performances. Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, followed in 1945. She cast actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne together for the first time in The Guardsman (1924). Always scouting for new voices, she established the Bureau of New Plays with John Gassner and, although not an ideological feminist, publicly lamented the small percentage of women dramatists. When Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, and Harold Clurman rebelled against Guild policy, Helburn secured funds for their experiments, facilitating the birth of the Group Theatre.
In 1922, Helburn married John Baker Opdycke, a prolific scholar. Helburn’s plays include A Hero Is Born (1937, a two-act extravaganza based on her play Enter the Hero, 1916), Allison Makes Hay (1919, formerly titled Crops and Croppers), Other Lives (1921, with Edward Goodman), and Denbigh (1927).
Theresa Helburn died on August 18, 1959, in Norwalk, Connecticut. A Wayward Quest, her autobiography, was published posthumously.
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Other Lives, with Edward Goodman (1921).
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