‘Way Down East’ Most Popular Play of Its Time

The inside cover of the souvenir booklet from the original 1898 production.

The inside cover of the souvenir booklet from the original 1898 production.

OSWEGO – What made the play “Way Down East” so popular? Advertisements of the day boasted that it had been seen by five million people over 350 weeks of performances and taking in more than $3 million.

The inside cover of the souvenir booklet from the original 1898 production.
The inside cover of the souvenir booklet from the original 1898 production.

Such a claim was backed up by the reality that it was one of the most successful plays of its day, running for 152 performances in New York City with its initial opening on Feb. 7, 1898, at the Manhattan Theater. By today’s standards that would not be a long run for a Broadway production, by in its day it surpassed all other melodramas.

Oswegonian Lottie Blair Parker penned the rural comedy while staying with family in Oswego.

She and her husband, Harry Doel Parker, mounted several productions of the play without much success.

Not until she sold the play to William Brady of the Manhattan Theater did the play find success. Brady and partner, Florenz Ziegfeld put together a production of the play that had been elaborated by Joseph Grismer that became one of the greatest successes of the American stage.

The play was notable for its restraint, moral themes and humor.

Clergy of the day endorsed the play. According to Rev. L.M. Clement, “’Way Down East’ is a strong presentation of moral truth. It teaches that there cannot be one law for the man and another for the woman. The tone of the play is pure and sweet and shows how God-like is humanity when at its best. I am a stronger man than I was before I saw it.”

Such recommendations were common at the time and helped propel the play on for nearly two decades and making Brady a fortune.

Joseph Grismer who rewrote parts of the play, although it’s unclear exactly what parts of the play is re-worked, later wrote a novel from the play.

The novel was used as the model for the D.W. Griffiths classic movie starring Lillian Gish.

An interesting side note to the story is that of Phoebe Davies who played Anna Moore in the play. Wife to Joseph Grismer, Davies played the role of Anna in more than 4,000 performances and was so type-cast by the role for the rest of her life, audiences had difficulty accepting her in other roles.

Set in rural New England, “Way Down East” tells the story of Anna Moore who comes to the home of Squire and Louisa Bartlett looking for work. Taken into their home, their son, David, falls in love with her, but problems arise when Anna’s past is brought to light.

The plot reaches a climax when Anna is cast out of the house by the Squire into a blizzard.

Still, the play ends happily for everyone, except the villain, of course, who is run out of town.

“Way Down East” played Oswego’s Richardson Theater nine times as did the silent movie version of the play. A second film, made in 1935 starring Henry Fonda, helped launch his career in films.

An exhibit of “Way Down East” memorabilia is included in the current new exhibit at the Richardson-Bates House Museum focusing on the Richardson Theater which opened in 1895.

The silent movie version of “Way Down East” by D.W. Griffiths will be shown by the Oswego Players on Sunday, April 24, at 6 p.m. and the Players’ production of the original play will premiere on May 6 as part of Oswego County’s Bicentennial celebrations.