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The Continuing Relevance of Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday"

Born Yesterday’s history-making, sold-out Broadway run began in 1946. The show played for nearly four years and for a total of 1,642 performances. The appeal of the original Broadway show was placed squarely on Judy Holliday’s comic turn in the role of Billie, which made her a bonafide star. Holliday later reprised her role in the George Cukor film adaptation and won an Oscar for Best Actress.

In a 1989 Broadway revival with Madeline Kahn playing the role of Billie Dawn, theatre critic Frank Rich wondered what had made Garson Kanin’s play one for the record books. Not counting musicals, Born Yesterday still holds a spot in the list of the top 10 most popular and successful Broadway shows of all time. When looking at the historical context of Born Yesterday, there are other interesting factors to consider regarding the play’s popularity.

Born Yesterday was set in the year that it was written. At the time, American drama was shifting away from political plays like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and embracing the probing psychological dramas of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Even so, Garson Kanin’s political preoccupations about Americans were a constant in his discussions with relatives and friends. His work questioned: how do Americans ultimately view their country? Do they understand and appreciate the role of government? And more pointedly, do Americans understand their personal responsibilities in a democracy?

Internationally, Kanin became concerned about the number of prominent figures buying into the ideology of dictatorships. He was shaken when he learned of the infamous Berlin book burning in 1933. Kanin recalled Helen Keller’s response when she was told that her book would be incinerated. She responded by saying, “Tyranny cannot defeat the power of ideas.” This became Kanin’s overriding theme to Born Yesterday.

Using elements of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Kanin aimed to write an exposé of government corruption, but the show received unflattering reviews during tryouts in New Haven and Boston. At a time when American Exceptionalism was taking hold, the original play had too many references to the Cold War, too many political metaphors and too many allusions to fascism. The end result left audiences cold.

Actress Kimberly Gilbert dressed in a 1940s-stylled curled wig and creme-colored blouse sits in a library surrounded by piles of books and bookcases that are filled with books about the founding of America. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Washington actress Kimberly Gilbert plays Billie Dawn in the fall 2018 production of "Born Yesterday" at Ford's Theatre. Photographed on location at The Jefferson hotel by Scott Suchman.

Originally, Kanin had written the play for actress Jean Arthur. Further delaying the play’s gestation was her lack of chemistry with her co-stars, who had received better reviews than her. In addition, Arthur found that playing the role of Billie was a daunting experience. After the production closed in Boston, she was diagnosed with physical exhaustion; the show took a hiatus. While technical rehearsals were going on in Philadelphia with an understudy, Arthur threatened to not return to the production unless new demands were met. Refusing those, Kanin and the producers replaced Arthur with Judy Holliday four days before the show’s Philadelphia opening.

With Holliday, Kanin re-worked his themes around the idea that any person has the power to exert change. To support this point dramatically, he gave center stage to Holliday’s Billie Dawn, an uneducated and unpolished chorus girl who proves she can outsmart her male counterparts.

Actor Edward Gero wears a pinstripe suit and sits in a yellow leather wingback chair. His feet are up on the coffee table before him. He is on the phone and makes a cranky face while gesturing at the open newspaper in his hand. Photo was taken at the Jefferson hotel
Washington actor Edward Gero plays Harry Brock in the fall 2018 production of "Born Yesterday." Photo was taken on location at The Jefferson hotel by Scott Suchman.

Kanin’s use of farcical elements to make light of the underlying seriousness of his theme was his final stroke of genius. His “dictator” is a scrap-metal war profiteer from Plainfield, N.J., named Harry Brock with an entourage of usual comic suspects: Brock’s lawyer, an alcoholic former secretary to a Supreme Court justice; his cousin Eddie; and his unsophisticated girlfriend. Brock worries that Billie’s rough edges might be out of place in D.C.’s halls of power and employs journalist Paul Verrall to give her a quick education. Paul takes the job as a way of finding out more about Harry’s deals. Billie soon comes into her own, thus complicating Brock’s scheming plans. Kanin does not weigh down his denouement with pronouncements. Billie simply unmasks Brock’s wheeling and dealing as dishonest and refuses to go along, becoming the heroine of the story.

If Born Yesterday differs vastly from other incarnations of the Pygmalion story, it is because Billie Dawn remains true to herself. She gains knowledge and understanding, but she does not go through a physical transformation, change the way she speaks or opt for different sartorial choices in order to gain access to higher social strata. And therein lies Kanin’s astute understanding of popular culture: the emotional and dramatic arc of a heroine, one without an education or social pedigree who emerges with power, would be embraced and celebrated.

Performances of Born Yesterday at Ford's Theatre are Sept. 21-Oct. 21, 2018.

José Carrasquillo is Director of Artistic Programming at Ford's Theatre.