More, than half a million Americans during the past year have been bewitched by the Devil. This particular Devil is a jovial old party who wears a rumpled dinner jacket over his generous paunch, and sports no horns or tail. His glance, though sometimes leering, is never demoniac, and he talks about Heaven and Hell with a twinkle, like a fat, fond uncle.
The Devil's name is Charles Laughton, and he speaks of Heaven and Hell in the 50-year-old words of George Bernard Shaw. Next week, as Laughton brings Shaw's Don Juan in Hell on its third trip into Manhattan for an eight-week run, he enjoys the satanic satisfaction of a man who has confounded the experts, given a new theatrical trend a tremendous boost, and turned the old pastime of reading aloud into a booming big business.
The touring Don Juan has already piled up gross profits of more than $1,000,000. When it was interrupted three months ago to let the cast do some movie acting, Charles Laughton went off on a solo tour, to give readings from the Bible, Aesop and Dickens. Six weeks later he pocketed $90,000 of the $164,000 gross. Laughton says complacently: "Contrary to what I'd been told in the entertainment industry, people everywhere have a common shy hunger for literature."
Shining Sticks. With Don Juan in Hell, Laughton is tossing a sizable bone to the culture-starved. Don Juan, the seldom-played third act of Shaw's Man and Superman, is a dream sequence that is short on dramatic action and two hours long on Shavian talk about sex, marriage, war & peace, science, religion, literature, politics and man's fate. Before it was tried by Laughton and the other talented members of the cast (Charles Boyer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Agnes Moorehead), Don Juan had never had a major U.S. production. "The longest theatrical aside in the history of the drama," it was regarded as fitter for the library than the stage. Shaw himself conceded that it would never be successfully played because "they . . . will think it nothing but a pack of words."
But audiences throughout the U.S.in Oakland, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Syracuse and Williamsport, Pa.have been eating it up. Businessmen and bobby-soxers, college students and clubwomen have jammed theaters and auditoriums and high-school gymnasiums to hear the Devil and Don Juan swap epigrams and arguments. As the grosses mounted, the show-business weekly, Variety, headlined: "STICKS OUTSHINE BROADWAY."
Other actors jumped aboard the bandwagon: Tyrone Power got ready to tour with Poet Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body; Sarah Churchill and Edward Thommen headed west to read the letters of Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw; Emlyn Williams arrived from London with the novels of Charles Dickens under his arm. One might have thought the movies, radio and television had never been invented, and that the golden years of the Chautauqua circuit* were back again.