Any list of celebrated American 20th century dramatists will include Pulitzer Prize winners Tennessee Williams and William Saroyan. Their work is a natural fit for Louisville’s Savage Rose Classical Theatre, which draws on a classical repertoire covering roughly 2,000 years of theater, from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century modern classics.
Savage Rose’s ”American One Acts,” which opens tonight in the Kentucky Center’s MeX Theatre, features Williams’ “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and Saroyan’s “Hello Out There.” But it’s Pendleton King’s “Cocaine” that’s the intriguing dark horse, the kind of lesser-known, infrequently-staged classic that Savage Rose is known for producing.
King was a playwright of great promise whose career was interrupted by the first World War. Savage Rose producing artistic director J. Barrett Cooper first discovered “Cocaine” in a used book store anthology. Cooper says King’s depiction of two cocaine addicts — Joe, a washed-up prizefighter and Nora, a washed-up prostitute — is a bittersweet love story that sounds surprisingly contemporary for having been written in 1916.
“The dialogue is so alive and sounds like anything that would be written today,” says Cooper. “They’re so poetically sad. But what we’ve been able to find in it is a real grittiness. It’s not a romantic take on cocaine addicts. It’s very real.”
King’s own story is an American tragedy just begging to be produced. A scion of a wealthy Augusta, Georgia family, King kept his wealth a secret from the theatre community when he moved to New York City in the mid-1910s. He found his way as an actor while writing, and submitted “Cocaine” to the Provincetown Players, who produced the show in 1917 during their first New York season. Shortly thereafter, King joined the Army and deployed to fight in World War I. He survived the war, but shortly after returning home to Augusta in 1919, he rescued two African American women drowning in his family’s pond and died of pneumonia weeks later.
“He was a totally secret rich guy slumming it down in the Village,” says Cooper. “He was very unassuming, very nice, well educated, and he wrote this incredible play. As far as I know it’s the only play he wrote.”
Cooper also directs Saroyan’s 1941 “Hello Out There,” a short play set in a small Texas jail. A young gambler and the jail’s cook fall in love at first sight and make plans to run away together, but fate intervenes. “Hello Out There” was first produced as a curtain-raiser for a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” before moving to Broadway in 1942. One-act plays were frequently the warm-up for the main show, Cooper says.
“That was when you’d go to the theater and expect to spend three or four hours at a theater. We don’t expect that now,” he says. “Nowadays, most plays we go to see are essentially long one-acts. They’re an hour and twenty, an hour and a half. The new idea is get ‘em in and get ‘em out because that’s all the audience can take.”
Rounding out the bill is Williams’ 1946 dark comedy “27 Wagons Full of Cotton,” from which Elia Kazan’s controversial 1956 film “Baby Doll” was adapted. Jake, a Mississippi cotton gin owner, burns down his rival’s mill, who retaliates by seducing Jake’s emotionally fragile young wife.
Addiction, obsession, revenge — it’s a bit of a bleak bill, Cooper admits. But, he says, each play contains a certain amount of hope.
“It’s there, but you gotta find it,” he says.
“American One Acts” runs through June 15.