The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Fifty-Five

February 14-21, 1918

“Sent Valentines to children.” Even though the love of Kate Roosevelt’s life, her late-husband, Hilborne Roosevelt, had been dead for more than thirty years, she still celebrated Valentine’s Day.  Now she had two grandsons to lavish her love on. Langdon and Shippen Geer were two lucky little boys. Since their father was deceased and their mother, Dorothy Roosevelt Geer, was busy with socializing, entertaining and volunteering in the war effort, Kate became a surrogate mother, taking them to the movies, doctors’ appointments, dancing class, horseback riding lessons and of course sending them sentimental valentine cards and presents.

Valentine’s Day Card, 1908

After celebrating with the boys, Kate went to the theater. “To Gaiety Theater to see General Post,” was what she wrote on the afternoon of February 14, 1918.  Although she did not give it a review, the New York Times did.  They reported, “A clever well-sustained satire.”

World War One Officers

The play, General Post opened at the Gaiety Theater at 1547 Broadway, near 47th Street on December 24, 1917. According to Playbill’s on-line Broadway database, the show closed after seventy-two performances on February 1, 1918, but Kate Roosevelt’s diary begged to differ. According to her entry for February 14, 1918, she was in the audience to see the three-act play written by J.E. Harold Terry.

Maid in Uniform, General Post 

Described as a “war time comedy,” the title, General Post is also the name of a children’s party game that was popular in 1917, the year the play was written. Blending “Blindman’s Bluff” and “Musical Chairs,” chairs were placed in a circle or in two straight line opposite each other and one player was designated as Postmaster General. Each remaining player was given the name of a town that would be his identity for the game. All the players were seated, except one, who was left without a chair and blindfolded. The Postmaster General called the names of two towns to which the mail was to be delivered by the blindfolded player. When the names were called, the two named towns rose and tried to change chairs before one of them was caught by the blindfolded player. Sometimes the postmaster called, “General Post” and all towns had to scramble to find new chairs. Of course, there was always one player caught without a chair. The reference to the game, as it was used in the play General Post was a symbol of the social shake-up caused by World War One.

William Courtenay, the star of the play, General Post

The play opened at London’s Haymarket Theater to great success, running for five hundred and thirty-two performances. Any play that ran over five hundred performances made theatrical history. A British newspaper said, “It is a delightful story of snobbery repentant.” Some aristocrats were immune to its mockery of snobbery due to subtle innuendo inserted into the dialogue.

Each of the three acts was set in a different year. Act One was set in 1911; Act Two was set in 1915 during the course of the war, and Act Three took place after the war was won by the Allies. Since the play was written prior to the end of the war, the playwright had to keep the audience guessing as to what year that was.

The Gaiety Girls

According to Rhoda-Gale Pollack’s website, World War One: Plays, Playwrights and Productions, the plot illustrates how the war was altering the social structure of the classes, as well as the conscience of the upper class. The setting is a small country town. The local tailor falls in love with the daughter of a conservative Baronet, who is one of his clients. The young daughter is sent abroad by her parents for several years so she will not embarrass her family by her indiscretion. In Act II, when the war is well underway, the family is surprised to learn that the tailor is the ranking officer of their son’s unit.  The son has changed his attitude towards the tailor as does the Baronet, since military rank gives the tailor an elevated level of respect.  By the end of the war, the tailor had risen in military ranks to Brigadier General and won the Victoria Cross. He enjoys a hero’s welcome to his home town and is greeted by the Baronet, who is prepared to accept him in society and as his son-in-law. The question becomes whether the daughter will agree to marry the man who was previously shunned by her family. She is the character who frequently compare the family’s beliefs to the game of General Post.”

When the play came to Broadway, its intensely English overtones were not lost on the aristocracy of New York City. American Edwardians like Kate Roosevelt and her social set thoroughly enjoyed seeing the snobbery of society shook up, even if only on the stage.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday. 

Click to listen to Sharon talk about Dowager’s Diary on WAT-CAST.

Photo One:
Officers of World War One
by John Singer Sargent, 1922
wiki

Photo Two:
Valentine’s Day Card, 1908
public domain

Photo Three:
World War One Officers
public domain, 1918

Photo Four:
Maid in Uniform, General Post 
Public Domain

Photo Five:
William Courtenay, the star of the play, General Post
1909 Public Domain

Photo Six:
The Gaiety Girls
Public Domain