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MONMOUTH MAN BROUGHT ‘BEN-HUR’ TO THE STAGE
Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian
and literary critic William Dean Howells was nicknamed “The Dean of American
Letters,” but for a few months following Howells’ death in May 1920, that title
was transferred to another literary titan who was born and raised in Monmouth.
fall of 1920, the body of William Wallace Young was laid to rest in Monmouth
Cemetery. He had died Oct. 2 at his summer home on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire,
at the age of 75, following a career as a playwright that had brought him fame
from Broadway to the London stage. Also an acclaimed poet who contributed to
Howells’ The Atlantic Monthly, he remains best known for his dramatization of
the bestselling novel “Ben-Hur,” which became one of the greatest theatrical spectacles
of the early 20th century.
up in a small frontier town, the odds seemed stacked against Young becoming an
internationally-acclaimed literary figure, but he did have the advantage of a
strong academic pedigree. His father, Dr. John A. Young, was one of Monmouth’s
leading physicians. His passion for literature and the arts led him to become a
prime mover for the organization of Monmouth College and one of its charter
Young was born in 1845 and grew up in the family home which stood on the
southwest corner of South Main and East Second Avenue. A prodigy, he entered
Monmouth College at age 14, enrolling in the Classical Course. His literary
talents immediately began to emerge, and he was elected president of the
Philadelphian literary society. Upon his graduation in 1863, he was chosen to
deliver the oration and valedictory, on the topic “The Pen and the Sword.”
bachelor’s degree in hand, Young set out to study law in Chicago, but his
fascination for writing—particularly playwriting—caused him to soon lose
interest in that profession. He determined that the best way to become a
successful dramatist was to first become an actor and director, so he became
active with community and touring theater companies. Among his credits was
directing the future international actress and modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller
in her first performance at age 12 in Monmouth.
Young married his college sweetheart, Joanna Parry, who would become his
lifelong muse and traveling companion. Those travels would include frequent
trips to Europe, including studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, the oldest
acting school in continental Europe.
addition to acting, Young began to emerge as a published writer, with his
poetry appearing in The Atlantic, Galaxy, Lippincott’s and Scribner’s magazine.
His first commercial success as a playwright occurred in 1871, when Edwin Booth
staged his tragedy, “Jonquil; or Only a Heart” in his New York theater. Set in
Paris, the title character was played by noted Shakespearean actor Lawrence
Barrett, who would produce and star in future plays by Young.
fascination with historic narrative poetry led him to pen in blank verse the
tragedy “Pendragon,” inspired by “Idylls of the King,” Tennyson’s epic collection
of poems about King Arthur. Produced by Barrett, the play opened to popular
acclaim in 1881 at Chicago’s McVicker’s Theater. The theater’s owner, J. H.
McVicker, whose stepdaughter had married Edwin Booth, took a personal interest
in the young playwright’s emerging career.
continued to write from his Monmouth home through the early 1880s, when he and
his family began wintering in New York, and eventually removed permanently to
the East Coast.
first comedy to come from Young’s pen was presented at New York’s Madison
Square Theatre in 1883. Titled “The Rajah,” it was denounced by critics, yet it
ran 250 nights and later became a popular road attraction. In 1884, a critic
who viewed the show at Chicago’s Grand Opera House compared Young’s comedic
talent to that of American humorists Bret Harte, George W. Cable and William D.
Lawrence Barrett again produced and starred in a Young historic play, written
in blank verse. “Ganelon, A Romantic Tragedy in Four Acts” premiered at the Broadway
Theatre with lavish and costly scenic effects. Young had found the materials
for the play, based on a Corsican legend, in the libraries of Europe. The
production itself ended tragically, however, as midway through the season
Barrett was forced into retirement by illness, which would lead to his death a
greatest success would come in 1899 with his theatrical adaptation of Gen. Lew
Wallace’s popular 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” Bringing the book
to the stage was a major coup, because for years the devoutly religious Wallace
had resisted the idea of Jesus being depicted by an actor. In May 1899, Young
and a representative of the production company spent two full days with Wallace
in his study in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and won the author over. Young
completed the script in two months.
six-act extravaganza, which opened on Broadway the following November, spawned
an international tour that ran for 21 years. By its last performance in 1920,
it had been seen by 20 million people and earned over $10 million. Upon its
1901 opening in Chicago, a critic wrote: “The difference between William
Young’s dramatization of “Ben-Hur” and some other dramatizations of stories is
the difference that lies between the illuminating powers of a wax candle and an
arc light.” An article written in conjunction with its Chicago opening gives a
sense of the production’s scale and grandeur:
than four hundred people are on the stage in the principal scenes of ‘Ben Hur.”
Two special trains will be required to transport the production from New York
to Chicago. The first will consist entirely of sleepers and day coaches, and
the second, eight 60-foot baggage cars and two live stock cars with twelve
horses and three camels.”
cycloramic scenery used in the chariot race weighed 40 tons. Eight horses
attached to two chariots ran on a treadmill, allowing them to be seen by the
audience running at full speed during the entire race.
Young had joined the Authors Club in New York City. In his later years, he and
his wife spent their winters in residence at the club and their summers at
their lake cottage in New Hampshire. His final Broadway production, “A Japanese
Nightingale,” opened to lukewarm reviews in 1903 and lasted only 46 performances.
summer before his death, Young completed a historical play, which he gave to
his daughter to transcribe for publishers. A story published in the Monmouth
Daily Atlas said, “He knew that the end was approaching and said that he would
live on in his new play.” The paper also noted that “Mr. Young has always
regarded Monmouth as his home. He has never taken his citizenship away from