Books · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Movies and Videos · New York Theater

The Heiress Comes (Back) to Broadway!

The Heiress, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. It will run for a limited engagement of 18 weeks.

Washington Square by Henry James tells the story of a young woman, her domineering physician father, and the man she loves.
Based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, it is such a powerful story that audiences can’t get enough of it. The novel is one of James’ most popular and certainly one of his most readable books. In 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote a play based on the book called The Heiress, which opened that year on Broadway and ran for a year. A movie, starring Olivia de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the pathetically shy Catherine Sloper, came out in 1949. In 1995 the play returned to Broadway with Cherry Jones turning in a stunning performance for which she won a Tony. The play itself also won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. In 1997 another movie, this time called Washington Square with an ending that adheres more closely to the novel than does the play, starred Jennifer Jason Leigh. And now we have another chance to see the story unfold on the legitimate stage. I can’t wait!

The north side of Washington Square, the way it was and is.
But here is the icing on the cake. Theatergoers can make the trip downtown to see the street where the heiress lived—virtually unchanged since the time of the story, which is the 1850s. Greek Revival houses line the north side of the square just as they did when Morris Townsend came calling on Catherine Sloper. The buildings are now owned by New York University and house administrative offices, so you can’t go poking around inside.

Time stands still in the Merchant’s House Museum where the flesh and blood neighbors of the fictional Slopers of Washington Square lived in the 1850s.
However, if you walk just two blocks south and three and a half blocks east, you come to The Merchant’s House Museum at 29 East Fourth Street. In 1835, the year Catherine Sloper’s widowed father and his daughter moved into their new home on Washington Square, the flesh-and-blood Seabury Tredwells moved into this house on Fourth Street. It has been preserved intact, complete with original furniture. Just climb the marble stoop, ring the bell, and magically step into the world of The Heiress.

And there’s more. If you want to know the details of daily life in the Washington Square neighborhood when the Tredwells and the Slopers lived there, read An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65, by me. Dr. Sloper was suspicious of Catherine’s lover, as well he might have been.

From An Old Merchant’s House, Chapter Three, “Setting the Stage: The Parlors”
With the expansion of trade, more and more young men were needed to fill positions in the countinghouses. But the young men entering commercial life were a different breed from the old merchants who had inhabited the compact, closely knit town where Seabury Tredwell and those of his generation had built their businesses. The new men were brash, opportunistic, and impatient. . . .To make matters worse, lurking among the simply crass interlopers was the truly venal figure of the confidence man. The merchants were increasingly in danger of being duped by an unscrupulous cheat. It was critical for them to know whom they could trust. One of their greatest concerns was that a confidence man would win the affections of their daughters—and Seabury Tredwell had six of them.

3 thoughts on “The Heiress Comes (Back) to Broadway!

  1. Naturally, watching the Heiress, thoughts would go to Washington Square. My initial thought was of the theater…..the Walter Kerr, named for the theater critic who I often read in the N Y Times. Not one of the great “dream temples” of theaters, with all their Moorish fancies, and starlit skies, it was originally built in the 1920’s by the Shuberts, and named the Ritz. Over the course of its life, I believe it was closed more than it was open.
    I only remember one time I attended a show when it was the Ritz. In 1971 I saw ” Soon” a rock opera whose book was written by Martin Duberman………(.I went to High School with him.) Though it received good reviews, it closed in the first week. It was too soon after the original “Hair” and not able to compete with fond memories of that production.
    I don’t remember much about the show and was surprised to note some of the names in the cast when I looked it up……Peter Allen, Barry Bostwick, Nell Carter, Marta Heflin and Richard Gere (who knew !!!). The Kerr is a product of the renovation done by Jujamcyn in 1990.
    I have been to the Kerr twice, to see “Angels in America”, and “Proof”.
    The theaters in New York’s rialto are gems, and should be preserved.
    But if you get the chance, do not miss the opportunity to experience the drama that can unfold with a tour of The Old Merchants House……..DJL

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    1. The Broadway theaters are wonderful indeed. Just wish tickets were more affordable. As it is, you really hesitate to take a chance on a production that might not be very good. This one, I think, will be!

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  2. I can’ t wait to see it on Sunday!
    This post makes me think about the connection between the theatre and touring a preserved museum house (The Old Merchant’s House for example) or walking down a street with buildings preserved from decades ago. How I love walking through the little streets of North Kingstown, RI, where every house has a little plaque that states the date of the home and the name of the owner. Or the European castles or even the Egyptian Pyramid exhibit at the Met where you can walk through the little cave hallways. (I spent a lot of time there pretending I was an Egyptian when my son was little.) Being able to immerse yourself in a place and time and really feel and therefore understand what it was like to live in that place and time is the gift that both the theatre and our preserved history give us. And truly it is a gift that can and should make a difference in our future. You know what they say about learning from the past . . .
    Sarah

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