Ben-Hur (play)

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This article is about the play by William W. Young. For other uses, see Ben-Hur.
Ben Hur
Ben Hur Broadway2.jpg
1899 poster from the Broadway premiere.
Written by William W. Young,
Lew Wallace
Date premiered 1899 (1899)
Place premiered Manhattan Theatre
in New York, NY
Genre Hippodrama, Melodrama

Ben Hur was an 1899 dramatization of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. It was dramatized by William W. Young and produced by Marc Klaw and A. L. Erlanger. Inspired by the popular equestrian dramas of nineteenth century London, the production was notable for its elaborate use of spectacle. The play as produced had seven parts: a prologue and six acts.[1] The incidental music was written by American composer Edgar Stillman Kelley.


After Wallace's novel was published in 1880, there was widespread demand for it to be adapted for the stage, but Wallace would not permit it, as he did not want Christ to be portrayed onstage by an actor. Finally, he accepted playwright William Young's idea that Jesus be represented by a beam of light. The resulting production was a hit show that opened in 1899 and ran for 21 non-consecutive[1] years on Broadway. In total, it was seen by more than 20 million people.[2] It initially starred William S. Hart, who played Messala, not Ben-Hur. Hart would go on to leading roles in silent films such as The Aryan (1916), and became a silent screen cowboy hero.


The key spectacle of the 1899 show was the live chariot race using real horses and chariots.[2] The Era's drama critic detailed how it was achieved by "four great cradles, 20 ft (6.1 m) in length and 14 ft (4.3 m) wide, which are movable back and front on railways". The horses galloped full-pelt towards the audience, secured by invisible steel cable traces and running on treadmills. Electric rubber rollers spun the chariot wheels. A vast cyclorama backdrop revolved in the opposite direction to create an illusion of massive speed, and fans created clouds of dust. The critic for The Illustrated London News described it as "a marvel of stage-illusion" that was "memorable beyond all else". The Sketch's critic called it "thrilling and realistic ... enough to make the fortune of any play" and noted that "the stage, which has to bear 30 tons' weight of chariots and horses, besides huge crowds, has had to be expressly strengthened and shored up".[2]

There have been many stage adaptations since the initial production, including the 2009 London production staged at the O2 arena featuring the live chariot race.[3] The book was also adapted for film in 1907, 1925, 1959, 2003, and as an American television mini-series in 2010. The 1959 film adaptation of Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston and featuring the key chariot race, won a record eleven Academy Awards and was the top grossing film of 1960.[4]

A 1901 poster for a production at the Illinois Theater in Chicago



  1. ^ a b Ben Hur on the Internet Broadway Database
  2. ^ a b c Ellis, Samantha. "Ben-Hur, London, 1902" The Guardian (8 October 2003). Accessed 2010-05-27
  3. ^ Espiner, Mark. "Ben Hur Live leaves little to the imagination". The Guardian (14 September 2009). Accessed 2020-05-27
  4. ^ Steinberg, Cobbett (1980). Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 23. ISBN 0-87196-313-2. (p. 17)

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