Gus Heege

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Gus Heege (1862–1898) was an American playwright, whose works were popular at the end of the 19th century.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Gus Heege, as a barefoot boy, entertained the pupils of the district school in Brecksville, Ohio with various unusual performances, and parlayed that talent in the character of Yon Yonson on the stage.[2] Gus married Mary Lillian (Lilly) Mandeville in Cleveland and had a son, Philip, who following in his father's footsteps, becoming an actor on Broadway.[3]


Gus Heege [1][4]
Gus Heege 1893.jpg
Born Augustus J. Heege
Died February 2, 1898
Occupation playwright, actor
Home town Brecksville, Ohio
Spouse(s) Mary Lillian Mandeville
Children Philip

A talented actor, Heege often took the leading role in his productions. Although his output was varied, he is largely remembered for the Swedish immigrant trilogy Ole Olson (1889), Yon Yonson (1890) and Yenuine Yentleman (1895). These plays established the character of the comic Swedish immigrant in American theater.[1]

Heege, who was of German ancestry, maintained that careful observation of the newcomers had enabled him to faithfully portray them on stage.[1] A newspaper account told of his field research in the "Little Scandinavia" of northern Wisconsin, where large numbers of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes had settled.[5]

Not everyone found his characters believable. In reviewing Yon Yonson a critic wrote: "The hero is a Swede, who speaks English with Scandinavian dialect, the accuracy of which is vouched for by Mr. William M. Dunlevy, the enterprising manager of the Park Theatre, and Mr. Jacob Litt, the manager of this particular play, who are old log-rollers themselves. We are quite willing to accept their word for it, especially as no man would be likely to invent such a dialect. But the Swedes and Norwegians we have in the East do not speak English in the Yon Yonson way." [6]

The author Willa Cather gave a decidedly negative review to Heege’s Rush City in the Nebraska State Journal while conceding that Yon Yonson had been a "very good comedy".[7] In 1931 Cather wrote that before 1913, when her novel O Pioneers! was published,[7] "the Swede had never appeared on the printed page in this country except in broadly humorous sketches; and the humor was based on two peculiarities: his physical strength and his inability to pronounce the letter 'J'".[8]

Ben Hendricks (1868-1930) was the actor most associated with Heege’s Scandinavian dialect plays. He starred in all three of them and toured with revivals of Ole Olson until 1912, over twenty years after the play’s opening.[1]


In time Heege’s portrayal of Swedish immigrants found both popular and critical acceptance.[1] After the playwright’s death in 1898, the American Dramatists' Club passed the following resolution: "That in his demise the stage has been deprived of one of its truest dialectic disciples, an actor of refined quality, a pronounced genius in the depiction of Swedish and Scandinavian character, and a cheerful, charitable spirit." [9]

Gus Heege was only thirty-six years old when he died of kidney disease.[9] His final work, Amalia Mora, was a Swedish-American opera that premiered in 1901.[10] He was survived by his wife Lillian and a son Philip. Mrs. Heege later married Charles Whitney. The couple’s daughter was the mystery writer Phyllis A. Whitney.[4]

Selected Works[edit]

  • Wanted: The Earth 1887
  • Criss Cross 1888
  • Sky Skraper 1888
  • Ole Olson 1889
  • Yon Yonson 1890
  • Rush City 1893
  • Yenuine Yentleman 1895
  • Amalia Mora 1901

See also[edit]

Scandinavian dialect humor


  1. ^ a b c d e f Theatre History Studies edited by Rhona Justice-Malloy, (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2008). Volume 28, pp. 71 - 82 .
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Phyllis A. Whitney Retrieved March 28, 2012.
  5. ^ New York Times January 28, 1895.
  6. ^ New York Times December 29, 1891.
  7. ^ a b The Willa Cather Archive Retrieved March 29, 2012.
  8. ^ Willa Cather on writing: critical studies on writing as an art by Willa Cather, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).
  9. ^ a b New York Dramatic Mirror February 12, 1898.
  10. ^ New York Dramatic Mirror August 24, 1901.

External links[edit]

Yon Yonson 1890

Book excerpt







Streaming audio at the Internet Archive