The Curious Savage

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The Curious Savage
Playbill Cover for The Curious Savage 1950
Playbill Cover featuring Lillian Gish from the 1950 premiere at the Martin Beck Theatre.
Written by John Patrick
Characters
  • Ethel P.Savage
  • Titus
  • Lily Bell
  • Samuel
  • Dr. Emmett
  • Miss Willie
  • Florence Williams
  • Fairy
  • Hannibal
  • Jeffrey
  • Mrs. Paddy
Date premiered October 24, 1950 (1950-10-24)
Place premiered Martin Beck Theatre
New York, NY
Genre Comedy
Setting Living room of "The Cloisters," a sanatorium

The Curious Savage, written by John Patrick, is a comedic play about Ethel P. Savage, a woman whose husband recently died and left her approximately ten million dollars. Contrasting the kindness and loyalty of psychiatric patients with the avarice and vanity of "respectable" public figures, it calls into question conventional definitions of sanity while lampooning celebrity culture. The play was first produced in New York by the Theatre Guild and Lewis & Young at the Martin Beck Theatre and opened October 24, 1950, with Lillian Gish in the role of Ethel. Peter Glenville directed the production.

Plot[edit]

Act I[edit]

The play opens with the five residents of a sanatorium awaiting a new resident. The current residents of the sanatorium, called The Cloisters, function normally, excepting one small ailment. Fairy May (a plain girl who has difficulty telling fantasy from truth) sees herself as a person of great beauty. Jeff (a concert pianist and military veteran) believes that he was horribly scarred in the war, even though he survived the plane crash that killed all his men without a scratch. Florence dotes on a doll as if it were her 5-year-old living son (who had died at infancy). Hannibal (a statistician who lost his reason after being replaced by a computer and not finding work again) believes himself to be a concert violinist, even though he cannot play the violin. Mrs. Paddy, who had been told by her husband to "shut up" years before, rarely speaks except to shout out protracted lists of things she hates (including electricity, which she has given up for Lent).

Soon, Mrs. Savage (the widow of a millionaire) and her stepchildren arrive, and the five inmates eavesdrop from the hallway outside. Ethel's three stepchildren, Titus (a U.S. senator), Lily Belle (a self-proclaimed ingenue), and Samuel (a judge), had been shocked to find out that their stepmother had set up a memorial fund with her money in order to help average people pursue their dreams. On the basis of her "eccentric" behavior (such as taking up acting and the goals of her fund) they had her committed to The Cloisters so that they could take the money from her. When Ethel's three stepchildren leave, the five inmates introduce themselves to Mrs. Savage. Mrs. Savage tells them of her escapades in the theater before they all leave for Garden Hour. She then reveals to Miss Willie, her nurse, and Dr. Emmett, her doctor, that she has hidden the money that her stepchildren tried to take from her.

Act II[edit]

The residents of The Cloisters ask Ethel about her stepchildren. She reveals the sad history of her unpleasant "brood," when the stepchildren themselves arrive, trying to pry from her the whereabouts of the Savage fortune. She deceives each of them by giving fake locations for the fortune, and they are each sent on a wild goose chase in which they end up humiliating themselves. They return and convince Ethel to reveal the fortune, which is in the form of half-million dollar negotiable bonds. They are in the teddy bear that she has been carrying around with her, and Mrs. Savage is about to hand them over, only to have Mrs. Paddy turn out the lights. The room is thrown into darkness and chaos. When the lights come back on, the money is gone.

Act III[edit]

The staff begin to search for Mrs. Paddy and the bonds. Mrs. Paddy is found, but she does not have the bonds. Jeff and Florence both falsely confess to taking the bonds, perhaps in an attempt to protect whomever they believe to be the guilty party. Eventually, smoldering ashes are found upstairs and, believing that they are the bonds, the Savages leave. Ethel is now free to go, and the inmates rush to find her going-away presents. Miss Willie reveals that she is really Jeff's wife, and that she took the bonds. She returns them to Mrs. Savage. Mrs. Paddy (speaking plainly for the first time in years) tells Mrs. Savage that she loves her and wishes that she wouldn't leave. Hannibal begins a poorly manifested song on the violin. Mrs. Paddy turns out the lights again, and when they come back on, Hannibal is playing beautifully, as is Jeff on the piano. Mrs. Paddy has painted a marvelous seascape. Fairy is as beautiful as she sees herself, and Florence has a real son. Mrs. Savage then leaves, allowing them to remain in their "eggshell world."

Theme[edit]

Primarily a comedy, the play sets up a contrast between the inmates and Mrs. Savage's stepchildren. By the end of the play, the viewer wonders who the crazy ones really are.

Playwright John Patrick states in his foreword to his play: "It is important in 'The Curious Savage' that the gentle inmates of The Cloisters be played with warmth and dignity. Their home is not an asylum nor are these good people lunatics. Any exaggeration of the roles will rob them of charm and humor. The whole point of the play is to contrast them with Mrs. Savage's children and the insane outside world. To depart from this point of view for the sake of easy laughs will rob the play of its meaning."

Characters[edit]

The Residents[edit]

Florence Williams: (20s-40s) The elegant "mother" of The Cloisters, she believes she has a five-year-old son named John Thomas; in fact, John Thomas is a doll. During Mrs. Savage's stay at The Cloisters, Florence believes that John Thomas has the measles.

Fairy May: (early 20s) Fairy is a compulsive liar who is obsessed with having others love her. She is unkempt throughout the play, but believes herself to be stunningly beautiful. She is also very childlike, behaving and speaking in the tone of a six year old.

Jeffrey: (20s-30s) Once a military pilot, Jeff was shot down in the war, surviving a crash that killed all his men. He now believes that he has a scar on his face, which he constantly hides from others. He plays the piano, but is too shy to do so around other people. He is also married to Miss Willie, but does not remember that he is. Miss Willie works at the Cloisters in the hopes that one day Jeffrey will remember her.

Hannibal: (20s-40s) Hannibal, once a statistician, was fired and replaced by an electronic calculator. He has then taken up the violin, which he wrongly believes he can play beautifully.

Mrs. Paddy: (40s-50s) Mrs. Paddy paints with the quality of Hannibal's violin playing. She paints only seascapes, which strikes Hannibal as "odd, because she's never seen the ocean." The other patients say that Mrs. Paddy stopped talking when her husband told her to "shut up" one day, and she hasn't spoken since. She only speaks to announce what she hates. She hates "everything in the world." She has given up electricity for Lent and turns off all the lights multiple times throughout the play, causing mayhem.

The Savages[edit]

Titus: Sent so many threatening letters that he is listed by Western Union as a "tangible asset," Titus is the least popular senator in congress. He is sober, humorless, and direct.

Lily Belle: Lily Belle was once married to a Slovak prince, and has remarried five times since then. A celebrity heiress, she is arrogant, chic, and self-assured.

Samuel: Samuel has the distinction of being the judge with the most overturned decisions in the U.S. He walks in the shadows of his siblings, offering a short comment every once in a while, only to be shot down by his siblings.

Mrs. Ethel P. Savage: Ethel is a crafty but kindhearted woman with a shifted viewpoint of humanity. The events of the play are centered around her and her decision to hide the money which she has inherited from her late husband in an attempt to make her children look on others with more kindness. She dislikes her stepchildren, but learns to love the residents of The Cloisters.

The Staff[edit]

Dr. Emmett: The staff doctor for this wing of The Cloisters, Dr. Emmett is kind, warmhearted, and he works hard to help his patients.

Miss "Willie" Wilhelmina: Miss Willie is an administrative assistant and nurse. She is married to Jeff, but pretends not to be because he doesn't remember her. He is the reason she is working here, but she is nonetheless extremely kind and understanding towards all the residents of The Cloisters. Though exceedingly kind to Jeff.

Sources[edit]

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