The Bat (play)

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The Bat
The Bat playbill August 1921.jpg
Playbill for Broadway production
Written by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Avery Hopwood
Date premiered August 23, 1920 (1920-08-23)
Place premiered Morosco Theatre
Original language English
Genre Mystery
Setting A country house

The Bat is a Broadway play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood first produced in 1920. The plot relates how wealthy spinster Cornelia Van Gorder and her guests uncover a mystery at their rented summer home while being stalked by an enigmatic, costumed criminal known as "The Bat".

The Bat originated as an adaptation of Rinehart's mystery novel The Circular Staircase, published in 1908. Rinehart and Hopwood made a number of alterations to the source to prepare it for Broadway, most notably adding the titular antagonist. The connection to the original novel led to a legal dispute over film rights with the Selig Polyscope Company, producers of a 1915 Circular Staircase film; subsequently, Rinehart denied the relationship between the two works as she attempted to license The Bat for a film adaptation.

The Bat was massive critical and commercial success, running for 867 performances in New York and spawning seven additional companies who brought the show to other areas. It led to a number of adaptations, including a 1926 novelization anonymously written by Stephen Vincent Benét. Three films were produced: the 1926 silent film The Bat, as the 1930 talking film The Bat Whispers, and as the 1959 horror picture The Bat. The play and its adaptations had a wide influence on contemporary media and popular culture, inspiring a number of bat-themed characters in subsequent works, most notably the superhero Batman.


Mary Roberts Rinehart based the play on her novel The Circular Staircase.

Cornelia Van Gorder, an elderly single woman, is renting an old, isolated Long Island mansion owned by the estate of Courtleigh Fleming, a bank president who reportedly died months earlier. On a stormy evening with the electricity flickering on and off, most of the servants have made excuses and fled, thinking the house is haunted. A news report says a mysterious criminal called "The Bat" has been eluding police in the area. Cornelia is in the house with her personal maid Lizzie and Billy, a "Jap" butler who was part of Fleming's household staff.[note 1] They are joined by Brooks, a new gardener who has been hired by Cornelia's niece, Dale Ogden. Dale arrives to visit along with Doctor Wells, who is the local coroner and an old friend of Fleming's. They tell Cornelia that Jack Bailey, a cashier at Fleming's bank, has disappeared after being suspected of stealing over a million dollars. Cornelia informs Lizzie and Dale that she has invited a police detective to visit because someone has been attempting to break into the house on previous nights. Wells departs and Detective Anderson arrives. Cornelia tells Anderson that she suspects Fleming embezzled from the bank and hid the money in the house. As Cornelia shows Anderson to his room, Dale warns Brooks that Anderson is a detective. Brooks is actually Jack Bailey and is engaged to Dale. He also believes Fleming hid the money and wants to clear his name by finding it. To learn more about possible hiding places, Dale summons Courtleigh Fleming's nephew, Richard Fleming, who rented to house to Cornelia. He reveals a blueprint of the house that shows a hidden room where the money might be. As they fight over the blueprint, a figure appears in the darkness and shoots Richard, ending the first act.

Cornelia calls Dr. Wells back to the house to examine Richard Fleming's dead body. Dale asks Wells to hide the blueprint she took from Richard, because the others might think she killed him for it. Reginald Beresford, a lawyer who had been waiting in his car after driving Richard to the house, also comes inside. When Beresford recognizes Jack, the exposure of her fiancee leads Dale to confess about the blueprint of the hidden room. When Wells claims he doesn't have the blueprint and Cornelia reveals other incriminating evidence against him, Anderson asks to question Wells alone. While they are alone, Wells knocks Anderson out and drags him to another room. Before Wells can go to the hidden room, an unidentified man (called "Unknown Man" in the script) appears at the terrace door. The man claims to have lost his memory after being attacked and tied up in the garage. As the guests try to figure out who the Unknown Man is, they discover that they have been locked in the house. The second act ends with Cornelia finding the Bat's calling card, a black paper bat, tacked to a door.

The third act moves to the upper floor of the house. A masked man is seen in the previously hidden room retrieving a money bag from a safe. When Dale finds the room, the masked man flees, leaving her and the money locked inside. The others find her there unconscious. Anderson reappears and confronts Wells, accusing him of stealing the money and killing Richard Fleming. Cornelia starts to give an alternative theory, but is interrupted by the Unknown Man coming upstairs. Anderson questions the Unknown Man about his lost memory. Cornelia claims to see a man on the roof; most of the group leaves to look for him. Cornelia uses the distraction to tell Dale, Jack, and the Unknown Man that she thinks the money is still in the room. As they search for the money, Jack finds the body of Courtleigh Fleming, who has been killed very recently (not months before as Wells had claimed). As Cornelia, Dale, and Jack argue over theories of the crimes that have occurred, the Unknown Man locks the door to the room and orders them all to be quiet. When the masked man sneaks in through a window, the Unknown Man apprehends him. The Unknown Man reveals that he is the real Detective Anderson; he unmasks the Bat, who has pretended to be Anderson most of the night.


Avery Hopwood helped Rinehart complete the play.

In 1916, Rinehart asked theatrical producer Edgar Selwyn whether he thought a mystery play would be successful if it kept the mystery unresolved until the last moments of the play. Selwyn replied that such a play would could make a million dollars. Rinehart decided to adapt her mystery novel The Circular Staircase, which had been published in 1908 and adapted as a movie in 1915. She began work on the play in the spring of 1917, but was distracted by work for the United States Department of War during World War I, and by the fall of 1918 she had only written the first two acts.[3] She approached fellow playwright Avery Hopwood, who had collaborated with her on the play Seven Days in 1909, for help completing the play while she was in Europe for the War Department.[4][5] Hopwood was interested, but did not do any work on the play while Rinehart was overseas.[4][6] After she returned in 1919, Hopwood joined Rinehart in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, where she lived; they worked on the play there and then in New York City until they completed the script on the afternoon of April 11, 1920.[7][8]

Moments after they completed the script, Rinehart was called away when her daughter-in-law went into labor. Rinehart's granddaughter was born in the early hours of April 12.[9] Rinehart decided to focus on family obligations and missed the reading of the completed play to producers Lincoln Wagenhals and Collin Kemper, who had expressed interest in staging the play after Hopwood shared a draft with them. Hopwood mailed Rinehart the contract. She subsequently missed the rehearsals and the play's Broadway debut, although she did attend preview performances.[10][11]

Prior to the Broadway opening,the play was previewed in Washington, D.C., where it opened on June 14, 1920 under the title A Thief in the Night.[12] The following week it was previewed in Atlantic City, New Jersey.[13] With Rinehart's preferred title restored, The Bat premiered on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre on August 23, 1920. The mystery was produced by Wagenhals and Kemper; Kemper also directed. The Broadway production closed in September 1922 after 867 performances.[14] Before the Broadway production had closed, Wagenhals and Kemper had launched six separate road companies to tour the United States.[15] On January 23, 1922, the play opened in London at the St James's Theatre in the West End. It ran there for 327 performances.[14]

The Bat was revived twice on Broadway. The first revival was produced by Ben Lundy and directed by Benjamin F. Kamsler; it opened on May 31, 1937, at the Majestic Theatre as part of a program of stock theater.[16] It was scheduled to run a week, but was extended and closed after two weeks and 11 performances.[17][18] The second revival opened on January 20, 1953, at the National Theatre, and closed on February 7, 1953, after 23 performances.[14][19]

Cast and characters[edit]

Effie Ellsler played Cornelia in the first Broadway production.
Claude Rains played Billy in the West End production.

The lead role in the play is Cornelia Van Gorder, played in the first production by Effie Ellsler. Despite an unusually long run for the production, Ellsler performed in almost every show, even performing one evening after learning of her husband's death earlier that day. She left the part only briefly after she collapsed on stage during the production's final week. The Bat was her last Broadway performance.[20][21]

For the play's title role, Wagenhals and Kemper cast Harrison Hunter. They did not show Hunter or other cast members the final scene, in which the Bat's identity is revealed, until just before the dress rehearsal. Hunter, who previously thought his part was as a detective, was upset to learn he was playing a criminal.[22] Despite his initial concerns, Hunter stayed with the role for the entire Broadway run, then joined a touring company for the play. At the end of 1922, he fell ill while still playing the role and died a week later.[23]

The play's primary comic relief character is Lizzie, played in the initial Broadway production by May Vokes. Vokes returned to the role for the 1937 revival, where she was joined by Richard Barrows, also from the original cast but in a different role. Minnette Barrett, an understudy in the original production, moved to the lead role as Cornelia in the revival.

The play's productions included the initial Broadway run, a production on London's West End, and two later Broadway revivals, with the following opening-night casts:

Casts of the major productions
Character Original cast[24] West End cast[25] 1937 revival cast[16] 1953 revival cast[26]
Lizzie Allen May Vokes Drusilla Wills May Vokes ZaSu Pitts
Miss Cornelia Van Gorder Effie Ellsler Eva Moore Minnette Barrett Lucile Watson
Billy Harry Morvil Claude Rains Arvid Paulson Harry Shaw Lowe
Brooks / Jack Bailey Stuart Sage George Relph Norman Stuart Peter Hanson
Miss Dale Ogden Anne Morrison Nora Swinburne Linda Lee Hill Paula Houston
Doctor Wells Edward Ellis Alexander Scott-Gatty Robert Ober Harry Bannister
Detective Anderson / Masked Man / The Bat Harrison Hunter Arthur Wontner Hermann Lieb Shepperd Strudwick
Richard "Dick" Fleming Richard Barrows C. Stafford Dickens Matthew Smith Laurence Haddon
Reginald Beresford Kenneth Hunter Herbert Bolingbroke Eric Kalkhurst Charles Proctor
Unknown Man / Detective Anderson Robert Vaughan Allan Jeayes Richard Barrows Raymond Bailey


Box office[edit]

With a multi-year Broadway run, over nine months on the West End, and several road companies touring concurrently, The Bat was a huge financial success. In a 1946 profile of Rinehart, Life magazine writer Geoffrey T. Hellman estimated that the play had earned over nine million dollars.[27] It was the most successful play for both Rinehart and Hopwood; when its initial Broadway production closed, it was the second-longest running play in Broadway history.[28]


The original Broadway production of The Bat received positive reviews that praised the writing and performances.[29][30] Alexander Woollcott described the play as entertaining and well-acted in his review for The New York Times.[31] The reviewer for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle also gave a positive review.[32]

In The Spectator, W. J. Turner said the London production was thrilling and praised Moore's acting as Cornelia, but disliked the "buffoonery" of Wills as Lizzie.[33]

When the play was revived in 1937, reviewers said the play had not aged well because many subsequent plays had imitated it. In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson said it was "not quite the shriek show it was originally", although it was still entertaining.[16] In The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Arthur Pollock said the play showed its age and had become more amusing than frightening.[34]



The 1930 film The Bat Whispers was based on the play.

Rinehart had sold the film rights to The Circular Staircase to movie producer William Selig's Selig Polyscope Company in 1915, and he released a silent film adaptation of the novel that year, also using the title The Circular Staircase. Rinehart purchased the rights back from Selig in 1920 to avoid conflicts over potential film adaptations of The Bat. However, in 1921 Selig re-released his movie under the title The Bat to capitalize on the success of the play. Wagenhals and Kemper filed suit to block Selig's use of the title.[35][36]

Three films were made based on the original Broadway play.[37] The first was a silent film, also called The Bat, produced and directed by Roland West, who co-wrote the screenplay with Julien Josephson and George Marion Jr. The role of Cornelia was played by Emily Fitzroy; Eddie Gribbon was the Bat. West made the actors work at night to get them in the right mood for the thriller.[38] The film was released by United Artists on March 14, 1926.

West remade his film four years later in 1930 as The Bat Whispers, also by United Artists, and starring Chester Morris and Una Merkel. A third film by Crane Wilbur was released by Allied Artists in 1959 as The Bat, starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead.

Other adaptations[edit]

To reinforce the distinction between The Bat and The Circular Staircase, a novelization of the play was published by George H. Doran Company in 1926. The adaptation was credited to Rinehart and Hopwood, but was ghostwritten by Stephen Vincent Benét.[35][36]

The Bat was adapted for television several times. The WOR-TV anthology series Broadway Television Theatre aired its adaptation on November 23, 1953, with a cast that included Estelle Winwood, Alice Pearce, and Jay Jostyn.[39] On March 31, 1960, NBC TV made The Bat the first of its Dow Hour of Great Mysteries specials. Helen Hayes, Margaret Hamilton, and Jason Robards starred in the adaptation.[40] On July 30, 1978, West German broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk aired a television movie adaptation titled Der Spinnenmörder. It was subsequently rebroadcast by Austria's Österreichischer Rundfunk on August 5.[41]

In August 1992, Adventure Comics published a one-shot comic book adaptation of the play. The comic significantly altered the story, making Cornelia Van Gorder younger and giving her an evil twin who is revealed as the murderer.[42]


The success of The Bat was followed in 1922 by another hit set in an old, dark house, The Cat and the Canary by John Willard. The popularity of these plays led to imitators on stage and in films.[14][43]

Comic-book creator Bob Kane said in his 1989 autobiography Batman and Me that the villain of The Bat Whispers was an inspiration for his character Batman.[44]


  1. ^ Plot details are primarily based on the version first published in 1932, as reprinted in 1944.[1] In a 1945 revision of the script, Rinehart replaced Billy with a "Negro butler" named Washington.[2]


  1. ^ Rinehart & Hopwood 1944, p. 492
  2. ^ Rinehart & Hopwood 1945, p. 2
  3. ^ Cohn 1980, p. 138
  4. ^ a b Sharrar 1998, pp. 107–108
  5. ^ MacLeod 2016, loc 3588
  6. ^ MacLeod 2016, loc 3708
  7. ^ Cohn 1980, p. 140
  8. ^ MacLeod 2016, loc 3783–3792
  9. ^ MacLeod 2016, loc 3787
  10. ^ Cohn 1980, pp. 140–141
  11. ^ Sharrar 1998, pp. 124–126
  12. ^ "An Old Firm Presents a New Mystery Play". The Washington Post. June 13, 1920. p. 3 – via open access publication – free to read
  13. ^ Cohn 1980, p. 141
  14. ^ a b c d Lachman 2014, pp. 130–131
  15. ^ Sharrar 1998, p. 129
  16. ^ a b c Atkinson 1937, p. 27
  17. ^ Bordman 1996, p. 154
  18. ^ Steinberg 1937, p. 2C
  19. ^ Bordman 1996, p. 312
  20. ^ "Effie Ellsler, 87, Retired Actress". The New York Times. October 10, 1942. p. 15. 
  21. ^ Nissen 2016, pp. 41–42
  22. ^ Sharrar 1998, p. 127
  23. ^ "Obituary: Harrison Hunter". Variety. January 5, 1923. p. 9. 
  24. ^ Mantle 1921, p. 371
  25. ^ Wearing 2014, p. 144
  26. ^ Atkinson 1953, p. 28
  27. ^ Cohn 1980, p. 141
  28. ^ Wainscott 1997, pp. 78, 206 n.7
  29. ^ Hischak 2017, p. 52
  30. ^ Bader 1959, p. 66
  31. ^ Woollcott 1920, p. 6
  32. ^ "The Bat Seems a Sure Success; News of the Local Attractions". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. August 24, 1920. p. 9 – via open access publication – free to read
  33. ^ Turner 1922, p. 144
  34. ^ Pollock 1937, p. 21
  35. ^ a b Sharrar 1998, p. 130
  36. ^ a b Cohn 1980, pp. 142–143
  37. ^ Roberts 2003, pp. 452–453
  38. ^ Vieira 2003, p. 19
  39. ^ Terrace 2013, p. 73
  40. ^ Terrace 2013, p. 41
  41. ^ Klünder 1991, pp. 528, 536
  42. ^ Mann 2004, p. 68
  43. ^ Hutchings 2014, p. 13
  44. ^ Wainer 2014, p. 36

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]