Yellow Jack (play)

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For other uses, see Yellow jack (disambiguation).
Yellow Jack
Yellow Jack play starring James Stewart, drawing from Herald Tribune.jpg
Al Hirschfeld drawing from the Herald Tribune, March 11, 1934 (James Stewart in upper-left)
Written by Sidney Howard
Paul de Kruif (collaborator)
Date premiered March 6, 1934
Original language English
Subject Major Walter Reed of the U.S. Army worked to diagnose and treat yellow fever (called “yellow jack”) in Cuba in 1898-1900
Genre Drama
Setting New York today, London in January of 1929, West Africa in June of 1927, Cuba in 1900, and London in September of 1929

Yellow Jack is a 1934 docudrama play produced by Guthrie McClintic and a 1938 Hollywood movie by the same name. Both were co-written by Sidney Howard and Paul de Kruif (the former a Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter; the latter a well-known microbiologist and author). The play is the work of Sidney Howard and is based on a chapter in Paul de Kruif’s 1927 book “Microbe Hunters.”[1]

James Stewart in his first dramatic role stars as Pvt. John O'Hara, a role reprised by Robert Montgomery in the 1938 film. Stewart later stated this role convinced him to continue his acting career during a time he recalled that "From 1932 through 1934...I'd only worked three months. Every play I got into folded."[2] The experience led him to stay with acting and he first entered movies later that year in The Murder Man. Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld while covering the play for the Herald Tribune drew his first of 13 drawings (and only one from a play) he made over the course of Stewart's career.[3]

The play opened at the opulent Martin Beck Theatre on 6 Mar, 1934 and ran for 79 performances. The Martin Beck was renamed in 2003 for Al Hirschfeld, who drew the caricature for Yellow Jack. Prior to it's debute, Herman Bernstein's Jewish Daily Bulletin gave approval to the play for not containing anti-sematic elements.[4]

Due to the high cost of repertory production, in 1947 New York's American Repertory Theatre revived Yellow Jack for a short 4 week run at the International Theatre.[5]


After the Spanish-American War, in which more U. S. soldiers were killed by yellow fever (known as Yellow Jack) than in battle, the War Department sent a medical commission to Cuba to find, if possible, the cause and cure of this deadly tropical disease. The commission was headed by Dr. Walter Reed. With him was Dr. James Carroll. In Cuba they found Dr. Jesse Lazear, European-trained microbiologist, and Cuban Dr. Aristides Agramonte.

Limited in its experiments by the fact that animals are immune to Yellow Jack and embroiled in government interference, Reed decides that the only way to test the theory is to expose his own men to the disease. Needing human volunteers, Private John O'Hara is willing to allow Dr, Reed to experiment on him.


Debuting on 6 Mar, 1934, the play ran through May for a modest 79 performances. It generally received positive reviews, but the subject had limited popular appeal.[6]


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