Saroyan on Broadway: My Heart's in the Highlands - 1939


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My Heart’s in the Highlands was published on June 8th, 1939. It had completed its Broadway run the prior month after 44 performances. While not a tremendous success, it had established Saroyan as a force, and his next show, The Time of Your Life, would forever enshrine him in the Broadway hierarchy.

The show featured music by Paul Bowles, starred future blockbuster director Sidney Lumet as Johnny, and Art Smith as Jasper MacGregor. The show received mixed reviews. Burns Mantel in The New York Daily News, said “It is a fantastic drama about a poor poet and his loyal son. About the starving they do, and the neighbors they have, and a crazed ancient who believes he is a great actor.”

Perhaps the most fascinating review, mixed within itself, was from John Anderson in the New York Journey American:

“Though Mr. Saroyan has leaped through no store windows with a shy bathtub, he is, I suspect, the Salvador Dali of the drama, a surrealist playwright whose “My Heart’s in the Highlands” at the Guild Theatre last night could be compared favorably to a fur-lined teacup. If you squint your eyes, and try to understand it, it doesn’t make any sense at all, but if you let it alone and let it pry around in the gizzard, it will very likely tug your heart strings.”

One thing mentioned by several critics at later revivals was that the version that was published in 1939 was a superior version. Apparently slightly abbreviated for publication, it was published as a stand-alone piece, though not without adornment. The edition published by Harcourt Brace and Company features not only the play, but also the original story (which had first run in Three Times Three in 1936.) This multiple use is very typical of Saroyan, who was always looking for ways to re-use his previously published writing. It included a new preface from Group Theatre director Harold Clurman, and a new preface by Saroyan. Interestingly, the volume includes several reviews for the play, and not just the positive ones! Saroyan, never one to allow the critics to feel like they got it right, said in the introduction, “I believe My Heart’s in the Highlands is a classic.”

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book, and one I had somehow overlooked in my first readings of it, was a portion that provided a reduced version of the sheet music. Paul Bowles’ music had been praised by critics including Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times and Richard Watts, Jr. in the New York Herald Tribune. This music was based on an existing melody written by J.M. Courtney for the lyrics of Robert Burns' song My Heart's in the Highlands, itself based on a traditional Scottish tune Failte na Miosg.

 My Hearts on Treasure Island June 1939 003

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