Casey Jones (1938)

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Casey Jones (1938)

In his second play, Casey Jones, Ardrey continued to develop his portrayal of working class Americans and his presentation of their dialect. Much of the praise around the play focused on the language. Christine White, for example, wrote that “Ardrey had a genuine affection for ordinary human beings, whose language he loved and captured beautifully in his dialogue. He wanted to write about them because they were the essence of America, and he had his own ideas about the proper way to do it.”

After Star Spangled was produced Ardrey signed Harold Freedman as his agent; Freedman placed the script of Casey Jones with the radical Group Theater, who would later produce Ardrey’s most famous play, Thunder Rock. The Broadway production, which opened on March 1, 1938 at the Fulton Theater, starred Charles Bickford in the title role. It was directed by Elia Kazan and featured a much-praised set by Mordecai Gorelik.

Casey Jones, which took its inspiration from the folk ballad of the same name, concerned man’s relationship with machines. The title character, a railroad man, desperately loved his train engine, to the neglect of himself and his family. When Casey starts to lose his sight the railroad company forces him into retirement, and Casey refuses his pension, saying, “the company owes me nothing.” He moves into a cramped boarding house where he eventually realizes he has been a slave to the company for his entire life.

Casey Jones received far better reviews than Star Spangled. Notable positive reviews came from Burns Mantle, Richard Watts, Jr., and, especially, Brooks Atkinson (writing for The New York Times). The play did not, however, meet with more commercial success, and closed after only 25 performances. By that time, though, Ardrey’s third play, How to get Tough About It, had already opened.

"It has never been an American tradition to speak truly of the people. Always we have thought of them wishfully, according to our own ends. A social evangelist, in a far-away temple, shouts loudly of the people and class solidarity. Are these Americans class conscious? I can only show them to you and say, judge for yourselves. ... It would seem to me that an unschooled man who is aware and puzzled is frequently more intelligent than a man with an educated mind, convinced and closed. But that's merely my judgment, so don't accept it. Accept only my people and judge for yourself."

Robert Ardrey

"Robert Ardrey has extraordinary Flair. He has chosen a fresh subject and populated it with pungent characters; he has also worked at it with drollery and excitement. Casey Jones is written with humorous insight into the character of odd and muscular men; the dialogue is spontaneously original; the scenes are comic and sympathetic."

Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times