Robert Ardrey initially conceived of Thunder Rock while on an extended honeymoon on the edge of the North Atlantic, on the island of Nantucket. Across that ocean the European crisis was escalating; the major powers had just signed the Munich Agreement, acceding to Nazi Germany’s annexation of swaths of Czechoslovakia. To Ardrey the agreement—which would indeed turn out to be a failed gesture of appeasement—was a sure harbinger of war.
Ardrey, who was committed to a socially engaged theater and viewed the looming conflict as a possible social catastrophe of unprecedented dimension, knew he had to write a call to arms to try to rouse the largely isolationist American public to action, but he was at a loss as to how. Then one day, during a performance of Swan Lake, the play appeared to him.
“That afternoon, eyes closed, enjoying the music with moderation, I descended into a world between the Tigris and the Styx. And within the course of the performance I had beheld Thunder Rock. I had the play from beginning to end, complete with the first, second, and third act curtains. I never had the experience again, and I must wonder how many authors have gone through a similar spell.”Robert Ardrey
Within four months he had the play on his agent’s desk. Almost immediately the influential director Elia Kazan engaged Harold Clurman and the radical Group Theatre to launch a broadway production of Thunder Rock.
The Group Theatre took on Ardrey’s play because they were aligned with him in feeling the exigency of immediate American intervention in Europe. As such, they set to opening Thunder Rock as quickly as possible, to faster voice Ardrey’s impassioned plea. However, after the invasion of Poland, Europe experienced a short period of relative calm, allowing American isolationists to claim that the threat of war had been overblown. It was in the period during which Senator William Borah famously dubbed the conflict the “phoney war” that Thunder Rock opened, making the case for American intervention to an increasingly skeptical public.
The isolationist theatrical establishment systematically panned the play. Jon Anderson wrote, “The Group is playing spook-a-boo,” and Brooks Atkinson, for The New York Times, opined “Thunder Rock exudes so much thunder, and contains so little rock.”
The play flopped. Thunder Rock closed on Broadway after only 23 performances to disappear forever, it then seemed, into the storied annals of the best intentions.
Ardrey’s Broadway agent Harold Freedman, however, managed, in the winter of 1939, to sell the British rights to the upstart director of a little-known London theater. Herbert Marshall, director of the Neighbourhood Theatre in South Kensington, sent the script to Michael Redgrave, who’d just rocketed to fame following his starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Redgrave agreed to star, recounting later that, “I thought it one of the most exciting plays I had ever read.”
“I thought it one of the most exciting plays I had ever read.”
During rehearsals the situation on the continent deteriorated: the German army burst through the Ardennes and reached the English Channel, threatening to capture the port at Dunkirk. After the battle of Dunkirk, in which 330,000 allied troops were evacuated across the Channel to Britain, nearly every theater closed. When Thunder Rock opened at the Neighbourhood Theatre on June 18, 1940—just four days after the surrender of Paris—it was one of the only two plays showing in London.
“It apparently was produced in New York months ago amidst general indifference, but it had found its audience now—an audience which emerges, often enough, with gas mask on shoulder, to the blacked-out streets and scans the summer sky.”Vincent Sheehan
Thunder Rock opened in London to immediate and resounding success. The eminent theater critic Harold Hobson wrote that the opening night was “one of the greatest evenings … in the entire history of the theatre.” He went on in his review:
“In 1940, when Britain was hourly expecting invasion, the vast majority of the nation had no doubt about them at all. It was afraid, and it wanted its fear either to be removed, or to be exorcised. Actually, at that time, there was only one thing powerful and courageous enough to stand between ourselves and surrender. That was the voice of Winston Churchill. No one who did not hear Churchill’s speech about fighting on the beaches and the landing grounds can imagine the tremendous effect which it had on the morale of the British people. The spirit of the nation was transformed in the space of ten minutes by a couple of hundred words coming out of the radio. But, though inevitably on a much smaller scale, one night in June 1940, simultaneously with the collapse of France, inspiration of the same quality was to be found in the tiny Neighbourhood Theatre in Notting Hill Gate. It came from a play written by an American, and played by British actors. Its name was Thunder Rock.”Harold Hobson
The play was such a huge success that word of the plucky, popular play refusing to shutter in South Kensington eventually reached Winston Churchill. So the Prime Minister sent his wife, Clementine, his scientific advisor, Lord Lindeman, and his information minister, Duff Cooper, to attend a performance. The encounter would initiate a great new phase in the life of the play.
Duff Cooper reported back to Churchill, and Churchill, in a secret cabinet meeting in his war bunker under the Westminster Treasury building, is reported to have told his cabinet, “This play is the greatest contribution to British morale there has yet been.” At his direction Cooper, liaising with the play’s director, arranged for Her Majesty’s Treasury to fund an expanded production at the prominent Globe Theatre in London’s West End. The arrangement was kept completely secret until years after the war.
“This play is the greatest contribution to British morale there has yet been.”
“When Thunder Rock was produced for the first time in this country and at the Neighbourhood Theatre there ensued a chorus of praise that sounded almost suspicious. Can this play be as good as all that? one asked oneself, or is it merely that the gentlemen of the press, starved of something the genuinely appreciate, have leaped with an indiscriminating gusto upon the first good thing that comes their way? A visit to the theatre, however, and a subsequent reading of the play set these doubts at rest.“The Times Literary Supplement
The groundswell of popularity from its initial production was only bolstered by the increased visibility and prestige that came with the Globe Theatre; Thunder Rock quickly became the single most iconic play of WWII London. The reviewer for P.Q.R. wrote that ”Thunder Rock fulfills all the conditions of a play for the age.“ The New York Times correspondent claimed that in Thunder Rock "we have the only play that has challenged the attention of serious playgoers since heaven knows when.” It was called “the best play in the London theatres since war began,” and Harold Hobson compared it to Chu Chin Chow, the most iconic British play of the First World War. The reviewer for The Statesman summed up the emotional impact of the play on the war-torn British public:
“I think, however, I caught (Heaven knows if I shall keep it!) the infection of a better kind of courage from Thunder Rock. Or rather, let me put it this way, the play made clearer to me another fortitude, which can envisage actively the worst happening without despair”The Statesman
Thunder Rock ran at the Globe during the worsening Blitz. When the air raid sirens came on the production would be stopped while Michael Redgrave led the audience in popular songs. In September the neighboring Queens Theatre was struck by a German bomb, and Thunder Rock was shifted to another West End institution, the St. Martin’s Theatre. Shortly thereafter it was taken on the road with none other than a young Alec Guinness stepping in for Michael Redgrave as the lead role. The play went on to be performed in dozens of cities around the U.K., including Manchester and Birmingham.
Thunder Rock’s popularity continued after the war. Excepting a failed Russian production of Our Town, it was the first play to go up in occupied Berlin when the American forces launched a production in their zone. It went up so soon after the war that top military brass attending the premier had to get out of their limousines blocks from the theater and walk over rubble; indeed, the setting was built from rubble taken from the street. The opening met with a similarly hysterical response to the premier in South Kensington.
“The curtain rose on the interior of the lighthouse. And just as it had happened in besieged, isolated London over five long years before, an unaccountable emotion gripped an audience in Berlin. Behind the gowns, behind the white ties, lived a people sheltering an equivalent despair.”Robert Ardrey
The Berlin performance starred former P.O.W. Ernst Busch. Busch was a German national who had fled the country in 1933 and fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, where he rose to fame for his recordings of Spanish Civil War songs. He was later taken prisoner in Belgium, and released only at the end of WWII.
The night before the premier, General J. L. Whitelaw, Deputy Chief of Staff of the U.S. Headquarters in Berlin, gave a speech to mark the occasion. He said that “perhaps the historians will hold this year, 1945, as the beginning of a resistant freedom of expression.”
Thunder Rock’s emotional resonance has proved resilient, vouchsafing its status as an international classic. Indeed, the play has been staged all over the world.
Within six weeks after V-E day a production had been launched in Vienna. Following the Berlin production Thunder Rock was put up in over forty cities in Germany. Its reputation continued to spread globally: the play has been staged in Norway and Australia; in Harare, Zimbabwe; in Alexandria, Egypt; and in Nairobi, Kenya. In 1958 it was translated into French as La Tour d’Ivoire (“The Ivory Tower”) and staged in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. A well-received Arabic translation followed. It continues to be a popular play among university theater programs.
Thunder Rock has also been widely adapted. In 1940 the BBC broadcast a radio version voiced by the original cast. The Boulting brothers produced a film adaptation in 1942, starring Michael Redgrave and James Mason. Peter Simms adapted a version for BBC Television, starring Robert Sansom, in 1946.
Ardrey, in his autobiographical preface to Plays of Three Decades, reflected, “Thunder Rock was the only play I ever wrote that may be regarded legitimately as an international classic.”
Thunder Rock is currently one of two Robert Ardrey plays, along with Sing Me No Lullaby, available from the Dramatists Play Service. It is also available in a new edition of Plays of Three Decades, together with Jeb and Shadow of Heroes. This new volume includes an extensive autobiographical introduction by the author that contextualizes these significant dramatic works.
To purchase printed acting edition copies of Thunder Rock and to apply for performance rights, please visit the Dramatists Play Service.
“Thunder Rock was the only play I ever wrote that may be regarded legitimately as an international classic.”