"Conversation at Midnight"

 Reflections on the Production of Edna St. Vincent Millay's
"Conversation at Midnight" 
at The Actors Studio New York
Janine Manatis


Edna St. Vincent Millay

        "Conversation At Midnight" is a play in blank verse by the renowned American poet Edna St.Vincent Millay. She wrote (at seventeen) an eloquent long poem, "Renascence", a portion of which a famous NBC-TV Host always quoted at the end of every broadcast: "The world stands out on either side, no wider than the heart is wide, above the earth is stretched the sky, no higher than the soul is high. But East and West will pinch the heart that can not keep them pushed apart; and he whose soul is flat - the sky will cave in on him by and by."  She had been one of the free-spirited feminist voices of the 30’s. Oddly, however, nobody seemed to know, let alone had read "Conversation", despite the fact she’d written a rather famous play for children. I, however, was a fan and as such had read everything of hers. I would (did) perform "Renascence" at the drop of the proverbial hat. Or even without it!  I would begin:  "All I could see from where I stood were three long mountains and a wood. Over these things I could not see. These were the things that bounded me." (I still can’t resist.)

Well, as a quite young and busy actress I started writing and directing at The Actors Studio. I was fortunate to have my work gain the attention and support of Cheryl Crawford, the Broadway producer, who began her career with the Group Theater and who was the Studio’s prime fund-raiser. To adapt "Conversation" and develop it as a project became a consuming passion and an adventure with consequences I could never have imagined. Revising it from an all male cast of nine down to seven without loss, adding a piano and song, exploring with the actors and director every facet of the characters, the beauty and purpose of the language, the intricate, layered relationships, was a journey for all of us. Here was ensemble work at its finest with a brilliant cast, a fine director and the priceless freedom to create  - to do and undo and redo for over six months without interference. The result was an exceptional piece of theater, unforgettable by anyone who saw it.

As it happened, Ms.Crawford, Lee Strasberg, Molly Kazan and Elia Kazan had for a time been considering the possibility of  "opening-up" the work at the Studio (which at the time had a reputation both sacrosanct and much maligned) by showcasing an "in-house" production. This was not a subject without controversy. However, it was decided that "Conversation At Midnight" was the right project for such a purpose. (At this point I want to say that this is a much longer, deeper, more complicated and far-reaching story than can be told here. And I am telling it in a book-in-progress about my adventures in theater, television and movies. But to round out it’s purpose in this time and place, I need to tell what took place after the first performance.


Present at that remarkable, history making opening night, along with Norma Millay (sister to "Vincent" as she was known) and her husband the artist Charles Ellis, were two gentlemen who were not only "fictionally represented" by two of the play’s characters, but who had in the intervening years become icons in American literature. They  were Archibald MacLeish, a Poet Laureate of the United States and Thornton Wilder, one of the giants of modern playwriting.They had been invited by Cheryl Crawford to travel to NYC for the purpose of seeing the never-before- performed play by their late, great poet friend. She had a dream to take the show to Broadway and hoped their responses would persuade Norma Millay (who controlled the rights) to give permission.

It was proposed that the director and I join them all in Mr.Wilder’s hotel room for our own "conversation at midnight." Their praise for everyone was abundant, sincere, generous, celebratory as well as personally and deeply felt. It was an unforgettable experience. The results, as the saying goes, will be revealed in the full account, doing justice I hope, to one of my professional life’s greatest gifts: "CONVERSATION AT MIDNIGHT".

.....and so it is to that memory and to everyone connected to it that I dedicate this page. Here’s looking forward to some good conversation!        



 "My candle burns at both ends
  It will not last the night
  But, ah, my foes,
 And oh, my friends,
 It gives a lovely light."
                            Edna St. Vincent Millay