By Helen Sheehy
Who was Margo Jones? Margo Jones was a practical dreamer, a theatre visionary, who in the mid-1940s dreamed into existence America’s non-profit resident theatre – a national network of theatres from coast to coast producing new plays and classics. When Margo Jones established her theatre in Dallas in 1947, it was both the first modern professional resident theatre and the first professional theatre-in-the-round in this country. Working in the commercial theatre at a time when there were few successful women directors, Margo co-directed the first Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. But Margo’s dream was “to create the theatre of tomorrow today” not on Broadway but through resident theatres like her own. Because of the pioneering work of Margo Jones, there are now more than 450 not-for-profit resident theatres in America.
Margo was born in 1911 in Livingston, in East Texas. She liked to sneak out of her bed at night to run down to the railroad station and wait for the 4:00 train to come in, whistle blowing, on its way to somewhere. As a teen-ager, she ran around with the wild boys, drinking and sneaking cigarettes. She left home at 15 to go to college and then toured the world, studying theatre in England and Asia. In Russia, in 1936 she met the New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson. She told him, “Mr. Atkinson, my name is Margo Jones. You don’t know me, but someday you will.” Later, Atkinson liked to tell the story of how he met Margo, saying that she had “the mind of an adult and the heart of a girl.”
Margo directed Tennessee Williams’ early plays. Tennessee wrote that his life was “clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers.” Margo helped him hold on – producing and directing his plays. She defended The Glass Menagerie against producer, Louis Singer, who wanted to change the ending. In turn, Tennessee supported Margo’s vision for a national resident theatre and gave herSummer and Smoke to produce in her first season in Dallas in 1947. Instead of opening with the “name” play, Margo chose to open her season with an unknown play by a young writer named William Inge. Earlier, Inge had written her, “I’ve given up trying to sell the play in New York. Frankly I’ve never felt so dismally rejected and mad as hell.” “We’ll show them,” Margo counseled. “Don’t be depressed. Just get to work on another and the moment I can get this thing going here we’ll go to work together.” Margo produced Inge’s Farther Off From Heaven, which became Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Inge was on his way.
Margo found and nurtured the work of budding playwrights like Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Joseph Hayes, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and many others. She said, if we succeed in inspiring the operation of thirty theatres like ours, the playwright won’t need Broadway. Her prophecy has come true, and now Broadway depends on the resident theatre for new plays.
In January of 1955, Margo premiered Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, never mind that Dallas was in the Bible Belt. She flew to New York to meet Lawrence and Lee, although Jerry Lawrence said “you can’t say that ‘you met Miss Jones.’ Her flash-flood personality enveloped you.”
A few months later, as Margo lay dying in a Dallas hospital, she surrounded herself with piles of scripts and continued to read, planning her next season. She died July 24, 1955. She was 43.
Margo loved Tennessee Williams and she loved playwrights, but she had something all her own, something very rare. The gift to make art happen. Margo changed the culture of her time. Theatre is a handmade art handed down from generation to generation. Margo was “handed to me” in the summer of 1985, by Freddie Hoskins, a stage manager at the Hartford Stage Company where I worked. When Freddie died, since he had no family, we held his memorial service at the theater. Freddie had worked with Margo in the early years, and we used to sit backstage between shows and he’d tell me “Margo” stories. After the service, I gathered up Freddie’s papers and memorabilia. I found many notes, letters, and photographs of Margo and a small wooden box. Inside was a polished stone turtle. I learned later that Margo had a vast collection of turtles of all kinds, gave them as gifts to her friends, and the turtle became a kind of metaphor for Margo – always sticking her neck out, with her thick shell that was impervious to criticism, and her unrelenting steady will. Margo never had a home, she lived in a hotel apartment all of her life, but like her favorite turtles who carry their home with them, Margo’s real home was wherever theatre was – a place where life touches life. And now, in Sweet Tornado, this wonderful documentary, Margo lives yet again.
Copyright 2005 by Helen Sheehy. All rights reserved.
Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones by Helen Sheehy is available from SMU Press in a new paperbound edition, with a foreword by Emily Mann, Artistic Director of Princeton’s McCarter Theater.
Helen Sheehy is also the author of Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography and Eleonora Duse: A Biography. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Oklahoma and Kansas, Sheehy lives in Connecticut. You can visit her official website to learn more.