“The Great Bordello, a Story of the Theatre” is the heretofore unpublished work of Jazz-Age playwright Avery Hopwood (1882-1928), benefactor of the Avery and Jule Hopwood Awards Program at U-M, his alma mater. Hopwood was the most successful playwright of his day, with four hits on Broadway at the same time, and other hits peppering other seasons. Although Hopwood amassed a fortune writing these Broadway entertainments, his chief goal was to write a significant novel. “Something,” he once told a newspaper reporter, “which an intelligent man can sit down and read and think about.”
A roman à clef completed only days before Hopwood’s early death, “The Great Bordello” was rumored to be “the most devastating exposé of the American theatre as an institution imaginable.” The story plays out in the early decades of the twentieth century, portraying the life of aspiring playwright Edwin Endsleigh, Avery Hopwood’s fictional counterpart. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Edwin heads for Broadway to earn his fortune and the security to pursue his one true dream of writing the great American novel. Shaping Edwin’s ambitious journey is his love of three women: the strong-minded Julia Scarlet; the haunting Jessamy Lee, and Adelina Kane, idol of the American stage; in the company of Edwin and his loves are a dramatic array of thinly veiled representations of theatrical personages of the time, amongst them Daniel Mendoza, the powerful impresario; the worldly-wise veteran of the stage, Ottilie Potter, who has gotten where she is because, “Men had what I wanted, and I had what they wanted”; and the huge, manlike Helen Sampson, chief among theatrical agents. In the end, “The Great Bordello” provides a deeper understanding of the human desire to accomplish something of enduring value amidst commercial success and ruthless realities of life.
Jack F. Sharrar is author of “Avery Hopwood, His Life and Plays” (UMI Press), and has adapted two of Hopwood’s plays, “Fair and Warmer” and “Just for Tonight.” He is Director of Academic Affairs for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and holds a Ph.D. in theater history and dramatic literature from the University of Utah.