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Why We Love Gone With the Wind

As Trevor Nunn and Margaret Martin’s new musical of Gone With the Wind prepares for its West End premiere, Roger Foss takes a closer look at Margaret Mitchell’s epic story – from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the Oscar-winning film – and why it became a modern classic.

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The epic novel – Margaret Mitchell was born on 8 November 1900 into a segregated Atlanta, Georgia. She worked as a reporter at the Atlanta Journal Magazine, but was forced to quit because of arthritis. While spending time at home in bed, she began to write about what she had learned from the stories told to her as a child, eventually producing what turned out to be one of the most popular novels in the history of publishing, Gone With the Wind, a 1,037-page “story of the Old South, the Civil War and Reconstruction”. Published in June 1936, by October GWTW had sold one million copies. In 1937 Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her first and only book. After the film premiered in Atlanta, in 1939, she spent her life and wealth working on a variety of charitable projects, including funding black and white emergency clinics at an Atlanta hospital. She died in 1949, after being hit by a cab while walking to a theatre. The novel is now one of the most popular books of all time, selling more than 28 million copies.

The epic movie – David O Selznick’s 1939 production of Gone With the Wind won a then-unprecedented ten Academy Awards and has sold more tickets than any other film in history. Selznick acquired the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's novel for $50,000 – a record amount at the time. But with 50 speaking roles, 2,400 extras and a record $4 million budget, “Selznick’s Folly”, became cinema’s greatest epic, shot in three-strip Technicolor and boasting an immortal cast in a timeless tale of tortured romance, and all underscored by Max Steiner’s soaring soundtrack. A three-year casting search for Scarlett ended in young British actress Vivien Leigh landing the role, after more than 30 others had been considered, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball and Mae West, while MGM star Clark Gable was the obvious Rhett Butler. Directors came and went, including George Cukor after less than three weeks. Victor Fleming, who had just directed The Wizard of Oz, completed the picture and MGM director Sam Wood was also involved when Fleming pulled out due to exhaustion from working on the greatest blockbuster of all time.

The epic story – Headstrong heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, struggles to find love during the catastrophe of the Civil War and as the wind of change sweeps through Georgia she finds refuge at the family plantation, Tara. As the Yankees march triumphantly against the losing side, Scarlett takes control, defending Tara and fighting starvation, finally marrying her “bad lot” admirer Captain Rhett Butler, although her frigidity towards him in their marriage, fueled by her unrequited passion for her sister-in-law’s husband Ashley Wilkes, dooms their relationship. When Rhett is about to walk out, she begs, “Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” His answer? “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But Scarlett is not down. She returns to Tara, declaring, “Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!”

The epic theme – According to Mitchell, “If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under...? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”

The other theme – Mitchell captured the social hierarchy in the Antebellum South, where black plantation slaves were segregated at the bottom of the pile. Even Mammy, the family house servant (Hattie McDaniel in the film), sees herself as a cut above field girls like the childlike Prissy (Butterfly McQueen). McDaniel, the first black woman to sing on the radio in America, won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy, the first time an African-American had ever been so honoured. But when GWTW premiered in Atlanta, black actors in the film were barred and excluded from being in the souvenir programme. McDaniel did, however, attend the Hollywood premiere and the Oscar ceremony. When, later, she was criticised for playing beneath herself, she replied, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid”.

Gone With the Wind on stage

In the new musical of Gone with the Wind, American Jill Paice and British recording star Darius Danesh star as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. The premiere production is directed byTrevor Nunn and designed by John Napier, who worked with Nunn on blockbuster page-to-stage adaptations of Les Miserables and Cats, the latter finishing its 21-year run at the New London in May 2002. The piece has music and lyrics by Margaret Martin, making her theatrical debut.

But this is by no means the first time that Mitchell’s epic has been brought to the stage. Previous offerings include the following…

  • Scarlett – Harold Rome wrote this musical adaptation, which was performed in Tokyo in 1970 in Japanese. An English version, reverting to the Gone With the Wind title, opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1972, with Scarlett and Rhett played by June Ritchie and Harve Presnell. The cast included a young Bonnie Langford as Scarlett’s daughter Bonnie. On the first night a horse nervously defecated on the stage, prompting Noël Coward’s famous remark: “If they had shoved the child’s head up the horse’s arse, they would have solved two problems at once.”
    • Frankly Scarlett – Peter Morris and Philip George’s frenetic farce about “the making of the film about the book that could never been filmed” opened at the King’s Head Theatre in April 1997, and followed David O Selznick’s search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara. Vivienne Leigh was played in drag by Earl Grey, who was also Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead.
    • Moonlight and Magnolias – Given its UK premiere at the Tricycle Theatre in 2007, Ron Hutchinson’s screwball parody of the workings of Hollywood involved movie mogul David O Selznick shutting down production of Gone With the Wind and engaging the reluctant services of a “script doctor” in a hilarious attempt to rewrite the shooting script. Andy Nyman starred.

      Gone with the Wind opens on 22 April 2008 (previews from 4 April) at the West End’s New London Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 27 September. A longer version of this interview – including an in-depth interview with stars Jill Paice and Darius Danesh - appears in the April issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!

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