The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

“My Wife’s Not My Wife, She’s My Daughter”: Relocating A Bill of Divorcement from Stage to Screen

Nicole Flynn
South Dakota State University


Clemence Dane’s hit West End play A Bill of Divorcement (1921) was adapted into a successful Hollywood film from RKO Studios, a 1932 David O. Selznick production directed by George Cukor and starring John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut. This essay argues that the combination of the text’s formal, geographic, and temporal relocation from one medium to another shifts the message of the text, emphasizing different aspects of its content and thereby reconfiguring its meaning for a new audience. An analysis of the social norms, notions of inheritance, sickness and health, marriage and family and, in particular, the treatment of eugenics in the two versions of the texts, elucidate the shifts in their historical contexts and imagined audiences.

Keywords   divorce / eugenics / theatre / film adaptation / Clemence Dane


In 1921, the curtain went up on Clemence Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement, one of the most popular and longest-running plays in London’s West End. The play’s success established Dane, already a well–known novelist, as a respected and bankable playwright, launched her into London’s theatre glitterati, and led to a long career involving visual arts, radio, film, including an Oscar in 1947 for the film Vacation from Marriage (1945) and a CBE (an order of chivalry from Queen Elizabeth) in 1953. A Tattler review from the same year declared, “A Bill of Divorcement is the best play to be seen in London at the present time” (Clippings). In addition to two long, successful West End runs, followed by touring productions across the United Kingdom and United States, the play also provided source material for a hit Hollywood film from RKO Studios, a 1932 David O. Selznick production directed by George Cukor and starring John Barrymore along with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut.1 Both play and film created a forum for debates about how to balance the needs of the nation with the needs of the individual, how communities deal with sickness, and how society alters its values in a changing world. 

Early sound cinema often adapted material from the stage, in part to transfer theatre’s legitimacy to the medium of film. Many filmmakers at the time believed that British theatre, including Shakespeare of course, “would remove the stigma, which, justly or unjustly, at present is apt to be cast on moving pictures” (qtd. in Cartmell and Whelehan 31). Adaptation scholar James Naremore suggests, “The capitalist movie industry, especially in Hollywood…recognized from the beginning that it could gain a sort of legitimacy among middle–class viewers by reproducing facsimiles of more respectable art or by adapting literature to another medium” (4). But the draw for American audiences was not limited to classical repertoire. The fruitful transatlantic pollination between the London and New York theatre scenes would prove both popular and profitable for Hollywood as well, especially in the hands of a seasoned theatre director like George Cukor. Cukor directed Tallulah Bankhead, the American darling of the West End stage, in her first film, Tarnished Lady (1931). With this film, Pomerance and Palmer write, “Broadway met the West End, and the result was a very different kind of cinema, one for which American filmgoers would soon develop a considerable enthusiasm” (3). Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement, released the year after Tarnished Lady, continued to build this brand of cinema, combining British playwright Dane with the American actress Hepburn’s film debut. Audience enthusiasm continued to grow.

Film critics often emphasize Cukor’s “theatrical” style, not always as a compliment. However, his films, including Bill, were often hugely successful, in part because of his skill at adapting theatrical material and talent to the screen. Pomerance and Palmer argue, “He had an exceptional ability to transcend the confining box setting of theatrical space by bringing characters and confrontational moments close through dynamic staging, the close–up, and the extreme variation in shot length inherent in the camera process” (3). Although Cukor was still a newcomer to cinema when they filmed Bill, many reviews saw his theatre background as an asset. Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review extends this praise beyond Cukor in particular, and praises theatre’s influence on cinema more broadly in his article “The Screen is Indebted to the Stage: ‘Bill of Divorcement’ Owes Its Success to Theatrical Brains.” He attributes the film’s success to the “brains” of the actors, director, and playwright: 

It is gratifying to find no folderol in the direction of the picture and to hear the clear, well–measured enunciation from the members of the cast. Mr. Cukor adheres to the serious tone of the subject, appreciating that the slightest deviation surely would spoil the production. As a result of the combined efforts of the brains borrowed from the theatre this film is infinitely more intelligent than it would have been in the hands of some cinema veterans, who so often reveal a temptation to imitate other screen works that have attracted the desired throngs to the box office…one is grateful that in its staging there is not the slightest sign of bowing to untutored minds. (X5)

For Hall, the film’s theatricality renders it more intellectual, imaginative, admirable. The elitist tone in this review is unmistakable. Hall’s devotion to the original, theatrical text parallels a classist perspective of the social order—his review suggests that deviations from either should be avoided at all costs. Indeed, as this essay will demonstrate, beliefs about class, progress, and cinematic adaptation, all converge in the making of this film. 

This essay will frame Cukor’s film as a relocation, both literally and figuratively. Dane’s play travels from stage to screen, from the West End to Hollywood, and from 1921 to 1932. The combination of this formal, geographic, and temporal relocation, I argue, modifies the text’s message. In either format, the text is about dramatic shifts in a household, and in both, the household stands for a larger community. In the play, changes in divorce law, changes in post–World War I gender roles, and a sudden change in a character’s mental state all represent the British people’s struggles with changing social structures, tensions between the individual and the nation, and the supremacy of modern values over those of the past. Although the plot, characters, and dialogue are often identical between Dane’s play and Cukor’s film, the relocation emphasizes different aspects of its content and thereby reconfigures the play’s meaning for a new audience. As Cartmell and Whelehan suggest, film adaptations “appropriate” the original material “for their own political, social and economic purposes” (6), and the changes in the film of Bill clearly address normative political, social, and economic ideologies in early 1930s America. An analysis of the social norms, notions of inheritance, sickness and health, marriage and family, and, in particular, the treatment of eugenics in the two versions of the texts elucidate the shifts in their historical contexts and imagined audiences from one format to another.

A Bill of Divorcement features a day in the life of the Fairfield family (Fig. 1). The household includes three women: Margaret Fairfield, her 17-year old daughter Sydney, and her husband’s sister, Hester. Margaret’s husband, Hilary, has been institutionalized for sixteen years—Sydney has never met him. Shell shock brought on insanity that rendered him violently erratic and his doctors diagnosed him as “incurable.” The titular Bill of Divorcement was passed after Hilary was institutionalized and enabled Margaret to end their marriage. On Christmas morning, Hilary, suddenly cured, escapes from the asylum, and returns home to what he assumes will be his wife Margaret’s open arms. He does not know that in his absence the law, and his wife, have changed—Margaret divorced him several years earlier and plans to marry Gray Meredith on New Year’s Day.

Dane situates her play in a specific temporal and geographic context. All the action takes place on Christmas Day, in a specific year, in a small country house. It imagines an England in the near future when divorce reforms have been enacted. The theatre program for the St. Martin’s Theatre emphasizes this specificity—a line in it reads: “The audience is asked to imagine that the recommendations of the Majority Report of the Royal Commission on Divorce have become the law of the land and that the action of the play passes on Christmas Day, 1932” (Fig. 2).2

Bill invites the audience to use the domestic space of the play as a testing ground for new ideologies. As the drama unfolds, the audience witnesses a generation of British citizens released from certain national, legal, and conventional restrictions who must negotiate personal and public commitments in light of a new set of modern values. 

It is perhaps surprising that this British play about divorce legislation was adapted into a popular Hollywood film. While Cukor’s 1932 film features the same characters and basic storyline, there are a few key changes made to Dane’s play that re-tune its sensibilities for the American moviegoer. First, compared to the play, the film’s setting is more abstract. It encourages the viewer to conflate British and American culture or to relocate a traditional vision of upper-class British domesticity to an American setting. Text projected over the opening shot reads “England, Christmas Eve,” but, as Melissa Ooten and Sarah Trembanis suggest, without this, “American audiences would assume that the movie takes place at a wealthy New England estate” (153). Throughout the rest of the film, there are no direct references to the family’s nationality and the actors’ accents vary: some British, some American, some mid-Atlantic upper-class affected (Burke, Hepburn). The conflict that instigated Hilary’s insanity is referred to only as “the War,” and Kit and Sydney’s plans to move to Canada after they marry could involve emigrating from either England or America. 

Second, although the film retains the play’s title, this is the only nod to the eponymous legislation. Divorce legislation in the United States was never as strict as it was in Britain, and as this film appeared over a decade after Dane’s play, the topic had lost its urgency. The only character in the film who objects to the divorce is Hester (and, of course, Hilary). In fact, one review of the New York production tries to convince its readers to see the play because it isn’t really about divorce laws at all: 

[E]rase from the tablets of memory the words of doom about British divorce laws, the relation of Church and State and other matters alien to our ears. The essence of the drama is a potent infusion of love and duty; the incidentals of time, place and circumstance are mere surplus usage—even incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial…It must be confessed that Clemence Dane’s “A Bill of Divorcement” was a London success and that it ascends to universal terms by mounting from one particular of limited significance to another—such as a certain divorce law or a theological controversy indigenous to England. (Clippings)

This observation suggests that, even years before the film, American audiences were already responding to different aspects of the script. Likewise, the play’s complex relationship to the Christian faith, in part indicated by its title (the phrase “bill of divorcement” comes from the King James Bible), disappears. The film excises the rector, a representative of the Anglican Church, shifting the film’s emphasis away from both England and Christianity. The significance of church migrates from a house of worship to a symbol for marriage. Early on, a close shot of church bells ringing establishes this symbolism: church=bells=marriage.

Unlike the film, the play often maps negotiations between traditional and modern values onto disputes between characters from different generations. For example, Hester Fairfield, the spinster aunt, represents the outdated Victorian social conscience. She embraces and attempts to enforce traditional religious and social values. She never ceases to remonstrate with Margaret for failing to rein in her daughter Sydney. She only begrudgingly acknowledges Margaret’s divorce and refuses to endorse her remarriage. Hester’s values align perfectly with the values of the Victorian authority figure in the play, the Rector. When the Rector discovers that Margaret’s first husband is still alive, he refuses to officiate at her wedding and even threatens to prevent her daughter Sydney’s marriage to his son Kit. Both Hester and the Rector insist that Margaret should remember her “duty” to remain with her husband. By contrast, Sydney Fairfield represents the modern generation, and theatre critics repeatedly describe her as a “twentieth–century girl.” Young, independent, confident, Sydney smokes, stays out dancing with her beau until three in the morning, and generally does as she pleases. Her mother, Margaret, is caught in the middle. The play establishes this in the very first line: Sydney is late to Christmas breakfast, Hester is upset, and Margaret is apologizing to Hester on Sydney’s behalf. The play uses the conflicts among these characters—over social mores, Christianity, the definition of marriage—to examine similar conflicts within the broader society. 

Other critics have noted how aptly the play stages these kinds of examinations. Rebecca Cameron, for example, suggests that playwrights such as Dane used the stage to contemplate the outcomes of prewar, progressive reform efforts around marriage law: “However slow their implementation into law, these contemporary sociopolitical debates over divorce legislation allowed Dane…to imagine more concretely situations that hitherto had been mostly speculative; as the reforms became tangible reality, [she] began to envision their consequences” (477). Maggie Gale suggests that the play’s domestic setting offered a perfect vehicle for a more radical feminist message and that “many women playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s, through an investigation of gender and power relationships within the family, locate the private sphere as having great public significance” (33). And Rebecca D’Monte argues that a

familiar choice of genre, whether of family comedy, domestic drama, or thriller, all have a readily recognizable formula, providing the perfect medium through which to transmit a message about the importance of the family and community…Nevertheless, we can detect within these accepted subject matters and forms, fissures of fear or discontent: with the dangers of the war, with prevailing social structures, and with the role of women. (148–49) 

Dane herself argued that a good playwright will “link that special case with the whole of human nature,” and this play certainly aspires for that “transference from the personal to the universal” (“Approaches to Drama” 10). 

The outcomes of such debates, even when based on the same primary text, can differ greatly when they are relocated from one form to another. To bring those differences into relief, we must take into account the historical contexts in which each text circulated. In the 1920s, England was recovering from the devastation of the Great War and the influenza pandemic which, combined, took nearly one million British lives. The country experienced a sharp economic downturn, climbing unemployment, and in 1925 the General Strike, the largest labor dispute in the nation’s history. After adopting a socialist constitution in 1918, the Labour party went on to form its first government in 1924 and became the progressive party in Britain. Two decades later, this party would go on to dramatically expand social infrastructure, eventually nationalizing major industries, broadly reforming education, and establishing the National Health Service. Women secured the right to vote first in 1918 and an expansion of that right in 1928, divorce rates spiked, and Marie Stopes and other progressives were fighting for access to birth control. Michael J. Clark suggests that “there was widespread public concern in Britain that the Great War had unleashed or accelerated certain irreversible processes of political, social, and cultural decline, and that the psychological effects of the conflict were undermining the mental and moral health of British society” (21). All of these comprise the “fissures of fear or discontent” that lurk beneath the play’s domestic drama. 

In the play, members of the Great War generation no longer hold an undeniable place of prominence within society. While Bill does not deny their suffering and sacrifice, it does suggest that their outdated values must progress if they are to survive in the postwar era. If Hester represents Victorian sensibilities and Sydney modern ones, Margaret and Hilary are somewhere between the two and, the play suggests, often default to the Victorian. They have internalized the legacy of Victorian ideology and, while they may not openly accept it, they cannot entirely escape its control. The asylum where Hilary has been locked away since the war literalizes a Victorian model of institutional control. He describes it as a place where he was continually “hectored,” a “prison” (from which he escaped by divine guidance, “Led, like Peter…”) and “that place—…Hell! Hell!” (51, 54). In the play, “that place” recalls how the older generation sometimes dealt with difficult or “hysterical” women in the Victorian era and represents how they cared for shell-shocked victims of the Great War.3

Margaret embodies the figure of the Great War generation as closeted Victorian. In the opening scene, Margaret defends Hester against Sydney’s mounting frustration:

Margaret: You mustn’t get impatient with your aunt. She can’t get accustomed to the new ways, that’s all. I—I can’t myself, sometimes. (11)


Sydney has little patience for her aunt’s Victorian values. Margaret suggests that Hester “stands for the old ways”; Sydney claims “she stands for Noah and the flood” (13). Although Margaret tries to distance herself from Hester’s Victorian-ness, the em-dash in her statement and the hesitation it represents, indicate that the distinction is tenuous. The trauma of the Great War reinforced the capitulation of Margaret’s generation to social institutions. We can observe this phenomenon in a key exchange between Sydney and Margaret when Sydney flippantly rejects Margaret’s explanation for marrying Hilary:

Margaret: [Forgetting Sydney.] It was nobody’s fault. It was the war—

Sydney: It’s extraordinary to me—whenever you middle-aged people want to excuse yourselves for anything you’ve done that you know you oughtn’t to have done, you say it was the war. How could a war make you get married if you didn’t want to?

Margaret: [Groping for words.] It was the feel in the air. They say the smell of blood sends horses crazy. That was the feel. One did mad things. Hilary—your father—he was going out—the trenches—to be hurt. And he was so fond of me it frightened me. (14)

Sydney correlates Margaret’s passivity with her generation, although she rejects this as a weak excuse. Margaret depicts her behavior as surrender to a force greater than her own will. The war and Hilary’s desire shaped her choices, reduced her to a trained animal, and led her to misinterpret a cultivated response as instinctive.  

Margaret’s faith also underscores her susceptibility to the influence of Victorian values. For most of the play, she is at church with her fiancé Gray. Fearful of committing what Hester calls a “deadly sin,” it takes her years to file for divorce after it becomes legal, and even longer to agree to marry the man she loves (4). She feels Hester’s disapproval acutely; instead of explaining or justifying her decision to divorce and remarry, she simply pleads with Hester to stop mentioning it. After Hilary returns, she quickly succumbs to the pressure to reunite with him and, in the end, she only leaves with Gray because Sydney forces her. 

Hilary feels the same generational pressures to conform as Margaret, compounded by the years he has spent in the asylum. He experienced his institutionalization with a divided consciousness—one that displayed insane and violent behaviors and another that, in his words “was sane, always,” but hidden, “behind the curtain—behind the dreams and the noise, and the abandonment of God” (53, 55). Dane emphasizes this duality in the stage directions that introduce Hilary: 

He is a big, fresh–coloured man with grey hair and bowed shoulders. In speech and movements, he is quick and jerky, inclined to be boisterous, but pathetically easy to check. This he knows himself and he has, indeed, an air of being always in rebellion against his own habit of obedience. (44)

This description physicalizes Hilary’s divided self—on the one hand fresh-colored, boisterous, quick, rebellious; on the other hand, shoulders bowed, jerky, pathetic, easy to check, in the habit of obedience despite his instinct to rebel. Dane goes on to illustrate this conflict when Sydney aggressively rebuffs Hilary’s suggestion to meet Margaret at church: 

Sydney: [Authoritatively] You’re to stay here.

Hilary: [Beginning obediently] Very well—[He flares suddenly.] I’ll do as I like about that.

Sydney: [Passionately] I’ll not have you frighten her. (49)

His rebellion fades as quickly as it flares in the face of Sydney’s display of authority. In Sydney’s passionate response, he sees an image of himself on the brink of sanity. He says, “You got wild all in a moment. That’s my way too” (51). Dane reiterates the similarity between Hilary and Sydney in the stage directions—after he speaks to her “violently,” she responds, “in the same tone” (50). This is one of many examples where Dane uses stage directions to develop characterization. Her detailed descriptions and their intricate connections with the dialogue provide nuance that would be absent from the screenplay and certainly unavailable to the film audience. More than one theatrical review quotes Dane’s descriptions of the characters from her stage directions, including this initial description of Hilary. Observing the similarity between himself and Sydney sobers Hilary and undermines his rebellious self. Immediately after this recognition, he asks Sydney to monitor him, to replace the oversight of the asylum with a kinder, more sympathetic, but equally forceful version: 

Hilary: Don’t let me get—that way. It’s bad. Help me to go slow. I’m as well as you are, you know. But it’s new… (51)

Even as he clings to his newfound freedom, he also fears his own response to it.

Margaret and Hilary’s capitulation to Sydney represents behaviors associated with their generation, but, in addition, it reverses the role of parent and child in this family. The film, although it somewhat deemphasizes generational divides, accentuates this queering of family dynamics that will play a key role in the film’s dramatic, and dramatically different, ending. From the very beginning of the play, the stage directions emphasize Margaret’s childlike helplessness, describing her as “such a little, pretty, helpless–looking woman” who observes her daughter Sydney “the way of a child whose doll has suddenly come to life…she is so youthfully anxious and simple and charming that the streak of gray in her hair puzzles you” (1). Likewise, the stage directions describe Hilary as moving through the room like “a child getting ready to spring a surprise on someone” and Margaret describes Hilary to Gray as “a lost child come home” (44, 63). Reviews of Lilian Braithwaite’s interpretation of Margaret suggest that these directions shaped her performance, that she chose to emphasize Margaret’s weakness and pathos. James Agate touted “Miss Braithwaite’s wonderful power of suggesting the wilting tea-rose” and, according to St. John Irvine, “The weak, wavering character of Margaret, swung from one mood to another, constantly in need of support and counsel, was perfectly portrayed” (Clippings).

In view of the Victorian characters’ unfeeling rigidity and the Great War generation characters’ childlike acquiescence, the play renders the modern characters as the figures of moral authority. Despite her flapper-esque exterior, Dane underscores Sydney’s deep-seated ethical code. Although her values oppose Hester’s, Sydney fiercely and stoically devotes herself to them. This explanation as to why she can’t go to church with her mother, even on Christmas Day, succinctly captures her modern morality:

Sydney: Sorry, mother. It’s against my principles. I refuse to kneel down and say I’m a miserable sinner. I’m not miserable and I’m not a sinner, and I cannot tell a lie to please any old-prayer book. (7)

The speech will undoubtedly play for laughs (Hester has just given Sydney a prayer book for Christmas, again), but Sydney is in earnest. She is decidedly protective of her mother throughout the play, snapping back at Hester in her mother’s defense, reprimanding Margaret for delaying her happiness over mere “scruples;” yet she will not fulfill her mother’s request (9). Indeed, she directly links scruples to traditional, Victorian values: “You call them your scruples! What you really mean is Aunt Hester and her prayer book” (9). Sydney rejects this divided version of the self, these warring values, and devotes herself entirely to a new set of modern beliefs.

Sydney espouses one extremely troubling modern belief however: her unwavering faith in eugenics. An examination of the different ways in which the two texts present eugenics demonstrates the dominant ideologies of their time and place. This pseudo–scientific set of ideas dramatically stages the negotiation between public and private commitments. Historians Chloe S. Burke and Christopher J. Castaneda suggest that, for advocates of eugenics, the “practices and policies of ‘human betterment’ required moving to the public sphere those aspects of human existence previously considered private, especially decisions regarding who should be allowed to reproduce” (7). The complicated mix of values and prejudices bound up in those decisions motivate the crises and resolutions of both the play and the film. 

In the play, 17-year-old Sydney doesn’t want her freedom in order to start a career or sow her wild oats—rather, she plans to marry Kit, who, as she informs her mother, is “as keen as I am on eugenics” (15). The theme of eugenics renders metaphoric concerns about inheritance literal, biological. Sydney refuses to carry on her mother’s behavioral traits, her habit of submitting to power structures (call it religion, convention, or “scruples”). To her, Margaret’s behavior is insanity: hesitating to marry Gray, kowtowing to Aunt Hester, blaming bad decisions on the war. These are traits she aggressively rejects when she exclaims: “No one could make me do what I didn’t want to do” (14). 

Genetic traits, however, are passed on from generation to generation—they cannot be refused. Initially, Sydney imagines becoming like her father is as likely as becoming like her mother. After all, one can’t inherit shell shock. When Sydney’s excitability reminds Margaret of Hilary, Sydney says, “I’m not really [excitable]. I needn’t let myself go if I don’t want to” (11). But when Hester reveals that her sister Grace was “nervy” like Hilary and Sydney, Sydney worries: “Insanity! A thing you can hand on! And I told Kit it was shell shock!” (41). The revelation that her father’s insanity was not circumstantial, not merely behavior that can be selectively imitated or ignored, quickly leads to the epiphany that she must not marry Kit. She cannot risk passing on those genes to their children. Although Hester says she doesn’t see what Kit has to do with it, Sydney remarks to herself, “But I see—” (42). She wants to marry Kit but she cannot—her modern values can make her do what she doesn’t want to do. 

Sydney’s compulsion to sacrifice her personal happiness for the greater good echoes strongly held interwar beliefs about the relationship between procreation and a healthy society. According to Janet Weston, “The interwar period was the high point of the mental hygiene movement, with its attention to borderline forms of mental weakness that might manifest as, or be caused by, maladjustment, emotional imbalance, delinquency, dysfunctional families and so on” (283). Proponents of the mental hygiene movement, part of a larger social hygiene movement, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, grouped together socio-sexual issues such as prostitution, venereal disease, sex education, and mental health. In the past, mental illness was contained through institutionalization, as Hilary’s experience shows. Frank Dikötter on the other hand suggests: 

As heredity, reproduction, public hygiene, and racial anthropology became widespread subjects of concern during the interwar period, biomedical theories that stressed the hereditary basis of deviance had great appeal for professional psychiatrists who felt mired in state institutions for the mentally handicapped. (470) 

The modern plan would contain and eventually eliminate mental illness through reproductive choices—in other words, by breeding out the genetic material of offending parties. This approach encouraged psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, even general practitioners to intervene in family decisions surrounding the “mentally weak” (Weston 288). Dane explicitly links this descriptor to Hilary. When Margaret tries to explain to Gray why she must stay with Hilary, she states, “I’ve got to put him first because—because he’s weak. You—you’re strong” (131). While Margaret correctly categorizes these two men, her priorities are (once again) rejected by more modern values.  

Enter Dr. Alliot. At the play’s climax, when the clash of generational difference reaches its peak and the stakes are at their highest, Dr. Alliot appears as the modern figure of authority who will put this chaotic family back in order. While the man of God created chaos, the man of science will set things right. Not only that, he coopts the logic of Christianity to appeal to Hilary’s sense of obligation. In response to Hilary’s panicked protest that Margaret claims she is not his wife, Alliot responds: 

Dr. Alliot [soberly]: It’s a hard case, Fairfield…It’s the old wisdom of the scapegoat—it is expedient—how does it go? expedient—?

Sydney: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.”

Dr. Alliot: That’s it! A hard word, but a true one. (79–80)

Alliot invokes the verse from the Bible when the council of priests and Pharisees discuss whether Jesus should be handed over to the Romans in order to protect the Jewish people. They come to the conclusion that Jesus should be the scapegoat: “It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50 KJV). With the help of Sydney, the play’s modern mouthpiece, Alliot translates this fraught biblical logic into a modern context. While the notion of a scapegoat might seem cruel, he contends that Hilary’s marriage and happiness are worthwhile sacrifices for the health and integrity of the nation. Indeed, one theatre critic asserted, “We know of no better expression of the creed of the new generation than that which Clemence Dane has drawn up and assigned, ironically enough, to the oldest character in her play” (Clippings). According to Dr. Alliot, there is a clear, distinction between the “useful” and the “useless,” the “whole” and the “maimed” (86). Invoking the terms “generation” and “duty” he applauds the modern worldview: 

That young, young generation found out…that when conditions are evil it is not your duty to submit—that when conditions are evil, your duty, in spite of protests, in spite of sentiment, your duty, though you trample on the bodies of your nearest and dearest to do it, though you bleed your own heart white, your duty is to see that those conditions are changed. If your laws forbid you, you must change your laws. If your church forbids you, you must change your church. And if your God forbids you, why then, you must change your God. (82–83) 

He forcefully claims that you must change your laws, your church, even your God (83). But he strongly implies that the useless and the maimed cannot be changed and, therefore, must be rejected. At the end of this climactic scene, Dr. Alliot dubs Hilary a “man whose children ought never to have been born” (86). He frames the decision not to procreate as a combination of common sense and patriotic responsibility. The characters that reject this assertion are the characters whose beliefs the audience has been taught to dismiss. Margaret responds, “I think you go too far”; Hester: “too far and too fast altogether…it’s not nice” (86). Hilary too resists the doctor’s conclusion using familiar wartime logic: 

I’m not a drunkard. I’m not a convict. I’ve done nothing. I’ve been to the war, to fight for her, for all of you, for my country, for this law–making machine that I’ve called my country. And when I’ve got from it, not honorable scars, not medals and glory, but sixteen years in hell, then when I get out again, then the country I’ve fought for, the laws I’ve fought for, the woman I’ve fought for,…When I was helpless they conspired behind my back to take away all I had from me. (85–86)

He also employs the rhetoric of duty, nationality, and ethical imperatives, but the modern ears of Dr. Alliot and Sydney are deaf to his appeals. Sydney recognizes the truth of Dr. Alliot’s claims and determines, “though [it] bleed[s] her own heart white,” to follow his advice (83). 

This biological blight complicates the play’s representation of the movement from past to future as purely progressive. Sydney’s genetic material will not evolve and improve, therefore she cannot be a mother to future generations. The only way to halt this potential regression is to eliminate the influence of individuals like Hilary and Sydney. They can’t simply be hidden away in an institution—they must be permanently removed from the national bloodline. And, in this play, the onus is on Sydney to remove herself. Many initial responses to the play supported her choice, and read it as sympathetic, rational, even heroic. In 1921, a theatre critic for Vanity Fair wrote, “This girl, Sydney, shows to us that there may be rational martyrs as well as inspired ones and just as much warmth in a belief of the head as in one of the heart” (Clippings). Sydney’s choice demonstrates the modern citizen’s ethical responsibility. As Weston reminds us, “The community as a whole, and not just the individual, became a potential site for mental disease, and social relationships were often the source of both illness and cure” (283). The play stages Sydney’s personal choices about her romantic and familial relationships as both the problem and potential resolution for the community.  

A closer reading of the way in which the film relocates the eugenics debate from Dane’s play reveals a complicated response to problems of genetic inheritance. By excising the plot line about divorce law, the film focuses exclusively on this urgent social issue. Although the word eugenics never appears in the film, its very absence suggests how familiar the audience would have been with the subject. Frank Dikötter asserts that in America, “eugenics belonged to the political vocabulary of virtually every significant modernizing force between the two world wars” (467). It trickled down from research institutions and the federal government to popular “fitter–family” and “better–baby” contests at state fairs across America (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).4  



Although eugenicists considered themselves progressives, even utopians, their idea of a healthy and happy society involved eliminating vast swathes of the population from the national bloodline. The ascendency of eugenics in the U.S. corresponded with “a time of great racial, ethnic and demographic upheaval and conflict” (Black). America’s anxiety coalesced around a dark-skinned, dark-haired Other from American Indians and post-Reconstruction Era African Americans to the millions of Southern and Central European immigrants that arrived at the beginning of the century (Black). Dikötter argues, “Eugenics gave scientific authority to social fears and moral panics, lent respectability to racial doctrines, and provided legitimacy to sterilization acts and immigration laws” (467). The anxieties to which eugenics responded were not limited to racial anxieties. As we have seen, the social hygiene movement also targeted people who were poor, mentally ill, or sexually transgressive. Ooten and Trembanis suggest that the film A Bill of Divorcement indicates how “eugenics was marketed and sold to the American public during the Great Depression” and, more broadly, “how popular culture packages problematic and complex trends into more palatable forms” in order to observe “assumptions of normative class, race, gender, and sexuality made by 1930s filmmakers” (154). I suggest, however, that if the film depicts normative assumptions about class, race, gender, and sexuality, it does so in a strange and nuanced way. 

The film seems to undermine normative assumptions by removing clear voices of authority. The play features two parallel figures of authority: the Rector and Dr. Alliot. The film excises the Rector altogether and, although Dr. Alliot appears in the film, two important changes undermine his power. First, the film cuts his climactic speech, discussed earlier, in which he applauds the modern worldview and its social responsibility—the commitment that led to divorce law reform. Second, in the film, Alliot reverses himself on one of the most shocking and central assertions of the play: his unqualified endorsement of eugenics. The film retains his line, shouted at Hilary: “Why, face it man! One of you must suffer. Which is it to be? The useful or the useless? the whole or the maimed? the healthy woman with her life before her, or the man whose children ought never to have been born?” (Cukor). To emphasize the emotional impact of this statement, the dialogue ceases as the camera captures the characters’ shocked expressions with a direct close-up of each actor’s face: Hepburn (Sydney), Barrymore (Hilary), Burke (Margaret), Patterson (Hester), then back to Hepburn, tearing up and turning away. After a full ten seconds of silence, Hilary stammers a rebuke, “I…I say, that’s going too far” (Cukor). Whereas, in the play, Margaret and Hester, two women whose sense of outdated niceties have already been rejected, respond to Alliot, in the film they remain silent. Although Hilary responds directly to Alliot, seemingly granting him greater strength and autonomy, his hesitation combined with Alliot’s firm yet paternal response, “In this matter, Fairfield, I cannot go too far,” strengthens the impact of Alliot’s statement (Cukor). 

However, the film adds a scene immediately following in which Sydney interrogates Alliot further on this topic and he reverses his position. 


In the play, Dr. Alliot insists that the health and progress of society must take precedence over the happiness of the individual—no exceptions. In the film, however, it seems that Sydney’s youth and promise, her affection for Kit and her desire to start a family, supersede his previous claims. He decides that forming a new family unit with Kit is worth the risk of her passing on her family’s “latent insanity” (Cukor). His willingness to recant the beliefs he so strongly asserted in the previous scene highlights the privilege held by someone like Sydney within American society—she is not the kind of woman that proponents of eugenics targeted. 

Elizabeth Semmelhack discusses the role of physical fitness and femininity in women in the 1930s, noting that physical fitness and motherhood often went hand in hand. The goal was to boost birth rates in order to promote the nation’s “racial ideals” and to counter “the longstanding American fears of ‘race suicide’ [that] infused many aspects of women’s lives with eugenic overtones” (103).5 Semmelhack further suggests that the nation’s fitness ideal, which emphasized beauty over athleticism, was exemplified by the “Hollywood Slim” physique: “Slim, white and feminine celebrities radiated physical perfection from the screen” (104). 


Katharine Hepburn embodies this ideal on many levels. She was born into a wealthy New England family, one of six siblings. Her father founded the New England Social Hygiene Association and her mother campaigned for suffrage and later access to birth control (alongside Margaret Sanger). Edward Berkowitz points out the irony that her mother “looked after her large family while also giving speeches about why less fortunate women should restrain from having large families” (58). In his explanation for Hepburn’s success in A Bill of Divorcement, Berkowitz points to two aspects of her performance. One, that her accent “hinted of money and sophistication” and two, her physique fit the moment’s ideal aesthetic: “It was clear that the camera liked her, with her tall, thin, athletic body, and that the long planes of her cheekbones photographed exceptionally well. She did not have the fleshy, voluptuous look of a 1920s chorus girl” (59). Mark Hain posits another antithetical figure to Hepburn’s Hollywood Slim ideal. In “Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Heart: Theda Bara and the Race Suicide Panic,” Hain reads Bara as a signifier for American anxiety about (and attraction to) the “New Woman” combined with “ethnic immigrant ‘undesirables’” (296). Bara’s voluptuous body (like the 1920s chorus girls) coupled with her apparent racial ambiguity enabled her to become an “exotic curiosity—an erotic, Orientalist fantasy,” in opposition to the typical film heroine who was “unquestionably ‘pure’ both sexually and racially” (295). 


The fact that Bara’s (née Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati, Ohio) persona was entirely concocted and promoted by Fox Film Corporation demonstrates the utility of such a figure in American discourse in the early twentieth century. Hain claims that “the function of Bara’s star image, with all its hyperbole, may not have been intended as a means of consuming the sinfully delicious sexuality of the Other, but rather as a warning against cross-ethnic and cross-class contact” (295–96). Hepburn and Sydney were upper-class, chaste, white, thin, and athletic. They both possessed the traits that 1930s American audiences admired and eugenicists wanted replicated.

In the film, Sydney decides to take Dr. Alliot’s original advice, not the softened, revisionary version. After her conversation with Alliot, she retreats to her room—the camera shows the door closing, metaphorically on her life with Kit. She cannot “forget all these things [and] just be happy” as Alliot suggests (Cukor). Behind this door she is fortifying herself to break off her engagement. Surprisingly, when the door opens, she emerges in a white dress with a slight train. Looking rather bridal, she descends the staircase. When she hears Kit’s whistle, his signal that he is waiting for her outside, Sydney asks the maid to show him into the music room—the room most closely associated with Hilary, the composer. The film adds this detail about Hilary—in the play he has no profession and the music room is never mentioned. This addition to the film makes the Fairfield family more recognizable to an American audience; in the United States, the man of the house would have a profession. Furthermore, it emphasizes Sydney’s connection to her father—she plays the piano when they first enter the room at the beginning of the film and again in this scene, suggesting that she has inherited musicality from her father as well. 

By moving the scene into this room, the film suggests a kind of love triangle between Sydney and these two men. The room is already associated with family and inheritance within the Fairfield family and the film endows it with further significance; this is the room where Kit proposed to Sydney at the beginning of the film and where they plan for their future family. Even Kit’s proposal echoes this theme. He offers Sydney his mother’s engagement ring, saying, “You’ll be the bride of the fifth generation to wear it” (Cukor). As Sydney enters the room to wait for Kit, she wanders over to the piano and looks poignantly at a framed photo of her father. When she hears Kit approaching, she quickly sits at the piano and starts playing, as if to conceal that she was looking at another man. In both the play and the film, Sydney attempts to end the relationship without telling Kit the real reason, knowing he will try to convince her that they can be happy together no matter what. In the play, Sydney teases him rather relentlessly about a girl named Alice Watkins to whom, she suggests, Kit has transferred his affections. Dane draws our attention to the similarities between these two girls—Sydney notes that they both have blue eyes (the “right” color, eugenically-speaking) and Kit says he spoke to her initially because she was like Sydney. As the dialogue continues, Sydney makes a connection between Alice and the Alice of Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871): “[More soberly] I can’t help it, Kit. When I look in the looking-glass I see—Alice” (120). Alice Watkins is the blue-eyed partner that Kit must marry, the Sydney-like girl without a “queer family” and risky genetic material (110). The film shifts the love triangle from Kit-Sydney-Alice to Kit-Sydney-Hilary. 

Despite her attempt to let Kit down easy, in the film, she ultimately reveals her real motivation. Mid-scene, after Kit pleads for the truth, she capitulates: 


The film doesn’t let Kit or Sydney off the hook—both must know the truth and choose to part, despite their plans, their desire, and the support of family,and even of Dr. Alliot. The possibility of children inflicted with her father’s disease compels Sydney to obliterate her imagined future. 

Once this dangerous partnership between (to borrow Dr. Alliot’s terms) the useful/whole and useless/maimed is averted, the focus shifts to the remaining unresolved romance. Will Margaret stay with Hilary or leave with Gray? Margaret’s resolve to leave her ex-husband has weakened and, in the play, Gray uses biblical and traditional values to reason with her. He asserts: “[I can’t] do without my birthright. I want my wife and my children” (131). By the end of their interaction, he is angry and accusatory: “But what you’re doing is the sin without forgiveness. You’re denying—not me—but life. You’re denying the spirit of life. You’re denying—you’re denying your mate” (134). The play frames Margaret’s intention to care for her ex-husband and protect him from the pain of losing her, what Hester and the Rector suggest is her Christian duty, as a malicious and sinful violation of her duty. Margaret attempts to use biblical logic too, invoking the metaphor of the scapegoat again, “with a last flicker of passion,” as the stage directions note: “D’you think I’ll make a scapegoat of my own child?” (134). To which Sydney “sternly” replies, “Can you help it? I’m his child,” suggesting that she will be a scapegoat either way (135). 

Sydney sends her mother off with Gray and resolves to spend the rest of her life with her father. The play emphasizes an un-partnered Sydney; when her mother asks her about Kit, Sydney responds: “Bless him, I’ll be dancing at his wedding in six months…I’m off getting married. I’m going to have a career” (135). Once Margaret and Gray leave, the play concludes with Sydney, Hilary, and Aunt Hester in the drawing room as the maid serves tea. This is the new family unit, the three outcasts:  Sydney and Hilary genetically marked and Hester, who shares their blood and who remains unwilling to accept the values and behaviors of modernity. However, Sydney does not intend to isolate herself and become a drain on society. Playing the child-parent to Hilary, “petting him, coaxing him, loving him, her hands quieting his twitching hands, her strong will already controlling him,” she plans for their future: “We’ll go on tour together. We’ll make a lot of money. We’ll have a cottage somewhere” (141). She will lead her new family, plan and provide for them. Aunt Hester can’t resist one final critique, calling her selfish for abandoning Kit, suggesting greed and ambition motivated her choice: “She’s like the rest of the young women—hard as nails! Hard as nails!” (143). Hester’s Victorian blinders prevent her from seeing Sydney’s true motives—the only version of modernity she can see is this stereotypical, misogynistic one. Sydney’s response and the final tableau of the play undermines Hester’s perception (one more time) but also leaves the audience with an ambivalent vision of the future for Sydney and Hilary. 

Sydney: [Crying out.] Don’t listen to her, father! Father, don’t believe her! I’m not hard. I’m not hard. [His arm goes round her with a gesture awkward, timid, yet fatherly.]

The Curtain Falls. (143)

This final moment undercuts Sydney’s strength and autonomy and undeniably emphasizes Hilary’s fatherhood, though not necessarily his acceptance of it.  

The film reaches a very different conclusion. When Sydney convinces her mother to leave with Gray, her logic is part daughterly and part wifely (Fig. 7).


Sydney: You must go with Gray. You must go now before Father comes back.

Margaret: No, no I won’t leave him alone.

Sydney: Father’s my job, not yours. 

Margaret: I wouldn’t put the burden on you.

Sydney: It wouldn’t be a burden, Mother. I understand him. You’re frightened of him I’m not. Don’t you see you’d be no good to him. I know how he feels. I’m his own flesh and blood; you’re not. I can manage him and make him happy. You can’t. (Cukor)

The biblical logic disappears and the term “scapegoat” is replaced by the more secular “burden.” Even as she emphasizes her blood relation with her father, she still suggests that she can be good to him (“manage him,” “make him happy”) better than his wife, in his wife’s place. Once again, the film underscores a parallel between Kit and Hilary—Sydney trades one partner for another, emphasizing the marital element of this father-daughter relationship. Gray and Margaret exit to live their healthy, happy life together and the couple left on screen is Hilary and Sydney. Aunt Hester is conspicuously absent from the film’s final scene. Sydney and Hilary retreat to the music room together, where Sydney promises to love and care for Hilary for the rest of her life. Sydney uses Alliot’s logic to explain why she has chosen Hilary over Kit—she will stay with her kind. 


There is an uncomfortable physical intimacy in this scene. Their faces are so close, eyes locked, it looks like they might kiss. Hilary’s voice and gestures are ambiguous, suitable for a doting father or an importunate lover. As Hilary strokes Sydney’s check, brushing away a tear, we hear Kit’s whistle, as if the film is giving her a final chance to choose another life partner. But Sydney crosses to the window and closes the curtains, excising Kit from the picture with this final stroke.

Now Hilary and Sydney are truly alone. She crosses to the piano, squeezes Hilary’s hand, then begins to play her father’s unfinished sonata, at first hesitatingly and then with growing commitment and pleasure. This song will seal their union. Up to this point, the sonata represented a connection that Sydney felt to her father. She plays it in the beginning of the film when Hester is reminiscing about Hilary. She says: “I always loved that sonata of his. It’s too bad he never finished it” (Cukor). Sydney reveals that she has tried to finish the composition for him in “all sorts of ways” (Cukor). The film ends with the theme of completion, specifically a work of art that Hilary and Sydney will produce together. The shot of the them side by side on the piano bench recalls countless images of piano duets as a courting ritual throughout literary and film history. 

In the final moments of the film, Hilary plays with energy and passion, as Sydney looks on admiringly, joyfully. Watch their body language in this clip:


While Hilary is playing, they speak the final lines of the film:  

Hilary: The end of it should be elaborate. It should build, build. It should be ecstatic. 

Sydney: Oh isn’t that lovely, Father. Isn’t it gay. 

Hilary: Why not. Weren’t we born that way? (Cukor)

These lines intertwine artistic and sexual production, composition and birth. The sonata’s ending represents the ending for this couple, the happy ending that the film provides for its American viewers. This family unit is more “elaborate” than the typical nuclear family— it is heteronormative, yet queer, determined by birth, yet non–reproductive, bereft of sexual satisfaction, yet ultimately ecstatic. The film relocates this final scene and the final message of the play. As it migrates from drawing room to music room, England to America, stage to screen, the message becomes an uncomfortable marriage of regressive and progressive social views. By embracing an unflinching, eugenicist philosophy, it creates the possibility of a joyful, alternative future. 


1 In addition to the 1932 film, there was also a silent British film in 1922 and an unsuccessful RKO remake in 1940 written by Dalton Trumbo, starring Adolphe Menjou and Maureen O’Hara.

2 A similar line appears in the script: “The audience is asked to imagine that the divorce bill, at present under discussion, has become the law of the land” (np).

3 For more on the connection between hysterical women and shell shock, see Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, Mark Micale’s Hysterical Men, and Andrew Scull’s Hysteria: The Biography.

4 American sociologist Edward Ross coined the term “race suicide” at turn of the twentieth century to describe a phenomenon when the birth rate of a certain race falls below death rate. He writes, “For a case like this I can find no words so apt as ‘race suicide.’ There is no bloodshed, no violence, no assault of the race that waxes upon the race that wanes. The higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off from itself by collective action. The working classes gradually delay marriage and restrict the size of the family as the opportunities hitherto reserved for their children are eagerly snapped up by the numerous progeny of the foreigner. The prudent, self-respecting natives first cease to expand, and then, as the struggle for existence grows sterner and the outlook for their children darker, they fail even to recruit their own numbers. It is probably the visible narrowing of the circle of opportunity through the infiltration of Irish and French Canadians that has brought so low the native birth-rate in New England” (Ross 88).

5 Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon started the Fitter Families for Future Firesides contests (known simply as Fitter Families Contests) in 1920 at the Kansas State Fair. With the support of the American Eugenics Society's Committee on Popular Education, Fitter Family Contests appeared at state fairs all over the country throughout the decade. These contests grew out of the Better Baby Contests that began in 1911 and remained popular at State Fairs until World War I. 


Works Cited

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Bernardoni, James. George Cukor: A Critical Study and Filmography. McFarland, 2013.  

Black, Edwin. “War Against the Weak: Eugenics.” Southern Festival of Books. C–SPAN.

Burke, Chloe S. and Christopher Castaneda. “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction." The Public Historian, vol. 29, no. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 5–17.

Cameron, Rebecca S. “Irreconcilable Differences: Divorce and Women’s Drama before 1945.” Modern Drama, vol. 44, no. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 476–90. 

Cartmell, Deborah and Imelda Whelehan. Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Clark, Michael J. “A Bill of Divorcement: Theatrical and Cinematic Portrayals of Mental and Marital Breakdown in a Dysfunctional Upper-Middle-Class Family, 1921–1932.”  Health and the Modern Home, edited by Mark Jackson, Routledge, 2007, pp. 21–41.

Clippings on Production, Clippings 13, (A Bill of Divorcement), Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. 

Cukor, George, director. A Bill of Divorcement. Performances by John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, Billie Burke, RKO, 1932. 

Dane, Clemence. A Bill of Divorcement. The Macmillan Company, 1921.

---. “Approaches to Drama.” The English Association, 1961, Presidential Address.

Dikötter, Frank. “Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 2, Apr.1998, pp. 467–78

D’Monte, Rebecca. “Moving Back to ‘Home’ and ‘Nation’: Women Dramatists, 1938–1945.” Women in Transit through Literary Liminal Spaces, edited by Teresa Gómez Reus and Terry Gifford, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 139–50.

Gale, Maggie. “Women Playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s.” Cambridge Companion to Modern Women British Playwrights, edited by Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, Cambridge UP, 2000, pp. 23–37.

Hain, Mark. “Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Heart: Theda Bara and Race Suicide Panic.” Early Cinema and the “National,” edited by Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini, and Rob King, Indiana UP, 2016, pp. 295–306. 

Hall, Mordaunt “The Screen is Indebted to the Stage: ‘Bill of Divorcement Owes Its Success to Theatrical Brains.”  New York Times, 9 Oct. 1932, p. X5.

Hill, W.E. “The Retort Brutal.” Puck, March 1913. Library of Congress.  

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Micale, Mark. Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness. Harvard UP, 2008.  

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Ooten, Melissa and Sarah Trembanis. “Filming Eugenics: Teaching the History of Eugenics Through Film.” The Public Historian, vol. 29, no. 3, Summer 2007, pp. 145–55. 

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Pomerance, Murray and R. Barton Palmer, editors. George Cukor: Hollywood Master. Edinburgh UP, 2015.

Ross, Edward A. “The Causes of Race Superiority.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 18, July 1901, pp. 67–89. 

Scull, Andrew. Hysteria: The Biography. Oxford UP, 2009.

Semmelhack, Elizabeth. “From Lawn Tennis to Eugenics: A History of Women and Sneakers.” Costume, vol. 53, no. 1, 2019, pp. 92–109.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830–1980. Virago, 1985.

“Theda Bara in the title role of the film Cleopatra (1917).” Orange County Archives. 

Weston, Janet. “Citizenship, Vulnerability and Mental Incapacity in England, 1900–1960s.” Medical History, vol. 63, no. 3, 2019, pp. 270–290.

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