As soon as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880, the public clamored for a stage version. Author, Lew Wallace refused for many years, because he thought it would be blasphemous for an actor to portray Christ on stage. He was eventually convinced to allow a spotlight to shine on the stage to represent Christ, and in 1899 the first stage production appeared on Broadway. The play’s producers, Marcus Klaw and A.L. Erlanger were part of the “Theatrical Syndicate” that controlled many of the theaters throughout the country.
The novel was adapted for the stage by William Young with music by Edgar Stillman Kelley. The production was known for its amazing special effects including a shipwreck and, of course, a chariot race with real horses. It also changed sets with remarkable speed for the time. In the 19th century, set changes could take several minutes, but Ben-Hur could change from the galley of a Roman ship seen here:
to the survivors in the Mediterranean Sea shown here in just a few seconds.
The Historical Society’s record of the play comes from a souvenir book featuring music, text, and photographs from the Broadway production. The book doesn’t indicate when or where it was purchased. Do you know anything about a production in Montgomery County? Please leave a comment.