By John Macklin
Redvers Allen was no star but he was reliable, sober and learned his lines. For more than 30 years the 62-year-old actor had worked almost continuously on the American stage in bit-parts and supporting roles, boasting that had never been late and never missed a cue.
It was a claim that he apparently carried from life to death, for in November 1952, the American theatre was bemused to learn that Redvers Allen had made his last stage appearance–as a non-speaking juryman in a legal melodrama called Broken Contract–two days after he had died of a heart attack…
The play, a somewhat tortuous account of a businessman’s fight to free himself from the stigma of theft and fraud, had opened in Philadelphia to lukewarm reviews and had played to half-filled houses in Baltimore, Washington and Norfolk, Virginia.
The original plan had been to bring the play to an off-Broadway theatre but the response of both critics and public now made this highly unlikely and when Broken Contract moved to Newark New Jersey’s Unity Theatre it was generally assumed that the rest of the tour would be cancelled.
It was in Newark that Redvers Allen, a stocky slightly overweight 64, first complained of feeling “slightly under the weather.” Before the Thursday evening performance he was discovered lying apparently asleep, on a couch in the dressing room he shared with three other actors.
When he couldn’t be woken for his call, the theatre manager appealed to the audience for a doctor, but by then the actor was beyond help. He had died in his sleep after a massive heart-attack.
The following day his only relative, a sister in Cleveland, Ohio, arrived to organise the funeral arrangements and the body was moved to a funeral parlour on the outskirts of the city.
For the last night of the play in Newark the producers decided not to replace Redvers Allen in the jury box, hoping the audience would not notice that the 12-man jury was one short.
In fact the jury box was end-on to the audience, which made it difficult for anyone to see how many it contained and only the foreman, who gave a verdict near the end of the play, was required to speak.
The rest of the actors spent the time reading books and newspapers underneath their desks and playing chess on pocket sets.
As the final act reached its climax the stage-manager, Dermott Laird, standing in the wings, looked out across the stage to the jury box and did a classic “double-take” when he saw who was sitting in the second row of jurymen.
Turning to a stage-hand standing nearby, Laird whispered: “Am I going mad or is that Redvers Allen?” “Christ, it is,” the man said. “There’s a ghost on stage–I’m getting out of here!”
Within minutes the news that Redvers Allen had apparently returned from the dead had spread backstage and actors and stage staff gathered in the wings to peer out onto the stage.
Strangely, neither the jurymen nor the other actors on stage seemed aware they might be acting with a ghost. The spectre–if that’s what it was–was apparently only visible from off-stage.
One of the cast, Alan Gilbey, said later: “I am certain as I can be that it was Redvers. He was sitting very still with his arms folded. What made things even worse for me was that I was about to go on stage and deliver a dramatic speech as a surprise witness.
“I steeled myself and went on, trying not to look at the witness box but when I did so, Redvers wasn’t there. I was so startled that I fluffed my lines but I pulled myself together and struggled on. Luckily the audience seemed to think it was all part of the play.”
Later, when the story got into the newspapers a member of the audience claimed that she had counted the jurymen and made a total of 11. Later, just before the end of the last act, she checked again and discovered there were 12.
She told newsmen: “I thought at the time there was something slightly strange about the 12th man but didn’t give it a lot of thought because the play was coming to a dramatic, surprise ending.
“Now, I have become convinced I was actually looking at a ghost…”
Despite the international publicity that Broken Contract received it was not enough to save the show. It never got to Broadway and the Saturday night performance in Newark, New Jersey turned out to be the last of the tour.
The play has never been revived since, and remains a theatrical curiosity although the story has become a classic of the paranormal and the subject of books and countless newspaper articles.
Could it be that theatre managements just don’t want to take the risk that the ghost of Redvers Allen might be tempted to make a spectacular comeback?