Today I want to tell you about a play. It isn’t a good play. It is an awful play. Yesterday, I wrote about a terrible actor called Robert Coates. Today, I give you: ‘Moose Murders’ which both opened and closed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway on this day in 1983. Such is its infamy, it is now the touchstone by which all Broadway flops are measured.
The play is described as a ‘mystery farce’. It is set at ‘Wild Moose Lodge’ in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. The lodge has recently been purchased by the wealthy Holloway family. The father, Sidney, is a heavily bandaged paraplegic who is on the point of dying. They have purchased the lodge as a place for him to live out his last days. Along with the family are a failed showbiz couple (one of whom is blind), a Native American caretaker (who appears complete with feathered headdress and war paint, yet inexplicably speaks with an Irish accent) and Sydney’s seemingly sadistic, black satin clad nurse who leaves her patient out in the rain. They become trapped in the house by a storm and decide to play a murder mystery game, which quickly turns into a case of real murder. The motive seems to be jealously over who will inherit the old man’s money. There is incest, there is mention of a legendary ‘Butcher Moose’ which haunts the mountain and there is dancing. There are also several murders. It isn’t clear how many. It is possible that no one who saw the play could focus on it well enough to be able to remember, or care. We are told that the dialogue in act one was “only improved by its inaudibility”, yet it was “inadequate preparation for the ludicrous depths of act two.”
The writer of the play, Arthur Bicknell, had written a couple of plays that had been produced Off-Broadway and had shown his script to several people, who found it very funny. He was delighted when a Texas oil baron loved Moose Murders so much that he wanted to stage it on Broadway. The oil man’s daughter was chosen to play the part of the first murder victim and her husband was made director. Neither had any previous experience and neither ever worked in the theatre again. The lead role, Sydney’s wife, Hedda, was to be played by Eve Arden who would be returning to Broadway after a forty year absence.
Although the play closed on its first night, it had previously had thirteen previews. Their leading lady walked out after the second one. They quickly managed to recruit Holland Taylor. She knew the play was awful, but needed the money. It had been described by critics as ‘titanically bad’ and “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.” Frank Rich of the New York Times had this to say:
“From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen ”Moose Murders,” and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers.”
He went on to say: “I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin.” This episode does not appear in the original script. The play was so bad that it has made minor celebrities, not only of the actors but also the audience members who witnessed it. The number of people who now claim to have been there far exceeds the actual ticket sales. After the reviews were published, over the following days, the theatre was inundated with calls from people who were desperate to see it. They were to be disappointed. The box office received so many calls that they could easily have sold out the play every day for a month.
When Arthur Bicknell stopped by the theatre the following day to pick up his things, he was forced to witness the scenery for his play being tossed into the street. The oil baron, his daughter and her husband had already escaped to Paris on Concorde. Bicknell no longer writes plays, although he did revise the script for a revival of the play in 2013. Apparently, it was still awful. He was mortified by the whole thing and kept hoping everyone would forget about it, but it has never really gone away. Now, he has embraced his failure. He wrote a book called: ‘Moose Murdered: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb’. In 2012 he said: “There is such a thin line between fame and infamy, and I’m almost proud of my infamy. Nobody knows who Arthur Bicknell is, but so many people know Moose Murders. I did that. I wrote the worst play that was ever on Broadway. That’s something.”