Tarzan's Mother

John "Bridge" Martin

Originally appeared in ERB-APA #97, Spring 2008

Play speculated about Tarzan on TV

Tarzan’s Mother was for sale on ebay and I bought it, just out of curiosity.

Every ERB fan knows that Tarzan’s mother is Lady Greystoke, Alice Clayton, and that his foster mother is Kala, the she-ape. This little play acknowledges neither.

The play – described as “A Comedy in One Act for Five Women” – has one set, the office of a television director interviewing candidates for the role of Tarzan’s mother in an upcoming series.

The play was written by Sam Bate in 1961. That was three years after the release of Gordon Scott’s “Tarzan and the Trappers,” in which three episodes of an unsold TV series were edited together into a movie. Perhaps Bate knew of this failed attempt to bring Tarzan to TV and it inspired him to write his own version of behind-the-scenes preparations, or he just thought up the idea himself. In any case, it predated Tarzan’s actual advent on TV by about five years.

We never meet Tarzan himself in this play, since the cast calls for five women. A secretary named Birdie refers to an actor named Colin in reference to the Tarzan series a few sentences into the play when, on the telephone, she says “Last time I saw her she was shooting Colin and Myrna in bed. Yes, rehearsing scenes of Tarzan’s Mother. No, she’s not directing that one….”  Whether Colin actually plays the part of Tarzan or whether he plays a supporting character is never made clear. Later in the play he is referred to as a “patient.”

Birdie works for Ethelfreda Wutherspoon, who is called merely Spoonie.

The telephone might be called a sixth actor in this play, since the device is used to advance the plot. The play calls for Spoonie to speak throughout the production in a loud voice, and so she shouts into the phone, “I want twenty-five spears, forty black men and loincloths . . . and two elephants . . . and I want ‘em pronto. (Pause) What’s that? Yes, of course I want as many loin cloths as black men . . . this is a T.V. family series not a Z Certificate film.”

Well, it’s a family show but the bedroom scene is definitely a love scene. There’s a problem with the actors, though. Spoonie speaks into the phone: “Yes, I know the bedroom scene should be rehearsed today but Myrna says Colin’s been eating garlic and each time she kisses him, she’s gassed. (Pause) O.K., you try to do a love scene in a gas mask!”

Editor Sidebar:

Tarzan in the 1960s

During the late 1950s and early 1960s the status of "Tarzan" was in question as regards to copyright or Trademark. ERB, Inc.—at that time—was not as diligent as they should have been. By the same token the Burroughs body of work did appear to have fallen into the Public Domain (in the USA... not Britain, which copyright was still in force).

By 1963, however, ERB Inc. had been alerted to a potential loss of control of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Trademark on Tarzan—and the rest of this American author's prodigious output—when publishing companies Ace and Ballantine rushed willy nilly to reprint the Grand Master's works in paperback form. There followed a period of litigation and finally a reaffirmation of copyrights and Trademark and licensing—and the rest is history: A wonderful decade with ERB back in print from 1963 to 1975. Tarzan's Mother is one of those oddities that slips in between apparent lapse and firmly regained control.

It’s about this point in the play when the other three women, who will play an important role, are brought on the scene. The first two to enter are Mrs. Macey, small and birdlike, and Mrs. Fullerlove, large and buxom. Both are Cockney and fiery tempered. They are dressed in clothing the British audience would recognize as the “dark, serviceable clothes” that are characteristic of “the daily help,” aka “charwomen.”

They enter the temporarily vacant office to be interviewed for a position, but before anyone else arrives the telephone rings. Here the script gets a bit preposterous, as the women appear not to be familiar with telephones and are even concerned that it might electrocute them. One of them answers it, holding it the wrong way. I would think cleaning women would be familiar with the existence and use of telephones, since these instruments would likely be in the homes of those well enough to-do to be able to afford cleaning women. But – what do I really know about British culture in 1961?

Birdie soon arrives and gets them off the telephone and then the last woman enters, another charwoman applicant named Mrs. Pratt, younger than the other two, pale and plain and giving the appearance of being a bit “dumb.”

However, she apparently looked somewhat  appealing, as the conversation soon revolves around her experience outside the office where she was stopped and kissed by one Hedley Garfield (how’s that sound for a made-up movie star name?). Hedley apparently mistook her for someone else, as Mrs. Pratt reports he said, “Darlin’, what a wonderful make-up . . . yer look like death . . . marvelous.”

For his audacity, Mrs. Pratt reports, she poked him in the belly with her brolly.

Soon Birdie is asking the women if they are there to interview for the role of Tarzan’s Mother, and this shortly leads to the realization on Birdie’s part that they are actually cleaning women. She then realizes that, elsewhere in the building, three actresses are likely being interviewed for the job of charwoman. Birdie leaves to straighten out the mess, but soon Spoonie comes in and makes the same mistake. By this time, the cleaning women have become quite combative from all the runaround, the experience with the telephone, and the unwanted kiss, and the loud-mouthed Spoonie is like gasoline on their fiery tempers.

The back-and-forth escalates to near fisticuffs until Spoonie has a revelation that Mrs. Macey is merely demonstrating how suited she is for the part of Tarzan’s mother. “Forget the act . . . you’ve convinced me. The part’s yours,” Spoonie says.

Birdie, meanwhile, has returned, and tries to set Spoonie straight, but it doesn’t work, and Mrs. Macey is sent off to the Tarzan set. Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Fullerlove try to help out, but Spoonie doesn’t listen to them, either. “Did you see the act she put on for my benefit? I didn’t catch on for a moment but when I did . . .  she’ll be a wow as Tarzan’s mother”. . . . “I Love Tarzan . . . we’ve written him a mother into it . . . gives it a family atmosphere. She’ll be a wow.”

Eventually, though, Spoonie is made to realize her mistake and is about to get rid of the charwomen when she hears Mrs. Pratt mentioning to Mrs. Fullerlove that when Hedley kissed her, he didn’t seem to mind the fact that she had been eating garlic.

This brings Spoonie alive with a new idea, and she asks Mrs. Pratt: “You wouldn’t mind kissing someone who ate it all the time?”

Mrs. Pratt doesn’t mind and so it looks as if Myrna is about to be replaced as Colin’s love. Spoonie gets on the phone and says, “Tell Colin to get back in bed . . . I’m sending a new girl up for him . . . she likes garlic.”

When Mrs. Pratt wonders what she has to do, Spoonie responds: “Nothing to it . . . you’re a nurse, he’s a patient . . . you kiss him for twenty-eight episodes . . . over the bed, out of bed, by the fire and on a bridge.”

With only Mrs. Fullerlove left, Spoonie decides to do something for her, too. She says to Birdie, “Tarzan could have an Aunt, couldn’t he?”

The play ends with this:

(At that moment the left door flies open and Mrs. Macey enters, clad in a leopard skin sarong, carrying a long spear in her hand.)

Fullerlove: Oh my Gawd! Tarzan’s mother.

Macey: Will I do?

(She throws her head and gives the Tarzan jungle cry, slapping her mouth with her palm at every ‘wow’.)

WOW . . . wow . . . wow . . . wow . . . wow!


I don’t know if this play has ever been performed. Probably.

In just reading it, it doesn’t seem too funny. But, of course, with the right actresses and the lines said in the right way, and with perfect timing, it could be.

Interestingly, the little 30-page script booklet has several admonitions about copyright, protection, payment for performances, and “all rights reserved.” Yet, nowhere did I read any indication that the play publishers themselves had received any permission from ERB Inc. for use of the Tarzan name. But, that was around the time when publishers discovered the book copyrights were in the public domain, so maybe there was no problem using the Tarzan name in Great Britain