Nicholas Biel

1912 - 2001


Nichoals Biel died in the midst of a rewrite of  "A Good Summer's Work" [1]. Harry Gray will be directing a staged reading of the play, which the playwrite referred to as "A Vermont Fable" on Sunday, Sept. 8th, 2002 - 4pm, at The Old Church Community Theater, in Bradford, Vermont.

Nicholas Biel [1] was born in New York City in 1912, son of Joe Jacobson, a successful young shirt manufacturer and his wife, Antoinette Biel Jacobson, a stylish young woman interested in the arts and popular theatre. The author at 5The playwright vividly recalls seeing Fred Stone in JACKOLANTERNS with her at the age of five. He loved vaudeville and puppet shows, constructing his own little cardboard theaters, performing for his family. He wrote plays at summer camp and as a teenager presented puppet shows of well-known operas. He graduated from Horace Mann school and attended Dartmouth College, studying playwriting with Professor E.B.Watson. Enchanted by the farm country around the college, and inspired by the poems of Robert Frost, he dreamed about settling in Vermont and combining playwriting with farming. Needing to know much more about farming he transferred to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at U.Mass, Amherst and studied Animal Husbandry.

Between classes in Breeds of Dairy Cattle, Agronomy, Butchering, Poultry, Pomology and other required courses, he wrote a historical play about Daniel Shays' rebellion which took place in the 1780's near Amherst. The play received a prize* from the Bureau of New Plays, administered by the Theatre Guild in New York.

Nick and AyrshireAt the conclusion of the Stockbridge courses Biel worked as a hired man on dairy farms in New York State and New England. He decided to raise Ayrshire dairy cattle, the breed that won the bovine beauty contest at the New York World's Fair in 1938. He bought a young Ayrshire bull calf from the Stockbridge herd to found his own herd, and bought a small dairy farm in Vermont. During the long Vermont winters he was able to write plays and during the warm seasons to take care of the farm.

When it became apparent that we would become involved in World War II, Biel dispersed his herd, planning to enlist in the army. But first there was a play he had to write; FORESTS OF THE NIGHT about a farmer and his wife quarreling over their son's future. They could have spared themselves because the war came and the son was drafted.

The day he completed the play, Biel received his own "greetings" as draft notifications began. FORESTS OF THE NIGHT was awarded a prize by the Vagabond Theatre in Baltimore.

During the war Biel served for three years in North Africa and in the ETO. He managed to write a one-act play, THE PATIENT SPINNER which tells of a sargeant at an army stockade smitten by a young prisoner about to be released. The attempt by the sargeant to keep the young soldier nearby is the substance of the play. On his return from the war, the play was produced by the Theatre Guild in New York and was included by Margaret Mayorga under the title THE DEVIL'S FOOT in her Best One-Act Plays of 1945 (Dodd Mead, 1946). Lewis Funke in a New York Times review singled it out as "easily the best".

Before returning to Vermont, Biel wrote a full length play, WINNERS AND LOSERS produced in 1947 by Associated Playwrights and the Henry Street Settlement. It deals with a United States Military Government Detachment and German civilians as the war in Europe comes to a close.

About this time Biel started work on a series of three narratively unrelated Writer at workplays set during the Civil War Era. The background of each is historically accurate but the plays are fictional.

SOUND ON THE GOOSE concerns German refugees from the Revolution of 1848 hiding fugitive slaves fleeing to Canada. United States law required that fugitive slaves be returned to their owners. If the Germans are caught hiding the slaves they will be fined, imprisoned and deported.

The play was first produced by David Bryant at Williamstown, Mass., then by Milton Smith at Columbia University and by Lucille Lortel at the White Barn Theatre, where it was directed by Frank Silvera. It was published at Purdue University and is scheduled to be produced in August 2001 at Consider The Following in Asheville, N.C. (For details contact Sheldon Lawrence at

The second play, GONE FOR A SOLDIER, takes place near the end of the war. A young southerner, fighting under his father's command is wounded by a black soldier and invalided home in a town now occupied by black troops. His mother urges him to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Union and get paid for their cotton. But the young man insists he will remain loyal and furiously denies her allegations that his father has a black son serving with the occupying Federal troops.

Incapacitated sexually by the wound, the white soldier is unaware that his father has already deserted the crumbling Confederacy and intends to go to Brazil taking his son's fiancee with him. Should the father be caught, the penalty for desertion is death and the son cannot refuse to help him. In doing so he is obliged to negotiate with the alleged black brother who refuses to admit they share a relationship. The young Confederate is obliged to admire the black soldier's persistence and pride. The Confederate father realizes that in addition to having lost the war he has lost his son as well and takes what he sees as his only way out.

A first draft of the play was published in GAMBIT INTERNATIONAL of London and a second draft received a cast reading at Theatre at St.Clement's in New York, directed by Lynn Gordon.

THE WILDERNESS OF SHURNick on stage, the third play, takes place during Reconstruction. A former slave, now a Congressman, arrives in Washington where he and the Jewish family that helped him to freedom before the war started, face the excesses of graft and political corruption that ended with the almost but not quite total victory of the slaveholders and their allies. The play was produced by Woodie King, Jr. at the New Federal Theatre in New York, where it was directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Among Biel's other plays, A DOVE: FOR ALL THE GOOD IT DID concerns peace activists and students supporting Henry Ford's Peace Ship that sailed for Europe in1915. They intended to make peace before World War I worsened and prevent the United States from becoming involved. The narrative involves a father-son conflict that reflects the idealistic youth and the cautious, experienced old. A rehearsed reading of the play was done at the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley,Pa.

THE GOOD SUMMER'S WORK is a comedy about a farmer who runs off to see the world only to find that the world has discovered the charm-and the real estate profits in rural life. The play was directed by Fred Stewart at Actors Studio Director's Project.

THEORY AND PRACTICE OF PLAYWRITING is a five character off-beat comedy about a playwright who cannot get his characters to do what he created them for.

Biel has a number of one-act plays including THE ATTIC-LE GRENIER that was done in both English and French by the same cast at the Festival des Nations in Paris and later, only in English at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; FURTHER ADVENTURES OF QUEEN ESTHER is a political Biblical parlor comedy and exegesis on the Book of Esther in the Old Testiment. It was produced by the Morningside Players in New York, directed by Harry Granick; THE TRAGEDY OF MRS. JONES, a variant on the Nick and DaughterPygmalion story was produced at the New York State Theatre Institute and directed by Shela Xoregos.

Biel has had theatre criticism published in The Nation and Gambit International and verse in The Nation and Beloit Poetry Journal. A volume of verse, ADAM AND OTHERS, including a one-character short play is available at selected bookstores or from the playwright's family.

Nicholas Biel these days

2001 in Norwich VT

Email to Nicholas Biel's family

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[1] Nicholas Biel Jacobson died in December 2001 and is greatly missed.

* Nicholas Biel's play about Shays Rebellion received a prize from the Bureau of New Plays, sponsored by the Theatre Guild.

* In 1937 another playwright, Arthur Miller, received second Avery Hopwood Award for Honors at Dawn, but the play was never produced. Miller also received the Theatre Guild's Bureau of New Plays Award for They Too Arise (revision of No Villain).



© 2001, Nicholas Biel

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Nicholas Biel