THE WODEHOUSE / ROBINSON PANTOMIMES:

WHERE’S WODEHOUSE?

By John Dawson

 

 

The literary archaeologists at Madame Eulalie have unearthed yet another rare Wodehouse tidbit from the distant past – a set of four playlets of political satire in pantomime form, jointly credited to Sir Plum and one Bertram Fletcher Robinson. The first, “A Fiscal Pantomime – The Sleeping Beauty” was published in the London Daily Express on Christmas Day 1903; the next was “Our Christmas Pantomime – Little Red Riding Hood; or, The Virtuous British Public and the Smart Set Wolf” which appeared in Vanity Fair on December 8, 1904; “A Winter’s Tale – King Arthur and His Court” from Vanity Fair, December 14, 1905, and finally “The Progressive’s Progress – Some memories of 1906” which appeared in The World, January 1, 1907.

For the uninitiated, pantomime is an art form rooted in antiquity and it has a strong link to commedia dell’arte; it evolved as an English entertainment in the eighteenth century. Performed at Christmas, pantomime was (and is) a form of theatre incorporating song, dance, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, topical references and audience participation. Pantomimes are usually based on traditional fairy tales but adapted for comic or satirical effect as other characters and situations arise. Traditions include the leading male juvenile character (principal boy) to be played by a young woman, usually in tight-fitting male garments that make her gender evident; an older woman (the dame) is usually played by a man in drag. The animal is played by an actor in animal costume, often a horse or cow played by two actors in a single costume. Audience participation includes calls of “He’s behind you!” or (“Look behind you!”), and “Oh, yes it is!” and “Oh, no it isn’t!” The audience boos the villain and “awwwwws” the poor “victim” as in nineteenth-century melodrama.

The Wodehouse-Robinson pantos parody the debate in Britain surrounding tariff reform and proposed changes to tax law. The heroes (conservative) and villains (liberal) are variously represented: Little Red Riding Hood is played by “The Virtuous British Public” while King Arthur is “[Prime Minister] A. J. Balfour;” The Unionist Party is personified by “Queen Guinevere” and in Sleeping Beauty, The Tariff Reform League is portrayed by “A dragon.”

Although they weren’t intended for actual production, while reading these farces the reader can certainly imagine himself amidst a raucous London Christmas audience of a century ago, delighting at the buffoons and heroes, the slapstick, the wicked political satire, the ridiculous costumery. Pantomime music most often combines well-known songs with lyrics re-written for the occasion, which encourage audiences to sing along as well. (Pantomime is seldom performed in the United States, and Americans misunderstand the word “pantomime” to refer to the art of “mime.”)

Bertram Fletcher Robinson (whose name evokes the recollection of how PGW sold “Something New” to the Saturday Evening Post under the grand name Pelham Grenville Wodehouse) was eleven years PGW’s senior. A well-liked writer of articles, satirical playlets, short stories, lyrics, numerous articles, poems and books, Robinson is today known primarily for assisting his friend Arthur Conan Doyle with the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Wodehouse and Robinson both contributed to the well-known Parrot poems, which premiered on September 30, 1903 under the latter’s editorship at the Daily Express. It’s not known if Robinson commissioned the Wodehouse entries or if PGW saw Robinson’s first few Parrot poems and perhaps decided to dash off a few of his own and submit them. (By late 1903, PGW had several dozen published poems under his belt.) At any rate the two were to continue their relationship at Vanity Fair 1904–1906 and at The World, edited by Robinson from October 1906 to his death in January 1907. The two apparently worked each Christmas from 1903 to 1906 on these satires.

The pantomimes are a mixed blessing for fans. Wodehouse material which has long dwelled in obscurity has been brought to light, and that is always a good thing; but on the other hand, the plays themselves are a nearly incomprehensible read unless one is versed in the intricate issues and diverse personalities of Edwardian politics and the culture of English early twentieth-century political humor.

The playlets offer what are among the first of Wodehouse’s topical poems and articles poking fun at politicians. When Sleeping Beauty appeared in December 1903, Wodehouse was a humor journalist, not a comic author; he had just published his first novel for schoolboys but was years away from creating his masterpieces. Those seeking the mature comic novelist Wodehouse will not find him here. What we do get in the pantomimes are about fifteen of Wodehouse’s early lyric-poems interspersed throughout, and like most of what the man wrote his entire life, there are merry and brilliant moments in them.

The co-authorship credit on the pantomimes presents the dilemma encountered with other Wodehouse “collaborations” . . . namely, who wrote what? Although attribution can be a precarious endeavor, study of the pantomimes reveals that Robinson wrote the four scripts and that Wodehouse’s contribution was as a lyric writer. This is the conclusion Wodehouse über scholars Norman Murphy and Tony Ring seem to reach in their introduction to the egregiously-titled Bobbles & Plum (MX Publishing Ltd. London, 2009), which reproduces semi-facsimiles of the original pieces.

I don’t profess to be an expert on Robinson’s writing – in fact, I had known of him only as one of Wodehouse’s early editors and have never read his work. Murphy and Ring do, however, make the gentle point that while a popular writer in his time, interest in Robinson’s work declined after his death in 1907.

A year prior to the first squawk of the Parrot and a month shy of his twenty-first birthday, Wodehouse quit his day job at the bank and began the life of a free-lance writer. The following day, September 10, 1902, the Daily Chronicle published his lovely ode to Autumn:

O, bright is the sun, and oh! blue are the skies,
And balmy the air, that once froze, is;
And it’s pleasant to watch the thermometer rise,
And to feel there’s a chance for our roses.

Here we have the very first instance of a device Wodehouse would use in dozens of poems, and to especially great effect as a mature songwriter some thirteen years later for the Princess shows. The unexpected rhyming of “froze is” to “roses” tickles the eye and ear, and PGW knew a good wheeze when he saw it. His canon of verse and lyrics contains hundreds of examples of surprising, unique rhymes of the same nature. The poet PGW wasn’t averse to rhyming “moon” with “June” when he had to, but the clearest clue that it’s a Wodehouse lyric or poem is the “surprise rhyme.”

The Gourmet’s Love Song, published Christmas Eve 1902 in Punch, is the tale of a chap who is wasting away from unrequited love. It contains wordplay that could have come from only one pen in the world:

They show me dishes rich and rare,
But ah! My pulse no joy stirs.
For savouries I’ve ceased to care,
I hate the thought of oysters.

Early on in his writing, Wodehouse signatures such as the “unexpected incorrectness of his punch lines, the bending and shaping of words . . . the witty literacy in the crafting of a lyric” (Barry Day) began to emerge. Benny Green writes of PGW’s lyrics: “The rhythmic stresses fall with the neat inevitability which is the hallmark of the vintage comic lyric, and . . . how skillfully Wodehouse acquired the art indispensable to the songwriter, economy.”

From what we can see in the Parrots and the pantomimes, I think it’s fair to say that Robinson was a writer of content, whereas we know Wodehouse was a writer of style. PGW makes his clever, sly rhymes appear as if by magic; Robinson rarely surpasses the most simple of rhyming schemes:

And every day I raised that cry,
Though I couldn’t exactly tell you why,
For when they asked me how I knew
I only replied that it was true
And I really didn’t know what to say
When Joe declared on a fateful day . . .

Wodehouse was incapable of writing like this.

Murphy and Ring stop quite short of a full analysis of the panto lyrics, but I believe that by simply looking for the known traits – Wodehouse DNA – it isn’t exceptionally difficult to identify his hand. In my opinion, Wodehouse wrote just one of the six songs in The Sleeping Beauty: Henry’s Song contains identifiable PGW: “But ne’er did nature plan a man / So great as Campbell-Bannerman . . . ” “A man supremely pat I call / In matters mathematical . . . ”

The remaining songs are distinguished by the absence of identifiable Wodehouse traits and the crude rhymes; indeed, Robinson gives us, in The Parrot’s Song: “encore . . . more; free . . . me; sing . . . bring; pour . . . more; cry . . . why; knew . . . true; say . . . day; decayed . . . Trade; confess . . . less.”

The Ploughman’s Song is set to “A Wandering Minstrel I” from The Mikado and interpolates lines also from Patience and Princess Ida. The only line in The Ploughman’s Song that really stands out is: “Within the house of Peers / I charm attentive ears / My celebrated sneer’s surpassed by few . . .” The temptation when seeing a Gilbert and Sullivan reference is to immediately think of Wodehouse. (In 1903 alone he published three poems with Gilbert references: Modern Improvements, In the Air, and The Emperor’s Song.) But a look at the overall composition of the lyric persuades me that it is not PGW’s work.

The metrical pattern of Trio was lifted from the music-hall song “We are a happy family, we are, we are, we are!” by Frederick Bowyer and Gilbert Harrow, popularized in the early 1880s by the comedian Arthur Roberts. Wodehouse had parodied the song a few months earlier for his Daily Chronicle poem A Sound Cure and would go to it once again in The Phalanx in January 1906. However, one look at the rhyme scheme strongly suggests this is Robinson’s, rather than Wodehouse’s work.

In the second playlet Little Red Riding Hood we encounter something odd: Several of the lyrics appear to be alternatively written by Robinson and Wodehouse. Little Red Riding Hood seems terribly wordy for PGW, although he may have had to fit words to a talky melody. There are unmistakable signs: “coterie / motor-y; “garish is / parish is; quality / frivolity.” But I’m puzzled by the second verse:

Satirists rage, but their wit, which to hurt is meant. . .
Pleased and refreshed by the splendid advertisement. . .
Gibes, which their skin should pierce painfully through, tickle,
Such is the armour-clad state of their cuticle. . .etc.

I cannot believe these clunkers are Wodehouse’s lines – but immediately following, we have: “ . . .harbour a / Yarborough . . .” which is a distinctively Wodehousean construction.

It looks to me as though Robinson, exercising writer/editor’s prerogative, may have tried to emend some of Wodehouse’s work here, especially the second half of the poem. I can think of no other explanation as to why the heretofore lovely lyric is suddenly bludgeoned like that – PGW wouldn’t have written the offending lines at any price. Compare the rhyme scheme in the first stanza with that of the second and it is clear, at least to me, that it is the work of two quite distinguishable authors.

The Good Fairy “They eke out their follies / with danceable dollies . . .” is pure PGW. Quartette: Demons is a clever and well-written little piece of theater criticism and is right up PGW’s alley; Duet: Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf is marvelous PGW all the way:

I always used to think of you
just a sober matron who
was eminently British. . .
But now, if I may candid be,
Upon my word you seem to me
If anything, too skittish. . .

PGW also gifts us with an early Latin quotation in a brave rhyme: “No matter what your will is . . . mutantur tempora, now et mutamur in illis.” (The adage has been attributed to Lotharius I, Holy Roman Emperor and can be translated as “The times are changed and we too are changed in (or during) them.”) “Although it looks a fizzy ’un” is of course pure PGW.

The Hunter’s Chorus. Marie Corelli was a popular novelist with pretentious airs; Wodehouse lampooned her mercilessly in his By the Way column. “I hate the conduct such as is . . . the wont of dukes and duchesses (when staying at the truly rural mansion of a friend) . . .” “I’m not the sort of chappie, what?” is clearly PGW vernacular.

A Winter’s Tale. King Arthur and His Court is a satire on the widespread political opposition to Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Sir Primrose puzzles me due to the awkward scansion and what would be uncharacteristic wordiness, but there are several undeniable Wodehouse moments. Sir Winston: not one of PGW’s best, but very clean and I’m certain it’s not Robinson’s writing. Sir Lancelot (the Tariff Reform League) is a fun, witty piece that actually sounds very much like a mature Wodehouse song lyric: “Their charms I do not underrate . . . They’re great . . .” “Can you hear, Guinevere . . . What I’m saying, my dear?” “Oh, Lancelot, oh, Lancelot . . . glance a lot . . . France a lot . . .” Wodehouse then delights us with:

I know the vows you make are true
All other kinds are spurious;
I’d like to run away with you,
But Arthur would be furious.

The first eight lines of King Arthur contain some highly probable PGW: “. . .skittles and beer and all . . . won’t disappear at all . . . ” Appearing abruptly though comes an onslaught of un-Wodehousean rhymes and the stanza clunks to an end: “Lucidity . . . rapidity;” “burrowing . . . furrowing;” “urbanity . . . insanity.” I’m suggesting this is another pasted-up piece, some Robinson, some Wodehouse. In the next stanza, things pick up again: “Oh! vitæ tædia . . . encyclopedia.” “ . . . with unimpaired bonhomie . . . on the nation’s economy . . . ” “ . . . Can I confirm any . . . with Germany . . . ”

The Progressive’s Progress playlet satirizes the Entente Cordiale, an alliance between France and Britain in 1904 and the spending of the L.C.C. (London County Council). Policeman: A lovely effort by PGW; Chorus of Peers: “Our blood’s not very blue, we know . . . But when it comes to brains, what ho!” The Respectable Peer; Wodehouse contributed to The Amateur Socialist (Recitative) and Song – An Amateur Socialist. “Pen you in . . . genuine” and “sunniness . . . ready-money-ness,” but I don’t think he wrote all of these two pieces. Chorus: Progressive Members of the L.C.C., Kaffir Market Stockbrokers and The Banker round out the Wodehouse.

Lady Highflyer is an adaptation of When I Was a Lad from H.M.S. Pinafore and is similar to The Ploughman’s Song in that the Gilbert & Sullivan reference might at first lead one to believe it is PGW, but a look at the unimaginative rhyming strongly suggests otherwise.

A couple of other notes about Wodehouse and his early lyric-writing:

He looks back from 1914 in Dramatizitis from Pall Mall:

“In my own case it began in the year 1907 with a comparatively mild attack of musical-comedy lyrics. From a very early age I have had a marked congenital tendency towards light verse. In the light of later happenings it would have been well if my parents had had this treated; but it seemed so slight and unimportant a failing that it was regarded more with amusement than apprehension . . . the consequence was that at the beginning of the year 1907 I found myself, before I realised what had happened, attached to the staff of the Aldwych Theatre as a sort of Hey, Bill! who was expected to turn out topical encore verses every week in exchange for two pounds per and the run of the theatre.”

On March 19, 1906, The Beauty of Bath opened at the Aldwych Theater. It featured PGW’s political lyric Oh Mr. Chamberlain! – PGW’s first collaboration with Jerome Kern:

He plays for Aston Villa just by
Way of keeping fit,
He runs the mile in four-fifteen
And wrestles Hackenschmidt
He sleeps a couple of hours a week, and
Works right round the clock
He wrote The Master Christian* and
Oh! Stop Your Tickling Jock!

* another gibe at Marie Corelli

Lee Davis writes that on opening night: “ . . . the song received six encores, much laughter, and a great deal of space in the press.” Wodehouse said: “ . . . Jerry’s melody was so terrific that the number used to get six or seven encores every night and I spent most of the next year writing encore verses.” Sadly, those encore verses, which kept the crowds roaring, are lost forever.

Two months later, flushed with success (the hit show ran for 287 performances) the precocious Wodehouse published his article On Lyric Writing. It shows he was a student as well as practitioner of the art of lyric-writing and that he took it very seriously:

“Lyric writing is like golf – it looks easy, but there is a great deal more in it than the casual spectator would imagine . . . Sometimes, of course, a good tune will be strong enough to carry a pointless verse on its shoulders, but not often . . . There is a world of difference between the demeanor of an audience when it merely likes a tune and when it finds the words amusing as well . . . there is just one instant in which the audiences sees or misses a point. The ideal lyric should give at least two warnings before the point of the verse is reached . . . the point must be concentrated on the last line. Absence of point in the latter half of the refrain kills the song . . . ”

For confirmation that he practiced what he preached, see the stanza from Sir Lancelot above.

In June 1904, his first musical theater song lyric Put Me In My Little Cell from the show Sergeant Brue was published. It contains the line: “There are pleasant little spots my heart is fixed on . . . and some put up Holloway and Brixton . . .”

Some sixty-plus years later, in his early nineties, Wodehouse sat down at his typewriter and pounded out an idea for a new show lyric:

“In Brixton, my heart is fixed on . . . ”

The man was so dashed consistent.

A cigar and coco-nut to the boys at Madame Eulalie for bringing us these rare pieces of P. G. Wodehouse’s wonderful legacy.