HOW TO WRITE A REVUE.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EATING WELL.
By P.G. WODEHOUSE.
The Daily Mail, December 19, 1913
The fact that I am perhaps the most competent revue-writer living does not make me conceited or arrogant towards my inferiors. I am clear-sighted enough to give the credit to my natural gifts rather than to any personal merit of my own. Moreover, I realise that I have limitations as a writer of revues. My dialogue is not very funny. My lyrics do not often scan. My sense of the theatre is weak. But in the main essentials, the ability to eat about twelve meals a day and drink any old thing that comes along, I have few, if any, equals.
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You, gentle reader, who see merely the finished product, the complete revue on the night of the presentation, cannot realise all the toil and trouble that have gone towards its making. You cannot visualise that vast pyramid of oysters, pheasants, cups o’ soup, bits o’ fish, special steaks, and the like, which form the shadowy foundation on which after many weeks the complete revue rears itself like some shining temple on the summit of a hill.
Food permeates the theatrical world like the sweet leit-motif of an opera. No important step of any kind is ever taken without the accompaniment of a meal. Let me sketch a typical day in the life of a writer of revues. We will assume that the preliminary lunches during which he was approached in the matter of writing a revue, sounded on the question of terms, introduced to the management, and so on are over and that the real business has begun.
Arriving at the theatre after a hearty breakfast, he is just in time for the lunch at which a prospective comedian is being approached in the matter of being a comedian, sounded on the question of terms, introduced to the management, and so on. This carries him on till about three. At 4.30 a cup of tea and a bun. Nothing more except a bottle or so of champagne, to drink success to the new venture, till dinner, after which those concerned in the production, having fortified themselves with meat and drink, slink off like leopards to some outlying music-hall to inspect a performer who may be needed for one of the parts. Supper, with perhaps a cold snack before actually retiring, completes a strenuous day. But this, of course, is merely a day at the beginning of the weeks of toil. As the date of production draws near work naturally grows tenser and tenser, until finally it is only the experienced revue-writer who can tell with any approach to certainty whether he is in the middle of dinner or beginning supper or just taking a bite to keep body and soul together between meals.
All this, of course, limits the number of those competent to write revues. Sir J. M. Barrie once wrote a single scene, but I doubt if he has the stamina to do much more. Mr. Bernard Shaw has gifts of dialogue which would help him a little, but you cannot write a revue on lentils and sawdust, or whatever it is that Mr. Shaw inserts in his saturnine face when the dinner-gong goes in the Adelphi. Perhaps the most promising of the younger men is Mr. G. K. Chesterton. He has the build of a revue-writer.
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Revue-writing has its rewards. You get your name in the papers—spelled wrong and with different initials but still recognisable by experts; an American paper once printed me as T. Y. Yodhouse, giving, as it were, the main idea without going into details. That is a great thing. Then people up from the country sometimes stare after you in the street and wonder who that curiously intellectual-looking man is. All this is to the good, but nevertheless revue-writing must be written down as one of the dangerous trades. My own experience is a case in point. When I began I was a slim lad, weighing little more than fourteen stone six in my clothes. Now I move with difficulty and am frequently mistaken for something out of a side-show. I am a sort of combination of Zbysco and the late Daniel Lambert. The other day while backing hastily to get out of earshot of one of my lyrics at rehearsal I trod on the foot of a ballet-girl. “They oughtn’t to have such things wandering about the theatre” was her crisp but eminently just comment on the incident.
The tendency towards excessive weight is not the only peril which the revue-writer has to face. If he possesses a sensitive ear for a false rhyme there are few ordeals (except watching the ’Varsity match at Queen’s Club) more terrible than a day’s song-hunting. Song-hunting is a painful necessity. It is a curious fact that the United States, like the devil, seems to have all the best tunes, and as you want the best tunes in a revue you have to go to the publishers who own the English rights. But it is another curious fact that the United States produces the worst lyrics in the civilised world. You know how American lyrists work? First, they get a catchy phrase, then they simply shove down anything till they have got about a dozen lines, and then they go out to lunch and tell people they have written a cracker-jack. “Won’t you come to Tennessee?” let us say, occurs to the bard as a useful opening. Within five minutes he has produced a chorus running as follows:
Honey, won’t you come to Tennessee?
Oh, my hon, my little hon, you’re the one
I’ll be pleasin’ with my teasin’ an’ my squeezin’!
When the moon am gleaming
I have such loving feelings.
Oh, baby, don’t be deceiving,
Oh, my hon! oh, my hon! oh, my hon!
Honey, won’t you come to Tennessee?
I have sat in a small room for a whole afternoon while no fewer than five members of a publishing firm sang that sort of thing in different keys. One of them snapped his fingers and did ragtime steps on the hearthrug. As Longfellow said of the sea, but might have said of revue-writing, “Only those who brave its dangers comprehend its mystery.” Longfellow, by the way, was the only American poet who could write six consecutive lines without introducing the words “hon” or “baby.”
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Another danger of revue-writing is that after a while it grows into a sort of disease. The revue-writer comes to regard everything purely in the light of material for his pen. If any national disaster occurred, if England were invaded, or Mr. Keir Hardie emigrated, or Mr. Lloyd George were bitten by a pheasant in his turnip garden at Xylpwwgll, the revue-writer would simply whoop with joy. His only thought would be that here was the stuff for another scene.
You can always tell a sufferer from the disease by the way he mutters to himself as he walks along. It is not exactly delirium, though akin to it. He is trying to find fresh couplets for his topical song. One of the saddest sights to be seen in London at the present moment is the spectacle of revue-writers striding along the pavements with glaring eyes, struggling to invent good dactyllic rhymes for Carpentier.