The Onlooker, October 18, 1902


“The Wisdom of Folly” is not what might be called a perfect comedy. To name a few of its demerits, it is not a comedy at all, but a farce; there is no love interest, it is desperately thin, and there is a painful sense of strain throughout a good deal of the dialogue. Time after time passages of repartee occur which should, in the natural course of things, culminate in some coruscating mot, but which instead fizzle out and die quietly. Much of the dialogue, too, is amazingly cheap. “I really think I must be humorous because Punch has rejected every single thing I have sent up to them” is a sample. Other similar pleasantries deal with the South-Eastern Railway and the Royal Academy. A good deal of the humour relies on catch-phrases of a more or less weak nature.

The main plot of the piece is easily told. A Mrs. Rose has been living apart from her husband for the last fifteen years, and anxiously awaiting the news of his decease. Her chief friends are a colonel, an admiral, and a civil servant, all retired. Through motives of jealousy the colonel induces her to sign a document in which she binds herself never to marry the admiral. Immediately afterwards the admiral brings her a similar document relating to the civil servant, and the civil servant one relating to the colonel. Both of these Mrs. Rose also signs. She is possessed, it may be remarked in passing, of a very weak memory. Soon after this the husband at last dies, and in his will is found a clause to the effect that unless she marries again within a week from the day of her husband’s death she is to lose all her property. In these circumstances it is perfectly obvious that she must marry the lawyer who brings the will, and she does.

To build up a good three-act comedy out of this farrago is almost impossible. A teaspoonful of brandy is an excellent thing in its way, but if one dilutes it in a glass of water the resulting beverage is not very exhilarating. Similarly a few flashes of wit cannot compensate the audience for dreary wastes of padding. “The Wisdom of Folly” should have been a curtain-raiser. There are one or two really amusing moments, which, if brought close together instead of being separated by many Saharas of dulness, would be the making of the piece.

As for the acting, nothing could have been better or more spirited than the manner in which Miss Gertrude Kingston plays the part of Mrs. Rose, the only really satisfying character in the play. She carries the whole piece along with a vigour and dash which could not be improved upon. Of the other characters, the civil servant, as played by Mr. Holman Clark, was the most amusing, though all were good.

It is worth while to pay a visit to the Comedy if only to see “The Iron Duke,” a playlet which precedes “The Wisdom of Folly.” It is quite one of the prettiest little curtain-raisers seen on the stage for some time, and, besides being admirably acted, recalls the eighteenth-century atmosphere, which is always welcome. There is very little plot. The main interest lies in the excellent character-sketch of the Duke of Wellington, apart from his military and political aspect. Most of the work falls on Mr. Charles Cartwright, as the Duke, and Master Sidney Carlyle, as a small Eton boy, and both perform it wonderfully well.

Mr. Percy French and Mr. Harrison Hill’s amusing recital on Saturday afternoon at the Steinway Hall attracted a large audience. Mr. French is a very versatile Irishman, and was most popular with Dublin audiences before he took up his abode in town. Of his songs, perhaps the best known is “Mat Hannigan’s Aunt.” How the ballad “Goosey, Goosey Gander” might have been treated by Swinburne, Longfellow, and Kipling is a very comic skit. There is certainly room for bright afternoon entertainments of this kind, and the Steinway Hall recitals are likely to be popular this winter.


Published anonymously in The Onlooker; Wodehouse recorded “Wisdom of Folly” in Money Received for Literary Work for Onlooker in October 1902. The last paragraph of the column above may well have been contributed by another writer.


Neil Midkiff


Wodehouse attended Cosmo Hamilton’s new play The Wisdom of Folly: A Ridiculous Piece in Three Acts, Being an Episode in the Peaceful Life of a Fluffy-Minded Lady which opened October 9, 1902 at the Comedy Theater. He was there on a commission to write a brief review—called a “cut-in”—for a paper called The Onlooker: A Social View of Life.  It was a chatty threepenny weekly of the bright, gossipy class that promised “to tell you all about well-known people or people who wish to be well-known.” The authoress Mrs. Harcourt (Alice Muriel) Williamson ran Onlooker out of her home, from which she also operated a matchmaking ‘social bureau’ for members of the “Smart Set.”  How P.G. came to be introduced to a well-connected society editress who operated a matchmaking service is a matter of curiosity. He could have met Alice at some social function and offered to write a couple of theater reviews for her; perhaps he had gotten himself finagled into a matrimonial bureau!

Hamilton’s play opened to disastrous reviews (“can only be regarded as a mistake” from the Athenæum, and “It bored me—merely inept” from The Academy and Literature) and closed two weeks later on October 25.

 Another theatrical review, in The Onlooker of November 1, 1902, also under the banner “Stage and Stalls,” was ten paragraphs of straightforward theatre criticism of the melodrama “Captain Kettle,” which opened at the Adelphi on October 27, 1902. (The Adelphi shows were called “Adelphi screamers.”) P.G.’s discerning review demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with the workings of the stage. He notes that the fourth act is unbalanced and needs to be rewritten, and that the comic asides of Cutcliffe Hyne’s Captain Kettle character were out of place and would have displeased the author, and “the authors have apparently not quite made up their minds whether they are writing melodrama or writing burlesque.”

The Onlooker itself failed in 1909 and went into receivership.


John Dawson