Vanity Fair, July 1917
THE NEW PLAYS
So-called Because They Are Nearly All Old Ones
By P. G. Wodehouse
APART from the doubloons and pieces of eight which you receive as the result of your labors—and, all thing going well, there is a considerable susurration of them,—there are other advantages to be derived from writing for the stage in America. For one thing, you are always being given good cigars,—those of Mr. Charles B. Dillingham, notably, having to be smoked to be believed. For another, when you work for the theatre, you are always bustling off to see someone about something or calling someone up on the telephone or lunching with someone, than which there are few pleasanter sensations,—it being possible in this manner to waste day after day in congenial loafing and yet to have a wonderful sensation of being the human dynamo, always busy. The theatrical business is, as far as I know, the only one in which you are able to get the feeling of being one of the World’s workers purely on the strength of having done yourself well at the luncheon table. But the chief beauty of the life is that it gives you an opportunity of studying the average theatrical manager’s thought-processes; and that is the nearest thing to being with Alice in Wonderland: for, believe me, there is a brisk delirium about these boys which is simply fascinating. Take, for example, the managerial attitude towards hot weather.
IN this matter, they start off in a perfectly sane, level-headed way by assuming that, as the hot weather generally begins somewhere about May the First, the theatrical season should end about then. If they simply stuck to this, one would have no criticism to offer. It is true that on May the First it is generally freezing and that any play which is good does just as well in hot weather as in cold; but still in the main the assumption is a pretty sensible one. But have they the courage of their convictions? Do they—from May the First onward—abstain from producing plays? No! They effect a sort of compromise. They confine themselves to producing bad plays. Directly the hot weather begins, the manager says to himself: “Now! It’s so warm that even a corking piece wouldn’t draw people into the theatre, so obviously the sound commercial move is to put on something absolutely awful!” And he goes to the charnel-house and extracts some corpse which died during the Seminole War. And then he is mildly surprised because a sweltering public does not flock to see it.
AS, for instance, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” the galvanized cadaver now lying in state at the New Amsterdam. Johnny started to come marching home, I am informed by the local graybeards, some fifteen years ago, but it seems that his foot slipped. At any rate, he never arrived. He perished miserably, and his remains were interred in Cain’s storehouse. Therefore, Mr. Whitney now drags him out and deposits him, like a terrier laying a dead rat on the drawing-room rug, in Forty-second Street. “Boys!” he probably said, “I’ve a great idea. This piece is about the Civil War, the period when Americans were all at each other’s throats: the dialogue is out of date: the music old-fashioned: all the ideas that were any good in it have long since been copied in other productions, till they are now as stale as Civil war-bread: and it failed when it was first produced. Let’s revive it, and make our everlasting fortunes! It’s so timely to do Civil War Stuff, now that America is one solid chunk of unitedness!” And they all said “Fine!” So he put it on at a great expense. One reviewer, I blushingly note, says “One wonders why Mr. Whitney, as long as he was prodigal in the mounting of the operetta, did not commission Mr. Bolton or Mr. Wodehouse or some other equally adroit farceur to rewrite it.” It seems almost incredible, but I question if even this semi-divine assistance would have brought home the bacon. Guy Bolton is one of Nature’s noblest and most brainy works—his head sticks out at the back, and he feeds entirely on fish—but “Johnny” would have baffled him all right.
“The Highwayman” is another end-of-season grave-snatching outrage. In this case, I understand, there was some shadow of a reason for reviving the piece. Under their contract with Mr. de Koven, the Shuberts were obliged to produce a work of his each year, or else pay a forfeit; and this time they thought they might as well have a run for their money. They had a run, but a very, very short one. It is curious to think that this fossil has for years held a place as one of the classics of the American stage. “Ah!” people used to say on the opening nights of newer musical productions, “You’re too young to remember it, but, if you had only seen ‘The Highwayman,’ you wouldn’t have much taste for this sort of thing!” Well, now we have seen it.
PASSING lightly over old Hank Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” which will never be a real hit till they get Jerome Kern to write in a few songs, we come to the Barrie triple bill at the Empire. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the large-domed recluse of Kirriemuir and Adelphi Terrace has given us two gems and a Brazilian. There is no doubt about the spuriousness of “Old Friends,” which comes to the bat second on the list,—it is a dog of the worst description,—but I also came away from the theatre with considerable uncertainty in my mind as to the merits of Number One,—“The New Word.” One’s critical sense is dulled during the actual performance by Norman Trevor’s masterly acting as the father. He is so admirable that he casts a false glamour of reality over the piece: and it is only when one has come from under the influence that one begins to doubt. The central idea of the little play is that in England a father and son go through life, unless dynamited out of their reserve by some terrible tragedy, in a state of frozen uncomfortableness towards one another,—and this though at heart each likes the other better than any other individual in the world. It is an idea which Barrie has used before—in “Little Mary,” where, when it was produced in London, Sir John Hare and Mr. Gerald du Maurier played an almost exactly similar scene to that shown in “The New Word.” The flaw in the idea is that it is the very reverse of true. It is an instance of that curious out-of-date-ness and remoteness from real life which is a considerable ingredient in what is technically known as the “Barrie charm.” A Barrie play nearly always has that quaint attraction which one derives from reading a story in an old magazine which one liked as a boy. The Sherlock Holmes tales, with the original illustrations by Sidney Paget, always produce that effect.
“The New Word” is up to the minute in so far as it deals with the War; but it is thirty or forty years behind the times in regard to the characters. In nine cases out of ten an English boy of nineteen is on terms of easy comradeship with his father. If his attitude is not one of perfect equality, it is one of jovial patronage. If there is one change more marked than another in English family life of the twentieth century, it is the change in the head of the family from the Heavy Father of the Mr. Bultitude in Vice Versa type to a youngish middle-aged man with boyish sympathies. Even assuming that the father and son in “The New Word” might have been too shy to betray deep feeling when left alone together on the eve of the son’s departure for the Front, they would certainly have chatted comfortably about their golf handicaps, the revue at the Alhambra, and a dozen other subjects which they had been discussing daily on terms of perfect comradeship.
THERE is no flaw, however, in the last piece on the bill. “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,”—least of all in Miss Beryl Mercer’s splendid performance as the old charwoman. It is always the way. Give Barrie a mother—even a woman who pretends she is someone’s mother—and his eyes brighten, he snorts like a war-horse at the sound of the trumpet, and all is well.
This is the season of the year when the Summer Shows begin to infest our fair city. There have been two so far—“His Little Widows” at the Astor and the new “Passing Show” at the Winter Garden. “His Little Widows” is a musical farce about Mormons, and has to bear the handicap of having its action start from the always dangerous source of “uncle’s will.” Freak wills are regarded with just suspicion by the public, as they are bound to lead to artificial plots. In the present instance, Uncle Jim or George or whatever his name is leaves his three millions to his nephew on condition that the nephew marries his dozen widows, he having been a prominent member of a sect of Mormons who—for no known reason—dress and talk like Quakers. The best thing in the piece is the barber-shop singing of the tall member of the Haley Sisters Quartette. She looks and acts like Charlotte Greenwood and sings like a mastiff in pain.
From the fact that they print his name in large letters on the programme, the management of the Winter Garden is evidently aware that the “Passing Show of 1917” stands or falls by Chic Sale. He is so good that he compensates for the dullness of the rest of the production. With the exception of Irene Franklin, who sings as well as ever, and Marie Nordstrom, whose breezy personality is cheering, the only other bright spot is the Allen-Ardath-Singer act. These sturdy citizens splash paint over one another’s faces with large brushes with such vim that for a quarter of an hour the house screams with mirth. But the star of the evening is Chic Sale.