Vanity Fair, May 1920
The New Plays
Which Go to Prove that What is Wanted, Just for the Moment, is An Evening of Gloom
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
ONCE upon a time there was a theatrical manager who decided to take no chances. “Hitherto,” he said to his partner, “I have been putting plays on blindly and trusting to luck. From now on I am going to work the thing on a system. I intend to employ the services of a professional psychologist, one of those fellows who have their finger on the public pulse and watch tendencies and see which way the wind is blowing and all that sort of thing.”
“Good enough,” said the partner, who left all the executive side of the business to the other, concentrating his own energies on slipping jokers in authors’ contracts and seeing that they got less than their rightful share of the movie money. “Go to it!”
So the manager wrote to the correspondence school and told them to send along their best man. And presently the psychologist arrived.
“Now,” said the psychologist, “touching this matter of what the public wants. The public today, let us remember, is composed of people who have just been suffering the strain of a war. They have had to pay out all their savings in income tax. Living is expensive. There has been an awful lot of snow, and in all probability they have come out without their rubbers. What do they want? Distraction. Give them light, pleasant, gentle, mild plays, and watch ’em bite!”
“Fine!” cried the manager enthusiastically. “I’ll do it!”
“On the other hand,” went on the psychologist, “we must always remember that the public today is composed of people who have just been suffering the strain of a war. They have had to pay out all their savings in income tax. Living is expensive. There has been awful lot of snow, and in all probability they have come out without their rubbers. What do they want? Distraction. They want to go to the theatre and see people worse off than themselves. Give them, therefore, strong, tense, gloomy, tragic plays where the fellow comes home with his feet wet after paying his income-tax and finds that his wife loves another, the maid has given notice, and the cat has been at the cold chicken.”
“Then you mean,” said the manager, “that it’s just the same old gamble? There’s nothing you can do except take a chance?”
“Precisely,” said the psychologist. “By the way, could I have my first month’s salary in advance?”
The Public Demand for Gloom
THERE is absolutely no reason why the public at the moment of going to press should be calling for gloom and declining to accept the pleasant stuff that trickles gently along to the happy ending. In another month they will probably have switched again. But, for the moment, there is no doubt that the strong and gloomy drama is in the ascendant and the mild, sweet play in the storehouse. (Or, “being taken immediately to London with the original cast”, if you prefer it. It’s the same thing.)
Of the last crop of plays, these are successes,—Jane Clegg, Sacred and Profane Love, The Letter of the Law. The failures are He and She, The Cat-Bird, and The Wonderful Thing. Failure is, of course, a comparative term, but none of these pleasant plays has really got over. The Cat-Bird is going on the road, The Wonderful Thing may improve after a bad start, He and She is doubtful. Whereas excited crowds besiege the theatres where the other three are playing. The public is like Stephen Leacock’s Judge Pepperleigh, who, as you will remember if you have read Sunshine Sketches, would sometimes greet his wife on his return home with “Almighty Moses, Martha! Who left the sprinkler on the grass?” and on other days would call to her from quite a little distance off, “Hullo, mother! Got any supper for a hungry man?” And Mrs. Pepperleigh never knew which it would be.
Miss Rachel Crothers, who wrote (and plays the leading part in) He and She, had extraordinarily bad luck. The theme of the piece is the problem of the wife’s position in the home. Should she be a domestic second lieutenant, or is it right for her to throw her weight about and amount to something? Miss Crothers wrote and produced her play in 1914 or 1915, and then it was shelved. Meanwhile, along came James Forbes with The Famous Mrs. Fair, with precisely the same theme, and, treating it in exactly the same way as Miss Crothers had done, he scored a big hit. No doubt Mr. Forbes had never seen or heard of He and She, but the trouble was that the public had both seen and heard of The Famous Mrs. Fair, and Miss Crothers was in the position of the man who attempts to cap a funny story with another funny story with exactly the same point.
It is a pity, because there is good stuff in He and She. Miss Crothers and Cyril Keightley play their parts admirably, and Faire Binney is excellent as the school-girl daughter. But the setting of the play hurts it. The husband and wife in He and She are alleged to be supreme sculptors, and sculptors are rather uninteresting and, when supreme, very hard to believe in. The thingummy which Mrs. Herford brought on, in act one, from her workshop was unconvincing as a specimen of a genius which was to win a hundred thousand dollar prize in act two. As for Mr. Herford’s masterpiece, it kept its back discreetly to the audience throughout, and one never saw it all.
Who Will Write Mr. Drew a Grumpy?
THE CAT-BIRD, in which John Drew returned to the stage in the rôle of a mild old gentleman who never wore evening dress, served pleasantly enough as a vehicle for proving once again that Mr. Drew is the most polished artist on the American stage, but it lacked what may be euphemistically called internal organs. It was too mild. The mistake playwrights so often make is to create a gentle, doddering character and put him in a gentle, doddering play. The successful of Grumpy was due to its clever blending of raw melodrama with a carefully drawn character. Somebody ought to write a Grumpy for the John Drew of 1920.
Rupert Hughes should have given Professor Gloade his spectacles and his insects and his shuffling walk, but should have grafted on a real villain or two and an exciting plot. The test of a play written for a star is, Will it stand up without the star? A Number Three company of Grumpy or Sherlock Holmes or Lightnin’ would be worth seeing, but it is impossible to imagine The Cat-Bird without John Drew.
The Wonderful Thing, in which Jeanne Eagels stars and gives a very good performance, is in the vein of Peg o’ My Heart. Dramatized by Lillian Trimble Bradley from a story by Forrest Halsey, it introduces a Cinderella with a French accent into an aristocratic English family which, with her winning ways, she contrives in the end to make safe for democracy. It is difficult to predict the fate of any Peg o’ My Heart play. The reviewers go to it first, and, having seen all the other Peg o’ My Heart plays, slink back to their lairs and tear it to pieces. The first layer of the public, the sophisticated New Yorkers, who are also fed up with this type of piece, ignore it. The question remains whether the management will take it off in despair, or whether they will struggle on till it can penetrate to the next layer, the people who don’t care if a thing has been done before so long as it is the sort of thing they want. The Wonderful Thing has all the ingredients. They have been warmed up, but they are there, and it ought to do well on the road. There is a capital blackmailer, expertly played by Fred Tiden, one of the two best portrayers of gentlemanly villains on the stage.
The Success of Three Tragedies
WE now come to the three successes. They are all tragedies, two of them because that is what they are supposed to be, the third—Sacred and Profane Love—because Mr. Arnold Bennett has blackened his artistic reputation by sticking on an illogical happy ending in order to please a sentimental public. Mr. Bennett once wrote a whole novel, A Great Man, in mockery of writers who do this sort of thing, and I have on my shelves a volume of his criticisms in which, in his own inimitable manner of the “Superior Person”, he gives the reader to understand that he and Mr. Wells are the only two authors alive who possess a literary conscience.
I defy Mr. Bennett to place his hand on the left side of his fancy waistcoat and swear that the ending he has given to Sacred and Profane Love is the right and artistic ending.
All through the last act he is preparing our minds for tragedy. He does everything short of signing an affidavit to tell us that the pianist is going to relapse into his old habits and render all the heroine’s self-sacrifice futile. We know that that concert of his is going to be a fiasco. And then, right at the finish, in he curvets crying “Success! Success!” like another Harry Fox, and the play ends like a stearine motion-picture with a close-up and slow fade-out on the embrace.
You can almost hear the out-of-tune piano tinkling out an accompaniment, and you wait expecting to see “Next Week, Cynthia Gooch in Can a Wife Really Love?” on the asbestos curtain. The play is a great success, of course. Elsie Ferguson, wonderful in the first act, grows a little monotonous and unreal in her later scenes of emotion. José Ruben is excellent throughout. Some of the minor actors are very good, notably Augusta Haviland.
At the Criterion, Lionel Barrymore is playing to capacity in Brieux’s Letter of the Law, the same being a tribute to his skill and personality rather than a boost for old man Brieux. The play is full of technicalities about the French Law, and most of the nastiest slams are wasted on an American audience.
BUT now, ladies and gentlemen, the guest of the evening, the pick of the bunch, the blue-eyed boy, the lad with the punch, the Babe Ruth of the drama of 1920—Mr. St. John Ervine. My typewriter begins to stutter with emotion as I approach the subject of Jane Clegg. The Theatre Guild seemed to know in advance that this play was going to get me all worked up, for they shoved me behind the fattest pillar in the theatre in the hope that I wouldn’t see much of it. But, having a long and flexible neck, I fooled them and saw the whole thing and reeled out of the theatre at the finish to grab strangers in the street and urge them not to miss a masterpiece. Seeing Jane Clegg is like looking through a keyhole of Any House, an illusion which deepened by the ingenious lighting. There are two gas globes on the stage, and they give exactly the amount of light which two gas globes would give,—in striking contrast to most stage-lightings, where, when Bassett, the butler, switches on the reading-lamp—or, more often, a couple of seconds before he switches it on—a brilliant glow illumines every corner of the room. Emmanuel Reicher has achieved a triumph in the production of this play.
But let us not give too much credit to the gas globes. St. John Ervine is the man who deserves the credit. Not once in the course of the play does he exaggerate or force a note or truckle to sentimentality. Jane Clegg is just three evenings out of real life. The story ends precisely as it ought to end. I can imagine Arnold Bennett taking Mr. Ervine aside and telling him his ending would never do. “And it’s so simple to fix,” he probably said. “All you have to do is, just before Clegg goes off, to bring on little Jennie. Jennie says ‘Mummie, doesn’t ’oo love Dadda?’ joins their hands, and all three exit entwined in an embrace to start a new life. The way you’ve got it, with Clegg going off to Kitty, will never do. The public won’t stand it.” But the public have stood it, more credit to them, which just shows that it is possible to be artistic and still find a nice check in the envelope every week.
The acting of the play is the one perfect thing in an imperfect life. Margaret Wycherly as Jane Clegg, Dudley Digges as Henry Clegg, Helen Westley as old Mrs. Clegg, Henry Travers as the bookie, and Erskine Sandford as the cashier are all so absolutely right that it would be useless to try to class them in order of merit. All I can say is that they deserve to act in Mr. Ervine’s next play, and I can’t say more than that.