Vanity Fair, September 1916
ALL ABOUT ME
Self-Revelation Stuff by a Dramatic Critic
By P. G. Wodehouse
THERE is a brief period in every summer when the dramatic critic has got to pull up his socks and show a bit of enterprise. The melancholy days have come, the saddest of the year, when managers have temporarily ceased to produce plays and are contenting themselves with issuing statements to the press concerning all those “forthcoming productions” which they know perfectly well they have no intention of producing.
The result is that the dramatic critic must think up some other subject to write about or lose his thousand dollars or whatever it is, and see his wife and little ones starve in the gutter. Myself, though I take but a faint interest in the gastronomic adventures of my wife and little ones, I have a rigid objection to seeing good money elude my grasp: so I am going to follow the excellent example of Mr. Channing Pollock and tell you all about myself.
You have to hand it to Channing. The boy dramatic critic certainly has nerve. He filled nine pages of the August Green Book with quite unprovoked personal revelations. Surely, with a far more interesting subject, I ought to be able to manage a single page of Vanity Fair.
I HAD always wanted to be a dramatic critic. A taste for sitting back and watching other people work, so essential to the make-up of this sub-species of humanity, has always been one of the leading traits in my character.
It was at the dear old Cloaca Maxima Theatre, just off the Appian Way in Rome, that I first achieved my ambition. I was working then on the Daily Denarius as a sporting reporter, my duties being to cover the activities at the Colosseum and pan the gladiators; but our regular dramatic critic had been injudicious enough to write a roast of a new comoedia musica (one of those disjointed song-and-dance pieces then becoming fashionable), of which no fewer than sixteen of the authors and seven of the lyrists, besides one of the extra composers, were personal friends of the Emperor.
In those days want of tact of this kind was punished more drastically than by mere withdrawal of advertising, and it was my melancholy task to spend the afternoon at the Colosseum reporting my colleague’s encounter with a Numidian lion (which defeated him in the sixth round by means of some good work in the clinches) before going to the theater to act as his substitute.
Since that occasion I have seldom missed a first night. No sooner has one periodical got rid of me than another has had the misfortune to engage me, with the result that I am now the foremost critic of the day, read assiduously by millions, fawned upon by managers, courted by stagehands. My lightest word can make or mar a new production. If I say a piece is bad, it dies. It may not die instantly. Generally it takes forty weeks in New York and a couple of seasons on the road to do it, but it cannot escape its fate. Sooner or later it perishes. That is the sort of man I am.
My only complaint is that, triumphant as my career as a critic has been, I have missed the crown of that profession. I have never been barred from a theater. I am willing to confess that at times I find this a little galling. I try to look at the matter broadmindedly, but I cannot but feel a pang of envy when I go to a theater and see Channing Pollock edging his way in disguised in a cloak and mask, or Alexander Woollcott attempting to fool the man at the door with red whiskers and blue spectacles. I should be a happier man if one night I could but find myself raised in the grasp of a muscular doorkeeper and shot through the still air of Broadway, to hit the sidewalk of a nearby cabaret.
I ATTRIBUTE my immunity from this kind of treatment to the rigorous fairness of my criticism. Whatever else may be charged against me, I have never deviated from the standard which I set myself at the beginning of my career. If I am called upon to review a play produced by a manager who is considering one of my own works, I do not hesitate, I praise that play.
If an actor has given me a lunch, I refuse to bite the hand that has fed me. I praise that actor’s performance. I can only recall one instance of my departing from my principles. That was when the champagne was corked, and the man refused to buy me another bottle.
BUT I am straying from reminiscence. As is only natural, I have met many interesting people since I embarked on my career. I remember once lunching with rare Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern—this would be back in Queen Elizabeth’s time, when I had broken into the game for quite a time and was beginning to be known in the theatrical world—and seeing a young man with a nobby forehead and about three inches of beard doing himself well at a neighbouring table at the expense of Burbage, the manager.
“Ben,” I said to my companion, “who is that youth?” Or “yonder varlet” or something to that effect. And then Ben told me that the fellow was one Bacon, a new dramatist who had learned his technique by holding horses’ heads in the Strand, and who, for some reason or other, wrote under the name of Shakespeare. “You must see his Hamlet,” said Ben enthusiastically. “He read me the script last night. They start rehearsals at the Globe next week. It’s a pippin. In the last act every blamed character in the cast who isn’t already dead jumps on everyone else’s neck and slays him. It’s a skit, you know, on these foolish tragedies which every manager is putting on just now. Personally, I think it the best thing since ‘The Prune-Hater’s Daughter.’ ”
I was skeptical at the moment, but time proved the correctness of my old friend’s judgment; and, having been present after the opening performance at a little supper given by Burbage at which sack ran like water, and anybody who wanted another malvoisie and seltzer simply had to beckon to the handsome waiter, I was able conscientiously to praise it in the highest terms.
I still treasure the faded newspaper clipping which contains the advertisement of the play, with the legend, “Shakespeare has put one over. A scream from start to finish.”—Wodehouse, in The Weekly Bear-Baiter (with which is incorporated The Scurvy Knaves’ Gazette).
It was while doing dramatic criticism for the Bear-Baiter that I had the honor of meeting Queen Elizabeth, who had been attracted by some of my little things. She sent for me to the Tower, I recollect, and, after complimenting me on the purity of my style and the acuteness of my insight, drew a magnificent diamond pin from her corsage. Then, with a gracious smile which I shall never forget, she put it back again.
Shortly after this, Columbus discovered America, and, seeing a wider field for my talents in the new world, I crossed the Atlantic and joined the staff of Vanity Fair—then in its infancy and brightly edited by Amerigo Vespucci—and (though greatly underpaid) have remained with that periodical ever since, all attempts to dislodge me having failed.
I have taken kindly to the American drama, and never weary of maintaining against all argument the superiority of George M. Cohan to William Shakespeare, and the excess of pep possessed by Harold Atteridge as compared with Aristophanes.
THE lot of a dramatic critic, in many respects an enviable one, is not without its hardships. Celibacy is impossible for him, the practice of managers of sending two tickets every time forcing him sooner or later to marry in order to have someone to occupy the other seat. Also it is wearing on the system of any but the hardiest to be compelled to attend performances where at any moment Gaby Deslys and Harry Pilcer may pop out at him.
Apart from these slight drawbacks, however, he may be said to be a happy man. There is no purer pleasure than that of getting into a theater on what the poet Milton used to call “the nod.” I remember Brigham Young saying to me once with not unnatural chagrin, “You’re a lucky man, Wodehouse. It doesn’t cost you a nickel to go to a theater. When I want to take in a show with the wife, I have to buy up the whole of the orchestra floor. And even then it’s a tight fit.”
My fellow critics and I escape this financial trouble, and it gives us a good deal of pleasure, when the male star is counting the house over the heroine’s head (during their big love-scene) to see him frown as he catches sight of us and hastily revise his original estimate.
SUCH, gentle reader, is the history of my life. Try to forget it before this time next year, for I may want to serve it up again. A dramatic critic has to eat like everyone else, and the increased cost of living compels in me, when I enter a restaurant, a feeling akin to that which I suffer from when I enter Tiffany’s.
The melancholy days have come, the saddest of the year: A slight misquote (‘are’ in the original instead of ‘have’) of the opening line of “The Death of the Flowers” (1832) by William Cullen Bryant.
Channing Pollock (1880–1946), American playwright and dramatic critic, was a year older than Wodehouse, so we must seek another explanation for ‘boy.’ His article in Green Book was titled “I” and describes his initial play reviewing while still in his teens.
Lucy Moore, the Prune-Hater’s Daughter was a 1912 parody melodrama by artist Everett Shinn, initially presented in his backyard studio to a select audience.
magnificent diamond pin … put it back again: Karen Shotting notes that Wodehouse remembered and reused this joke in his tongue-in-cheek autobiographies America, I Like You (ch. 2, pp. 28–29) and Over Seventy (ch. 1, p. 26), describing his defacing the first page of a new bank ledger with a comic piece about the Formal Opening of the New Ledger:
There was a bit about my being presented to His Gracious Majesty the King (who, of course, attended the function) which makes me laugh even now. (“From his tie he took a diamond tie-pin, and smiled at me, and then he put it back.”) [America, I Like You version]
Printer’s errors corrected above:
The second paragraph in the original article appeared with two lines of type transposed: “money elude my grasp: so I am going to” preceded “have a rigid objection to seeing good”.
Magazine had the misspelling “Woolcott”.