Vanity Fair, March 1915
BOY! PAGE MR. COMSTOCK!
Somebody Wants to See Him About Some Plays Now Running in New York
By P. G. Wodehouse
ONE of the most puzzling of the phenomena of social life in New York is the curiously erratic behavior of that guardian of the public morals, Mr. Anthony Comstock. He is like the pea in the shell-game. Now you see him, and now you don’t. He also resembles one of those German bombs which sometimes make an explosion like the simultaneous excavation of a dozen subways, and sometimes fail to go off at all. He leaped upon “September Morn” in a manner reminiscent of young Mr. Hardwick of Harvard making a flying tackle; he set himself for the punch and swung on “The Beautiful Adventure,” like a White Hope, but, up to the moment of going to press, he has failed to emit so much as a soft moan of protest against “The Song of Songs.” Has he ceased to patronize the drama, or have his views on what is and what is not suitable for the New Yorker changed of late?
Possibly the title of the above-named masterpiece has deceived him. That is the worst of play titles. “Ninety in the Shade,” for instance, is nothing of the sort. “The Song of Songs,” from which we only just steered away our maternal grandmother—who had bought tickets under the impression that it was a musical comedy, to which form of entertainment she is passionately addicted—ought to have been called “Why Girls Go Wrong” or “Dora’s Downfall,” or something of that sort.
Be that as it may, it is our considered opinion that Mr. Comstock has missed the chance of his young life.
There is yet another possibility, to wit, that Mr. Comstock did see “The Song of Songs,” but was so enchanted with Miss Irene Fenwick’s acting of the principal rôle that he failed, as we did, till we got away and thought it over quietly, to appreciate the indecency of the play. What would happen to Mr. Sheldon’s dramatization of Herr Sudermann’s novel, without Miss Fenwick to soften down the coarseness of the heroine, does not bear thinking of. Life with Lily Kardos, the shop-girl from the Boardwalk Bazaar at Atlantic City, was, reduced to its simplest terms, just one man after another, and differed from other lives of the same kind only in the fact that, as far as one could gather, she did it at all from the highest motives.
Her dear old father had left her a song about “seeking him whom my soul loved,” and we are supposed to accept Lily’s various adventures as so many false starts in the search for an ideal. And such is Miss Fenwick’s charm that we do so accept them—till the curtain falls and we are out once more in the pure air of Forty-second Street. And then, in the sober, wholesome atmosphere of Broadway, we begin to doubt. Take away Miss Fenwick, whispers a voice, and is not “The Song of Songs” simply the same old stuff which kindly managers have been producing for so many seasons, to give the Tired Business Man something to smack his lips over?
AND we are compelled to answer that it most certainly is. Hogarth said all there was to be said on the theme when he drew “The Harlot’s Progress.” You may gild the life of the courtesan and sentimentalize over it as you will, but it remains a poor thing, and only artists of the highest class can save it from dreariness.
Irene Fenwick is wonderful. She would have been enough by herself to have saved the piece. But the management wisely took no chances, and saw to it that each of the other principal parts should be in the best possible hands. Rather than “The Song of Songs,” “The Cast of Casts” would have made an excellent title; for better acting than that of Dorothy Donnelly, John Mason, Cyril Keightley and Thomas Wise has not been seen on Broadway for many seasons. Even the tiny rôles of Ruby Purcell and Della Shay, the shop-girls, are perfectly played by Maude Allan and Helena Rapport.
Our personal attitude towards “The Song of Songs” is very much that of the editor of the country paper towards the Jeffries-Johnson fight at Reno, who wrote that the forthcoming contest was the most brutal, soul-destroying, degrading exhibition ever scheduled, but that he would certainly go. “The Song of Songs” is a thoroughly bad, immoral, and deleterious product, but we are going again next Tuesday. We trust, however, that Mr. Sheldon’s conscience will lead him to divide his author’s royalty on our two dollars between Miss Fenwick and Miss Donnelly.
THERE seems to be something of a boom in Women Who Did But Shouldn’t Have Done this season. Miriam, in “Outcast,” walks on to the stage from the street, and the nearest approach to a heroine in Mr. Hobart’s morality-play, “Experience,” is “Frailty” in the episode of The House of Last Resort; and in six other successes the principal female character is a woman who has fallen some of the way, if not all of it—from the frankly immoral “Innocent” in the play of that name, to the injured but erring wife in “On Trial.” It would seem as if the public did not begin to be attracted to a woman until Society had cast her off.
There is one other play in which, though women are falling, as it were, with dull thuds all over the place, there is nothing into which Mr. Comstock, when discovered and dragged from his hiding-place, could, so to speak, get his teeth. This is that curious Mormon drama “Polygamy,” by the authors of—of all pieces—“The Dummy.”
Life in Utah is still, according to Miss Ford and Mr. O’Higgins, the corollary of Lily Kardos’—just one woman after another. Miss Ford and Mr. O’Higgins, unlike the gifted author of the ballad entitled, “O’Gorman the Mormon,” who pointed out how hard the practice of polygamy was on the male, take the view that it is the women who really suffer from it. They have drawn a picture of quiet, peaceful, home life in Salt Lake City, with everybody marrying everybody else, which should do much to discourage immigration to that district. The beauty of the Mormon play, from one point of view, is that you can be corkingly improper and nobody can say a word, because you are exposing a GRAVE EVIL. That scene where the first wife falls swooning outside the second wife’s bedroom door gets considerably closer to the point where the police rush in with locust-sticks, and announce that the theatre is pinched, than anything in “The Song of Songs,” yet the authors, if charged, would unhesitatingly reply, “Salacious? Where do you get that? What do you mean, salacious? This is a Grave Exposure.” And, presumably, they would have right on their side. But the Tired Business Man gets his thrill and smacks his lips, just the same.
As far as the success of “Polygamy” is concerned, it was unfortunate that “The Girl From Utah” was such a hit earlier in the season, at the Knickerbocker. Mormons may be everything that is sinister and awful, but, to the average man, they are inextricably bound up with Mr. Joseph Cawthorn, and “Polygamy” gives one a sense of something missing, which can only be removed by the writing in of a couple of good comic songs for the Prophet. This done, and a dancing chorus added to Act II, there is no reason why “Polygamy” should not run into 1916.
THAT same advantage which we have just noted in the Mormon drama belongs also to the Modern Morality play. So long as you call your characters “Youth,” “Frailty,” and so on, you, as the playwright, may go the limit, and the policeman on the sidewalk, outside the theatre, will touch his hat to you. However improper you are, you mean well and are simply working for moral good. All things considered, Mr. Hobart has been rather niggardly to the Tired Business Man, who would probably have liked to see a good deal more of the lady called Passion than the one brief scene in which she figures. As for Mr. Hobart’s Pleasure, she might have been called Respectability. There is a certain amount of good knock-about vice in the House of Last Resort, but nothing to bring a blush to the baldest head, and, all in all, Mr. Hobart may be said to have rather slipped one over on the t. b. m.
But, if Mr. Hobart has failed him, M. Brieux has not. In “Maternity” he achieves the limit, and then not a little. But here again Mr. Comstock will find himself handicapped. You cannot shriek the charge of immorality at Brieux unless you are prepared to deal singly and seriatim with every highbrow in the land, for Brieux is Serious and Educational, and only crashes through thin ice because he feels that thin ice ought to be crashed through for the good of the nation.
Looking at it dispassionately, indeed, one comes to the conclusion that Mr. Comstock is a wise man to lie hid, and make no outcry against the present crop of plays. They are extremely blushful, but how is he to say so? If he attacks “Maternity,” Brieux raises his eyebrows, and says, “Has this man no desire to improve social conditions?” If he turns on “Polygamy,” Mr. O’Higgins looks pityingly at Miss Ford, as who should exclaim: “This poor person is apparently unaware that we are Opening The Eyes Of America to an Awful State Of Things.” If he objects to certain incidents in “Experience,” Mr. Hobart silently directs his attention to the abstract names of his characters. The only play he can really assault without putting himself in a false position is “The Song of Songs,” and Miss Fenwick is so charming that he would hardly have the heart to do that.
BUT the fact remains that he ought to do something, and that soon. Did you hear what Mr. Billy Sunday has been saying about us? Here are his exact words: “There’s rotten, stinking, corroding, corrupt, hell-ridden, God-defying, devil-ridden New York. God will get it in his own good time.” It must have been the theatres which gave Mr. Sunday that idea, for what there is corroding and devil-ridden in the ordinary life of the city cannot be discovered. New York is a most respectable place, full of nice old gentlemen dancing the maxixe in restaurants, and crowds of lovely girls flocking to see the “Perils of Pauline” at the moving-picture houses, and fair women and brave men drinking ice-cream sodas in drug-stores and innocent-hearted-commuters sprinting to make the five-fifteen for Kew Gardens. There is not a bit of harm in New York, but the place is getting a bad name simply because these powerful dramatists try to make out that all men are villains and all women are either villainesses, or Women Who Have Been Wronged.
Mr. Comstock must act, and at once.
There is still time. In this morning’s papers there was a headline:
BILLY SUNDAY CANNOT SAVE NEW YORK
TILL THE FALL
That gives us a few months more in which to put our house in order, but every moment is precious. We must rout out Mr. Comstock at once.
Boy, page Mr. Comstock.