Vanity Fair, November 1917
Dishing Up Fiction in Play Form
A Crime That Should be Prevented by Law
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
BROODING, as I do almost incessantly over the boneheadedness of the human race and the miseries resulting therefrom, I have come to the conclusion that much trouble might be averted if the Legislature only had the sense to pass a law forbidding the dishing-up of printed fiction in play-form.
That is what the American Drama needs, to give it a new lease of life. I would make a few exceptions, of course. I would permit, for instance, such dramatizations as that of “Piccadilly Jim”—not only because it is impossible for such a story to have too wide a vogue, but principally because the author, a thoroughly worthy fellow, happens to be furnishing a new apartment at a moment when there is an insistent demand on the part of his family for a new car.
This would fall into a special class.
But the dramatization of other people’s novels should be put down with a firm hand. If a playwright is incapable of thinking up a plot for himself, he should admit it like a man and return to punching the time-clock at the factory.
It was about a year ago that all except two or three of the current insults to the nation’s intelligence were dramatized novels. It is not quite so bad as that this season, but still, three were recently produced in one week, which is treating the public pretty roughly. “The Masquerader,” “De Luxe Annie,” and “This Way Out” were the trio, and no doubt there are more to come. Indeed, “A Scrap of Paper” has already arrived, and pessimists predict others shortly.
“DE LUXE ANNIE” is a good example of the evils of the system. In its original form—it was a short story, not a novel, by the way—it was a gem. It is rarely that one remembers a weekly paper short story for more than a few hours after its perusal, but this one of Scammon Lockwood’s had that in it which caused it to take its place among the few short stories which one does not forget. While not wholly agreeing with the indignant critic of an evening paper who called the play “trash so impossible that it defies comment,” I do think that the assassin hired to murder an artistic little story made a good job of it. “This Way Out,” which Frank Craven extracted from a novelette in Munsey’s Magazine, was bad because the original story was bad. I hurl this passing brick at Mr. Craven in a spirit of pained disappointment. Everyone knows he can write a good play on his own account, if he takes the trouble; so why should he bother with other men’s ideas?
A few weeks ago, the Swedes, always busy at something or other,—when they are not sending underground messages to Germany they are forgetting to send the ice up on the dumb-waiter—exhumed the corpse of the late Charles the Twelfth. It was an unnecessary thing to do, but who are we to criticize, when we sit by and let somebody dramatize “The Masquerader,” a best-seller of ten years ago? Poor old Charles may be a bit deader than a dead best-seller, but not much. Besides, as a basis for drama, I hold that “doubles” ought to be as rigidly barred by all right-thinking workers as are eccentric wills. If you are going to allow our slack dramatists to inform you that Bill Jones looks so like Jim Smith that the latter’s wife can’t recognize him and get away with it, you are putting an irresistible temptation in their path. You have no conception how these boys hate work. It is fatal to let them use the easiest way.
There being no male Dolly Sisters in the profession, the only way of handling a “double” play is to have your leading actor tackle both parts; and, believe me, the spectacle of an earnest histrion jumping about the stage and carrying on a snappy duologue with himself is nothing approaching the normal man’s idea of a large evening. James J. Morton used to do this sort of thing well, but I have never seen it properly worked since,—except one night during the road tour of “Oh, Boy!” when Marion Davies was unable to appear and Justine Johnson played her part as well as her own, the effect being almost painfully exhilarating. In “The Masquerader,” Guy Bates Post, an admirable actor worthy of a better fate, has this thankless job wished on him. Louis Sherwin holds that the piece should have been played as farce, and I am inclined to agree with him. A comic morphine-lizard would at least have had the merit of being a novelty.
“A Scrap of Paper,” dramatized from Arthur Somers Roche’s novel, is one of those plays where the ruthless millionaire, who has been perfectly happy all his life grinding the face of the public and clubbing the stuffing out of the widow and orphan, is chump enough to let his sick child chat with him on the subject of the Golden Rule, with the inevitable result. If I were a steely-souled millionaire with half-a-dozen shady deals on hand, I would forbid my ailing child to speak to me. And, being one of those hardy souls for whom the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has no horrors, I would threaten, if she wasn’t good, to take her to see “The Country Cousin.”
THIS brings us to another necessary reform. I am sorry, but novelists must not be allowed to write plays. Here we have Booth Tarkington and Julian Street, two of our best writers of fiction, going all astray by attempting the play form. I have no idea how the collaborating was done, but, from knowledge of Mr. Tarkington’s previous stage-efforts, I should say that Mr. Street was more sinned against than sinning. There are few more able exponents of fiction than Julian Street. And, for that matter, Booth Tarkington swings a by no means un-wicked pen. But we all know that when the latter writes plays he becomes a changed man. As witness “Mister Antonio” with its absurd melodramatic twist. There is no melodrama in “The Country Cousin,” but there is an intolerable deal of bad character-drawing, as there was in “The Man From Home,” a warmed-up version of which this play is. “The Man From Home,” however, had two advantages. Its villains were English aristocrats, who for stage purposes may stoop to any depths, and its central figure was Mr. William Hodge. Between the imperturbable good-humor of Mr. Hodge and the acidity of Nancy Price there is a wide gulf. And, while it is well known that an English lord is a despicable worm compared to a middle-Westerner, it has never been proved that New Yorkers are not at least part-human. And the theory by which “The Country Cousin” stands or falls is that New Yorkers are beyond the pale, while the denizens of Ohio have to have their gents’ suitings cut loose about the shoulders to leave room for the wings. Also, that Ohio is God’s own state. Personally, this would go a lot stronger with me if I hadn’t spent a week in Cleveland last Spring.
And now let us turn to brighter things. James, remove the hammer and dust off the horn. There are, at any rate, two plays in town which are a treat to see, two dramas which it is a pleasure to witness, two comedies which it is a delight to observe. I refer to “A Tailor-Made Man” at the Cohan and Harris and “Polly With A Past” at the Belasco, the one featuring Grant Mitchell, the other Ina Claire, the one the work of Harry J. Smith, author of “Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh,” the other by George Middleton and Guy Bolton.
I have sometimes, in the course of our musical-comedy partnership, been a little uneasy as to how Guy Bolton occupied his spare time. The town is full of temptations for a young man, and it has frequently happened that we have knocked off work as early as eleven p. m., just when all the glitter and wood-paving and subway evacuations and smell of escaping gas and all that makes Broadway so dangerously attractive is at its height. It is a relief to find that at these moments he was well employed in collaborating on the daintiest comedy of the season. Even without the Belasco touch, “Polly” would have been a success: with it, and played by a wonderful cast, it is a riot, and should run as long as “The Boomerang.” It has the great advantage of getting better and better as the evening progresses, the third act being the strongest of the three, with situations punctuated with the best dialogue of any comedy of recent years. And Ina Claire is immense.
IT is a pity that it should have been anticipated by a rather widely-read story called “Skinner’s Dress-Suit,” based on almost identically the same idea: but, even with this handicap, there is no resisting “A Tailor-Made Man,” in which Grant Mitchell appears to even more advantage than he did in “It Pays to Advertise.” As a matter of fact, the play is a little reminiscent in other ways. It belongs to the type which may be roughly termed the “telegram-opening” play,—that is to say the kind of play where the hero, having achieved a responsible position either by accident or bluff, sits at his desk and tears open telegrams which bring him news of still further success. “Hit-the-Trail Holliday” was such a play, and so was “It Pays to Advertise”; but the formula seems eternally entertaining provided the story is new, and “A Tailor-Made Man” certainly reaches its goal by a fresh path. The first act drags, perhaps, but the second is the best of its kind that has ever been seen. It is one quick-fire procession of punches, winding up with a tremendous curtain. It leaves you with the impression that the author cannot possibly maintain the pace and that all that follows must be anti-climactic. But Mr. Smith is equal to the task he has set himself, and the third act whizzes along in great style.
Printer’s error corrected above:
Magazine had “historian” where “histrion” appears above; Wodehouse several times uses this classical term for an actor, and it seems clear that he intended it here.