Vanity Fair, June 1916
DRAMA, MELODRAMA AND TRAGEDY
The Final Offerings of the Season Reveal a Pleasing Variety
By P. G. Wodehouse
THE celebration of the tercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare has had many lamentable results. There has been much talk, much publishing of Shakespeareana, much reminiscence. We have had to put up with pages of “Famous Rosalinds” in our Sunday paper’s photographic section where we would fain have seen the latest portrait of Miss Olive Thomas or Miss Kay Laurell. At every corner, bandits have lain in wait for us, trying to separate us from our hard-earned money in return for tickets of admission to Shakespeare Dances, Shakespeare Bazaars, and Shakespeare Amateur Readings. It has been, in short, a reign of terror. But the worst result of the tercentenary has been its effect on Mr. Augustus Thomas. Maddened by too much Shakespeare, the Dean of the American Stage has run amuck.
Hitherto one had always looked on Mr. Thomas as an ordinary, law-abiding citizen. He invented his own plots, devised his own characters, wrote his own plays. He was blameless and respectable. Then, unfortunately, along came all this fuss about Shakespeare. Mr. Thomas succumbed. “What’s the use?” he moaned. “Here is this fellow, Shakespeare, better known in Elizabethan times as Willie the Boy Plot-Borrower—a man who never invented the story of a single one of his plays but just went out and rewrote the first thing he saw—and look at him now!” And he started to write “Rio Grande,” the most astounding bit of literary second-story work since the Bard of Avon worked his way into the house of Brooke, author of “Romeus and Juliet,” and made his getaway.
The critics of the daily papers did not detect it, but to a well-read person like myself it was obvious almost from the rise of the curtain that “Rio Grande” was a dramatization of Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “The Orderly.” Hands up, Augustus, and drop that sack. We have you, with the goods.
THE story of “Rio Grande” treats of an elderly colonel who has married the young daughter of a dead brother-colonel. The wife has an infatuation for a lieutenant, and they are seen together on an island by the colonel’s orderly. With this knowledge to back him up, the orderly makes improper overtures to the colonel’s wife. The colonel’s wife writes a letter to her husband, telling all, and tries to drown herself. The colonel reads the letter, sends for the orderly, and traps him into an admission of his own guilt by demanding the name of his wife’s lover. “Lieutenant Ellsworth,” says the orderly, whereupon the colonel shoots him.
The story of “The Orderly” is identical, except for the fact that de Maupassant starts the action with the return of the colonel from his wife’s funeral, thus avoiding the difficulty which Mr. Thomas does not avoid. At the end of “Rio Grande,” when Colonel Wolcott shoots Bill Hecht and, clasping his wife in his arms, says “Well, that’s that!” or words to that effect, and embraces her as the curtain falls, the stunned audience is asking itself, “What on earth happens now?”
I know little of the ways of the Army, but I take it that a colonel who killed his orderly would have to give some explanation of his act, and the only explanation which Colonel Wolcott could give would start such a scandal that life would not be worth living either for himself or Mrs. Wolcott. If he refused to give any explanation at all, which would be the only way of avoiding the scandal, he would presumably he either sent to the electric chair or to a lunatic asylum for life. Mr. Thomas brings his curtain down for the last time on this situation of dramatic suspense, as if he imagined that he had wound everything up neatly and achieved a happy end.
If Mr. Thomas resembles Shakespeare in the matter of plot-appropriations, he resembles him in a more laudable respect also: for, like the immortal one, he is certainly a master of construction. He can build a play almost faultlessly. In spite of my familiarity with the story, I never ceased to be gripped by “Rio Grande.” There is something doing all the time. The piece may not be, as the program alleges, “a new American play by Augustus Thomas,” but it is indubitably a hummer: and it is acted by a fine cast, headed by Richard Bennett, who has seldom done anything better than his Colonel Wolcott. Robert McWade scores every time he speaks, as a grouchy major with elephantiasis of the sense of duty. Amelia Gardner, as his wife; Lola Fisher, as Mrs. Wolcott; Calvin Thomas, as the lieutenant, and Frank Campeau, as the orderly, were all excellent. Barry Lupino of the Winter Garden himself would not have been ashamed of the back-fall which Mr. Campeau executes when shot by the colonel.
FREED from the distressing environment of “Pay-Day,” Irene Fenwick returns to the Booth Theater in “The Co-Respondent,” by Alice Leal Pollock and Rita Weiman, a star in her own right with her name above the title of the play instead of underneath it, as heretofore. Miss Fenwick is always so easy to look at and to listen to that a play with her in it would have to he very poor not to succeed: and “The Co-Respondent” is not only good but has the happy quality of getting better and better as it goes along, the last act being the best of the four. Which of the collaborators attended to the construction of the piece, I do not know, but, by my halidom, she has made a good job of it. It is as neat a bit of work as ever I did see, with fresh difficulties cropping up every time a solution seems in sight.
The central idea is admirable. Anne Gray has met the millionaire, Langdon van Creel, who has posed to her as “Robert Gordon,” at the Junction House in a Middle West town, where he has arranged that they shall be married—or, rather, go through a false marriage ceremony, for he has a wife already. He has written the names “Mr. and Mrs. Gordon” in the register, and the ceremony is just beginning when in burst two detectives who have been tracking van Creel at his wife’s instigation in order to get evidence for a divorce. Anne rushes from the room, and catches the train for New York, which has been snorting and whistling in a most life-like way offstage throughout the act.
Act Two. A newspaper office in New York. Anne, now a reporter, is engaged to the managing editor. Mrs. van Creel has started divorce proceedings against her husband, and Anne is sent to get a beat for the paper by finding out the name of the co-respondent, which, of course, is Anne Gray. From that point on to the end the action never halts. It does not even hesitate.
Apart from Miss Fenwick, who is perfect, the honors of the acting are carried off by Harrison Hunter and Norman Trevor. As the millionaire, Mr. Hunter was so exactly right that it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the part. Miss Marie Chambers was always good as Mrs. van Creel, and one of the biggest hits of the evening was made by Miss Suzanne Willa in a three-minute role as an actress who calls at the newspaper office to reason with the dramatic critic. If I were offering a rich reward for the best bit of character acting of the season, Miss Willa would win it. She came on with no advance advertising from any of the other persons in the play, having nothing to do with the story, and, after speaking, at the outside, twenty lines, made her exit, to the accompaniment of applause from all parts of the house, having created a real, living character. This I submit, is going some.
OF course it is obvious that a prison play has a topical interest for Americans at the present moment, but, even had Thomas Mott Osborne never had his name in the papers, I am inclined to think that Broadway would have welcomed “Justice.” Mr. Galsworthy’s tragedy is not so much a play as a surgical operation. You come out of the theater with your complacency and self-satisfaction neatly removed, feeling that you were wrong in supposing yourself a pretty good sort of fellow, for if you were a pretty good sort of fellow you would spend a great deal more of your time trying to alleviate some of the suffering in the world. “Justice” is unique. It tears your heart-strings. It takes your soul and plays football with it. Yet what is it but a paragraph at the bottom of a back page of any morning paper?
“Central Criminal Court. Before Mr. Justice Floyd and a jury, William Falder (23) was found guilty of forging a cheque. His lordship found himself unable to admit the plea of extenuating circumstances, and sentenced him to three years penal servitude.”
That was all the publicity that William Falder ever got till Galsworthy thought of going a little deeper into the matter.
It is superfluous to say that “Justice” is well acted. It would not be playing to crowded houses, if it were not. The writing of the piece may be equivalent to a three-base hit, but it rests with the actors to bring the runner home. There is not a part at the Candler Theater which is not magnificently acted. John Barrymore was a revelation. He was as indisputably William Falder as O. P. Heggie was Robert Cokeson. I understand that John Williams produced the piece on his own hook. If so he looms large as one of the likeliest producers of the future. The play was perfectly put on by B. Iden Payne, and ought to run forever.