Vanity Fair, November 1916
GLADNESS UNDER DIFFICULTIES
The Current Drama Is Suffering From Too Much Sweetness and Light
By P. G. Wodehouse
ELEANOR H. PORTER is right. There is always something to be glad about. However poor, for instance, the modern crop of plays may be, the acting is excellent. A determined spectator, if he tries hard, can derive a measure of consolation from this. But what actors have to be glad about under present conditions would baffle Pollyanna herself. Playwriting, except when done by Winchell Smith, Guy Bolton, and George M. Cohan, seems to have become a lost art. Dramatists of today are too proud to work. When they have a central idea and about enough material to fill out an act and a half, they knock off and let the thing go. One of these days some enterprising manager will buy a couple of four-act comedies, cut each of them down to two acts, and give the public a satisfying evening’s entertainment by running the result in a single night. Such a pioneer might have made a good start with “Mister Antonio” and “Nothing But The Truth.” It is absurd to try and hold an audience with either of these tenuous productions in their present form. In both cases the first act goes like a breeze, and after that the plays droop and droop till they waddle past the finishing-post so exhausted they can barely finish the course.
WHAT is there in “Mister Antonio?” A good-hearted Italian organ-grinder who finds the mayor of a country town in self-made difficulties in New York, helps him out, meets him again the country, makes up his mind to denounce him because of his harsh treatment of the hired girl, and then decides to let him off. All the action that does not take place in the Third Avenue saloon would fit nicely into one act. The last three acts of the piece, as it is played at the Lyceum, have the same scene and cover a single Sunday afternoon. Nothing happens except a melodramatic and quite ridiculous attempt on the part of the mayor to murder Antonio. It is as if Booth Tarkington had tried to make a novel instead of a short story out of the tar-fight incident in “Penrod.” That is the worst of the theater. It seems to rob a writer of his artistic sense of responsibility. Mr. Tarkington would never have allowed anything so weak as “Mister Antonio” to appear under his name in a magazine.
“NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH,” though William Collier will probably make a moderate success of it by sheer force of personality, is a poor thing to be charging two dollars a seat for. The central idea is not only old—Charles Hawtrey put on a play in London a few years ago called “The Naked Truth” with exactly the same theme—but it has the more serious defect that it makes for monotony. As in the case of “Mister Antonio,” the first act is a gem. There is really nothing to add to it. Everything that happens afterwards is merely a repetition of the closing moments of Act I, where Robert Bennett, having wagered ten thousand dollars that he will speak nothing but the truth for twenty-four hours, is obliged by the terms of the bet to denounce his partner’s quick-silver mine as a fraud to an enquirer who is on the verge of investing heavily in it. Long before the end of Act II the humor of Bennett’s position has petered out, and Act III is like cold mutton. A comic central idea is not enough to make a good farce, though no farce-writer except Avery Hopwood seems to be aware of it.
THE interest of “Mister Antonio” and “Nothing But The Truth” lies almost entirely in the acting: and Otis Skinner and William Collier are so good that they hold their audiences for nearly two-thirds of the journey. Otis Skinner has seldom been better than in the character of Antonio Camaradonio. It fits him—or he fits it—like the paper on the wall. He has nothing to do but stand there and talk broken English, but his voice is so musical and his light-heartedness so unforced that it is a pleasure—for quite a long time—to listen to him. John McCabe and Agnes Marc are very good indeed in the first act, but they then disappear from the play and their places are taken by uninteresting small-town types.
THERE is no one on the stage except Patricia Collinge who could have kept me in my seat for four acts of “Pollyanna.” And she is not even featured on the programme. The least the management could have done would have been to bill the play as “Pollyanna”—but with Patricia Collinge to make it endurable. Whenever she is off the stage one’s eyes wander to that cheering notice at the top of the programme—“This theater can be emptied in less than three minutes. Look around now, choose the nearest exit to your seat, and walk (do not run) to that exit.” It is something to be glad about, that. Only three minutes between you and the open air. Only three minutes between you and the good old streets full of grouches and pessimists and people who scowl at you if you look at them. One and a half, if you ignore the notice and run.
With the exception of one gripping scene early in the second act, in which Miss Collinge is at the top of her form, “Pollyanna” is a weak little show. Doctors tell us that we require a certain amount of sugar in our systems, but it is trying to have to absorb it in great chunks. Not since “Little Lord Fauntleroy” has there been such an uncompromisingly saccharine play. Optimism is a condiment, not a fluid. It should flavor our outlook on life. An aggressive optimist is a menace to the community. He breeds bitter thoughts in his fellows. But there is another thing to be glad about in connection with “Pollyanna.” A new Winter Garden revue is in preparation, so we shall probably have an opportunity of seeing George Munroe in the part. Charming as Miss Collinge is, George Munroe is what the play really wants. His kittenish style would fit the role of the little ray of sunshine to perfection. And how much more dramatic if Pollyanna, instead of being carried on by the chauffeur after the motor accident, were to be wheeled on in a truck.
THE best of the second installment of fall plays is undoubtedly “Mr. Lazarus,” the latest work of Harvey O’Higgins and Harriet Ford. It suffers from being put on at the Shubert, a theater much too large for it, but even in a house built for large musical productions its gentle charm reaches the audience. It has only one defect, that it is over too soon after its most interesting point. The authors have merely hinted at instead of elaborating a humorous situation which they could have handled so well.
IF they could have put the exit of Doctor Sylvester and the re-installation of Mr. Lazarus as the husband—say at the end of the second act instead of the third and then given us two acts of the latter’s disillusionment, the play would have been one of those satisfying productions which we could revisit half a dozen times. What there is of it is so good that we want more. There is a charm about “Mr. Lazarus” which no other play this season, except “Turn To The Right,” has possessed. There is atmosphere. The lodging-house is a real lodging-house, and the six characters in the piece real living people. Much of this success is due to the authors, who have done a good and workmanlike task, but they have been fortunate beyond the usual luck of dramatists in their cast. “Mr. Lazarus” is the best-acted play in town. Henry E. Dixey, returning to the stage after long absence, is perfect in the title role. But after all, nothing less than perfection is what we have been educated to expect from Mr. Dixey.
THE surprise of “Mr. Lazarus” is the acting of Eva LeGallienne and Tom Powers. I am not fond as a rule of young artists on the stage. They are usually so infernally breezy. Tom Powers is so exactly right that it is a treat to watch him. Eva LeGallienne was almost equally good in the kind of part which Mary Ryan played so well in “The Fortune Hunter.” She was so good in a totally different role in “The Melody of Youth” that it is manifest that she knows her job and has a big future before her. “Mr. Lazarus” will run for many months if it is transferred to a smaller theater. Even in the vastness of the Shubert it ought to succeed quite satisfactorily. It is the only play of the latest batch with real stuff in it.
Eleanor H. Porter: American novelist (1868–1920) best known for her Pollyanna books. (The dramatization under review was by Catherine Chisholm Cushing.)