Vanity Fair, February 1917
PROBABLY THE BEGINNING OF AN EPIDEMIC
A Prediction That Bayard Veiller’s Latest Play Will Soon Be Followed by a Swarm of Imitations
By P. G. Wodehouse
I AM like Mr. W. W. Jacobs’ Night Watchman: it is very hard to deceive me: and long before the first act of “The Thirteenth Chair” was over I had discovered who was the murderer of Edward Wales. Unfortunately it became obvious a few moments later that I had picked the wrong man, so I got my deductive reasoning powers unlimbered again and had another shot. I was just building up a damning case against the latest suspect, when something happened to make me switch once more. After a while, having arrested nearly every character in the play on suspicion, I decided to sit back and let Mr. Bayard Veiller unravel the mystery for himself.
THE trouble is that there is really nobody in the cast who could not have committed the murder. It is an amazing thing that in an ordinary, peaceable dinner-party in good society there should prove to be, on investigation, so many potential assassins. It gives one an appalling insight into the risks we run in our daily life, and if ever I dine out again without my suit of gents’ steel-mesh underwear beneath my shirt it will be because Meadowes, my man, has been bally slacker enough to forget to put it out. The moral of “The Thirteenth Chair” is that nowadays you can’t take too many precautions. Consider for a moment the cast of the play. During the course of the evening one is forced to suspect the father and mother of the hero, the hero himself, three male friends of the hero, four female guests, the butler, and the medium who conducts the séance at which the murder occurs. The only reason why one does not include the heroine in the list—as does the police officer who carries on the investigation—is that she is slight of build and probably had not sufficient muscle to drive a knife through a gentleman’s back. It has come to this, then, in these so-called civilized times, that unless you have your guests searched on entering the house and compel them to leave their knives, guns, and blackjacks to be checked in the cloak-room, it is practically courting disaster to invite any but frail invalids to drop in and have a quiet chop and French fried with you at the ancestral home. One sighs for the dear old peaceful days of the Borgias.
“THE Thirteenth Chair” has hit New York like a shell. It is the one thing in which everybody is really interested. “Within The Law” becomes a tame and tepid thing by its side. The populace of this city has become divided into three classes,—the people who “knew right along,” the people who “simply couldn’t guess,” and the people who are trying to get seats at the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre and failing. There is no finer stimulant than a visit to “The Thirteenth Chair.” Well-fed lethargic men with red faces and three-storied chins go there and do the first thinking they have done since they came out of college. Happy theatre-parties, occupying an entire row of the orchestra chairs, shriek solutions and surmises at one another down the line from nine o’clock till eleven,—to the acute delight of their neighbors. All over the house excited perons are yapping like terriers on the trail of a rat, and a pleasant murmur of “That’s the man!”, “I know who did it now!”, and “I see who it was!” blends entertainingly with the voices on the stage.
It is astonishing that nobody has done a play on these lines before. There is no type of story more popular than that in which the reader has to watch events unfold from the position of the detective and is kept in the dark till the detective is able to slip him what is technically known as “the info’ ”: but “The Thirteenth Chair” is the first play constructed on similar lines. But not the last! By this time every able-bodied male in the country who is in possession of his faculties, a typewriter, and a sufficient supply of white paper is already half-way through Act One of a more or less close imitation; and along about next August nothing else but mystery plays will be visible in New York. But it is to be doubted whether any of them will top Mr. Veiller’s effort. It is partly the masterly construction of “The Thirteenth Chair” that gives it its appeal, and partly the excellent acting.
IN an admirable cast, in which even the small-part actors or bit-hounds comport themselves like stars, Margaret Wycherly and Harrison Hunter stand out like—like anything you can think of that does stand out a good deal. To give the rôle of Tim Donahue, the police superintendent, to Harrison Hunter was a stroke of absolute genius for which, I fancy, the management rather than the author are entitled to credit. When one remembers “Within the Law” and takes into consideration the name Tim Donahue, one can assert with a fair measure of confidence that Mr. Veiller imagined this policeman of his as a cigar-chewing, derby-hatted, Say!-saying rough-neck. To make him a polished gentleman by the simple expedient of giving the part to Harrison Hunter was, as I say, genius. It lifts the whole second act. Mr. Hunter is one of the finest actors on the stage, and in a part like this incomparable. He can convey brutal strength and geniality simultaneously with an inflection of the voice. If after this any management attempts to ring in on me a policeman who addresses a suspect in a hoarse voice as “Say, youse!” and wears his hat in the drawing-room, I shall demand my money back. Margaret Wycherly, as Rosalie La Grange, the medium, is superb. There is no other word for her performance.
THE method of this magazine with me, in my capacity of dramatic critic, is as follows: The editor holds me on a leash till about the end of the month and then he suddenly sicks me on with a whoop, and I sprint from theatre to theatre like a mustang of the prairie. In this way I am enabled to record my impressions of an occasional play which is still running when my article appears: for in these rapid times, with farces, comedies, and dramas turning blue on you with almost inconceivable speed, it is no good starting in too early to review plays for a monthly magazine. The result is that the old bean is apt to become a trifle scrambled, and the drawback to a real play like “The Thirteenth Chair,” is that the memory of it lingers and interferes with one’s appreciation of other and weaker plays.
THE fact that I saw it immediately after my visit to the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre may have led me to imagine “The Little Lady In Blue” a feebler thing than it really is. But even now, writing in the comparative calm of a few days after, I can not see much in it. There is charm of a quiet kind, and A. G. Andrews is excellent in the only act in which the plot permits him to appear: but Frances Starr has been better in other rôles than that of Anne Churchill, the girl who sets out to sirenize the hero and ends by reforming him. The play is by the authors of “Grumpy,” of blessed memory, but I doubt if it will be another “Grumpy.” I can not see Miss Starr playing the rôle of Anne Churchill a thousand times. At least, I should not like to.
ANOTHER weak but fairly amusing
play is “Mile-a-Minute Kendall,” at the Lyceum. This is by
Owen Davis, and is a more or less distant echo of his “Sinners.” It deals with the familiar
reformation by pure air and purer society of the well-known young Broadway rounder who has never
yet succeeded in escaping the better life, once he allowed the author to shanghai him into (Continued on page 112)
(Continued from page 49)
the mosquito of the parts beyond the city nails its victim with a more certain touch than does “Repentance” in the same neighborhood. A whiff of wholesome air of the country was enough to reform Muggs and Gilly in “Turn to the Right,” and it has the same effect on Mr. Davis’ Jack Kendall. If adventuresses had an ounce of sense in their peroxided heads, they would refuse to allow their Jack Kendalls to motor them further out than the Claremont.
AT the Astor, “Bunker Bean” has been succeeded by a susurration of stars in a musical comedy entitled “Her Soldier Boy.” Coming to New York with a sinister record of failure in Boston and other outlying hamlets, it landed in the metropolis with an apparent bang, and now wears a prosperous look. It has the enormous advantage of having the services of Clifton Crawford and Adele Rowland at its disposal, and these two supply enough comedy to keep a worse piece anchored on Broadway. Clifton Crawford wrote the songs he sings, and wrote them well. John Charles Thomas sings as finely as ever, and for the first time comes pretty near to acting. Should the piece collapse unexpectedly, in spite of good first-night notices, it will be because of its Prologue, as tedious a bit of work as ever swatted an inoffensive public with a dull thud. The management ought to supply anæsthetics with that “Mother” song.
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