Vanity Fair, March 1916
RECENT STAGE MARRIAGES
And the Awful Fate of Certain Theatrical Heroines
By P. G. Wodehouse
BROODING, as I do, almost incessantly on the boneheadedness of the human species, I have often wondered—like many another deep thinker—why on earth some women marry some men. Even nowadays with our greatly improved facilities for divorce, marriage is a serious step. It involves all the expense and worry of engaging lawyers, finding out how the trains run to Nevada, and living out West for six months—thus getting out of touch with New York life and probably missing many important social functions. And yet, despite these obvious facts, you see delightful girls plunging into matrimony with small men who own horn-rimmed spectacles and irritating voices, or uniting themselves to bores who must inevitably reduce their nerves to a complicated wreck in the course of a few weeks. Why is it? It happens every day—not only in real life, but on the stage.
THERE is that grim tragedy of Barrie’s, for instance, “The Little Minister,” which Maude Adams has just brought back to New York. There is something Greek about the relentlessness with which Lady Babbie is driven to her doom. She is like one of those characters in Euripides who, deprived by some unkind god of their pure reason, clean up the family with a meat-axe while in a state of insanity; and then come to their senses—too late—to realize what has happened. Lady Babbie’s relations with Gavin Dishart gave me just the same feeling which I used to have in the dear old days when I had not forgotten the Greek alphabet and could revel (with the aid of a crib) in those grand masterpieces of a bygone age. Gavin Dishart may not have worn horn spectacles nor had an irritating voice, but his warmest friend could not deny that he was what is known in the breezy vernacular of Gotham as an awful pill. He was just the sort of man who would madden a light-hearted and high-spirited girl. Most of Barrie’s heroes are like that. And yet Lady Babbie, a perfectly charming creature, goes out of her way to get him. If he strolls in the woods, she follows him, If he stays at home, she comes and looks in at the window. She courts her fate. And the final horrible scene, almost too painful for the stage, shows them going into the manse together. For the rest of her life that unhappy woman has got to live in that two-by-four shack, completely surrounded by sermons, mothers’ meetings, wee free kirks, elders, and that atmosphere of black clothes and incessant prayer which is peculiar to Bonnie Scotland.
Why did she do it? If I seem to be taking the thing too much to heart, it is because Miss Adams’s Lady Babbie made so deep an impression on me. She is all lightness and charm. She had no business in Scotland at all. She ought to have been in London, the reigning toast of the bucks or beaux or whatever the tired business man called himself in those days. It was cruelty to confront her with the choice between Gavin Dishart and Captain Halliwell, the only two eligible men in the play.
ONE of the chief lessons we lean from “The Little Minister”—or, rather, relearn—is the value of the male quartet. It has been demonstrated over and over again on the stage that you have only to bring on a male quartet to lift the whole show. What “The Little Minister” would be without the four elders one dare not think. In the third act they are not on at all and the piece almost dies the death. There are two tall elders, played by David Torrence and Charles Gay, and two small elders, played by Wallace Jackson and Peyton Carter, and their act is a scream from start to finish. But they ought to have a musical number or two. All the acting is good. Angela Ogden, as Jean, has only about two lines, but they are the best in the play, and she gets big laughs with them.
I wish Maude Adams would appear in something new. “The Little Minister” is all very well in its way, but after all it was one of the two plays which Noah took with him into the Ark, and it is pretty thin stuff for these spacious days of the drama. Miss Adams is the Jess Willard of the stage. She won the championship, and now seems disinclined to risk her title by tackling any of the comers.
REVERTING to the subject of peculiar marriages, we have another striking example in the union of Barnaby Dreary and Juliet Miller (Erstwhile Susan). It is true that Marian de Forest, who wrote the play “Erstwhile Susan” from Helen R. Martin’s novel, “Barnabetta,” puts an explanation of the affair into Juliet’s mouth; but even Mrs. Fiske cannot make it seem plausible. It is only too obvious that Juliet married Barnaby in order to provide a play for Mrs. Fiske. For doing so she earns our gratitude. The play may not be the last word in plays, though its atmosphere is always interesting; but the part of Juliet Miller is tremendous. It is Mrs. Fiske at her very best.
Juliet is an elocution teacher from Cedar Centres, Iowa. She eloped from her home town by herself because, on the day on which they were to have been married, her fiancé, a drug-store clerk, eloped with one Birdie Beverly. Rather than remain to be pitied and laughed at, she traveled far from Iowa to Reinhartz Station in Pennsylvania, the center of the Pennsylvania Dutch colony. She answered a matrimonial advertisement from Barnaby Dreary, the local tinsmith, married him, and brought into his home so much sweetness and light that it must have been a happy moment for the latter when he found himself falling off the Methodist church and realized that he was going to break his neck.
The play is practically a monologue for Mrs. Fiske—as, in my opinion, a Mrs. Fiske play ought to be. But there are a few opportunities for the rest of the cast, and of what material they have make the most. John Cope, as Barnaby, is particularly excellent. In some weird way he manages to impart a certain loveableness to a character whose sole idea of an indoor sport, with which to while away the long winter evenings, was to hammer the stuffing out of his only daughter with a horsewhip. Somehow Mr. Cope conveyed the impression that, apart from this eccentricity, Barnaby Dreary was not such a bad sort of fellow, once you got to know him. Owen Meech and John Daly Murphy were very good as Emanuel Dreary and Abel Buchter.
THE marriage of Marjorie Caner and Anthony Quintard, in “The Cinderella Man,” is more conventional. Everyone who follows the drama knows by this time that a young genius has only to sit and starve in his garret long enough in order to attract the daughter of a millionaire. It was particularly easy for Anthony in this instance, for his window opened on a strip of roof which was bounded on the other side by Mr. Caner’s mansion, thus rendering it simple for Marjorie to pass to and fro with baskets of food and pink quilts and the other little comforts which make all the difference to a man who is writing the libretto of an opera.
I know I am a low-browed brute with a heart like a chunk of armor-plating, but it is too late to help that now and I may as well admit that the fruity sweetness of “The Cinderella Man” did not extract a single tear from my star-likes. The critics of the morning papers seem to have melted completely—so much so that it cannot have been safe for anyone with a tendency to rheumatism to have been at the theater during the opening performance. I thought Edward Childs Carpenter overdid it. He sweetened the thing up too much. I regretted that Lucille La Verne (excellent as the landlady) appeared so seldom with her dry, vicious manner to act as a corrective.
ONE of two forms of treatment are, in my opinion, indicated for “The Cinderella Man.” Either it should be cut with the biggest blue pencil that can be purchased in New York—the excision of an entire act would not hurt it; or the part of Marjorie Caner should be re-written and thoroughly Billie Burked. Miss Phoebe Foster is everything that is sweet and charming, but it was a mistake to make the heroine sweet and charming. She should have been on the lines of Billie Burke in “Jerry”—wilful and riotous and burning with the whole strength of her maidenly soul to start something and put it over with a punch. When the landlady catches Marjorie and Anthony together—as her habit of strolling into Anthony’s room whenever the mood seized her made it inevitable that she would sooner or later—it should have been Marjorie who routed her with a few hot ones learned at the finishing school. As it is, Marjorie merely crouches in dumb misery, leaving Anthony to do the talking. The result is that one comes away from the theater with the sense of having missed something.