Vanity Fair, December 1915
SOME WOMEN—AND A LITTLE MUSIC
A Glance at Five of the Season’s New Plays
By P. G. Wodehouse
AS each dramatic season progresses, we generally find plays grouping themselves. Earlier in the year, everybody was writing about doctors. Now dramatists seem—possibly because of the intensity of the Suffrage movement—to be concentrating on Woman.
October was a busy month for Woman.
She had the spot-light thrown on her from every angle. We saw her chastened, unchastened, misunderstood, wronged, hustling in business, and putting in her spare time as a detective. Possibly because in this instance she was represented by Miss Elsie Janis, I think I prefer her as a detective.
Elsie Janis is the Sylvester Shaeffer of the legitimate stage. She can impersonate in a single evening anything from Cleopatra to a billiard-ball: and in “Miss Information,” the latest product of the super-heated brains of Messrs. Goddard and Dickey, she has every opportunity given her to do it.
There is something wonderfully true to life about her portrayal of the many-sided character of Dot, for, as is always the case with private detectives in real life, she looks more like herself with every new disguise she adopts. I wondered Jack Cadwalder did not recognize her. It was just one more example of the good old stage noblesse oblige, which forbids a gentleman to recognize the girl he loves if she shows, by putting on a different dress, that she is disguised.
“Miss Information” is one of those cheery, drivelling chunks of musical imbecility which we all despise and go to see a dozen times. I suppose technically it would be described as a “vehicle” for Miss Janis. It is all of that, though on second thought it is better described as a burden. Miss Janis holds it up by sheer force, and, when she dashes off to change her dress, the thing falls with a thud and wallows helplessly like a young puppy till she dashes on again and picks it up.
It starts out, almost with a swagger, as if it were going to have a plot, but long ere the first restorative has been consumed at the end of act one the poor weakling has perished. Even in this type of piece methinks I never did see such a frail ghost of a plot. I ask you, Goddard—and if you are too busy picturizing the adventures of Elaine, let Dickey reply—what on earth was all that stuff about the pearl necklace? Never mind, I knew you didn’t know. You simply wrote down any old thing and left the rest to Miss Janis? I thought so. Well, she was not unworthy of your confidence. Have you ever seen anything better than that Danse Eccentrique of hers? Nor have I. And Jerome Kern’s music was topping, wasn’t it.
EXHIBIT B. shows Woman in another mood—crushed, hounded, put upon—in a word, snootered: and not only during the action of the piece but before it opens. The only conventional thing that Jane Cowl, the heroine of “Common Clay,” did not do was to say “I am not a bad woman!” She had had little education in early life, so she missed that one. But she did say “I ca-an-n’t stand it! You are torturing muh!” which evened up the score.
There was one thing about “Common Clay” which puzzled me. Why should Ellen Neal’s mother have committed suicide? She was a mother, and, as Lew Fields used to say, she wore no wedding-ring. But why should suicide have been necessary to save the career of the man she loved? I fail to see why Judge Filson could not have gone on careering just as well with a mistress and an illegitimate child tucked away in the background as he had been doing for years with a mistress undiluted. It would have killed his big scene in act three dead, of course, but apart from that, why not?
The chief attraction of “Common Clay” is that one is privileged to see a cross-examining attorney get it right in the neck in mid-cross-examination. It ought to happen oftener in real life.
WOMAN, misunderstood, is featured in Alfred Sutro’s “The Two Virtues,” Exhibit C. on the list, though it is the only man who understands her who is the star of the play. There is a curious uncertainty about Mr. Sutro’s work. He often just misses the mark. In “The Two Virtues” he hits it full in the centre. It is the best-written, liveliest, most entertaining comedy that New York has seen for at least two years. From the rise of the curtain to its fall it is practically perfect. Every other line contains a genuine laugh, and in the scene where Lady Milligan is snubbing Mrs. Jervoise the laugh-meter registers a steady one per line. If this were the only good scene in the play, a visit to the Booth Theatre would be a necessity, and it is merely the best of a long succession of good scenes.
The story is simple, and perhaps not altogether new, but the handling of it is entirely novel. Jeffery Panton, a middle-aged bachelor who for some years has fancied that he still retains a romantic worship of the girl who threw him over a week before their wedding to marry a near-poet of the name of Jervoise, is visited by Mrs. Jervoise, who comes to please with him to save her husband from the clutches of Mrs. Guildford (Mr. Guildford proved non-existent). He takes on the job reluctantly, to find that Mrs. Guildford is extremely anxious to be saved from the clutches of Mr. Jervoise, who has developed a habit of calling on her every day to read his manuscript poems to her. A mutual passion for history leads eventually to their marriage, Lady Milligan, Panton’s sister, intervening. The play ends with the delightful hint that Mr. Jervoise is on the eve of finding a new soul-mate in the female detective who had been told off to watch his movements during the first two acts.
THE play deserved good acting, and got it. E. H. Sothern was exactly right as Panton, and, if Miss Charlotte Walker was a little too monotonous and depressed, she certainly gave Mrs. Guildford a charm without which the character would have been meaningless. To my mind, Mrs. Guildford was almost a Marie Tempest part. It was convincing enough as read by Miss Walker, though I feel sure that Mr. Sutro meant his misunderstood woman to have a touch of malicious humor in her composition.
Orlando Daly and Blanche Yurka were excellent in secondary parts, and Haidee Wright, as Lady Milligan, was wonderful. That small tired voice of hers was so perfect that it hardly needed the help of clever lines to make it one the outstanding successes of the evening. London is full of Lady Milligans, and Miss Wright was a composite portrait of them all. To hear her mention her “Tuesdays” was to get a vision of intolerable boredom.
WOMAN as an important factor in the business world was represented by Ethel Barrymore in a dramatization of Edna Ferber’s “Mrs. McChesney” stories, but the glimpse of her in this capacity will, I fancy, be brief, for, to my possibly jaundiced eye, “Our Mrs. McChesney” has the brand of Cain (and his store-house) upon it. On the subject of the printed word the theatrical mind holds curiously conflicting views. The tradition that nobody who has ever written a short story or a novel can possibly write a short play is one of the main planks in the managerial platform, based, no doubt, on the lamentable failure of Barrie, Arnold Bennett, Somerset Maugham, Booth Tarkington, Horace Annesley Vachell, and others to meet the needs of the theatre-going public. But, on the other hand, the belief is equally deeply-rooted that any novel or series of stories that has made a success in print must inevitably make an equal success in play form. The Mrs. McChesney stories are a case in point. Because they made a thoroughly well-deserved success as fiction, they had to be dramatized.
By way of variety in a season of feminist drama, Horace Annesley Vachell gave us, in “Quinneys’,” a careful study of an unusual kind of man. Joe Quinney, the rough diamond of a curio-dealer, is a well-drawn, living character, who induced the London theatre-going public to forget its troubles for four or five months: but whether he will be equally popular in this country is doubtful. He is handicapped by a hackneyed plot and a last act which drew from a citizen in the seat behind mine the pathetic whisper, “If I ever had to see an English play twice, I should die!” That last act is terrible, and the first is not much better. The success of the play depends on the second and third, which are really good, especially the latter. But the real problem of “Quinneys’ ” is whether a new and original character can counteract successfully one of the oldest plots in existence, and one which, by a curious coincidence, is almost identical with that of the play that preceded this one at the same theatre. Fundamentally, “Quinneys’ ” and “Our Children” are twins. There is no erring son in Mr. Vachell’s play, but the daughter of the prosperous tradesman who falls in love with the employee and is driven from home by her father is there. The daughter of a prosperous tradesman on the stage always falls in love with the humble employee, and is always driven from home, as inevitably as the stage-bank-cashier marries an extravagant wife and steals the bank’s funds to support her.
DRAMATISTS who write this kind of play ought to get together and pool their stuff, make the cashier marry the tradesman’s daughter, who would make him an excellent wife, and let the extravagant woman pair off with the humble employee, who would be able to give her every luxury, for he always turns out a genius in the last act and generally invents something which is just what the world was waiting for.
Sylvester Shaeffer: “44th Street Theatre. A varied performance given by a versatile, a talented and attractive young man in painting, violin playing, juggling, shooting, riding and animal training.” (The American Playwright, September 15, 1914)
Miss Information: details at ibdb.com.
Common Clay: details at ibdb.com; a successful run of 316 performances through May 1916.
The Two Virtues: details at ibdb.com.
Our Mrs. McChesney: details at ibdb.com; Wodehouse was wrong about Cain’s store-house (see note), since the play ran 151 performances through February 1916.
Quinneys’: details at ibdb.com.
Our Children: see “The Drama, and Trouble in the Home” and its notes.