Vanity Fair, November 1915
THE DRAMA, AND TROUBLE IN THE HOME
Three Recent Theatrical Adventures
By P. G. Wodehouse
THE only time I ever saw Mary Ryan off the stage was one night at the Algonquin, where I once used to live right in amongst all the celebrities whose names you see in those lists Mr. Frank Case publishes in the papers from time to time as having dossed at his caravanserai. (You might give me a notice, Frank, some time.) I was in the dining-room, having something suitable to my means,—a crust of bread and a cup of water or something of that sort,—when in came Miss Ryan with Sam Forrest, her husband. They passed as close as I am to you, and what I am trying to get at is this,—that Miss Ryan looked perfectly happy. It gave me quite a shock. I didn’t know she could.
There can be few living actresses who have such a consistently rotten time on the stage as Mary Ryan. You have only to see her name on the programme to know that about the middle of act one, two-thirds of the company will start harassing her, and her past will rise up suddenly and smite her with a stuffed eel-skin. It does not matter how long ago her past was: the longer it was, the more likely it is to hit her.
You would have thought that, after what she went through in ”On Trial,” Cohan & Harris might have given her a few farce parts to enable her to recuperate. But no! They plunge her straight away into “The House of Glass,” and what they do to her in “The House of Glass” is a shame. Brain-fever in the first act, a spell in the penitentiary between one and two, and from that point on a steady persecution by the police. And twice a day on Wednesdays and Saturdays!
It seems years ago that Cohan and Harris first began to announce on theatre programmes that they were about to produce immediately a new play entitled “The House of Glass” by Max Marcin. If I am not mistaken, they have had it in their possession since 1909. Why they did not produce it at once I cannot imagine, for it was obviously a sure-fire success. It has everything that type of play should have, with considerably more humor than you usually find in a strong play. It not only has the punch: it is one long succession of punches, and it is splendidly acted.
THE trouble began when Margaret Case became engaged to James Burke. She had only known him two weeks, and when he gave her a necklace worth fifty thousand dollars and said that it was the proceeds of a legacy from an uncle, she simply said to herself “Some uncle!” and packed it in her trunk, where it was found by the police when they came to arrest James for burglary. Result, three years in the penitentiary for Margaret. It was at this point that she began to manufacture bits of her past in great chunks Released on parole at the end of the first half of her sentence, she omitted to report to the police and ran off to live in Kansas City,—surely punishment enough for any girl. Ten years later, when happily married to Harvey Lake, the great railroad man, she returned to New York, to find that Carroll, the detective, was still on her trail. And there you are.
The acting is some of the best this season. Miss Ryan is, of course, tremendous. There is nobody who does that sort of part so well. Hers is the only prominent female rôle, and the men, from Frederick Burt as Harvey Lake to James C. Marlowe in the microscopic rôle of Crowley, a policeman, bat .400, without an exception. The humor falls almost entirely to Harry C. Browne, as Edward McClellan, whose breezy personality is a joy. Thomas Findlay’s Carroll is a masterpiece. Take it for all in all, the piece justifies the ecstatic remark of Cohan and Harris that it is better than “On Trial!” It is one of the sure successes of the season.
SOMETHING tells me, something seems to whisper in my ear as I write, that by the time these few kind words burst into print “Husband and Wife” will have passed from our midst. I mention the play chiefly in order to acquaint the public with a great money-making idea that has come to me. One of these days I am going to write a play or a novel about a bank cashier who has not got an extravagant wife and who does not steal the bank’s money to support her. It has never been done. It is one of the rules governing fiction and the drama that all cashiers marry extravagant wives. They also all steal the bank’s funds. I don’t know how they do it—I was once in a bank and I never got a chance at anything more valuable than postage stamps—but they do. Richard Baker in this play of Charles Kenyon’s did it. He simply went down to the safe and took it away in handfuls whenever he wanted it, and it was only an eleventh hour passing round of the hat among his friends that enabled him to dodge prison. That is another law of the drama,—that, if you can keep out of prison till the last act, you are all right. The first act is the time of danger. If I were a character in a modern play, you couldn’t bribe me to rifle a child’s money-box in act one: but in act four you would have to call out the police reserves to keep me out of the Sub-Treasury.
Richard Baker and his wife were at cross purposes. He thought that if he stopped bringing home the bank’s money in wagon-loads and pouring it into her lap, Mrs. Baker would be chagrined, piqued, and even peeved; whereas really, the more he gave her, the less she liked it, for she had the idea that these gifts degraded her. But she did not tell him that till too late, and meanwhile the detectives had begun to clutter up the front garden while bank examiners were working overtime at the bank.
It is one of the gloomiest plays I think I have ever seen. There is no comic relief at all. Everybody talks from the bottom of the diaphragm after long pauses of silent misery, and the only thing that enabled me to bear up was the contemplation of Montagu Love’s gray tweed suit. It is just the sort of suit I have yearned for ever since I came to man’s estate. It hangs just right,—you know, sort of baggy and yet, if you understand me, not exactly baggy. It is a bird of a suit.
Robert Edeson, made up to look a hundred and five, is the cashier. Dodson Mitchell is good as the bank examiner, and Montagu Love as Patrick Alliston. But there are some things too sad to dwell upon, and “Husband and Wife” is one of them.
Let us pass on to “Our Children.”
THERE are plays which are plays, and plays which are Sweet Plays. “Our Children” is a sweet play. It ends with a general reconciliation of all the characters on Christmas night. It is simply a bit out of Dickens, localized by laying the scenes at Lynn, Mass., and giving the principal character a German accent.
Here is the story in outline.
Willybald Engel, the rough diamond with a heart of gold and a Joseph Cawthorne way of expressing himself, had a son and a daughter. The son was the idol of his eye. He pampered him. The daughter, on the other hand, he tyrannized over. Daughter falls in love with poor workman in father’s factory, marries him, and is driven from home. Son gets all mixed up with crooked business schemes, and goes to the dogs, via Montreal, to escape arrest. (He hasn’t really gone to the dogs. He is coming back in act three, having Made Good.) In the last act it is Christmas night. The poor old man, ruined now by his son’s extravagances, sits in his mean room. A bronzed stranger enters. “Father!” “My son!” “Father, all is well. In the ten minutes intermission between acts two and three I have changed from an utter waster to a keen young worker. I have Made Good!” “My boy! But who is that behind you? Can it be the humble workman who married my daughter? He had ideas and made money and staked you, did he? In fact, he is the mysterious benefactor whose identity has been puzzling me, is he? Well, well!”
And then they all embrace.
They devoured it, that palpitating, sniffling, capacity audience the night I went to Maxine Elliott’s Theatre. What it must be like at matinees, I dare not picture. Louis K. Anspacher, the author, knows his job. In a recent manifesto to the press, he stated that in his opinion what the public wanted was an old story. He has given them one, and—by way of full measure—old characters. That peppery, kind-hearted, stubborn old father—that wild but sterling son,—that humble but brainy workman,—that grouchy but faithful old retainer,—they are all there: and by the simple device of giving the old man a German accent, Mr. Anspacher has got away with it. As Willybald Engel would say himself, “It’s wonderful.”
EMMETT CORRIGAN is very good as Engel. All the acting is good. In fact, the acting is so good that during the actual performance one’s critical powers become dulled and the play seems convincing. It is only in the gray of the morning after, that reaction sets in and one realizes what has been slipped over on one.
I am beginning to understand why people go to the movies. They can see things on the screen which at the theatre would happen between the acts and be mentioned casually later. This business of the reformation of Engel’s prodigal son is a case in point. For two acts Mr. Anspacher goes to extreme trouble to build up his character and show him shallow and utterly selfish. The last we see of him, he is skipping to Canada with a thousand dollars which he has swindled out of the girl to whom he is engaged. And we are expected to swallow the tremendous, the miraculous fact of his metamorphosis into a straight, honest, diligent, successful man simply on the strength of a few lines. What Theodore Engel did, besides going West, is never satisfactorily explained. But that is one of the rules of the drama, again. You make a fortune automatically if you go West at the end of act two. You don’t have to worry about details.
“The House of Glass” had a successful run of 245 performances through April 1916.
“Husband and Wife” indeed closed on October 2, 1915, according to advertisements in the New York Tribune. The Internet Broadway Database does not give a closing date but says that the run was only fifteen performances.
“Our Children” ran from September 10 approximately through October 2, according to advertisements; ibdb.com gives 18 performances but with nine performances a week, it must have been closer to 30.