Vanity Fair, October 1915
THE FIRST BATCH OF AUTUMN PRODUCTIONS
By P. G. Wodehouse
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The War still rages; foreign spies and their imperial sponsors are still in our midst; the drama has broken out all over New York like a rash; and I hear it is spreading.
The fall theatrical season seems to get earlier and earlier every year nowadays. There was a time when only musical shows bloomed in August. But, with managers in their present excited and restless state, a dramatic critic thinks himself lucky if he can get away to the country for a week in July. He never knows when some ambitious production may pop up in the neighborhood of Forty-second Street.
The first batch of the new season’s offerings consisted of three mechanical farces, a couple of crook comedies, three musical plays, a straight comedy, and a war-play. “Chin-Chin” and “The Girl from Utah,” also, had been revived. Goodness knows that there was plenty to see, if you could drag yourself out of your cold bath and put on a collar and the rest of the costume; and some of it was worth seeing—which is unusual in August.
The connection between warm weather and knockabout farce has always puzzled me. It is one of the superstitions of the theater that what a melting public wants is farce. In fact, a few years ago, a manager would not have dreamed of producing a play in the dog days unless a noticeable proportion of its characters were lunatics who dashed in and out of rooms, banging doors. Why managers should have this idea is a mystery. They argue, I suppose, that farce does not fatigue the brain. It certainly fatigues the body. It is impossible to watch a knockabout farce without experiencing a sort of sympathetic exhaustion. Yet farce flourishes in the warm weather, and this season has seen three such productions already,—“Some Baby,” “The Last Laugh,” and “Mr. Myd’s Mystery.”
“MR. MYD’S MYSTERY,” though Lillian Trimble Bradley pluckily assumes the entire responsibility on the programme, was a dramatized version of a novel by J. Stover Clouston, the author of “A Lunatic at Large.” The novel was one of those stories of which one sees the dramatic possibilities at once. It seemed to have everything that a farce needed. And yet it did not make a good play. Taylor Holmes worked hard to put it across, but the material was not there. The same thing may be said of “Some Baby.” Frank Lalor does his best, but the entertainment as a whole is rather poor. The most promising of the three is “The Last Laugh,” by the authors of “The Misleading Lady,” which has a new, if somewhat delirious, central idea and is well acted by Edward Abeles and his supporting company.
It is curious how ideas seem to come in flocks. Except for Shaw’s “Doctor’s Dilemma,” it is hard to recall any recent play with a medical atmosphere, but this season every dramatist appears to have conceived the notion of trying to bring the scent of iodoform across the footlights. It is getting quite monotonous to see the curtain rise on “Act One. A Doctor’s Office.” And even when the first act is not laid in a surgery, sooner or later the doctor motive is bound to intrude itself. The big scene in “Mr. Myd’s Mystery” was where Mr. Myd buys the bones which are to be exhibited subsequently as the remains of his last wife. “The Last Laugh” deals with a doctor who imagines that he has discovered the secret of creating life out of inanimate matter, and is practically all bandages and operating tables; “Some Baby” has to do with the Elixir of Life; there was a dentist’s chair scene in “Hands Up,” with drills and probes all complete; and the first and last acts of “The Boomerang” take place in a doctor’s office, with practicable patients. Before the season is over, one of those big spectacular producers will have got hold of the idea, and we shall be privileged to see a few legs amputated or an ear or so realistically removed.
IT was a law of the Greek theatre that anything at all painful should take place “off.” “Hands Up” is one play which could have been improved by adherence to this rule. That dentist scene should have been done out of hearing of a sensitive audience, and so should Maurice’s singing.
It is too early yet to pause and count the slain, but it is safe to say that by the time these lines are in print not all the productions which I have mentioned will be working at the old stand. There are only three which I should be prepared to gamble on,—just three of the whole bevy which, in my opinion, will see the snows of December: and these are “Under Fire,” “Rolling Stones,” and “The Boomerang.” There is no need to hurry about going to see these. They will wait for you.
“UNDER FIRE” is the super-war-play. The time of its action is July and August—principally August—1914, and everything in it that is not a German spy or an Irish guardsman is a trench or a bursting bomb. It is melodrama, but melodrama endorsed by actual history. Starting on the eve of the War at the house of Sir George Wagstaff, of the British Admiralty (Henry Stephenson, who was so good as the general in “Inside the Lines,” is excellent as Sir George), it takes its palpitating audiences through Belgium during the invasion and out into Somewhere In France, ending with the Battle of the Marne and the retreat of von Kluck; and its third act is laid in the interior of an English trench,—a most wonderful scene which must settle any doubts in the mind of the most blasé as to whether his two dollars has been well invested. Searchlights play, shells whine through the air, the trench telephone works overtime, and the climax of the scene is the total destruction of the trench and almost all its occupants by a bomb from an aeroplane. In the previous act what looks like the whole German army marches across the stage, civilians are shot, German officers knifed by inn-keepers’ daughters . . . in fact, the sooner you set aside that two dollars for an orchestra chair and enter it up under the head of “necessary expenses,” the better. You will have to go to “Under Fire” some time, so be ready.
WILLIAM COURTENAY, with a weird brogue, is the Irish hero, and does all the things which you would expect an Irish hero to do, including winning the Battle of the Marne with a single-handed effectiveness which has not been equaled since Bill Adams won the Battle of Waterloo. There is some excellent character work by E. G. Robinson and Dorothy Abbott. And Frank Craven, as the New York newspaper man who wanders through the play rather in the manner of a Greek chorus, is admirable. I hope Roi Cooper Megrue is not getting bored with the success of everything he writes, for he is in for another all-season run.
I always feel when I visit the Belasco Theatre that one almost gets one’s money’s worth out of the Moorish lamps and the various knockings and rappings and chimings of bells which announce that the play is just going to begin. “The Boomerang,” by Winchell Smith and Victor Mapes, is one of the few plays which can follow all those suggestive things without seeming an anti-climax. Of course, being a 1915 production, it is medical, but an injection of distilled water into Wallace Eddinger’s arm is the nearest we get to a major operation. It is a real Winchell Smith comedy, light and bright and splendidly constructed. The curtain of act three, with its masterly avoidance of a love-scene, is an example to all dramatists. Wallace Eddinger is better than he has ever been, and Arthur Byron and Martha Hedman could not be improved upon. Gilbert Douglas has one of those American near-silly-ass parts which he always plays so excellently.
THE moral of Edgar Selwyn’s “Rolling Stones” at the Harris Theatre is that, when you hear someone talking about the world owing him a living, you had better lock up the spoons and telephone to police headquarters for an emergency squad. In the opinion of Buck Ryder and Dave Fulton the world owed them a living, and they went right out and collected it. Buck held Dave up with a gun on the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago, and, finding that he had not got the price of a living on him, took him home and introduced him to everybody as Jericho W. Braden, the millionaire owner of the Hewitt Candy Stores. Only the interference of the real Braden, who was present under an assumed name, prevented the thing going perfectly smoothly. But Braden could not make any open objection, because he was a married man and the will leaving him the candy stores stipulated that he should marry a certain Norma Noggs. All he could do was to take a ten dollar a week position under Dave and wait for things to come his way. As this short statement indicates, “Rolling Stones” is not one of those psychological plays: it is a rapid-fire comedy of action, without a dull moment in it. Mr. Selwyn has taken a big chance in presenting it to Broadway with a cast almost entirely unknown to New York with the exception of Arthur Aylesworth: but the experiment has been completely successful. Charles Ruggles, who plays Dave, may not be an established star, but he has distinctly star-like qualities. The play rests to a great extent on his shoulders, and he supports it with a Willie-Collier-like ease, which, if persisted in, should mean electric signs for him in the near future. There is no doubt that “Rolling Stones” will repeat its Chicago success. New York can surely support one play without an operating table in it, if only for the sake of variety.