Vanity Fair, April 1917
THE MARVELS AND THE MYSTERIES OF THE TELEPHONE
Certain Peculiarities and Vagaries of This Familiar Household Pe(s)t
By P. G. Wodehouse
TELEPHONES, to describe them in a nutshell, are members of the third sub-class of the class Fishes, being all the fishes in which the skull is invested with membrane bones, viz., the Crossopterygians, the Dipnoans, the Ganoids, and . . . No, dash it, surely that can’t be right. Ah, I see my mistake now. That is the worst of going to the Encyclopædia Britannica for one’s information. I was on the wrong page of that delightful work, and was writing about Teleostomes,—which, though superficially and to the unthinking person much the same thing, no doubt, as Telephones, are in reality something quite different. Let us begin again.
So far as I can ascertain from the highly interesting article in the Encyclopædia on Telephones, which unfortunately gave me a severe headache after the second paragraph, it was either Doctor Page of Salem or Phillipp Reis of Freiderichsdorf or Alexander Graham Bell who invented that wonderful piece of mechanism which today enables you to sit in your armchair, call up the editor of Vanity Fair, and in a single instant to be speaking to Gimbel’s Store.
I am not enough of an expert in these matters to understand why a request for Vanity Fair should so inevitably produce Gimbel’s Store, but Central knows her business and I bow to her superior grip of the situation. I feel like some wayward child who has asked for something he ought not to have and is gently headed off by mother. “Here’s this fellow trying to get Vanity Fair again,” says Central sorrowfully to her neighbor. “This makes the third time this morning: it’s getting to be a craze with him, like dram-drinking. He knows perfectly well that Gimbel’s Store is much more wholesome for him. I’ll put him on to the Glass-Ware, Tennis Racquet, Ink-Well, Toy Pomeranian, and Preserved Fruit Department this time. If that doesn’t please him, I give him up.” The result is that, after a few more attempts, I wait for Vanity Fair to call me up instead.
I ALWAYS enjoy being called up by theatrical managers. They have such a sense of the dramatic entrance. First the telephone bell rings. Then there comes the beautiful silvery voice of an assistant:
A Voice: Mr. Wodehouse?
Myself: Even so.
The Voice: Mr. Grucinsky wishes to speak to you. (Silence. An intermission. Then:)
Another Voice: Mr. Wodehouse?
Myself: In person.
The Voice: Hold the line, please. Mr. Grucinsky. (Silence. Another intermission.)
Quite a Different Voice: Mr. Wodehouse?
Myself: And no other.
The Voice: Mr. Grucinsky was here a moment ago. He wanted to speak to you. He has just gone out to lunch.
Myself: God bless you.
(Curtain on a situation of dramatic suspense.)
BUT we are wandering from the subject of who it was who invented the telephone. One thing is certain. Whoever first conceived the idea must have been a small, timid man, for it was undoubtedly in order to place small, timid men on an equality with their more aggressive fellows that the telephone was devised. It is the great leveller. Many a meek, crushed individual, incapable of asserting himself at close quarters, gives, when talking into a receiver, so close an imitation of a roaring lion of the jungle that experts are deceived. No man by taking thought can add cubits to his stature, but he can do it in a couple of minutes by talking on the telephone. The smallest member of the Boganny troupe of acrobats feels as tall as Jess Willard after he has hurled a few home-truths into the receiver and hung up in time to foil the scorching come-back.
IT is a mysterious instrument, the telephone. Some things are so audible over the wire, others so blurred and muffled. The sensation of sound, says the Encyclopædia Britannica, is produced by rapid fluctuation in the pressure of the atmosphere on the tympanum of the ear: but this does not explain why at one moment the atmosphere presses like a ton of bricks and at another seems, so to speak, to make up its mind to quit and call it a day.
Why, for instance, is it impossible to understand a word said to you over the wire by your friend Smith, in face-to-face conversation the clearest of enunciators, and, a few moments later, when you are inviting Mr. and Mrs. Jones to lunch over the same wire you distinctly hear Mrs. Jones, miles away, whisper to her husband “For Heaven’s sake, tell him we’ve got a date! I will not lunch again with that bore!”? These things are not to be explained by mere statements that “the receiver is based on the change of friction produced by the passage of an electric current through the point of contact of certain substances in relative motion” or that “the drum is mounted on an axis and covered with a band soaked in a solution of caustic potash.” The broad fact remains that when you want to make yourself heard over the telephone you can’t, and when you don’t you do.
As a medium of friendly intercourse the instrument is consequently unsatisfactory. The only safe method of making yourself intelligible to the party at the other end is to adopt a low, unpleasant tone of voice, devoid of all emotion except that of stifled loathing. If you try to adhere to your customary full, jovial delivery, redolent of good-will and the joy of living, you merely create the impression that diplomatic relations have been broken off at your end of the wire between a couple of dogs. I know quite pleasant-voiced men who, when they talk to me over the telephone, bark like seals about to be fed until I feel quite apologetic because I have no fish to throw to them.
BUT, whether it be an unmixed boon or not in real life, there can be no doubt that the telephone has saved the national drama. It came into being just about the time when Ibsen had horrified all the other dramatists by giving it away to the public that the soliloquy was bad art and should no longer be allowed. Panic had set in as a result. Playwright after playwright was packing up his belongings preparatory to tottering off to join the bread-line. And then came the telephone, and the sun shone again.
Except for the automatic pistol there has never been an invention that did so much to elevate the stage. The only real difficulty about writing plays is the matter of exposition of facts that the audience have simply got to know. Unless you have planted in your audience’s mind that your hero is deeply involved in Wildcat Common, that several years before he was injudicious enough to write compromising letters to an adventuress, and that he has a rich uncle who manufactures imitation Old Masters in Bayonne, N. J., bang goes your big situation at the end of Act II.
In the good old days you would have brought him down to the footlights to speak the following speech: “What shall I do? I am deeply involved in Wildcat Common: Annabelle the Adventuress still has those letters of mine: and my uncle Ezra in Bayonne, N. J., wants me to join his imitation Old Master factory. This is terrible!”
How crude! This is how an experienced dramatist would handle the situation nowadays, bringing the breath of real life over the foot-lights:
SCENE: Geoffrey van Burg’s Apartment on Riverside Drive. Geoffrey seated in chair, brooding. He starts up and goes to telephone.
Geoffrey: Hello, hello! 10836752 Wall, please. That you, Simms? Buy me another million Wildcat Common. What? Yes. Eh? No. Ah? Oh! Oh? Ah. Good-bye.
(Enter Mergleson, a man-servant.)
Mergleson: Beg pardon, sir, but—— (Telephone rings.)
Geoffrey: See who that is, Mergleson.
Mergleson: Very good, sir. (Goes to telephone.) No? Yes? Ah? Oh? Oh. Ah. Yes. No. (Hangs up receiver.) A young lady of the name of Annabelle de Courcy——
Geoffrey: (Starting violently): Annabelle!
Mergleson: ——desires me to say, sir, that she still ’as those letters of yours, sir. Very good, sir, thank you, sir.
Geoffrey (Wildly): That will do, Mergleson.
Mergleson: Very good, sir, thank you, sir. (Telephone bell rings.)
Geoffrey: See who that is, Mergleson.
Mergleson: Very good, sir. (Goes to telephone.) Yes? No? Oh? Ah? Ah. Oh. No. Yes. (Hangs up receiver.) Your uncle Ezra, sir, calling from Bayonne, N. J., desires me to say that one of his most trusted employees has just sprained his wrist painting a Velasquez and he would be obliged if you would step over and lend a hand.
Geoffrey: That will do, Mergleson.
Mergleson: Very good, sir, thank you, sir. (Exit Mergleson.)
Geoffrey (Hurrying to telephone): 9648 Murray Hill. Hello? Robinson, Robinson and Robinson, Druggists? Send up a pound of rat-poison, C. O. D. (Hangs up receiver. Curtain.)
A SHORT scene, perhaps, but how effective, thanks to Doctor Page’s or Phillipp Reis’ or Alexander Graham Bell’s wonderful invention. The punch, of course, will come in the next act, when Geoffrey, having taken what he assumes to be rat-poison, discovers that the young man at the drug-store did not hear him quite distinctly over the telephone and thought that what he was asking for was a cake of Soper’s Supreme Soap.