Vanity Fair, May 1917
THE PAST THEATRICAL SEASON
And the Six Best Performances by Unstarred Actors
By P. G. Wodehouse
IT has been well said—once or twice—that Nature is full of compensations. Thus, if somebody says to you, “Well, what is it?” you can always reply, “What is what?” and crush the fellow.
Thus, again, if the bottom drops out of the market and you lose all your money, you avoid the dangers of a life of extravagance. And thus, once more, if you are a dramatic author and the theatrical season ends and shows lay off and your weekly check stops coming in, you can become a critic and write one of these thoughtful theses on the past theatrical season, thus saving a few pesos from the wreck with which to purchase a potato or so for your starving family.
WHAT lessons do we draw from the past theatrical season?
In the first place, the success of “The Wanderer” proves that the day of the small and intimate production is over and that what the public wants is the large spectacle. In the second place, the success of “Oh, Boy!”—(I hate to refer to it, as I am one of the trio who perpetrated it; but, honestly, we’re simply turning them away in droves, and Rockefeller has to touch Morgan for a bit if he wants to buy a ticket from the speculators)—proves that the day of the large spectacle is over and what the public wants is the small and intimate production.
Then, the capacity business done by “The Thirteenth Chair” shows clearly that what the proletariat demands nowadays is the plotty piece and that the sun of the bright-dialogue comedy has set: while the capacity business done by “A Successful Calamity” shows clearly that what the many-headed desire is the bright-dialogue comedy and that the number of the plotty piece is up.
You will all feel better and more able to enjoy yourselves now that a trained critical mind has put you right on this subtle point. Any other little thing I can do for you at any time, I shall be more than charmed to accomplish.
NO review of a theatrical season would be complete—indeed, it would be darned hard to make your article last out enough to fill a page, which, considering that you are paid by space in these magazines, would be nothing short of a tragedy—without a tabulated list—or even an untabulated list—of the six best performances by unstarred actors during the past season.
The present past season—that is to say, the past season which at present is the last season—has been peculiarly rich in hot efforts by all sorts of performers. My own choice would be: 1. Anna Wheaton, in “Oh, Boy!” 2. Marie Carroll, in the piece at the Princess Theatre. 3. Edna May Oliver, in Comstock and Elliott’s new musical comedy. 4. Tom Powers, in the show on the south side of 39th Street. 5. Hal Forde, in the successor to “Very Good Eddie.” 6. Stephen Maley, in “Oh, Boy!”
You would hardly credit the agony it gives me to allude, even in passing, to the above musical melange, but one must be honest to one’s public. In case there may be any who dissent from my opinion, I append a supplementary list of those entitled to honorable mention: 1. The third sheep from the O. P. side in “The Wanderer.” 2. The trick lamp in “Magic.” 3. The pink pajamas in “You’re In Love.” 4. The knife in “The Thirteenth Chair.” 5. The Confused Noise Without in “The Great Divide.” 6. Jack Merritt’s hair in “Oh, Boy!”
MOST of the critics have done good work during the season. As for myself, I have guided the public mind in this magazine soundly and with few errors. If it were not for the fact that nearly all the plays I praised died before my review appeared, while the ones I said would not run a week are still packing ’em in, I could look back to a flawless season.
A sinister feature of the latest burst of theatrical energy has been the fact that two—count ’em: two—hitherto blameless histrions have sunk to the level of the playwrights; and, worse, have got away with it. Jack Hazzard and Jane Cowl were perfectly happy and respected a year ago; and now look at them. Taking the bread out of the mouths of the regulars is a mild description of their conduct. If this sort of thing is not stopped at once, what will the end be? A dramatist never did amount to much, but, if actors and actresses are going to begin writing their own stuff, his lot will be like unto that of a toad beneath the harrow. Jane Cowl’s case is particularly bad, because New York is simply congested with bright young men who have the very play that would suit her. I myself have a simply corking little thing half finished in which the heroine cries all the time.
MOTHERS were very active during the past season,—exceedingly strong on the wing, as it were. The tendency of the modern play to carry a mother, as a baseball team carries a mascot, is assuming formidable proportions. I have no objection, however, to mothers, used in moderation, provided they are not sung about. A “mother” song is generally much too long, and full of twiddly-bits where the baritone chucks his head back and yowls like a distressed coyote. Ruth Chester was undoubtedly one of our six best mothers. The motherliness of Laurette Taylor in “The Harp of Life” was also undeniably mothersome.
It was a banner season for pajamas, too. There were pink pajamas in “You’re in Love,” lilac pajamas in “Canary Cottage,” and blue pajamas (I believe I am correct, am I not, Miss Wheaton?) in “Oh, Boy!” (As a matter of fact, we put it, in our play, all over the pajama opposition, because we wove our pajamas into the plot of the piece, and you couldn’t dig them out with a chisel.) If I remember too, Ann Murdock wore some breed of pajamas in “Please Help Emily.” Anyway, the season was quite pajamanine, taking it all round.
THERE were few discoveries among the dramatists. Of the older playwrights, Barrie produced a new one and an ancient one, but the Shakespeare boom, so strong last year, petered out. There seems no doubt that the man, in spite of a flashy start, had not the stuff. I understand that some of his things are doing fairly well on the road. Clare Kummer, whose “Dearie” I have so frequently sung in my bath, to the annoyance of all, suddenly turned right round, dropped song-writing, and ripped a couple of hot ones right over the plate. Mr. Somerset Maugham succeeded in shocking Broadway so that the sidewalks were filled with blushing ticket-speculators.
And finally, as regards myself. I have had a very pleasant theatrical season. The weather was uniformly fine on the nights when I went to the theatre. I was particularly fortunate in having neighbors at most of the plays who were not afflicted with coughs or a desire to explain the plot to their wives. I have shaken hands with A. L. Erlanger and been nodded to on the street by Lee Shubert. I have broadened my mind by travel on the road with a theatrical company, with the result that, if you want to get me out of New York, you will have to use dynamite.
Take it for all in all, a most satisfactory season, full of pregnant possibilities—and all that sort of thing.