Vanity Fair, August 1916
THE SOMBER SADNESS OF OUR SUMMER SHOWS
This Year’s Crop Is Badly Affected by Rust, Mould, and Shakespeare Blight
By P. G. Wodehouse
ONE of the most difficult things in this world is to fix responsibility. The tendency of modern thought is to seek first causes and to endeavor to show that the actual perpetrator of any crime is less to be blamed than somebody else who lurks several versts or parsangs in the background. Thus, if A dismembers B with a meat-axe, we are asked to regard A as comparatively guiltless in the affair and to bestow all our dislike and disapproval on somebody apparently unconnected with the tragedy—let us say C, the man who first took A to the movies, or D, the publisher of the dime novels which first suggested assassination as a pastime to A’s budding mind. All of which is leading up to the remark that, whoever is to be blamed for the poor quality of this year’s summer shows—and, appropriately enough considering how wretched the summer has been, they are worse than they have ever been before—it is not the authors. Practically every critic on the list has taken a slam at Hobart of the Follies and Atteridge of the Winter Garden, but I decline to fling my own little brick in the same direction. Courage, George. Buck up, Harold. I, at any rate, know that you are more sinned against than sinning.
TO read some of the criticisms of this year’s Follies and Passing Show, one would imagine that the author of these delirious dramatic Irish stews was given a nice little contract by the management to go and sit in his study and evolve a careful and coherent play, in the knowledge that his lines and situations would be acted as written: and that, if he failed to produce something full of polished wit and whimsical fancy, it was because he had not the right shape of head. And that, if anyone altered a line at rehearsals, the author pointed it out gently to the producer and the producer, having apologized, told the actors to keep to the script. Nobody who has not written a summer show can really understand the author’s position. I have, and that is why I pat George on the head with my left hand and Harold with my right, and say “My brothers!”
As long as the tradition lasts that a summer show has to be primarily a dress parade, so long will there be complaints of the lack of comedy. Aristophanes would have lost his sense of humor if he had known that he had just five minutes to be funny in and that at the end of that period the “gurls”—technical name for the female chorus—were going to break up the scene with ten thousand dollars’ worth of Lucille costumes. Humor on the stage consists chiefly in piling situation on situation. The summer show author is in the position of the comedian who applied for a part and was told by the manager to get busy there and then and make him laugh. He cannot get impetus. He is like a man making a standing jump. He has no time to develop an idea. He has to hurl it on the stage and trust to luck. It generally falls flat. To combine stupendous display and comedy, in one evening’s entertainment, is practically impossible, unless you get one tremendous idea like the motion picture in last year’s Follies—and such ideas only happen every half-dozen seasons or so. George M. Cohan knows this, and makes no attempt at display, with the result that his revues are really humorous. It is no good picking on George Hobart and Harold Atteridge for not being funny. The responsibility is the management’s. They made George and Harold what they are to-day. I hope they’re satisfied. They dragged and dragged them down until their souls within them died. (Or, if you want to sing it, di-hied.) They dictated the policy of the show, and they have got the sort of show they wanted.
AND what sort of a show is this? I’ll tell you, as James J. Morton used to say. For lavish display, for splendor of scenery, for exuberance of female beauty, and for expensiveness of dress the Ziegfeld Follies have beaten all previous records, and The Passing Show is just as bad. Both productions are like the nightmare you have after you have been weak enough to let your wife take you with her to the dressmaker’s. They stun you with color. They make you dizzy with styles and things. You reel out, and for a moment your reason totters. Then the dear old baggy knees of your trousers smile up at you and fill you with a soothing peace. You realize that there are other things besides feminine costumes in the world.
Both productions suffer severely from the Shakespeare virus with which the theater has been so afflicted of late. Shakespeare has been to the New York stage of 1916 what the boll weevil and the potato bug are in their own spheres of activity. It has been impossible to get away from the man. Practically the whole of the first part of the Follies is given up to travesties of those immortal works of which we are all so thoroughly sick. It was an ingenious idea to graft the Great Lover onto Romeo, and Antony’s speech to the mob is excellent, but these are the only bright spots in a painful hour and a half, except the duet “Have a Heart” and the Sparking Girls’ dance, which is very nearly the best thing in the evening’s entertainment. The burlesque of Othello is one of the dreariest and most puerile pieces of idiocy ever presented to the world, outside of the realm of amateur theatricals. I know that this statement will arouse a storm of protest from those who hold that nothing could possibly be worse than the burlesque of “Fair and Warmer” in the second act, but I stick to my opinion.
IN the second part, Shakespeare is dropped and Fannie Brice substituted, and it is amazing what a difference it makes. The superiority of the modern to the ancient brand of entertainment is at once apparent. It is all very well to extol Shakespeare as a genius, but every reasonable person must admit that Fannie Brice is an infinitely greater one. It is no good arguing that Miss Brice could not have written Hamlet. Shakespeare could not have done that Death of the Swan dance. And if Shakespeare was able to put a song across as Miss Brice does, history is silent on the point.
For the rest, this year’s Follies have Bert Williams (with poor songs), Bernard Granville (who can do everything, from singing love songs to dislocating his whole system in a drunken dance and imitating musical instruments), Ina Claire (excellent as Jane Cowl, not so good when imitating Billie Burke), Anna Pennington, Rock and White, Carl Randall, and about a million chorus girls of dazzling beauty.
The Passing Show had not been cut when I saw it, and it needs cutting badly. It is rather rougher stuff than the Follies, inferior to the rival production in color and pomp, but superior in comedy. It has the great advantage of one really funny scene, “A Modern Garage,” which gives Ed. Wynn (disappointing after his triumph in the Follies in 1915) his only chance of the evening. It is one of those scenes which will improve with age. At present one sees the humor as through a glass darkly. It is there, but it will require time to bring it out to the fullest advantage.
The Shakespeare scenes are, of course, pretty ghastly. In fact, the central idea for working Romeo, Potash and Perlmutter, and a sort of Al. Jolson character into the story of the “Merchant of Venice” is pure delirium. It is mere babble from the sick-bed, and arouses in the hearer nothing but a desire to send out for ice bags.
THE best thing in the Winter Garden’s latest effort is the ballet at the beginning of the second act, and the most spectacular, the cavalry charge at the end of act one. I was back somewhere in the N’s, but what it must feel like to be in the front row with a great mob of savage Winter Garden chorus-men bounding out at one like that I cannot imagine. The effect is preceded by a really good preparedness song, splendidly sung by George Baldwin.
The tired business-man will be made more tired by the fact that the run-way is hardly used at all this year. On the other hand, there are several numbers where the personnel of the chorus wear practically nothing but smiles. All through the scheme of life one cannot fail to notice these compensations of Nature.
“Step This Way,” the first but least of the summer shows, is one of those things where somebody says, “Oh, are you an American?” and the party of the second part replies, “Yes; straight from the heart of the Golden West.” Song: “The Heart of the Golden West.” And, anon. “So you did this all for me?” “Yes, I did it all for you.” Duet: “All for You.” It is, as everybody knows, the regalvanized corps of “The Girl Behind the Counter,” and its sojourn in the tomb has not improved it. The soda-fountain scene is still funny, but it stands alone. There is one good song, “Cairo,” well sung by Marguerite Farrell, and the inevitable Hawaiian scene includes an excellent dance by Doraldina.
But the great merit of the piece is that Shakespeare is not even mentioned.