Vanity Fair, October 1916
THE SUMMER DRAMA
Words Written More in Sorrow Than in Anger
By P. G. Wodehouse
THE late King Solomon, in one of those bursts of confidence to which he was addicted, once stated that there were three things which baffled the human intelligence. If he had lived today, he would have added a fourth to his list—to wit, the problem of why managers produce plays in August and why on earth anybody goes to see them. Why a people entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness should sit and melt for three hours in a red-hot theater, when they might be at home in their shirt-sleeves with something iced at their elbows and a cool breeze playing on them from the electric fan, is one of those mysteries which no one will ever solve. Every August is hotter than the last one, and every year the managers begin producing earlier in August than they ever produced before. This year the drama began to spread over the city like another noxious and dreadful epidemic, almost before July was over.
THE man who is directly responsible for this state of things is Mr. Winchell Smith. He was inhuman enough to put over the biggest success in a decade in August, 1915, with the result that managers, a section of humanity whose vitality notoriously ceases just where their back hair begins, fancied that at last they had discovered the secret of the game. “ ‘The Boomerang’,” they said to each other, “was an August production. It was a winner. Therefore the way to ensure a winner is to produce in August.” The only thing that could have saved the situation would have been for Mr. Smith’s next August production to have failed. It is bitter to have to say so, when one thinks of the pounds of good flesh one lost watching it during the heat-wave, but honesty compels one to admit that “Turn to the Right” is a better play than “The Boomerang” and is undoubtedly going to be just as popular. It is one of those cast-iron successes, which will appeal alike to the jaded New Yorker and to the unsophisticated audience of the rural op’ry-house. Its number nine company in the Mojave Desert ten years hence will be turning them away just as surely as the present company at the Gaiety is turning them away now. It may even stand a chance of succeeding in London.
JACK HAZZARD, writing under the pen-name of John E. Hazzard, was Mr. Smith’s collaborator in “Turn to the Right,” and brought to the task that knowledge of human nature and instinct for character-delineation which made his “Queenie was there with her hair in a braid” and “Put on your slippers. You’re in for the night” such classics in their line. Mr. Hazzard may have gone wrong in his youth and become an actor, but he is really an author. You should read “The Four-Flusher,” the book he wrote some years ago. It is full of the same sort of stuff which now enlivens the new play “Turn to the Right.”
BESIDES being the best-written play of the season, “Turn to the Right” is also the best acted. The most spectacular hit is William E. Meehan’s Muggs, the pick-pocket. Muggs, as portrayed by Mr. Meehan, is a most engaging person, with a winning smile that makes it almost a privilege to have your little valuables removed from your pocket by him. Almost equally loveable is Mr. Frank Nelson’s Gilly, the burglar. Every young man anxious to succeed in the world ought to go to the Gaiety and study their methods of finance. Debts cease to be a burden when handled in their intelligent way. Gilly robs the creditor’s safe of the amount of the debt and pays it over: Muggs picks the creditor’s pocket as he goes out: Gilly goes and puts the money back in the safe: and there they are, with the debt honorably paid off and everybody happy. Edgar Nelson repeats the success he made in “The Fortune Hunter”—he used to say, “Aw, Angie!”—in a similar role: and Forrest Winant is excellent as the son who comes home from Sing-Sing. But the piece really pivots on the character of the mother, and Miss Ruth Chester gets top marks for her perfect rendering of the character. How she manages to be so sweet and motherly without getting like the back page of the Evening Journal is more than I can understand. Not for an instant does she add that extra touch of glucose to the part which would render it unsuitable for human consumption. Louise Rutter also climbs gracefully up toward the azure regions of the stars.
IT was Doctor Johnson who, on seeing a dog walking on its hind legs, observed to Mr. Boswell, “Sir, the act may not be a riot, but you’ve got to hand it to Towser for doing it at all.” In just such a charitable mood one watches the début of the Dolly Sisters as actresses in “His Bridal Night” at the Republic. There may be technical flaws in their acting, but it is amazing that they are as good as they are. They almost soften one’s heart towards the piece, which is about as bad as anything could be. “His Bridal Night” is a close imitation of “Sadie Love,” the resemblance being increased by the fact that Pedro de Cordova plays almost exactly the same part as in that deceased farce, even to the extent of speaking the same line that he spoke in the same situation in the second act of Avery Hopwood’s play. “His Bridal Night” is a farce of leers and grimaces, supported momentarily by those easily pleased persons, “the buyers,” who infest the metropolis in August. What will happen to it when they return to their lairs only time can tell. If it succeeds, almost anything will succeed, and I shall get Muggs and Gilly to raise a little money for me and go into the producing business myself.
IT is an article of my theatrical creed that Marjorie Rambeau in a good play would make a sensation. She so nearly pulls through the bad plays in which it seems her perpetual misfortune to act that there is no knowing what might not happen if somebody would write something really worth while and cast her for the leading part. She deserves a masterpiece and gets a “Sadie Love” or a “Cheating Cheaters.” The trouble with “Cheating Cheaters” is that it has four acts when it ought really to have one. There is just material enough in it for a smashing vaudeville act, with the now scattered big moments coming one after the other in rapid succession. The pace is too slow as the piece is constructed at present, and each of the rival gangs is too large: and the repetition of incident, designed to be effective, becomes tedious. It is a dangerous experiment to end each act with the same line. It deliberately increases the effect of artificiality which it is hard enough for the crook play to avoid, even when it does not go out of its way to court it. But the worst defect in “Cheating Cheaters” is that it is warmed-up stuff. It is full of the gun-play and the electric torches and the loudly plotting crooks—why is it that stage crooks always shout at each other in the home circle?—which have done their best to create what George Jean Nathan calls “the thrill of the lonesome spine” for years and years. We cannot recapture the first fine careless rapture with which we once heard somebody say to somebody else “Put up yerrands!” We have seen too many dark scenes where the man robbing the safe is approached stealthily from behind by the vigilant householder. And we are through permanently with “The Stuyvesant Jools.” And that fooling-the-audience, crook-suddenly-turning-out-to-be-detective device is not as effective as it was. We had it hot in “Under Cover,” cold next day in “Inside the Lines,” and when we get it served up as hash in “Cheating Cheaters,” we begin to wonder when there is going to be a change in the bill of fare.
“PLEASE Help Emily” was a sensation in London. So was “Quinney’s.” So was “The Angel in the House.” Conversely, “The Boomerang” lived about a week there. Tastes certainly differ. The acting, of course, has much to do with it—it is reported that bad acting slew the London “Boomerang”—but it is difficult to see how the most wonderful acting could make “Please Help Emily” much better. It is chiefly interesting as showing that Billie Burke’s Billie Burke is superior to Ann Murdock’s.
There may be bright things in store, but at present the new theatrical season is chiefly conspicuous for its lack of fresh ideas. “The Guilty Man” is a sort of “Madam X.” “Seven Chances” is one of those plays where the hero has got to do something by a certain time or else lose a fortune by the terms of the will. The only really new idea so far occurs in “The Silent Witness,” where the hero fails to make the college football eleven because he is illegitimate. The agitators for the numbering of players in the big games ought to add another plank to their platform. We may live to see the Yale and Harvard teams turn out not only with numbers on their backs but with properly signed and attested birth certificates sewn to the seats of their trousers.
King Solomon . . . three things: Proverbs 30:18
Printer’s error corrected above:
Magazine omitted “at” from the Doctor Johnson paraphrase, originally “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.“