Vanity Fair, May 1920
Who Is William Shakespeare?
Something About Broadway’s Newest Playwright
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
THERE have, of course, been other instances of men waking up to find themselves famous. Lord Byron had that experience after the publication of Childe Harold, and I myself can still remember the sensation it caused in Great Neck when it got about that I had at last succeeded in getting round the eighteen holes in under a hundred.
But surely there was never so dramatic a case of an over-night rise from obscurity to what it would hardly be exaggeration to call fame, as that of William Shakespeare, the author of Arthur Hopkins’ new production at the Plymouth Theatre, Richard the Third.
Here was a young man literally unknown except to a few intimate friends who had always believed in him; just one of a million young fellows trying to get along . . . And look at him now! They tell me you simply cannot get a seat at the Plymouth for weeks to come, and already—I write two days after the production of his great success—Mr. Shakespeare has signed contracts to write the next Winter Garden piece, the 1921 Follies, and six farces for A. H. Woods. It is a signal instance of the truth of the adage that you cannot keep a good man down.
The dramatist’s early career differs little from that of a thousand other young writers. As a boy he was always scribbling, but none of the family ever thought anything of it. He went to school in the usual way, just missed making the football team, went on to college, joined the glee-club, learned to play the ukalele, and made a certain purely local reputation for his taste in waistcoats. As a member of the college dramatic society, he had the task of providing the annual show wished on him, and, good-naturedly, sat down and dashed off Hamlet, a skit on the Broadway murder-and-mystery play. It was well received, but not more so than any other college piece played to a friendly audience. (We shall have the opportunity of judging of its merits for ourselves next season, when Charles B. Dillingham has announced his intention of producing it with music by Jerome Kern and a strong cast, including Joseph Cawthorne in the title rôle, supported by Olin Howland, Hansford Wilson, Louise Groody, and Professor Spudd’s Nearly-Human Performing Sea-Lions.)
Shortly after this, young Shakespeare graduated and entered his father’s celluloid collar and cuff business down near Trinity Church. His task was to polish up the collars with chamois leather in order to give them that shiny appearance. It was while engaged on these almost mechanical duties that he allowed his thoughts to turn once more in the direction of the stage. It is an unimportant but interesting fact that the first rough draft of the scenario of Richard the Third was written on two cuffs and a collar.
Shakespeare Follows Drinkwater
THERE was nothing of the amateur dramatist about young Shakespeare. He had the native shrewdness to perceive that in order to get a hearing he must study the taste of the Broadway public. He went out and bought an evening paper and looked down the list of productions advertised on its theatre page. John Drinkwater had just made his great success with Abraham Lincoln, and Walter Hampden’s George Washington was announced as being in rehearsal. Moreover, in the Stage Jottings column, he saw a paragraph to the effect that Oliver Morosco had accepted plays on the subject of Whistler and Lord Byron. Obviously, the historical drama was the one best bet, and the only thing that remained for him to do was to think up some fellow who had not yet been staked out as a claim. Somehow, nobody had thought of Richard the Third.
So, that was that.
There remained the question of treatment. He kept his eyes open, and soon discovered that the two things in which the public were most interested just now were spiritualism and a good bedroom scene. It is because he was the first dramatist to combine the two that he now calls up the garage every morning after breakfast telling them to send round the Rolls-Royce. The scene where Richard gets into bed might have been sufficient by itself: the ghosts by themselves might have been enough to put the play over: but the combination of the two on the same stage at the same time kept the first-night audience in their seats till nearly one o’clock in the morning, cheering.
Mr. Shakespeare (who is entirely unspoiled by success) is the first to admit that he had a rare stroke of luck right at the beginning of the piece, that tricky point at which so many plays have failed. He had, he says, written the opening line, Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent, without any deeper motive than to get the darned thing started somehow. But the effect of those words on an audience which had struggled to the theatre through the eighth blizzard since Christmas can be imagined. It was electrical. There was a roar of applause from every part of the house, calls for Mayor Hylan, cheers for the Street Cleaning Department, and a generally expressed sentiment that the kid was there and had the stuff. From that point onwards the success of the play was never in doubt.
Casting the Title Rôle
BUT, in Mr. Shakespeare’s opinion, the most fortunate thing of all was the quite accidental selection of John Barrymore for the part of Richard. Originally, so his secretary, Mr. Bacon, informed me, he had written the piece with Ernest Truex in mind, but Mr. Truex, having read several of his scripts, preferred one entitled Othello, containing a good blackface part, in which he is to appear next season, and which is reported to be—broadly—on the lines of the more serious of the plays popularized by Al Jolson.
Mr. Shakespeare owns that he never even considered the possibility of getting Barrymore, as he supposed The Jest would run for another nine years. Failing to interest Truex, he next approached A. H. Woods, who thought that with a little fixing the thing would do for Florence Moore. Mr. Woods suggested that Max Marcin should take the script and tune it up a bit, but with a courage unusual in a young and unknown author, Mr. Shakespeare declined to shade his royalties, which would also have involved money. He accepted the offer of a couple of cigars—more or less gratefully—and left the office.
William Collier liked the piece, but was already committed to The Hottentot. Frank Craven was rehearsing for The New Dictator, but gave young Shakespeare a letter of introduction to Ed. Wynn, who was out with a revue of his own. Wynn offered to buy the bedroom scene, but Shakespeare refused to detach it as it would kill the property. Sam Bernard said he would buy an option, if the character of Richard were changed to a pickle-manufacturer from Milwaukee. Finally, just as the author was beginning to despair, he saw the announcement that The Jest was about to close. A taxi-ride to Arthur Hopkins’ office, a rapid reading of the first two acts, and a contract was signed. What followed is theatrical history.
An Interview with Mr. Shakespeare
“BY my halidome!” said Mr. Shakespeare, when I succeeded in getting him alone for a minute at the Ritz, where he was lunching on venison pasty, “In very sooth ye have got to hand it to this same Barrymore! He hath ye goods! The elements are so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world: ‘This is some actor!’ What I always say to actors is ‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounce it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently.’ For, between thee and me and yon lamppost, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periweg-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable movie-shows and vaudeville. Am I right or wrong?”
“Thou hast vociferated a mouthful,” we agreed.
“Pardie!” said young Shakespeare, pleased, “I thought you’d see my point. Well, this Barrymore,—nephew, I understand, to old John of Drew who draws, through being John, if you know what I mean—is All Right! He’s hot stuff! Not a note, not a nuance wrong from start to finish. Best thing he’s ever done. Puts him right up in a class by himself, nor let any scurvy knave tell thee different! Beshrew me, but they may prate of Master Forbes-Robertson, his Hamlet; of Edmund Kean; of Booth, and ye rest of ye shooting-match; yet none of them—take thou it from me!—had anything, certes, on this same Barrymore, I will inform the world! And now, good friend, I must away, for already Phoebus’ car is high in the heavens, and I have a date to shoot a few games with ye boys at ye Lambs. Give you good den!”