New York Tribune, January 12, 1919

P. G. Wodehouse on the Gilbertian Tradition

By Rebecca Drucker


One ceases to marvel with what inevitableness the name of Guy Bolton is followed by that of P. G. Wodehouse on a musical comedy programme. One takes a good breath and reads it like this — Guyboltonandpgwodehouse. If ever Mr. Bolton should write a libretto alone what a lot of people would be left gasping in the middle of a long breath. Interviewing them I felt would be a little like going to see Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The precision and unison of their work might extend to duetted replies.

It was a little startling to find Mr. Wodehouse alone keeping the appointment. Mr. Bolton had gone on to Chicago to supervise the putting on of their latest piece, “See You Later.” I had somehow visualized them as inseparable, and quite alike—rather like a Siamese twin. Mr. Wodehouse reasoned with me against this impression when I told him of it. Mr. Bolton and he were quite different, he assured me. Mr. Bolton is thin and dark and quite intellectual, with a repressed inclination for writing sombre plays.

This description quite obviously does not fit Mr. Wodehouse, who is large of frame, fresh in color and quite irrepressibly cheerful. Mr. Wodehouse’s humor is no gibe at the world. He really enjoys it. He doesn’t hanker to write a problem play; he does confess to wanting to write a farce that shall stand up without music.

Mr. Wodehouse is English. He was at work on a newspaper in London when he met Guy Bolton there in 1906. Bolton introduced him to Jerome Kern, who was visiting London then and who suggested that Wodehouse should try his hand at some lyrics for which he had written the music. The lyrics Wodehouse wrote were not a great success. He needed the spark of a central idea to set him off, and the next season, when he came to New York, he and Bolton and Kern all met again and collaborated on “Have a Heart.” This was the first of the several Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern collaborations which culminated in “Oh, Boy!” With a plot to hang them on, Wodehouse found no difficulty in writing lyrics. In between writing lyrics and librettos Wodehouse was producing a large quantity of fiction and articles which from being looked at askance began to be tolerated and finally were avidly demanded by that dispenser of fortune to struggling authors, “The Saturday Evening Post.”

The third partner of the Bolton-Wodehouse combination has variously been Kern, Caryll and Hirsch. But the librettist firm of Bolton and Wodehouse has held through many vicissitudes. And through these vicissitudes they have formulated a theory of what a musical comedy should be. The deliberate inchoateness of musical comedy did not seem to them reasonable. Clothing the ineptness of the usual musical comedy plot in gorgeous costumes and “effects” and bolstering it up with “specialties” seemed poor economy and unsatisfactory in the end. Why, you had to spend $60,000 at least before your curtain could go up, and then you had to saddle yourself with several expensive stars—all because every manager refused to believe that a tired business man could be burdened with remembering a reasonably coherent plot. How could you have anything but gag-line comedy if you had no situation? The Bolton-Wodehouse musical comedy is farce put to music. It does not drag its chorus on in highly improbably moments. Nor does it allow itself to be tempted by the possibility of making girls look like hatboxes or lampshades or cocktail glasses. It keeps its chorus in a well-bred background, as a mere accessory. The lyrics come out of the situation.

All this is not new, you may say. There is the Gilbertian Tradition. Now, the Gilbertian Tradition is something that every man who wants to write a libretto of taste and lyrics of distinction butts his head against. He drinks deep at the source (to change the metaphor) and gets so drunk that he is unfitted for original work. Mr. Wodehouse at twenty-one wrote several fantastic plays which he thought were inspired by Gilbert, but which he later saw were slavish imitations. The Gilbert and Sullivan productions are admittedly the final achievements in their line. But they grew quite naturally out of the time and conditions. They are really quite intensely British in their outlook and expression. They were a crystallized expression of their time. They were presented before educated audiences at the Savoy on whom none of their classic and satiric allusions were wasted.

These audiences were willing to meet their objective satire by using an imagination in meeting the fantastic conditions of presentation, that New York audiences could not be persuaded to exert. This is why a charming and quite exceptionally high class operetta like “The Arcadians” of some seasons ago failed in New York. Gilbert and Sullivan’s audiences were willing to go to Utopia or Japan or Illyria. American audiences insist upon “realism” even in comic opera. The great American musical comedy will have to be something original and probably something with a local flavor. It will have to steer somewhere between the Gilbertian Tradition and the Inchoate Tradition. Not only does American taste limit the librettist, but the conditions of production leave him by no means unhampered. It is complicated by what the public wants, what the manager thinks the public wants and what the music publishers want. There is a trade fashion in songs which the librettist must observe. The manager demands that a song receive a certain number of encores or that it be discarded—and a song is declared a failure if the music publishers do not sell a certain number of copies of it.

Bolton and Wodehouse have done a good deal toward changing the trend of musical comedy. Their well bred, gracile intimacy has insensibly altered the fashion of the stupid and garish musical production of ten years ago. Their charm, their sparkle and their kindliness have added to our fund of good taste. And that is a considerable achievement.



Original at Library of Congress.

Printer’s error corrected above:
Newspaper had “classic and satiric illusions”; clearly “allusions” is the word Wodehouse intended.

Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription of this story and to Deepthi Sigireddi for proofreading.