Vanity Fair, September 1915
A Few of the Summer’s Dramatic Survivals
By P. G. Wodehouse
THE past season has been a trying one for dramatic critics. It is a nerve-racking experience to draw a bead on a play, and then, just as you are going to fire, have the thing duck into the storehouse before you can pull the trigger. This happened so often that, towards the end, one took it for granted that one’s scholarly essay on the latest productions would never appear in print owing to the sudden decease of the l. p.’s within a couple of weeks of their birth. One came to sympathize with and understand the emotions of that undertaker in Stephen Leacock’s story who, after fishing in the lake and landing an apparently satisfactory corpse, had it “turn blue on him right away.”
Precisely the same blight seems to have hit the Summer shows. I was sprinting down Broadway to review “A Modern Eve,” and they took it off just as I reached the theatre. I was all ready to write something novel and diverting about another mélange of musical mirth and they didn’t produce it at all. Dramatic critics have to eat like other people, and that is why I can find it in me to be grateful even for “The Passing Show” at the Winter Garden. It was to me a somewhat painful performance, but it has not been taken off yet, and that is the greatest merit a 1915 production can possess. After a series of plays which whizzed out of sight like the mob in a moving picture, one is thankful for anything that will stand still long enough for one to form an opinion on it.
And yet there is another point of view. If there had been more summer shows, there would have been more burlesques of “Androcles and the Lion”. That is something to remember. I have no inside information about “Hands Up”, but it is absurd to suppose that it contained no burlesque of “Androcles and the Lion”. No self-respecting producer would put on a show without it. And of all flat things in a world where humor so often falls flat a burlesque of a burlesque is the flattest.
FROM an intellectual standpoint, the most interesting thing in “The Passing Show” is that in one of the songs “dance” is made to rhyme with “Spanish”. A lyrist who can do this will go far. It is the biggest thing in its line since Burns, in a moment of inspiration, rhymed “Loch Lomond” with “before ye”, and set a standard which will make modern poets thankful that they took to vers libre. Apart from this feat, interest in the Winter Garden production centres mostly in the chorus.
I have never seen a beaver, but if he works harder than a Winter Garden chorus-girl, he must be some performer. After a strenuous evening in which they change their costumes a hundred and fifteen times, the girls at the Winter Garden put on bathing dresses and swim in a tank. They deserve something like that after their exertions.
The trouble with “The Passing Show” as an entertainment is that it has a warmed-up air about it. You get the same feeling as when you are listening to a funny story which you have heard before—a feeling that you are seeing it all for the second time. There are no striking new features. It is the same old Winter Garden stuff with the same old Winter Garden stars—George Monroe, Harry Fisher, Willie Howard, and the rest—doing the same old things they have done there for so long. It is last night’s Irish stew, warmed over for lunch, and the only new ingredient is Daphne Pollard, who combines the appearance of a child of ten with the assurance of an octogenarian and makes the real hit of the evening. if you are fond of that elusive quality known as “pep”, and do not object to its being a little overdone, you should see Miss Pollard. She is about four foot nothing in high heels, and she bestrides the stage like a Colossus.
What makes the Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam as superior to the other summer shows as champagne is to cold biscuit is the skill with which the management has avoided the “tediousness of a twice-told tale” atmosphere. The old reliables, Bert Williams, Leon Errol, and Ed. Wynne, have so many new ideas to work with in the production that the general effect is exhilarating. It was a stroke of genius to commission Urban to take charge of the scenery; it lifts the whole entertainment. And, on top of that, it is Julian Mitchell who has arranged the chorus work. The combination is tremendous.
AT the risk of sowing strife among a band of brothers such as one knows the comedians of a musical show always are, I must state that, in my opinion, Ed. Wynne plays all his humorous rivals right off the stage. A discerning management seems to have been impressed by his last year’s performance and has given him a great deal more to do than in 1914. If you argue that he has nothing much except an idiotic chuckle, that is true: but it is also true that that chuckle is worth all the salary he is getting, including the thirty dollars a week he receives for gathering up the cloaks after the Egyptian scene. If you have been to the Follies and heard Mr. Wynne’s frank and manly revelation of his financial affairs, you know that he gets ninety-five a week for the Nut Sundae scene, eighty-five for another scene, sixty for another, and thirty for collecting the debris on the stage—making, I believe he said, six hundred in all. He deserves every cent of it.
Leon Errol is as funny as ever: Bert Williams, for want of the right material, not quite so funny. They have played a mean trick on Bert. They have told him off to do the “Androcles and the Lion” burlesque. What their grievance was against him, there is no means of knowing, but they have certainly got even.
The best thing in the Follies is the moving-picture scene, in which Mae Murray and Bernard Granville, assisted by Ed. Wynne and the stage-manager (Mr. Fields-where-are-you? Mr. Fields-stage-manager-oh-there-you-are!), do something quite new. This year’s Williams-Errol scene in the apartment house has a few laughs, but is not in the same class with last year’s sky-scraper.
The great surprise of the evening is the reception which dear old Bill Hohenzollern gets when he comes on at the end of the first part after the other crowned heads of Europe. I had no idea he was so popular. I suppose the genuine humanity and benevolence of the destruction of the Lusitania has at last come home to the public, and they are sorry for their peevishness in making such a fuss about it and wounding the poor fellow’s feelings. They cheered him in a way which must have made Jack the Ripper, if he was in the audience, regret that he had missed his chance of a similar popularity by doing his little acts of sweetness and light anonymously. It pays to advertise.
To turn to “Nobody Home,” another summer musical show which has survived the nipping frosts of Spring, after dwelling reminiscently for awhile on “The Passing Show” and the “Follies”, is like emerging into the cool night air after a noisy cabaret performance. It is impossible not to enjoy “Nobody Home”; it is so cozy and restful and confidential, and Jerome Kern, who has so long song-hitted for others, has at last got the chance to song-hit for himself, with the best results.
THERE are other capable performers in “Nobody Home,” including Adele Rowland, the best soubrette in the country, but the piece is really a monologue for Lawrence Grossmith. On the languid shoulders of Freddie Popple rests the whole burden of the play, and he carries it to complete success without turning a hair or even disarranging the crease of his trousers. “Nobody Home” is a triumph for Mr. Grossmith. To get a new angle on the English dude at this late day is much, but to make him the whole evening’s entertainment is genius. Freddie, of course, is not, strictly speaking, a dude, for he has spent all his life in the peaceful hamlet of Ippleton (on a branch line; you change at East Wobsley), but, as a comic Englishman, he falls into the dude class and must be considered as such. As Mr. Grossmith presents him, he is a delightful person, always courteous, always half asleep, always slow, but anxious to understand if you will only give him time. He is a creation.
The undoubted success of “Nobody Home,” following on the equally undoubted success of “The Only Girl,” suggests one of two conclusions—either that Adele Rowland is such a mascot that her presence in a play insures success, or that the time has come when the public is beginning to cry out for something light and restful in the way of musical pieces. Until this year the only solid idea managers had as regards musical plays was to collect fifteen hundred frocks and a hundred girls and instruct the latter to wear the former and to start making a noise and go on making a noise till somewhere around eleven p. m. The drawback to this was that the expense involved was such that, by the time you had got your production money back, you were in the centenarians’ ward in the Paupers’ Home and were too deaf to understand what they were talking about when they came and told you that the show had paid off its arrears and was a dollar seventy-five ahead on the last week. If, as has been proved, the public will attend and enjoy a quiet, simple, restful, inexpensive production with one first-class comedian and a small chorus, a new era will begin. Perhaps as early as next season we shall see musical comedy what it really ought to be—clever coherent farce, depending for its humor on a good central idea and legitimate situations, the whole peppered with attractive music. The idea that the plot of a musical comedy must be inane and its characters like nothing on earth is a purely arbitrary one, due to a quaint old theatrical superstition.
THE past season has shown, by the success of “Under Cover,” that audiences do not object to being fooled. One of these days somebody is going to fool them by producing a coherent musical comedy.
storehouse: a theatrical warehouse where sets and costumes of plays no longer running are stored for potential reuse or sale. Cain’s was the most famous of these; Wodehouse mentions it by name in some later essays, such as this, this, this, and this.
Stephen Leacock’s story: “The Marine Excursions of the Knights of Pythias,” chapter 3 in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.
A Modern Eve ran 56 performances at the Casino Theatre, closing June 19, 1915.
The Passing Show of 1915 ran 145 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre, closing October 2, 1915. The lyrics were by Harold Atteridge.
Hands Up ran 52 performances at the 44th Street Theatre, closing September 3, 1915.
The Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 ran 104 performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre, closing September 18, 1915.
Bill Hohenzollern is an informal reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was at war with England at the time; America had not yet entered World War I.
Nobody Home was the first Princess Theatre musical by Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, beginning a series of small-scale musicals with coherent stories and character- and plot-driven songs. Wodehouse would soon join the team as lyricist and co-librettist, so his appreciation here for their goals is a foreshadowing of their great work together.
Actor-manager Lawrence Grossmith (1877–1944) was the son of George Grossmith (the creator of many of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter roles) and brother of George Grossmith Jr; both brothers specialized in light comedy man-about-town roles.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff