Vanity Fair, December 1915
THAT VIENNESE STUFF
Are You Really Honest in Saying That You Like It?
By Pelham Grenville
WHAT a wonderful thing Viennese light opera is! How cheap and tawdry it makes our home-made musical comedies seem! How one revels in the connected plot, the superb music, the general air of refinement and culture! But as Frank Tinney would say, let’s not lie to each other. Tell me now—there’s nobody listening—isn’t your honest opinion of Viennese comic opera that it’s all right for the other fellows, if they like that kind of stuff, but for goodness sake let them give you something like “Chin-Chin” or “Watch Your Step.”
Yes, I thought as much.
I have given a good deal of thought to this subject, and I think I understand why it is that we have entered into this universal conspiracy to pretend that we prefer the high-brow productions from the land of Doctor Dumba to the good old stuff that we can whistle in the home. Man never is but always to be blessed, and we refused to realize how happy the old style of musical comedy made us. We went about saying “Ah, but if they would only give us something with a connected plot and really good music.” Well, they gave it to us, and now out of very shame we cannot be inconsistent enough to own that it bores us pallid.
Until recently I have been singularly successful in keeping away from Viennese opera. I was light on my feet and escaped every time they tried to round me up and force me into an orchestra chair. But the other night they got the poison-needle to work, and before I knew what was happening to me I was in the Shubert Theater watching “Alone At Last.”
The plot of “Alone At Last” is as follows: An Austrian baron, in order to win the love of an American girl, poses as a Swiss guide. An Austrian count (comic) is being forced by his father to marry the same American girl for her money, though he is really in love with a pretty actress.
That is the connected plot.
WHICH of our native purveyors of tawdry musical comedy would ever have thought of anything so novel and ingenious. There is no getting away from it, if you want ideas, you have to go to Vienna for them. The plot has all that suspended interest so necessary in the theater. The baron takes the American girl to the top of a mountain, and they sing. The comic count stays at the foot of the mountain and sings duets with the actress. In the only scene in which they do not appear to sing, somebody else sings. The thing grips you. You become breathless. For there is always the chance that they will stop singing. As a matter of fact they don’t, but you are carried along by the hope that they may.
Unfortunately, in this particular instance, the audience give themselves away hopelessly. For quite a long time they take you in. You look round at those rapt faces and hear the applause that greets each number, and you say to yourself, “I was wrong. These people really are enjoying this. This sort of thing is exactly what they want, and the reason why I cannot appreciate it is that I am a hopeless low-brow who ought never to go anywhere except to the Columbia and the moving-pictures.” And then, right in the middle of all the melody and culture and refinement, Roy Atwell comes out and sings a song about microbes of the genuine home-made musical comedy vintage, and the audience falls into the trap. If they really enjoyed those interminable duets and those grand-opera solos, they would resent this song as an insult. It is as much in the spirit of the piece as a cake-walk would be in “King Lear.” Do they resent it? They do not. They fawn upon Mr. Atwell. They laugh at his every word, and call him back again and again. His song is the success of the evening. If the audience could manage it, they would keep him there singing it till eleven-fifteen. That is what they really think of Viennese opera.
COMING right down to it, what makes you think you like Viennese light opera? Yes, I thought so. You shuffle your feet and mutter something about “The Merry Widow.” Exactly. That is the whole trouble. That waltz was a corker, wasn’t it? You got hold of it during the second intermission and hummed it incessantly for a year, and on the strength of that you think that you must be one of the elect who really enjoy Good Music. And so, ever afterwards, you feel it necessary to pose as one who cannot endure the banal trifles served up by Mr. Dillingham and others, but who must have Lehar. Lehar knows that. He has got you where he wants you. He knows that, having inoculated you with that waltz, he can give you all the tuneless recitative he pleases, and you will sit there swallowing it with a look of keen intellectual pleasure. Forgive this warmth. I have only just returned from sitting through that mountain-top duet in “Alone At Last,” which lasts twenty minutes by my Ingersoll.
LET me unmask this Viennese stuff once and for all. It is just grand opera and nothing less, and anyone who advertises it as light opera should be reported to Samuel Hopkins Adams for treatment in his Ad-Visor page. If you like grand opera, I have nothing more to say. But if your ideal like mine of a light musical piece is something with a German comedian and a black-faced monologist in it, you are being deceived by the statements that “Alone At Last” and its kind are “sparkling and delightful.”
Don’t think I don’t appreciate and sympathize with your difficulty. You want, I know, to be thought a little more cultured than the next fellow. You want, next time the Victrola strikes up “Seventeen Commuters on the Five-Fifteen” to be able to turn aside with an ill-concealed gesture of pain and murmur the name Lehar. It is a human wish, but don’t you see the harm you are doing? You are helping to lead the tenor of “Alone At Last,” John Charles Thomas (who looks more like Jim Coffey every time I see him) away from the Winter Garden, where he was perfectly happy, and putting wrong ideas into the head of José Collins, who, after being cultured in “Alone at Last” will probably never return with the old abandon to sing in the Follies. You are encouraging a state of mind in a great number of hard-working chorus-girls which must inevitably engender a distaste for sprinting down a joy-way in satin tights. Worst of all, you are maneuvering me into a position where I must either invent a sudden and serious illness or else spend my evenings listening to twenty-minute duets.
There is a line which has occurred in practically every play that I have seen this season; “I can’t sta—a—and it! Yew are torturing muh!” Well, that is how I feel about Viennese opera.
Why should we have Viennese opera? We have done nothing to Austria. We let Austrians roam about, tying up our munition factories, just as they please. We couldn’t have displayed a more chummy spirit. And now Austria picks on us like this. It isn’t right.
Frank Tinney: (1878–1940) American blackface vaudeville comedian of Irish descent.
Chin-Chin, a Modern Aladdin: 1914 Oriental fantasy musical comedy, music by Ivan Caryll.
Watch Your Step: 1914 musical comedy with music by Irving Berlin and dancing by Vernon and Irene Castle.
Doctor Dumba: Konstantin Theodor Dumba (1856–1947), Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States, was recalled in September 1915 at the request of the U.S. Secretary of State on the grounds of espionage.
Alone at Last: 1915 Broadway operetta, music by Franz Lehár, adapted from 1914 Viennese original version Endlich allein.
Columbia Theatre: New York’s leading showcase for “clean” burlesque: a popular cross between revue and vaudeville, with through-themed shows often parodying the conventions of legitimate plays and musical comedies; nothing to do with the strip-tease shows that later adopted the name of burlesque.
song about microbes: “Some Little Bug Is Going to Find You” (music by Silvio Hein; lyrics by Roy Atwell and Benjamin Hapgood Burt). Sheet music from Mississippi State University Libraries. Listen to the 1915 Roy Atwell audio recording at archive.org.
Ingersoll: inexpensive and popular American-made pocket watch
Samuel Hopkins Adams: (1871–1958) American author and investigative journalist; his Ad-Visor column in the New York Tribune began in 1915, exposing frauds and false advertising claims.
Seventeen Commuters on the Five-Fifteen: “On the 5:15”: 1914 comic song by Stanley Murphy and Henry I. Marshall; listen to the original Victor recording from the Library of Congress.
John Charles Thomas: (1891–1960) American singer, at this stage a musical-comedy tenor, later an operatic and concert baritone with a strong career in radio as well.
Jim Coffey: (1890 or 1891–1959) Irish-born heavyweight boxer, active in America 1911–1921.
José Collins: see this web page with picture, biography, and reviews.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff