Vanity Fair, April 1916
THE LEISURELY DRAMA
Some Remarks on Plays That Are Long Drawn Out
By P. G. Wodehouse
THE trouble about living in this modern Babylon of ours, with all its time-saving devices, is that it tends to fill one with a spirit of feverish unrest and impatience. Hustling is in the air. We find ourselves continually wanting to speed things up; with the result that when we encounter one of these leisurely dramatists—the kind that takes a couple of acts to establish the fact that Lord Aubrey is in love with the manicure, there comes the desire to get behind the man and urge him onward with a spiked stick. From the rise of the curtain, we feel, a playwright ought to be as busy as a one-eyed cat in a dairy; and we resent his approaching his job in the detached and dreamy spirit of a plumber who has come to mend the leak in the bathroom.
In “Margaret Schiller,” at the New Amsterdam, Mr. Hall Caine goes to work so slowly that, by the end of the prologue, all the audience has learned is that there is a war between Germany and Great Britain. And any subtle value this might have had as a dramatic surprise is negatived by the fact that one of the papers gave the thing away the other day. It is not till the second act, when Margaret enters the Prime Minister’s house as the governess, that the story of the play really begins.
“MARGARET SCHILLER” is one of those productions which lends support to the theory, so dear to managers, and so maddening to novelists, that those who write novels can never write plays. It is the work of a man not sufficiently at his ease in the theater to take a chance with his audience. He has heard somewhere that an audience must never be fooled, so he takes an act explaining who Margaret is and what she intends to do. The result is that he bleeds his first big situation so that there is nothing in it. The Prime Minister, when he is questioning Margaret, is the only man in the theater who does not know all about her; and when he finally forces her to admit that she is an impostor, the tendency of the audience is to look on him as something of a bonehead for having taken all that time to find it out. A real playwright would have made Margaret a woman of mystery. She would have kept the audience guessing; and the cross-examination scene would have had dramatic value and would also have revealed all the facts about her which, as the play is written, it takes Mr. Caine a whole act to expound. But Mr. Caine is an English novelist, and the English novel-reading public insists on leisureliness because it selects its books from the library solely by size. Hall Caine has become England’s most popular novelist by writing books six hundred pages long, with small type, and he has tried to bring the same method into the theater.
“Margaret Schiller” is a smileless drama. Not once does Miss Elsie Ferguson relax the gloom which enfolds her from her first entrance. One would not ask a German girl, living in London during the early days of the war, to rollick and be a little ray of sunshine about the house; but there is no doubt that this somberness tends towards monotony. A more merciful writer than Hall Caine would have brightened the piece up with a comic secretary or something. A sensible Prime Minister would insist on a comic secretary as a relief from the strain of his duties. That is where the heroes of Winter Garden shows score. Whatever their troubles, they always have the luck or the foresight to engage Al Jolson as their valet; so, whenever the strain of existence becomes too great, they can refresh themselves with a few minutes’ chat about eggs or walnuts.
JAMES B. FAGAN, author of “The Earth,” the latest piece to be added to the repertory of Miss Grace George’s company at the Playhouse, is another exponent of the leisurely drama. There was no reason whatever why he should have written that play in four acts instead of three. The first act, as it stands, is practically a “single” for Louis Calvert as the newspaper proprietor, and establishes nothing much beyond the fact that the circulation of The Earth is over two million, and that Sir Felix Janion is not going to let anything stand in the way of increasing it. All complications are postponed till act two. As a matter of fact, while we are on the fascinating subject of condensation, the third and fourth acts could have been put into one, also. But if three acts are essential for a comedy, here is “The Earth” as it should be. (I do this sort of thing out of pure kindness of heart, though it is what they pay Professor Baker of Harvard a handsome salary for doing.)
The Elizabethan Garden, Arrowleigh Court. Whitsunday morning.
Enter the Earl of Killone.
Killone: (registering a sad hangover) Curse everything. (Enter Countess of Killone) Curse you! I hate you! (Exit)
Countess: I hate you, too. (Enter the Right Hon. Denzil Trevena) Denzil, I love you.
Trevena: I love you, too. (They embrace)
(Enter at back Sir Felix Janion. He sees them and conceals himself behind rose bush. Exeunt Countess and Trevena. Reenter Sir Felix. He goes to telephone, which is on table, apparently a wireless instrument.)
Sir Felix (into phone): Give me umpty-eight-double-o, Gerrard. Is that you, Murphy? How’s the circulation? Two million? Rotten. Listen. I’ve just seen Denzil Trevena kissing the Countess of Killone, put some of the boys on the trail. If we can catch him with the goods, we’ll smash his Wages Bill.
A Room, Arrowleigh Court. Afternoon.
Sir Felix and Trevena discovered.
Sir Felix: Will you withdraw the Wages Bill?
Trevena’s Study. Queen Anne’s Gate. Thursday night.
Trevena discovered reading The Earth.
Enter Countess of Killone
Countess: Denzil, I still love you.
Trevena: I still love you, too. (Enter butler)
Butler: Sir Felix Janion.
Trevena: Show him up.
Sir Felix (dodging out from behind butler): No, it is I who shall show you up.
(Exit butler. He closes door, and listens at keyhole).
Trevena: What do you mean?
Sir Felix: I know all about you and Lady Killone. Withdraw the Wages Bill or I’ll publish the whole thing.
Trevena: Right ho.
Countess: Not a bit of it. (To Sir Felix): If you publish about us, I’ll go to the Press Association and tell them all about you trying to blackmail us. You won’t show us up now, will you?
Sir Felix: No.
Trevena: Good egg! So the Wages Bill will go through after all. How perfectly topping.
OF course, I realize that there are objections to my version. For one thing it does not give Miss Grace George nearly such a good part. And you would want some trained seals or something to come on in Act II, to fill out before the big scene between the two men; but, considered from a purely technical standpoint, the little thing is flawless.
The acting in “The Earth” is about as satisfying as anything I have seen for a long time. Miss George is, as always, perfect. By this time Louis Calvert probably is, too. Readers of Vanity Fair who remember those letters to Mr. Calvert from Bernard Shaw know that a first night is not the time to see the former at his best. He edited the author’s lines on several occasions, and once, when he said that he would leave no stone “unburned” to do something or other, there was not a dry eye in the house. It is little things like this which make first-nighting worth while. Everybody in the cast was excellent. There is a sense of teamwork about a repertory company which one does not often find in other companies. Charlotte Granville in a small part made one of the hits of the evening; and Ernest Lawford and John Cromwell were at their best as the business manager and the editor.
THE morning paper to which I subscribe clubbed the stuffing out of “The Melody of Youth,” the Irish play at the Fulton by Brandon Tynan, in which the author is starring; and, having even now a childlike faith in the infallibility of dramatic critics, I went on the second night full of forebodings of an awful doom. But, dash it all, the thing’s good! It has humor and sentiment: it is splendidly acted: and the setting of the second act is alone worth the price of admission. My only complaint is that, like the other plays I have mentioned, it is a little too leisurely in places. “The Melody of Youth” is an Irish “Little Minister.” Brandon Tynan and Lily Cahill carry it to success by their work in the second act. They are assisted by Florine Arnold in a character part of a pessimistic old woman whose chief topic of conversation is corpses. It may be that the people who filled the seats and seemed to like the piece so much the night I went to it were mere scraps of paper, as dear old Bethmann-Hollweg would say: but to me the play had all the earmarks of a big success. I wish it luck, at any rate, for I enjoyed it.