Vanity Fair, May 1918
The New Plays
Seem to Prove that the Line, and Not the Play, Is Really the Thing
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
IN those low dens and dark alley-ways where dramatic authors slink together for their evil reunions and tell each other bitter stories about the various managers they dislike most, there is one story which is unfailingly popular. It is the one that relates how at a rehearsal of a certain play the manager stops the proceedings and says to the author: “Now, right here, Mr. Whoosis, there ought to be a whole lot of bright, snappy lines.” Whereupon the author, removing his cigarette from his mouth and raising his eyebrows, replies, “Such as——?”
There the story, as told, stops, and one is left to envisage the manager bathed in confusion, trying to kick himself with both feet at once. But it seems to me that the manager would have been well within his rights had he gathered his fur-coat haughtily around him and bitten off the end of another Corona and replied: “Why, you poor miserable ivory-skulled fish, where do you think you get off, pulling that stuff? What’s the good of you, if you can’t think up bright, snappy lines? If you can’t do it yourself, it’s your duty to hire somebody to help you who can.” For the more I examine the drama of the day, the more does it come home to me that the good line rather than the play itself is the thing.
I CAME to this conclusion once more on seeing the Hattons’ latest comedy (I suppose they would call it that, though it is a mixture of melodrama, burlesque, amateur theatricals, and farce), entitled “The Squab Farm.” Every reasonable and right-thinking person who has seen “The Squab Farm” must admit that not only has there never been a worse play but that there could not possibly be a worse play.
And yet, such is the magic of the Good Line, in the manufacture of which the Hatton family is particularly expert, that you don’t really have such a bad time at the Bijou. In fact, quite a chunk of the evening is very entertaining.
Did you ever read a very old story of H. G. Wells’ called “Triumphs of a Taxidermist?” It is about a man who not only stuffed existing birds, but made new birds of his own imagining. He tells of one which he created out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job-lot of feathers. This is rather the principle on which the authors of “The Squab Farm” have worked. They have built their piece out of the skeletons of “The Great Lover,” “The Show Shop,” and “The Pantomime Rehearsal,” and a job-lot of melodramas and musical comedies. In Mr. Wells’ story the taxidermist describes the result of his efforts as “rum.” The same adjective applies to “The Squab Farm.”
THERE are some great lines in the piece, and one splendid performance, the “bit” played by Miss Helen Barnes. The anxiety one feels about Miss Barnes after the first act is quite painful. You see, in Act I she applies for a job at the motion-picture studio and is rejected, so one feels that she may have gone forever and that one will have to sit through the next three acts without seeing her again and hearing further information about her husband and her gentleman friend.
The relief when she wanders on in Act II is tremendous, and the audience does not know how to express its gratitude adequately when she informs them that the husband and the gentleman friend are now working in perfect amity for the same firm. I feel certain that, if she had not volunteered this later bulletin about them, the audience would have got up and asked for the information on its own account.
There are moments when I feel I should like to go on writing about “The Squab Farm” for the rest of my life. The thing fascinates me. It soars so high into the pure empyrean of absolute drivel that it fills one with a kind of awe. One forms theories about it, as if it were “Hamlet” or something. The most plausible theory I have formed is that it was intended as a deliberate burlesque of a typical Hatton play.
“SICK-A-BED,” at the Gaiety, unlike “The Squab Farm,” is a play without, if I remember correctly, a single good line in it. (Unless you count such subtle flights as “This is a sick-room,” “Yes, you make me sick.”) It is further marred by being one of those pieces where the hero, from the moment of their meeting, addresses the heroine as “Nursey.” I have never been able to understand why it should be considered humorous when a young man, introduced to a hospital nurse, begins immediately to call her “nursey” and to behave in a manner that can only be described as kittenish. They nearly always do it on the stage, and it seems more awful every time.
I have an idea that much of the success of “The Boomerang” was due to the surprise and novelty of the fact that the hero, though constantly in the company of a hospital nurse, treated her with courtesy and without the conventional roguish familiarity. I can just imagine how stunned that first-night audience must have been when they realized that Bud was going to behave to his nurse just as anybody would behave in real life. It must have been a revelation.
Edwin Nicander’s conception of the correct attitude to be adopted towards a nurse is the most kittenish thing ever seen on the stage. It makes the first act even worse than Nature intended it to be. It fact, it is not till the second act is well under way that the play becomes tolerable. The second act is full of good situations, and is responsible for whatever success the piece may have, whether in New York or on the road. I think, on the whole, it is more a farce for the road than for New York. For one thing, with one or two exceptions, the acting is not good enough for Broadway.
The most notable exception is Dallas Welford, who plays one of the doctors who are interested in the health of the hero. Among his other gifts, Mr. Welford has the ability suddenly and without warning to turn bright scarlet and to give every symptom of a man on the verge of apoplexy. The occasion when he does this towards the end of the second act and has to have his collar loosened is the big moment of the play.
IF anything can make Cyril Harcourt’s new comedy, “A Pair of Petticoats,” a success, it will be the bright lines and the excellence of the cast, for of story and dramatic interest there is practically none. The author’s first success, “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” was slim in parts, but this new effort of his seems to have been Hooverizing and going through such a dramatic wheatless and meatless existence that there is almost nothing of it left.
It will be interesting to see the attitude of the theatre-going public towards this diaphanous production. If it is a success, it will amount almost to proof positive that good lines are the best bet: but I fear me it is too thin to be saved by the most brilliant dialogue.
AND, right here, we come to a rather important point in contemporary play-writing,—the danger of admitting that good lines make a good play, because once admitted, we are going to see an onrushing horde of literary gentlemen—novelists, magazine writers, essayists,—swooping down on the poor old drama and getting ten per cent on the gross and five per cent on the excess over $12,000, just because they can write a lot of words and call them a play.
It means death to the legitimate playwright. That’s what it means—death.