Vanity Fair, January 1916
SHATTERING THE CONVENTIONS
Four Unusual New Plays Unprophetically Considered
By P. G. Wodehouse
REVIEWING plays for a monthly magazine is like writing for posterity. These are rapid times, especially in the theater, and, when two or three weeks must elapse between the outpouring of one’s critical soul on the typewriter and the appearance of the outpourings in print, one grows careful how one prophesies success or failure for any production. To praise a play as a masterpiece and have it sent to Cain’s storehouse just after the magazine has gone to press is to realize just what is meant by the expression about nursing a snake in your bosom. I shall not, therefore, be so reckless as to say that “Fair and Warmer,” “The Great Lover,” “Hobson’s Choice,” and “The Unchastened Woman” are successes. I will simply say that, when I went to them they were playing to such business that if the management had shoved me back another six inches I should have been a standee; and will, with your kind permission, proceed to analyze the causes that have led to this congestion.
WIDELY as these four plays differ in character, they have one thing in common. They all fall into the class of old material made to seem new by freshness of treatment, and each in its different way flouts the dramatic conventions. It is rather pleasant to find dramatists going back to what is really the best way of writing plays, to wit, serving up familiar material in a new way. It does away with the idea, which was beginning to grow in theatrical circles, that what the public wanted was freak drama, with the last act played first, the second taking place off stage, and the third introducing an entirely new set of characters.
Dramatic conventions only last until some enterprising person comes along and punches a hole through them. “Under Cover” exploded the ancient theory that an audience must never be fooled; and at least three of the pieces I have named go to show that, if only you have got the goods, you need not worry about that good old theatrical superstition known as the Sympathy of the Audience. There was a time when dramatists were afraid to make their heroes and heroines do anything except acts of self-sacrifice, for fear of losing the sympathy of the audience. Yet, so far as I can analyze the minds of the authors of three of these plays, they don’t care a bit whether the audience is sympathetic or not.
TAKE “The Great Lover,” for instance. There could be no better example of what I mean. As you know, unless you were unable to see the piece owing to being maimed in the rush for seats and taken off to hospital, the situation just before the fall of the final curtain is as follows. Jean Paurel, the great singer, has lost his voice, has been put in the operatic background by a younger rival, and has discovered that the girl to whom he is engaged loves this younger rival. He has given her up to him, and now, with only his faithful old valet for company, is contemplating the ruins of his life. The old-fashioned dramatist, with the sympathy of the audience in mind, would have dug up some soft music from somewhere and shown Paurel gazing with a slow, sweet smile at the photograph of the girl whom he had so nobly released. But the syndicate who wrote “The Great Lover” took a chance. They knew what was the conventional thing to do, the thing which the audience would expect almost as a right, and they deliberately did not do it. Just as the audience is grabbing its hat with a long, dry sob, preparatory to groping its way out of the theater to get something round the corner to take the lump out of its throat, the telephone-bell rings, the broken-hearted Paurel takes up the receiver, and the next moment he is getting all dated up with a fascinating divorcée, as happy as a child. It makes the success of the piece, this last minute of real life. What is more important, it sets a precedent which should ultimately result in the disappearance from the stage of the elderly, self-sacrificing lover who gets cut out by the juvenile lead in the last act, thus removing a powerful temptation from the path of the young author.
“HOBSON’S Choice” (by Goom!) is another play which administers the left hook to Convention. Naturally it is about a workman in a shop who marries his employer’s daughter—a 1915 play has practically got to be—but in the matter of treatment of this dear old theme it is, as the advertisements of something or other say, distinctively individual. In the first place it is the daughter who proposes to the workman, and the workman who, very reluctantly, accepts her. In the second place, so far from remaining sweet and crushed and inactive till the final reconciliation scene, the daughter puts up a most disgraceful plot on her father, which, when you examine it, is nothing more nor less than blackmail. I wonder if Harold Brighouse had any misgivings when he devised that incident. Written down in cold black and white, it must have seemed dangerous. But, when acted, with Molly Pearson as the daughter, it does not jar in the least. This is probably because, five minutes after the curtain has gone up, the audience has fallen in love with Miss Pearson and given her permission to do anything short of murder without losing its sympathy. “Hobson’s Choice” is a sort of blend of “Bunty” and “Bunker Bean.” The way in which Maggie Hobson secured Willie Mossop was very like the Flapper’s wooing of Bunker Bean. In each case the female of the species, having decided on the man she meant to marry, just went right out and got him. A good deal of the charm of “Hobson’s Choice”—and it has more than any play, except one, that I have seen this season—is due to the perfect way in which it is acted. After Molly Pearson and Whitford Kane, Barnett Parker as Fred Beenstock was the best of a fine team. The only criticism I can make is that Miss Pearson was much prettier than the author ever intended Maggie to be.
THE gold medal, the cigar, cocoanut, or whatever reward is to be offered in the convention-smashing competition, must undoubtedly be awarded to “The Unchastened Woman.” Never did I think that these old eyes of mine would ever see on our pure and undefiled stage the spectacle of the Female Vampire vamping merrily along for three acts and coming out on top in the end. If this sort of thing spreads, we shall have revivals of the old melodramas, rewritten to make the villain and the villainess the star parts. Personally, I did not like “The Unchastened Woman.” I have an austere distaste for vampires. But there is no denying the cleverness of the play. Mr. Louis Anspacher has done what he meant to do. I imagine him saying to himself, “Why should a dramatist take sides? Why shouldn’t he let a malicious beast of a woman score off everybody and ruin everybody’s life without suffering for it? She probably would in real life.” Well, after all, why not, if the public will stand for it? And in the case of “The Unchastened Woman,” they certainly do stand for it—in queues which reach most of the way down Thirty-ninth Street.
But will they continue to do so? I doubt it. “The Unchastened Woman” is the first of its kind, and the public will always try anything once. But when the flood of imitations sets in, when every dramatist in town is turning out plays in which vice triumphs over virtue, what will happen then? There is a catch in nearly everything, and there is a catch in this apparent gold-mine of the Unwholesome Drama. It is this, that it is so difficult for a dramatist to prevent his virtuous characters from being likeable. And the public will not pay to see people it likes made unhappy.
AFTER these three grand assaults on the dramatic conventions, “Fair and Warmer,” Avery Hopwood’s latest and best farce, may seem but a mild attack. Yet it is based on a reversal of the old formula for farce, which enacted that the erring husband should win his way back into his wife’s esteem only when he ceased to err. In “Fair and Warmer” it is not until he become an erring husband that Billy Bartlett makes any hit with Mrs. Bartlett at all. “Fair and Warmer” is a farce without door-slamming—another breach of the conventions. Until Mr. Hopwood showed that these things were unnecessary and that a set of people can be just as funny in an ordinary room with the ordinary number of exits, farce-writers always began their work by writing, “Scene. A Sitting-room. Door R. Door R.U.E. Door C. Door L.U.E. Door L. Curtains L.C. and R.C. covering other doors. Enter Simms, a man-servant.” That gave them something to start with, and they wrote in other doors as they went along, or during rehearsals. But Mr. Hopwood has relied on clever characterization and one stupendous cocktail, which fills most of the second act and leaks through into the third. Incidentally, Mr. Hopwood has shown that previous plays have not exhausted the possibilities of the telephone. When Billy Bartlett, recuperating in bed after his cocktail, passed the cool receiver soothingly over his aching forehead, there was not a man in the audience who did not regret that he had never thought of doing that himself.