Love, rehearsal and audience — Wodehouse and Theatre

“When it comes to golf, I write with my blood,” observed PG Wodehouse.

When the action shifted from the links to more mundane nooks and corners of the world, the ink reverted to the regulation Monarch typewriter ribbon, but the joie de vivre gushed through unabated. I would assume away from the course Plum laid off his blood but dipped his pen in that restoring buck-u-uppo—the habitual mix of his sparkling spirit with a couple of mellow quarts of the milk of human kindness.

However, when we turn to the world of theatre we find it is spiked further with a delicious dash of spicy sauce imported from real life. And when you look closely at that particular ingredient, you find it surprisingly loaded with satire.

Or perhaps not that surprisingly. After all, Wodehouse did step into the world of theatre rather seriously, spending a sizeable chunk of his early years splashing about in those murky waters.
In 1917, he had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. To quote Tony Ring, “ In all, Wodehouse contributed lyrics to 25 musicals in one or both of the UK and the USA, and the changes in style and approach which he and Jerome Kern in particular brought to the format of musical comedies smoothed the way for the next major revolution, with the production of such shows as Show Boat.” That was not quite all—there were plays he authored, some others which he later rehashed into novels; and of course, his experiences alongside Guy Bolton that became that topping autobiographical volume Bring on the Girls.

Experience in that sort of thing lingers … and if these bunch of articles somehow prove to be worth their salt, they will soon feature plenty of other insights from Plum’s fictional forays into the world of theatre. In this piece, we will limit ourselves to the episode where young Cyril Bassington-Bassington ventures briefly onto the stage and collides head-on with the redoubtable theatrical manager Mr Blumenfeld.

It is just a brief chapter in The Inimitable Jeeves and flits by in a mad caper surrounding the ephemeral ambitions of the Bassington-Bassington blighter. Looming in the backdrop are the intimidating shows of disapproval of Bassington-Bassington Senior and Aunt Agatha, who, left to their own, would not have the young blot on the landscape come within a mile of a theatrical production.

But even in these few pages, the narrative borrows heavily on the Plummy experiences of the second-row grand circle without pulling too many pointed punches.

Let us take a look at Bertie’s visit to the preliminary dress rehearsal of Ask Dad, the musical put together by his friend George Caffyn.

The concise manner in which his buddy George explains the anatomy of a preliminary dress-rehearsal is in itself a look at the chaotic inner workings of a musical production: A preliminary dress-rehearsal, old George explained, was the same as a regular dress-rehearsal inasmuch as it was apt to look like nothing on earth and last into the small hours, but more exciting because they wouldn’t be timing the piece and consequently all the blighters who on these occasions let their angry passions rise would have plenty of scope for interruptions, with the result that a pleasant time would be had by all.

If one looks at the contemporary accounts of stage life, the paragraph effortlessly encapsulates the preliminary pandemonium along with the tumult arising from discord—of several sensitive souls granted the privileged indulgence of supposed artistic temperaments.

Throughout the next few paragraphs, Wodehouse uses the voice of Bertie to wield a fun-filled scalpel and to reveal the cross-section of such a production and its preliminary dress rehearsal.

The cavalier treatment of the time element is referred to succinctly: The thing was billed to start at eight o’clock, so I rolled up at ten-fifteen, so as not to have too long to wait before they began. The dress-parade was still going on.

A considerable while after the curtains go up, Bertie suddenly discovers Cyril on the stage and realises that he had been on from the start … He was, in fact, the rummy-looking-plug-ugly who was now leaning against a potted palm a couple of feet from the O.P. side, trying to appear intelligent while the heroine sang a song about Love being like something which for the moment has slipped my memory.

Love being like something which for the moment has slipped my memory“… Here Wodehouse provides a scathing analysis of contemporary—nay, eternal—patchwork of lyrics, drawing deep on his own experiences.

The shows were produced by hundreds and lyrics were shoved into each of them in their dozens. And of course, ‘Love’ was a recurrent theme that had to be flung into the lines as often as possible—as the most commercially viable commodity. It was more of a wildcard was used again and again, using which lyricists kept from tearing their hair and dashing off for the nearest looney bin after a lost battle with the demand-supply chain.

Wodehouse himself wrote several such stuff, and spiffing though they were in the use of verse and cadence, he perhaps looked back at that bit of his career with a relatively meagre amount of love to balance the glut of those overly lovelorn lyrics.

 Love is a Wonderful Feeling he wrote in The Rose of China, adding that

Love’s microbe’s working all the time,

In every land, in every clime

     and

Just paste these words inside your hat,

“True love’s all right!” And more than that

He also wrote Love is all that matters, Love is Calling, Love’s a Sort of Frenzy, Love’s a Very Funny Thing, Love Like Your’s is Rare Indeed ….and those are just the names of the songs. One shudders to estimate how many times that blasted sentiment snuck into the stanzas and the chorus.

These things do leave a mark. One can see Plum writing that casual throwaway line with considerable feeling.

Even today if we do a Google search for ‘Love is + Lyrics’ the number of discoveries boggle the mind.

And finally, what about Old Blumenfeld himself? The great theatrical manager who employed his 12-year-old son to determine if his show was good enough?

I have it on splendid authority—Robert McCrum’s to be precise—that this absolutely round chappie with big spectacle sand a practically hairless dome was based on the rather magnificently named theatrical manager Abraham Lincoln Erlanger.

You see, Plum worked with Erlanger. It was Erlanger who produced the 1916 musical Miss Springtime, which ran at the New Amsterdam for 230 weeks. It seems Erlanger himself used his 12-year-old ‘nephew or the son of a cousin or something’ to determine the merits of a production before it was unleashed on the public. His reasoning was sound. “Aged 12 years, [the stripling] had been selected by Erlanger as possessing exactly the intelligence of the average New York theatre audience.”

Erlanger. He knew. As did Plum. New York theatre audience is a sample of general populace, but a very representative one. Most audiences are the same.

I know it the hard way—after having spent several years of my life writing for that section of the community known as ‘cricket fans’. [The only bit in which I disagree with the formidable intellects of Erlanger and Wodehouse is that I prefer 12-year-olds considerably more. I would not trust a general cricket fan to reach their levels of rationality, especially when it comes to objective, statistical reasoning.]

This excellent feeling of the pulse of the audience was what made Erlanger the Czar of the New York theatre. All big managers, Ziegfeld, Dillingham, Savage, Belasco, Cohan, Harris and the rest of them, were Erlanger men, booking their plays in his theatres.
And thus, Old Blumfeld was based on well-heeled template.

While writing about theatre, Wodehouse generally stuck to the template of stark authentic life—with his gentle genius for the farce moulding the face of reality just that bit askew to convert the scabs and disfigurations into a comical mask.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s