Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing the latest in our “potpourri” series on classic Broadway plays, specifically comedies, that I’m studying for (mostly) the first time. For this entry, I selected three 1920s drawing room comedies by British playwrights whose works were also popular on Broadway: Lonsdale, Coward, and Maugham.
AREN’T WE ALL? (1923)
Logline: When a wife sees her husband kissing another woman, his father steps in to force a reconciliation.
Author: Frederick Lonsdale | Original Director: Stanley Bell
Original London Cast: Julian Royce, Herbert Marshall, Marie Löhr, Ellis Jeffreys, Martin Lewis, Elizabeth Chesney, Eric Lewis, Cyllene Moxon, Charles Hickman, Patrick Glover, E. Vivian Reynolds, E. A. Walker
Thoughts: Frederick Lonsdale is probably the least remembered of this post’s three playwrights, lacking both the flashy personal style of Noël Coward and the thoughtful depth of Somerset Maugham. But his works are very similar to both and, in some ways, he represents a happy medium of cynicism and sincerity. Aren’t We All?, a significantly improved rewrite of his 1908 play called The Best People, is largely considered his finest work — and indeed, it was notably revived in the 1980s on both continents in productions that starred Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert. In fact, there are a few great roles in this piece — chiefly Lord Grenham, the wise middle-aged lady-lover who intervenes in his son’s romantic problems after said son’s wife, a singer who’s been abroad for several months, returns home unannounced to find her husband kissing another woman. Lord Grenham encourages her to forgive, and when she refuses, he takes matters into his own hands — inviting over the man with whom she herself had a romantic rendezvous while away. As the plot continues to speed up and get more exciting, the woman intercepts her paramour before the public confrontation and successfully persuades him to pretend that they’ve never met — a ruse that confuses everybody, but of course, doesn’t last, for all ends happily with the central couple reconciling and Lord Grenham finally settling down to marriage with his regular girlfriend, the saucy Lady Frinton (the Colbert role). It’s a well-plotted story that actually gets smarter and funnier as it goes along (with more character combinations allowing for all of the leads to reveal multiple sides of themselves), and though it lacks the inimitable Coward repartee or Maugham’s sense of poetry, there are so many delightfully smart, insightful, and amusing lines that crackle inside of this drawing room comedy — a quintessential example of the form and one that makes me want to go out and read more plays by Lonsdale, an underrated craftsman (by today’s standards). I would love to see this show in performance — I can just imagine Harrison and Colbert charming audiences.
Jackson’s Rating: 7/10
HAY FEVER (1925)
Logline: An outlandish family of four each invites a potential paramour over to their country estate.
Author: Noël Coward | Original Director: Noël Coward
Original London Cast: Marie Tempest, Robert Andrews, Helen Spencer, W. Graham Brown, Athole Stewart, Hilda Moore, Ann Trevor, Patrick Susands, Minnie Rayner
Thoughts: I’ve read quite a bit of Noël Coward, so Hay Fever was always on my radar, even though I actually hadn’t sat down and examined the whole thing until now. It’s such an obvious contrast to the other works here, for the Coward ethos is strikingly evident in everything — from the plotting of the story to the punctuation in the dialogue. In terms of its narrative ideas, it’s simple — a bohemian family of four (with two adult children) have each invited paramours up to their country house for the weekend, making for a crowded affair. After dinner and a parlor game, various pairs break off — but they’re not the pairs we expect. A major confrontation occurs and the family’s theatrical, over-the-top reactions to these shocking romantic developments — led by the mother, a former stage actress who’s desperate to return to her craft — inevitably unnerves the four visitors, all of whom sneak out the next morning to get away from this crazy, ridiculous bunch. It was allegedly inspired by a weekend Coward spent with the eccentric Laurette Taylor and her family, but the notion of a performative, insincere clan scaring off their partners, both the ones they invited and the ones with whom they found themselves temporarily bonding, allows the playwright to steep the entire proceedings (and half the characterizations) in his own theatrical, mannered sensibilities. It’s thus an ideal marriage of subject and style, and in a story that, per Coward’s usual, is fairly straightforward: couples arrive, they swap, they leave. If there are any criticisms here, it’s that the family of four is kind of drawn with the same broad brush, and there’s not enough nuance between the individual members, just as there’s not enough of a distinction between the four others, who are collectively supposed to be “normal” — an adjudication that limits possibilities. Hay Fever is therefore only partially a character piece — the only great role here belongs to the mother, Judith, who is the avatar for the family’s absurd histrionics, a stylistic bent that ends up defining the entire tenor of the text, rendering it a showcase for the playwright and what he does uniquely well. As such, Hay Fever is fun — it’s not Coward’s best by way of craft (that’s Blithe Spirit) or comedy (that’s Private Lives), but it’s unmistakably his on every metric.
Jackson’s Rating: 7/10
THE CONSTANT WIFE (1926)
Logline: A woman changes her life after her husband’s long-time affair is revealed to her.
Author: W. Somerset Maugham | Original Broadway Director: Gilbert Miller
Original Broadway Cast: Ethel Barrymore, C. Aubrey Smith, Mabel Terry-Lewis, Cora Witherspoon, Verree Teasdale, Frank Conroy, Walter Kingsford, Jeannette Sherwin, Thomas A. Braidon
Thoughts: Maugham, like Coward, is such a distinct artist, and compared to the other two plays here, The Constant Wife is humorous, but it’s not jokey — it’s not a pingpong game of witty rejoinders or theatrical gestures. Instead, it’s an incredibly thought-provoking story that examines social conventions (like most of Maugham’s work). The plot is centered on a stoic woman trying to avoid the obvious fact that her doctor husband has been having an affair with her best friend. When it’s finally brought to her attention in a public way, she covers for the cheaters and basically takes it on the chin, refusing to punish or divorce her man. But it becomes clear that “the constant wife” has a long-term plan — she goes into business with a friend so she can become financially independent. After a year, she has enough to pay for her own room and board, thus ceasing her moral obligation to her husband and freeing her to go out and do what she wants, like enjoying a temporary affair in Europe with an old flame. Her husband is gobsmacked, but he can’t argue with her logic — he’s paid for her in marriage and can do whatever he likes with her (or without her), but now that she no longer is an item that he owns, she is at liberty to do what she wishes as well. It’s a very feminist idea — hinged around the notion that freedom is tied to economic independence — and its modernity is well-contrasted against the Victorian ideals espoused by her well-meaning but old-fashioned mother. Similarly, the leading lady herself is largely a vessel for social commentary, but it’s not purely didactic, for there’s so much there. I think the biggest complaint is that she’s remarkably solid in the face of challenge — often cold — and she always seems to be correct with what she says and does, which makes her seem too good to be true. But I think the right actress (Ethel Barrymore, Katharine Cornell, and Ingrid Bergman have all played it) would mine all the tension implied under the surface — the range of emotions that force this woman to be, literally, “the constant wife” — even when we don’t want her to be. In that regard, there’s a lot of nuance. No other role is as complex, but there are several interesting women represented, and while the dialogue can occasionally be tough (it’s very idea-based), it’s engaging, just like the social criticism.
Jackson’s Rating: 7/10
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!