Dorothy Parker Complete Broadway, 1918-1923 (sample)

Sample Chapter

Ainslee’s
By Dorothy Parker
January 1921

Maybe you like enormous productions. Maybe the blood rushes hotly through your veins when you reflect that the vast stage spectacle before you requires a company numbering four hundred, exclusive of camels and press agents. Maybe the thrills of ecstasy play gently along your spine as you compute the staggering cost of its costumes, scenery, salaries, fodder for the incidental animals, and pseudo leopard skins. Maybe you awake to Spring as you review the long months which it must have taken to get the entertainment into running order. Maybe your heart leaps high as you confront a huge stage thronged with gorgeously costumed supernumeraries and deep-voiced principals baying long and abstruse speeches, with repeated references to Allah. Maybe that is the way you are constituted. Many people are like that.

If you are, the thing for you to do is to hurry up to the Century Theatre, witness Morris Gest’s production of Mecca, and then dash off a nice, long, chatty, open letter to him. That is what everybody else does. It is doubtful, indeed, if Mr. Gest is receiving any sealed communications whatever these days. One cannot open the morning paper and turn to the theatre advertisements to see what is running without crashing upon an open letter from someone who saw Mecca the night before and just can’t keep from taking pen in hand to tell Mr. Gest all about what fun it was. The producer’s correspondence includes autographed communications from such distinguished authors as David Belasco, his affectionate father-in-law, and Mrs. Elinor Glyn, now visiting these United States. Small wonder that he is eager to share his mail with the public.

The one from Mrs. Glyn, who saw the performance and immediately thereafter—at one a.m. to be exact—felt the urge to write, which is experienced by so large a percentage of the Mecca audiences, is undoubtedly the gem of Mr. Gest’s collection of bread-and-butter letters to date. What, after all, is there left to say? It is good to know that Mrs. Glyn’s famous tiger-skin style marks her correspondence, as it does her more pretentious literary works, but it leaves one virtually flat. What does there remain for any coarser pen to trace? That touch about “intangible subtlety,” for example—where is there a happier phrase? And the bit about the “refined orgy”—is not that the perfect tribute? And the part where Mrs. Glyn speaks, with such telling casualness, of how she “stayed with the royal family in St. Petersburg in the old days!”

What has the present writer to offer in the face of that? Of what avail her laboriously worked-in references to the time when she used to live right around the corner from Evelyn Nesbit, or the good old days when she went to the school that was attended by the daughters of a distinguished brewer? These things sink to nothingness; the only refuge is an envious silence. Mrs. Glyn, once again, has said a mouthful.

Unfortunately, when she “hopes the American public really understand and appreciate,” it is gravely to be feared that Mrs. Glyn will not get her wish, as regards this unit of the American public, at all events. Appreciation there was to almost perceptible degree, but during the course of Mecca understanding was pathetically lacking. At no time during the evening could the present writer ascertain just what the entertainment was all about. Not once could her piteously straining mind grasp the relationship of the various characters, nor could it fathom the reasons for the impulsive knifings, poisonings, and abductions, which took place on the stage from time to time. Everything was rendered still more difficult by the fact that almost every actor in the company assumed a disguise of some sort at some time during the proceedings, while the sporadic bursts of songs that enlivened the production only added to the lamentable confusion.

But, anyone with eyes must be awed by the gorgeousness of Mecca, and staggered by its vastness. It is advertised as “The Largest Production Ever Known in the World’s History,” which is a conservative statement. It is comfortable to reflect that it gives congenial and remunerative employment to hundreds, including two exceedingly shabby camels, who, I am willing to wager, although my memory for faces is not infallible, made their debut in the world premiere of Ben Hur. The company is headed by Gladys Hanson and Lionel Braham, who possess the requisite heroic physiques and resonant voices.

So great a production naturally required the combined services of a sizable crowd. Virtually every acknowledged specialist had a hand in it save Babe Ruth. Oscar Asche wrote the book, Percy Fletcher did the mild and memorable music, E. Lyall Swete undertook the notable job of staging the piece, Percy Anderson and Leon Bakst designed the costumes, Carl Link did as much for the properties, Joseph and Philip Harker collaborated on the scenery, and so on, up to Professor George Bothner, who saw that the incidental wrestling match went off nicely.

The most important announcement is that Michel Fokine directed the dances, for they are startlingly beautiful. The famous ballet on the stairs is a marvelous picture, although many beholders may not be so struck by its refinement as was Mrs. Glyn. It is curious, indeed, that Mr. Gest has not received an open letter from Dr. John Roach Straton on this topic long ago.

But the ballet is not the thing about Mecca which lingers longest in the mind of the visitor. The most impressive feature of the extravaganza is its ever-present costliness. As well as being the world’s largest entertainment, it must easily be the most expensive ever conceived by the mind of man. It is difficult, unfortunately, to refrain from thinking backward and being dazed, not by what the production must have cost, but what the management might have saved by the simple means of not producing it at all.

To quiet down and give a thought to the less violently expensive dramas, there is the new Galsworthy play, The Skin Game, being given at the Bijou. Many have been able to discern that the play, which seems to be the story of the bitter feud between the families of an aristocrat and a newly rich manufacturer, is really far deeper that it would appear. They have it all figured out that The Skin Game is a symbolic war drama, with the aristocrat representing England and the manufacturer Germany, and the evicted tenants, over whom the fight begins and who are completely forgotten when the feud gets really underway, symbolizes Belgium. The idea works out with perfect smoothness, and symbolic meanings can be read into many of the lines, if one sets one’s mind to it, and who, after all, are we to say that Galsworthy never thought of any such thing?

Yet it has always seemed to a perhaps prejudiced beholder that one can easily let oneself go when discovering supposed symbolic references; it gets into the discoverer’s blood, and he finds all sorts of subtle touches into which he reads interpretations that would surprise no one more than the author. Why, indeed, should any keen symbol hound stop with the translation of The Skin Game into terms of war? Why not go right ahead and declare that The Gold Diggers symbolizes the corruption of the White Sox, or that The Bat is, being interpreted, the future consequence of the adoption of Article X, as seen from a Republican viewpoint?

But perhaps it is best not to be too lofty about the symbolism of The Skin Game, for Galsworthy might suddenly announce that it really is a war play, and then where would this department be? The thing to do is play safe by saying that, all obscure meanings aside, The Skin Game has quite enough plot, taking it at its face value. There are times, frankly, when it grows long and irksome, but there are stirring moments of drama, and there is always the sense of witnessing a play surely written and firmly constructed. And there is the fine performance of Josephine Victor, and those of Cynthia Brooke, Marsh Allen, and Herbert Lomas.

As for the new plays provided by our home talent, there is The First Year, the delightful comedy of which the author, Frank Craven, is also the star. It is useless to attempt any synopsis of this surprisingly amusing play of the first year of married life, for, when you stop to think about it, there really isn’t anything much to it. There are no situations to cite or lines to quote to prove its claim to be riotously entertaining. Its humor is the humor of Beatrice Herford’s monologues, or of Clare Briggs’ “Mr. and Mrs.” drawings; everybody has people like that right in the family. For his careful and unexaggerated presentation of the events of home life, Mr. Craven can even be forgiven his interpolation of an instantaneous intoxication scene, or his introduction of the character of the cheery, old country doctor, or his usage of the line about the audible imbibing of soup. The piece receives the faultless acting it deserves from William Sampson, Roberta Arnold, and Mr. Craven himself.

Another native comedy is The Meanest Man in the World, accredited to Augustin MacHugh, but showing the unmistakable trace—“the fine Italian hand,” some critic with an original turn of the mind said—of George M. Cohan. Mr. Cohan himself is appearing in the title rôle, but for only a limited time. And that’s bad news, for the second and third acts are going to be pretty heavy going when Mr. Cohan is no longer there to help. The first act could never be anything except delightful, even if they got Robert Mantell to play the hero. The act has all the Cohan brightness, the Cohan unexpectedness, the Cohan snap and crackle of dialogue; the second act has them in a far less degree, although Mr. Cohan’s acting keeps your mind off it until it is all over; while the third act is just the sort of thing that would lend itself admirably to Mr. Cohan’s burlesquing. It has speeches about “The way to keep happiness is to spread it around,” and—but why go on? You can see for yourself what it would be without George Cohan.

Then there is Bab, the comedy which Edward Childs Carpenter made from Mary Roberts Rinehart’s famous subdeb stories. The play starts out as if it were going to be about the most entertaining thing you ever saw, but there are four long acts of it, and it is really amazing how heartily sick you can become of subdeb characteristics in four acts. Bab stands between Booth Tarkington’s brain children and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s creations, in the gallery of adolescent portraits, but she is not a happy medium; at least, you do not think she is after you have heard nothing but her enthusiasm for a four-act stretch. Helen Hayes, who has the arduous title rôle, plays it admirably for the first part, but there are times when in super-sweetness of mannerism and inflection she comes dangerously close to Ruth Chatterton-ism.

As for musical comedies, there is Tip Top, which has not only the evermore-amazing Fred Stone, but also the Duncan Sisters and the Six Brown Brothers. The only trouble lies in obtaining a ticket for it. However, it will doubtless be at the Globe Theatre from now on, so maybe your turn will come around. You may even make your fortune and be able to buy your tickets at an agency in a few years.

There is also this year’s model Hitchy-Koo, with Raymond Hitchcock, Julia Sanderson, and G. P. Huntley, and with music by Jerome Kern. Too bad then, isn’t it, to get you all worked up with the announcements of the stars and the composer, and then to present to you such a uniquely dull entertainment? Even Mr. Hitchcock’s celebrated ceremony of welcoming the audience loses its expected thrill; the laughter which greets it seems only accorded it for old times’ sake. The songs could not be remembered by even Professor Roth, and the jokes are palsied with age.

And then there is Mary, which has been running outside of New York for a year or so, and now comes to the Knickerbocker for an indefinite period. Again George Cohan has done it; he has presented the show so ably, made things go with such a rush, and engaged so tireless and good-humored an aggregation of dancers and comedians that the thing has gone over with a pronounced bang. He has had the help of Louis Hirsch’s music, easily the most popular of the season, but it took Mr. Cohan to make the book and lyrics of Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel endurable. Perhaps it is just as well that, though everybody whistled “The Love Nest” all summer, little was known of its lyric until now; such things are better born when the weather is cooler. I haven’t the heart to quote it in its entirety; I merely mention that its concluding lines run:

Better than a palace with a gilded dome
Is a love nest, that you can call home.

Thus ends the song, in a glorious burst of anticlimax. Since hearing the lyric, your correspondent has been striving ceaselessly, and ever without success, to think of anything which wouldn’t be “better than a palace with a gilded dome.” Is there no bright little girl or boy among our readers who can help out?