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Ring Lardner's Plays
part two: the newspaper plays


Updated 04 January 2006

part one: general introduction | part three: popular stage
part four: nonsense plays | part five: conclusion |Play Listing

 

 

 

 

 

Lardner began working for the South Bend Times in 1905, and by 1907 his sports reporting had caught the attention of the Chicago papers. His reputation as a unique and funny sports reporter continued to build as he worked for various Chicago papers and worked for a brief stint with the Sporting News and the Boston American.
In 1913, the Chicago Tribune offered Lardner the column "In the Wake of the News," a popular feature in their sporting section. Hugh E. Keogh, the former "Wake" columnist had recently died, and his replacement, Hugh Fullerton, was uncomfortable with the job. The "Wake," as Keogh had written it, was a collection of humorous sports items and light verse; Fullerton had no love of either, and recommended Lardner, who was talented in both, for the job. Lardner’s first "Wake" columns are similar to Keogh’s in style and content. After establishing his popularity with his newspaper column, however, Lardner was able to experiment with form and subject matter; and the more the public accepted his experiments, the more he used his column to express himself in the various ways he wanted to, unconstrained by editors in the way he would later be constrained by producers. Lardner’s earliest columns in 1913 are primarily filled with short and sometimes irreverent sports commentaries and "dope," inside information on Chicago’s sports teams and players. There are sports related verses and a few sports related dialogues. The "Wake" soon expanded in form and subject matter. By late 1914, "In the Wake of the News," looked much less like Keogh’s column; it included letters to the editor (mostly invented), mock editorials, short stories, including many epistolary tales, and short dialogues or plays. The subject matter of the column progressed from exclusively sports to include personal stories, political satire, news and criticism of popular entertainment, and stories of average citizens trying to understand the world around them. By the time Lardner left the "Wake" in 1919, the column had become almost exclusively dedicated to humor related to Lardner’s life and nonsense.

One of the ways Lardner experimented in the "Wake" was through the use of short plays or dialogues, some of which are collected in this present edition. The majority of the early plays, whether they be realistic or more fanciful conversations, are set in the world of sports. Whether intentionally or not, many of the sports-related plays found in the "Wake" provided Lardner with another way of relating the "dope" to his readers. Using the play form he could present ball players in private or inaccessible settings without commentary, thus giving the reader a seemingly objective and unaltered view of the players. The sense of immediacy and intimacy created by the play form undoubtedly appealed to the reader in the way that a hidden camera would appeal to the modern television viewer’s desire to feel close to their idols. Normally, when Lardner passed along information about the players, his persona created an obvious intermediary between the players and the audience. He was a friendly transmitter of information—one that seemed to be on the readers’ side, and one who spoke the readers’ language—but he was an obstacle to direct player-fan connection, nonetheless. The plays created the illusion of removing that barrier.

On 2 November 1913, Lardner began writing a series of poker game dialogues with "The P.G." Poker games occupied a great deal of the players’ time during road trips, but only a privileged few could witness these games first hand. Lardner gave his readers admission to this private side of the player. The view was not idealized. Players were depicted as flawed—some greedy, many uneducated, all caustic in their sense of humor. Conversation around the poker table was free-flowing, varying in subject matter from baseball games and various players’ performances in the games, the poker game at hand, and insults, often laced with ethnic epithets. Though it is common in the poker game dialogues for players to prey on each other’s insecurities and draw negative attention toward each other’s ethnic differences—one being called a wop and asked if he wants to eat some "spaghett" in one exchange and one being called a frog in the next—the tone is somehow generally light-hearted. Players get mad, but they fight back. Despite the intense level of "kidding," no one leaves the table. One gets the sense that these players are bound together and that their insults are a strange, misdirected form of intimacy. They are all equally engaged in the conversational game, rough as it is, that accompanies their sport.

Adding to the sense of realism and intimacy in the dialogues are the distinctive personalities of each of the players/characters that Lardner develops. Players speak in different dialects, have different interests, come from different educational backgrounds, and possess different temperaments. Rather than a depiction of some ball players playing poker or some ball players with different names playing poker, the dialogues depict particular ball players with individual personalities playing poker. Fans of the day may know Chicago White Sox outfielder Ping Bodie, for example, for his hitting or for his defense, but while reading the poker game dialogues they get to know him (or sense that they get to know him) as a unique personality. They get to hear his voice as Lardner renders it, and they get to hear others’ opinions of him. Bodie is often the butt of jokes in Lardner’s depictions of Chicago White Sox poker games. Sometimes he is teased for his playing ability:

Weaver—What are you goin’ to do, Ping? It’s your turn.
Bodie—I don’t know how many they drawed.
Gleason—Well, you should know how many they drawed. You block up the game just like you do the base lines.
Bodie—I ain’t the slowest runner on this ball club.
Lord—Not when Louie Comiskey’s with us.
("The P.G." sec. 3: 1)

On other occasions, Bodie was singled out by the other players because of his lack of education:

Gleason—Where is the Mediterranean, Ping?
Bodie—Wotinell do I care ‘bout the oceans? Play cards.
Scott—Big Johnson’s about due to whiff about eighteen of the boys.
Bodie—he won’t whiff me.
Gleason—He won’t if Cal takes you out before the game.
Weaver—How do you feel, Ping?
Bodie—I could feel a whole lot better. I ett somethin’ in Philly.
Lord—You don’t mean to say you ate anything?
Bodie—I ett somethin’ that misagreed with me.
Gleason—You mean you drunk somethin’.
Weaver—No, no, Kid. That old boy couldn’t find no drink that disagreed with him.
Fournier—Probably ett some spaghett.
Bodie—No, I didn’t eat no spaghett, neither, you frog eater.
("On to Washington" sec. 3: 1)

Like Lardner’s famous busher, Jack Keefe, from You Know Me, Al, Bodie has enough ego and enough excuses to prevent the reader from feeling too sorry for him when he is verbally challenged by the other players. He is a memorable character, a unique character, as are Kid Gleason, the master of the cutting remark, and the others. The reader of these dialogues is able to distinguish the characters by the content and quality of their speech and by doing so is able to feel a certain sort of intimacy with the otherwise distant players.

Lardner also gives his readers a glimpse into the inaccessible world on and around the diamond in his newspaper plays. In some of the plays, which are little more than dialogues supposedly overheard on the bench, the players provide a running commentary on the game at hand, and, as they do in the poker game plays, insult each other’s playing ability. Besides being engaging in itself, the technique allows Lardner to report on games in a unique way, giving in-depth coverage to a particular game (the dialogues often consume two full days of the column), and capturing the spirit and emotion of the players along with the common play-by-play method of reporting. Typical of the repartee, is the following excerpt from the play "From Last Monday (The Sox Second)," written about a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Athletics:

Walsh—Whatever they hit ‘em, they drop safe.
Gleason—He hit that one all right.
Benz—Yes, but if’t been us, it’d been right at somebody. (14)

Lardner uses this technique to bring fans to locations and occasions at which even he wasn’t allowed. In "The House of Glass," Lardner brings the reader into the club house of the New York Giants after their game six deciding World Series loss to the Chicago White Sox (on 15 October 1917). Heine Zimmerman, a former Chicago Cub and one of Lardner’s favorite targets of fun and ridicule while in Chicago, mostly because of his quick anger, attacks the other players for their poor performances. Showing Chicago fans a "realistic" glimpse of Zimmerman’s anger and disappointment over the loss must have added to the pleasure of their own victory.

Another world Lardner enters and allows his readers to enter through his plays is the world of the magnate—top secret conversations between the management figures in professional baseball. While some of their conversations may be based on truth—Lardner was friendly with many of the people included in the plays—Lardner seems to have a different motive for writing these plays than he did when writing the baseball-player dialogues and plays. Though the image presented of the common baseball player wasn’t without its imperfections, and while Lardner did allow the players to reveal their ignorance and prejudices through their speech in his plays, the tone is light and non-judgmental; it is clear Lardner respected and enjoyed the players. They may be ignorant, but they are rarely duplicitous or mean-spirited. They insult fellow insulters, but never pick on the weak. They are bruised by each other’s comments but never deeply cut. Lardner’s depiction of the magnates is usually not so favorable or respectful. Rather than having a sense of behavioral limits—the line which can not be crossed—and dedication to a common goal, as the players do, the magnates are depicted as not having either of these qualities; on the contrary, they are intentionally hurtful or at least indirectly hurtful because of their self-centeredness, their single-minded focus on the dollar, and their indifference to the lives of their players. The scenes in which they are placed are less realistic than those of the diamond or of the poker game and more obviously concocted by Lardner to reveal the weaknesses of their character and to set them up as objects of ridicule.

Sometimes, Lardner uses a pairing of scenes, one taking place in the past and one in the present, or one taking place in the present and another in the future, to reveal the poor judgment or lack of character in the executives. Typical of this type are two plays, both entitled "1913" and "1914." In the first (11 December 1913 10), the magnates praise former governor John Tener and elect him president of the National League in the part called "1913." In "1914," the same magnates are upset with Tener’s decisions and move to replace him with John D. Rockefeller, who they think will treat the job with more of a laissez-faire attitude. In another pairing of "1913" and "1914" plays (17 May 1914 sec. 3: 1), a magnate insults a player and refuses him a contract in 1913, then tries to lure him to the club in 1914 after the player has become successful. The theme of the magnate changing his mind to fit the current circumstances is common (see also "The Wage of a Magnate: In Three Acts").

In "The New Ritual," Lardner satirizes the new corporate culture of baseball by implying that the corporation’s products, and not baseball itself, are all that matters to the new breed of baseball owners. In the play, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Tinker, using elevated Shakespearean language interviews a baseball "neophyte" about his favorite things. The neophyte responds to Tinker by saying that all of his favorite things are related to Armour products or Wrigley gum (William Wrigley and J. Ogden Armour being part owners of the club):

Brother Tinker—Hath knowledge of astronomy?
Neophyte—Ay, marry.
Brother Tinker—What, then, is thy favorite star?
Neophyte—Armour’s hams and bacons.
Brother Tinker—And thy favorite college?
Neophyte—Armour Institute.
. . .
Brother Tinker—What is thy favorite line of poetry?
Neophyte—The flavor lasts.
Brother Tinker—Thy favorite motto?
Neophyte—Buy it by the box. (11)

In the end, the neophyte is hired without regard to his baseball skill, signaling the end of baseball for baseball’s sake—if ever such an era existed.

The two most ambitious efforts in this vein are two plays included in this edition, "Charles the First" and "King Henry the First." The two Shakespeare parodies appeared within days of each other and within days of the event they describe, the firing of the Chicago Cubs player/manager Johnny Evers, one year after the firing of long-time player/manager Frank Chance. To Lardner, the firings were baseless and senseless, and more importantly, handled in a dishonest manner. The plays expose and mock the lack of baseball sense in the decisions and predict what continuation of this trend will bring. Charles Murphy, owner of the Cubs, exposes himself through his own words, as someone who mistakes the ephemeral for the permanent and the trivial for the important. The situation itself is not of earth-shattering importance, but the ethics of the situation are; thus Lardner couches his humor and mock tone, indicating baseball’s minor importance in the grand scheme of things, in the elevated language of the grand historical battles and tragedies of Shakespeare, indicating the major importance of the principle at stake.

If the fans that comprise the readership of Lardner’s column are encouraged to feel close to the players and superior to the executives through his plays, they are not left untouched themselves. A particular kind of fan, to whom Lardner referred as a "bug," was the object of scorn in many "Wake" columns and in later writing. The bug was exposed, usually through his (and sometimes her) own words, as ignorant of the details and intricacies of the game, and simply rude. Lardner described their actions in the stands in a series of columns called "In the Bleachers" and in plays, such as "In the Stand," "A Friend of Frank’s, " and "Delays are Dangerous." In "In the Stand," a woman continually asks about the identity of the player Mike Doolan, and when she is able to remember his name, seems more interested in his vaudeville performance than his baseball playing. In "Delays are Dangerous," the fan, Ralph Plague, follows Kid Gleason and irritates him with his comments and questions, all of which are uninformed. In "A Friend of Frank’s," two Cubs fans, George Pest and Joe Bug, go to spring training and pester Frank Schulte and Heine Zimmerman, later arriving back home to brag to their friends about how they got to know the players.

One of the first playlets included in his column, "On the Elevated," involves another irritating fan and establishes a familiar and common formula in his early fiction and even non-fiction work: one scene shows what happens and a follow-on scene shows how the truth gets altered by having it filtered through one of the characters, usually one who is ignorant or self-absorbed. In this playlet, the "Casual Acquaintance" asks the "Scribe," who one assumes to be Lardner himself, various questions about which the scribe should have superior, "insider" knowledge, but his questions are usually nothing more that assertions presented in question form. He wants verification from the expert of his beliefs that Comiskey paid too much for Chappell, that Walsh has been worked too hard, and so on. He is courteous to the scribe and even compliments the hometown of the scribe’s wife. In the second scene, in which the Acquaintance relays the information from his conversation to his wife, it is clear that his courtesy and his curiosity were only superficial, motivated by his need to have his opinions verified. When they are not confirmed by the scribe, he either ignores the answers, changes them to suit his needs, or dismisses them. The Acquaintance is willing to respect the expert when the expert agrees with him, but it is clear he truly believes that he would "be better than some of those dubs" if he were a writer. He is looking for confirmation of his beliefs from the authority while feeling superior to the authority, but Lardner has the last laugh. Lardner portrays the scribe as a kind and helpful person, the victim of the rogue who reveals his own faults in the second scene, thus doing what countless Lardner characters did in years following: he hung himself with his own words.

One of Lardner’s favorite targets outside the world of sports for his satire was an easy and common one—politics. As with baseball, he lampooned both the common people who discussed the topic in an uninformed manner, and those at the top, who didn’t seem to have the character necessary to do the job well. Lardner’s two political plays both deal with the war and both characterize Senators as being childish. Rather than trying to solve the problems of the people, Lardner’s politicians are busy wasting time and calling each other names. In "’More Speed!’ Cry Senators," the play is preceded by a short news story about the spirit of bipartisanship that the Senate has adopted in order to make the war effort more effective. The actions of the senators, represented by one Republican and one Democrat, in the play prove to be in sharp contrast to the optimism of the news story. The senators are talking to each other, but only to insult each other’s appearance:

Senator Stout—Will the senator tell me whether he blames the lack of German dyes for the altered shade of his chin camouflage?
Senator Spinach—The senator is evidently jealous because he cannot grow a beard. The senator had better invest in some anti-fat medicine.
Senator Stout—The senator would do well to rub some anti-fat lotion on his head.

Senator Spinach—If the senator tried to come in side ways, he’d tear all the buttons off his vest.
Senator Stout—If the senator yawned, he’d trip all over himself.
Senator Spinach—No, he wouldn’t.
Senator Stout—Yes, he would.
Senator Spinach—The senator must get his clothes from an awning and tent maker.
Senator Stout—The senator must have a charge account at a hair restorer’s. (14)

The tone is no less childish, but the consequences are even more serious in Lardner’s "La Follette of 1917," included in this volume. The childish senators in "La Follette" are self-absorbed and seem to be unable to communicate for any purpose other than argument. Each focuses on the points of disagreement in the other’s speech, arguing for the sake of arguing, while the important issues of war are completely ignored:.

FIRST SENATOR: I see they sunk the Laconia.
SECOND SENATOR: You mean "sank the Laconia."
FIRST SENATOR: I guess you know what I mean. I mean just what I said.
SECOND SENATOR: But you should use the preterit. That would be "sank the Laconia."
FIRST SENATOR: The Senator who says that tells a vicious lie
SECOND SENATOR: You’re a liar yourself, you liar!
FIRST SENATOR: Remember, I bear no ill feeling toward you. But you’re a crook!
SECOND SENATOR: You’re my best old pal, old pal. But you’re a low down thief! Any man that says "sunk" for "sank" forgets George Washington and the honor of the Stars and Stripes. (14)

The senators couch their statements in the traditional language of respect, prefacing their remarks with "The Senator," and of patriotism, appealing to "George Washington and the honor of the Stars and Stripes," but the issues with which they are consumed, in this case grammar, divert their attention from the serious issues before them.

On a less satirical and more purely humorous level, Lardner also drew from his personal life for material for his newspaper plays. Many of the plays taken from Lardner’s personal life reveal the frustrations of his occupation, as in "On the Elevated." In others, such as "A Verse is Torn Up," and "What Do You Want?" Lardner expounds on a similar theme. Starting in 1917, though, Lardner brought the plays to his home, specifically his breakfast table, in a series of plays which include the quirky conversations between Lardner, his wife Ellis, and their three (later four) children. The children are inventive and precocious, discussing their fantasies as readily as their realities, and failing to recognize the difference between the two. The children’s "logic" often borders on the nonsensical:

John.- What’s the downtown man’s name?
Bill.
- The downtown man’s name is Mr. Downtownman; that’s his name, Mr. John.
John.
- Do you come home on the elevator, too?
Bill.
- No, I come home in my autobile.
Le Pere.
- What kind of an automobile have you got, Mr. Bill?
Bill.
- I’ve got a dangerous auto’bile. It runs over big ladies.
John.
- If you ran over ladies you’d get arrested.
Bill.
- It runs over policemen, too.
("Sunday Breakfast" 18)

Unlike the nonsense of the boardroom or of the Senate floor, the nonsense at the Lardner breakfast table has no possible negative effects on anyone. On the contrary, it is a form of playfulness, which seems to unite the family. By presenting these settings to the reader, he is inviting the reader into his home and its unique sense of humor.

There are certain nonsensical elements to many of the newspaper plays—a ridiculous name, situation, or stage direction here and there—and many nonsense columns in short story or editorial style, but only a few of the plays included in Lardner’s "In the Wake of the News" give more than a hint at the sort of fully nonsensical play produced by Lardner in the 1920s. Plays such as "Fame: A Drama in Three Acts" include one nonsensical element; in this case it is the first completely unproducable play Lardner writes. All three acts in "Fame" are letters between a scout and an athlete. The acts consist of stage directions, explaining who has received the letter from whom, and then a copy of the letter received. The characters read, but never speak any lines. The first play to foreshadow the odd scenes and quick shifts in space and time of the nonsense plays is "The Follies of 1913: In Two Acts and Fifteen Scenes," presented in full in this present edition.

"The Follies of 1913" is much more complicated and lengthy than any of the other previously published playlets in the columns. It simultaneously parodies the Ziegfeld Follies, and, by extension, other musical revues and vaudeville shows, and various sports figures and situations from the previous year. It is also a presentation of the ridiculous sports events of the year and a send-up of such year-in-review columns. It is the first playlet to contain many of the elements that come together later in the nonsense plays. There are unnecessary bits of information in the directions, such as a cashier being included in the characters in Act 1, scene 1. "Stein Songs" in scene three is sung by "Ping Bodie and a Chorus of Organ Grinders." Scene 1 in Act 2 takes place in a hotel in Paris "painted by a union painter." The actions of the characters seem random and whimsical as when Charles Ebbets in scene 4 searches for an important historical event—any historical event—to use as an occasion for a dedication, settling on the first event he finds, the "Battle of Ischkebibble." Magnates are unreasonable and players are self-absorbed in all of the first act, dedicated to baseball events, and the second, dedicated to the rest of sports.

Near the end of the Lardner’s tenure as "Wake" columnist, two two-part plays, both mock operas, which can be described in no other way than nonsensical, appear. The first is "La Bovina," in which Fred, a steer, is to be separated from his love, Bossy, and sent to a Chicago slaughterhouse. Bossy goes with Fred to Chicago and both are killed by a tack hammer. Another steer, Gus, follows them to the slaughterhouse, but is not fit to be killed. The final scene follows:

Scene 2.
Scene—Death Chamber at the Stockyards.
CHORUS OF KILLERS.
O, sweet is our job when we hit ‘em just right,
When the steers go to sleep without saying good-night.
But when we don’t bean ‘em right square in the forehead
The way that they holler about it is horrid.

[Forty or fifty steers, heavily veiled, enter the death chamber. Among them are Fred and Bossy. Gus, the exempt, disguised as a lounge, looks on. The Killers raise their tack-hammers and go about their work. First Fred falls, then Bossy. As she strikes the floor, her veil falls off and Gus recognizes her.]

GUS.
[Anguished] Bossy! La Bovina! You’ve killed a milch cow! (14)

The second, "La Maledizione Di Pudelaggio: Yuletide Opera in Two Acts," is a drama of the holiday dinner table. Characters including Il Turkey, Il Plum, Lo Gravy, La Mashed Potato, various eating utensils, and Choruses of Olives, Celery, Bibs, and Napkins, sing of the tragedy which is Christmas dinner (a tragedy for the food, that is). In one scene, the fate of the Il Turkey and the workings of a love triangle are revealed:

TUTTI: Hail the festive bird!
LA MASHED POTATO (aside): Soon to be interred.
(Turkey takes the place of honor at the head of the table. Gravy enters silently and oozes up to him.)
LO GRAVY: Sire!
IL TURKEY: Well, Thickness?
LO GRAVY: I come to warn thee. Plum Pudding loves the fair Yam, whom thou hast stolen. As we left the kitchen, I heard him say, "That bird will get the stuffing knocked out of him!"
IL TURKEY: Chestnuts! (Beckons to the fair Yam.) My candied Kid!
LA YAM: My Lord!
IL TURKEY: Why dost thou so tremble?

LA YAM: (Aria.)
My loved one, trouble is brewing:
Our love will be our undoing.
I just got a good long flash
At White Potato, thy former mash.

She loves thee still. Beware
The curse of the pomme de terre! (19)


The sheer whimsy of both of these two-part plays creates both a fitting culmination to Lardner’s "Wake" plays, which became decreasingly sports related and increasingly nonsensical, and a fitting segue to the plays he writes primarily for himself, the plays which become known as simply the "nonsense plays," in the decade to come.

 

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