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Ring Lardner's Plays
part three: the popular stage


Updated 04 January 2006

part one: general introduction | part two:  newspaper plays
part four: nonsense plays | part five: conclusion |Play Listing

 

 

 

 

 

While working for the Chicago Examiner in 1907, Lardner saw his first Ziegfeld production and his childhood love affair with the popular theater was rekindled. After that point, he never missed a touring Ziegfeld show, and it is evident by his actions that he had serious aspirations of writing for Ziegfeld and similar productions. In the 1910s, Lardner began writing songs, many intended for musical reviews, a number of which were published, and in 1917, his dream of being part of a Ziegfeld show was realized when one of his songs was performed by Bert Williams, his favorite star. In an uncharacteristically proud moment, Lardner reports at the 1916 Follies: "Bert Williams has got a song I wrote for him only he isn’t singing it and while I don’t like to boast and will admit that maybe the song I wrote for him is no good still if it’s worse than the two songs he is singing I will vote for Wilson" ("In the Wake of the News" 8 July 1916 8). When it is performed by Williams in the 1917 Follies, Lardner writes, emphasizing his musical contribution: "When we seen the show he [Bert Williams] was singing the best song in it, entitled "Home, Sweet Home," words AND music by your correspondent" ("In the Wake of the News" 8 August 1917 11).

Lardner was captivated by the Follies, but there is ample evidence that he was also repulsed by them. Though he was drawn by the mix of comedy and music, his high standards made it impossible to enjoy much of what he saw. Lardner dismisses the Follies of 1916 through faint praise. While in New York, he watches a performance and reports to his readers through his Chicago column that the show contains "one pretty song and one funny line" ("Wake" 8 July 1916 8). He later reports that "[t]hey are talking about cutting the funny line out of the Follies to make the show consistent" ("In the Wake of the News" 12 July 1916 13). The next year he reviews the Follies again, making a similar appraisal, reporting that "The funny line in the show occurs in the second act," and "The Follies may be a good show when it strikes Chicago, late in the fall. Between now and then, the actors will have time to forget the libretto" ("In the Wake of the News" 8 August 1917 11). Other musical reviews fared even worse in Lardner’s writing. When Lardner saw an unnamed review in 1918, he reported his "Friend Harvey" that "[t]he best thing about it was that the audience could smoke" ("In the Wake of the News" 12 February 1918).

One consistent criticism Lardner voiced about the Follies and other reviews concerned the unsophisticated and base humor. He sums up "Why They Laugh in Vaudeville" in a four-word poem of the same name:

Hell!
Damn!
Him!
Ham! (12)

It has been well documented by his acquaintances and biographers that Lardner was prudish and reserved. He took every opportunity to distance himself through humor from the sexual elements of the revues. It is as if he wanted everyone to know that though he enjoyed going to the shows, he was uncomfortable in them. Typical of his humorous distancing is a review of a musical revue that included chorus girls written to his "Friend Harvey":

Well, Harvey, I don’t often change color, but I bet my old face was like a beet the way it felt and I kept getting scareder and scareder and a couple of times I felt like I would have to get up and leave and you can imagine my feelings when I noticed they was about 100 members of the fair sex in the audience and I thought they would be a general exodus when the curtain went up and they seen what kind of a show it was and they would all flea with that look on their faces like they get when they pretty near set down in the smoker by mistake.
("In the Wake of the News" 24 February 1917 14)

Lardner continued his criticism of sexually suggestive lyrics and shows until his death. His last regular writing assignment was writing a radio review column for the New Yorker, in which he often criticized lyrics he found to be too racy. Implicit in his criticism is the belief that popular music and theater can be morally and technically better, and that he could produce such material.

Lardner continuously tried to sell his sketches and songs to musical revues. He had a couple of his sketches included in small Chicago shows, but he was unable to find acceptance in major productions. In 1919, he signed a deal with Morris Gest, the theatrical producer, to write plays for him, and credited that deal with influencing him to leave the "Wake" and move to the East Coast, where he could be closer to the theater business (Elder 168). Unfortunately, Lardner was unable to write anything that Gest could use. Despite his initial optimism about working in the theater and despite his continued attempts to find work in the theater, Lardner did not meet with any degree of success until 1922 when Ziegfeld asked him to help write the book for that year’s Follies. He wrote five sketches for the show: three were rejected while the Follies were still in production, and the two remaining were "subjected to interpolation and rewriting" (Farnsworth151). One, that made it, "The Bull Pen," which starred Will Rogers, was singled out in most reviews as a highlight of the show—though it was one of very few highlights, mostly because of the absence of Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. Robert Benchley of Life Magazine wrote that waiting for Will Rogers or Lardner’s sketches made him realize "there is nothing like canoeing on a summer evening" (27). It was Lardner’s first full taste of the Follies, but it was a taste that he must have found to be sour.

Lardner quickly learned that his success in theater was dependent on a number of factors outside of his control. Unlike judgments of his other pieces of writing that were based solely on their own merits, judgment of Lardner’s work in the theater was based on the overall quality of the show and on the actors’ abilities. The creative process was also affected by others to a greater extent than it was in his prose career. Editors may have made suggestions, but Lardner’s work for print had usually been accepted as it was. Certainly no one changed his words without his consent. In the theater world, Lardner found that this was common place. The working conditions and what he considered to be lack of respect for writers are what caused Lardner the most grief. The "collaborative" atmosphere of the stage was foreign to Lardner. When his skits were cut on what seemed to him to be the whims of others or when his words were altered by actors Lardner didn’t enjoy it, to say the least. Lardner vented his frustration in his usual manner—through humor. In an article for Cosmopolitan called "Why Authors?" he writes of his Follies experience and speculates that it would be better to do away with authors all together, suggesting to Ziegfeld that he just let the actors write their scenes since they do it anyway, and stop wasting money on authors:

However the biggest waste is the royalties slipped to the boys that writes the original script of what some gay Mary Andrew has nicknamed the comedy scenes. Let a author tend a performance say 6 wks. to 2 mos. after the opening and when he has heard the lines then being used in said scenes he will wonder why is his name attached to them on the program. And between you and I he genally always wishes it wasn’t. (122-123)

In the same article, Lardner also complains about the actors and their penchant for altering scripts:

The actors has got that nag of knowing what to put in and what to leave out which a writer can’t never seem to learn and that is what makes it seem so silly for a producer to keep sending checks wk. by wk. to people that ain’t got no more to do with the show than Jane Addams. Personally will state in this regard that I wouldn’t cash cash the checks neither if it wasn’t for the wife and kiddies. (125)

In a much more personal attack on Ziegfeld’s character, the short story "A Day With Conrad Green," Lardner depicts the great producer as a petty, cheap, vain, and unintelligent song thief and general bully. Still, he felt drawn to the Follies and to Ziegfeld, because it and he represented success in the popular theater, which remained Lardner’s elusive goal.

By the late 1920s, all of Lardner’s efforts had resulted in the minimal commercial success described above. Though he had tried his hand at writing full-length plays, none had been completed. What could have been his break came when George M. Cohan asked him to write a play based on his baseball story "Hurry Kane."

Lardner had met Cohan in Chicago, but Cohan had never heard of him. He was accustomed to meeting with young theater aspirants and wanted to duck them as much as possible. When the two finally did meet, Lardner said: "Mr. Cohan, you’ve been in the theatre business for twenty years. You write songs and sing them. You dance. You write plays and produce them. You know everything there is to know about the theater. You’re the one man who can tell me what I want to know. Mr. Cohan, how the hell does a guy get on the water wagon?" (Elder 251). Cohan altered his plans for the evening so he could spend it with Lardner.

Cohan sent Lardner scripts to help him understand what it took to be a Broadway playwright. In return, Lardner submitted scripts to Cohan and they received personal attention. In 1917, Lardner sent him a play, which Cohan rejected because "I do not think the general public would be interested in so much baseball" (Elder 251).

Unfortunately, Cohan didn’t listen to his own advice and in 1928 produced a baseball story with Lardner, Elmer the Great. The play was re-written by Cohan to such a great extent that Lardner’s style is all but absent from the final script. Lardner complained in print and in private about Cohan’s liberties with his words in much the same manner as he had complained about Ziegfeld. It was made into three movies, but they have even less in common with Lardner than the final version of the play.

A collaboration that did work was the one he undertook with another George, George S. Kaufman, the next year. The two worked on a play version of Lardner’s short story "Some Like Them Cold." The system of collaboration was much more enjoyable to Lardner. He would write an act and show it to Kaufman. Kaufman would criticize it, and Lardner would re-write it—the only revision he had undertaken in his life. Kaufman acted as editor and manager rather than co-writer. The result was June Moon, which enjoyed a long run on Broadway and many road shows. It was produced again in 1997 and received the Lortel award for best revival that year.

Following his success with June Moon, Lardner made one more attempt to work for Ziegfeld, in the 1930 Ziegfeld production of Smiles. Lardner was brought in to save the show, and this delayed the opening by a week. Soon after, one of the show’s stars, Marilyn Miller (Fred and Edele Astaire were also in the program), got in a feud with the shows orchestrator, Paul Lannin, Lardner’s longtime friend. Vincent Youmans, the show’s songwriter, also a friend of Lardner’s, threatened to leave the show and stop Ziegfeld from using his material. The case ended in the New York Supreme Court and Ziegfeld was the winner (Ziegfeld 158). Lardner’s experience with musical theater ended much as it began, with frustration and disappointment. Lardner loved the form of the musical revue, but he didn’t like the way in which it was produced; he wanted to write funny sketches and songs, but was unable to do what he considered to be lowering his standards or relinquish his creative control to produce what others thought the mass market wanted.

 

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