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Ring Lardner's Plays
part four: the nonsense plays


Updated 04 January 2006

part one: general introduction | part two:  newspaper plays
part three: popular stage | part five: conclusion |Play Listing

 

 

 

 

 
 

    Lardner found an atmosphere more to his liking among the small revues put on by more intellectual and creative types. The Authorís League, The Dutch Treat Club, The Lambs Club, and a group associated with the Algonquin Round Table, all produced his small nonsense plays, whether they were intended to be produced or not.
     The first to make it to the stage was "The Tridget of Greva." In the fall of 1922, "Tridget" was performed by members of the Algonquin Round Table (or as Donald Elder says, "more or less associated" with the Round Table) in a revue called The Forty-Niners. It was a follow-up to their successful show earlier that year, No Siree, which contained many short sketches in the same nonsensical vein as Lardner’s.
     From all accounts, "Tridget" was well received, though the revue as a whole was a flop. In his book American Musical Revue, Gerald Bordman credits "The Forty-Niners" with changing the direction of musical revue from a revue with sketches and music to a revue of music because of its complete failure and intellectual demands of its sketches (63). In short, the sort of sketches that were performed were difficult for the audience to understand. "Tridget," though, the quirky and unusual play about nothing, survived on its own. It is still performed about a half dozen (official) times a year.
     "The Tridget of Greva" seems to be a transitional play for Lardner. Like the sketches he wrote and unlike the later nonsense plays, it is intended for performance; yet it includes many nonsensical elements, chiefly in dialogue, later found in the nonsense plays. From "Tridget" until 1931 with the publication of "Quadroon," Lardner wrote at least eight nonsense plays, but only "Tridget" and "Dinner Bridge" were written for the stage. The rest were written for newspapers and magazines, written for a reader’s mind, as were the plays he wrote earlier for "In the Wake of the News." Because of their impossible stage directions, instructing actors to act as if they just came from a waffle house or to enter through a faucet, exotic and often shifting scenes, the outskirts of a Parcheesi board to a one-way street in Jeopardy, unusual casts, consisting of zebus, rats, and celebrities, and realistic applications of time, acts or scenes lasting from a few days to a week, the reader’s mind, is, of course, the only place the nonsense plays could be staged.
     Determining the "meaning" of the nonsense plays is an impossible and perhaps even nonsensical endeavor. Many tried to label these plays as "dada" or as parody of such, but Lardner claimed no such intention. In an interview with Grant Overton, Lardner specifically denied writing the plays to satirize the Moscow Art Theatre, saying he had written them long before there was such a thing (44), a claim supported by his plays published in his column "In the Wake of the News" and by the findings of his biographers. According to Donald Elder, his first biographer:

Dramaturgy was Ring’s meat almost from infancy. He found a good deal of theatrical inspiration at home. The repartee in the Lardner family was swift and uninhibited by the rules of classical drama.  Their favorite kind of humor was part of Ring’s heritage as a writer.  They were always amused by the kind of incorrect grammar and diction that characterizes the speaker; they played with words, and the more outrageous their puns, the funnier they were. Mrs. Lardner
and the three youngest children were gifted with a wild kind of free association, and much of their conversation culminated in mad
irrelevancies that resembled the dialogue of Ring’s later nonsense plays. The Lardner family had a style; its influence on Ring’s own
style is marked. (243)

According to Lardner himself, he wrote them, and plays in general, simply because he enjoyed doing so. It was his lack of intention (and pretension) that convinced others, such as Ernest Hemingway, substituting for Ford Madox Ford as editor of the Transatlantic Review, to prefer Lardner’s natural or "native dada" to what he considered to be the pretentious Russians (103) and declare that Lardner’s nonsense was worthy of serious attention.
     Despite Lardner’s objections, it is difficult to ignore some of the satirical arrows shot at American Theater in the nonsense plays. American drama during Lardner’s time was dominated by the lavish scenery of David Belasco and the naturalistic or realistic movements. Lardner’s nonsense plays satirize all attempts at naturalism in two distinct ways: first, by including "realistic" settings of both space and time which are impossible or impractical to reproduce, and secondly, by writing stage directions for the actors that are impossible to communicate to an audience. Drawing attention to the futility of realistic depictions of time in the theater, Lardner directs that the curtain be "lowered and partially destroyed to denote the passage of four days" in "Abend di Anni Nouveau," or that it be "lowered for seven days to denote the lapse of a week" in "I. Gaspiri." In "Taxidea Americana" the play is delayed and the crowd remains until the following Tuesday, at which point they begin going home. Such directions provide, as Delmore Schwartz has observed, "a concise definition of the limitations of naturalism in the theater" (52). The locations of his plays are also oftentimes impossible to reproduce, whether because of their fantastical nature—"A one-way street in Jeopardy" in "Abend di Anni Nouveau" or "The Outskirts of a Parchesi Board" in "Clemo Uti"—or because they are too large to be reproduced even by Belasco himself, as is the case with a a football stadium with bands and fans in Act V of "Taxidea Americana." Finally, the "realistic" directions for the actors defy communication to an audience. In "Abend di Anni Nouveau," three giggling men are directed to "give the impression that one of them’s mother runs a waffle parlor"; "Clemo Uti" includes the directions "She exits as if she had had waffles"; and in "Cora, or Fun at a Spa," a character "looks as if she had once gone on an excursion to the Delaware Water Gap." Such information is impossible, of course, to convey. Besides the various limitations of space, time, and knowledge, working against the possibility of appearing real on the stage is the constant awareness on the part of audience and actor that what is happening is, in fact, a play.
     From the fisherman in "The Tridget of Greva" who remarks that the wind is coming from "off-stage" to the waiter in "Abend di Anni Nouveau" who remarks that after the murders of all of the characters, the play will have to be recast, Lardner’s nonsense characters are constantly reminding the audience of their own and the play’s own fictional nature. The message is clear: Nothing on the stage is, nor can it be "real."
     Though this message is common in many forms of experimental drama, it is likely that Lardner’s attitude toward realism in the theater expressed in the nonsense plays had a satirical motive (deflating the over-reacher and the pretentious), rather than a philosophical one. Unlike the dadists, futurists, surrealists, expressionists, and members of other avant guard movements, Lardner subscribed to no known theories of drama; in fact, his alliance with the "common American" would force him to eschew any such "highbrow" intellectual schools of thought.
     Deflation of the pretensions of the theater, then, may have a more personal motive. The nonsense plays may be a sort of gentle revenge for the way Lardner was treated by the popular theater. Certainly, forcing two Broadway theatrical producers to enter a scene riding pelicans and an actor to enter through a faucet has something more than simple nonsense behind it. Lardner’s complaints and frustrations voiced in "Why Authors" are all addressed in one way or another in the nonsense plays. Lardner said that the actors didn’t like "The Other World" because no one had a big enough part: in most of the nonsense plays, characters, and thus actors’ roles, are replaced almost as soon as they enter the stage. No character (actor) dominates a nonsense play; in fact, they are often upstaged by rats, milch cows, laughing horses, and other animal acts. Lardner also complained that actors had a habit of embellishing his scripts with their own lines. In the nonsense plays, the author retains complete control. Actors do not have the power to revise because before they could do so, they are themselves revised out of the play. The character listings at the beginning of the plays rarely reflect the actual characters who appear in the plays; in the extreme, "Abend di Anni Nouveau" has all of the listed characters killed in the opening scene. Even when characters appear with their limited lines, they are interrupted by Lardner himself, through the use of intrusive and sometimes lengthy notes. In the nonsense plays, Lardner himself retains control of the script—something he was unable to do in the theater. The plays are, for the most part, unproducable, and that may be the only way Lardner thought they could remain his exclusive creative property.
     If there are any direct influences on Lardner’s nonsense, they probably come from the world around him—the actions of friends and strangers, and the sounds of the new American landscape. In a way, Lardner’s nonsense is simply another journalistic endeavor for him; he reports the world as he sees it. Much of the Jazz Age party mentality that surrounded Lardner was, in fact, random and absurd. One scene Lardner describes to F. Scott Fitzgerald, his former neighbor and, at the time, a recent expatriate, resembles a scene in later nonsense plays in which characters imitate birds or buildings or come on the stage for no apparent reason on high-wheeled bicycles. Lardner describes a Fourth of July party at Ziegfeld comic Ed Wynn’s house. The party lasted all evening and spilled over into the next day, when it moved to actor Tom Meighan’s house. Lardner explains: "the principal entertainment was provided by Lila Lee and another dame, who did some very funny imitations (really funny) in the moonlight on the tennis court. We would ask them to imitate Houdini, or Leon Errol, or Will Rogers, or Elsie Janis; the imitations were all the same, consisting of an aesthetic dance which ended with an unaesthetic fall onto the tennis court" (Letters 183). Another real-life scene Lardner reports has an unexplainable and nonsensical feel about it as well:

Well, what I started to say was that on Friday afternoon, I had to go way downtown to buy an algebra book for John, and I came uptown on a bus. I say on the roof and a lady sat down beside me. Her costume looked as if it had been cut out of a wash cloth. She said: "What time is it?" I said: "It is half past three." She said: "Oh, I thought you were a Mexican." (Letters 210-211)

As Lardner says at the close of the story, "[c]onversations like that can never be explained" (211). Lardner did not try to explain such nonsensical activities that happened around him; he simply reported them as he had reported sporting and political events for years before.
     Of course, the everyday nonsense is distilled in the plays—all normalcy evaporates, leaving only the nonsensical. It is then made even more potent by Lardner’s exaggerated sense of the absurd. Drunken party performances and non sequiturs of the train stand out in everyday life as contrasts to the mundane and normal; in the nonsense plays such scenes are the mundane and normal. The woman on the train who asks Lardner for the time would be met by a character speaking his own non sequiturs; the party imitations would be met by other imitators or something even more bizarre—say a zebu or a realtor. The nonsense plays create a world in which a gangster can be used as a card table, as in "Abend di Anni Nouveau," without anyone finding it peculiar. Senator La Follette can practice sliding to base and be interrupted by a farmer on a pogo stick in "Taxidea Americana," or Frank Case, the Algonquin Hotel manager can inexplicably ask the mayor of New York and the Prince of Wales: "Pardon me, Officer, but can either of you boys play a cellophane?" in "Quadroon" and no one is shocked. The degree of nonsense is higher in the plays than in his real-life experiences, exaggerated for comic effect, but the principle—people behave oddly and say things for no apparent reason—is the same.
    
Besides strange situations, one important and common element of the nonsense plays is the comical and offbeat sound of many of the individual words. Whether the words are real or invented, English or foreign, common or archaic, used in their proper form or in unusual ways, the odd-sounding words create a tone of strangeness and playfulness, which sets the sheer enjoyment of nonsense in motion. Lardner found many words to be funny simply because of their sound. If the word had a peculiar meaning, or he could invent such a meaning, the humor was doubled. Lardner played with unusual or invented words in his personal life as well as in print. It is reported that once, while playing a 1920s parlor game, Lardner was asked to list what he considered the ten most beautiful words: he listed "Gangrene, flit, scram, mange, wretch, smoot, guzzle, McNaboe, blute, crene," explaining that "blute" is a "smoker who doesn’t inhale" and "crene" is "a man who inhales but doesn’t smoke" (Yardley 237). He loved the word "mange" so much, that’s what he named one of his homes. In his plays, such nonsense words, funny at their root simply because of their sound, appear in a variety of places—chiefly in the stage directions and in the listings of characters, but also in the lines spoken by the characters and even in the titles themselves.
     One of the most common uses of the nonsense word can be found in Lardner’s listings of characters in which either the name itself or the character’s occupation is given a funny-sounding title. This habit harkens back to childhood and to the columns. In 1919, Lardner used several of his columns to pose questions to fictional readers and list their responses. The readers include "Lucius Kamelin, shoehorn agent," "Harold Spim, quarrel adjuster," "Charley Aspirin, stumble mate," "Geo. Plant, weasle pursuer," "John Sublett, blotter tearer," "Artie Hofman, shirt dispenser," and even himself, R. W. Lardner, as a "collar buttoner" (3 May 1919 20). These sorts of characters’ names and descriptions appear in many of the nonsense plays: "I. Gaspiri" features "Ian Obri, a blotter salesman," "Egso, a pencil guster," and "Tono, a typical wastebasket"; "Cora, or Fun at a Spa" features "Plague Bennett, an embryo Steeplejack"; and "The Gelska Cup" includes "Palsy, a toe dancer".
     Often, the nonsense sound of the words is drawn from foreign or pseudo-foreign sources. Because of unprecedented waves of immigration into the United States during Lardner’s lifetime, and the increased awareness of foreign countries brought on by World War I and its aftermath, Lardner’s world—first the newspaper world and then the theatrical and literary world—was flooded with new, and no doubt to the American ear, comically unusual sounding, foreign words. The daily headlines and news stories were filled with information about unpronounceable world leaders and exotic places. The streets and the stages were filled with a variety of accents. Lardner pokes fun at the superficial aspects of these new and exotic places and people, using their words and speech patterns for comic effect. "The Tridget of Greva" is translated from the "Squinch," a nonsense word; "I. Gaspiri," defined parenthetically as "The Upholsterers," is "adapted from the Bukovinan of Casper Redmonda; "Taxidea Americana" is "Translated from the Mastoid," and "Cora, or Fun at the Spa," makes a more subtle allusion to foreign drama, the French in particular, with its subtitle, "An Expressionist Drama of Love and Death and Sex." In other plays, foreign accents, taken to the extreme, are the source of the humor. In "Dinner and Bridge," for example, every common accent used on the vaudeville stage is included and exaggerated. Characters switch accents in mid-sentence, and are directed to "talk in correct, Crowninshield dinner English, except that occasionally, say every fourth or fifth speech, whoever is talking suddenly bursts into dialect, either his own or Jewish or Chinese or what you will."
     Whatever dialect the characters in Lardner’s nonsense plays are speaking, their skills as communicators are usually similar. Characters speak without listening, ignore one another, and forget the subject of their conversation. The non sequitur becomes the essential element of their conversations. In "Clemo Uti," and "Quadroon" almost no conversation transpires. In "Dinner Bridge" the waiter continually asks questions and leaves before he can get an answer: as Taylor explains "He’s been that way for years—a born questioner but he hates answers." When characters do talk to each other about the same subject, there is inevitably misunderstanding, as when the glue lifters in "I. Gaspiri" fail to accomplish the most perfunctory of greetings: the first asks the second how he is doing and calls him "My Man," and the second misunderstands the question as a request to sing "My Man."
     Even when the conversation concerns more important matters the speakers are unable to maintain interest long enough to communicate. In "Abend di Anni Nouveau" the waiter and the second policemen forget what they are discussing eight lines into the conversation: the subject is the mass murder that has just occurred and the bodies that lay before them.
     Lardner distilled and thus intensified the nonsensical sounds and actions of his society into the comic tributes to non-communication and bizarre behavior known as the nonsense plays. Though they were written for personal amusement, they were still published, and others were let in on the joke. His nonsense plays received attention and praise when they were collected in What of It? and posthumously in First and Last. Generally, they were admired for exposing what Lardner’s second biographer Jonathan Yardley calls "the phenomenon of non-communication." Some believe the "non-communication" to be silly and comical; others find it signifies deep isolation and despair. For example, one critic says "The significance of his nonsense plays is precisely this despairing sense that nothing connects up with anything else" (Holmes 35). Another tries to account for the despair and the laughter it oddly brings:

There was one final stage beyond despair. It is no surprise to discover that Lardner turned to writing nonsense plays and fairy tales in which
the main source of humor is the unintentional pun and the non sequitur. From one viewpoint they were simply extensions of what he had been describing all along [isolation]. Here, however, the isolation is so absolute and abstract that it sheds its human dimension and becomes an exercise in the absurdity and impotence of language itself. But in another way, these diversions recapture some of the childlike joy that must have made life seem so fresh to Lardner in those years when he was deciding to make his living by making people laugh—before he, like his characters and his age, had wised up. (Spatz 110)

The "childlike joy" of the nonsense plays is unmistakable. The comical scenes around the breakfast table related in the "Wake" plays are still present in the strange but harmless conversations and actions of the nonsense play characters.

 

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