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Ring Lardner's Plays
part five: conclusion


Updated 04 January 2006

part one: general introduction | part two:  newspaper plays
part three: popular stage | part four: nonsense plays | Play Listing

 

 

 

 

 

     In the last years of his life, Ring Lardner was writing what he hoped would be his best play. It was to be a serious look at alcoholism and its effects on the family, a topic Lardner was all too familiar with from his own empirical investigations, but one which he had always treated in his writing with humor. It was the only work he could motivate himself to do. Parts of the first two acts were completed, but Lardnerís failing health prevented him from doing any more. Despite what Heywood Broun thought, even doing what he loved wasn’t enough to bring back his health.
     Lardner died at the young age of forty-eight, but he left an enormous body of work. His reputation as a sports writer, as a columnist, as a humorist, and as a short story writer is sound; however, his reputation as a dramatist is almost nonexistent.  His legacy is mixed. Most of Lardner’s dramatic output was commercially unsuccessful. Many of his plays were unfinished or unproduced. With the exception of June Moon, for which he shares credit with George S. Kaufman, none of his longer dramatic works are still performed.
     Perhaps Lardner’s problems with full-length plays are a mirror of his problems with the long form in fiction. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald, Scribner’s editor Max Perkins, and others continually prodded Lardner to write a novel, and tried to convince him that writing one was the only way to reach his literary potential and to ensure his reputation, Lardner resisted. Some of his collections of sequential short stories such as You Know Me, Al, The Big Town, and Gullible’s Travels, resemble a novel in length, but none resemble a novel in depth or scope. In fiction, Lardner
worked best with short forms and he attempted to write nothing else. Though he did attempt to write longer pieces in dramatic form, short plays were still his forte.
     Lardner produced enough short stories, short non-fiction pieces, and short plays (more than one hundred of each) to fill many books. Among them are many developmental pieces written while Lardner was learning his craft, and many uninspired pieces, written, for the most part, at the suggestion of others. But also among them are some of the most inventive and well-crafted pieces of his era. His reputation should rest on what he did produce, rather than on what he didn’t accomplish; on his best work, rather than his worst; and on what he was best suited to write, rather than on those forms for which he had no natural talent. If it is true that one needs a book-length work to establish credibility and a lasting reputation, then the problem of Lardner’s dramatic reputation may be one of poor representation and lack of collection rather than one of lack of output. Though the collections of his short stories are, for the most part, re-issues of older collections and not geared to a contemporary audience, they do exist, and Lardner receives some continued readership and critical attention because of it. Lardner wrote enough quality short plays to fill a book; one simply hasn’t been produced.
     Lardner’s short plays include work he did for his newspaper column, "In the Wake of the News," revue sketches, and nonsense plays. The newspaper plays cover a wide-range of topics in a variety of ways, beginning with sports-related plays. Though the names of the players are forgotten in many cases, the situations and attitudes are surprisingly current. One needn’t look too far to find present-day examples of greedy magnates, uninformed fans, or, on the positive side, dedicated and engaging players. What sets them apart from other sports writing is Lardner’s ceaseless imagination, which can create for a daily column a wonderful two-part Shakespearean parody, expertly paraphrasing and quoting six plays ("Charles the First" and "King Henry the First"), or condense an entire year’s worth of sports stories into a two-act nonsensical play with parodies of modern songs and of dialect comedy ("The Follies of 1913"). When the subject matter is politics or Lardner’s personal life, the pertinence and inventiveness of the sports-related plays still is present. In "La Follette of 1917," Lardner reveals childish behavior among Senators as exactly what it is by having the Senators call each other names and debate verb usage instead of doing the business of the country—a scenario which is as equally possible today as it was during World War I. In his breakfast table plays, he celebrates nonsense and fancy by "recording" the bizarre, disjointed, but creative repartee of the youthful members of his family.
     Lardner brings this childlike sense of the absurd to the revue sketches and especially to the nonsense plays. While attempting to fit his unique talent to the Ziegfeld stage produced less than successful results, Lardner was still able to write a number of short plays that when taken off of the stage and presented in the more appropriate environs of the reader’s mind, are remarkably creative and up to date. Watching "Not Guilty" on the stage would deprive the audience of directions like "He sits down in a hubbub of quiet," which are one of the greatest sources of humor in the play. Writing drama that was meant to be read rather than performed became Lardner’s specialty. Without the restrictions of producers, actors, and a stage, Lardner was able to write whatever his imagination led him to write. It enabled him to write plays that satirized plays themselves. 
     The nonsense plays represent the best of Lardner’s dramatic work. They draw upon themes and subjects explored in his other plays, but bring them to a new level of absurdity. In the earlier plays there were speakers who were self-absorbed and dialogue that was nonsensical, but it was usually set against a "normal" and sane backdrop. In the nonsense plays the absurd is the norm. All of the characters are operating in their own worlds, for their own purposes. When they meet each other and converse, the non sequitur is the primary element of their discourse. The earlier plays included odd scenes or strange authorial commentary from time to time, but in the nonsense plays author’s notes or translator’s notes often interrupt the dialogue, stage directions are nearly always impossible to follow, and the odd scene is every scene. Though he wrote the nonsense plays for personal rather than "artistic" reasons, his "native dada" is no less inspiring and thought-provoking.
     From the parodies and scenes he wrote for his newspaper columns, to his attempts to fit his talent to the revue stage, and finally to his wonderfully engaging nonsense plays, Lardner’s love for the form shows through, as does his talent for it. Lardner presents the world around him through a unique comic, satirical, and absurdist lens, one that exposes the arrogance and ignorance of a generation, while simultaneously bringing a smile to the reader’s face through the use of childlike nonsense.

 

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