Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

An Englishman In…

Monday, April 06, 2015

by Marcella Kearns

How's the following for a sweet review, just as easily descriptive of JEEVES TAKES A BOW as its original object?: "clever coherent farce, depending for its humor on a good central idea and legitimate situations, the whole peppered with attractive music."

WodehouseP.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), British humorist and creator of Bertie Wooster and his superhuman valet Jeeves, penned this notice of Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton's musical comedy NOBODY HOME in 1915 while he was working in New York City as a drama critic for VANITY FAIR. Based on an older British musical, the comedy proved the first of a series of Kern and Bolton partnerships which would markedly shift the nature of American musical comedies. Their soon-to-be partner in fleshing out dialogue and solidifying a new style? Wodehouse himself. Playwright Margaret Raether takes our heroes Jeeves and Wooster to New York in JEEVES TAKES A BOW, inspired by Wodehouse's stories of their adventures on our side of the pond, but Wodehouse's own history with the American theatre was just as singular and his influence lasting.

Oh BoyWodehouse's love affair with New York began in 1904, when he realized a long-held dream of visiting the city. New York, he would say later in AMERICA, I LIKE YOU, was "like being in heaven without having to go to all the bother and expense of dying." When he returned to England, he worked as a lyricist for the Aldwych Theatre in London, among other tasks; by 1909 he was back in New York. For the next several years, he hopped back and forth across the Atlantic, observing and writing about Americans and his own countrymen alike. (Reggie Pepper, the prototype for Bertie Wooster, appeared in his writing during this period-modeled after depictions of Englishmen Wodehouse saw on the New York stage. In 1915, Wooster and Jeeves appeared in the SATURDAY EVENING POST in the story "Extricating Young Gussie.") A hallmark of his work?-hyperbolizing particular national, regional, social, and individual characteristics of anyone about whom he wrote with a lightness of touch always humorous, never cruel.

Between 1915 and 1918, Wodehouse teamed with composer Kern and librettist Bolton to revolutionize American musical comedy-or at the very least, to provide a foundation for a format that valued coherent structure over spectacle (the signature of American musical comedies of the age). Called musicals in the "Princess style" after the Princess Theatre, a 299-seat house at which several originated, their productions pitched a higher standard for the art form. Instead of extravagant production values and variety which often sacrificed script cohesion, Bolton's scenarios, Wodehouse's dialogue and lyrics, and Kern's music sought to weave a tight and entertaining plot. Stories could still be silly, even ludicrous, but the words had to be clever and the music had to unfold seamlessly from the dialogue and action. Razor wit Dorothy Parker, who stepped into Wodehouse's shoes as critic at VANITY FAIR after his departure, applauded them: "Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern are my favorite indoor sport. I like the way they go about a musical comedy." Their work together through 1915-1918 produced landmarks of the style such as OH, BOY!, LEAVE IT TO JANE, and OH, LADY! LADY!!

oh ladyDuring the period of the Princess Theatre collaborations, Wodehouse found himself quite suited to the work-Kern would write music first, and he would fit lyrics to the composition. His understated humor and playfulness with language, already musical in its rhythms, was uncannily suited to Kern's style. He would continue to partner with Bolton and Kern in a trio or pair throughout the 1920s; theatrical producers called upon him to patch holes, spruce up, or downright rescue scripts. As early as 1921 he wrote to his stepdaughter Leonora that everybody wanted him to do a play! Typical in his personal correspondence at this time was reflection on the deadlines and long hours of life in the theatre. Writing to his friend William Townend in December 1922, for instance, he spilled a thought about one driven employer: "Life has been one damned bit of work after another ever since I landed. First, Bolton and I settled down and wrote a musical comedy in two weeks for Ziegfeld." And in November 1927: "New York is noisier than ever. I found my only way of getting any work done was to take a room out at the Great Neck golf club and work there. So I am the only man on record who commutes the wrong way. I catch the twelve o'clock train from New York most days and return after dinner."

INIMITABLE JEEVESBy the end of the 1920s, Wodehouse's attention began to drift from musical theater-or, at the very least, his prolific hand at text broadened its scope. Jeeves and Wooster were a well-established pair by this time-Wodehouse exercised them routinely throughout this period in short story form mainly for periodicals which were later gathered into short story collections such as THE INIMITABLE JEEVES in 1923 and CARRY ON, JEEVES in 1925. He headed West, to Hollywood, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put him on the payroll in 1929. He would return to musical theater periodically, most famously teaming with Guy Bolton to create the original book for Cole Porter's ANYTHING GOES in 1934. (Though it was revised by additional librettists, Wodehouse would be called upon to tweak the musical's text again for its West End run to give it a stronger British flavor.) As it happened, 1934 also marked the debut of the first full-length Jeeves novel, THANK YOU, JEEVES. Perhaps letting the demands of musical theater take a backseat played a part in allowing Wodehouse to delve more deeply into the world of Jeeves and Wooster-novels RIGHT HO, JEEVES and THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS followed soon after, with eight additional Jeeves novels to appear over the course of his career.


Hungry for history? Read more about Wodehouse in the sources for this article:

McCrum, Robert. WODEHOUSE: A LIFE. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.

Ratcliffe, Sophie, ed. P.G. WODEHOUSE: A LIFE IN LETTERS. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013.

Stempel, Larry. SHOWTIME: A HISTORY OF THE BROADWAY MUSICAL THEATER. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.

BONUS: Work by both Wodehouse and Parker appear in the following new book, a great periodical prose companion piece for Jeeves and Bertie's adventure in New York in April!:

Carter, Graydon, with David Friend, ed. BOHEMIANS, BOOTLEGGERS, FLAPPERS, AND

SWELLS: THE BEST OF EARLY VANITY FAIR. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

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