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Moments when one needs a drink (Barmy in Wonderland)

1952 Barmy in Wonderland (UK title) mycopy

‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’

So says Mervyn Potter, Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn. In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).

It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.

Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior.  At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble,  very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.

‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’

This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:

…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”

“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”

His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”

Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.

I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest.  Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.

But that’s enough from me for one day.  This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .

‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’

HP

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9 Comments

  1. Ken clevenger says:

    Thanks for highlighting some of Plum’s great words on the consumption and consequences of strong beverages. A committed imbiber, but not known, or at least not well-known, for over-indulgence, Wodehouse clearly was a fellow who knew how and when to say when. And it is so important to know when an author is displaying his own personal views. I think Wodehouse did so several times in writing about animals and writers/writing (oh, yes, and taxes!) but most of his fictional world was lovely fiction.

  2. I’m thirteen minutes late for my aperitif. Chin chin!

  3. Sudheer says:

    Did you know that the entire sequence of Barmy visiting Mervyn Potter for the dinner appointment was lifted word to word from another Wodehouse story printed in a magazine hence not a part of a collection with the name of ”Dudley ——-”? I have a photocopy of the story somewhere. Mervyn’s dog is hilarious too.

  4. ashokbhatia says:

    Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    The world is inhabited by two kinds of people – those who have come to depend upon a tissue restorative of some kind and others who chug along their lives in a perfectly sober state of mind. However, a vast majority keeps shifting its loyalties between the two kinds, keeping an age old question alive and ticking – to drink or not to drink!
    Here is a tipsy post from the inimitable Honoria which you might relish.
    Hic, hic, hurray!

  5. […] up drink and threatens to cancel the fixture if he fails. Anyone reading Barmy in Wonderland (as discussed previously at Plumtopia) can see that she has a point. Mervyn is habitually plastered — he gets truculent, creates […]

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