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On 28 January, the British Library celebrated their recent acquisition of the Wodehouse archives with P.G. Wodehouse: A musical celebration. As the title suggests, the event celebrated Wodehouse’s lesser known but important contribution as a musical theatre lyricist, working in collaboration with Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern and others (including George and Ira Gershwin).
I felt privileged to be among those present as singer Hal Cazalet and actress Lara Cazalet (Wodehouse’s great grandchildren) and pianist Stephen Higgins performed songs from the Wodehouse songbook, including: ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’, ‘You Never Knew About Me’, ‘The Enchanted Train’, ‘Oh Gee Oh Joy’, ‘Bill’, and ‘Anything Goes’.
Hal Cazalet also provided a rapt audience with some professional insights into his grandfather’s methods as a lyricist, and his influence on later developments in musical theatre. Hal put forward a convincing argument that Wodehouse’s work as a lyricist not only influenced, but improved Wodehouse’s writing.
A highlight of the day was listening to Sir Edward Cazalet, one of the few people living today who knew ‘Plum’ and Ethel Wodehouse well. Edward’s reminiscences about his grandfather were affectionate and deeply moving – and fans will be touched to learn that Edward still has the pencil his grandfather was holding when he died.
The proceedings were further enhanced by observations from assembled experts, including Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum (Wodehouse: A Life), Sophie Ratcliffe (who edited PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters) and Tony Ring, whose extensive research and numerous works on Wodehouse include the multi-volume Wodehouse Concordances.
After the formal proceedings, came the infinite pleasures of meeting other Wodehouse lovers – both old friends and new ones. It was wonderful to meet members of the Dutch P.G. Wodehouse Society, who had travelled to London especially for the event, online friends from the Facebook Fans of P.G. Wodehouse group, U.K. Society members, and even a few celebrities. A socially inclined gaggle of us, reluctant for the festivities to end, moved on to a local hostelry where the feast of reason and flow of soul continued long into a splendid Winter evening.
I recommend that you also read Mike Swaddling’s account of the event at the UK Wodehouse Society website (with pictures by Dutch Wodehouse Society President Peter Nieuwenhuizen) via British Library Celebrates Plum the Lyricist (Wodehouse Society report)
Plumtopia has been a selfish venture from the beginning. It was born from my own dissatisfaction with life, and the search for a better kind of world – that I called Plumtopia. Having never met a fellow Wodehouse fan I presumed I’d have no audience, and consequently wrote entirely to please myself. I do love the sound of my own keyboard. But then something wonderful happened. People started to read, to comment, and even identify with some of the thoughts and feelings I expressed. I may be no closer to finding Plumtopia, but there is comfort in knowing that I’m in dashed good company.
That dashed good company includes Noel Bushnell. Many of the blogs I read are rousing social and political commentaries that cause the blood pressure to rise and the soul to despair (not that I blame writers for reflecting a troubled world). So reading Noel’s aptly titled Wodehouse to the rescue felt like an application of soothing balm. I loved it!
Today, I’m sharing his terrific follow up piece, commemorating the Centenary of P.G. Wodehouse’s collaboration with Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern. It’s a must for Wodehouse fans.
I presented the following talk to the Ferkytoodlers group of serious thinkers over lunch at the Melbourne Savage Club on Wednesday, 11 November 2015. I intended to post it here with suitable modifications and credits the following weekend but, when I awoke that Saturday morning to news of the dreadful events in Paris overnight, somehow the works of a long dead author and the peaceful world of his imagination seemed less important. It seemed in bad taste to be prattling on about trivial entertainment when people were being murdered.
Of course, the Paris massacre is by no means unique in our world – alas! – and as I brooded on this bleak topic I was reminded of a remark Wodehouse blogger Honoria Plum made in a comment on my first Wodehouse to the rescue piece. She referred to the sentiment behind her blog, Plumtopia, as “looking for snippets of…
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N.T.P. Murphy identifies the Coal Hole in The Strand (in A Wodehouse Handbook, Volume One ) as one of four remaining London pubs mentioned in Wodehouse’s writing. It is mentioned in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’, after long-suffering narrator James Corcoran meets Ukridge at the Gaiety Theatre.
‘Hallo, laddie!’ said Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, genially. ‘When did you get back? I say, I want you to remember this tune, so that you can remind me of it tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have forgotten it. This is how it goes.’ He poised himself flat-footedly in the surging tide of pedestrians and, shutting his eyes and raising his chin, began to yodel in a loud and dismal tenor. ‘Tumty-tumty-tumty-tum, tum, tum, tum,’ he concluded. ‘And now, old horse, you may lead me across the street to the Coal Hole for a short snifter….’
Ukridge leads Corky down the steps to the cellar bar and, over a couple of tawny ports, outlines his latest scheme of managing a champion boxer. During a recent visit to London, I followed his example, leading my family down the same steps and through the back entrance, immediately next to the Savoy Theatre stage door.
The Coal Hole is in the heart of Wodehouse’s West End. The Savoy Theatre was very much of Wodehouse’s time, opening in October 1881, five days before his birth. It’s owner, theatre impresario and hotelier Richard D’Oyly Carte, was father to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, whom Wodehouse credited as the inspiration for the character of Psmith (the D’Oyly Carte family believe Wodehouse confused Rupert with his brother, Lucas). The Savoy Theatre was home to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which the young Wodehouse greatly admired. Wodehouse would later have one of his own plays, Brother Alfred (written with Herbert Westbrook), produced by Lawrence Grossmith at the Savoy in 1913.
The Gaiety Theatre (demolished in 1956) was famous for its musical comedies and chorus girls, including the ‘Gaiety Girls’ who shocked society by marrying into wealth and aristocracy. They were also a great source of material for the young Wodehouse, who worked for The Gaiety as a stand-in lyric writer (see Murphy’s Handbook for juicy details). His writing is bursting with actresses (like Cora ‘Corky’ Pirbright), chorus girls (Sue Brown, Billy Dore) and former stage dames who’ve put their past behind them, like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Julia.
There are some things a chappie’s mind absolutely refuses to picture, and Aunt Julia singing ‘Rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay’ is one of them.
(Extricating Young Gussie, 1915)
Wodehouse’s long association with the theatre is most remembered for his contribution as a Broadway lyricist, working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. For an account of his theatrical career, Wodehouse and Bolton’s 1954 memoir Bring on the Girls is terrific fun.
There are also references in Wodehouse’s fiction that are clearly drawn from his experiences in the theatre. George Bevan, hero of A Damsel in Distress, is a good example.
‘You aren’t George Bevan!’
‘But—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her – ‘But I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records on the Victrola at home.’
George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get used to Fame at close range.
‘Why, that trickly thing – you know, in the second act – is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.’
‘Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?’
‘No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum. You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy.’
‘I’m not responsible for the words, you know,’ urged George hastily. ‘These are wished on me by the lyricist.’
‘I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her! …’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
Similar sentiments were politely concealed by my long-suffering family, who stood by the entrance to the Coal Hole as I indulged my habit of talking to strangers — on this occasion, a charmingly odd bird, who genially informed us that he hailed from outer space. I ought to have invoked the Ukridge spirit by inviting him to join our party, before touching him for a fiver, or at the very least a glass of port (poor Corky is touched for two rounds of tawny in ‘The Debut of Battling Billson’). Sadly, Ukridge’s big, broad, flexible outlook deserted me at the critical moment.
We took the steps down into the quiet, wood panelled cellar bar. It was easy to imagine this cosy haven attracting thirsty theatre goers, cast and crew. Its intimate atmosphere offers patrons the potential for raucous conversation, intimacy or solitude, according to the mood and occasion. A friendly barmaid directed us to explore the main bar on the floor above, with its entrance directly onto the Strand, abaft the Savoy and (presumably) opposite the old Gaiety. The two bars probably attracted different clientele, but Ukridge was a man who mixed in a wide variety of social circles and I wondered at his choice of the cellar over the grander bar. But as a slightly shabby Colonial, Ukridge’s tastes suited me perfectly well.
My snifter at the Coal Hole was short, but instructive, and it seems a fitting way to toast the end of another year of writing Plumtopia. I’d like to close this final piece for 2015, by raising a glass of the old tawny to you, readers and friends. Thanks for your support and encouragement.
Best wishes to you all for 2016!
‘How’s the show going?’
‘It’s a riot. They think it will run two years in London. As far as I can make it out you don’t call it a success in London unless you can take your grandchildren to see the thousandth night.’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
To celebrate the recent anniversay of the first Blandings novel, I visited the charming town of Chichester to see a new stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. This story first appeared as a serial in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1919, and was published in book form later the same year. During Wodehouse’s lifetime it was adapted as a silent film, a stage-play (by Wodehouse and Ian Hay), and as a 1937 musical starring Fred Astaire with music from George and Ira Gershwin.
Wodehouse’s own career in the theatre spanned some thirty years. He wrote several plays and was a theatre critic for Vanity Fair. His main contribution, however, was as a Broadway lyricist working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. The theatre world features frequently and is affectionately portrayed in his stories, including A Damsel in Distress.
Wodehouse belonged to the stage as well as the page, so when I learned that a new stage musical of A Damsel in Distress was being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I wasted no time in dashing off to Sussex to catch the final performance on June 27th. And boy am I glad I did!
The show has finished it’s run in Chichester, but you can still watch the rehearsal trailer. The story of my visit to Chichester and a glowing review of the show follows below.
My visit to Chichester
The first treat on my visit to Chichester occurred on route. The journey by train from my home in Somerset to Chichester requires roughly three hours, and about a dozen changes, but redeems itself by passing through Wodehouse’s former home town of Emsworth. As N.T.P Murphy confirms in The P G Wodehouse Miscellany (2015), Emsworth is the ‘real’ location of Belpher village, where A Damsel in Distress is set. For anyone who has visited this former oyster fishing town (as I did in 2013) Wodehouse’s depiction of Belpher is clearly the same place.
For years Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them; chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line ever between popular homage and and execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize-fighters; and oysters are no exception to the rule. There was a typhoid scare — quite a passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water is still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster-beds are still there; but not the oysters nor the little world of activity which had sprung up around them.
A Damsel in Distress
Its proximity to Emsworth makes nearby Chichester a fitting place to stage this musical revival of A Damsel in Distress. It is also close to Goodwood Racecourse, where many Wodehouse characters (notably Bingo Little) have lost a bundle.
Chichester itself is an attractive, prosperous looking town, with an attractive, prosperous looking populace and an air of genteel distinction. As someone who is neither attractive nor prosperous, I never felt more of a blot on the landscape as I did waddling down Chichester’s main street. Even the town’s elderly inhabitants — women old enough to have earned the right to elasticated waists and comfortable shoes — could be seen teetering precariously under half-a-ton of jewellery, on heels that would give me vertigo. The good ladies of Chichester do not let themselves go – they cling on.
Inspecting myself critically in shop-windows, I felt increasingly like a worm who has gotten above itself and crawled into Princess Charlotte’s salade nicoise. So I popped into a local “outfitters to the gentry” in the faint hope that it’s never too late to start making an effort. I don’t know what I expected to find — some tasteful trousers or a tweed skirt. What I got was a shock. It seems the gentry and I are discrepant on matters of taste as well as oofiness. Whereas my inclination is to cover the baggage with cloth, the modern Lady seems to prefer the sort of costume that looks as if it’s been designed by the Gynecological Society to allow curbside examinations.
Leaving empty-handed, I proceeded to the Chichester Festival Theatre in a slightly nervous state (overtaking several septuagenarians in stilettos on the way), but my first sight of the theatre put me at ease. Of a stylish 1960s design and situated opposite an expansive lawn, it reminded me of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, where I saw my first performances as a child and was later married in the rotunda on the lawn. The day was warm (in Chichester, not Adelaide) and the doors had been thrown open, bringing a refreshing breeze indoors. It was the sort of day Wodehouse himself might have written about, and I quickly felt at home among the throng of theatre-goers, beaming in happy anticipation.
Review of A Damsel in Distress
A Damsel in Distress did not disappoint. From the moment the chorus tapped out the opening number — Things Are Looking Up! — I knew I was in the presence of something special. I believe Rob Ashford, the show’s American director and choreographer is some sort of big-wig in the business — and by golly he oughta be! It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have been more perfect.
This adaptation compares favourably to both the original novel and the Astaire musical. George Bevan (played by Richard Fleeshman) is an American composer overseeing the introduction his latest Broadway hit to the London stage. He falls in love with Lady Maud Marshmoreton (Summer Strallen), whose family mistake him for the man she loves. They want her to marry Reggie Byng (Richard Dempsey), who in turn loves Alice Keggs (Melle Stewart), who is Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary and a niece of Keggs of the Butler. Meanwhile George’s friend in the chorus, Billy Dore (Sally Ann Triplett), mistakes Lord Marshmoreton (the wonderful Nicholas Farrell) for a gardener, and captures his heart.
The unpleasantness of class snobbery pervades the piece — as it does throughout Wodehouse’s work. I am always bewildered by the popular misconception of Wodehouse as a preserver of class distinction, when his plots repeatedly smash both class and trans-Atlantic cultural barriers. In A Damsel in Distress, class snobbery is embodied in character of Lady Caroline Byng, who is Maud’s Aunt and Reggie’s step-mother. She wants them to marry, and strongly objects to George Bevan — member of the lower-classes, an American, and presumably poor — as a suitor. In the original book Aunt Caroline is supported by Maud’s brother, the repulsive Lord Belpher. In this adaptation she is the lone representative of class snobbery, wonderfully played by Isla Blair who is everything a stage Aunt and comedy villain ought to be.
This musical doesn’t skimp on matters below stairs either. Lead by Keggs the butler (Desmond Barrit), french chef Pierre (David Roberts) and Dorcas the undercook (Chloe Hart), the staff at Belpher castle plot to undermine Lady Caroline and support the amiable Lord Marshmoreton’s efforts to assert himself as head of the family. Their big song and dance number in the kitchen — Stiff Upper Lip steals the show — I’ve never heard this song sound so good. My daughter and I sang it all the way back to the station, and are still humming the tune a week later.
The entire cast and orchestra were superb. Richard Fleeshman was the perfect leading man as George Bevan, with matinee idol looks and a voice that makes you want to close your eyes and drink through your ears. Sally Ann Triplett sparkled as Billie Dore, who is the more appealing heroine in Wodehouse’s original book also. Lady Maud is one of Wodehouse’s least endearing heroines. As the distant maiden in castle — the damsel in distress of the title — George mostly admires her from a distance, whereas we encounter her close-up. The shallowness of her character (especially in the final scenes of the book) is uncomfortably clear, although the reader is content to feel George’s pleasure when she agrees to marry him. Summer Strallen makes Maud as appealing as she can, and sings beautifully.
The one jarring moment for me came when Reggie Byng made his first appearance in a flurry of ‘What Ho’s, ‘I Say!’s and ‘Tootle Pip!’s — looking and sounding like the sort of blithering idiot Wodehouse is famous for. Indeed for millions of people, creating upper-class twits is all Wodehouse is famous for. It seems no modern adaptation of his work can do without one. I’m not suggesting Reggie ought to have entered solemnly, quoting Proust, but I find the overplayed English twit caricature rather tiresome. But I’m clearly in a minority, and Reggie’s appearance at Chichester was a notable hit with the audience. Eventually I too was won over by Richard Dempsey in the role. His rendition of ‘I’m a poached egg without a piece of toast’ would have melted the sternest critic’s heart.
That’s the power of great musical comedy, and Wodehouse. They can transport us momentarily from our woes, and even our prejudices, to a state of carefree joy — something the multi-million dollar popular psychology business is still working at. They may be dismissed as ‘light entertainment’ by an overprivileged few, who perhaps have fewer woes to escape than the rest of us, but if you’re an out-of-place worm in the nicoise of life, the benefits are well worth the price of admission.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the show — the impressive sets, the costumes, the wonderful quality of the music, dancing and choreography (Pierre and Dorcas were a treat). Nor the pleasure of seeing Nicholas Farrell, who I’ve long admired since he appeared in my favourite television show (Drop the Dead Donkey). I could say so much more, but if I’m to post this review in the same decade in which I saw the bally thing, I really must draw the line somewhere.
If A Damsel in Distress plays anywhere near you, be sure to catch it!
P.G. Wodehouse has occasionally been criticised, along with other male writers of his era, for his portrayal of women. As a female reader with feminist views, the diversity and strength of Wodehouse’s female characters is something I particularly enjoy. Subsequently, I find the criticism rather baffling.
In order to better understand and unravel some of the issues, I’d like to consider the charges levelled against Wodehouse in a recent criticism of Indian Summer of an Uncle by Janet Cameron. While I don’t agree with Cameron’s assessment, I am grateful to her for providing a starting point for my thinking. There is too much to be said on this particular subject in one article (I’d like to make it a PhD study) so I propose to respond in a series of pieces.
I begin today with the first charge:
‘Women are excluded as complex characters’
This charge is partially correct, but misleading because Wodehouse was simply not in the business of creating complex characters at all.
“I believe there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.”
Wodehouse in a letter to William Townend
Bertie Wooster is arguably P.G. Wodehouse’s most complex character. As the first-person narrator of over 10 novels and 30 stories, we have greater insight into his character than any other in the Wodehouse canon – but he is hardly a complex character. In the short story Indian Summer of an Uncle (1930) Bertie and Jeeves are well established and familiar to Wodehouse readers. Of the female characters, two (Rhoda Platt and her Aunt Maudie) make no further appearance. Their characters are developed only to the extent required for the comedy to work – along with the hundreds of other male and female ‘bit part’ characters Wodehouse created in the course of his prolific career.
Wodehouse’s characters don’t require complexity – and certainly not in his short stories. As Hilaire Belloc noted, Wodehouse was a practitioner of commedia dell’arte, adapting a well established cast of stage characters to suit his comedic purpose:
“…the rules of the game are already agreed upon between the actors and their audiences, so that the former had either to play the game with a new brilliance each time or be frankly given the bird by a disappointed audience.”
Hilaire Belloc in From the World of Music, Ernest Newman (Calder, 1956) cited by Frances Donaldson in P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorised Biography (1982).
Wodehouse biographer Frances Donaldson adds to this assessment:
I think it is often forgotten how close Wodehouse… was working to the world of the stock company, the English equivalent of commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century the provincial theatres of England had resident ‘stock’ companies who played all the supporting parts, while the leads were played by visiting stars. These stock companies consisted of actors engaged to play stereotyped parts – the Juvenile lead and the Leading Lady, the Low Comedian, the Heavy Father, the Chamber Maid (later known as the soubrette), Walking Ladies and Gentlemen, later to be known as supers. Playwrights of the nineteenth century had to write plays which included parts for the salaried stock company and the playwrights of the early twentieth century were their immediate descendants.”
Frances Donaldson in P.G. Wodehouse: The Authorised Biography (1982).
Janet Cameron criticises Aunt Agatha – the only recurring female character in the story – as ‘a caricature of an aunt‘. Frances Donaldson would have agreed, having argued in her biography that Wodehouse’s fictional Aunts ‘…are stock characters in a long line of British humour.’ Indeed this is rather her point – that applying well recognised theatrical character types enabled Wodehouse to focus his attention on his intricate farcical plots.
It is clear from Wodehouse’s personal letters that his work in musical theatre greatly influenced his approach as a prose writer, particularly in terms of characterisation. Wodehouse’s involvement in the theatre dates back to 1904 with Sergeant Brue, which ran for 152 performances at the Strand Theatre in London. Wodehouse went on to make a significant contribution to American musical theatre through his collaboration with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern.
But what of the charge that Wodehouse’s women are less complex than his men? Certainly, in the Indian Summer of an Uncle, Bertie Wooster is the central and more complex character, but not just in comparison to the women. Bertie’s Uncle George is a male ‘walk-on’ role, and we never get any closer to knowing the inscrutable Jeeves in spite of his many appearances. If one reads Wodehouse just a little more widely, it’s clear that this particular charge does not stick.
The opposite has even been argued. Robert Hall believes that Wodehouse’s heroines frequently have more depth and interest than his heroes:
Wodehouse’s leading girl-characters are, by and large, somewhat more individualised than his male juvenile leads. Significantly, the Junior Lipstick Club, to which some of Wodehouse’s heroines belong, does not play a parallel role to that of his Drones, in supplying young feminine leads. Almost all of his ingénues have energy and sparkle, often (like Sally Painter in Uncle Dynamite, when she pushes the policeman into the pond) taking the initiative when the “hero” wavers in his resolution.
Robert Hall inthe Comic Style of P.G. Wodehouse (1974)
It is reasonable to give weight to the view of those, such as Belloc, Donaldson and Hall, who have made a detailed study of Wodehouse’s life and work. To their views, I humbly add my own – that Wodehouse could still draw minor characters with great sympathy and affection. For example, in the short story, Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend, he devotes just one paragraph to describing the female lead:
She was a small girl of uncertain age – possibly twelve or thirteen, though a combination of London fogs and early cares had given her face a sort of wizened motherliness which in some odd way caused his lordship to look on her as belonging to his own generation. She was the type of girl you see in back streets carrying a baby nearly as large as herself and still retaining sufficient energy to lead one little brother by the hand and shout recrimination at another in the distance. Her cheeks shone from recent soaping , and she was dressed in a velveteen frock which was obviously the pick of her wardrobe. Her hair, in defiance of the prevailing mode, she wore drawn tightly back into a short pigtail.
Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend (1926)
Wodehouse consciously informs us in this passage that he is describing a ‘type of girl’, and yet his description is no less effective or moving because of it.
In summary, Wodehouse’s female characters are no less lacking in complexity than his males. With the possible exception of Bertie Wooster, all his characters are lightly, and delightfully drawn. Thousands of men and women around the world continue to derive great pleasure from the work of P.G. Wodehouse and share great affection for his characters – who extend beyond stereotypes when given the Wodehouse treatment.
While the lack of depth and human complexity might be considered a failing by some serious-minded critics, theirs is just one way – a very prescriptive and narrow one – of viewing literature. Surely there is enough complexity in the world already without wishing it upon our humourists.
- Wodehouse on women: Bachelors Anonymous (honoriaplum.wordpress.com)