15 February 2012

The fine art of stage direction in musical comedies

In P.G. Wodehouse's 1922 novel Jill the Reckless, the titular heroine, is a peppy lass from old England. Miss Mariner - for that is her name - finds herself washed up on the streets of Broadway sans fiancée and without a penny to her name. As is traditional in these tales, she quickly finds a spot on a chorus line in a musical production. This permits Wodehouse to put his considerable experience in musical theatre productions to good use, as can be seen in this excerpt, featuring a refined English stage actor and a no-nonsense stage director of whom it might be said that he has a firm idea of his own opinions:

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"What was that that guy said? Lord Finchley's last speech. Take it again."

The gentleman who was playing the part of Lord Finchley, an English character actor who specialized in London "nuts," raised his eyebrows, annoyed. Like Mr. Pilkington, he had never before come into contact with Mr. Goble as stage-director, and, accustomed to the suaver methods of his native land, he was finding the experience trying. He had not yet recovered from the agony of having that water-melon line cut out of his part. It was the only good line, he considered, that he had. Any line that is cut out of an actor's part is always the only good line he has.

"The speech about Omar Khayyám?" he enquired with suppressed irritation.

"I thought that was the way you said it. All wrong! It's Omar of Khayyám."

"I think you will find that Omar Khayyám is the--ah--generally accepted version of the poet's name," said the portrayer of Lord Finchley adding beneath his breath. "You silly ass!"

"You say Omar of Khayyám," bellowed Mr. Goble. "Who's running this show, anyway?"

"Just as you please."

Mr. Goble turned to Wally.

"These actors...." he began, when Mr. Pilkington appeared again at his elbow.

"Mr. Goble! Mr. Goble!"

"What is it now?"

"Omar Khayyám was a Persian poet. His name was Khayyám."

"That wasn't the way I heard it," said Mr. Goble doggedly. "Did you?" he enquired of Wally. "I thought he was born at Khayyám."

"You're probably quite right," said Wally, "but, if so, everybody else has been wrong for a good many years. It's usually supposed that the gentleman's name was Omar Khayyám. Khayyám, Omar J. Born A.D. 1050, educated privately and at Bagdad University. Represented Persia in the Olympic Games of 1072, winning the sitting high-jump and the egg-and-spoon race. The Khayyáms were quite a well-known family in Bagdad, and there was a lot of talk when Omar, who was Mrs. Khayyam's pet son, took to drink and writing poetry. They had had it all fixed for him to go into his father's date business."

Mr. Goble was impressed. He had a respect for Wally's opinion, for Wally had written "Follow the Girl" and look what a knock-out that had been. He stopped the rehearsal again.

"Go back to that Khayyám speech!" he said interrupting Lord Finchley in mid-sentence.

The actor whispered a hearty English oath beneath his breath. He had been up late last night, and, in spite of the fair weather, he was feeling a trifle on edge.

"' In the words of Omar of Khayyám'...."

Mr. Goble clapped his hands.

"Cut that 'of,'" he said. "The show's too long, anyway."

And, having handled a delicate matter in masterly fashion, he leaned back in his chair and chewed the end off another cigar.
- P.G. Wodehouse, Jill the Reckless, 1922
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Jill the Reckless (which was published as The Little Warrior in America) is an entertaining and almost breathlessly busy novel, with plenty of plot packed into its relatively slender pages. Readers who have only enjoyed Wodehouse's most famous creations but who are curious about his other works would do well to give it a try.

1922 marked the beginning of what one of Wodehouse's biographers called the 'golden years' for his most enduring characters, Jeeves and Wooster. The duo appeared in stories in the Strand and Cosmopolitan magazines in 1921 and 1922, which were compiled as The Inimitable Jeeves in 1923, which went on to sell at least three million copies before the Second World War. And his experience in writing hit musicals apparently served Wodehouse well:

Wodehouse knew that his writing had reached a new height, and he linked this explicitly to his Broadway years. "I've found that writing musical comedy has taught me a lot... In musical comedy you gain so tremendously in Act One if you can give your principal characters a dramatic entrance instead of just walking them on." ... In the world of the magazine story, Wodehouse was king: he had mastered the mechanics of a well-crafted plot; for the tone of such stories, he had perfect pitch; all he needed were suitable subjects on which he could display the brilliance of his light prose.
- Robert McCrum, Wodehouse: A Life, London, 2004, p.150-51. 

See also:
E-book: Jill the Reckless
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