The New York Times, March 30, 1952



Dramatist, Scenarist, Biographer

One’s relatives are apt to be censorious, and a close one of mine protested to me rather explosively years ago: "When are you going to get out of that drawing-room?" To that generic locale he applied an epithet not generally used in drawing-rooms and which I omit here.

I believe I told him that I'd be glad to move, but that one had to live some place and I didn't have another room handy. Did he have a suggestion? He made a large gesture in the general direction of the universe. "There's a great big teeming world out there!" he said indignantly, with a baleful intimation that I was snubbing it. Somerset Maugham says somewhere—or perhaps he just said it to me—that a writer is a man who never can think of a good answer on the spot; he thinks of what he should have said when he gets back to his desk. If my critical relative will pardon the delay, I'll try to put up a ramshackle defense here for that over-long tenancy.

There is a certain confusion about three categories of plays: high comedy, drawing-room comedy, comedy of manners. In a sense every play is a comedy of manners, even if it only represents the playwright's. The category "drawing-room comedy" is arbitrary and actually meaningless; it has come to be employed as synonymous with high comedy when, essentially, it has nothing to do with it.

Any kind of play can—and has —taken place in a drawing-room: farces, melodramas, spooky plays (although they generally run to libraries). Some drawing-room plays might more properly be called bathroom comedies. A high comedy can take place anywhere. "The Playboy of the Western World" is a wonderful high comedy and doesn't remotely take place in a drawing-room. Two of my favorite plays, "The Importance of Being .Earnest" and "Blithe Spirit," have most of their action in drawing-rooms; they are both farces.

The Real Ingredients

What makes the essence of high comedy is not the furniture of the room where the action takes place but the articulateness of the characters, the plane on which they talk, the intellectual and moral climate in which they live.

There is an idea that the characters of high comedy must be rich, well-dressed and socially elevated. This is also not necessarily true; I have done several in which the heroes were poor, badly dressed and from the wrong side of the tracks. The immediate concerns of the characters in a high comedy may sometimes be trivial; their point of view must never be. Indeed, one of the endless sources of high comedy is seriousness of temperament and intensity of purpose in contrast with the triviality of the occasion.

Any playwright who has been up against the agony of casting plays will tell you that the actor who can play comedy is the fellow to shoot for; you will get the best performance of a serious part from an actor who can play comedy. The essence of the comic sense is awareness: awareness of the tragedy as well as of the fun of life, of the pity, the futility, the lost hopes, the striving for immortality, for permanence, for security, for love. The comic intuition gets to the heart of a human situation with a precision and a velocity unattainable in any other way. A great comic actor will do it for you with an inflection of voice as adroit as the flick of the wrist of a virtuoso fencer.

An Example

In London I saw Dame Edith Evans as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's play. She played it for high comedy. In an early scene Cleopatra is informed by Antony that his wife, Fulvia, is dead. Cleopatra's line is: "Can Fulvia die?" The Dame's reading of that line was delicious; it sent a ripple of laughter through the audience. She read it with a rising inflection of incredulity and pleasure, with a peculiar overtone of the last word which raced you through Cleopatra's mind. You heard her also saying: "Well! .Evidently, I have always underestimated Fulvia. I never suspected that she had the resource or the tact for a gesture, like this!" Ever since then, when I see this play, I listen for the actress who plays Cleopatra to read this line; usually it comes out as a simple request for information like: "Do you play canasta?"

Shakespeare was an excellent writer of drawing-room comedy; he did a lovely one in "Hamlet," although he called many of his sets ramparts. The "play within a play" is a drawing-room charade. The tragedy of Hamlet—and it is well for a high comedy if it has a tragic core—is not that nearly everybody in it dies. There is nothing tragic about death; it is merely inevitable. The tragedy is that Hamlet, who really has a mind to make up, is incapable of assembling it. It is a long comedy of vacillation when decision is imperative—nicely written, of course. Hamlet suffers from a deep-seated metaphysical neurosis; Gide's remark is pertinent—that it is useful, when you are thinking about Hamlet, to remember that he attended a German university.

An Adaptation

Some years ago I was asked to adapt an idea of Franz Werfel's which became the play, "Jacobowsky and the Colonel." I met Elia Kazan, who was excited about the idea—and when Elia is excited he carries you along. The story was played against a background of life-and-death desperation — the flight of a French girl and a German and Polish refugee from the invading Nazis in France. I didn't go ahead with it till I got the notion of making the German refugee, Jacobowsky, a humorous and cultivated man, nurtured in the humanities; the Pole, a noble, elegant, humorless and literal man, nurtured in the tradition of military glory.

The French girl they both love finds that she can laugh with Jacobowsky; this laughter drives the Pole crazy. He cannot break the magic circle of this laughter; he finds it more difficult than storming a redoubt. The play was, therefore, high comedy, though there were sinister Nazis and hairbreadth escapes in it.

It is amusing to read in the papers of the Russians' desperation over their comedic output and their dissatisfaction with their machines for impressing joy. How true to type the dictatorships run! It is "Kraft durch Freude" over again. The fanatics know dimly that there might be something to laugh at hovering around somewhere if they could only find it. But they are really afraid to find it because of their terror that it might shatter some of their basic assumptions. For laughter is the most humanizing—as well as the most critical—agency in the world.

The ability to laugh at its own pretensions and shortcomings is the true mark of the civilized nation, as it is of the civilized man. It will take the Russians a thousand years—if they're snappy—to develop anybody like Gilbert and Sullivan. When Gilbert made fun of the House of Lords and threatened its members with the disaster of "competitive examination" he did them in, long before Asquith got around to it.

I know that the press agent for my new play at the Coronet Theatre will be unhappy if I don't mention "Jane," and it is a primary function of the playwright to keep the press agent in amiable spirits. Maugham's short story, on which the play is based, tells about an elderly frump from Liverpool who marries a very young and very attractive man. Miss Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild wished me to adapt it. Mr. Maugham, who is one of the canniest of men, has sold the film rights to everything he has ever written—he has recently even been selling the rights to his fascinating personality; but he never sold the film rights to "Jane," although it is over thirty years old; because he felt that it would one day make a play.

Difficult Task

Although he is a brilliant playwright, he did not want to dramatize it himself because he has long since quit the theatre, which is perhaps an even profounder demonstration of his canniness. It looked to me like an attractive job but it was very hard to do. The theatre is the most naked of mediums; it is a two-and-a-half-hour close-up, and questions which Maugham never had to answer—nor even to raise—in the compass of a short story, pop up uncomfortably when you come to write a play. Why does a sensible woman like Jane marry a man so much younger? Maugham describes her as witty and as making a sensation by always telling the truth. Nice work if you can get it!

Also, and this is the nub, instead of the young man's eventually leaving Jane, as everyone predicts, Jane leaves the young man. This was a puzzler. Why? I gave this as much thought as Newton and Satan gave the apple—with somewhat less epochal results. One line gave the play to me and the answer. When Gilbert asks Jane why she is leaving him, she says: "Because you are too old for me!" This line was, originally, the curtain of Act Two, the climax of the play. In the prolonged neurasthenic hypochondria which constitutes a try-out tour, I allowed this line to be shifted to Act Three. The point I wanted to make in the play is that youth is a question of vitality, generosity, warmth and general sympathy in point of view. A stuffed shirt may be old at 20. Jane is alive and vital and will be young at 80.

Probably, after he reads this, my critical relative will say what he said long before: "When are you going to get . . . ," etc. I will still have to answer: "Probably never." Nor do I feel cramped. When the Captains and the Kings depart, their stories will be told in drawing-rooms, even if they are merely living rooms or libraries or studies or just dens.

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