Monday, August 10, 2015

"I Have Never Known a Year in Which the American Stage Was So Bestrewn with Corpses"

"Murder at 8:30 Sharp."
By Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943).
Found in Collier's, March 17, 1928.
Theatrical review (2 pages).
Online at UNZ: Begins HERE (page 22) and ends HERE (scroll down to page 49).
There has always been a tendency towards copycatism among the people who produce plays, movies, and TV shows; that is, if it sells a lot of tickets then obviously we need more of the same. Sometimes this strategy works—let's not forget that Humphrey Bogart's The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the third version to come out of Hollywood—but too often the copycats lack the skill to come up with something original; and this is where Alexander Woollcott comes in, having some fun skewering Broadway theatrical producers. (Warning: He does supply a SPOILER for The Trial of Mary Dugan.)
From a 1932 production of 'The Trial of Mary Dugan'
A few excerpts:
IF THE historian of the American theatre does not lose his mind, such as it is, he will recall the season of 1927-1928 as the year in which the drama went in for homicide in a serious way.
"If I've seen one murder play this winter," you may have heard someone say, "I've seen a dozen."
But, after all, it might also be predicted in advance that when you do see one successful murder play, you are likely for that very reason to see a dozen more. For plays and pictures (like historical novels and haircuts and dance steps) are wont to run in shoals. . . .
. . . thus does one play induce another, much as one pin in a bowling alley knocks down the next. Some such species of contagion sweeps through the theatre every year. And when the last curtain falls on the theatrical season of 1927-1928 it will be seen in retrospect that this one was above all others the year of murder plays.  . . .
Crime on the stage, says Woollcott, does sometimes go unpunished:
. . . When the wise men who are always conducting their intrusive researches in the subcellar of human motive have decided why we all flock so readily to murder plays, I hope they will then investigate our slight but perceptible inclination in favor of those plays in which the murderer goes scot free.
In most of the dramatic studies of homicide which have held the stage this season . . . the law (like the black-mustached villain in the old melodramas) has been foiled again—and again. In none of these plays is much sympathy expended on the person murdered.  . . .
And then there was:
. . . Cock Robin, a mystery play about a murder occurring during the rehearsal of an amateur dramatic society, thereby (as one sour old Broadwayite observed) providing plenty of motive right at the start.  . . .
Woollcott admits to a secret wish which had yet to be fulfilled, and which we will leave incomplete for you to read on your own:
. . . IF THE psychologists ever get around to studying my own addiction to such murder dramas, I suggest, as a clue for their researches, the possibility that I keep on going to them in the urchin hope that some day when the distracted heroine grasps the pearl-handled revolver, points it at the minor actor . . . .
- From Wikipedia [HERE] we learn this about our theater critic: "Alexander Humphreys Woollcott was an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine and a member of the Algonquin Round Table. He was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the main character in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and for the far less likable character Waldo Lydecker in the film Laura (1944). He was convinced he was the inspiration for Rex Stout's brilliant detective Nero Wolfe, but Stout, although he was friendly to Woollcott, said there was nothing to that idea."
- Among the "murder dramas" that Woollcott mentions are these: The Trial of Mary Dugan (1927) [HERE], Women Go on Forever (1927) [HERE], Coquette (1927) [HERE], and The Letter (1927) [HERE], all of which were later filmed.
Woollcott in a 1940 Pullman ad

Category: Murder most theatrical

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