Monday, April 8, 2024

Nathan Doesn't Get Serious

Solar Eclipse Edition

IN 1909 George Jean Nathan (1882-1958), theater critic at large, commented on "Business Men's Novels" in The Bookman, noting that "one of the most prominent lawyers in the business district said recently that the statement that lawyers as a class liked detective stories best, might be made in all truth." (See ONTOS HERE.)
As a professional drama critic, Nathan would attend and comment on staged mystery plays, which were fairly popular in the early 1900s. Nathan couldn't help but notice how clichéd such plays had already become: "The curtain is pulled aloft and, after two hours of mystery monkeyshines, the profoundest idiot among the characters is revealed to be a detective master-mind in disguise. Thus, year in and year out, it goes." (See ONTOS HERE.)
Armed with a sophisticated wit, Nathan could produce his own lampoons, such as the following:

The villainy of a character in the American drama is appraised by an American audience in accordance with the following schedule of black marks:

1. Black moustache - 20 points
2. Riding boots - 36 points
3. Riding boots and crop - 47 points
4. Foreign accent (save Irish) - 29 points
5. Top hat - 8 points
6. Patent-leather shoes - 8 points
7. Long cigarette holder - 4 points
8. Well-fitting clothes - 52 points
9. Sexual virility - 84 points
10. Good manners - 76 points
11. Inclination to believe that a woman over twenty is perfectly able to take care of herself - 91 points
12. Inclination to believe that a woman over twenty-five is perfectly able to take care of herself - 92 points
13. Inclination to believe that a woman over thirty is perfectly able to take care of herself - 93 points
14. Inclination to believe that women between the ages of thirty-five and ninety are perfectly able to take care of themselves - 94 points
15. Inclination to believe that women between the ages of twenty and ninety are perfectly able to take care of themselves if they want to, but that they usually don’t want to - 95 points
16. One who believes that when a woman is married she does not necessarily because of this fact lose all interest in the world - 82 points
16a. Or in a good time - 83 points
17. Boutonniere - 9 points
18. Suspicion on the part of the villain that the hero is a blockhead - 98 points
19. Verbal statement of the above fact by the villain - 99 points
20. Common sense - 100 points

(From Bottoms Up: An Application of the Slapstick to Satire, 1917, HERE).

We think that with his "Opera Synopses" (HERE) Robert Benchley was inspired by (paid homage to? borrowed heavily from? ripped off?) Nathan not too many years after the next one appeared. (Note: All of the real people that Nathan mentions were very wealthy—and well-known for it—at the time.)


  (ē pal-yät-chē)

Two-act drama; text and music by Leoncavallo

TONIO Baritone
NEDDA (Canio’s wife) Soprano
SILVIO (a villager) Baritone

       THE STORY

    Act I

At Tonio’s signal, the curtains open disclosing a cross-roads with a rude portable theatre and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt with a party of débutantes. The distant sounds of a cracked trumpet and belabored drum call the peasants together, and they greet with joy the familiar characters in whose costumes Canio, Nedda, and Beppo enter simultaneously with Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont’s party, Mrs. Otto Kahn’s party, Mrs. Goelet, in mauve faille d’amour silk, and a party of young people chaperoned by Mrs. Douglas Robinson. Silencing the crowd (on the stage), Canio announces the play for the evening—and is heard. Canio descends and boxes the ears of Tonio, who loves Nedda. Tonio, and two old gentlemen of decided snoring proclivities who have been sitting in the eighth row, wander off. A villager invites the players to drink. Twenty-seven gentlemen in the audience accept the invitation. The villager hints that Tonio lingers to flirt with Nedda, and the ladies in the boxes also get busy with recent scandal. Canio takes it as a joke, twenty-one of the twenty-seven gentlemen taking it with water. Canio says he loves his wife. And, after kissing her, he departs coincident with the arrival of the occupants of the Gould and Sloane boxes. The other peasants, and forty-two other gentlemen, leave the scene.

Nedda, left alone, broods over the fierce look which Canio and Gatti Casazza gave her. She wonders if Canio suspects her. The sunlight and the new gown and necklace on Mrs. Payne Whitney thrill her and she revels in the song and the sport of the birds (“Ballatella”). At the end of the rhapsody she finds that the hideous Tonio, if not the audience, has been listening. He makes ardent love, but she laughs him to scorn. He pursues her, however, and she, picking up Beppo’s whip, slashes him across the face. He swears revenge and stumbles away. Now her secret lover, Silvio, steals in with the twenty-seven gentlemen who have been over to Browne’s. Silvio pleads with her to go away with him. She promises in an undertone to meet him that night at Del Pezzo’s Italian Restaurant at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. Tonio, having seen them, hurries away. He gets the ear of Canio and returns coincidently with thirty-four of some forty-odd gentlemen who have been across the street. Silvio, however, escapes unnoticed and so do the two old gentlemen who have been sleeping in the eighth row.

Canio threatens to kill Nedda and Leoncavallo’s music. Beppo and one of the old gentlemen who has forgotten his overcoat rush back. Beppo disarms Canio. Tonio hints that Nedda’s lover may appear that night in the play and some bizarre looking ladies in the third row hint a lot of other things. Left alone, Canio bewails his bitter fate, and the gentlemen whose wives won’t let them get out do the same. In wild grief, Canio finally gropes his way off. And such gentlemen as are left in the audience follow suit.

(To be continued)

(Also from Bottoms Up HERE).

The entire book is on Project Gutenberg (HERE).

The bottom line:

Unless otherwise noted, all bibliographical data are derived from The FictionMags Index created by William G. Contento & edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne.

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