Dramaturgid futility

This is the story of a failed quest – and, as it turns out, a futile and foolish one as well. I wish I could claim it as quixotic but it was far from noble and the windmill at which I tilted was more like one of those small, handheld electric fans that were popular at one time. This was a trivial pursuit.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. In 2014, my wretch of a wife and I decided to have a clean out of our many years of accumulated junk. Among the piles of stuff that went into the dumpster were a pile of theatre programs from our pre-children days when we used to be regular occupiers of the front stalls. I regret now committing these booklets of bumptious buffery to the tender care of the landfill managers because they recorded a glorious period on the Australian stage – original plays (like Don’s Party) and celebrated actors (like Frank Thring) – and I should have offered them to the archives of the Melbourne Theatre Company, for them to lose (as they have much else).

But because of my Wodehouse obsession, there was one program I retained – from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1974 production of The Play’s the Thing by Ferenc Molnar, adapted by P.G. Wodehouse. Molnar (pictured) was a highly successful 20th century Hungarian playwright and novelist who became well established on Broadway and eventually migrated to the US. He had written a romantic comedy (originally, Jatek A Kastelyban; in German, Spiel in Schloss; in English, The Play in the Castle) using the Hamlet device of the play-within-a-play to create the required dramatic complications and resolutions. It was more than a little Ruritanian in the florid, princes-and-castles, central European operetta way (think the Student Prince) but Wodehouse declared he could turn it into a Broadway hit – and he did. It opened as a bedroom farce on Broadway on 3 November 1926, played for 326 performances and has been regularly revived around the English-speaking world over the 90 years since.

In 1974, it was the Wodehouse name that attracted me to the play and 40-or-so years later that was what persuaded me to rescue the program from the tip and, of course, to refresh my memory. Well, of course, I don’t remember anything about the play, even if it was the thing, except that I laughed a lot. The program told me, though, that the show starred Frank Thring (pictured) and the cast included the now ubiquitous spruiker, John Wood. It also told me this:

If I were ever to write a great work on dramaturgy, I would use as my starting point the idea that spending the evening at a theatre is a punishment . . .

The sinner is required once a week at a set hour, at a set moment, suddenly to drop all his business, and in good weather or bad, to hasten to a large hall. This will be darkened at once, and the sinner conducted to a narrow seat. Here he will sit in the dark for three hours, rigid and motionless . . .

This human being banned to darkness and prevented from exercising any function is called a theatregoer: thanks to the humanitarian movement of modern times he enjoys the relief — but not always — of being allowed out for a few minutes every hour to rest from his physical torment and recruit his strength for fresh torments.

What then is dramaturgy? Dramaturgy is that charitable science which has gathered all the rules for ameliorating the situation of this condemned victim of bodily torment by tearing down one wall of the hall and showing him something in the gap. And this something must be so attractive that the above-described bodily torment becomes first bearable to the victim, then imperceptible, and finally desirable; so desirable that the victim is even ready to spend his hard-earned money for it, and indeed to scramble for the privilege of sitting inside.

This would be the introduction to my dramaturgy. After it would follow the chapters telling the low and exalted, superficial and profound, vulgar and noble methods that exist for transmitting this anaesthetic effectively through the gap in the wall to those suffering martyrdom.

Dramaturgy, an essay (1907).

The program note did not specify the author of this essay and, because I was interested in Wodehouse’s theatre work connected to the “trio of musical fame”, I thought it possible the quote was his. Wodehouse was a journalist for the London Globe newspaper in 1907 and also writing about and for the theatre. While I thought “dramaturgy”, as a topic and as a word in itself, was something young Pelham Grenville even then might have considered suitable for relentless ridicule, I was conscious that he turned his hand to just about anything respectable that would bring in a bob or two. Molnar, though, it seemed to me, would have been unlikely at that time to have command of English in such an assured and gently humorous way. So I began to look around on the internet, as you do these days. I also contacted the Melbourne Theatre Company and quickly discovered they had no archive from the 1970s. Notwithstanding, at the end of July 2014 I e-mailed an inquiry anyway and their publications co-ordinator, Paul Galloway, responded:

I would say that the quote is not from Wodehouse but from Molnar. Firstly, the cited year 1907 is well within the time Molnar was operating, but Wodehouse had barely started as a writer. I think it unlikely that any publisher would be interested in his thoughts on drama at that time. Secondly, the quote refers to the conventions of theatre and their apparent absurdity. This was one of the subjects Molnar’s play discusses in a self-referential way. Thirdly, the style is more Molnar – European, urbanely flippant – than Wodehouse – English, light, irrelevant – but that might just be my reading. Fourthly, MTC would more likely print a quote from the playwright rather than an adaptor.

I did not find this satisfactory, given what I knew about Wodehouse’s activities in 1907, and I bridled a bit at the word “irrelevant”. I fired off another longish e-mail to Mr Galloway who put me gently in my place:

I would never claim Wodehouse is irrelevant (if only we can convince more people of his importance). I merely said that Wodehouse’s style plays on irrelevance – treating side issues as if they were important and taking a lot of words to explain something straightforward. This passage seems far too much to the point for me.

And he signed off “what ho!” . . . showing me that not only was his heart in the right place but he knew his Wodehouse and I should think a bit harder before firing off bridling e-mails, especially to people I didn’t know. I discovered later along the trail I’m not the only one in the Wodehouse world prone to a spot of bridling.

By this stage I’d come across on the net a couple of references that were to prove keys to this tale of a man with too much time on his hands. One was a website called Madame Eulalie (a name that might suggest certain altogether non-Wodehousean behaviour but I can assure you it is totally innocent and, for those of you who have a couple of hours to spare, I’m happy to explain). The happy people at Madame Eulalie were busy tracking down and collecting the young Wodehouse’s journalism and other pieces of writing by which he made his living while working towards becoming a full-time author. (This project is now complete and a book published.) The second reference was a bibliography of dramaturgy compiled by a Geoff Proehl and others at, believe it or not, the University of Puget Sound in north-western USA. Why this is important begins to be seen within the note I sent to one Raja Srinivasan, to whom I was referred by Madame Eulalie:

I have searched the internet with as much ingenuity as my aging faculties can muster but have not been able to find the source [of the dramaturgy quote]. The closest I came is a bibliography of the literature of dramaturgy compiled by an academic at the University of Puget Sound . . . This list claims the Louder and Funnier [Wodehouse essay] collection of 1932 includes a piece called The Science of Dramaturgy. My copy contains no such thing – the nearest being a plea for audience rights . . . We know what Plum was doing in 1907 and it’s entirely likely that this piece, Dramaturgy, was one of his many contributions to the London newspapers and magazines of the day. The question is: which one?

Mr Srinivasan passed my query to Wodehouse expert, John Dawson, who replied (cc Tony Ring, another aficionado who has featured in these pages before):

I’ve never heard of the The Science of Dramaturgy or simply Dramaturgy. I’ve checked McIlvaine [the definitive Wodehouse bibliography] and the addendum, Tony Ring’s Second Row, Grand Circle and find no mention of it. It doesn’t appear anywhere in my various research notes and databases. For what it’s worth, the 1907 article purportedly written by Wodehouse doesn’t sound a thing like him, in my opinion, and I’m inclined to doubt it’s PG’s. As with the Louder and Funnier reference, it looks to me like someone’s made a mistake somewhere. The article itself is printed in two books I can find (but since they are “limited preview” at Google Books I can’t open them up to see the attributions: Dramaturgy in American Theater: A Source Book Susan S. Jonas, Geoffrey S. Proehl, Michael Lupu; Companion in Exile: Notes for an Autobiography Ferenc Molnár.

Mr Dawson suggested that if I could get my hands on either volume a clue might be found as to authorship. I should have taken the hint. But I was in full, wrong-headed flight by now. I sent back to Raja, John and Tony, the following:

May I take a gentlemanly opposite stance on the tone (sound) of the Dramaturgy quote? Given that it is a fragment and a lot older, I actually think it fits quite well with PG’s later effort Fair Play for Audiences (from Vanity Fair, published before 1923, in Louder and Funnier). Against this view is that, even in 1907 when he was still struggling to find his “voice”, I can’t imagine PG using the word “dramaturgy”, except to lampoon it . . . Let’s see what the formidable Tony can do.

Tony Ring duly added his little all:

I don’t feel formidable at all, I’m afraid. I do not recall the word “dramaturgy” or its close cousins in connection with PGW, either describing him (although I know it has been applied to Jeeves) or written by him in his theatrical commentaries. Personally, I hate the word!! It sounds like a “dirge”, and seems to be used in any context that the writer or speaker wishes, as long as there is some connection to the creation of a theatrical production. I am sure that with that built-in reaction, I would remember if I had come across it in a Wodehousean context.

John Dawson told me Google Books previews of both his references provided “just enough of them to see several sentences containing identical language” to that in my original quote. He then did a bit of bridling of his own about my apparently questioning his opinion:

By  1907 [PGW] had published over 500 verses, stories, articles and books, as well as another 400 verses from the Globe and thousands of paragraphs in BTW and NOTD [columns]. So I don’t believe it would be accurate to say that he was “struggling to find his voice.” He hadn’t yet developed the mature comic style he’s best known for, that wouldn’t come for years yet, but as far as his “voice”, he was expressing well-drawn observations of the theatre as early as his first theatrical review in 1902.  I still maintain that based on content it’s doubtful that he wrote your piece, there is simply zero forensic evidence in it, and unless I can see it published somewhere originally in 1907 with his by-line I have to remain sceptical!

So I responded to John, and Raja and Tony:

Thank you all for your efforts . . . although steady on a bit, John old bean, not questioning your knowledge or your authority . . . just venturing an opinion, which doesn’t seem to be worth very much. I had an exchange with the Melbourne Theatre Company. I expected nothing and that’s what I got. I looked up the Molnar references and the dramaturgy bibliography (good grief, what a combination of words!) Nothing much doing there, either. So now, totally frustrated, I am pondering whether I should give it one last shot by contacting the dramaturgy expert, Prof. Proehl, at University of Puget Sound, to ask him where he got his reference and could I have a look at it please. Haven’t wanted to do that, right from the start. Like staring into the abyss.

That was on 1 August 2014. I put the matter aside. The experts had spoken – and I mean that totally unfacetiously: they are experts with far greater Wodehouse knowledge than I’ll ever have. But I didn’t let it go. It rankled – like billy-oh, as Old Plum might have said, only with maybe a meticulously mangled bit of Shakespeare to back it up.

So after three years of rankling, on Saturday, 24 June 2017, at 7.29pm, I finally approached the abyss:

Dear Mr Proehl/Dr/Prof/Geoff [I e-mailed],

I came across the UPS Dramaturgy Northwest website (and consequently your name and address) while I was searching for the source of a quote. The site’s “bibliography of books, articles and essays on dramaturgy” included the following: Wodehouse, P.G. “The Science of Dramaturgy.” Louder and Funnier. London: Faber, 1932, ???. My copy of Louder and Funnier doesn’t have this piece in it and the several Wodehouse authorities with whom I’ve corresponded confirm their copies don’t have it either (it is quite common for various Wodehouse editions to have slightly different content). I am hoping you might be able to clarify this, as it would help this totally obscure Wodehouse freak with time on his hands to clear up a very small but nagging mystery.

At the same time I took to Google Books with John Dawson’s references. Both came up readily enough. But I had to rely on the preview pages, as I’m not prepared to shell out my super funds simply to find couple of words. The treatise by Proehl et al produced no more than I already knew but several searches of the Molnar Notes for an Autobiography using different key words and phrases produced . . . exactly what John Dawson told me the preview had provided for him three years ago. The theatre program quote I started out with belongs to Ferenc Molnar.

Well, I won’t lie to you, my faithful readers (both of you), the confirmation was deflating. I was happier not knowing and bandying words with the likes of Messrs Srinivasan, Dawson and Ring. All I wanted to do was add my little something to the vast store of Wodehouse wisdom . . . and, I’ll also confess, maybe score one for the little man. But this is what it’s come down to: the experts were right and the cocky upstart from Down Under was, er, amiss, astray, awry, inaccurate, misguided, mistaken, off-target, wide of the mark, and a thousand other synonyms for w-w-w-w-wrong. Aagh! There, I’ve said it . . . the awful “w” word.

Meanwhile what of Mr /Dr/Prof/Geoff Proehl? He actually got back to me. Out of the electronic blackness from the shores of Puget Sound, he said he’d “check on this”. A footnote on his e-mail informs recipients that, inter alia, he is a member of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and has been since 1990. So he knows his stuff. A few days later came this note (with a certain plaintive tone, I think, probably because I’d forgotten it was summer in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when academics like to wander off for some R&R):

I went to look for the piece in my files, which I should have, but that part of the office is being reorganized. I have a note in to our office admin, but am about to leave town. I will follow-up on this and either find the piece or remove it from the bib. I also sent a note to the person who was the original source for the citation, so I thought, but he has no memory of it. In brief, will pursue this at least to the point of checking my files for the piece and get back to you, but it may not be until mid-July, since I am soon out of town for a couple of weeks.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d already solved my little mystery, so I let him go off in peace chasing grizzlies or whatever it is that dramaturgs in the Pacific North-West do on hols. Eventually, he shook the dust off his hiking boots and provided the following:

The Wodehouse piece was incorrectly identified, as you know and I now realize. It should have been entitled, “Fair Play for Audiences”. Thanks for bringing this to my intention [he means “attention”, I’m sure]. I will correct it for future editions of the bibliography.

PGW, the non-dramaturg

I’m not sure I did “know” his bibliography was wrong, and anyway I was not really concerned about that. I wanted to pin down my quote. Sigh. I said here that I should have known his focus would be on his database and not really on the substance of my inquiry. It was, I thought, enough for him to be able to correct the bibliography. The rest didn’t matter.

Well, it’s in keeping with this yarn that I was wrong about that, too. A few days after posting this piece for the first time, I received an e-mail from Geoff Proehl with the relevant extract from his database, including the Melbourne Theatre Company quote and proving beyond doubt that John Dawson et al were correct. The file was headed with the following note, about Molnar’s original commentary on dramaturgy and Wodehouse’s much later essay on Fair Play for Audiences :

Molnar and W intro 2

That’s what’s called closure, I suppose. But I have one more hand-held fan to challenge, that of the Wodehouse Society convention in Washington DC in October when I shall finally meet many of my fellow Wodehouseans, and be able to spin them this humbling and utterly pointless story in person.


One thought on “Dramaturgid futility

  1. As always, an enjoyable read. I found myself recalling Lennie Lower in your writing style from time to time. If that’s an offensive comment then I humbly take it back and apologise. Looking forward to the next installment.


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