Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Carrying On: Why Wodehouse Sticks

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

kearnsby Marcella Kearns, MCT Guest Educator

Recently, on a whim, I asked a fellow coffee shop patron if he knew anything about P.G. Wodehouse.  I was beginning research for JEEVES IN BLOOM, Margaret Raether's second adaptation of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories, and we were in a chatty space.  He shook his head.

"British writer?" I prompted.
"Oh, yeah.  Winnie the Pooh…?"
"Jeeves."
"Oh.  Oh, yeah!  Ask Jeeves!  On the internet.  The search engine.  Not around anymore, though."
"Yes, in a way."  (It's been shortened to "Ask.com.")
"Jeeves.  He was a butler, right?"
"Not exactly, no-"
Then it hit.
"He knew everything."
"Yes," I said.  "Yes.  He knew everything."

He knew everything. That someone to whom Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse himself was unfamiliar could nevertheless nail the defining feature of one of his creations tickled me.  Nearly a century after Wodehouse's beloved characters Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, appeared in print for the first time, this master-servant pair continues to find new life and loving audiences in all media.  Short stories and novels remain in print around the world.  Jeeves and Wooster stories have been adapted into films, television series, and plays over the course of several decades.  For those who don't know the man, Wodehouse's work, at least, continues to occupy a place in Stateside pop culture.  What about his stories sticks for us?  What, exactly, is the appeal, a century after he was coming into his own as a writer?

Craft and Style

WodehouseWodehouse had a keen instinct for the theatrical in both plot and word, and it's from that point that I launched a search which would take me through biographies, several Jeeves collections, and delightful conversations with playwright Margaret Raether and actress Karen Estrada.

By the mid-1920s, Wodehouse was established on both sides of the Atlantic as England's premier comic writer.  While he often gravitated to the short story, he was no stranger to writing for the theatre.  In the later teens, in fact, he began to collaborate with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern, among other greats of the early 20th-century American musical theatre, to serve as lyricist and co-librettist on Broadway projects.  The team of Bolton, Kern, and Wodehouse served to set a new standard for the seamless integration of lyrics, music, and book into a cohesive story-something musicals hadn't heretofore made much of a priority.  Essentially, they helped mature the form.

Wodehouse credited the stage with helping him hone his own craft in prose: "I've found that writing musical comedy has taught me a lot," he wrote to his friend Bill Townend.  "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."1

RaetherEven as Raether attests that plotting is the most difficult part of her playwriting process, she praises Wodehouse for his ability to craft an airtight, improbable sequence of events and seeks to nail that spirit of screwball comedy in her own work.  "My favorite word to write is 'pandemonium,'" she shares.  "It's in all of my scripts.  It's good to be on hand for the first production because then I can help work out what happens.  'What do you want here?' I'm asked.  'Pandemonium!' I say."

Wodehouse's writing style seems as effortless in its complexity as his plotting.  His work is peppered with allusions to literature, the quirkiest of images, unabashed Edwardian slang, and sentence construction that gives any actor a breath-support workout.  Karen Estrada, who will play the socialite Madeline Bassett in JEEVES IN BLOOM at MCT, rhapsodizes about the richness of Wodehouse's text: "I love the 'Britishness' of it: the slang 'eggs and b' instead of eggs and bacon, for instance.  He writes lyrics and poetry, prides himself on G & S turns of phrase and cleverness."  Raether echoes the praise, pinpointing what for her draws us to the language: "It's a fabulous combination of silly funny and smart funny.  Wodehouse's wordplay is brilliant.  And we get the benefit of both.  Even as we laugh at the joke, we pat ourselves on the back for getting it."

Escape

Neatly plotted comedy and sharp prose aside, Wodehouse's work is Exhibit A in the argument for flat-out escape as a major benefit of fiction.  As common a purpose for entertainment as it is, the balm of escape is often unacknowledged.  Wodehouse's world purposefully keeps the worst of reality at bay.  Many of his stories sit squarely in an idyllic pre-war Edwardian England in which social struggles are distant, if not invisible.  In a BBC broadcast honoring Wodehouse in 1961, Evelyn Waugh likened Wodehouse's world to Eden.  Biographer Robert McCrum quotes the novel Something Fresh as insight into Wodehouse's intentional removal from the cares of the world: "Other people worried about all sorts of things-strikes, wars, suffragettes, diminishing birth-rates, the growing materialism of the age, and a score of similar subjects.  Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth century's specialty.  Lord Emsworth never worried."2

estradaEstrada and Raether both reflect on that delicious retreat-the safety and dazzle of Wodehouse's fictional England-when I speak with them.  "It was such a strange time," laughs Estrada.  "They had money and nothing to do, so they could collect weird things and have bizarre passions and pursuits.  What does Madeline do?  Nothing."  The worst of Madeline's travails are in firming up to whom she's engaged.  Raether muses, "I've always been fascinated by the fact that during a tremendous depression-people didn't resent movies about this kind of thing.  They didn't want to burn down the cinema.  For them, it was fun to visit a world where everyone wears those divine gowns to dinner."  Her reflection takes the analysis one step further.  "Perhaps it isn't just the clothes or the social status.  In fact, there is perhaps something satisfying about the fabulously wealthy getting into a tizzy, into fabulously ridiculous predicaments."

Did this ideal world, this attractive place to escape, ever exist?  Herbert Warren Wind recalls a gathering of Wodehouse and friends at the Patio, a restaurant in Westhampton Beach, in the early 1970s.  As a friend asked Wodehouse that very question, the writer, then a long-term exile from England, replied.

Oh, it very definitely existed.  When I was living in London around the turn of the century, a good many of the young men dressed in morning coats, toppers, and spats-or spatterdashes, to give them their full name.  I wore them myself when I paid afternoon calls.  I don't know why spats went out of favor.  They were very comfortable, you know.  Awfully warm.  Anyway, when I started writing my stories, Bertie was a recognizable type.  All the rich young men had valets.  Funny how fast a type disappears!  After the war, there wasn't nearly so much money around, so the young men had to go out and find jobs, and this sort of pulled the rug out from under a whole way of life.3

With the rug pulled out from a "whole way of life," Wodehouse provided-still provides-a haven.  He wrote to Townend, "There is the problem of whether to ignore the upheaval in English life and go on doing Blandings Castle and Jeeves stuff or try to do something modern… I believe people having a rotten time in England like reading of the days when there were butlers and so on."4 Certainly, what sold was escape-what audiences craved and needed given their own circumstances.

Reliability

Providing what was needed: that thought led me back to Bertie and Jeeves themselves, characters recognizable even to the unindoctrinated, and the question of their enduring appeal.  Estrada discusses the characters as warmly as though she's discussing old friends:  "Bertie is absolutely aware of his own stupidity most of the time.  How he relies on Jeeves!  We never hear anything from Jeeves' point of view [Bertie narrates the fiction], but we can tell how he has made the entire arc of the story work for himself."  Raether puts it another way: "In his own aristocratic way, Jeeves has fun.  Bertie offers more scope for his talents than anyone less talented at getting himself into difficulties."  Indeed, Jeeves' ability to plot a path that will extricate Bertie and neutralize a conflict with the best possible outcome for all players (including himself) appears superhuman, his knowledge and observation omniscient.  We, as audience, can't help but wonder how much of a kick he gets out of it.

Jeeves isn't alone in his reliability, however.  Bertie Wooster adheres to a strict personal code-never let a friend down-that invariably costs him sleep, time, reputation, and money (fortunately, the latter is in ready enough supply).  His code has a knack for landing him in trying and comically ripe scrapes on behalf of his friends, true, so Bertie is fortunate to have Jeeves; but both together bring a heart and brain to a puzzle that readers and audiences can be certain will manage to win the day.

Perhaps that's one key to Wodehouse's lasting appeal.  His world, light-hearted, carefree, is five-star in the way of fictional escapes.  His language is searingly funny, his comedy deft.  But his heroes-Bertie Wooster and Jeeves-are true to those they serve: friend, family, employer.

And audience.

1 Wodehouse's letter to William Townend (1922) quoted in Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum (2004), 150
2
Something Fresh quoted by McCrum, 116.
3
Wodehouse quoted in The World of P.G. Wodehouse by Herbert Warren Wind (1971), 98.
4
Wodehouse's letter to Townend (1950) quoted by McCrum, 374.


< Back To News & Media

Upcoming