“What ho, Pisanio!” — Echoes of Cymbeline in P. G. Wodehouse

P. G. Wodehouse

I can’t prove it, but I feel in my bones that echoes of Cymbeline can be found in P. G. Wodehouse. As I noted in an earlier post, Wodehouse’s stories are full of allusions and quotations from Shakespeare. What would make it unusual is that Wodehouse drew mostly from the best-known Shakespeare plays; I’m not aware of any other references in Wodehouse to Cymbeline

What struck me in Cymbeline, when we saw it performed a week ago at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, were words that fell from the lips of Innogen when she realized (Act I, Scene 6) that Iachimo was a dirty-minded lecher who had been feeding her lies about her husband Posthumus to get her into bed. Innogen calls for Pisanio to show Iachimo the door: “What ho, Pisanio!”

In Wodehouse, of course, Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club friends often greet each other with a friendly “what ho,” as they do, for example, in the 1922 novel Right Ho, Jeeves.  Other Wodehouse characters too, as in Indiscretions of Archie, Chapter XVIII:

Archie was concerned. “Listen, old bean. Make an effort. You must remember that sausage episode? It was just outside St. Mihiel, about five in the evening. Your little lot were lying next to my little lot, and we happened to meet, and I said ‘What ho!’ and you said ‘Halloa!’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho!’ and you said ‘Have a bit of sausage?’ and I said ‘What ho! What ho! What HO!'”

Back to Cymbeline: a few seconds later, the angry Innogen assures Iachimo that her father the King surely won’t stand for a “saucy stranger” who has exposed his “beastly mind” to her as Iachimo has. “Beastly” is another Wodehouse trademark . Bertie Wooster and his pals use it as a all-purpose pejorative, but they are especially apt to apply it (much as Innogen does in Cymbeline) to romantic rivals, with the implication that the motives of those rivals are less than pure.

In chapter 11 of Right Ho, Jeeves, for instance, Tuppy Glossop, rants that if he ever catches up with the unknown “foul blister” who has alienated his girlfriend Angela’s affections, he plans to “to take him by his beastly neck, shake him till he froths, and pull him inside out and make him swallow himself.” Wodehouse used “beastly” six times in Right Ho, Jeeves alone.

It may be only my fancy that Wodehouse drew from Cymbeline, which after all isn’t the only Shakespeare play in which somebody says “what ho.”  Macbeth calls out “Who’s there?  what, ho!” shortly after he murders Duncan.  In Romeo and Juliet, another Wodehose favorite, several citizens of Verona use the phrase, including Capulet (“What, ho! What, nurse, I say!), Romeo (“What, ho! Apothecary!”), and the Prince of Verona, complaining of the brawling in the streets (“What, ho! you men, you beasts . . .”).  In a comment to the original version of this post, Stina pointed out that the use of “beastly” is not terribly uncommon in Shakespeare; it appears about 20 times in various plays. It appears to me, though, that only three times did Shakespeare put the word in a character’s mouth for the purpose of name-calling, the way Wodehouse usually did: in Lear (“you beastly knave”), in Henry IV Part 2 (“Thou, beastly feeder”), and in Cymbeline (“His beastly mind”).

Only in Cymbeline do the Wodehousean words “what ho” and “beastly” appear in close proximity.  Cymbeline isn’t notable for famous lines, but Innogen’s rebuke of Iachimo is a highlight of the play.  It’s easy to imagine not only that Innogen’s speech appealed to Wodehouse, but also that two of its “hottest” words and phrases stuck in his mind, tucked away for future use.

Away! I do condemn mine ears that have
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek’st, – as base as strange.
Thou wrong’st a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicit’st here a lady that disdains
Thee and the devil alike. What ho, Pisanio!
The king my father shall be made acquainted
Of thy assault: if he shall think it fit,
A saucy stranger in his court to mart
As in a Romish stew and to expound
His beastly mind to us, he hath a court
He little cares for and a daughter who
He not respects at all. What, ho, Pisanio!

My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival

When we were ordering our Shaw Festival tickets last winter, it occurred to us that our bodacious granddaughter might well enjoy seeing this year’s production of My Fair Lady. We were not mistaken. The eight-year-old was riveted by the opening ballet-like scene in Covent Garden, thrilled to the waltzing at the Embassy Ball, and laughed out loud at Henry Higgins’s rant near the play’s end, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” (which, she said, was her favorite song from the show).

“It’s the best play I’ve ever seen,” she said before she fell asleep in the car on our way back to Rochester, and “and also the longest!” She wants to come back to Niagara-on-the-Lake next summer and see it again.

She and her eight-year-old cousin are the best of friends, so we brought him too. He was not nearly as riveted as his girl cousin by the singing, dancing, and extravagant costuming, but he bore it manfully. What he liked best was the part where Eliza shied Henry Higgins’s slippers at him.

The kids were fascinated by the scene changes. Having no preconceptions, they didn’t realize that the modernistic set designs were a bit different from what veteran Shaw play-goers might have expected Covent Garden, 27A Wimpole Street, and Ascot to look like. (We liked this show’s visuals a lot; it’s a gorgeous production.) Even though it was late when the curtain fell, we lingered around the orchestra pit anyway so the kids could see the musicians. We explained to them that the conductor, Paul Sportelli, had been conducting the singers on the stage too even though they never seemed to be paying attention to him.

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle

Taking the kids to the theater was distracting, not because of any misbehavior on their part, but because we couldn’t help watching them to see how they were reacting to the show. Some of it, we know, went over their heads, but they didn’t seem to mind. We wondered afterward how much we might have missed ourselves if we hadn’t known the play so very well; telling the story of this familiar play may not have been the director’s highest priority. But the show moved along smartly, the songs gave us great joy, and the extended dance sequences for the Embassy Ball and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were exhilarating. And Mark Uhre, who sings “On the Street Where You Live,” has a superb tenor voice. All told, this is a glorious production.

The cast took fresh approaches to these familiar roles; Benedict Campbell (as Henry Higgins) and Deborah Hay (as Eliza Doolittle) are nothing like Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Here Eliza is earthy and self-reliant, while Mr. Campbell’s bespectacled Higgins (we were reminded a little of Woody Allen!) is prissy, selfish, and mildly effeminate. It was easy to see why Higgins, a man short on patience, forbearance, and generosity, had never fallen into matrimony. Patrick Galligan brings nervous energy to the role of Colonel Pickering and plays it without the usual stuffiness. The characters were undoubtedly English, but we left the theater thinking that we had seen a decidedly American My Fair Lady.

At the Ascot races: Mark Uhre as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Gabrielle Jones as Mrs Eynsford-Hill, Patrick Galligan as Colonel Pickering, and Sharry Flett as Mrs Higgins

Both My Fair Lady and the Shaw Festival’s other 2011 extravaganza, The Admirable Crichton, involve the theme of romantic attraction across social lines; while The Admirable Crichton considers the possible mating of a butler with a noble lady, My Fair Lady posits a match between a wealthy, educated English gentleman (Henry Higgins) and a penniless Cockney girl. (See Emsworth’s appreciative thoughts about The Admirable Crichton at this post). (The sets for both shows were both designed by Ken MacDonald; seeing them both within a couple of weeks made us really appreciate his talent.)

But while J. M. Barrie had no socio-political agenda in writing The Admirable Crichton (again, see our thoughts about that at this post), one can’t say the same about Bernard Shaw’s agenda in writing Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. Shaw had a low opinion of traditional marriage, and when we heard Higgins propose to Eliza a relationship in which she would stay with him only as long as it suited her, and vice versa, we heard the propagandizing voice of Shaw himself. We’re glad that went over the heads of the eight-year-olds.

On the same theme, by the way, is the hilarious story with which P. G. Wodehouse opened his 1923 masterpiece The Inimitable Jeeves, in which Jeeves has Bingo Little’s wealthy uncle supplied with popular romance fiction (Only a Shop Girl and All for Love) to put him in a frame of mind to propose marriage to his cook.

In the program, director Molly Smith asserts that there are “only a few Gold Standard Musicals,” which she identifies as South Pacific, West Side Story, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. We would agree that there are only a few musicals at the very top, but can’t agree with her nominees. West Side Story and My Fair Lady are surely golden, but we would have topped off the list with Show Boat, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof.

The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival

We found J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, now playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), so clever and delightful in every detail that we’ll see it again if we can. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much at the theater in a long time.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby, David Schurmann as Lord Loam, and Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton

Crichton (pronounced “CRY-ton”) is a 30-year-old butler in the high-toned Mayfair household of the Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), described by the playwright in the printed version of the play as “a widower, a philanthropist, and a peer of advanced ideas.” One of Lord Loam’s ideas is that class differences are artificial, and he has decreed that, once a month, all the servants in his house must take tea in the drawing-room with him and his family as guests and equals. These social events are dreaded not only by Lord Loam’s three daughters, but also by the servants. Crichton, who as butler is head of the servants’ hall, finds them excruciating:

ERNEST: Do you know, Crichton, I think that with an effort you might look even happier. (Crichton smiles wanly.) You don’t approve of his lordship’s compelling his servants to be his equals — once a month?

CRICHTON: It is not for me, sir, to disapprove of his lordship’s Radical views.

ERNEST: Certainly not. And, after all, it is only once a month that he is affable to you.

CRICHTON: On all other days of the month, sir, his lordship’s treatment of us is everything that could be desired.

Lord Loam’s daughters know how profoundly uncomfortable Crichton is with this charade of equality:

LADY MARY (sarcastically): How Crichton enjoys it!

LORD LOAM (frowning): He is the only one who doesn’t; pitiful creature.

CRICHTON: I can’t help being a Conservative, my lord.

LORD LOAM: Be a man, Crichton. You are the same flesh and blood as myself.

CRICHTON (in pain): Oh, my lord!

Under pressure, Crichton reluctantly explains his distaste for “equality” to Lady Mary:

CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady’s-maid — perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place. Though I were equal to your ladyship, where would be the pleasure to me? It would be counterbalanced by the pain of feeling that Thomas and John were equal to me.

Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby

A few days after the “servants’ tea,” Lord Loam and his family leave on a private yacht for an extended voyage to the South Seas. Crichton suggests a kitchen maid, Tweeny, as ladies’ maid on the yacht for Lady Mary and her sisters, and Crichton himself is persuaded to go along as Lord Loam’s valet.

Two months later, the entire party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where it becomes immediately clear that Crichton is the only one of the Londoners with survival skills. Indeed, Crichton finds himself in his element, able, intelligent, and masterful. He disabuses his erstwhile superiors of the notion that they can continue to be idle on the island, and as “nature” takes its course, their roles are reversed: Crichton becomes a benevolent, respected master of a smoothly run island establishment, and the others, who call him “the Gov.” (which is how the servants back in London referred among themselves to Lord Loam), become his servants.

Ready to fend off a wild beast on the island

Nature also takes course in the form of a blossoming romance between Crichton and Lord Loam’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (who in the new “natural” order of things has been rechristened “Polly”, just as household servants in London households were given arbitrary new names by their superiors). After two years on the island, none of the party expects to be see London again. The sight of a ship forces the issue of what must happen to their relationships if they were to be rescued and restored to Mayfair.

In this show, every touch from director Morris Panych is golden; every minute a dozen small things tickle your fancy. It all works: the narration, the costuming, the songs, the singing animals (Panych’s idea, not Barrie’s), the little bits of pantomime business, the vanity of Ernest, who annoys everyone with his epigrams. The narration is taken directly from J. M. Barrie’s stage directions (reading his plays in print is a treat). The animals sing clever arrangements of swing tunes from the 1920s in close harmony. The “servants’ tea” scene in the opening act is comic genius. Panych’s material is superb, as Barrie’s characters are fully drawn and brilliantly colored, and Panych has given this show all the sauciness and scope of a well-directed musical.

David Schurmann as The Earl of Loam and Marla McLean as Tweeny

What’s priceless, though, is the way this superb cast delivers Barrie’s lines. No better Crichton could have been found anywhere than Steven Sutcliffe. He is as commanding on the stage as a Mayfair butler as he is as the buff, masterful “Gov.” on the island. The diminutive Marla McLean is an arresting and remarkably convincing Tweeny. David Schurmann, a world-class Shavian actor, plays the naïve and ineffectual Lord Loam. We were especially glad to see the ravishing Nicole Underhay back at the Shaw Festival.  Her transformation from a bored, jaded Londoner to an exuberant, accomplished island-dweller is something to see.

Crichton is a marvelous character, and he’d probably be better-known today if The Admirable Crichton hadn’t been overshadowed by the the popularity of Peter Pan, and if P. G. Wodehouse had not created Jeeves, who since the 1920s has been by far the best-known fictional member of the English serving classes. Jeeves was not strictly speaking a butler; he was a gentleman’s gentleman, serving Bertie Wooster as valet, personal secretary, butler, and jack of all trades. Still, Jeeves and Crichton have a lot in common as polished, intelligent, well-read masters of their own domains.

We think Wodehouse, a man of the theater who happened to be one of J. M. Barrie’s cricket pals, surely had Crichton as one of his models when he brought Jeeves into being. Early in The Admirable Crichton, for instance, we learn that Crichton has an ulterior motive for promoting Tweeny as a maid for Lady Mary and her sisters on the yacht:  the promotion will elevate Tweeny’s social status and make her a more eligible mate for himself.

CRICHTON (after hesitating): There is in this establishment, your ladyship, a young woman —

LADY MARY: Yes?

CRICHTON: A young woman, on whom I have for some time cast an eye.

CATHERINE (eagerly). Do you mean as a possible lady’s maid?

CRICHTON: I had thought of her, my lady, in another connection.

LADY MARY: Ah!

We thought immediately of Jeeves. In story after story, as Wodehouse devotees know, Jeeves manipulates his employer to his will, whether to inveigle Bertie Wooster into taking a vacation in the country (so Jeeves can go fishing), to further a romantic scheme of Jeeves’s, or to tighten his control over Bertie’s selection of ties and dinner jackets. Like Jeeves, Crichton manages to further both his employer’s needs and his own personal wishes at the same time.

And who can doubt that the title of Wodehouse’s first great collection of Jeeves stories, The Inimitable Jeeves, echoes the title of The Admirable Crichton?

The two essays in the Shaw Festival’s program for The Admirable Crichton, by Mr. Panych and Michael Billington, claim to find egalitarian socio-political overtones in the play; Mr. Billington says it has “subversive implications.”  We don’t see it at all.  J. M. Barrie was a romantic, not a socialist, and we’ve never detected any political agenda in his novels and plays. Indeed, if anything political can be extracted from The Admirable Crichton, it would be the fundamentally conservative notion that class distinctions aren’t the bastard offspring of leftist bogeymen like imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism, but arise naturally in every society.

But Barrie did have, along with the similarly apolitical P. G. Wodehouse, a genuine sympathy for and interest in servants as human beings. The Admirable Crichton includes an exquisite portrait of the social distinctions between different kinds of servants in large English establishments. Consider what we learn when Tweeny is interrogated by Lady Mary as a possible lady’s maid for the voyage:

LADY MARY: And you and Crichton are — ah — keeping company?

(CRICHTON draws himself up.)

TWEENY (aghast): A butler don’t keep company, my lady.

LADY MARY (indifferently): Does he not?

CRICHTON: No, your ladyship, we butlers may — (he makes a gesture with his arms) — but we do not keep company.

AGATHA: I know what it is; you are engaged?

(TWEENY looks longingly at CRICHTON.)

CRICHTON: Certainly not, my lady. The utmost I can say at present is that I have cast a favourable eye.

Another great English dramatist, by contrast, had no interest in servants as people. Many of Emsworth’s readers will recall the exchange between Algernon and his butler Lane in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

LANE: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON (languidly): I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

But Wodehouse and Barrie do find servants interesting. In “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Jeeves speaks to his employer about his own personal life with the same delicacy and reserve as Crichton. Asked how he knows that Bingo Little’s uncle lives in Pounceby Gardens, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, who is narrating the story,

“I am on terms of some intimacy with the elder Mr. Little’s cook, sir. In fact, there is an understanding.”

[Bertie narrates:] I’m bound to say that this gave me a bit of a start. Somehow I’d never thought of Jeeves going in for that sort of thing.

“Do you mean you’re engaged?”

“It may be said to amount to that, sir.”

“Well, well!”

The stories of P. G. Wodehouse owe much of their interest to the cooks, butlers, valets, gardeners, secretaries, and pig-keepers who populate the country estates of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster’s relatives.

J. M. Barrie, one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, was a elegant English prose stylist who can fairly be mentioned in the same breath as Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. The Admirable Crichton first appeared in 1902, two years before Peter Pan. The play is less fantastical than Barrie’s Peter Pan, and also much lighter — we’re remembering the dark, wonderful Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival in 2001.

To those who appreciate this production of The Admirable Crichton, we recommend not only the reading editions of J. M. Barrie’s plays, but also Barrie’s novels, like A Window in Thrums and The Little White Bird. We hope fervently that the Shaw Festival will be doing more Barrie plays over the next few seasons.

Was P. G. Wodehouse an Oxfordian?

Read the fiction of P. G. Wodehouse and you’ll come away with a strong impression that, in his personal life, the author

— was raised by dragon aunts (the Wooster/Jeeves stories)
— went to a private school in England and was obsessed with cricket (Tales of St. Austin, The Swoop)
— was set to work by his family in a bank and hated it (Psmith in the City)
— knew first-hand about life in the great English country houses (the Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings stories)
— liked vacationing in southern France (the short story “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”)
— spent good parts of his life in America (Carry On, Jeeves, The Small Bachelor, Laughing Gas)
— worked in musical theater and wrote for Hollywood (the short stories “Monkey Business,” “The Nodder,” “The Castaways”)
— was devoted to Shakespeare (The Code of the Woosters, Joy in the Morning) (see this post)
— liked dogs, especially Pekingese (the short stories “Jeeves and the Impending Doom,” “Open House,” and “Ukridge’s Dog College”)
— was an obsessive golfer (“The Heart of a Goof”)

P. G. Wodehouse

And you’d be right on all counts. Of course you could do this with most authors.  You need only to read Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee to gather that the author grew up in a small town along the Mississippi and later lived in New England.  Yet it’s just this sort of common-sense gleaning from the plays and poems of Shakespeare that Stratfordians like James  Shapiro (see this post) object to when it comes to the question of who wrote Shakespeare.

But we digress from our topic, which is who Wodehouse thought wrote Othello and Macbeth.  We don’t suppose his opinion would carry as much weight as a literary scholar or a classical actor, but Wodehouse had solid credibility as a playwright and a man of the theater, and he spent his life with Shakespeare. You can talk about your “desert island” list of books, but Wodehouse actually had to make one and live with it: when he was interned by the Germans during the Second World War, one of the two volumes Wodehouse took with him was the complete works of Shakespeare. Joy in the Morning, which he wrote during the war, shows it.

The question of who wrote Shakespeare was on Wodehouse’s mind for decades.  Digging unsystematically through our Wodehouse library, we found at least half a dozen mentions.

The earliest we ran across was in a comic sketch called “My Life as a Dramatic Critic” that Wodehouse wrote for Vanity Fair around 1918.  (Thanks to Oxfordian researcher Martin Hyatt for bringing this one to our attention; the sketch appears is in A Wodehouse Miscellany.)  In this piece Wodehouse reminesced about his early — very early — career as a theater critic:

I remember once lunching with rare Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern — this would be back in Queen Elizabeth’s time, when I was beginning to be known in the theatrical world — and seeing a young man with a nobby forehead and about three inches of beard doing himself well at a neighboring table at the expense of Burbage the manager.

“Ben,” I asked my companion, “who is that youth?”  He told me that the fellow was one Bacon, a new dramatist who had learned his technique by holding horses’ heads in the Strand, and who, for some reason or other, wrote under the name of Shakespeare.  “You must see his Hamlet,” said Ben enthusiastically.  “He read me the script last night.  They start rehearsals at the Globe next week.  It’s a pippin.  In the last act every blamed character in the cast who isn’t already dead jumps on everyone else’s neck and slays him.”

The sketch includes a quote from Wodehouse’s rave review for Hamlet‘s opening night, as published in The Weekly Bear-Baiter.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Around the time Wodehouse wrote this, the vogue in anti-Stratfordian Shakespeare authorship thinking was for Francis Bacon.  But in 1920, the unfortunately surnamed J. T. Looney published a book called “Shakespeare” Identified that made the first real case for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the plays and sonnets.  (Sigmund Freud, who had been a Baconian, became an Oxfordian after reading “Shakespeare” Identified.)

We don’t have any hard evidence that Wodehouse read Looney’s book.  But consider this passage from Joy in the Morning, chapter VII:

One has, of course, to make allowances for writers, all of them being more or less loony.  Look at Shakespeare, for instance.  Very unbalanced.  Used to go about stealing ducks.

Here Bertie Wooster (the novel’s narrator) was apparently referring to the apocryphal story that William Shakespeare, as a lad, was caught poaching (though he is supposed to have poached deer, not ducks).  But is it just coincidence that Wodehouse used the word “loony” only three words away from the word “Shakespeare”?  Or was there no significance to Wodehouse’s once again making fun of one of the dubious legends about the Stratford man, just as, in “My Life as a Dramatic Critic,” he had made fun of the apocryphal story that Will Shakespeare got his start by holding horses outside the theater? We think not. Wodehouse knew how tellingly few were the actual known facts about the life of the Stratford man.

One thing we do know is that Wodehouse was amused by the baroque, conspiratorial thinking of those Baconians who claimed that clues to the mystery of authorship could be found in elaborate ciphers.  One of these Baconians was a prominent character in the short story “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald” (it’s in Mr. Mulliner Speaking, published in 1929).  Young Algy Wymondham-Wymondham is explaining to Archibald Mulliner that the aunt of an attractive girl with whom Archibald is smitten is “potty.”

“Potty?  That divine. . . . I mean, that rather attractive-looking girl?”
“Not Aurelia.  The aunt.  She thinks Bacon wrote Shakespeare.”
“Thinks who wrote what?”  asked Archibald, puzzled, for the names were strange to him.
“You must have heard of Shakespeare.  He’s well known.  Fellow who used to write plays.  Only Aurelia’s aunt says he didn’t.  She maintains that a bloke called Bacon wrote them for him.”
“Dashed decent of him,” said Archibald, approvingly.  “Of course, he may have owed Shakespeare money.”
“There’s that, of course.”
“What was the name again?”
“Bacon.”
“Bacon,” said Archibald, jotting it down on his cuff.  “Right.”
Algy’s careless words had confirmed his worst suspicions.  A girl with an aunt who knew all about Shakespeare and Bacon must of necessity live in a mental atmosphere into which a lame-brained bird like himself could scarcely hope to soar.

Here Wodehouse has merely recycled the gag about Bacon’s owing Shakespeare money that he used ten years earlier in the Vanity Fair sketch.  But a few paragraphs later, Wodehouse demonstrates that he had actually read some of the Baconian propaganda.  He has Archibald Mulliner obtain a set of books by Bacon and read them, so as to ingratiate himself with Aurelia’s aunt, and he succeeds:

[R]eaching out an arm like the tentacle of an octopus, she drew him into a corner and talked about Cryptograms for forty-seven minutes by the drawing-room clock.

The aunt inflicts upon Archibald an explanation — Wodehouse himself goes on with it too long, actually — of how a cipher reveals that Milton’s famous epitaph on Shakespeare actually referred to Bacon.

Francis Bacon

In “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald” Wodehouse skewered the Baconians so thoroughly as to dispose of any suggestion that he was a Baconian himself.  Indeed, when Wodehouse recycled his gag yet again three years later, he left Bacon out of the story.  In April 1932, in a letter to a friend (it’s quoted in David A. Jasen’s P.G. Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master), Wodehouse was deprecating the plot for his new novel Thank You, Jeeves:

Come, come, Wodehouse, is this the best you can do in the way of carrying on the great tradition of English Literature?  Still, I’ll bet the plot of Hamlet seemed just as lousy when Shakespeare was trying to tell it to Ben Jonson in the Mermaid Tavern.

Wodehouse went on to imagine Shakespeare’s trying futilely to summarize the plot of Hamlet for Ben Jonson.

Wodehouse wrote a final, more elaborate variation of the gag about Shakespeare and Bacon — at least, the last variation we could find — in a humorous sketch he published in Punch in the mid-50s called “Francis Bacon and the Play Doctor” (it appears in America, I Love You, the British edition of which is titled Over Seventy).  Here Wodehouse tells of “a Baconian of my acquaintance” who had documentary proof (“only unfortunately in a cipher which nobody but he can read”) of how Hamlet came to be produced.

In this facetious account, Bacon had “always had the firm conviction that he could write a play,” so he steals time from his job as Chancellor of the Exchequer to dash off Hamlet. Eventually, a theatrical manager takes an interest in the play but explains to Bacon that “it needs fixing.”  Bacon is forced to let the company’s script doctor, “young Shakespeare,” tinker with his play (and it is thus Shakespeare who is responsible for the impossible series of stabbings and poisonings in the last scene of the play.

The program was initially going to have read as follows:

HAMLET

BY

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

(Based on a Suggestion by F. Bacon)

“But Bacon, after sitting through a rehearsal or two and reading the revised script, decided to take his name off the bills.”

So did Wodehouse really doubt that the Stratford man wrote Shakespeare? We think he did doubt. Consider Wodehouse’s use of the gag about Shakespeare and Bacon in Joy in the Morning, chapter XXIII. Here Jeeves, who has a bright idea for helping Bertie’s Uncle Percy, Lord Worplesdon, with a thorny problem, suggests that the suggestion should “appear to emanate” from Bertie rather than him in order to bolster Bertie’s standing with his uncle:

I nodded. His meaning had not escaped me. If you analyzed it, it was the old Bacon and Shakespeare gag. Bacon, as you no doubt remember, wrote Shakespeare’s stuff for him and then, possibly because he owed the latter money or it may be from sheer good nature, allowed him to take the credit for it. I mentioned this to Jeeves, and he said that perhaps an even closer parallel was that of Cyrano de Bergerac.

This, we would emphasize, is the voice of Bertie Wooster, the character in Wodehouse whose views most reliably reflect those of Wodehouse himself. And Bertie takes it for granted that the Stratford man was not the author.

One might infer that Wodehouse, in his mid-sixties, was still wrestling with why someone like Bacon or de Vere would have let the Stratford man take credit for writing Hamlet. But one might also infer that, just as Wodehouse’s vast fictional world remained locked in Edwardian England, Wodehouse’s thinking about the authorship question never advanced beyond what he took from the Baconians and (we surmise) from J. T. Looney in the teens and twenties. Any intellectual curiosity he may have had as to who really wrote Shakespeare had long since been eclipsed by the comic value of (a) the gag itself and (b) the nuttiness of some of the Baconians.

We regret finding no evidence that P. G. Wodehouse was, in fact, a Oxfordian.

 
 

 

This is a good opportunity for us to mention an excellent new publication focusing on Oxfordian scholarship that’s come to our attention. It’s called Brief Chronicles and it’s strictly an on-line journal, so far as we can tell. Here’s the link. And it’s free (although downloading a free issue can take a couple of minutes). The recently published second issue has some excellent and thought-provoking pieces.

P. G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers

When Monet painted Nymphéas in 1915, he wasn

It’s not pretty when a great talent hangs on too long.  Have you seen film of Willie Mays falling down trying to catch a fly ball for the Mets? Have you seen the appalling canvasses Monet painted in his dotage, when cataracts distorted his sense of color?

So what happens when great writers get old? We haven’t often seen it. Jane Austen (age 41), Jack London (age 40), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (age 44) all died before they got old. E. M. Forster gave up writing novels when he was 44 (after A Passage to India), Thomas Hardy when he was 55 (after Jude the Obscure). Dickens was still at the top of his game when he died at 58.  Who knows what they might have had left in the tank if they’d reached their 90s?

But we do know about P. G. Wodehouse, because the man who was first published in 1903 at the age of 21 kept writing till the end. In fact, he was still writing a new novel (Sunset at Blandings, published after his death, unfinished) when he died in 1975 at the age of 93.

We recently made our way one last time through Wodehouse’s last complete novel, The Cat-Nappers (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen).  Just as we remembered, there was little to enjoy in the work of the 92-year-old Wodehouse.

Now ordinarily there’s nothing like a Wodehouse story for what ails you. A few hours with Ukridge (1923), Very Good, Jeeves (1930), Blandings Castle (1935), Joy in the Morning (1947), or Pigs Have Wings (1952), will cure practically anything.

In 1930 Wodehouse was 49 years old

But The Cat-Nappers is a sobering book, enough to make a man of a certain age reevaluate euthanasia. Why couldn’t Wodehouse have quit while he was ahead? At 64, he could still deliver a hilarious masterpiece like The Mating Season (1949).  At 75, when he wrote How Right You Are, Jeeves (1960), he’d slipped very little.  But at 92, Wodehouse was running on fumes.  In The Cat-Nappers a man can see all too well just what old age has in store for him, like . . .

1. Repeating yourself. Part of Wodehouse’s genius, of course, was to present old wheezes in fresh new ways. Take Bertie Wooster’s habit, when in a certain buoyant mood, of judiciously abbreviating a word or two in a phrase. Wodehouse used the gag to help set the tone of How Right You Are, Jeeves in the novel’s opening sentence:

Jeeves placed the sizzling eggs and b. on the breakfast table, and Reginald (Kipper) Herring and I, licking the lips, squared our elbows and got down to it.

Or from Joy in the Morning:

“She expressed a hope that you might shortly see your way to visiting Steeple Bumpleigh.”
I shook the head.
“Out of the q., Jeeves.”

This sight gag was a unique invention.  (It’s entirely for the benefit of the silent reader, lost if you’re reading out loud.) But like any trick it loses its comic effect if overused. In the Wooster-and-Jeeves novels of his prime, Wodehouse rarely used it more than once per book.

Not so in The Cat-Nappers.  The gag first pops up on page 16:

I drove on, and he said “Phew” and removed a bead of persp. from the brow.

So far, so good — but then Wodehouse uses it again, more awkwardly, two pages later:

“You know her?” Orlo said. I saw that I would do well to watch my step, for it was evident that what I have heard Jeeves call the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on was beginning to feel the rush of life beneath its keel. You never know what may happen when the g.-e. m. takes over.

Corot knew just how much of his trademark red (in the girl’s hair ribbon) was needed for a color accent in his picture. Wodehouse, in younger days, knew just when and how often to use his trademark gags for maximum effect.

And then, on page 30, one finds abbreviated words twice on the same page. And more on pages 36, 46, 47 (the same word as on page 46), 56, 68, and 99!  At 93 years of age, Wodehouse couldn’t tell when enough was enough. By the end of the book, the abbreviations long cease to amuse; they’re just an annoying writer’s tic.

2. Repeating yourself (part 2). Wodehouse fans relish Bertie Wooster’s hilarious habit of attributing lines of poetry to the wrong poet (often Shakespeare). In his prime, Wodehouse had the judicious use of this gag down cold.

But in The Cat-Nappers he had lost his feel. At page 83, Bertie is puzzled as to the origin of “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” which comes up in a conversation with Jeeves:

“Your own?” I said.
“No, sir. A quotation.”
“Well, carry on,” I said, thinking what a lot of good things Shakespeare had said in his time.

Wodehouse forgot that he’d already used the gag 50 pages earlier:

One of the first poems I ever learned — I don’t know who wrote it, probably Shakespeare — ran

I love little pussy; her coat is so warm;
And if I don’t hurt her, she’ll do me no harm
.

If Wodehouse thought it would be funny to posit Shakespeare as the author of “I love little pussy,” one can only conclude that he was, as Jacques put it in As You Like It, entering “second childishness.”

Wodehouse in 1975, a few days before his death

3. Childishness. And painful as it is to write, there’s reason to think that the nonegenarian Wodehouse had, indeed, entered into his second childhood when he sat down at his typewriter to write The Cat-Nappers.  In its opening paragraphs, Bertie is explaining to Jeeves that he has spots on his chest, and he cites Ogden Nash for the proposition that he should scratch them:

“Well, here’s what the poet Nash wrote. ‘I’m greatly attached to Barbara Frietchie. I’ll bet she scratched when he was itchy.'”

In 75 years of writing, Wodehouse had never stooped to such a thing as borrowing someone else’s joke. His special genius was literary allusions in new and unexpected contexts — not re-using someone else’s comic material.  And the comic rhyme Bertie was quoting was kindergarten humor, at best.

4. Forgetfulness. Another tool in Wodehouse’s bag of tricks for his Wooster-and-Jeeves novels — again, a gag he had always used with discretion — was to have Bertie, supposedly a mental lightweight, struggle to come up with a five-dollar word. He does it at page 79 of The Cat-Nappers:

I was still much perplexed by that utterance of Angelica Briscoe’s. The more I brooded on it, the more cryptic, if that’s the word, it became.

But why would Bertie have ever doubted whether “cryptic” was the word he wanted?  In the preceding two pages alone, Bertie had used the words “nihilist,” “personable,” and “desultory” effectively and appropriately.  Why would “cryptic” have been a puzzler?  And why did Wodehouse think it would be funny for Bertie to question whether he’d used it correctly?

And once again, Wodehouse had lost his knack of sensing when a gag wouldn’t be funny anymore.  Two pages later, Bertie fumbles for a word again:

“I wouldn’t have thought Porter would have shown such what-is-it.”

Jeeves helps him out:

“Would pusillaniminity be the word for which you are groping, sir?”

“Quite possibly. I know it begins with pu.”  A few chapters later, Bertie gropes for another word, then brings it to mind.  The word turns out to be “dumfounded.”

The elderly Wodehosue

This pattern’s especially telling. Wodehouse has Bertie struggling for the right word so often in The Cat-Nappers as to suggest that the elderly author himself was struggling to come up with words when he wanted them.

6. Rambling. If Wodehouse’s prose has a fault, especially in his later books, it was that he sometimes dwelt too long on a point and looked at it from too many different angles. Sometimes, one feels, Wodehouse couldn’t choose between figures of speech that he liked and decided simply to use them all.

In The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse rambles and dithers like never before.  When, at page 34, Bertie sees a man he had no reason to expect in the vicinity, Wodehouse wastes a page and a half of tiresome prose having Bertie speculate that the man has died and that his ghost is haunting the neighborhood.  Five pages later, Wodehouse has Bertie spend another full page describing how he met a cat and scratched it behind its ears.

7. Indiscretion. Throughout his life, unlike so many other 20th-century writers, Wodehouse claimed to be apolitical.  Except for a bit of mild mockery of British fascists in some of his stories from the 1920s and 1930s (see this Emsworth post), he rarely showed his political colors.

But in The Cat-Nappers Wodehouse let the mask fall, revealing himself (to Emsworth’s morbid satisfaction) as a staunch conservative.  When an old school acquaintance, Orlo Porter, whom Bertie encounters leading a protest march, discloses that he is a communist, Bertie looks at him askance:

I hadn’t realized that was what he was, and it rather shocked me, because I’m not any too keen on Communists.

When Orlo complains that his fiance’s father has gotten rich by “grinding the faces of the widow and the orphan, Bertie gives his readers a pithy defense of free-market capitalism:

I could have corrected him here, pointing out that you don’t grind people’s faces by selling them pressed beef and potato chips at a lower price than they would be charged elsewhere . . . .

Nor is Bertie under illusions about the murderous thugs in Moscow:

Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.

Wodehouse surely held these bluntly expressed views well before he reached his nineties.  But nothing like them appears in his earlier stories.  For decades Wodehouse had carefully posed as a man of the arts who was comfortably and blissfully above the fray.  In The Cat-Nappers, Bertie Wooster compares himself to Orlo Porter:

I was told he made fiery far-to-the-left speeches, while I was more the sort that is content to just exist beautifully.

No doubt in 1974 Wodehouse still wanted his readership to think of him as “existing beautifully” — the same image that had been cultivated by the aesthete Oscar Wilde, who so greatly influenced Wodehouse (see this Emsworth post). But political sentiments spill forth in The Cat-Nappers anyway, because the irritability of old age had robbed Wodehouse of the discretion that had for so long kept them in check.

The Cat-Nappers is perhaps the only work of P. G. Wodehouse that Emsworth cannot recommend.  It’s not entirely without merit; there’s an amusing passage on page 88 in which a fiance of Bertie’s lectures him on improvements to his character that she will bring about once they’re married.  But there’s not much more.  The Cat-Nappers reminds us that if we live long enough, we too can look forward to a day when we keep saying the same things over and over, lose our art, wax indiscreet, become childish, and babble till our dazed offspring zone us out altogether.

Was P. G. Wodehouse squeamish about sex?

We don’t mean this in a negative way, but the fact can’t be avoided: the Master wasn’t comfortable with sex. Not once in dozens of comic novels and hundreds of short stories with romantic plots, does any P. G. Wodehouse character indulge in the carnal passions, on-stage or off.  Considering that people probably joke about sex more than anything else, it’s almost astonishing how well Wodehouse got by as a comic writer without it.

Wodehouse wasn’t prudish in other respects. Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones drink themselves silly, commit petty burglaries, fritter money away at casinos, resort to blackmail at the drop of a hat, and concoct hilarious frauds. And as the twentieth century wore on and the rules against explicit language in literature relaxed, so, in a modest way, did Wodehouse’s vocabulary. An occasional “hell” and “damn” sometimes crept in, and in The Mating Season (1950) characters use the words “bitch” and “bastard.” (The words jar when you read them; perhaps feeling that for once he’d struck sour notes, Wodehouse never used them again.)

But for all the romances that blossom and flourish in Wodehouse’s stories, no Wodehouse lovers ever wind up in bed. They’re not even seen (as in Viagra commercials) heading for the bedroom with amorous intentions. One finds no evidence that any Wodehouse character even thinks about having sex.

In fact, Bertie Wooster — the Wodehouse character in whom the mindset of the author can best be discerned — becomes nervous when conversation merely threatens to have anything to do with sex:

“Oh, Bertie [said Madeleine Bassett], you remind me of Rudel.”
The name was new to me. “Rudel?”
“He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli.”
I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

(The Code of the Woosters, ch. III.)  In Wodehouse, sexually aggressive females invariably involve men in folly.  When (in The Mating Season, ch. 10) Corky Pirbright “shamelessly” flirts with Gussie Fink-Nottle and makes him forget that he’s already engaged, Bertie reflects:

Oh, Woman, Woman, I said to myself, not for the first time, feeling that the sooner that sex was suppressed, the better it would be for all of us.

Was Bertie speaking for Wodehouse himself?

Nor are Wodehouse characters comfortable with nudity. The closest Wodehouse ever comes to portraying sensuality — not that it comes close at all — is his occasional use of nude portraits as Macguffins in his elaborate plots. But the fate of the nude painting in his story “Jeeves Makes an Omelette” is characteristic: it so disgusts one character that it destroys his appetite, and Bertie ends up cutting it into small pieces and throwing them into the fire. In one of his last books (written when Wodehouse was 89 years old), one of the characters gets the idea that he wants a Renoir-like portrait of a woman, but ends up announcing, “I don’t want the damned thing. And it beats me how I ever got the idea I did. It makes me sick to look at it.” The telling American title of his novel was No Nudes is Good Nudes.

In his later years, when many bestsellers were full of four-letter words and explicit love scenes, Wodehouse complained of “smutty” books. Curiously, though, the ribaldry in Shakespeare’s plays — and Shakespeare was Wodehouse’s constant companion — apparently never bothered him.  Shakespeare seems to have been obsessed with reproduction; it’s the theme of a number of sonnets, and in his plays too characters are urged to marry and beget children, as Viola (Cesario) does to Olivia in Twelfth Night (Act I, scene 5):

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But the very idea of reproduction was embarrassing to Bertie Wooster, as in this passage from Jeeves, in which Bertie’s Aunt Agatha is haranguing him about finding a wife:

“It is young men like you, Bertie, who make the person with the future of the race at heart despair. You do nothing but waste your time on frivolous pleasures. You are simply an anti-social animal, a drone. Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”

“But, dash it all . . .”

“Yes! You should be breeding children to . . .”

“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking room.

In story after story, Bertie Wooster manages to escape the terrors of matrimony and its bedroom duties.

Wodehouse was already 42 years old and had been married for nine years when he published Jeeves (his first masterpiece) in 1923. He and his wife Ethel never had children and may never have tried; Wodehouse’s biographer Robert McCrum refers to him as “sexless” (he may have been sterile or impotent as a result of adolescent illness) and reports that and and Ethel always occupied separate bedrooms. Did Wodehouse think of himself as a drone? That would explain a lot.

What P. G. Wodehouse learned from Macbeth

It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn’t have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters — perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels — we started taking inventory.

Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A few pages later, Sir Watkyn Bassett, a country magistrate who has it in for Bertie, assures Roderick Spode that time in prison won’t prevent a man from “rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.” That’s from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”

Bertie Wooster doesn’t know as much poetry as his friends, so his allusions are often accidental, as when he tells Madeline Bassett what he thinks of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s diffident personality,

Bertie: A sensitive plant, what?
The Bassett: Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.
Bertie: Oh, am I?

(The poet Shelley wrote “The Sensitive Plant.”) A Robert Browning allusion also goes over Bertie’s head. As he and Bertie arrive at Totleigh Towers, where trouble lurks, Jeeves pronounces, “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Bertie tells us, “what he meant I hadn’t an earthly.”

Robert Browning

Robert Browning

There’s more Browning farther along in the story, as Madeline Bassett explains to Bertie why he reminds her of the hero of “Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli.” Wodehouse tosses in Longfellow, too: “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” both get nods.

Like Emsworth, Bertie sometimes has trouble remembering where phrases came from. Explaining to Jeeves why Stephanie Byng is the most dangerous young woman he’s ever had to deal with, he asks, “Who was the chap lo whose name led all the rest — the bird with the angel?” “Abou ben Adhem, sir,” Jeeves reminds him. The poem was Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem.”

Kipling

P. G. Wodehouse must have read a good deal of Rudyard Kipling in his youth

But for all his fuzziness, Bertie has clearly read a lot of literature.  Nearly everything reminds Bertie of something out of a poem; he tells his readers: “And then out of the night that covered me, black as the pit from pole to pole, there shone a tiny gleam of hope. I thought of Jeeves.” Somewhere, Bertie had read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”! Later, in low spirits, Bertie tells Jeeves, “You see before you, Jeeves, a toad beneath the harrow.” The reference was to Kipling’s “Pagett, M.P.”

And Wodehouse calls on Browning again to help close out The Code of the Woosters. His problems all neatly sorted, Bertie says, “This is the end of a perfect day, Jeeves. What’s that thing of yours about larks?” Jeeves has Browning’s lines from “Pippa Passes” on the tip of his tongue.

Those are some of the allusions we spotted; there were many more. In this one short novel Wodehouse also mentions A Tale of Two Cities, Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” Reginald Heber’s hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” (“Totleigh Towers might be a place where Man was vile, but undoubtedly every prospect pleased”), Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Cargo of Champagne,” and Gerald Fairlie’s now-forgotten 1929 novel The Muster of the Vultures (tracking that one down wasn’t easy!)

But of all the poets, a reader of Wodehouse is far more likely to encounter Shakespeare than anyone else. In The Code of the Woosters alone, Wodehouse invokes King Lear, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Hamlet (three different references to the “To be or not to be” soliloquy). Wodehouse even has Gussie Fink-Nottle quote Matthew Arnold’s sonnet entitled “Shakespeare.” (Calling Bertie Wooster a “muddle-headed ass” for forgetting to bring him a book, Gussie comments sarcastically, “Others abide our question, thou art free.”)

Of course, Bertie himself rarely knows what’s Shakespeare and what isn’t. In The Code of the Woosters he misattributes Sonnet 33 to his valet:

I remember Jeeves saying to me once, apropos of how you can never tell what the weather’s going to do, that full many a glorious morning had he seen flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye and then turn into a rather nasty afternoon.

And like so many people, Bertie thinks Shakespeare wrote things he didn’t:

Bertie: You don’t mean you have an idea?
Jeeves: Yes, sir.
Bertie: But you told me just now you hadn’t.
Jeeves: Yes, sir. But since then have been giving the matter some thought, and am now in a position to say “Eureka!”
Bertie: Say what?
Jeeves: Eureka, sir. Like Archimedes.
Bertie: Did he say Eureka? I thought it was Shakespeare.

Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole

A scene from Macbeth by the nineteenth-century British painter George Cattermole, who also illustrated Dickens

More often than not, the Shakespeare that Wodehouse pulls out of his hat is Macbeth.  This was surely the Shakespeare play he knew best. In fact, seeing the Scottish play at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) a couple of weeks ago (see this post), we found that we weren’t fully feeling the terror and tragedy because so many of the play’s best lines reminded us of what Wodehouse had done with them. When Lady Macbeth shooed Macbeth’s dinner guests away with “Stand not upon the order of your going,” for instance, we couldn’t help hearing Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia using the line to tell Bertie to make himself scarce.

In Macbeth, Banquo shakes his gory locks at Macbeth’s grand feast twice, then disappears for good. Throughout the collected works of P. G. Wodehouse, the ghost of Banquo materializes so often that he’s practically a regular. We think, though we’re not sure, that Banquo’s first appearance in Wodehouse was in his 1914 short story “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” (in The Man Upstairs); he pops up in Wodehouse’s very last novel, The Cat-Nappers (1973) (published in England as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen). Our favorite sighting of Banquo is in the 1950 short story “The Shadow Passes” (in Nothing Serious):

I don’t know if you ever came across a play of Shakespeare’s called Macbeth? If you did, you may remember this bird Macbeth bumps off another bird named Banquo and gives a big dinner to celebrate, and picture his embarrassment when about the first of the gay throng to turn up is Banquo’s ghost, all merry and bright, covered in blood. It gave him a pretty nasty start, Shakespeare does not attempt to conceal.

Macbeth also has what must have been Wodehouse’s favorite line from Shakespeare, one he used in one story after another. Early in the play, as everyone knows, Lady Macbeth loses patience with her husband for hesitating to murder his royal guest and eggs him on to the crime:

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem?
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7. In The Code of the Woosters, Bertie Wooster has almost exactly the same problem as Macbeth: his Aunt Dahlia is insisting that he steal a cow-creamer from his host’s collection at Totleigh Towers. Like Macbeth, Bertie can’t steel himself to the crime:

Bertie: That is the problem which is torturing me, Jeeves. I can’t make up my mind. You remember that fellow you’ve mentioned to me once or twice, who let something wait upon something? You know who I mean — the cat chap.
Jeeves: Macbeth, sir, a character in a play of that name by the late William Shakespeare. He was described as letting ‘I dare not” wait upon ‘I would,’ like the poor cat i’ th’ adage.
Bertie: Well, that’s how it is with me. I wabble, and I vacillate — if that’s the word?
Jeeves: Perfectly correct, sir.

Not for the first or last time, Bertie Wooster was in the same pickle as Macbeth: a strong-willed woman was demanding that he do something he knew he shouldn’t. What better to fall back on than Macbeth?

October 30, 2009

See this post for Emsworth’s decidedly mixed feelings about this year’s Macbeth at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Although Wodehouse clearly drew a good deal from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this Emsworth post), one doesn’t find direct allusions to Wilde’s plays in Wodehouse’s stories (only to Wilde’s serious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray). Then again, why would one comic writer allude to another?

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde

oscar-wilde

Wilde

(April 2009) Seeing The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival in 2004 persuaded us that P. G. Wodehouse had no greater literary influence than Oscar Wilde. How very like Wodehouse’s idle young men in spats were Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing (as played by David Leyshon and Evan Buliung)! How very like the manner of Jeeves was the deadpan sarcasm of Algernon’s manservant Lane (as played by Robert Benson)! How very much like Bertie Wooster’s dragon aunts was Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell!

wodehouse

Wodehouse

And how much do Wodehouse plots owe to The Importance of Being Earnest?  In how many Wodehouse stories do young men and women make their way into English country houses posing as tutors or gardeners or friends of friends so they can pursue forbidden romances or purloin prize pigs or play detective? Of course Wilde’s play is a story of imposters too. When he is in London, Jack adopts the identity of a fictitious brother named “Ernest” so that he can live the life of a libertine in the city (as Ernest) without tarnishing his respectable reputation back home in the country. And when Algernon wants to meet Jack’s pretty ward Cecily Cardew (who like so many Wodehouse young women cannot marry without her guardian’s permission), he goes to the country house where she is staying, posing as Jack’s much talked-about but never-seen brother “Ernest”.

Wodehouse was only an impressionable 14 years old when The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in 1895, and we think it must have influenced him powerfully.  If you took out of Wodehouse all the foppish young men, imposters, domestic blackmail, wodehouse-pigs-have-wingsdragon aunts, butlers, and young women who need permission from guardians to marry — that is, the characters, the plot, and the comic elements of Wilde’s play — there wouldn’t be much Wodehouse left on our library shelves. And why else would Eustace Mulliner’s man Blenkinsop (in Wodehouse’s short story “Open House” have prepared cucumber sandwiches for Eustace’s visiting Aunt Georgiana, if not for the example of the cucumber sandwiches served by Algernon Moncrieff to Lady Bracknell in the first scene of Wilde’s play?

It’s easy to identify the writers who were dear to Wodehouse’s heart; his work has thousands of quotations from and allusions to Keats, Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and especially Shakespeare. Nowhere, however, is Wodehouse’s delight in Oscar Wilde so transparent as in his 1952 novel Pigs Have Wings.

galahad-at-blandings

Galahad Threepwood in one of Wodehouse’s later, lesser novels

There is, first, Lord Emsworth’s brother Gally. The now middle-aged Galahad Threepwood (a recurring Wodehouse character) has spent his life carousing in nightclubs and chasing barmaids, just as he did in the 1890s when he was a young man. (Galahad’s character is the antithesis of that of the pure knight of the Arthurian legends.) Remarkably, however, Gally’s decades of fast living have had no impact on his health or his perennially youthful appearance — no more than they did, Wodehouse gleefully tells us in Pigs Have Wings, on Dorian Gray.

albrights-dorian-gray-chicago-1943

Ivan Albright’s alarming 1943 painting of Dorian Gray is at the Art Institute of Chicago

The chief imposter in Pigs Have Wings is the butler’s niece Maudie, formerly a barmaid, now co-proprietor of a detective agency. Gally engages her to come incognito to Blandings Castle to help foil what Gally fears to be a plot to either steal or nobble Lord Emsworth’s prize-winning fat pig — and he insists that she pose as “Mrs. Bunbury,” an old friend of one of the guests.

brian-bedford-as-lady-bracknell

Brian Bedford will take the part of Lady Bracknell at the Stratford Festival in 2009

Wodehouse’s choice of “Bunbury” for Maudie is an unmistakable act of homage to Oscar Wilde, a reference to the opening scene of The Importance of Being Earnest , when we learn that for some time Algernon has pretended to have a friend in the country named Bunbury whom Algernon must frequently visit because of Bunbury’s alleged ill health. Whenever Algernon wants to escape London because of inconvenient social obligations, he pleads that his friend “Bunbury” needs him and flees town. While Wodehouse shows his affection for other authors by quoting from them, he acknowledges his debt to Oscar Wilde by using the names of Wilde characters in his stories — as in The Inimitable Jeeves, where Wodehouse makes “Lord Windermere” a character in a clichéd penny novel.

We have tickets to see The Importance of Being Earnest again next month in Ontario, this time at the Stratford Festival. Stratford stalwart Brian Bedford will be directing and playing Lady Bracknell (in drag), but the roles of Algernon and Jack will be played by two actors that we’ve seen most often in years past at the Shaw Festival, Mike Shara and Ben Carlson.

June 2009: We liked Bedford’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. See this post.

October 2009. We weren’t altogether satisfied with the Stratford Festival’s 2009 Macbeth, but it did remind us how Wodehouse borrowed the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s play and turned them on their heads in his comic stories. See this post.