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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naughty and Nice: Laurence Maslon on Kaufman & Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner

Guest blog post by Laurence Maslon, associate chair of the Graduate Acting Program at New York University and editor of Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies for the Library of America.

Christmastime has a hammerlock hold on pop culture entertainment; frequent repetitions have made plays and movies about Christmas feel effortful, obligatory, or manipulative. Yet, encountering a play or movie that just happens to have Christmas in it can be delightful, like unwrapping an unexpected stocking stuffer. The Shop Around the Corner and Auntie Mame (and the musicals based on them), for example, wield the holiday season subtly. And that over-roasted holiday chestnut, It’s a Wonderful Life, was originally released in the first week of the New Year, 1947; Christmastime was simply the final chapter in its epic story.

No play has ever exploited the incidental dramatic potential of Christmas better than Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1939 comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner. Its main character, Sheridan Whiteside, was transparently based on one of the most dramatic, infuriating, and improbable celebrities of the era between the wars: Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott was a drama critic, raconteur, radio host, essayist, and charter member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table, but that barely suggests his influence then on middlebrow culture. He was a tastemaker of popular fiction on a scale that would have made Oprah Winfrey’s encomiums seem like fortune cookie messages. His barbed wit would have sliced Simon Cowell for breakfast. (Reviewing a volume of inferior poetry entitled And I Shall Make Music, his sole critique was “Not on my carpet, lady!”)

Famous coast-to-coast by 1938 as the host of a radio show called The Town Crier, Woollcott regaled his audience with an idiosyncratic mix of stories, reviews, and personal predilections. Although he could be quite vicious, Woollcott had a wide sentimental streak and often devoted broadcasts to wrongly convicted murderers, war veterans, seeing-eye dogs—and, of course, Christmas. Eventually, Woollcott fancied himself an actor and demanded that his pals Kaufman and Hart concoct a play for him. It wasn’t difficult to put the melodramatic Woollcott on stage—what to do with his character once he got there was another matter.

The premise of the play was simple enough—while the cosmopolitan Whiteside is lecturing in the Midwest one winter, he slips on a patch of ice and is forced to recuperate in the stifling confines of a middle-class family—but Woollcott/Whiteside’s acidulous aphorisms had the potential to wear an audience down. Kaufman and Hart solved the problem by setting the comedy during Christmastime. The charm of the holiday season would be the perfect foil for the misanthrope’s venom; it worked for Ebenezer Scrooge—why not for Sheridan Whiteside?

Kaufman and Hart also exploited Woollcott’s sentimental attachment to the Christmas season. As they have Whiteside’s secretary explain: “Christmas is Mr. Whiteside’s personal property. He invented it and it belongs to him. First thing tomorrow morning, Mr. Whiteside will open each and every present, and there will be the damnedest fuss you ever saw.” Indeed, Whiteside turns the household upside down by inviting his own badly behaved holiday guests, receiving exotic presents from around the world (including a crate of penguins from Admiral Byrd), and making long-distance calls to far-flung chums.

The climax of this occupational siege comes on Christmas Eve, when Whiteside has commandeered his hosts’ living room, replete with radio technicians and producers, to broadcast his fabled holiday program. As he begins—“This is Whiteside speaking. On this eve of eves, when my own heart is overflowing with peace and kindness . . . ,” an errant nurse barrels through the broadcast shrieking, “A penguin bit me!” An unfazed Whiteside continues to intone his tribute to that “still and wondrous night, two thousand years ago . . .”

With the character of Whiteside, Kaufman and Hart captured a Victorian sensibility during the last gasp of Art Deco modernity. Woollcott/Whiteside held on to the values of the nineteenth century with a sentimentality that was two generations removed and increasingly, if not embarrassingly, out of place. As The Man Who Came to Dinner was in rehearsal for its Broadway premiere in October 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. The comedy went on to become a huge hit, providing much-needed laughter during what was surely the most anxious Christmas in recent memory. In fact, the war in Europe necessitated a script change by June of the following year: Whiteside’s annual custom was to ring his chum Gertrude Stein in Paris to hear the Christmas bells of Notre Dame chime over the telephone—after Paris fell to the Nazis, the phone call was changed to Whiteside’s ringing Walt Disney to hear instead the voice of Donald Duck.

If Christmas sentimentality was a useful dramatic device for Kaufman, he had little use for it off-stage (Hart was another story—his wonderful autobiography, Act One, contains one of the most sentimental Christmas stories of all time). At one point, Woollcott played the part of Whiteside in a West Coast tour. He had a mischievous penchant for inverting one of the comedy’s lines: “At Christmas,” he would say, “I always feel the needy.” “The word is ‘feed’,” asserted Kaufman, who was also the play’s director. “That’s something you aren’t going to be able to do for yourself if you don’t keep the lines straight.”

Also of interest:

Related LOA works: Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies (includes The Man Who Came to Dinner); The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (includes a review by Alexander Woollcott and Morton Eustis’s account of Kaufman directing the rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of The Man Who Came to Dinner)

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