Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Frederick Lonsdale’s success as a librettist for musical comedies and operettas was equal to his success as a playwright. His libretto for The King of Cadonia was clearly inspired by Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and in its turn influenced Ivor Novello’s operetta King’s Rhapsody (pr. 1950). Lonsdale’s most popular work in this vein was The Maid of the Mountains, which ran at Daly’s Theatre, London, for a total of 1,352 performances. Lonsdale collaborated with other leading musical theater composers of the early twentieth century English stage, including Paul Rubens, who did the music for The Balkan Princess (written with Frank Curzon) and Betty (written with Gladys Unger). He also had a hand in a number of adaptations of European successes, such as The Lady of the Rose and Katja the Dancer, both with music by the German composer Jean Gilbert (pseudonym of Max Winterfield); High Jinks, with a score by the Hungarian-born Rudolf Friml; and Monsieur Beaucaire, with music composed by André Messager, the last major writer of French operetta. Lonsdale’s last effort as a librettist was Lady Mary, which he coauthored with John Hastings Turner to a score by Albert Sirmay and Philip Craig.

Generally, Lonsdale seems to have been sought out by the impresarios of musical theater for his ability to supply sprightly, well-constructed books that blended wit and sentimentality. The most convincing testimony to his skill in this area is The Maid of the Mountains, which was second only to Oscar Asche and Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow (pr. 1916) as the major musical success of London’s West End theater during World War I.

After his major drawing-room comedies had achieved success in New York, Lonsdale’s talents were also recognized and recruited by the film industry. He wrote, or had a hand in, several screenplays, including Alexander Korda’s vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, The Private Life of Don Juan (1934; with Lajos Biro), and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s episodic World War II tribute to British patriotism, Forever and a Day (1943; with Charles Bennett, C. S. Forester, John Van Druten, Christopher Isherwood, R. C. Sherriff, and many others too numerous to mention). That he wrote so little for the screen can be attributed partly to his dislike of Hollywood (“I could never live in a film city because there is no conversation”) and partly to his habit of breaking contracts.

Frederick Lonsdale Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Frederick Lonsdale reached his peak of acclaim in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, when his name was closely associated with sophisticated drawing-room comedies, such as those of Noël Coward, S. N. Behrman, and Philip Barry. During Lonsdale’s long career as a playwright, which extended from the staging of Who’s Hamilton? at the New Theatre, Ealing, in 1903, to the posthumous production of Let Them Eat Cake at the Cambridge Theatre, London, in 1959, his work was praised by such diverse theater critics as Henrik Ibsen’s archenemy Clement Scott of The Daily Telegraph, Arthur B. Walkley of The Times (London), The Sunday Times’s convivial James Agate, Heywood Broun of New York World, The New Yorker’s resident wit, Robert Benchley, and the British eccentric, Hannen Swaffer of the Daily Express. Typical of such critics’ comments was Benchley’s on Spring Cleaning’s New York production in 1923: “It is written with a respect for the audience’s intelligence and has an easy humor that brought a pleasant glow to this sin-hardened heart.” In the same vein, Agate, reviewing a revival of On Approval in London in 1933, observed that “time is powerless against true wit and diversion.”

Lonsdale’s reputation declined in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and indeed, in 1953, almost at the end of his life, he experienced the bitterness of an old established author being goaded by a critical wunderkind when Kenneth Tynan, writing in the Evening Standard about a revival of Aren’t We All?, said: “Frederick Lonsdale’s comedy, first produced thirty years ago, is what some would call gentle, others toothless: Where W. Somerset Maugham chews and digests his characters, Lonsdale merely mumbles them.” Years later, however, interest in Lonsdale’s work again arose. Though no innovator, Lonsdale was one of those artists who take a particular form and handle it with consummate skill and flair.

Frederick Lonsdale Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Donaldson, Frances. Freddy. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1957. This biography was written by the playwright’s daughter, herself an actress and author. She paints an affectionate portrait of her father, being careful to discuss the weaknesses as well as the virtues of his character. She tells the remarkable story of a young man who was a shopkeeper’s son and who had little formal education but who, because of his talent and native wit, transformed himself into one of the most successful authors of high comedy and chroniclers of England’s upper class during the 1920’s. She also notes that when one of his plays was revived in the 1950’s, critics such as Kenneth Tynan dismissed him as irrelevant.

Kemp, Philip. “Cry Ho! The Eccentricities of On Approval.” Film Comment 35, no. 5 (September/October, 1999): 10-15. This essay on the 1947 film adaptation of Lonsdale’s On Approval discusses the film and contrasts it with the play.

Nicoll, Allardyce. English Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Nicoll believes that Lonsdale occupied the middle ground between W. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward and was overshadowed by both. Lonsdale lacked Maugham’s depth and Coward’s cleverness, and although he enjoyed great success before and immediately after World War I, his lack of ideas soon dated him. Bibliography.

Stevens, Lianne. “Gaslamp’s On Approval Gets Hearty Approval.” Review of On Approval by Frederick Lonsdale. Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1986, p. 2. This revival of On Approval at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre demonstrated Lonsdale’s surge in popularity in the latter part of the twentieth century.