George M. Cohan Essay - Critical Essays

Cohan, George M.

Introduction

George M. Cohan 1878-1942

(Full name George Michael Cohan) American stage performer, playwright, songwriter, director, and producer.

Cohan was a dominant force in shaping American musical theater in the early part of the century through a successful Broadway career that produced some of the biggest songs hits of the time. Known for his patriotic themes and sentimentality, his works embodied the attitudes of a country flexing its muscles as an emerging world power.

Biographical Information

Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the third child born to the vaudevillians Jeremiah and Helen Cohan, who with their daughter Josephine (the first child died in infancy), traveled from town to town as "The Four Cohans." After making his début in his father's arms, the young Cohan, precocious, ambitious and confident, eventually took over the troupe. He began writing many of its skits and managed its business affairs, despite receiving little formal education. His first Broadway productions, The Governor's Son and Running for Office, were dismal failures but Cohan persevered and his third play, Little Johnny Jones, was a rousing success. Cohan went on to write 40 plays and more than 500 songs.

Major Works

Cohan's style was to create uncomplicated stories about easily identifiable characters that appealed to a broad audience. From his vaudeville training, he understood how to jerk a tear and elicit a laugh through mawkishness and a prankish manner. His unabashed appeals to American patriotism can be seen in the titles of some of his more popular songs and plays, including The Yankee Prince, "Yankee Doodle Boy," "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "It's a Grand Old Flag," and "Over There." While critics descried his works as unsophisticated and trivial, his work was wildly popular with audiences around the country for most of Cohan's career.

Principal Works

The Governor's Son (drama) 1901

Running for Office (drama) 1903

Little Johnny Jones (drama) 1904

Forty-five Minutes from Broadway (drama)

George Washington, Jr. (drama) 1906

The Talk of the Town (drama) 1907

Fifty Miles from Boston (drama) 1908

The Yankee Prince (drama) 1908

The Man Who Owns Broadway (drama) 1909

Get Rich Quick Wallingford (drama) 1910

The Little Millionaire (drama) 1911

Broadway Jones (drama) 1913

Seven Keys to Baldpate (drama) 1913

Hello Broadway (drama) 1914

The Royal Vagabond (drama) 1919

The Song and Dance Man (drama) 1923

The Merry Malones (drama) 1927

Criticism

Arthur Ruhl (essay date 1906-1933)

SOURCE: "A Minor Poet of Broadway: George M. Cohan," in The American Theater as Seen By Its Critics, edited by Montrose J. Moses and John Mason Brown, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1934, pp. 187-91.

[In the following excerpts, which are from reviews that were published between 1906 and 1933 in various publications, Ruhl surveys the progress of Cohan's musicals as well as his performance in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!]

If New York had a Montmartre and Mr. George Cohan were a Frenchman, one can almost imagine him wearing baggy clothes and a Windsor tie, and stalking up and down between the tables of his cafe chantant of an evening, singing his songs of Broadway. People would take him seriously, admire his lyrics because they were so "instinct" with the spirit of a certain curious fringe of society, and words and music would doubtless be published in limited de-luxe editions for circulation among the literati.

Mr. Cohan is a talented young man. He can dance in a way to charm wild beasts from their dens and make them sit up and wonder; he expresses the feelings of a certain metropolitan type as does no one else, and he not only sings and acts his pieces, but also writes their words and music. People who would naturally derive no pleasure from that conglomeration of noise and cheapness of which his musical plays superficially consist are often baffled to explain the odd fascination of Mr. Cohan's personal work. It seems to consist very much in the sincerity and artistic conviction with which he does the precise thing that you yourself probably would try not to do. He neither attempts to impersonate the gentleman in the narrower sense of the word, nor, on the other hand, to hide his own personality behind some such broad character part as the traditional Bowery tough boy. Instead he assumes the cheap sophistication of the blase racing tout or book-maker, sings through his nose practically on one note, wears clothes that just miss being the real thing—in short, pitches everything in the key of slangy cynicism and cheapness characteristic of that curious half-world which foregathers at Forty-second Street and the shady side of Broadway. So clever a person could doubtless assume a superficial refinement for stage purpose if he wanted to. Mr. Cohan apparently doesn't; apparently he has carefully worked out a "method" aimed at sublimated cheapness, and got away with it.

In Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, a curiously uneven conglomeration of "musical comedy," puns, and melodrama, ostensibly designed as a vehicle for the familiar humor of Miss Fay Templeton, Mr. Cohan has created in Kid Burns a character rather broader than he himself impersonates, but typical of his point of view. The Kid is "secretary" to a young millionaire who has just taken a house at New Rochelle, and through him the spectator views that suburb—not as it is, probably, but as it might appear in the day-dream of some good-humored bookmaker or wire-tapper lounging of a summer afternoon in the shade of the Metropole. As the Kid sings:

Only forty-five minutes from Broadway. Think of the changes it brings,
For the short time it takes, what a difference it makes in the ways of the people and things.

His droll amazement at the ease with which he can "get a laugh" with the stalest line—"all the...

(The entire section is 1397 words.)

Current Opinion (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: "Is George M. Cohan to Be Regarded as a Joke or a Genius?" in Current Opinion, Vol. LVI, No. 3, March, 1914, pp. 192-93.

[In the following essay, the critic appraises the popular appeal of Cohan's works.]

Why not write a history of the drama from Shakespeare to George M. Cohan? a witty man recently asked in a tone of raillery. "Yes, why not?" remarks Joseph Bernard Rethy in the International. The world is beginning to take Cohan seriously as a playwright. Once upon a time, as Peter Clark MacFarlane maintains in McClure's, Broadway unhesitatingly would have pronounced Cohan a joke. Today many people are questioning whether he is not a genius. When...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Herman J. Mankiewicz (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "George M. Cohan on the Dusty Road to Broadway," in New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1925, p. 11.

[In the following review, Mankiewicz unfavorably appraises Cohan's autobiography.]

It was in the Summer of 1924 that travelers returning from Atlantic City kept bringing to sentimental Broadway the happy tidings that George M. Cohan was writing the story of his life. And great and natural was the rejoicing, for here was an author who had but to tell freely of the things he himself had lived and seen to re-create that exciting glorious era in which the new American theatre really has its fundamental roots.

Twenty years on Broadway—from the...

(The entire section is 1649 words.)

John Mason Brown (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "Mr. Cohan in Ah, Wildernessl" in Two on the Aisle: Ten Years of American Theatre in Performance, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1938, 235-36.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1933, Brown reviews Cohan's performance in Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!]

As the small-town editor in Ah, Wilderness! George M. Cohan gives the kind of performance about which, were his name Gregory Mussorgsky Cohansky and Mr. Cohan a member of the Moscow Art Theatre, Oliver M. Sayler would undoubtedly be writing polysyllabic books. The learned weeklies and highfalutin' monthlies would soon be devoting pages to it in which such fancy words as "rhythm,"...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

George M. Cohan (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "I Like Small-Town Audiences," in The Rotarian, Vol. LV, No. 3, September, 1939, pp. 10-13, 59-60.

[In the following essay, Cohan reminisces about the early days of his career and the joys of playing before small-town audiences.]

The boys who write the blurbs about George M. Cohan for the newspapers have me all wrong. They have given the public the idea that I and all my family have always been "big towners," and that we had been born and bred and fed on Broadway. The most that Broadway can claim of one or of all the four Cohans are the feathers that "the road" stuck in our caps.

We were all four small-town folks, when you get right down to...

(The entire section is 3134 words.)

Walter Kerr (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Musical Biography," in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXIV, No. 7, July, 1940, pp. 517-19.

[In the following excerpt, Kerr describes the production of a musical comedy based on Cohan's career.]

George M. Cohan ordered a dish of pistachio ice cream, lit a cigarette, and shifted his chair nearer the window that looked out on Central Park. "A musical show at the University, is that it?"

"Yes, Mr. Cohan. A musical biography. We've got an idea that your career would make an exciting evening in the theatre."

"Nothing exciting about it. Just ups and downs, and a lot of things to wise up on. I don't see where you'll get enough material to make...

(The entire section is 1232 words.)

Oscar Hammerstein II (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Tribute to Yankee Doodle Dandy," in The New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1957, pp. 14, 72, 78.

[In the following essay, Hammerstein remembers Cohan as a writer and performer who personified popular American values and ideals of the time.]

I was not one of George M. Cohan's close friends. I was just one of many Americans to whom he devoted his theatrical talents for nearly all of the sixty-four years of his life. An account of his impact on me should serve as a fair symbol of what he meant to millions of other theatregoers, thousands of other theatre workers.

To my friends, at school, George Cohan was "slick." Higher praise had we for no one....

(The entire section is 2162 words.)

David Ewen (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "George M. Cohan," in Complete Book of the American Musical Theater, Henry Holt and Company, 1958, pp. 53-60.

[In the following excerpt, Ewen chronicles Cohan's rise from vaudeville to Broadway producer and actor.]

The son of veteran vaudevillians, George Michael Cohan was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 3, 1878. He was only an infant when he made his first stage appearance, carried on as a human prop for his father's vaudeville sketch. When he was nine, George made a more official stage bow, billed as "Master Georgie" in a sketch starring his parents in Haverstraw, New York. In 1888 the act was further extended to include still another Cohan,...

(The entire section is 3115 words.)

Stanley Green (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "George M. Cohan," in The World of Musical Comedy, Grosset & Dunlap, 1960, pp. 24-35.

[In the following excerpt, Green recounts the highlights of Cohan's career.]

Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan were the two most important creative figures of the American musical stage during the first decade of the twentieth century. Apart from this, and the coincidence that both were of Irish descent, each man epitomized an entirely disparate form of musical theatre. Herbert, the thoroughly trained musician, sought to perpetuate the traditions of the Viennese operetta; Cohan, the untrained song-and-dance man, tried to break away from anything that suggested the Old...

(The entire section is 2889 words.)

Brooks Atkinson (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "For the Family and Its Tired Businessman," in Broadway, revised edition, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1970, pp. 97-121.

[In the following essay, Atkinson traces Cohan's rise in the American theater and subsequent decline after the Actors' Equity strike in 1919.]

In 1901, Broadway had no idea of what was going to happen to it when it ignored a comedy called The Governor's Son. But George M. Cohan did. Twenty-two years old at the time, he knew what was going to happen to Broadway. He was going to overwhelm it.

The next season, Broadway rejected his second play, Running for Office, and it did not have much enthusiasm for his third,...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)