Frederick Lonsdale’s work, placed in historical perspective, occupies the midpoint in what might be called “the rise and fall of the drawing-room comedy,” beginning not so much with Wilde as with Thomas William Robertson in the 1860’s, continuing through such work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Gay Lord Quex (pr. 1899) and Maugham’s Lady Frederick (pr. 1907), reaching a peak in the 1920’s with Private Lives and On Approval and declining in the 1950’s with such works as Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince (pr. 1953), William Douglas Home’s The Reluctant Debutante (pr. 1955), and Hugh and Margaret Williams’s The Grass Is Greener (pr. 1958). The shock waves that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956) sent reverberating through the British theater made it difficult for any playwright thereafter to practice the art of light badinage among the denizens of Mayfair and Belgravia with quite such unselfconscious insouciance.
Comedy seldom gets a fair hearing from literary critics and historians, and writers who specialize in comedy must often be content with only the most condescending of acknowledgments. To point to Aristophanes and Molière, to Congreve, W. S. Gilbert, and George Bernard Shaw, will give pause only temporarily to those who regard comic playwriting as an inferior vocation. Yet, if one weighs Lonsdale’s work against the “serious” work of his British contemporaries, the comparison is not altogether in Lonsdale’s disfavor. J. B. Priestley’s time plays and expressionist experiments, the attempts of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Ronald Duncan, T. S. Eliot, and Christopher Fry to revive poetic drama, the bourgeois realism of R. C. Sherriff, John Galsworthy, St. John Ervine, and John Van Druten seem no likelier to hold the attention of future audiences and readers than Lonsdale’s best comedies. The only British playwrights of the first half of the twentieth century who clearly surpass him are not the “serious” playwrights but other writers of comedy: Sir James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and Coward.
With all his failing, his laziness, his self-plagiarism, his too-easy cynicism, and his occasional sentimentality, Lonsdale at his best possessed some distinct countervailing virtues, not least among them being a consummate sense of theater and a keen eye for the foibles of the upper class. Above all, his basic respect for human honesty and decency raised his most assured work to the level of critical comedy, an achievement that might very well have earned for him a nod of approval from both Aristophanes and Molière.
Lonsdale’s plays were the product of an almost fatally facile talent. He wrote so easily and on the whole so successfully that he seems to have begun to regard his achievement as a species of confidence trick, similar to the one he claimed to have perpetrated as an adolescent in Canada. Peter Daubeney, the English director who staged But for the Grace of God in 1946, has spoken of Lonsdale’s “Olympian contempt for the theatre,” calling him “an outstanding example of a man who despises the very medium where he excels.” Clearly, though Lonsdale rivaled both Coward and Maugham in his ability to devise effective and amusing drawing-room comedies, he rarely attempted to extend his range. When he did—as in The Fake and The Foreigners—the result was invariably one of his rare failures at the box office. Maugham, on the other hand, though best in such high comedy as The Circle (pr., pb. 1921) and The Constant Wife (pr., pb. 1926), was able to write sardonic domestic comedies such as The Breadwinner (pr., pb. 1930) and effective melodramas such as The Letter (pr., pb. 1927). Coward, in whom sentimentality and romantic patriotism coexisted with cynicism and outrageousness, also stretched his talents to encompass not only the comedy of manners of Private Lives (pr., pb. 1930) but also the lower-class realism of This Happy Breed (pr. 1942), the suburban pathos of Still Life (pr., pb. 1936), and the epic social history of Cavalcade (pr. 1931). In itself, to be sure, such a narrow social range does not invalidate Lonsdale’s work, any more than it does the work of Jane Austen, Henry James, Ivy Compton-Burnett, or, for that matter, of William Congreve, Marivaux, or Anton Chekhov. The question that remains is how far Lonsdale succeeded in using the essentially atypical milieu of the English upper class to reflect something beyond itself.
A close examination of Lonsdale’s plays reveals not merely a fascination with the lives and manners of members of the English upper class but also a deeply divided attitude toward them. On the one hand, there is the apparent disdain for certain types who do not belong to the charmed circle—as in his occasional disparaging references to shop girls, Socialist politicians who never bathe, and illiterate Jewish theater managers. On the other hand, there is a moralizing tone in several of the plays in which the palms of honesty and worthiness are awarded to former chorus girls and women who live by their wits rather than to the aristocrats who patronize or exclude them. Another theme that emerges almost as consistently is that of the pleasures and perils of disguise. It is difficult to resist the temptation to speculate that both of these themes attracted Lonsdale so powerfully because he had emerged from a world of shop girls, advanced by living on his wits, succeeded finally in making London society accept him by adopting an upper-class persona, and ever after feared that some day he would be unmasked.
Lonsdale’s love-hate relationship with the aristocracy and his preoccupation with disguise predate his first successful West End comedies. They go back, indeed, to his days as the librettist of such works as The King of Cadonia and The Balkan Princess. Monsieur Beaucaire, though an adaptation of a French libretto based on Booth Tarkington’s novella (1900), illustrates the point almost perfectly. Lonsdale must have found it an appealing project because it attacks the hypocrisy and snobbishness of the upper class by unfolding the tale of a mysterious young French nobleman, the Marquis de Chateaurien, who is in love with an English noblewoman, Lady Mary Carlisle. His rival for Lady Mary’s love, Lord Winterset, unmasks him as Monsieur Beaucaire, a common barber. Lady Mary then rejects him, only to discover to her chagrin that the common barber is, in reality, under the multiplicity of disguises, Louis XV’s cousin, the Duc d’Orléans. Translated into the idiom of Lonsdale’s later work, its message becomes that it is unwise to snub a shop girl, for she may turn out to have the soul of a duchess. Other possible propositions that might spring from this—that a duchess may turn out to have the soul of a shop girl, or that the souls of both duchesses and shop girls could be equally worthy of consideration—seem not to have interested Lonsdale to the same degree.
Aren’t We All?
In his first really successful West End comedy, Aren’t We All?, Lonsdale was still in his first flush of infatuation with the peerage. His depiction of Lord Grenham and his heir, Willie Tatham, of Lady Frinton, and of such representatives of the jeunesse dorée as Arthur Wells and Martin Steele is on the whole benign. Quite untypically, in fact, Lonsdale reserves his sharpest barbs for a Church of England clergyman who is married to Grenham’s sister, Angela. Pompous, narrow-minded, hypocritical, and defensive, the Reverend Ernest Lynton is not so much a character as a caricature from Punch, and he clearly belongs to a world about which Lonsdale shows little knowledge or interest. His presence in the play, like that of his wife, is not essential to the main plot; he is there to provide an easily shocked target for Grenham’s worldly cynicism and to set up the curtain line, which is also the title of the play:Vicar: . . . In answer to a simple remark I made last night, Grenham, you called me a bloody old fool! (Puts his head in his hands as if crying.) Lord Grenham: (Puts his arm around his shoulder.) But aren’t we all, old friend?
To the degree that they are unable to separate appearance from reality, to penetrate disguises, or to refrain from leaping to conclusions, they are all indeed fools.
The play turns on a misunderstanding between two characters: Willie Tatham, Grenham’s son, and Margot Tatham, Willie’s wife. Willie is forced to wear the disguise of guilt, while Margot assumes the disguise of innocence. When the play opens, Willie has agreed to let Lady Frinton use his house to give a dance. Willie is worried and lonely. His wife has gone on a trip to Egypt, and he has not heard from her for more than a week. At the dance, a former actress with whom Willie is acquainted, Kitty Lake, is sympathetic to him, and they exchange a consoling kiss. Margot arrives home unexpectedly at that very moment and assumes immediately that Willie and Kitty are having an affair. Margot is unforgiving and proposes to leave Willie, but her very intransigence arouses the suspicions of her father-in-law, Lord Grenham. In an attempt to save his son’s marriage, he unearths a secret alliance that Margot has formed in Egypt and arranges a confrontation between her and the young man concerned. His plan fails, however, when the young man gallantly pretends not to know Margot. Margot’s mask remains secure, but her own confidence in her behavior toward her husband is shaken. Their peccadilloes cancel each other out, and at the end they go away together, reconciled.
The slightness of the plot is bolstered by two other concurrent actions: one in which Lord Grenham’s sister, Angela, is gradually humanized as she learns to discard the appearance of grim, repressive “virtue” and to appreciate...
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