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.)