Search This Blog

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Passing of the Orthodox Paradox

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back Robert Benchley, whose work as a drama critic in the early decades of the last century attuned his gentle eye to such phenomena as he recounts below.


WHATEVER IRREPARABLE HARM may have been done to Society by the recent epidemic of crook, sex and other dialect plays, one great alleviation has resulted. They have driven up-stage, for the time being, the characters who exist on tea and repartee in “The drawing-room of Sir Arthur Peaversham's town house, Grosvenor Square. Time: late Autumn.”

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
A person in a crook play may have talked underworld patois which no self-respecting criminal would have allowed himself to utter, but he did not sit on a divan and evolve abnormal bons mots with each and every breath. The misguided and misinformed daughter in the Self and Sex Play may have lisped words which only an interne should hear, but she did not offer a succession of brilliant but meaningless paradoxes as a substitute for real conversation.

Continuously snappy back-talk is now encountered chiefly in such acts as those of “Cooney & LeBlanc, the Eccentric Comedy Dancing Team.”

And even they manage to scrape along without the paradoxes.

But there was a time, beginning with the Oscar Wilde era, when no unprotected thought was safe.

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
It might be seized at any moment by an English Duke or a Lady Agatha and strangled to death. Even the butlers in the late 'eighties were wits, and served epigrams with cucumber sandwiches; and a person entering one of these drawing-rooms and talking in connected sentences—easily understood by everybody—each with one subject, predicate and meaning, would have been looked upon as a high class moron. One might as well have gone to a dinner at Lady Coventry's without one's collar, as without one's kit of trained paradoxes.

A late Autumn afternoon in one of these semi-Oscar Wilde plays, for instance, would run something like this:

SCENE—The Octagon Room in Lord Raymond Eaveston's Manor House in Stropshire.

    are discovered, arranging red flowers in a vase.

SIR T.: I detest red flowers; they are so yellow.

LADY E.: What a cynic you are, Sir Thomas. I really must not listen to you or I shall hear something that you say.

SIR T.: Not at all, my dear Lady Eaveston. I detest people who listen closely; they are so inattentive.

LADY E.: Pray do not be analytical, my dear Sir Thomas. When people are extremely analytical with me I am sure that they are superficial, and, to me, nothing is more abominable than superficiality, unless perhaps it is an intolerable degree of thoroughness.

    (Enter Meadows, the Butler)

MEADOWS (announcing): Sir Mortimer Longley and Mrs. Wrennington,—a most remarkable couple,—I may say in announcing them,—in that there is nothing at all remarkable about them.

    (Enter Sir Mortimer and Mrs. Wrennington)

MRS. W.: So sorry to be late, dear Lady Eaveston. But it is so easy to be on time that I always make it a point to be late. It lends poise, and poise is a charming quality for any woman to have, am I not right, Sir Thomas?

SIR T.: You are always right, my dear Mrs. Wrennington, and never more so than now, for I know of no more attractive attribute than poise, unless perhaps it be embarrassment.

LADY E.: What horrid cynics you men are! Really, Sir Thomas, one might think, from your sophisticated remarks that you had been brought up in the country and had seen nothing of life.

SIR T.: And so I have been, my dear Lady Eaveston. To my mind, London is nothing but the country, and certainly Stropshire is nothing but a metropolis. The difference is, that when one is in town, one lives with others, and when one is in the country, others live with one. And both plans are abominable.

MRS. W.: What a horrid combination! I hate horrid combinations; they always turn out to be so extremely pleasant.

    (Enter Meadows)

MEADOWS (announcing): Sir Roland Pinshamton; Viscount Lemingham; Countess Trotski and Mr. Peters. In announcing these parties I cannot refrain from remarking that it has always been my opinion that a man who intends to get married should either know something or nothing, preferably both.

    (Exit Meadows)

COUNTESS T.: So sorry to be late, my dear Lady Eaveston. It was charmingly tolerant of you to have us.

LADY E.: Invitations are never tolerant, my dear Countess; acceptances always are. But do tell me, how is your husband, the Count,—or perhaps he is no longer your husband. One never knows these days whether a man is his wife's husband or whether she is simply his wife.

COUNTESS T. (lighting a cigarette): Really, Lady Eaveston, you grow more and more interesting. I detest interesting people; they are so hopelessly uninteresting. It is like beautiful people—who are usually so singularly unbeautiful. Has not that been your experience, Sir Mortimer?

SIR M.: May I have the pleasure of escorting you to the music-room, Mrs. Wrennington?

    (Exeunt omnes to music-room for dinner)

It is from this that we have, in a measure, been delivered by the court-room scenes, and all the medical dramas. But the paradox still remains intrenched in English writing behind Mr. G.K. Chesterton, and he may be considered, by literary tacticians, as considerable stronghold.

Here again we find our commonplaces shaken up until they emerge in what looks like a new and tremendously imposing shape, and all of them ostensibly proving the opposite of what we have always understood. If we do not quite catch the precise meaning at first reading, we lay it to our imperfect perception and try to do better on the next one. It seldom occurs to us that it really may have no meaning at all and never was intended to have any, any more than the act of hanging by your feet from parallel bars has any further significance than that you can manage to do it.

So, before retiring to the privacy of our personal couches, let us thank an all wise Providence, that the drama-paradox has passed away.

– Robert Benchley, Vanity Fair, Oct. 1917 (reprinted in Of All Things, Henry Holt & Co., 1921)

No comments: