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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

“Swifty” and Sure

Guest Blogger Dept.: By 1921, (Newton) Booth Tarkington was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a playwright with significant Broadway success, so it must have been gratifying to young John Peter Toohey to have a seasoned mentor with whom to correspond. Here’s some advice Tarkington passed along as Toohey’s play “Swifty” was having its out-of-town tryouts.


Kennebunkport, 29 June 1921
Dear Toohey:-

Prescription for your opening:

Booth Tarkington in Kennebunkport, Maine
You convince a large part of yourself that you don’t care. Thus: your living doesn’t depend on how it goes – it’s not really important, like the result of surgical operations, etc. or an oculist’s verdict. It’s really a little fling on the side – like a try at Monte Carlo that one can afford. Lovely if you win – but no damage if you don’t. And anyhow a large experience accumulated to one’s general worth to himself. After all, our worth to ourselves is what comes up on Judgement Day.

A playwright ought to have some such prescription for his nerves, as the time approaches, and also he oughtn’t to make pictures of a success: he oughtn’t, really, to hope or speculate much. Of course the safest thing is [George S.] Kaufman’s pessimism and incredulity. His constitution was protecting him against a drop in his spirits by not letting them rise so that they could drop. Then the rise when it comes, is in the nature of relief only – one does lose a flux of joy by following the safer course.

I don’t know just why this is so, unless it is that playing yourself safe leaves you too tired for anything except relief! Well, as your first first-night approaches you are having an experience – part of it, you realize long afterward, is a dazed helplessness: not so thick as Julian Street’s was, though! He really had nothing but that: he’s just beginning to see it, five years later.

Good Luck!
N B Tarkington


Kennebunkport, 2 July 1921
Dear Toohey: -

You’ve got it: the reg’lar ole-fashioned FIRST-PLAY-LUCK – the tough luck! One consolation is this: if everything ran off smoothly this time, it wouldn’t the next – and the trade is learned by just these rough spots. Too easy a success is bad for progress. Your script will probably arrive here Monday – no mails or trains to this village Sunday – & I’ll read it & hurry it back to you by Monday night.

I may be able to see some simple changes of use – but most likely nothing of importance – nothing, at least, that would matter greatly, though of course I’ll try. My guess is that the script’s about O.K. and something’s wrong in casting, or simply in rehearsing. Such things always seem to be in the script.

Also, you are now so close to the whole thing you’re astigmatic. Everybody’ll see a different defect (since it’s decided there is a defect) and will offer you a different remedy.

About your scenario dep’t friend’s suggestion: I think that’s a picture motive – easily managed in a picture: in your play it will only complicate and make jerks without being helpful. The actress’s motive is perfectly ample – everybody understands that she’d have it. Nothing more needed if you have shown it properly. We need to know that her career is vital to her & that she believes her career depends on the concealment – and that’s enough. She might need a speech making this very vivid – how even the news of a romantic star’s marriage has “injured business” – a concrete case. She, herself, has built up a press legend about herself – the desired maiden.

Some actresses could stand the story’s coming out – she can’t. Her business depends on it as much as a banker’s does on his reputation for integrity. If you’ve got this stamped in you’re all O.K. on the motive – no question. It isn’t more motive you need, but if Harris & Forrest agree that you do, I think it points to a need of stronger & more concrete exposition of the motive you already have. Nearly always criticisms indicate that something is wrong, but not what. And if those chaps have 76 productions in mind  – Great Scottish! how can they get at any point in any of ‘em! It’s like a man running for Mayor in 76 cities at once trying to dope out what’s the matter in the 13th precinct of the 28th ward in Schenectady.

But they felt the motive needed was a stronger – more dramatic – one, you say. It may need to seem more ACTUAL  – more real. If it’s made actual to an audience there’s an end to it: no more trouble.

I think the interest of almost any play or story lies in its details more than in its plot. Your fundamental situation is just a sort of platform, like a sculptor’s; the figures you build on it are what count.

When Mansfield played “Beaucaire” – my first shot – or, rather, when he rehearsed it, he used to decide on some other play after every rehearsal. It’s a queer job, playwriting!


– Booth Tarkington, from On Plays, Playwrights, and Playgoers,
Princeton University Library, 1959

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