Book Report: Rough Crossing and On The Razzle
7 November 2005, 11:00 AM
It hasn’t mentioned it here (this Tohu Bohu is, on the whole, reticent about the personal life), but Your Humble Blogger was in a local Community Theater production. Community Theaters being what they are, toward the end of the rehearsal process, I was drawn into a discussion of the possibilities for their spring play. One faction wanted a Restoration comedy, although not actually a Restoration comedy but something fairly like a Restoration comedy, a farce with pretty costumes. There was discussion of A Flea in her Ear, which is a hundred years too late (and a hundred times too French) to be echt Restoration, but you get the idea. My idea was if you just want costumes and farce and mistaken identity and all that, why not do On the Razzle? The original play (Einen Jux will er sich machen, by Johann Nestroy) was written about fifty years before Flea, and the very free adaptation by Tom Stoppard has the advantage of being riotously funny. And filthy-minded, in that Restoration way, without risking shocking the audiences in a small Connecticut town.
So. I grabbed the Faber & Faber edition of Rough Crossing and On the Razzle, and read it again, and it really is side-splittingly funny. Evidently (and I didn’t know this until today), somebody did the show this summer at Williamsburg (with Michael McKean in the tight pants), so it’s probably a good idea not to do it here this Spring. But if somebody puts the thing on near you, Gentle Reader, make an effort to see it. It’s just about perfect in its way.
The other Stoppard adaptation with which it is paired is an adaptation of a Molnár play, originally called Játek a Kastélyban (Play at the Castle), which, as Rough Crossing is set on a cruise ship, gives you an idea of how free Mr. Stoppard is with the thing. The other translation I’ve read is P.G. Wodehouse’s, called The Play’s the Thing, and other than the location and the major plot point which the two share, I have no idea if it is more faithful. They are both pretty funny, though.
The plot of the play, essentially, is that two playwrights and their new collaborator, a young composer, arrive in the middle of the night to surprise the composer’s fiancée, who will be the leading lady of the new play. They overhear her in more or less flagrente, definitely delicto, thus destroying the hope of a successful premiére. One of the playwrights, however, manages to trick the young fellow into thinking that the lady was just rehearsing ... Mr. Molnár uses this, evidently, to play games with the playwrights talking about plays and writing. In Mr. Wodehouse’s version, for instance, the two playwrights open the play by discussing the difficulties of opening a play, and expose the difficulties of exposition by rising and addressing an imaginary audience (of course, this is the real audience), filling us in on the situation and back story. Mr. Stoppard has a similar discussion, but has one playwright suggest that a character simply come on and fill in the whole jigsaw in one speech. The other playwright dismisses the idea as preposterous, after which the steward comes in and fills in the whole jigsaw in one speech. “Are you paying that man?”
The steward, bye-the-bye, is a magnificent creation of Mr. Stoppard’s, and although he is wonderful in Mr. Wodehouse’s play, Johann Dvornichek in Rough Crossing is most memorable for Mr. Stoppard’s invention, which is having him come in with a cognac for one of the playwrights, and immediately have somebody say a line which is interpreted by him as an invitation to drink it himself. This is funny once, funny twice, and by the ninth time, an astonishing technical feat. If for some reason I were to happen to be in Rough Crossing, there’s no question which part I would want.
Mr. Molnár’s stuff is also vaguely Restoration Comedy-ish, despite being just a trifle Hungarian. I had seen the film of The Swan, which was all right but not brilliant, and I had heard about but never read The Guardsman, which is evidently the epitome of the husband-dressed-up-as-lover genre, but which doesn’t strike me as particularly funny. And, as it turns out, the one-volume All the Plays of Molnár taken from the library doesn’t have Egy, Ketto, Harom, which was made by the unbelievably brilliant Billy Wilder into the unbelievably brilliant One, Two, Three. I’m not sure Egy, Ketto, Harom has ever been translated into English, actually; I’d love to know just how free Mr. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,