Saturday, October 16, 2004

Happy Belated Birthday, Plum

Can't believe I forgot to mention P.G. Wodehouse's birthday yesterday. On that occasion, Outer Life reviewed Wodehouse's worst Jeeves novel, Ring For Jeeves. This novel has a convoluted history. Wodehouse and his old friend and collaborator Guy Bolton wrote a Jeeves stage play in 1952, featuring Jeeves but not Bertie Wooster. This kind of change wasn't unusual when Wodehouse adapted his characters for the stage; he did a stage play based on one of his best books, Leave it to Smith, where all the Blandings characters -- Lord Emsworth, Lady Constance, and the rest -- were changed to new characters.

The Jeeves play closed during tryouts, and Wodehouse, apparently unable to take the hint that Jeeves without Bertie just doesn't work, turned the play into a novel. Again, this wasn't a first for Wodehouse. His funny and somewhat atypical novel The Small Bachelor (one of the few Wodheouse novels where all the main characters are Americans) was based on a musical he wrote with Bolton and Jerome Kern, Oh, Lady! Lady! That was the musical for which Wodehouse and Kern wrote the song "Bill," by the way, which got cut but resurfaced in a revised version in Kern's Show Boat. A subplot in Wodehouse's Bill the Conqueror is based on a plot thread from another Bolton/Wodehouse/Kern musical, Sitting Pretty. The most elaborate bit of recycling Wodehouse did: in the late '40s, he published a novel called Spring Fever, about an impecunious Lord who tries to steal a valuable book of stamps from his wealthy gorgon of a daughter. Wodehouse then turned this novel into a play, in the process of which he added many new characters, changed the setting, changed what the main character was trying to steal, and basically wound up with something that had the same basic plot but was different in all other respects. The play didn't get produced, so Wodehouse rewrote the play as a novel, The Old Reliable (1951) -- which means that within the space of a few years he'd published two novels with the same plot.

Bolton and Wodehouse were sort of joined at the hip, stylistically; in the stuff they collaborated on, like the musicals and the delightful memoir of their Broadway years, Bring on the Girls, it's often hard to tell who wrote what line of dialogue, though whenever you hear a crazy simile or a line about someone eating broken bottles, you can pretty much bet that that's a Wodehouse line. A line that occurs in a Bolton script will sometimes turn up in a Wodehouse story; compare this line from Girl Crazy, a Broadway musical co-written by Bolton:

GIEBER: I'm going to fly.
DANNY: You mean flee.
GIEBER: This is no time to talk insects.

With this exchchange from the Wodehouse story "The Romance of a Bulb-Squeezer":

"My daughter helping the foe of her family to fly --"
"Flee, father," corrected the girl, faintly.
"Flea or fly -- this is no time for arguing about insects.

The Wodehouse story came first, but the joke had been used before; part of the fun of Wodehouse is that as a product of the musical-comedy culture of the early part of the 20th century, he's not afraid of corny old jokes, puns, homilies, all the stuff that was common in old musical comedies and that later generations grew accustomed to sneering at, even though it's theatrically effective. What Wodehouse did in his novels was to overlay that kind of pleasantly corny musical-comedy storytelling with a greater density of language, and more complicated plot construction, than you could have in a Broadway musical -- and that's the Wodehouse style, simple stories made complicated, simple jokes made elaborate.

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