ON AUGUST, 13, 1921, Dulcy, a play written by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, opened at the Frazee Theatre. Dulcy was a satire—a genre familiar in European theater from the time of Molière, but quite novel, and even shocking, on Broadway, where authors were not wont to mock their own main characters. Most of Dulcy’s cast of characters either mouth stock inanities or nod sagely at the humbug of the others. Leach, who writes movie scripts, insists on reciting to the guests of a dinner party the ludicrous plot of his latest work, “Sin,” which begins with Noah’s Ark and then proceeds through world history: “And to keep the symbolism at the end, just as Jack kisses Coralie there in Chicago, Marc Anthony kisses Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt”—Leach speaks in capital letters—“And George Washington kisses Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.” The hostess, Dulcy, is modeled on a preposterous character invented by Franklin P. Adams; her speech consists entirely of the clichés that pass for conversation among the stupid rich. If someone praises a book, Dulcy is sure to say, “My books are my best friends.” Dulcy is, at bottom, a thoroughly lovable meddler, in the spirit of Austen’s Emma, and she reduces the play’s genteel suburban setting to a shambles before she and her husband are implausibly rescued by the gods of comedy.
Dulcy is a largely—and not unfairly—forgotten play, but in its breezy irreverence and its witty contempt for mediocrity it broke through a cultural crust and left Broadway a slightly different place. James Thurber later said that it was Dulcy that showed him how to wield his own satirical weapons. Dulcy reproduced in narrative form the urbanity, the irony, and the wit of the best of the revues; in retrospect, it turns out to have been the first ripple from the mighty torrent of witty and urbane plays and movie scripts and radio programs and magazine articles that was to come roaring out of Broadway in the burst of creativity that began in the years after World War I, and that ushered American culture out of the Victorian hinterlands and into the modern age. The 1920s on Broadway was, above all, the era of wit, and of the wits. If there was a wit-in-chief, it was George S. Kaufman, a beanpole who scrutinized the world from beneath a great, shocked thicket of hair, an ironist with an allergy to sentimentality, a neurotic perfectionist driven by a dread of failure. One of Kaufman’s biographers writes that when Dulcy opened in Chicago, Marc Connelly discovered Kaufman, between acts, “huddled against a rusty pipe in the dusty, deserted scene deck . . . staring blankly at the floor and running his fingers through his thick hair.” He could only mumble abject apologies while Connelly assured him that the play was, in fact, a hit.
IN “MY LOST CITY,” an elegiac account of the accumulating wreckage of his own life, F. Scott Fitzgerald recalled Manhattan in 1920. Already, he wrote, “the feverish activity of the boom” had fired the city with life, but the “general inarticulateness” of the moment, its raw novelty, denied it any larger sense of meaning. Here was energy without voice.
Then, for just a moment, the “younger generation” idea became a fusion of many elements of New York life. . . . The blending of the bright, gay, vigorous elements began then, and for the first time there appeared a society a little livelier than the solid mahogany dinner parties of Emily Price Post. If this society produced the cocktail party, it also evolved Park Avenue wit, and for the first time an educated European could envision a trip to New York as something more amusing than a gold-trek into a formalized Australian Bush.
In those years immediately after World War I, the country appeared to be shedding its old, familiar ways like a dried-up skin. Indeed, the very fact of drastic change, the widespread consciousness of it, was a central aspect of the new. American culture was rapidly taking on the jazzed-up, fragmentary rhythms of urban life. The census of 1920 showed that for the first time more Americans lived in cities than in the country. New York was the nation’s colossus, and the world’s. The city’s population swelled almost to eight million. Economic growth was stupendous. Between 1918 and 1931, the number of cars registered in New York leaped from 125,101 to 790,123—more cars than in all of Europe combined. New York was the factory of the new at the moment when novelty itself had become a craze. The emerging cultures of fashion, design, advertising, and magazine publishing were all centered in Manhattan. It was as if the city were inventing the idea of urbanism, and then retailing it to the rest of the country. As the urban historian Ann Douglas writes, “Trendsetter to the nation and the world, New York finds its job in the commercialization of mood swings: the city translates the shifting national psyche into fashions of all kinds, from ladies’ frocks and popular music, to Wall Street stocks, ad layouts and architectural designs, on a yearly, monthly, weekly and daily basis.”
Only rarely does the national life change this fast. It did so in the late teens and early twenties because so many things happened at once—the stock market boom, which showered sudden wealth in all directions, and especially in the cities; a large-scale urban migration; the creation of a national culture through the new media of radio and the movies; the arrival of modern ideas, and above all those of Freud, who reduced the great edifice of Victorian morality to the status of drawing-room comedy; and the return of several million young men and women from World War I, an event which for many of them had proved at least as liberating as it had been disillusioning (or perhaps disillusion itself had proved liberating). Not only had they saved Europe, but Europe had taught them a thing or two about life. Some had been exposed to what were delicately known as Continental moral codes; the intellectuals among them had been exposed to Continental ideas.
It was a world that the young had seized from the old. In Only Yesterday, a retrospective account of the Roaring Twenties, Frederick Lewis Allen describes the era in language that would be familiar to anyone who lived through the 1960s, another era when mass prosperity freed children from their parents’ routines while a radical shift in values inspired young people to use that freedom in ways that horrified their elders. “Fathers and mothers lay awake asking themselves whether their children were not utterly lost,” Allen writes, “sons and daughters evaded questions, lied miserably and unhappily, or flared up to reply that at least they were not dirty-minded hypocrites.” In a 1927 magazine article entitled “A Flapper Set Me Right,” the theatrical impresario David Belasco recalled receiving a visit several years earlier from a young and possibly fictitious woman who explained to him, “The old folks call us ‘flappers’; we call them ‘oldtimers’ and worse. They sit back and roll the cud of Victorian virtue under their musty old tongues, and never once have they tried to realize what it is we are demanding.” The demand, she said, was for “honesty.” Girls had had it with feigning “a sweetness and innocence totally foreign to their natural impulses.” They would make themselves the equal of men in word and in deed.
Of course, the seeds of this epochal change had been sown in the years before World War I, when Persis Cabot and her merry friends were turkey-trotting the night away in various dives and nightspots. As New York City was the mother lode of national trends, so it was in Times Square that New York first broke in its new habits. Another way of explaining the spirit of the twenties is to say that it took about a decade for the abandon, the heedlessness, that first showed itself along Broadway to become a national phenomenon.
By the early twenties, the cosmopolitan nonchalance toward the proprieties that Florenz Ziegfeld had championed had become the stock-in-trade of Broadway. It was the era of girls in rhinestones—and not many rhinestones, at that. The theatergoer of the day could almost always choose from among three, four, or five revues in the manner of the Follies. There was George White’s Scandals, and Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and the Shuberts’ Passing Show, and The Garrick Gaieties, and Irving Berlin’s revue in the Music Box Theatre, which he had built expressly to showcase his own songs. Like vaudeville a generation earlier, the revue, with its unending appetite for material, offered a proving ground for the performers of the era—but these were performers of supreme gifts. Irving Berlin was writing songs not only for the Music Box Revue but for the Follies; George Gershwin was writing and performing songs for the Scandals; and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were turning out tunes for the Gaieties. The Music Box Revue of 1923 featured comic skits by Kaufman and Robert Benchley, soon to be one of the famous wits of the Algonquin Round Table and The New Yorker. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, one of the first of the great jazz bands, performed in the Scandals.
The revues of the twenties were immensely more urbane than those of an earlier generation; they were also several orders of magnitude naughtier. At Earl Carroll’s Vanities, by far the most shameless, hostesses in short skirts and sheer stockings danced with the customers, and show-girls were supplied to the better tables. The show itself adhered to the Ziegfeld principle of “nothing but girls,” with seminude or thinly draped chorines posed, according to one authority, “against plume curtains, hanging gardens, gates of roses, swings, ladders, bejewelled ruffles, chandeliers, horns of plenty, the prehistoric, the futuristic . . . ,” and so on. The Shuberts featured nude girls as lights in a chandelier and as fruits in a fruit basket. The skits were often just as transparent as the costumes. The Keith-Albee syndicate, which controlled many of the acts, eventually drew up a lengthy list of taboos, which included the stock joke of a girl walking onstage carrying an oar and announcing, “I just made the crew team.” The 1923 edition of the show Artists and Models featured women nude from the waist up disporting themselves as “models.” The market for sexual candor finally became so glutted that Ziegfeld himself began putting the clothes back on the girls. “This was not a moral standpoint on my part,” as the Olympian one explained in a 1927 magazine article, “but an artistic one. I realized that a charming girl will not appear in public undressed.”
A play like Dulcy could not have been presented on Broadway in an earlier age, both because sardonic wits like George S. Kaufman weren’t writing for the stage—or perhaps didn’t yet exist at all—and because the audience wasn’t ready for such pitiless debunking. Everything made on Broadway, whether cafés or signs or plays, was, and still is, made with an audience in mind; and the audience of 1910 got the fun-loving but formulaic theatrical experience it craved. But the new generation, disgusted with received wisdom—and much enjoying its disgust with received wisdom —signaled an almost unlimited willingness to be challenged. The essayist and critic and wit-about-town Alexander Woollcott, who himself served in World War I and then lived briefly in Paris, along with many of the leading columnists and editors of his generation, observed in 1920 that “there has grown up an alert, discriminating, sophisticated public, numerous enough at last to make profitable the most aspiring ventures of which the theater’s personnel is capable.”
The bohemians of Greenwich Village had long scorned the overtly commercial culture of Times Square; but in 1918 a group of sophisticates from the Village established the Theatre Guild in order to bring serious English and continental drama to Broadway. In 1920, at a time when George Bernard Shaw was considered a rank immoralist both here and in England—he had condemned World War I as brutish militarism—the Theatre Guild mounted a famous and immensely successful production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House on Broadway. The Guild staged Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and virtually everything of Shaw’s, as well as works by serious American and English writers like Sidney Howard and S. N. Behrman and A. A. Milne. Most of these works, presented in a spirit of brave artistic purity, found a Broadway audience. By 1925, the Guild had built its own theater, on West 52nd Street, and had traveling companies both here and in London; the Guild was supported by thirty thousand subscribers in New York, and thirty thousand more elsewhere in the country. Nor was the Theatre Guild the only source of high culture. Broadway audiences went to see plays by Somerset Maugham, Sean O’Casey, and John Galsworthy, as well as plays presented in Italian, German, French, Russian, and Hebrew.
Eugene O’Neill was not only a Broadway playwright, but a hugely successful one. His first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was staged at the Morosco Theatre in 1920. The play was so difficult and unsettling that initially it was seen only at matinees, when the regular play at the Morosco was not being performed. Beyond the Horizon told the story of two brothers on a farm: Robert, a poetic soul who dreams of the world “beyond the hills,” and Andy, a creature of prose, wedded to the land. But their destinies are reversed, and their lives wrecked, by love. Robert, who had planned on going to sea, instead stays on the farm in order to marry the girl he loves, while Andy, in love with the same girl, bitterly renounces both farm and family and takes Robert’s place aboard the ship. In the highly feminized and Christianized Victorian drama still then popular on Broadway, love had always been understood as the highest good, and home and hearth the final destination toward which the heart yearned. But for Robert, love is a terrible act of surrender, a betrayal of his deepest nature; and home quickly becomes a living hell as the farm collapses and his wife, Ruth, comes to despise him.
Beyond the Horizon is a resolutely un-Christian, uncomforting play in which only the tiniest scraps of human will escape the crushing force of fate. The most thoughtful critics immediately recognized the play as a work of genius. Alexander Woollcott wrote in The New York Times, “The play has greatness in it, and marks O’Neill as one of our foremost playwrights.” Heywood Broun, an equally influential figure, hailed it as a breakthrough in drama. But what is more remarkable still, Beyond the Horizon was a genuine success, running for 111 performances. An audience that had been satisfied with bonbons was now eager for meat. As Brooks Atkinson remarks in his history of Broadway, after Beyond the Horizon, “hokum dramas like The Easiest Way, Salvation Nell and The Witching Hour became impossible.” The demonically productive O’Neill would have nineteen plays produced on Broadway over the next fourteen years.
THE BROADWAY OF 1920 was a very different place from the Broadway of 1910, both physically and metaphorically. For one thing, “Broadway” was now effectively synonymous with “Times Square”; many of the theaters below 42nd Street had closed, while new ones were going up at a tremendous clip north of 42nd—twenty-eight in the second decade of the century, and seven more in 1921 alone. By the middle of the decade, well over two hundred new shows were opening on Broadway every year. Times Square now felt dense, complete, and self-contained. The empty spaces in the upper Forties had been filled, the rickety “tax-payers” (so called because they served to cover the developer’s real estate taxes) had been replaced by substantial buildings, and skyscrapers, such as the Candler Buildings on 42nd Street, and the Putnam Building, on the west side of Broadway between 43rd and 44th (where the Paramount Building now stands), had given Times Square a new sense of modernity and power. And Times Square was filled with dazzling light and color, which blocked out the drab working world beyond its borders even more effectually than the tall buildings did. Times Square had become that pagan temple before which Rupert Brooke reeled.
But neither geography alone, nor buildings, nor even lights, accounts for the sense of ineffable magic with which the very word “Broadway” was hedged; for it was only in these years that Broadway had begun to tell a tale of itself. Every Saturday, newspaper readers all over the country— which is to say, virtually all literate adults—turned to Franklin P. Adams’s syndicated column, “Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys,” to read about the doings of the Broadway crowd. Adams referred to himself as “FPA,” and to all his pals by their own special monikers: there were “I. Berlin” and “J. Kern,” and “G.S.K.” for George S. Kaufman, and “H.B.S.” for the publisher and gadabout Herbert Bayard Swope. Variety, the trade journal of the entertainment industry, was already ancient, having been founded in 1907, but by the mid-twenties Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The SmartSet were all anatomizing the Broadway life in a snappy new Broadway patois for the benefit of readers marooned in Dullsboro. The great dailies’ theater columns, once a backwater for broken-down reporters, had become home to the most finely milled prose in the city, with the gifted Heywood Broun writing first for the Tribune, then for the World, and finally for the Telegram, and George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott writing for the Times. In his memoirs, the writer and director Moss Hart recalled poring over Broun and FPA in his cold-water flat in the Bronx, dreaming of joining the immortals in Times Square; young people all over the country dreamed just such candy-colored Broadway dreams.
The frankly commercial art being pumped out of Times Square was taken seriously for the first time. Not only Broadway figures like Broun, Adams, and George Jean Nathan, editor of The Smart Set, but mandarin intellectuals like Edmund Wilson and Joseph Wood Krutch wrote about Irving Berlin and jazz music and the revues. The most ardent vindication of the new art forms came with the publication of Gilbert Seldes’s The Seven Lively Arts in 1924. Seldes, erudite and grounded in the classics, nevertheless championed jazz, vaudeville, Ziegfeld, George M. Cohan, the Krazy Kat comics, and Mack Sennett movies. He referred to these topical and transitory forms, hell-bent on pleasing the customer, as the lively arts—what we would today call popular culture. These minor art forms, Seldes wrote, “are, to an extent, an opiate—or rather they trick our hunger for a moment, and we are able to sleep. They do not wholly satisfy, but they do not corrupt. And they, too, have their moments of intensity.” Seldes went on to describe the ecstasy he found stealing over him in the presence of the great vaudevillians. This was Broadway in the twenties—the epicenter and apogee of the lively arts.
GEORGES. KAUFMAN was a comfortably middle-class Jewish boy from Pittsburgh who, like so many clever and ambitious young men and women of the time, was magnetically attracted to Broadway. In an age of wits, Kaufman was the wisecracker-in-chief, a man whose lightning verbal reflexes would have served him well in an eighteenth-century salon. He once bumped into the playwright S. N. Behrman in the wilds of Hollywood and said, “Ah, forgotten but not gone.” When Moss Hart, having catapulted to sudden wealth, appeared one day in a glittering cowboy suit, Kaufman hailed him with “Hiyo, platinum!” Kaufman began his career, as did many another aspiring wag, contributing funny items to FPA’s column in the Tribune, and went on to write a humor column of his own.
Kaufman knocked around until age thirty, when he got a job in the drama department of the Times, working under the imperious Woollcott. In later years, Woollcott claimed to have been thoroughly intimidated by his brilliant and gloomy underling, who was wont to deliver devastating quips without so much as cracking a smile. Though Kaufman was more or less happily married, financially successful, and devoted heart and soul to his work, his deep discomfort with life was impervious to his external circumstances. “He was so nervous,” a biographer writes, “that he veered between bursts of rapid speech and periods of shy and total silence.” He was terrified of long elevator rides and hazardous street crossings, though his chosen mode of existence required that he confront both all the time. Phobic about germs, Kaufman shied away from all forms of physical contact, especially handshakes.
Kaufman’s wit, indeed his whole temperament, was shaped around an intense aversion to uninflected emotion. Moss Hart, who as an untried novice collaborated with the already titanic Kaufman, describes addressing a heartfelt speech of thanks to the bundle of limbs that was the playwright slumped, apparently inert, in an armchair. “To my horror,” Hart writes, “the legs unwound themselves with an acrobatic rapidity I would not have believed possible, and the figure in the chair leaped up and out of it in one astonishing movement like a large bird frightened out of its solitude in the marshes.” Kaufman literally could not write love scenes; the love interest in The Butter and Egg Man, the only play he wrote by himself, is so perfunctory that the two young people seem almost to have been ordered to bond. Wisecracking protected Kaufman from having to peer too deeply into the human swamp, as O’Neill did. Plainly, he was not nearly so great a figure as O’Neill. But it was his very emotional astringency, his horror of the false—even of the heartfelt—that made him so representative a figure of this age of urbanity; for much of the drama, and much of the sensibility, of the twenties was based on a repudiation, whether comic or tragic, of the easy sentimentality of an earlier age. And this, in turn, explains why both Kaufman and O’Neill strike us today as “modern,” though almost none of their predecessors do.
Kaufman was absolutely and utterly a creature of Broadway. He rarely strayed beyond walking distance from Times Square; almost all of his friends were show folk. He kept his job at the Times years after he no longer needed the measly salary, though it’s hard to say whether this was owing to his love of the milieu or his ever-present fear of failure. And Kaufman wrote about what he knew; Broadway gave him his setting, his characters, and his language. The characters in The Butter and Egg Man, for example, speak an almost impenetrable vaudeville slang—“I done six clubs for the wow at the finish, and done it for years!” “Butter and egg man” was the Broadway pejorative for one of the freshly minted midwestern plutocrats who could be counted on to back stage productions; the play’s main character is a starstruck rube from Chillicothe, Ohio, whom a scheming producer separates from his inheritance. (The play-within-the-play features a trial scene, a brothel scene, and a dialogue in Heaven between a rabbi and a priest who “talk about how everybody’s the same underneath, and it don’t matter none what religion they got.”) Kaufman’s Beggar on Horseback concerns a gifted young composer who agrees to marry a bubble-headed heiress in order to avoid having to write commercial dreck for the theater. June Moon takes up the same theme in reverse: the main character, Fred Stevens, is a sentimental dolt who makes a smash debut as a Broadway songwriter.
The surfaces of Kaufman’s plays are so glittery, and the characters so busy amusing themselves and one another, that it’s easy to miss the underlying ferocious disgust with the business ethic and middlebrow taste; in fact, Kaufman’s contempt for the world of success is scarcely less bitter than that of his more notoriously sardonic contemporary, H. L. Mencken. Many of Kaufman’s plays have a character like Fred Stevens, or like Leach, the movie scenarist from Dulcy, who has achieved commercial success through sheer force of mediocrity. Most of Beggar on Horseback, which Kaufman wrote with Marc Connelly, consists of a surreal dream sequence in which the bohemian hero, Neil McRea, is trapped in the bourgeois world of his in-laws as inescapably as O’Neill’s Rob is on the farm. Neil’s new father-in-law, dressed in golf knits, barks into the phone, “Buy 18 holes and sell all the water hazards!” while six corporate automata march about mindlessly repeating “Overhead,” “turnover,” “annual report.” Neil is gradually driven insane by the cacophony of banalities; he murders the entire family, only to be subjected to a trial that turns into an antic musical comedy, in which he is pronounced guilty of writing unpopular music. Kaufman somehow managed to churn out one popular and meticulously crafted play after another without ever compromising his view that the marketplace demands craven pandering.
FOR ALL HIS MOODY silences and his tics, George Kaufman was a gregarious man who loved company and who seems to have hated to work alone. In an era when everyone worked with everyone, Kaufman was the arch-collaborator. He worked with fellow playwrights like Marc Connelly, novelists like Edna Ferber, even greenhorns like Moss Hart. And he was a charter member of the great floating cocktail party–poker game–mutual admiration and ridicule society of the day. Hart, still a wide-eyed observer of the Broadway scene in the late 1920s, records the guest list for a typical “tea party” (a comic euphemism for a drinkathon) at the Kaufmans’: Ethel Barrymore, Harpo Marx, Heywood Broun, Edna Ferber, Helen Hayes, George Gershwin, Alfred Lunt, Alexander Woollcott, Leslie Howard, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Herbert Bayard Swope. More or less the same group might have assembled another day at Woollcott’s country place in Vermont, or the uptown studio of the artist Neysa McMein, or even at a rented place in the south of France. Theater is, of course, an inherently collaborative medium, but what is still remarkable about the circle of the 1920s is the extent to which they were a circle—a group of people who lived an almost collective life, and whose work was in many ways the record of that charmed, overheated, fiercely competitive society. It was the special privilege and delight of the audience, both in the theaters and in living rooms across the country, to eavesdrop on this wicked and inspired conversation.
The wits of Broadway wrote with each other, for each other, and about each other. Dorothy Parker, the most mordant and perhaps the most heartbreaking of the whole circle, began her career as a theater critic at Vogue in 1916 and moved on to Vanity Fair, where she was edited by the playwright Robert Sherwood and his fellow Robert, Benchley, later a comic stage performer and then a mainstay at The New Yorker; she was ultimately fired after trashing Ziegfeld’s wife, Billie Burke, in the Follies. Woollcott, in many ways the central figure of the group, as well as the presiding genius of the Algonquin Round Table, the famous lunchtime gathering of wits at a hotel just off Times Square, virtually made a career out of writing about his friends. Besides reviewing their plays, and often composing charmingly facetious prefaces for the plays’ published editions, Woollcott wrote two magazine profiles of Kaufman as well as both a profile and a full-length biography of his friend Irving Berlin. In 1929 he began simultaneously writing a weekly column for The New Yorker and, more important, broadcasting a weekly radio show that told the world of Broadway doings and often featured Broadway stars. Woollcott played a Woollcott-like figure—a fat, indolent, waspish kibbitzer—in S. N. Behrman’s Brief Moment. Much later, in 1939, Kaufman and Hart wrote a play about Woollcott, The Man Who Came to Dinner.
The effect of all this nonstop collaborating, chronicling, criticizing, lunching, and drinking was to push the art of the period in the direction dictated by the circle’s collective sensibility: wit, speed, sparkle, savoir-faire. Irving Berlin, the peerless manufacturer of hummable, lovable tunes, was certainly the most mainstream, the most conventionally successful, of the figures who joined, or at least regularly visited, the Algonquin Round Table. But intimacy with Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, and the rest turned him in a different direction. Berlin’s biographer describes him writing “What’ll I Do?,” a song that sounds as much like Cole Porter as it does like Berlin, in a setting that is sheer Cole Porter: arriving with a bottle of champagne at a party given by Parker and Neysa McMein, Berlin sat down at the piano and began composing. When Berlin first met the beautiful young socialite Ellin Mackay, who was to become his wife, she told him how much she admired “What’ll I Do?”
The limitation of the Round Table was that it tended to inspire gag writing and brilliant buffoonery; but over time, Kaufman and his collaborators evolved a form of satiric drama that was rooted, more or less, in character. In 1929, Kaufman and Ring Lardner, the great and mordant sportswriter and essayist, wrote June Moon. In the play’s prologue, two strangers on a train try so hard to make contact with each other that neither listens to the other, and each natters on about people whom the other couldn’t possibly know. The situation is painfully human, though at the same time ridiculous; and indeed, Fred, the songwriting-star-to-be, is consigned to that special circle of hell Kaufman reserves for pandering success. “He’s not a fellow that can think for himself,” one hardened ex–chorus girl chirps. “They left that out.” George Jean Nathan wrote in The American Mercury that June Moon “should assist greatly in putting the quietus on the mere phrase-makers, the wise-crackers, the apostles of the New Wit. Every word belongs to the situation, the milieu, the character who speaks it.”
One of the running jokes of June Moon is the musical hack who predicts, “Gershwin will be a nobody in ten years,” and then, when Gershwin actually shows up, complains, “He stole my rhapsody.” Kaufman had in fact begun collaborating with Gershwin on the musical Strike Up the Band,which first appeared in 1927. The Broadway musical as it has since come down to us essentially dates from this year. As if by harmonic convergence, George and Ira Gershwin’s Funny Face, starring Fred and Adele Astaire, also appeared that year, as did Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s AConnecticut Yankee, adapted from Mark Twain, and Show Boat, the epic musical of black life on a Mississippi riverboat written by Edna Ferber, with songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, son of Willie and grandson of the original Oscar. What distinguished all these works from their predecessors was the sheer sophistication of the music and songs; they also began to move in the direction of integrating music, song, and narrative, rather than stitching together a patchwork of gags and skits and showstoppers, as Berlin, Kern, and others had largely done before.
Strike Up the Band is such a ferocious piece of work that it had to be withdrawn from the stage; it succeeded only after Kaufman and Gershwin had toned down its sarcasm. The main character, Horace K. Fletcher, is a butter-and-egg man on a monstrous scale, a cheese manufacturer who inveigles the dim-witted President Coolidge into declaring war against Switzerland in order to block imported Swiss cheese. The premise is vintage Kaufman, since its very ludicrousness has the effect of liberating the author’s satirical imagination. Horace offers to pay for the entire war, and return a 25 percent profit, so long as the war is named after him. “It’s a go!” cries the president’s chief adviser. “Strike Up the Band,” a typically ingenious Gershwin pastiche of patriotic tunes, is the musical device Horace uses to whip up war fever and thus further his shameless profiteering. Horace soon has the young men of America marching off to bloody the Swiss, who have the good sense to hide in the mountains, and ultimately to surrender. The Gershwins’ score includes “The Man I Love” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” as well as a Gilbert and Sullivan sound-alike in rhyming couplets and a ragtime tune celebrating the triumph of jazz. For all the virtuoso eclecticism, Strike Up the Band is generally considered the first musical in which the songs emerge directly from the narrative, just as June Moon was one of the first Broadway plays in which the humor is rooted in character.
Nineteen twenty-seven was an astonishing year. Broadway theaters staged an average of 225 shows a year during the decade; in 1927 the figure reached 264, a figure never equaled before or since. It was not only one of the greatest seasons in the history of Broadway, but the year of Babe Ruth’s sixty home runs and Charles Lindbergh’s successful transatlantic flight, a year of heroes and parades and headlines. The stock market was making everybody rich, elevator boys as well as bankers. “The uncertainties of 1920 were drowned out in a steady golden roar,” Fitzgerald later wrote. “The parties were bigger . . . the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper.” It was a moment of frenzy that was bound to spend itself, though you would think, from Fitzgerald’s apocalyptic disgust, that the catastrophe of the Depression arrived as a biblical punishment for wantonness. Indeed, he writes, “The city was bloated, glutted, stupid with cake and circuses.” Yet Broadway would never again be so entrancing as it had been in those dazzling and giddy years of Woollcott and Kaufman and FPA and chorus girls lolling naked in fruit baskets. And no one knew it better than Fitzgerald himself. “For the moment,” he writes at the very end of “My Lost City,” “I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage. Come back, come back, O glittering and white!”