The Man Who Came to Dinner - October 03 - October 05, 2019

Aberdeen Central High School

 End Notes 

                         THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER
                               The making of a monster

     If Alexander Woollcott didn’t exist, Kaufman and Hart would have had to invent him. Few personalities bestrode the cultural world between the wars the way that Woolcott did. Broadway critic, book reviewer, radio personality, lecturer, erstwhile actor, tastetester and taste-maker, the corpulent Woollcott wielded an opinion and a rapier-like wit that few could match. With one stroke his enthusiasm could make a smash success, as he did with James Hilton’s novel Good-bye, Mr. Chips, or his deadly disdain could decimate his lesser; reviewing a volume entitled And I Shall Make Music, he wrote, “Not on my carpet, lady!”
     Woollcott was also the ringleader of the famed Algonquin Round Table, the collection of writers and raconteurs who shared verbal sortees and luncheon entrees throughout the twenties. Woollcott shared many a lunch with Kaufman. Kaufman and Woollcott had even collaborated on two misbegotten plays. But, in the middle of the thirties, Woollcott had caught the acting bug as well. He demanded that Kaufman and his gifted collaborator, Moss Hart, concoct a vehicle for him.
     Kaufman and Hart hemmed and hawed for several months.  But then Hart remembered a time when Woollcott made a surprise visit to Hart’s Bucks County estate. He commandeered Hart’s own bedroom, demanded the heat be turned off and requested a chocolate malted and a chocolate cake. The next morning after loudly excoriating the household staff for incompetency and dishonesty,
Woollcott wrote in the guest book: “I wish to say on my first visit to Moss Hart’s house, I had one of the most unpleasant evenings I can ever recall having spent.”
     Hart wondered what would have happened if Woollcott had broken his leg on the way out and had to be kept in the house. The proverbial light went on. “This can be a very funny play,” Hart told Kaufman. “All we have to have now are three very funny acts,” replied the gloomy dean of American comedy.
     They worked through the spring of 1939, incorporating as many bits of Woollcott’s personality into the character of Sheridan Whiteside as possible. Hart wrote: “In talking about Woollcott, we decided to use only public aspects of his character…his lectures, his broadcasts, his charm, his acidulousness, his interest in murders, and all of this had to be worked into the plot of the play.” The writers included Woollcott’s love of food, celebrities, mad scientists, sob stories, and baby talk for good measure.
     When the show rolled onto Broadway on October 16, 1939, without Woollcott in the title role,  they became an overnight smash hit and stayed, rather like Whiteside, for a protracted visit of 739

     Kaufman and Hart mastered the art of allusion when referencing so many elements of popular culture of their time.  Here is a reminder of what they were referring to:  

  • H.G. Wells: Famed British science fiction writer and essayist. On Halloween of 1938, Orson Welles made his notorious radio broadcast of Wells' War of the Worlds. In 1934, Wells stood by his prediction that there would be a Second World War by 1940.
  • Felix Frankfurter: Appointed to the Supreme Court as associate justice in 1939 by FDR.
    Profoundly liberal, he helped found the ACLU.
  • Dr. Dafoe: The miracle man who safely delivered the world famous Dionne quintuplets in
    Ontario in 1934.
  • Mt. Wilson Observatory: Planetarium near Pasadena, California; completed in 1905.
    Telescope completed in 1918.
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips: a 1934 bestseller by James Hilton; a sentimental account of a British
    public school teacher, it was made into a film with Robert Donat in 1938, for which he won
    an Oscar. 
  • Samuel J. Liebowitz: The defense attorney for the Scottsboro boys (nine black youths who
    were accused, in 1937, of raping two Southern white women in a freight train and then
    subjected to unconstitutional incarceration).  The most prominent criminal defense lawyer on the East Coast.
  • Jascha Heifetz: Pre-eminent Russian violinist, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in October
    of 1917.

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