Jerome K. Jerome

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 23, 1910

Humor Out of England

Jerome K. Jerome, author of “The Passing of the Third Floor Back,” which is being presented in Baltimore this week by Johnstone Forbes-Robertson and his excellent company, is chiefly known to fame as the man who gave the world “The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow,” that volume of delightful foolery. The essays which make up the “Idle Thoughts” were written in 1888 or thereabout for a weekly paper to which Mr. Jerome was then attached. During the first 40 years of his life, indeed, he was far more the journalistic serf than the dramatist. He served, in turn, the Idler, Today and various other second rate weeklies and monthlies, as contributor or editor, and in consequence he was forced to write a great deal of matter, and most of it, very naturally, was of indifferent quality. But nevertheless, there were always stray grains of wheat in the haystack. Out of it, for example, came the “Idle Thoughts,” and out of it, too, came “Three Men in a Boat,” “The Diary of a Pilgrimage,” “The Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow” and the deliciously humorous “Stageland” sketches, not to mention “Novel Notes” and “On the Stage and Off.”

Mr. Jerome, almost alone among latter-day English humorists, quickly won an audience in the United States. The reason therefore is not far to seek. He was, in brief, a frank and ardent imitator of Mark Twain, and his imitations were extraordinarily like. Certain passages in “The Diary of a Pilgrimage” might have been written by Mark himself. They are full of the gargantuan humor of “A Tramp Abroad,” and inasmuch as their scenes are laid in Germany, which is also the scene of the great American’s book, some of them actually suggest lost chapters from that book. The same quality permeates the “Idle Thoughts” and “Stageland.” Both books are more American than English in their point of view, their elaborate grotesquerie, their very turns of phrase—and so it is not surprising that they were successful on this side of the water.

His Early One-Acters

Mr. Jerome’s first play seems to have been “Barbara,” a sentimental one-acter which saw the light in 1886. It was successful enough in its time and the amateur dramatic clubs still take hacks at it, even today; but its fable of a long-lost sister who gives up $1,500 a year that her brother may be happy is just a bit too sugary and Dickensy for the modern audience. “Sunset,” which followed two years later, is similarly saccharine. It tells the story of a girl who surrenders her lover because her sister wants him—a story long since vanished from the stage, where once it wrung the willing tear and ensnared the elusive dollar.

“Fennel,” “Woodbarrow Farm” and various other pieces followed, but it was not until 1900, when he wrote “Miss Hobbs,” that Mr. Jerome really won any serious consideration as a playwright. “Miss Hobbs” was presented in Baltimore, along about 1901 or 1902, by Annie Russell, and no doubt most theatergoers well remember it. It was a sentimental comedy of the sort then in fashion—a piece in the mode set by “Lord and Lady Algy,” “A Royal Family” and “Because She Loved Him So.” Such plays served a good purpose. They were amusing, they were will written, they dealt naturally with more or less real human beings, and they were clean. Best of all, they helped to reveal the artificiality of the serious drama of the time and to prepare the way for the naturalistic revolution then impending. And “Miss Hobbs,” though it came late, was not the least of them.

The play that followed, “Tommy” by name, was a dramatization of the author’s story, “Tommy & Co.” (1904) It struck a serious note, the motif being that “right to love” which the Continental dramatists have discussed so copiously, and the London critics were very kind to it, but its popular success was not marked. Then came “Sylvia of the Letters,” a fantastic comedy, and after that “Susan in Search of a Husband,” a stage version of a story printed in 1906. Then there was a halt of a year or so, and “The Passing of the Third Floor Back” was sent to the boards in London. Its success was immediate, and on October 4 of last year it reached New York. Since writing it Mr. Jerome has written two other plays. “The Angel and the Author” and “Fanny and the Servant Problem,” the latter of which was presented in the United States under the title of “The New Lady Bantock.”

The Play And Its Critics

Many objections have been made to “The Passing of the Third Floor Back.” It has been denounced on the ground that it is without dramatic action, on the ground that the characters are grotesque caricatures, on the ground that the preaching of the Stranger is too platitudinous, and on the ground that, in a stage play, all preaching, good or bad, is offensive. The answer to all this, of course, is that the objectors have mistaken Mr. Jerome’s aims. If it were true that he had essayed to write a regulation social drama, then all of the objections would be sound. But as a matter of fact he calls his play “an idle fancy”—or did, at least, when it was originally produced—and “idle fancy” is an appellation vague enough to justify almost any admixture of the homiletical, the undramatic and the impossible.

The stage, in truth, is not so narrow that it has room for nothing but orthodox stage plays. Of course, when a man essays to write such a stage play—when he sets out to put before us a series of creditable human transactions, in which all of the personages are supposed to be real persons—it is fair to hold him rigidly to his task. He must not transcend the bounds of reality. He must not forget to make his characters stand out in the round. He must not pause to deliver sermons. He must not attach a platitudinous moral, well rubbed in. Such things corrupt and falsify the social drama, which depends for its artistic validity upon its accurate mirroring of nature.

The Author’s Purpose

But when a man tells us frankly that he has tried to write, not a social drama, but an “idle fancy,” we may well allow him considerable latitude. He is free, indeed, to make his own rules as he goes along. It is unjust to hold him to fixed models and conventions. Viewed thus, “The Passing of the “Third Floor Back” eludes its critics. It achieves its purpose; it is consistent from curtain to curtain: it reaches out over the footlights and touches the hearts of those who hear and see. Not a social drama at all but a morality play in the fifteenth century meaning of the term, it is plainly the best morality play, at least in English, of our time.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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