Why Musical Comedy Has No Plot

This Sherlock Holmes musical comedy parody appeared in the April edition of The Playgoer: The Illustrated Magazine of Dramatic Art, which covered London’s theatrical offerings. The author and artist could not be identified.

Why Musical Comedy Has No Plot

“C. O’M.”

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The epidemic of crime among the crowned heads of Europe having abated somewhat, my friend Mr. Potluck Bones, the greatest detective in the world, was able to give a little of his precious time to the affairs of ordinary mortals. For some years, Bones had refused to undertake a case for anyone under the rank of a Grand Duke, but a rise in the price of tobacco had compelled him to alter his rules of business. I am afraid that Potluck was getting cynical. Humanity, he declared, was too good and too dull. Intellect counted for nothing, for Scotland Yard had developed an irritating habit of arresting the criminal while Potluck was making deductions, and clients only paid according to results. My friend’s great talents were in danger of being lost in the abyss of the commonplace when the celebrated case of The Hi-ti Girl came to the rescue. It was Potluck’s first theatrical adventure, and therefore I have taken the liberty of transcribing the notes I made at the time.

We were seated at breakfast one spring morning when our landlady, Mrs. Hudson, entered, and announced that a gentleman in a fur coat desired to see Potluck. As it was only four o’clock — Bones insisted upon breakfasting at this hour — the visit was unexpected.

“Who can want to see you at this hour?” I couldn’t help saying. “And a man in a fur coat, too!”

“Oh, he’s either a millionaire or a theatrical manager, one never knows. You remember my monograph on ‘Coats and Crime’? Show the visitor up, Mrs. Budson,” continued Bones, as he put on a yellow dressing gown in order to appear like his photographs. “Where’s my fiddle?”

Potluck had scarcely assumed his well-known pose, when the door was violently thrown open, and a stout, fat-faced individual rushed in and sank in a half-fainting condition upon the floor, knocking the table over with him.

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A Gentleman in Fur Coat to See Potluck.

“Pick him up,” said Potluck, lighting a pipe. “It’s obvious that the poor man is excited — it’s too early for him to be drunk.”

By this time, our visitor had recovered, and Bones motioned him to a seat. The fellow seemed reluctant to obey, however, and I had a suspicion that he had overheard Potluck’s last remark. The same idea must have struck my friend, for he casually picked up the poker and continued to toy with it until the stranger deposited himself upon the electric chair.

“Now, Mr. — I didn’t quite catch your name,” began Bones.

“I am Mr. Plantagenette Bailey of the Legall Theatre,” he exclaimed, brandishing what looked like a menu card, but turned out to be his visiting card.

“Well, Mr. Balley, what can I do for you?” said Bones blandly. “I presume you did not call to consult me about the weather, eh?”

“No, sir. My business concerns my profession. For twenty years, I have kept the sacred lamp of musical comedy burning. It is in danger of going out, and I want you to prevent that. Will you assist me?”

“I should like more particulars,” said Potluck, dropping into a chair and apparently going to sleep.

“Last Saturday week,” continued Mr. Bailey, “I produced a new musical comedy, The Hi-ti Girl. It went strong, sir, very strong, but the critics say that there is no plot in the piece. I maintain that there is; and I want you to prove my case.”

I trembled for my friend’s reputation, for I instinctively guessed that this would be too much for him. But I did not know that Bones was more than mortal. No case could be too difficult. It is true enough that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but Bones got there before either the fools or the angels.

“You want me to discover the plot of a musical comedy?” exclaimed the great detective, stretching himself out and yawning. “I wasn’t aware that musical comedies had plots.”

“Those produced by me are remarkable for their plots, sir,” replied the manager with dignity. “I pride myself upon their complexity. It has been my endeavour to provide a plot that the audience cannot discover until the third act. What they think of the fourth doesn’t matter.”

“Then why have a fourth act?” I observed.

“My dear, sir,” he replied with a pitying smile, “how ignorant you are of theatrical matters. We must amuse the members of the audience while they are putting their coats on.”

“With regard to this musical comedy of yours,” interrupted Bones. “What is the principal feature of it — a dance or a song?”

“Well, there are plenty of both,” Mr. Bailey answered. “But the greatest draw is Scooping the Scoop.”

“What’s that?” said Bones.

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Dressed in an Inflated Rubber Costume

“The leading comedian, dressed in an inflated rubber costume, jumps from the roof to the stage. His attire causes him to rebound and rebound. I tell you,” exclaimed the manager enthusiastically, “it’s the surest draw in town. You see, it is difficult to stop the man, and on three occasions we’ve had to puncture him with a pitchfork before he’d stop. The process lost us two fine comedians.”

“Resigned, I suppose?” said Bones.

“No — buried. They were punctured at the wrong moment. It was the fault of our lancer. He happened to be a little unsteady with the pitchfork. A regrettable business, certainly, but we all run risks nowadays.”

“The public loves a legitimate suicide,” observed Potluck. “The leading lady murders the music, while the principal comedian murders himself. Surely such a combination of horrors ought to fill the largest theatre in London.” Bones spoke in Japanese — the fashionable tongue at the time — so our visitor did not understand the drift of his remarks. There is nothing like tact.

“Now, Mr. Bailey,” said Bones genially, and speaking in English, “Let me have particulars of the motif of this comedy of yours. A mere sketch will suffice.”

“In the first place you must understand how the play is made. When we have decided upon the posters, we hold a meeting of the authors and composers. There are four of each. The authors try to remember all the really funny jokes they have heard during their lives — the older the men the better — while the composers attempt to combine the melody of the classical song with the catchiness of the comic song.”

“I see,” said Bones, “a sort of cross between ‘The Lost Chord’ and ‘When Father Laid the Carpet on the Stairs.’”

“That’s it,” replied the manager. “I think you will be able to help me. Well, when we have the jokes and the music ready, a librettist is called in to combine them, it is his duty to make a coherent story out of the material placed at his disposal. Our man is the well-known novelist, Nonden Scones; he took a double first at Oxford. I discovered him starving in Fleet Street, took an interest in the fellow, and — er — in short — made him. He is the best man at the game — now, thanks to my tuition.”

“And yet some people decry the advantages of a university education,” said Bones, turning to me. “Pray proceed, sir.”

“The plot of The Hi-ti Girl is this: Four men are in love with the same woman. She discovers this, and, in order to be left free to marry the man she really loves, she persuades four friends of hers to impersonate her. They agree. In the second act, the four impostors are married to the four men, each believing that he is marrying Kitty Hifly, the Queen of the Ballet.

The fun is furious when the duped men meet at their club and tell each other that they have married Kitty Hifly. There are all sorts of complications and surprises.”

“I should think so,” observed Bones, dryly. “Is that all?”

“Yes; but it’s enough.”

“No doubt,” said Potluck, rising. “Good morning, Mr. Bailey. I’ll visit your theatre to-night and will let you know the result of my observations to-morrow morning.”

“Good morning, sir,” exclaimed the manager; “I’ll keep a box for you and your friend. Good morning, sir.”

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Examining Footprints Made by Our Visitor

“Well, what do you think of it?” said Potluck, as he carefully examined the footprints made by our visitor’s dirty boots.

“Simple enough,” I answered unthinkingly.

“Rubbish!” cried Bones. “What appears simple to the average person is really difficult to the expert, whose erudition complicates matters.”

“I can’t see the good of examining his footprints,” I said. “We are not tracking a murderer.”

“Perhaps not. But I’m wondering what Mrs. Hudson will say when she sees this mess. We owe her for three weeks, you know,” he added sorrowfully.

“Never mind, Potluck,” I answered. “We must not ride in hansoms so often. You engaged half the cabmen in London last Saturday. You remember, to follow that man you thought was a murderer, but who turned out to be a Covent Garden salesman taking a holiday.” To my surprise, I found that Potluck had left the room. He is very sensitive, I may say here.

That night, Bones and myself occupied a box at the Legall Theatre. The great detective spent most of his time in pointing out to me various persons in the audience who had come in contact with him professionally, he seemed to know everybody who was anybody, as well as several nobodies. Not once did I notice his eyes turned in the direction of the stage, and I was about to call his attention to the play when he seized me by the throat and whispered excitedly:

“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go home.”

On our way back to Baker Street, I endeavoured to draw Bones, but he was in one of his silent moods, and when like that he never speaks. Long association with Potluck had given me some of his wonderful talents. But why should I talk like this? I am a modest man.

“I tell you, Cotson,” cried Potluck next morning, while we were awaiting the expected visitor, “You must give up writing books. Why not put me in a musical comedy? It’s the best paying business on earth; and now that there is a slump in assassinations my services will not be so much in demand.”

“But who’ll write the music?”

“I will, of course. Ay, and the words too. We’ll get Leafette to do the scene painting and so keep the money in the family. What would you think of, say, The Anarchist Girl, or, Potluck to the Rescue, eh?”

My reply was rendered inaudible by the noisy entry of Mr. Plantagenette Bailey, who seemed to be as excited as ever.

“Well, what news?” he burst out with.

“Take a chair, Mr. Bailey,” said Bones, blandly, handing our visitor the only whole one in the room.

“Yes, yes; but I want to know if you were successful last night.”

“Steady, my friend,” replied Potluck. “Have you got your cheque book with you?”

“Here it is,” said the manager.

“That’s the best thing I’ve seen for six months,” cried Potluck, smiling. “You must know that I make an additional charge of two shillings a word. My American publishers insist upon that.”

“Very well,” said Mr. Bailey; “but be as short as possible.”

“Right. Cotson, take down each word I say. Now, Mr. Bailey, the plot of The Hi-ti Girl has been gagged by your comedians. They’ve killed it by gagging, and if you want your plot to be recognizable, you must get rid of your comedians.”

“But the public insist upon gags. They are necessary if the piece is to be kept up to date,” protested the manager.

“In that case,” said Potluck, “the public don’t want a plot in a musical comedy. If the critics say the contrary, ignore them. The box office receipts are all you need concern yourself with. They are satisfactory, I understand.”

“We’re turning money away,” answered the manager. But I’m sorry we couldn’t have a plot as well as the ‘gags.’ However, I suppose I can’t have everything. Here’s your cheque, Mr. Bones. If you should ever contemplate going upon the stage I’ll be glad to make you an offer. Good morning, sir.”

“The modern stage is essentially democratic,” said Potluck, when our visitor had gone; “and the democracy does not want high art. It prefers high kicking. The Ibsen school of dramatists write of Society with a capital S, forgetting that what the playgoer really wants is a musical comedy with a capital chorus. Mr. Tree’s Academy’s idea for teaching the young how to shout may help towards reviving interest in the drama, but it can only be a temporary revival, as the relatives of the students will soon get tired of going to see them act. Meanwhile, musical comedy flourishes, and a brisk trade is being done in barrel organs. Who can complain?”

Footnotes

sherlock holmes adventures book U.S. version with William Gillette on the cover

“Original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” featuring William Gillette on the cover.

[Return]Appear like his photographs: Possibly a reference to the cover of Original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a special U.S. edition of the stories published to cash in on the success of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play. On the cover, Gillette faces the reader, holding a gun and wearing a dressing gown. The book contains The Sign of the Four, A Study in Scarlet, four short stories, and photographs from the play.

[Return]The Lost Chord: “The Lost Chord” was composed by Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) at his dying brother’s bedside. Its lyrics, based on a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864), describe the narrator playing a “chord of music like the sound of a great Amen.” He sought in vain to hear “that harmonious echo from our discordant life,” but concludes that “it may be that only in Havn’ I shall hear that grand Amen.”

When Sullivan heard a recording of the song on Thomas Edison’s recently invented phonograph in 1888, he recorded a speech in which he congratulated the inventor and added presciently, “I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening’s experiments: astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.” When Father Laid the Carpet on the Stairs: A comic song about a family watching their father wrestling with a roll of carpet. A typical verse describes “After super human struggles, father got the carpet spread / He tried to drive a tack in, but he hit his thumb instead / He dropped the hammer with a grunt, and oh the things he said / When father laid the carpet on the stairs.”

[Return]Double first: When an Oxford or Cambridge student earned first-class honors in two subjects. At Oxford, this was usually in Ancient Greek and Roman classical literature, and philosophy and mathematics.

[Return]Ibsen school: Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) led the charge for more realism in drama with his controversial plays A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, and Ghosts.

[Return]Mr. Tree’s Academy: Actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1857-1917) founded the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1904.