It is for books such as this that I put off creating my Top Ten Books of the year until the last possible movement. I wanted to read something reliably enjoyable on Christmas Day (and, as it turned out, Boxing Day) and was mulling over what it would be – when Stephen Leacock leapt to mind.
I would probably cite Leacock as among my favourite writers, and have read a fair few of his books (and amassed more), but I haven’t actually read one of his since I was 18, around 13 years ago. Which is fairly absurd, given how many I have unread, and how much I enjoy him. Indeed, along with A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, and Richmal Crompton, he was in the first tranche of authors I collected – and those who helped form my taste. Would I still like him after all this time, with at least a thousand more books read since I last read one of his?
What’s the opposite of burying the lede? Obviously you’ll have gathered by now that I did, very much, enjoy Over The Footlights and Other Fancies (1923). Like other Leacock books, it is a collection of short pieces – in this case, they are mostly – as the title suggests – theatrically themed. The ‘other fancies’, at the end, are not; we will come onto those.
How to describe these pieces? They are not spoofs, because they are too kind and too subtle for that. Imagine, if you will, a genre being ever so slightly heightened, and presented while at the same time being affectionately observed – dialogue interspersed with the reason for it being thus phrased – and you’ll begin to grasp what Leacock is doing.
It is somewhat surprising that his theatrical topics remain recognisable to the 21st-century reader (or at least this one; and any with a working knowledge of turn of the century theatre). Things kick off with a wonderful melodrama, ‘Cast up by the Sea’ (‘Why didn’t he explain? Why didn’t he shout out, “Hiram, I’m not a villain at all; I’m your old friend!” Oh, pshaw! who ever did explain things in the second act of a melodrama? And where would the drama be if they did?’). There’s a parodic Ibsen, and exemplars (of a fashion) of Russian plays new and old. Even the cinema gets a look-in, with a desert bounty picture (‘Dear Man’s Gold’), as does Greek tragedy as performed by a university drama club. It’s all wonderful stuff, requiring only the smallest of acquaintances with the genre in question to amuse.
My favourite – though perhaps it is because I know this genre best – is ‘The Soul Call’. It’s Leacock’s version of the 1920s problem play – about knowing oneself and – well, I’ll let Leacock explain:
At the opposite pole of thought from the good old melodrama, full of wind and seaweed and danger, is the ultra-modern, up-to-date Piffle-Play.
It is named by such a name as The Soul Call, or The Heart Yearn, or The Stomach Trouble – always something terribly perplexed and with 60 per cent of sex in it. It always deals in one way or another with the “problem of marriage”. Let it be noted that marriage, which used to be a sacrament, became presently a contract and now a problem. In art and literature it used to constitute the happy ending. Now it’s just the bad beginning.
We all recognise this sort of play, I suspect, if we have any fondness for the 1920s. And if you’re reading my blog, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you probably do.
This particular play is about Lionel and Helga, married (respectively) to Mabel and Charles, who have decided to poison their partners because they are holding them back from ‘following the higher call of their natures’. I hope my pronouns in that sentence were disentangleable. In between giving us their dialogue, and some amusing stage directions, Leacock also gives us the views of the sympathetic (albeit small) audience. After the first act, they are generally pro the poisoning plan, but have yet to see Mabel on stage. In the second act…
Mabel Derwent goes over to the Hindoo tray and picks up a big cream-candy out of a box and eats it, and says, “Yum! Yum!” with animal relish. All the audience look at Mabel. They see in her a dashing, good-looking woman, a blonde, all style, and with just a touch of loudness. All the women in the audience decide at once that she ought to be poisoned; but the man aren’t so sure.
Leacock has that knack of coming across as warm and likeable in his writing – how, I don’t know; whether or not it was true, I also have no idea. Somehow it is impossible for him to come across as cynical or malicious – so he can tease the genres of the day without seeming to dislike them, and without alienating the audiences who watch any of these sorts of plays and films. It’s whimsical – which became a dirty word around 1920, but shouldn’t be; whimsy requires the same keen observational power that powers poignant or reflective writing.
Once the ‘footlights’ section is over, we move to the ‘other fancies’, many and various. Here, Leacock gives freer reign to his more surreal humour. I suppose a parodic play requires restraint, to keep it amusing, while tales of daily life can take a step into the bizarre – such as the sketch about how and why Leacock purportedly shot his landlord, or how his neighbour’s daily updates on nature drive Leacock murderous with rage. (Not all his pieces are about feeling murderous, honest.) He writes amusingly about his exploits trying (not so hard) to catch black bass, about the indignities of Prohibition (which I hadn’t realised got as far as Canada), and about how a comet was going to destroy the earth and nobody much minded:
I find the same attitude everywhere. I heard a little boy last Sunday, on his way into church, say to his mother, “Mother, is it true that a comet is going to hit the world?” And she said, “Yes, dear, the newspapers say so.” “And where shall we be after it this us?” “I suppose, darling,” she answered, with a touch of reverence, I admit, in her voice, “that we shall be dissolved into nebular nucleus with an enveloping corona of incandescent hydrogen.” After that they passed into church, and I heard no more.
Look, you either love that or you don’t. If you do find it funny, you’re in luck – there is an awful lot of Leacock out there to read. I am castigating myself for leaving it so long before I went back to his books. This one was every bit as wonderful as I’d remembered.
Leacock’s star has rather faded, I think, certainly outside of his native Canada, and that’s a pity. I urge you to go out and find something by him, if you’ve enjoyed the quotations in this review; I imagine plenty of his books are available free for ereaders, and some (Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town) are fairly easy to find as real books. I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading some more Leacock from my shelves this year – who fancies joining me?