Over the Footlights and Other Fancies by Stephen Leacock

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.

Over the Footlights

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?

Literary Lapses

26. Literary Lapses – Stephen Leacock


The post title looks like I’ve broken my Lentern fast, doesn’t it? Well, I haven’t, I can assure you. Rather, it’s another book in my 50 Books You Must Read etc. etc. In fact, it’s one of the ones which came to my mind first when thinking about compiling this list two years ago, but somehow he hasn’t appeared until now. As the list is in no particular order, this is no indictment of Mr. Leacock…

I don’t know how well known Stephen Leacock is nowadays. It was my Aunt Jacq who first pointed me in his direction (though I had unwittingly already read something by him in my indispensable Modern Humour (1940) which was my introduction to EM Delafield) – I suspect, if anybody has heard of him, it will be any Canadian readers of Stuck-in-a-Book, for Canadian Leacock was. Any Canadians out there? According to Wikipedia, it was said in 1911 that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.

Intrigued? Essentially, Stephen Leacock is a humorist par excellence. If I utter his name in the same breath as PG Wodehouse, it is not because their styles are all that similar (though both make fantastic use of stylistic exaggeration) but because Leacock is the only writer I would dare hold up to Wodehouse. Two comic genii. Most of Leacock’s works are little sketches or stories, though there is the odd longer narrative – his speciality is the slightly absurd, usually well-to-do, experiencing the odd and the mundane, finding humour and absurdity in both. Difficult, as always, to pinpoint why I love him so much – little tricks of style bound to make you laugh without realising quite why.

Jacq introduced me to Stephen Leacock back in 2002 or 2003, when I didn’t have such a backlist of books to be read – consequently I ‘did an Elaine’ (a reference to Elaine from RandomJottings!) and read lots and lots of his in one fell swoop. My choice of Literary Lapses (1910) is perhaps arbitrary, but it was the first one I read and remains my favourite. What’s more, there are lots available through Amazon. It’s even all online at this link, if you wish to read it that way. I’ll leave you with a taster, the little tale ‘Borrowing a Match’:

You might think that borrowing a match upon the street
is a simple thing. But any man who has ever tried it will
assure you that it is not, and will be prepared to swear
to the truth of my experience of the other evening.

I was standing on the corner of the street with a cigar
that I wanted to light. I had no match. I waited till a
decent, ordinary-looking man came along. Then I said:

“Excuse me, sir, but could you oblige me with the loan
of a match?”

“A match?” he said, “why certainly.” Then he unbuttoned
his overcoat and put his hand in the pocket of his
waistcoat. “I know I have one,” he went on, “and I’d
almost swear it’s in the bottom pocket–or, hold on,
though, I guess it may be in the top–just wait till I
put these parcels down on the sidewalk.”

“Oh, don’t trouble,” I said, “it’s really of no
consequence.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble, I’ll have it in a minute; I know
there must be one in here somewhere”–he was digging
his fingers into his pockets as he spoke–“but you see
this isn’t the waistcoat I generally…”

I saw that the man was getting excited about it. “Well,
never mind,” I protested; “if that isn’t the waistcoat
that you generally–why, it doesn’t matter.”

“Hold on, now, hold on!” the man said, “I’ve got one of
the cursed things in here somewhere. I guess it must be
in with my watch. No, it’s not there either. Wait till
I try my coat. If that confounded tailor only knew enough
to make a pocket so that a man could get at it!”

He was getting pretty well worked up now. He had thrown
down his walking-stick and was plunging at his pockets
with his teeth set. “It’s that cursed young boy of mine,”
he hissed; “this comes of his fooling in my pockets. By
Gad! perhaps I won’t warm him up when I get home. Say,
I’ll bet that it’s in my hip-pocket. You just hold up
the tail of my overcoat a second till I…”

“No, no,” I protested again, “please don’t take all this
trouble, it really doesn’t matter. I’m sure you needn’t
take off your overcoat, and oh, pray don’t throw away
your letters and things in the snow like that, and tear
out your pockets by the roots! Please, please don’t
trample over your overcoat and put your feet through the
parcels. I do hate to hear you swearing at your little
boy, with that peculiar whine in your voice. Don’t–please
don’t tear your clothes so savagely.”

Suddenly the man gave a grunt of exultation, and drew
his hand up from inside the lining of his coat.

“I’ve got it,” he cried. “Here you are!” Then he brought
it out under the light.

It was a toothpick.

Yielding to the impulse of the moment I pushed him under
the wheels of a trolley-car, and ran.