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“im Fine, Just Hurting Inside”
Robert Benchley, a woebegone chronicler of his own inadequacies, was the humorist’s humorist, a man beloved by practically everyone but himself
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
One of Benchley’s duties as drama critic was to write a brief description of each play on Broadway for the magazine’s “The Confidential Guide,” a forerunner of the “Goings On About Town” section in The New Yorker of today. He was bedeviled by the inexplicable five-year run of Abie’s Irish Rose , a comedy about a Jewish boy who marries an Irish girl. It premiered in May 1922 to resounding raspberries from all the critics, Benchley included, but from June 1922 to November 1927 he had to come up with something new to say about it every week. His comments included: “People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy will never be a success,” and “Flying fish are sometimes seen at as great a height as fifteen feet.” He even ran a mock contest for the best “Confidential Guide” comment on the play and awarded the laurel to “Mr. Arthur Marx,” alias Harpo, who offered, “No worse than a bad cold.”
In general, however, Benchley was an indulgent critic, both at Life and later for The New Yorker , where he worked from 1929 to 1940. His play reviews often were similar in style to his essays. He depicted himself as a “basically sensible fellow who happened to be sizing up plays instead of selling suits or running an office,” wrote one of his biographers, Norris Yates. “I always know that a play is clumsily written,” Benchley said in one review, “if I can detect passages in it that I myself might have done.” He felt an ideal audience was one that “responds to thrills and to sentimentality, but retains … [its] critical faculty,” and he scorned the sort of theatergoer who applauds reflexively for such things as a “musical ensemble in which the entire company raises its arms and wiggles its fingers.” His reviews, a former colleague at The New Yorker wrote after his death, “reflected a complete personality, genial, sensitive, informed, too mature and tolerant to care about the easy, rather discreditable reputation for wit that can come from hasty and intemperate ridicule. It was a weapon he didn’t need, anyway; his disapproval was all the more effective because it always seemed clear that his kind heart was far more anxious to admire and praise.”
Al Hirschfeld, who was a frequent firstnighter with Benchley, believes he was not only a superb critic but a wonderfully unpretentious one. “He was the last theater critic who really laughed out loud in the theater,” Hirschfeld recalls. “He would applaud like mad and laugh and knock himself out. You could hear him all over the house. He was very outgoing. You know, critics since then don’t applaud at all. They know they’re being watched. But he was completely unaware of being a critic.”
Benchley also was unusually concerned about the actors and actresses whose performances he reviewed, and he fretted over the possible harm a negative notice from him could do to their careers. In the early years of the Depression he donated 10 percent of the royalties from one of his books to the Actors’ Unemployment Relief Fund.
Benchley’s empathy for actors was enhanced when he joined their ranks, at first with reluctance and then with increasing frequency. In 1922 the writers, critics, and performers who frequented New York’s Algonquin Hotel decided to put on a one-night, invitation-only review, which they called No, Sirree! Benchley’s contribution was an eightminute, ad-libbed parody of the numbing speakers he had covered as a young reporter. As he later recounted, the moment he began his offhand performance of what became known as “The Treasurer’s Report,” his “entire life changed its course.”
Irving Berlin and producer Sam Harris were in the audience, and they loved Benchley’s portrayal of a befuddled assistant treasurer trying vainly to fill in for an organization’s regular bookkeeper. They offered him a spot in their next Music Box Revue . Benchley had reservations about being a drama critic who also acted, so he asked for the outrageous sum of five hundred dollars a week, thinking that would cool Berlin and Harris’s enthusiasm. Instead, he got it. The following year he had to perform his little speech on Broadway for nine months, squeezing his appearances onstage in between his rounds of the theaters for Life . He then spent another ten weeks touring the Keith vaudeville circuit during the summer, when there were no new shows to review. Benchley later wrote that no one ever became as sick of anything as he was of “The Treasurer’s Report,” but performing it increased his income enormously, established him as a celebrity, and represented, in a way, a new kind of comedy: a monologue completely devoid of gags, that depended on deft characterization for its humor.