Overrated Eugene O’Neill has been credited by critics and scholars with introducing modernist themes into American drama and rescuing our theater from the claptrap that dominated the commercial stage since before the turn of the twentieth century. When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936, his reputation rested on six plays: The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), and, most particularly, Strange Interlude (1928) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931).
But all his so-called new themes are derivative. Echoes of Ibsen and Strindberg are everywhere in his work, debased by O’Neill’s tin ear for dialogue. The dialect in The Emperor Jones might have come from a minstrel show. Equally artificial is the tough talk of Yank, the stoker in The Hairy Ape , which ends with one of the most unintentionally humorous scenes in all of serious drama, when Yank is crushed to death in the embrace of a gorilla.
Strange Interlude is a nine-act soap opera; Mourning Becomes Electra , O’Neill’s version of The Oresteia , set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, is the pseudo-Freudian and melodramatic account of the sordid crimes of a particularly unpleasant family.
O’Neill was aware of his shortcomings. Near the end of his life he finally wrote a masterpiece, about his own family this time, the posthumously produced Long Day’s Journey Into Night . In it Edmund, the stand-in for O’Neill, is told by his father that he has the makings of a poet. Edmund replies, “The makings of a poet? No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who’s always panhandling for a smoke; he hasn’t even got the makings, he’s only got the habit.”
Underrated Like Captain Ahab, many critics lack the low-enjoying power. They prefer tragedies to comedies and are always likely to overpraise plays of high seriousness. But the best American plays written during the twenties and thirties were comedies, plays of low seriousness.
I was tempted to nominate as my most underrated playwright George Kelly, of the family that included Walter, Grace, and Jack. Kelly was the author of two comedies, The Show-off and The Torch Bearers , that reveal him to be not only a skillful entertainer but also an astute, often acerbic, social critic. Or I might have chosen George S. Kaufman, who alone ( The Butter and Egg Man ) or in collaboration ( You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner ) wrote wiseacre comedies that set a new standard for wit in the commercial drama.
But I finally settled on John Murray and Alien Boretz, the authors of Room Service , one of the most perfect farces ever written by an American, or by anyone else for that matter.
My admiration for Room Service , which ran for 500 performances at the Cort Theater in New York City beginning in May 1937, is for the play, not for the foolish movie version, starring the Marx Brothers, who destroy the energy and necessary logic of the farce by inserting into the action irrelevant vaudeville bits.
Room Service takes place in a suite at the White Way, a second-class hotel in Times Square that has a theater on the ground floor. The energetic producer Gordon Miller, a man of great energy and determination but with no money to pay his bills, has to find a way to hold on to his hotel room until he opens a play in the theater downstairs. Assisting him and sharing the room illegally are a whole gallery of eccentrics: his director, Harry Binyon; his gofer, Faker Englund; and, most prominently, Leo Davis, his naive playwright just off the bus from Oswego. Miller’s antagonist is Gregory Wagner, the hotel manager, who is determined to evict Miller and friends for nonpayment of rent.
There are three comic set pieces in Room Service . In the first act, fearful of being locked out of their room, Miller and his friends put on three or four suits apiece in order to rescue their clothes from confiscation. In the second act Wagner is trying to starve them out. A room-service waiter is bribed with the promise of a part in the forthcoming play to deliver to Miller’s room a meal, which the tenants devour ravenously while they audition the waiter.
In most farces, even in some by Feydeau and Labiche, the climax of the play occurs at the end of the second act. The third act then becomes anticlimactic. But not in Room Service . It’s opening night; the play is on, and Wagner is determined to evict the theatrical tenants from the room and the theater. To ward off this disaster, Miller cons Davis (the innocent playwright) into pretending to have a near-fatal dose of food poisoning. Wagner is taken in, but Davis, exhausted by the effort, pretends to die. With still some time to go before the curtain descends on the downstairs play, Miller and Binyon, improvising wildly, hold a mock funeral, in which they persuade Wagner to participate. “Davis,” Miller says, “was a great playwright who died too soon .”
The play that Miller is producing, which is never seen, is an arty experimental patriotic pageant of the sort produced during the Depression by the WPA. Miller’s situation is rescued by a deus ex machina in the portly person of the owner of the White Way Hotel, who loves the play and praises Wagner for having the foresight to rent the theater to Miller.
I have been a devoted admirer of Room Service for many years. I directed it in Canada and produced it at the Kennedy Center with Hal Linden as Miller and Michael Kidd directing. In both productions the audience laughed nonstop for two and a half hours. I’m sure you’d get an argument from partisans of serious drama. Still, one could make a case that Room Service is, if not the great American play, a top contender for the title.