I’ve long held that the best writers make the best critics. In addition to aesthetic insight, the job calls for descriptive powers both sufficient to engage the reader in art he hasn’t yet experienced and entertaining enough to attract those who’ve already seen the show. In the case of Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway 1918-1923, “the show” closed over 90 years ago. The attraction here is the critic herself — and what a shiny bauble it is.
It’s shocking to me that (aside from a few selected samples) Dorothy Parker’s theatre reviews have never been collected and published in a volume. The columns she wrote for Vanity Fair and Ainslee’s were her first bread-and-butter job, and it was the writing on which she made her reputation. It was while she was at Vanity Fair that she met and befriended Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, formed the Algonquin Round Table, and added folks like F.P.A., George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott to her circle. The New Yorker, short stories, comic poetry, all of that would follow later. But at the dawn of the Jazz Age, she was reaching her readers once a month in these lengthy magazine columns describing all the Broadway shows she had seen.
A precocious 25 year old when she launched her career, subbing for P.G. Wodehouse, she astounds us by debuting with her familiar voice already fully-formed. She is cruelly, hilariously frank to a fault. Indeed it is that foible which got her canned from Vanity Fair in 1920 (with Benchley and Sherwood walking off with her in sympathy). The pleasures of reading ANYTHING written by Dorothy Parker are among the numerous reasons for buying this valuable volume. As in her creative writing, her criticism is concise, merry and devastating. One would hesitate to call it deep, though. She covers a lot of ground in the columns; no more than a few sentences are expended on any particular show, basically a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” based on how much Dotty was entertained. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. Anyone looking to experience Broadway during the Jazz Age could do worse than spending time in these annals, which chronicle some very exciting years: Eugene O’Neill, the Ziegfeld Follies, the premieres of plays like R.U.R. and The Adding Machine, and performances by so many past giants: the Barrymores, Nazimova, Ed Wynn and about five hundred more.
As an aid in appreciation, editor Kevin Fitzpatrick (founder and head of the Dorothy Parker Society) has preceded the book with an illuminating and perceptive introductory essay, and added a meticulous index of explanatory notes in the back.
I had originally intended to hold this blogpost until I had read the entire book, but as I began to delve into it, I realized that was crazy. It’s impossible to read without savoring and re-reading, which means I will spend the rest of my life with this book. It now sits on my shelf next to criticism by Shaw, Max Beerbohm, John Mason Brown, George Jean Nathan, Harold Clurman and John Lahr. Lovers of Parker’s work (and all lovers of humor), theatre buffs, and Jazz Age aficionados will all relish this book.
Buy it here.