P.G. Wodehouse: Comic Scribe and Collaborator

There’s too much to tell about P.G. Wodehouse (Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, 1881-1975), whose birthday it is today, to be in any way comprehensive…but I thought I would draw a few broad and personal strokes, as his work intersects with that of many of the folks we have written about here.

I first became aware of Wodehouse as a teenager when I performed in a high school production of the 1934 Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, for which Wodehouse wrote the book. Wodehouse wrote upwards of 40 plays, and that is the primary connection to this blog, though he is probably better known to the wider world for his fiction and humor. He wrote over 90 novels, and some 200 shorter pieces. His best known fictional character is Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s valet. That name has become part of folk culture, and is often ascribed generically in popular culture to any butler (though Jeeves was a valet, not a butler). I venture to say millions of people know the name Jeeves without having the slightest inkling of the name of his creator, or what the actual character was like. Indeed the gag about the name Jeeves has strayed considerably from what the books are like. The novels and stories are much more about Bertie, a sort of flip, moneyed gadabout, who must rely on his stoic and sagacious (if subtly sarcastic) valet to bail him out of his scrapes.

Bertie and Jeeves were only a couple of Wodehouse’s popular characters; he’d many others to his credit. He began writing shortly after the turn of the century, bored by his work in a bank. His father was a colonial functionary in Hong Kong; Wodehouse had been raised almost entirely by servants in Surrey. His magazine pieces and books sold like wildfire both in Britain and America. I’d find it hard to believe his writing wasn’t a huge influence on the writers of the Algonquin Roundtable.

In the teens, Wodehouse made his mark on Broadway, usually collaborating with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern (the celebrated Princess Theatre musicals). Among his notable shows: Oh, Boy (1917-1918), Miss 1917, and Oh, Kay! (1926-1928). His 1911 play A Gentleman of Leisure was made into films in 1915 and 1923. He also contributed to the lyrics of such shows as Sally (1923) and Show Boat (1927).

In 1930, Wodehouse went to Hollywood to work a screenwriter but found he was underused, so he worked as hard as ever on his popular humor and fiction. Because he was essentially working in two countries (the U.S. and the U.K.) the taxes were brutal, so he moved to France in 1934. He would live to regret that decision.

In 1940 the Nazis invaded. Wodehouse was imprisoned for a year. When he was released, he was persuaded to broadcast some humor pieces for German radio. It was only a handful of broadcasts, and not in any direct way propagandistic…yet the very fact of it reeked of collaboration. Wodehouse was vilified in his home country and prominent people called for his arrest as a traitor. This is a very timely moment to contemplate Wodehouse’s choice here. The truth was, while he was a screamingly funny writer (his writing is like CANDY to me, it is that pleasurable), and he was obviously a writer of great stylistic skill, he wasn’t a terribly deep fellow. Some biographers have laid it at the feet of his upbringing: raised by strangers, and thus emotionally cut off. But I’ve known many people who lacked that excuse, they just came into the world that way: cheerfully shallow. Whatever the reason was, he “didn’t think”. And no doubt he was putting self-interest before the general good. He’d spent a year in lock-up; he was living in a Nazi-controlled country. He was trying to get along. But it’s hard to forgive. I think of Jimmy Fallon playing with Trump’s hair. It’s hard to forgive.

After the war, Wodehouse remained in France for a couple of years (he hadn’t been informed that he was free to go). In 1947, he settled permanently in the U.S., never returning to his home country again, although he was finally forgiven and knighted a few months before his death in 1975. His last decades were spent living in Southampton, Long Island. And his comical works are still being adapted into movies and television shows to this day.