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Short Stories

Ring Lardner's Plays
part one: general introduction

Updated 25 January 2006

part two:  newspaper plays | part three: popular stage | part four: nonsense plays | part five: conclusion |Play Listing






According to tradition, when the columnist and beloved member of the Algonquin’s vicious circle, Heywood Broun, was on his death bed in 1939, his final words were: "If I pull through, I’ll remember that Ring Lardner would have lived longer if he had only written what he really wanted to write. And I will write only about horse racing, night clubs, gambling, and life" (O’Connor 224). It is true that Lardner, like Broun, never reached a point when he was able to write exclusively or even primarily for enjoyment. Lardner’s biographers, close friends, and his son
believe writing "what he really wanted to write" would have meant that Lardner’s career would have been centered on music and theater rather than on journalism and short stories. The latter type of writing, the work that made Lardner famous and on which his reputation has been built, was, for the most part, and by his own admission, written to pay the bills. Throughout his life, though, while churning out seemingly endless amounts of writing for pay, he continued to write songs and plays of various sorts; he continued to practice his craft and to pursue his dream.

Perhaps the greatest irony in the life of the ironist Ring Lardner is that he
found great success doing the things for which he had little personal drive and found almost no success in the field in which he desired it. As a child he, with his sister and brother, would write and act in little plays around the house. He also took a keen interest in music, mastering many instruments at a young age. When an opportunity arose for him to use both of these talents in a local Niles, Michigan, minstrel show, he took it. In 1903, he wrote the lyrics and music for Zanzibar, in which he also acted and sang. Though the play itself is offensive to the modern reader, for its racial stereotyping and ethnic humor and for its too obvious puns (the Secretaries of Interior and Exterior are named Indoorso and Outdoorso, for example), Lardner’s involvement in it is a defining moment in his life and an indication of what sort of theatrical success Lardner was always seeking. By all accounts, Lardner was drifting at this stage in his life, unenthusiastic about any particular career path. After graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, he moved briefly to Chicago, where he worked as an office boy, and then, at his father’s urging, tried to continue his education at the Armour Institute in Illinois, where he failed every class but rhetoric.

He left after one semester. At that point, he moved back home to Niles, Michigan to rest before taking other, mostly menial, jobs. Working on Zanzibar occupied that rest between jobs in a meaningful way. Lardner was able to channel his creative energies into something productive and was exhilarated by the experience. Also worth noting is that Lardner’s idea of theater became almost exclusively centered on musical comedy and musical revues from this point on. His mother had made sure he was
familiar with the classics and with "serious" drama (Elder 243), but the popular theater was what called him. In his columns he referred to many serious dramatic productions, but usually to mock them or the pretensions of their audience. Until his final unfinished play, his own work was exclusively directed toward the popular theater in one way or another.


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