From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner
Seventy-three years ago this week, on October 16, 1939, one of Broadway’s most successful comedies made its debut. The Man Who Came to Dinner was supposed to have premiered at the Music Box a week earlier, on October 10, but the opening was delayed while George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart hurriedly rewrote the third act, adding a new scene. Although the play—as well as its subsequent film and radio adaptations—continues to delight audiences, modern-day theatergoers may not be aware that various characters in the play are satirical portraits of real-life celebrities, including such household names as Harpo Marx and Noël Coward. As Laurence Maslon explains:
Its main character, Sheridan Whiteside, was transparently based on one of the most dramatic, infuriating, and improbable celebrities of the era between the wars: Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott was a drama critic, raconteur, radio host, essayist, and charter member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table, but that barely suggests his influence then on middlebrow culture. He was a tastemaker of popular fiction on a scale that would have made Oprah Winfrey’s encomiums seem like fortune cookie messages. His barbed wit would have sliced Simon Cowell for breakfast. . . .Although the idea for a play based on Woollcott’s “character” came from Woollcott himself, he eventually removed himself from the production. Hart and Kaufman were wondering how to pursue the project when Woollcott visited Hart’s home for an overnight stay, treating the members of the household abhorrently and complaining the entire time. Aghast, Hart described the nightmarish guest to Kaufman and wondered aloud how horrible it would have been if the Woollcott had been injured and had to stay there the whole summer.
Famous coast-to-coast by 1938 as the host of a radio show called The Town Crier, Woollcott regaled his audience with an idiosyncratic mix of stories, reviews, and personal predilections. Although he could be quite vicious, Woollcott had a wide sentimental streak and often devoted broadcasts to wrongly convicted murderers, war veterans, seeing-eye dogs—and, of course, Christmas. Eventually, Woollcott fancied himself an actor and demanded that his pals Kaufman and Hart concoct a play for him. It wasn’t difficult to put the melodramatic Woollcott on stage—what to do with his character once he got there was another matter.
Thus was born the central premise of what became the final play. The show would prove to be a huge hit, featuring Monty Wooley in the lead role and running on Broadway for 739 performances—“an exceptionally long run in 1939–40,” notes Jared Brown in his biography of Hart.
And what did Woollcott think of Kaufman and Hart’s biting portrait of him as an unbearably cantankerous misanthrope? In short, he loved it. When the play went on its West Coast tour, he even stepped into the lead role, treating audiences to the sight of a celebrity acting as a satirical version of a character based on his own public persona. At the end of one performance, cheered on by repeated curtain calls, Woollcott riffed off one of his character’s signature lines from the play and announced to the audience that he planned to sue the authors for $150,000.
‘All right, Mr. Kaufman?’ the stage manager asks. . . . ‘Yes, any time you’re ready.’ . . . George S. Kaufman has a whispered colloquy with Monty Woolley. He stands centre stage surveying the green living-room-hall in Mesalia, Ohio, which Donald Oenslager has designed for The Man Who Came to Dinner. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!