By Robert Franklin Coleman
The Royal Family, by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber, opened at the Selwyn Theatre in New York in December of l927. It was hailed by critics as the best play in an otherwise bleak theatrical season. It is a play which, while it does not read well, comes alive on the stage as a riotous romp through the off-stage exploits of an acting family. But, like Noises Off, it is more than a play with literary pretensions: it is a comedy of the actor at home, off stage, and back stage. For three generations, the Cavendish family has been a family of conjurers on the American stage, and this capacity to conjure has spilled over into their everyday lives.
So what we have here is a comedy of manners, of theatrical manners, and a thinly disguised spoof of the real-life Barrymores. While W. P. Eaton, in the New York Herald Tribune, called this a play with “dialogue which is flat, without distinction, sometimes vulgar,” he added that here “the speaker becomes something finer than the words.” He called The Royal Family “a play to see rather than to read . . . [but one in which the] element of dignity is play, but we must, as theatre-goers, remember that plays are always meant to be seen but not necessarily meant to be read.”
Oliver Mayler, in the Saturday Review of Literature celebrated The Royal Family as an “intelligently, imaginatively, skillfully produced play.” He also pointed out that this caricaturing of an actual great but volatile acting family is no accident. He reminds us that “the authors of [this play] cannot plead innocence unless they likewise admit ignorance, and that would be a more humiliating confession than guilt.”
However, the caricatures in this play are never ill-mannered, ill-humored, nor virulent. And, furthermore, the vein of travesty is not so slavishly observed as to make The Royal Family a mere period piece, something with historical or theatrical allusions so far removed from our contemporary experience as to make the play in the least obscure. In fact, one of its very greatest appeals is to the universality of the experience of the characters so that we are never left feeling that what happens on stage here could only have happened in the late l920s or to a theatrical family.
Indeed, alongside the rich wit of this play runs a tender, even earnest thread of respect for the calling of an actor—or for any calling where there is bound to be overlap between the professional and the personal life. This royal family, as Sayler puts it, “profoundly believes in its prerogatives, its responsibilities, and the authors do not belittle that faith.”
Still, the uproarious send-up of the Barrymores and the Drews so infuriated Ethel Barrymore that she let it be known that the play “did not amuse [her[.” But Brooks Atkinson of the Times felt that the authors had “toyed entertainingly and absorbingly with the madness of show folk and the fatal glamour of the footlights.” And we must remember that this play, since its first appearance in l927, has enjoyed numerous revivals, the most recent of which is, of course, its inclusion in the Utah Shakespeare Festival l993 season.
So this means that The Royal Family is neither dated nor of little or no interest to us today. It means, in fact, the opposite. It is no more dated than the play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is a real send-up of actors and acting. It is a revelation that, to quote Shakespeare, “all the world's a stage,” that actors are only actors, and that we are all, in a very real sense, acting all the time.
The Royal Family is a play to be enjoyed as pure play--a literary excursion through the frivolities of theatrical family life. And yet it is no less serious a play than Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which on the surface seems fluff but which has lurking beneath that fluff some real-life and very serious commentary on who and what we are. Beneath the surface of The Royal Family are some pretty interesting problems: how seriously do we take ourselves and how seriously ought we to; how much of life is an act and how do we know when we are “on stage”; how often ought we to laugh and at what.
There is no denying that The Royal Family is funny, a play which invites us again and again to laugh at literary pretensions. But this go round it serves another purpose as well: in a theatre season featuring such disturbing and disquieting plays as Timon of Athens, Richard II, and Our Town, The Royal Family is just what we need—comic relief. So sit back and enjoy and laugh to your heart's content.