By Robert Brewer
Why is Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt considered to be one of the most enduring comedies of all time? What is unique about this play? John Simon, theatre critic, once noted that a play only becomes a “classic” having survived the test of time. He never clarified the number of years a play has to remain in the active repertoire to achieve this status; but, certainly, this world class farce, first produced in London in 1892, has moved millions to laughter ever since its première 105 years ago.
Brandon Thomas was a British gentleman who, rather as a lark, whipped out this little farce, whose frothy substance, as the passing decades have shown, turns out to have been confected of spun theatrical gold. Aside from this incredible success, Thomas’s other plays sit in theater dustbins. Included are such titles as The Gold Craze (1889), The Lancashire Sailor (1891), and The Swordsman’s Daughter (1895).
To keep you curious about seeing the play this summer, I will not divulge the plot at this time, except to say that it does concern two college men (Jack and Charley) who, in order to get the girl, dress another man as a spinster aunt who thereby can act as chaperon while the boys get the girls. Of course, complications come into the play and what seems a simple, if somewhat devious, ploy to get the girls to their rooms (Oxford, no less) soon falls apart. And the story goes on from there. But since Charley’s Aunt is produced somewhere almost every day, if you do not know that story by now, I wonder where you’ve been for the past century!
Aside from its own success, this “war-horse” has spawned itself into other mediums, including a musical version, Where’s Charley? With a book by the brilliant George Abbott and music and lyrics by Frank Loeeser (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business), it featured Ray Bolger singing “Once in Love with Amy.” The musical later became a film version. It was also made into a silent movie (1925), and later a talkie with Jack Benny (1941). Louis Nye and Jose Ferrar have also played the lead role, as well as Darryl Hickman and most recently Raul Julia in a revival of the musical. Charley’s Aunt also spawned a television show with Art Carney (1957) and countless stage productions.
One can begin to appreciate this play even more in terms of the time it was written. During this period in England, probably the most successful writing was less on the stage than in the world of operetta. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were at the peaks of their careers. And somehow, I feel that Thomas was in the audience at the Savoy Theater seeing The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, and H.M.S. Pinafore. Indeed, by examining these works, we might get a good idea where Thomas is coming from. Like his comedy, these musical pieces all involve a strong romantic core. In each story, the man has to climb hurdles to get the girl. And he must succeed in the end. After all, this isn’t a Puccini opera.
Formula, you say? Yes, of course. The “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” theory is nothing new to the theatre. In fact, this concept dominated the British theatre at the time. And certainly it dominated the thoughts of Thomas. Leave the serious drama to Ibsen; Thomas was interested in something that neither pressures the brain nor pierces the skin. And in so doing he, rather miraculously, wrote just one play that may outlive us all.
But the play’s influence goes beyond the obvious adaptations. Indeed, Charley isn’t the first man to masquerade as a woman to get what he wants. A closer look at recent cinema provides other highlights. The recent success of Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire is a classic example of brilliant formula writing based on the Thomas scenario. And what of Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie? Like Charley, he is forced into gender swapping to get the girl.
Most recently, the theatre has only on occasion seen strong farce. The success of Neil Simon’s Rumors or, even better, Michael Fryan’s Noises Off! are good examples of farce in our contemporary theatre. Musical theatre has used the genre well with shows such as Little Me, also by Simon, Bye Bye Birdie, and the brilliant A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Most recently, Broadway had a huge success in the Tony Award-winning farce Lend Me a Tenor by Ken Ludwig. In this play our hero, in order to get the girl, does not don a dress, but rather black make up to sing Otello. So, it seems that Brandon Thomas lives on in the theatre of today.
Charley’s Aunt is not an easy play to perform. As most farces, it is built on a one-joke premise. Farce is a particularly treacherous genre because it depends on excesses, and excesses can often be too excessive. Like any play, it must be grounded in truth, not allowing the audience to consider the implausibility of the situation. Through that process, style is hopefully, eventually achieved wherein the play sits like the “foam off the beer.” Achieving that proper mix is the challenge of both director and artists.
I’m not certain if I’ve really answered why this play has been such an incredible success. Perhaps being one of the first of its kind has something to do with it. And what it is about may offer a clue. Man, as long as I can remember, has been willing to go to great lengths to find his love. Perhaps, in the end, it is that simple. Perhaps, by accident, Thomas has stumbled on a universal truth that we all are vulnerable to Cupid’s arrow. And once the arrow hits its mark, we will all go to great lengths to find that euphoria.
Charley’s Aunt is also a good example of skillful writing of action. Thomas knew his genre and lays his story down like a master. Although he is hardly a master of wit, he structures the plot complications into a house of cards. His characters are distinctive, appropriately inane, touching, and, in the end, very winning. The play is an irresistible lark.