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Musical Comedy, Divine Comedy


Fr John Saward

Once hailed by Belloc as the greatest living master of English prose, P.G. Wodehouse was also a writer whose work sang with a healthy affirmation of life.

It is thirty-four years since Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse died on Long Island. He was ninety-three, and all his earthly ambitions seem to have been fulfilled. He was the author of nearly a hundred books, had been blessed with a long and happy marriage, and in the closing months of his life, had received two honors from his homeland: the conferring of a knighthood and the placing of his wax effigy in Madame Tussaud's. The anniversary of this death should not pass unmarked in the cultural supplement of a Catholic magazine.

Wodehouse was an Anglican, and loved by readers of every race and religion, and yet it was Roman Catholics (Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh) who showered on him the highest praise. He was not a musician, but he was the collaborator of some of the greatest composers of the American theater (George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg). The art that Wodehouse perfected—in his lyrics with song, in his novels without— was the art of musical comedy.

Even without the acclaim of Catholic writers, Wodehouse deserves a commemoration in these pages. Whatever in human culture is true and good and beautiful should be of interest to the Catholic mind, and in Wodehouse there is a truthful clarity, a good humor, and a beautiful purity. He delights us, but he also has much to teach us.

Truthful clarity

In 1939 Hilaire Belloc stated his belief that Wodehouse was the greatest living writer of English: "The head of my profession." He gave his reasons with Thomistic precision:

A craftsman is excellent in his craft according to his degree of attainment towards its end, and his use of the means towards that end. Now the end of writing is the production in the reader's mind of a certain image and a certain emotion. And the means towards that end are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing of the right words and the putting of them into the right order. It is this which Mr. Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else; or at any rate than anyone else whom I have read for many years past.

Wodehouse's prose is simple and exact. It is truthful and clear. There is no artifice or posturing, no striving for effect. This is an author who says precisely what he means. "He gets the full effect," says Belloc, "bang!" His similes are in the tradition of Homer and Virgil (and much funnier). A disappointed young man is compared to "a wolf on the steppes of Russia which has seen its peasant shin up a high tree." An enraged aunt is like "a tomato struggling for self-expression." Honoria Glossop reads Nietzsche and has a laugh "like waves breaking on a stern and rock­bound coast." These examples could be multiplied a thousandfold.

Wodehouse's lucidity is a challenge to anyone who tries to write or speak English. According to St. Augustine, clarity should mark the sacred eloquence of the Church. Clarity is brightness. In prose, it is the servant, the sign, of the Light of truth. The preacher's words must be simply and purely transparent to the Word of God, the light that enlight­ens every man who comes into the world. This is a message that we need to hear in the world of English-speaking Catholic theology.

The abstraction and jargon that Karl Kraus and Theodor Haecker saw corrupting the German of the first half of the century now blights the English of the second, not least the English of theologians. The Rhine has flowed into the Thames and the Hudson as well as the Tiber. The nonsense of "politically correct" speech is widely recognized, but other deformities of language escape unnoticed. It is not surprising to find pompous obscurity in the writing of the Neo-Modernists, for Modernism, as Chesterton said, is snobbery, the substitution of proud ideology for the humble truth. But it is sad to see orthodox scholars sinking in a swamp of prolixity. These people are trying to say something important, we feel, but we cannot quite put our finger on what it is.

It is a happy fact that P.G. Wodehouse, the master of 20th-century prose, was a relative of J.H. Newman, the supreme writer of English in the Victorian age. Much of what we admire in P.G.W.—the clarity, the simplicity, the concreteness—also graces the style of J.H.N. Just consider the following passage from the Lectures on Justification, in which Newman explains the distinction between Atonement and Justification.

Christ's work of mercy has two chief parts; what he did for all men, what he does for each; what he did once for all, what he does for one by one continually; what he did externally to us, what he does within us; what he did on earth, what he does in Heaven; what he did in his own person, what he does by his Spirit.... He atones by the offering of himself on the Cross; and as certainly (which is the point before us) he justifies by the mission of his spirit. This is profound; it considers vast questions; but it is utterly clear. There is reverence for the mystery but no recourse to mystification. The glory of divine truth shines through the plainness of these human words.

Good humor

To say that Wodehouse makes one laugh is a large understatement. It is like saying that Wagner sends one to sleep. This is the laughter of which seizures are made. To read a story about Jeeves and Wooster (or Lord Emsworth or Ukridge or Psmith or one of the Mulliners) in a public place—say, an airplane—is a hazardous operation; the explosions of mirth may provoke the stewardess into asking if there is a nerve-doctor on board.

Humor is good. In fact, according to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, a sense of humor is a virtue, what they call eutrapelia, well-turned wit. St. Thomas says that the remedy for weariness of soul lies in slackening the tension of mental study and having some fun. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, or, as St. Augustine put it, "Spare thyself, I pray thee, for it befits a wise man to relax at times and soften the edge of attention." St. Thomas even argues that playing too little is a sin. Being a wet blanket is against reason and therefore vicious.

Grace perfects nature, and so it would seem to follow that humor, when married to faith and charity, can have a supernatural form. We should not be surprised to find good humor in the saints, not only in what they say and do, but also in what they write. In some cases, supernat­ural eutrapelia may have to over­come a natural melancholy; in others, it may build upon an innate blitheness of heart; but in nearly all of the saints something of this virtue can be found.

The medieval theologians, scholastic and monastic, called it hilaritas. St. Thomas More englished it as "mirth" and prayed that he would enjoy it in heaven. It is most beautifully evident in the man Goethe called "the humorous saint", St. Philip Neri (another of this year's jubilarians), who once shocked some visiting dignitaries by showing them his joke-books. (He would have loved Wodehouse, and may by now have made his acquaintance.)

But we can also find a divinely infused humor in the Fathers of the Church. Before knocking them down, St. Irenaeus sets up the Gnostic systems with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Sometimes in the Adversus Haereses we can almost hear his asides: "How can they take this rubbish seriously?" "Who are they kidding?" The greatest orator among the Greek Fathers, St. Gregory Nazianzen, uses comic irony to devastating effect in his critique of heresy. Against the Apollinarian denial of an intellectual soul in Christ, he says that if only half of Adam had fallen, only half of Adam would have been assumed; only a mindless man could imagine that Christ had no human mind. And that modern Father of the Church, Cardinal Newman, Wodehouse's kinsman, was not only a brilliant satirist, but—as we can see in certain scenes in his conversion novel Loss and Gainhad the capacity to write comedy worthy of Dickens or Thackeray.

By teaching us to laugh, in a pure and kindly way, at the follies of our fallen race, Wodehouse disposes us to bear the Spirit's fruit of joy, that supernatural merriment which, as Chesterton said, is not only the gigantic secret of the Christian but also the hidden fire in the heart of Christ. "There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth."

Beautiful purity

Not all humor is good. There is misplaced humor, cruel humor, and, as St. Thomas warns us, indecent humor. None of this, not even the slightest suspicion of it, can be found in Wodehouse. He honors Cicero's principle: play must suit the hour and the man. There is no malice in his characters; the matter is always light, never grave. When one of his "young men in spats" falls in love with a girl, he has only one purpose in mind—faithful, life-long marriage. There is no seduction, no adultery, in these pages. The members of the Drones Club (the good old "Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets"), for all their bun-throwing and helmet-stealing, are always chivalrous towards women, parfait gentle knights. Berrie Wooster confesses only one failure in courtesy towards the fair sex:

It is true that at the age of six, when the blood ran hot, I once gave my nurse a juicy one over the top-knot with a porringer, but the lapse was merely a temporary one.

Wodehouse proves that innocence is interesting, that a life without grave sin is rich and full and—what word can I find?—merry. (I should like to say "gay," but that lovely word has been lost to Christendom.). Sexual immorality is the death of the soul—dull, sterile, desperately grim. Purity is the path to happiness.

The master of musical comedy

The American musical is one of the great art-forms of the western world. P.G. Wodehouse was one of its founding fathers. It was a beautiful bloom, but its flowering was short. The canon opens with the musical comedies of Kern and Wodehouse during the First World War and closes with Rodgers and Hammerstein's masterpiece, The Sound of Music.

Wodehouse somehow bequeathed the virtues of his novels to most of the musicals of the great tradition. The Astaire-Rogers films of the 1930s are romances of chivalry and chastity. Fred rarely, if ever, so much as kisses Ginger on screen. Even when the story-line becomes more serious (in Showboat, say, or Carousel), there is no cheap despair, and the book and lyrics continue to affirm the goods of marital fidelity and family life. I am not trying to canonize the men who wrote the words and music of these shows, but I do believe that, for all the imperfections of their lives, their work presupposes, and does not undermine, Judeo-Christian morality. It is this which distinguishes them from their successors on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Wodehouse once made this profession of a novelist's faith: "I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn..." Yes, Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf, Zola, they all go deep down into life, and they don't care a damn. But Wodehouse does care, and so, by ignoring real life, he affirms life.

Dante defined tragedy as a story that begins wonderfully and ends horribly, while comedy begins horribly and ends wonderfully. His own three-part journey is a Divina Commedia, because it starts in the horror of hell and finishes in the happiness of heaven, in the praise of the Virgin Mother and the vision of the Trinity. There is a divine comedy, but no divine tragedy. The Crucified has risen glorious from the tomb, and so all shall be well. The stars will fall from the heavens, and Antichrist will deceive many, but the God-Man will come again and destroy the man of sin with his breath. He will conform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, and, if by his grace we have persevered, we shall live merrily with him and his blessed mother and all the angels and saints for ever.

Wodehouse, not the purveyors of pessimism and the loathers of life, is the true prophet. The drama of human life is a divine comedy, a musical comedy indeed. The final chorus is Alleluia, and the whole company will live happily ever after.

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Version: 25th February 2009

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