Britain’s very brightest gentleman’s gentleman returns to Taproot Theatre in “Jeeves Intervenes.” Based on P.G. Wodehouse’s daffy series of stories about the unflappable Jeeves and his master, the often befuddled Bertie Wooster, the plot revolves around the usual entanglement of young men with young women as well as their meddling elderly relatives. In the end, it takes a timely intervention from Jeeves to ensure that life will continue to progress smoothly for Bertie.
Much of the delight of a Wodehouse comedy, whether on stage, on screen or in a book, comes from the oddball slang slung by Bertie and his contemporaries. These days, many of Wodehouse phrases have slipped into common usage, but they were first deployed with comic master timing.
Heidi McElrath, dramaturg for “Jeeves Intervenes,” dug into the history of Wodehouse’s peculiar brand of English to help the director and cast prepare for this outing. Along the way, she discovered that the venerable Oxford English Dictionary quotes Wodehouse 1800 times as the originator of particular phrases.
Wodehouse’s screwball comedy plots are often driven by deliberate misunderstanding among characters, especially generational divides between Bertie and his older relatives. How does Bertie’s language help set this up?
Much of the time, Bertie uses words that are either brand new or newly redefined in the early years of the 20th century. He also uses a fair amount of American slang, which he must have picked up during a several-stories-long vacation to New York City, and which must have been surely confusing to everyone except, of course, Jeeves. My favorite example of this is the word potty, which meant “feeble, indifferent, or petty” in 1860, when Bertie’s older relatives may have learned it, turned into “easy to accomplish, simple” by 1899, and as of 1923, when Bertie would have picked it up, it had transformed to mean “madly in love” or “madly enthusiastic about.” It’s no wonder Bertie confuses the people around him.
Which Wodehouse character exercises the most fantastic use of language?
Bertie and his fellow members of the Drones club are the ones dancing on the edge of fashion in most of Wodehouse’s stories and novels, constantly referring to each other as “eggs, beans, and crumpets”—in fact this the title of one of Wodehouse’s collections about these young men. They are often describing their drunkenness with phrases like “fried to the tonsils” and “pickled to the gills,” and feeling altogether “gruntled,” or “whiffled.” It is, however, Wodehouse himself who uses language in the most fantastic ways; the fun doesn’t end outside the quotation marks. For example, one of his most popular characters—outside the Jeeves stories—is one of his firsts: a man named Psmith, but note that the “P” is silent, like in “Pshrimp.”
Do you have a particular favorite word or phrase that you’ve adopted into your language? I’ve used “plonk” for house wine and “cuppa” for a cup of tea all my life to without realizing that I picked it up from Wodehouse.
I was most surprised to learn that Wodehouse had invented the word “cuppa,” which feels more standard than slang at this point. Besides that, I love that he invented “unscrambled.” And who doesn’t love a good “zing”? Wodehouse is quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary 1800 times; there are a lot of winners in there.
If you could spend an evening with Bertie and friends, what would you like to do? Myself, I’d probably want to stay overnight at one the estates and have Jeeves serve me tea in the morning.
The Jeeves stories capture a London at the peak of 1920s fashion. Bertie’s Mayfair flat was just down the street from Piccadilly Circus and the theatre district. During the years the first few stories were written and set, those areas got the city’s first electric traffic lights and powered billboards! I definitely would want to stay in the city and accompany Bertie to a variety show in Piccadilly, followed by dinner, drinks, and dancing somewhere fashionable; I’m sure Bertie would know where to go.
There seemed to be a flourishing of British humor in the 1920s and 1930s, with novelists like Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, and others, creating a world where the rich and well-born may not be that bright but are possibly more charming than the rest of us. Why do works like the Jeeves stories continue to entertain us today?
Stephen Fry calls Wodehouse’s stories “perfect sunlit beauty” and I am inclined to agree. The frothiness of the language and the silliness of the problems provide an artistic escape from more serious or at least mundane issues of contemporary life. No one in the Jeeves stories is every badly injured—though their pride may be—and the problems are always solved within the twenty or thirty pages. In some ways, they could be considered precursors to modern sitcoms, where no problem extends past the end of an episode. There’s also something satisfying for American audiences in the idiot (but kindly) rich and the brilliant servant; we never doubt that Jeeves is the “brains of the family.”
“Jeeves Intervenes” continues at Taproot Theatre through June 20. For tickets and times, see the company’s website.