The new theatre round the corner from the Port-Swiller residence is putting on a production in a few weeks of “By Jeeves.”  Last evening, Mrs. Robbo asked if I would like to go, and of course I said yes.  After all, it’s an evening out and it is live theatre.  However, I don’t mind telling you that I have some serious doubts about what’s in store.

First of all, this is Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Andrew Lloyd Bluidy Webber, the reigning King o’ Shlock.  I have never heard a piece of Andrew Lloyd Tinkerbell Webber that did not make me feel I was being force-fed aural twinkies.  Years ago, I was dragged down the Kennedy Center to see a production of “Phantom.”  Half way through the first act, I was already scrabbling for a sharp instrument with which to puncture my ear-drums.  So far as I can tell, Andrew Lloyd Twinkle-Toes Webber has one button and one button only, and that button is labeled “Sap.”  I pray that somewhere, somehow, somebody persuaded him to change his tune in dealing with Wodehouse, but it remains to be seen (and heard).

Of course, far better artists than Andrew Lloyd Sweet-Cheeks Webber have come a nasty smeller trying to build on Bertie and Jeeves.  Indeed, Wodehouse himself once wrote one of the short stories from Jeeves’ point of view, admitting in private correspondence afterward that it was a stinker.  C. Northcote Parkinson, who wrote good naval history and tolerable good historickal fiction, once wrote a novel about Jeeves’ life and times, and it was, as Plum was wont to say, like taking a spade to a soufflé.  And regular port-swillers will already know that although I admire the acting talents of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, their teevee series gives me the twitch.

I think there are two reasons for this pattern of egg-laying.

The first is a general misunderstanding of Jeeves, that supreme gentleman’s personal gentleman.  Alexander Cockburn got it right in his introduction to one edition of The Code of the Woosters:  Jeeves isn’t really a character, he’s more of a walking prop.  He’s a kind of deus ex butler’s pantry, good for laughs when displaying his encyclopedic knowledge or rescuing the young master from the soup, but beyond that nothing much more than paint and plywood.  And while Wodehouse uses him as a prop with the perfect timing of a professional juggler, he wisely never goes beyond that because it would change the whole balance of the act, making it quite unmanageable.  Anyone who tries to probe any deeper, to make Jeeves more “human,”  to add “context” to his relationship with Bertie, simply winds up tripping over his own feet and tumbling into the orchestra pit.

The second, as I have argued many times before, is that the true comic genius of the Bertie and Jeeves stories is in their telling.  Remember, these are all first-person narratives.  Yes, it’s funny when Jeeves throws a raincoat over an angry swan or omits to pack the white mess jacket with the brass buttons or slips gin into Gussie Fink-Nottle’s orange juice, but frankly, anyone could write something like that.  What makes Plum’s work stand out is the way he has Bertie recount these things – his language, his timing, his genial cluelessness as events sweep over and around him.  That’s the real comic gold (gold, Jerry!), and [Laying Down The Law Function/on] it is absolutely untranslatable into any form other than the written word. [Laying Down The Law Function/off]  This is why attempts to cast it into the form of a screenplay, a stage play, a musickal or something else are doomed from the start.

Sorry to be like this, but I am so intensely fond of Wodehouse’s work that I get rayther Mother Hen-ish about it.  Nonetheless, with all these admitted misgivings I will still try to enter into the spirit of the thing and give the show a fair hearing.  And, of course, I’ll let you know what I think afterward.