The Theater: Messing with Max

  • Share
  • Read Later

"I remember being really bored by a play on the evening of my tenth birthday," Max Beerbohm once wrote. How sad that he would have been equally bored by The Incomparable Max, the play that owes its title to Bernard Shaw's apt and durable phrase. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee also came to praise Sir Max, but they ended up burying him.

The work is a glue job rather than an organic entity. The authors took two of Beerbohm's stories, Enoch Soames and A.V. Laider, and awkwardly mixed Beerbohm in as a character among his own creations. In passages that are almost unrelated asides, they have Max as drama critic quoting himself on plays, players and playgoers. These comments lack the pithy bite of aphorisms, and as out-of-context fragments, they lose much of the slyly inflected wit that is one of the special pleasures of reading Beerbohm. The tone is wrong too. Clive Revill employs a voice and manner of waspish arrogance, whereas benign scorn or amused disdain would be truer to Max.

Prescient Palmist. Of the stories, Enoch Soames is the better one. Soames (Richard Kiley) is a minor minor poet pickled in absinthe who harbors a paranoiac conviction: people who ignore his slim volumes, The Ultimate Nil and Fungoids, are turning their backs on a late 19th century Milton. He desperately yearns to know posterity's judgment and makes a pact with the devil to spend a few hours 100 years hence in the library of the British Museum. There he finds that the brief and only mention of the name Enoch Soames is in a short story by Max Beerbohm.

Kiley is marvelously intuitive in the role, capturing both the smug vanity and simultaneous vulnerability of literature's seedy hangers-on. In A.V. Laider, Kiley is a prescient palmist who foretells the death of four people riding in a railway coach. Or does he? Beerbohm is having a little fun with the old writer's problem of illusion and reality. Neither story is much more than an attenuated anecdote told over brandy and cigars.

The deeper problem lies with Max himself, who was too much the fastidious dandy, too much the meticulous stylist, to serve as a vehicle for the broad, boisterous traffic of the stage. He considered his twelve-year stint as drama critic for London's Saturday Review a penance in the form of intellectual slumming. He viewed the theater's vulgarity with distaste, and the occasional passion of high drama with skepticism. He had his muses—grace, urbanity, nuance—and he served them exquisitely, but those girls never make the chorus line.