So, there I was sitting in my dentist’s office chuckling, chortling and laughing out loud as I read this book. It isn’t often that I enjoy a trip to the dentist this much. It wasn’t a dose of laughing gas that had me chortling. It was the writing of Wolcott Gibbs, most of which had been published in “The New Yorker” between 1928 and his death in 1958.

The variety of material of his that appeared on the pages of that weekly publication is rather astonishing. He wrote detailed profiles of notables in the New York society of his day, shorter non-fiction pieces often referred to as “casuals,” short stories and personal essays as well as entries for the magazine’s famous “Notes and Comments” pages.

Editor Thomas Vinciguerra introduces this compilation explaining that Gibbs is, he says, best known for a profile of publisher Henry Luce in which he parodied the distinctive voice of “Time Magazine” with the sentence “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” I hasten to admit that I wasn’t familiar with that article, or that sentence, but, then,  the book is filled with many wonders about which I was previously ignorant.

As wonderful as these items are, they wouldn’t qualify the book for this column which is, by its nature, limited to things theatrical. But Gibbs is a fit topic because, in 1938, he became the theatre critic for The New Yorker, taking the post that Robert Benchley held until his Hollywood career interfered with first nighting too much.

Gibbs was not my kind of reviewer. He often wrote about what was wrong with shows and took evident delight in the negative. I tend to write about what is right with shows and I try to take delight in the positive. But he wrote so well and with such wit, originality, energy and pure style that I’m carried along on his ride time and time again.

Some examples:

-    Of the failure of the play Washington Jitters, he said it was “as dismal and irritating a way to spend an evening as you can find this side of picking oakum.” I’m not sure how many of his readers in 1938 knew that oakum is a hemp fiber used for packing pipe joints (I looked it up), but the word strikes the ear perfectly to illustrate his view.

-    One particularly dismissive notice read: “I have almost no reason to believe that Alley Cat by and with Alan Dinehart, will be at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre when this notice reaches you; nor, if it is, can I advise you to rush right around there and see it.” He must not have been the only one with that reaction. The show closed after eight performances.

-    He dismissed Kiss the Boys Goodbye even more explicitly. Just in case you might miss the point, his review ended with “I wouldn’t bother with it if I were you.”

-    Of Sing Till Tomorrow (“a drama about a discontented druggist”) he said he had never “seen anything quite equal to it in a moonstruck incoherence of plot, a horrid abuse of the English Language and in a style of acting strongly remindful of that attributed to the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn.”

It wasn’t all negative, however.

Of the premiere of Oklahoma! he waxed rhapsodically about the play, the music, the lyrics, the performances and the Theatre Guild’s production, and ended with “To the Theatre Guild, which made all these joys available, my gratitude is practically boundless.” Now, who wouldn’t run right out and buy tickets to something that could draw that from a frequently caustic critic?

Or how’s this for a guaranteed ticket-selling pull quote? “I don’t think I ever had more fun at a musical comedy than I had the other night, (at) Guys and Dolls.”

Kiss Me, Kate was another show that drew his quotable praise. “This is, in every sense, a wonderful show, and I can’t think of a single sensible complaint to make about it” he said, concluding “Altogether, I can’t remember having such a consistently good time at a musical comedy since the night Miss Ethel Merman opened in that piece about Annie Oakley.”

Not only was Gibbs marvelously quotable, he recognized good quotes from others and found just the right place to use them. In his review of South Pacific, Gibbs quoted Cole Porter on the topic of critics opining on the quality of musical compositions. According to Gibbs, Porter “wished to hell theatre critics would refrain from discussing music on the ground that even the most educated of them wouldn’t recognize the national anthem unless the people around them stood up.”

That, of course, didn’t keep Gibbs from expressing his positive opinion of “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Guy Right Outa My Hair, “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” or his negative reactions to “Bali Ha’i” and “You’ve Got To Be Taught.”

He was honest with his readers, however, admitting the limits of his expertise. “It is an embarrassing fact that I seldom see a straight play, either a comedy or a drama, without the conviction that if I had been asked, I could have provided the author with several very valuable suggestions” he said, but added “A musical, however, is quite another matter. I have no idea how the damn things get there in the first place.”

That didn’t keep him from criticizing West Side Story for portraying “members of juvenile gangs” as “simultaneously rather winsome and picturesque, with essentially a high regard for chastity in the young women who accompany them and even a certain delicacy and style in the employment of the English language.” He does, however, include this assessment of the work of a first-time Broadway lyricist: “Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are intelligent and appropriate.”

It wasn’t just his way with words, however, that make the reviews reprinted here absorbing. He was also often right about what he’d write about. His ability to accurately assess plays so soon after opening night with a wisdom that stands the test of the decades is rather astonishing.

Within days of the premiere of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman he was able to assess its strengths (and point out a few weaknesses) in what he called “a tremendously affecting work, head and shoulders above any other serious play we have seen this season.” (When Miller didn’t come up to his standard, however, he could be brutal. Said Gibbs: “If The Man Who Had All The Luck held me in my seat for three interminable acts, it was largely out of incredulity, for in it Arthur Miller surely wrote one of the strangest plays of the decade.”)

Even when I disagree with his often unorthodox points, they are frequently worth contemplating. Of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie with its narration by the son in whose memory the play is set, Gibbs says “Personally, I can get along without characters who stand on one side of the stage explaining to me what is going on in the middle (on the theory that a really sound play is capable of explaining itself.)”

Theater wasn’t the only form of entertainment he covered. He was The New Yorker’s movie critic for a short while, but left that post saying “it is my indignant opinion that ninety percent of the moving pictures exhibited in America are so vulgar, witless, and dull that it is preposterous to write about them in any publication not intended to be read while chewing gum.”

Gibbs not only wrote reviews, he wrote about reviewing. His view of his profession wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. He found it one “whose practitioners are usually buried by their relatives furtively and late at night.”

It is our good fortune that he pursued that career with such diligence and style. It is our further good fortune that Mr. Vinciguerra has gathered over 600 pages of his output in a volume that will remain easily accessible on my theater shelf.

Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker
Edited by Thomas Vinciguerra
Published by Bloomsbury
Paperback - 668 pages
List price $22.00

March 13, 2012

Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker