Friday, May 20, 2016

This Day in Literary History (Death of ‘Incomparable Max’ Beerbohm)

May 20, 1956— Sir Max Beerbohm, a Victorian dandy who went on to carve out his own special 20th-century niche as caricaturist, essayist and fiction writer, died at age 84 in Rapallo, Italy, where he had lived as an expatriate since 1910.

My first introduction to this English wit took place in the late 1970s, when I saw The Incomparable Max, an adaptation of two of his macabre stories by Inherit the Wind playwright Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. I saw the play—which premiered in New York for a brief run in 1971—in a production by Center Stage, a short-lived repertory company in my hometown of Englewood, NJ.

It made sense that Beerbohm would find a kind of life after death on stage. Not only had he toured the U.S. in the 1890s as press agent of his half-brother, the famous London actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, but he had also succeeded George Bernard Shaw as chief theater critic of Saturday Review. (It was, in fact, the droll Anglo-Irish playwright who not only recommended him for the job, but also bestowed on him the nickname, “the incomparable Max.”)

That last paragraph only hints at the many famous people that Beerbohm knew—so many that he refused to become unduly starry-eyed about them. Some thoughts on Goethe led him to a wider observation that has the short style of aphorism and the pungent tone of experience: “Men of genius are not quick judges of character. Deep thinking and high imagining blunt that trivial instinct by which you and I size people up."

Moreover, in his review of the newly opened revival of The Judas Kiss, critic Terry Teachout offered this Beerbohm quote about fellow dandy Oscar Wilde to suggest that the incomparable one might have been slow to join the contemporary parade for the creator of The Importance of Being Earnest: “He felt himself omnipotent, and he became gross not in body only…but in his relations with people. He brushed people aside; he felt he was beyond the ordinary human courtesies.”

Last year, essayist Phillip Lopate published a fine collection of Beerbohm pieces he had selected, The Prince of Minor Writers. Since purchasing it, I’ve derived a great deal of pleasure from slipping into it at will and discovering droll little nuggets that somehow retain their freshness a century after they were written.

Except for World Wars I and II, Beerbohm lived in Rapallo for all of his last 46 years—starting with his first wife, the American-born British actress Florence Kahn, then, after her death, with his longtime secretary-companion, Elizabeth Jungmann, whom he wed just a few weeks before his death at 84.  It is said that he entertained a constant stream of visitors during these years. And why wouldn't he, considering his bright circle and even brighter wit?

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