Friday, July 7, 2023

Quote of the Day (Jean Kerr, on Playwrights Eavesdropping on Audience Comments)

“Most authors waste a great deal of valuable energy in a foolish effort to overhear the comments of the paying customers. They do this, mind you, even on those occasions when the audience has coughed and muttered throughout the first act with an animosity that has caused the actors to fear for their safety and the producer to leave town. Even in these circumstances the playwright somehow imagines he will overhear a tall, distinguished man (clearly a United States Senator) say to his companion 'Egad, Helen, it's plays like this that make theatergoing worthwhile.' "—Irish-American humorist-playwright Jean Kerr (1922-2003), The Snake Has All the Lines (1960)

Nowadays, film and theater companies spend a lot of money on something called marketing to figure out why audiences like or hate certain productions. It was far less scientific in the mid-century heyday of Jean Kerr and her husband Walter—who, when he wasn’t trying to write plays of his own, was turning his hand far more successfully to theater criticism.

Jean had her share of opportunities to try to gauge audience reactions, having written several plays herself. One was, as these things go, a triumph—Mary, Mary, which ran for 1,500 performances and was turned into a movie. Other comedies were not so successful: Jenny Kissed Me, Poor Richard, Finishing Touches, and Lunch Hour.

And then there was Goldilocks.

I’ve decided that by the end of the year, I really, really must blog about this musical collaboration between Jean and Walter—an experience so hideous that the couple agreed never to mention its name again.

Whatever. Jean Kerr never let disaster stop her—it just became fodder for a future play, or, more often, a humor column, brought together in four collections during her lifetime.

Most famously, she wrote Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, a look at midcentury life in the suburbs minus the angst of John Cheever or Mad Men. As Elizabeth Austin wrote in Washington Monthly after Kerr’s death in 2003, the playwright-humorist “created a persona that was competent, funny, self-assured, calm in the face of domestic emergency, unapologetically competitive on the tennis court, and tremendously gifted when it came to keeping a houseful of youngsters happily occupied on a rainy afternoon.”

I would say you get something of a sense of this warmth and vivacity in today’s quote, as well as in the image accompanying this post.

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