The day Groucho Marx met Oscar WildeMay 11, 2010 (Updated May 16, 2010) Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line Two cultural giants engage in verbal sparring.
When America's greatest satirist, Groucho Marx, met Literature's greatest wit, Oscar Wilde, sparks were bound to fly. This historic meeting actually occurred and was reported on at great length in a recently discovered edition of the long defunct New York World, dated January 30, 1895.
This unbelievable scarcity was purchased as part of a job lot of vintage newspapers in a Boston house clearance sale last year and subsequently acquired by myself earlier this year - the vendor being unaware of its value. As far as I know, the brittle and faded newspaper is the only extant copy. Safety copies have been forwarded to the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute.
The Historical Background
On Jan.17, 1895, Oscar Wilde, under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, sailed on the SS Britannic for New York from Liverpool, for the American premiere of his latest play, The Importance Of Being Earnest. Nine days later, Wilde was met at New York harbor by Colonel W.F. Morse, who had managed Wilde's 1882 U.S. and Canadian lecture tour. After checking in at the Brunswick Hotel, Wilde was persuaded to give a one-off public reading of his Impressions of America lecture.
The Gould Hall, Ballston Spa, NY, was booked at short notice for Jan.29, and as an added attraction, Colonel Morse invited the famous vaudevillian, Groucho Marx, to join Wilde on stage for a question and answer session after the main lecture, to be chaired by Mr.Woodrow Woodbury III, an old army friend of the promoter.
How old Groucho? Old Groucho fine - how you?
Skeptical film historians will wonder at a glaring discrepancy - wasn't Groucho Marx born on Oct.2, 1890 ? Child stage and film stars are not unheard of - but 4 years of age is still a little young to be treading the boards?
The explanation is that Groucho's ( along with his brothers ) actual year of birth, like countless others in the glamorous world of the entertainment industry, was considerably earlier than his professed show-business age. It is generally accepted that Groucho was a centenarian when he died.
Groucho Marx vs Oscar Wilde - let the battle commence
The New York World's Mr.Percival Hammond duly reported that Oscar Wilde's lecture was enthusiastically received and that after a brief interval, Mr. Woodrow Woodbury III introduced both Mr. Wilde and Mr. Marx onto the stage to rapturous applause.
The following is a complete transcript of the lively conversation that ensued - for brevity, I have omitted Mr. Hammond's editorial comments. I am delighted to have been able to save the record of this momentous occasion for posterity.
The Complete Transcript of the interview
Woodbury. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back onto the stage our eminent speaker, Mr. Oscar Wilde, who has kindly consented to an informal interview session. Also taking part is our hometown star of vaudeville, Mr. Groucho Marx ( loud applause and laughter ).
( Groucho walks on first, closely followed by Oscar. Groucho is immaculately attired in a beige linen jacket, white shirt and blue tie, loose fitting slacks, topped by a stylish Panama hat. Oscar is the epitome of elegance and looks every inch the gentlemen, in his grey pin-striped suit, silk shirt and tie, breast pocket handkerchief and red carnation on his lapel ).
Groucho. ( waiting for Oscar to be seated first ) Age before Beauty.
Oscar. Well, your definition of Beauty is wildly divergent from the aesthetic ideal, but....pearls before swine.
Groucho. How should I address you sir?
Oscar. My friends call me Oscar. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.
Groucho. I guess that makes me your friend and enemy!
Oscar. You don't have an enemy in the world and none of your friends like you. You can call me Mr. Wilde.
Groucho. I can think of something else to call you - but in the interests of Irish-American relations, I'll refrain. Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Oscar. A card? What will I do with your card?
Groucho. You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left. You won't object if I smoke?
Oscar. Certainly not - and you won't object if I'm sick.
Woodbury. There is no smoking in the hall - it would please the management if you would throw your cigar away.
Groucho. The management might just as well keep their seats. There'll be no diving for this cigar! Ahem!
On American Travels
Woodbury. Mr. Wilde, I believe you travelled extensively on your previous visit to our country?
Oscar. Yes, on my 1882 lecture tour, I visited 34 states and covered 30,000 miles in my quest to civilise your country. America has been discovered before, but it has always been hushed up.
Groucho. I must have played in over 400 towns - most are still untamed if the audience reaction to our act was anything to go by.
Oscar. I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
Groucho. Ah! The U.S. Railways, or as it is known to its long suffering passengers, the cattle freight train. I'll be sure to send you a copy of my latest book.
Oscar. Dear boy, thank you. I won't waste any time reading it.
Woodbury. Mr. Wilde, you are in New York for the production of your new play. I gather that the original manuscript of your latest book was accidentally destroyed?
Oscar. Yes, my infant son, Cyril, tossed it in the fireplace.
Groucho. What, can the little fellow read already?
Woodbury. Groucho, it was widely reported in all the newspapers when you also lost some valuable hand-written manuscripts?
Groucho. Yes - 3 volumes of my Collected Jokes Book, pain-stakingly compiled over many years, were stolen from my house.
Oscar. The perpetrator was awarded The Order of the British Empire, the Congressional Medal of Honour and the Legion d'Honneur.
Woodbury. Jesting aside, I believe, Groucho, that you are acquainted with our distinguished author's work?
Groucho. That is correct. From the moment I picked up Mr. Wilde's book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.
Oscar. What could be rarer than an Oscar Wilde First Edition?
Groucho. An Oscar Wilde Second Edition.
Oscar. Grr...grr...grr! Well, I am less well known here than yourself.
Groucho. Play your cards right and it will stay that way.
Oscar. You are not without wit. Mr. Woodrow Woodbury III informed me earlier that you are also a writer.
Groucho. Yes - my latest book is an anthology of my funniest witticisms, entitled '' Why A Duck? ''.
Oscar. Take my professional advice - you would sell more if you called it '' Why A F***? ''.
Groucho. Hey, that's not bad - you are not as dumb as you look.
Oscar. Be that as it may, but you are. Anyway, to show that I bear you no animosity, dear boy, here are two front row tickets for the opening night of my new play, '' The Importance Of Being Earnest ", next Saturday. Bring a friend - if you have one.
Groucho. Regretfully, I am indisposed next Saturday. However, I am free for the second night - if there is one. Anyway, in the time honored theatrical tradition, please accept this bouquet ( presents Oscar with a rotten cabbage ) .
Oscar. Thank you very much dear fellow. Whenever I smell it I shall think of you. Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.
Woodbury. Are you troubled by adverse criticism?
Oscar. There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.
Groucho. Ha, ha! Although speaking as one who has had more than their fair share of bum notices, I beg to differ.
Oscar. Your New York theater critics savaged my first play, '' Vera '' - the play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster - it closed after a week.
Groucho. As long as that?
Oscar. You are so full of whimsy.
Groucho. Can you notice it from there? I'm always that way after I eat radishes.
Oscar. Sir, you try my patience!
Groucho. I don't mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.
Oscar. An analogy - my compatriot, Mr. George Bernard Shaw, has written a new play based on the fable of Androcles and the Lion. In anticipation of the first night reviews, one experiences something like the dread and anxiety of the early Christian martyrs when thrown to the lions in the Coliseum.
Groucho. Or, as it is now known in America, the vaudeville theater circuit.
On War and Politics
Woodbury. Is there a difference between the policy makers and legislators of our two nations?
Oscar. Fundamentally, a politician is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. There is hardly a single person in Congress or The House of Commons of any worth; their hands are so dirty many of them would be the better for a little white-washing. The financiers and bankers are little better - this is what happens when common tradespeople come into money.
Groucho. A theatrical background and an aptitude for carpentry points clearly to a political career - it's all just an act and they are all chisellers. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
Oscar. I am glad to say I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been wildy different.
Groucho. Well you have dug yourself into a deep hole with your libel case in England.
Oscar. Queensbury's greatest sin is his stupidity. Really if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?
Woodbury. We live in an age of uncertainty - Europe is a powder keg; in Russia there is religous persecution, anti-semitism and student unrest.
Oscar. As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.
Groucho. I'm Jewish - my parents are French / German immigrants. I'm also a pacifist and strongly oppose all forms of religous and racial intolerance. My brothers and I are working on an anti-war satire, tentatively entitled '' Duck Soup " - or perhaps that should be '' F*** Soup '' .
On The Marx Brothers
Woodbury. Mr. Wilde, you attended a matinee of Groucho's here in New York - what did you think of the Marx brothers' act?
Oscar. The contrast between normality and idiocy has always been deemed comic. The Marx brothers epitomise the comic irony of the conflict between reality and the farcical. I suppose that Groucho is amusing in a droll sort of way; the Italian one with the pidgin English makes a ghastly racket on the piano.
Chico ( from the front stalls ) Hey! Whats da matter you? You gotta no respect. Dat was-a-Beethoven's Fifth-a-racket!
Groucho. Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.
Oscar. Dear boy, with every utterance you mangle the Queen's English. You really should take a course of English lessons.
Chico. Shaddup your face!
Groucho. He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don't let that fool you...
Woodbury. He really is an idiot?
Oscar. I rest my case. As for the curly-headed one, it should be a cause for concern that with his affliction, he is compelled to work on the stage.
Harpo ( also in the front stalls; a high pitched whistle, then, Honk! Honk! Honk! ) .
Woodbury. Mr. Wilde, on a more personal note, I believe that you are the father of two young sons?
Oscar. Yes - their names are Cyril and Vyvyan.
Groucho. My boy is called Arthur.
Woodbury. I too am the proud father of two sons, Woodrow Woodbury IV and Woodrow Woodbury V - I might add that it is sometimes hard to see the wood for the trees ( haw, haw ) .
Groucho. That was bloody awful - and I should know. How much would you want to stand at the wrong end of a shooting gallery? Mr. Wilde and I will provide the humor, thank you.
Oscar. I am in agreement with you.
Groucho. Ah! Don't say you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.
Oscar. That's rather good - I must remember that.
Woodbury. Gentlemen, sadly we have come to the end of our time. It has been a splendid evening. Any last words?
Oscar. I have nothing further to declare except my genius.
Groucho. That's the trouble around here, talk, talk, talk! Oh, sometimes I think I must go mad. Where will it all end? What is it getting you? O filthy albatross! O great unwashed! Waiter! Another bowl of spaghetti and meatballs! I've had a great evening but this wasn't it. Oscar, in case I never see you again, which would add ten years to my life.....
Oscar. Groucho, is there no beginning to your talents?
( wild applause and a standing ovation ) .
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