My First Encounter With P.G. Wodehouse by Ken Ludwig
Reproduced from Plum Lines, The Quarterly Journal of The Wodehouse Society, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer 2006
I am often asked (well, at least once) by prominent journalists (I think he was from the Sheboygan Free Press), “Who was your greatest influence on becoming a writer?” I always think about answering “Tolstoy” because it would sound so impressive; then I tell the truth. It was Wodehouse by a length.
I wrote a number of plays and musicals, including Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You and Moon Over Buffalo, quite consciously thinking about Wodehouse; and he has certainly influenced most of the things I’ve ever written.
My love for everything Wodehouse began when I was 14 years old. My mother and I were cleaning boxes out of my grandmother’s attic when she came upon a copy of Cocktail Time and turned to me and said “You know, Kenny, you might enjoy this. Give it a try.” That night, under the covers, knowing that mothers never have very good recommendations, I started to read the book, festooned in a sort of vague grumpiness. (I was the one festooned in the grumpiness; the book was festooned in a sort of blue.)
I read the first paragraph … and I sat up. I read the second and third … and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up and saluted. By the end of the first chapter, the scales had fallen from my eyes and it was for me the work of an instant to realize that this Wodehouse fellow was the man for me. I proceeded that summer to read every Wodehouse book I could get my hands on, and I’ve been reading him ever since.
It was the same summer, and in significant part because of Wodehouse, that I decided to become a writer. (Admittedly, Austen, Coward and Shakespeare had something to do with it, too.) We lived in a smallish town in Southern Pennsylvania (“York” by name, the setting of one of my latest plays), and for the next several years I would make a yearly pilgrimage to the Colonial Bookstore (the one in the little shopping strip near the hospital) to buy the latest Wodehouse – and then devour it in one unstoppable gulp that night. Thus were acquired and digested Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, The Girl in Blue and many another late work of the master.
Professionally, as I say, I’ve thought about Wodehouse a good deal as I’ve written my plays over the years; but my actual encounters with anything resembling a professional Wodehousian have been few. The exception had to do with one of my earliest plays, Sullivan & Gilbert.
When I was casting Sullivan & Gilbert for a production at the National Arts Centre of Canada (and subsequently the St. Lawrence Centre and the Kennedy Center), in came a chap to read for the part of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. His name was Edward Duke, and he was already famous for his one-man show entitled Jeeves Takes Charge. Well, Wodehouse fanatic that I am, I had seen Jeeves Takes Charge twice, and when Edward came in and started stuttering and blustering as the Duke of Edinburgh, I almost fainted for joy. Needless to say, he was cast in the role – and went on to be more than smashing for the entire run of the play.
Edward and I became great friends during those months and shared many Wodehouse stories and moments. He liked to kid me about the opening night of my play Lend Me A Tenor in the West End, which had occurred about a year before we met. By coincidence, he had sat directly behind me that night – and he said that I reminded him of Bertie Wooster on one of those hideous mornings after a long night at the Drones Club, sluicing and throwing bread rolls at the other members. In short, he said, I was a wreck and could have done with one of Jeeves’s morning tissue restorers with the Worcester Sauce, the raw egg and the red pepper.
Yet another Wodehousian connection crops up in relation to that very production of Lend Me A Tenor where Edward happily breathed down my back, one seat away: the West End and then the Broadway productions of Lend Me A Tenor were both produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote (among a few other trifles like Cats and Phantom of the Opera) a musical entitled By Jeeves, which, for my money, is the best stage evocation that Wodehouse ever had. In getting to know Lloyd Webber during the productions of Tenor – staying at his house in Sydmonton, playing board games in his kitchen, wishing I could bask in his good humor, generosity and talent forever - it became clear to me, even back then, that we were fellow-lovers of the Master, and our hero worship, PG-style, provided the happy tie that binds – at least through those wonderful years of Tenor on Broadway and in the West End.
I recently started a website (www.kenludwig.com) and I of course urge everyone who reads this to go there and spend hours and make it their life’s work to visit it daily. But aside from that, I think it shows how Wodehouse has influenced my work every step of the way. I think you can see it in the bright color palette of the sets and costumes, suggesting strongly that comedy is afoot; in the kinds of actors who like to be in my plays; and most of all, in the stories of the plays themselves, which are summarized there: Comedies, all. A bit light-hearted. A bit frivolous. Hopefully touching. And hopefully a bit Wodehouse.