Back Dorothy Parker, “The Jest”

Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

“The Barrymores—John and Lionel—are reopening in Arthur Hopkins’ production of Sem Benelli’s vivid, highly colored drama of medieval cunning, The Jest. And Broadway will again have an opportunity to see John as the sensitive young Gianetto and Lionel as Neri, the swashbuckling mercenary.” The Jest ran for a limited run from April through June 1919 and, in response to popular demand, reopened in September and ran to the end of February 1920. Caption and image from the September 1919 issue of Shadowland.

One hundred years ago, The Jest made its American debut on Broadway.

Never heard of it? Well, neither had we. Even though it starred the famous Barrymore brothers, John and Lionel, the only reason it merits a footnote in theater or literary history is that it was one of the few plays in 1919 that received an unreservedly positive review by Vanity Fair’s new drama critic, Dorothy Parker.

Parker had loved the theater since she was a child, and she went as often as she could. But with all the acquired wisdom of a 26-year-old critic, she looked back to a golden age of the stage. “Those were the happy days—the days when people rushed gladly to the theatre, enjoyed every minute of it, applauded enthusiastically, wished there were more and came out wreathed in smiles to spread abroad the glad tidings that ‘The show was great!’ Why, some of them even, of their own free will, went back to see the same play over and over again.”

Many of her reviews scolded producers for lack of originality or vigor and actors for amateurism and lifelessness. She was so bored by one show that she ended up reviewing the restless woman sitting next to her. She refused to name the cast members of another production because “I’m not going to tell on them.” As for the musical comedy Girl O’ Mine, she advised her readers, “If you don’t knit, bring a book.” Her quotable sallies and mocking wit made her popular with readers—but ultimately got her fired.

For our Story of the Week selection, then, we explain the offense that ended her career as a theater critic and present that rare positive review she wrote of The Jest.

Read “The Jest” by Dorothy Parker

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