32-year-old Stephen Standish is considering going into partnership with the aircraft builder George Marsden, and has come to spend the weekend in Marsden’s family home. He first encounters the daughter of the house, 18-year-old Betty, when he overhears her talking about him with her boyfriend – and nothing he hears is complimentary. Their developing mutual antagonism is compounded by the difference in their ages: she regards him as practically senile and conversely he treats her as a child.
That’s the basic situation of a comedy by John Sayes and Ireland Cutter that was produced by the Manchester Repertory Company at Rhyl Pavilion in September 1942. Cutter was a minor jack-of-all-trades in the business: actor, revue compere, stage manager, theater administrator, lyricist and playwright. He had several brushes with greatness – early in his career he acted with Stan Laurel, and towards the end of it he co-wrote a sketch performed by the Beatles – but his partnership with the actor-dramatist Sayes wasn’t one of them. They had known one another since at least 1929, when Cutter helped to produce a Sayes-scripted variety show whose title can only be quoted today if accompanied with an apology for our unenlightened ancestors: The Darky Town Minstrels.
The title of their 1942 comedy is no less insensitive, albeit to a different group of people. When it went into the Lord Chamberlain’s Office on August 24, it was called No Pansies for Mr Standish, playing on the title of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, the then notorious 1939 ‘hard-boiled’ detective novel and 1942 stage adaptation. When it came out again on September 7, duly licensed for performance, it had become No —— for Mr Standish, and that was the title when it opened a week later. Unfortunately for the audiences of Rhyl, though perhaps to the relief of 25-year-old Welsh actress Dorothy Edwards, the word Pansies wasn’t the only thing that disappeared in the interim.
I only have a picture of Dorothy from 1969, when she was in her early 50s, so you’ll have to imagine her younger self in the role of Betty Marsden:
You’ll have to imagine her in the second act of the play wearing a white blouse, a tweed skirt fastened only by press-studs, and no underskirt. And you’ll have to imagine the action on stage when the tension between Betty and Steve boils over into a quarrel.
STEVE (really angry): If only I was your big brother.
BETTY: What would you do?
STEVE: I’d put you across my knee and give you the spanking you have been sickening for for years.
BETTY: You wouldn’t dare.
STEVE: Wouldn’t I? There is only one cure for naughty children and that is a spanking.
(Betty walks up to him and smacks his face. Steve is startled. He puts hand to face.)
STEVE: You do that again, and I will spank you.
(Betty deliberately does it again. He makes a dart for her. She eludes him. He looks around for something to spank her with. Sees small hearth shovel. Picks it up and chases her. He makes a grab for her. Gets hold of her skirt. It comes away in his hand and Betty stands there in blouse and panties. She yells and rushes behind large chair.)
BETTY: Give me my skirt at once.
Seems like a very promising situation, but who should step in to spoil our fun? Not the Lord Chamberlain, not just yet, but Betty’s mother and father. This leaves Steve with some explaining to do: ‘I said I’d give her a good spanking, and was trying to get hold of her, and her skirt – well, it just came off in my hand.’ And, as the reviewer in The Stage drily put it, ‘being stage parents, they accept the explanation.’ But there is a longer post mortem on the incident with Mr Marsden:
GEORGE: So she slapped your face did she?
STEVE (touching face): Yes. Twice.
GEORGE: And you said you’d spank her?
GEORGE: And what with?
STEVE (rather shamefaced, looking to hearth where he has replaced shovel): In the heat of the moment I picked up that shovel thing.
(George laughs most uproariously)
GEORGE: Gosh, now that is funny.
STEVE (unable to see the joke): Yes – of course.
GEORGE: I can’t tell you how many times in the past five years I’ve picked up that shovel with the intention of doing just that. I wish you’d made it, my boy.
George is probably not alone in that last sentiment, and happily the authors agreed. Betty’s feelings for Steve develop from antagonism to attraction, and towards the end of the act she returns, dressed in pajamas and carrying a hairbrush. She is feeling contrite and wants to make her peace with Steve:
BETTY: I earned that spanking, and I shan’t feel really comfortable till I’ve had it.
STEVE: You mean you want me to spank you?
BETTY: Yes, please.
STEVE: Let’s forget it.
BETTY: No, I insist.
STEVE: Very well.
(He goes to hearth and gets shovel. As he walks back he says…)
STEVE: This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me.
BETTY: There’s just one thing. Do you mind not using the shovel, I mean, it’s rather undignified, don’t you think?
(She pro-offers the hairbrush she has brought. Steve puts shovel back and takes hairbrush.)
STEVE: I should think three really good hard ones will meet the case.
BETTY: Don’t you think six not quite such hard ones will do just as well?
STEVE: Right, six it is.
(The curtain comes down as he places her across his knee and starts the spanking.)
The Lord Chamberlain’s reader went out of his way to say that he personally saw no harm in this. But, he continued, ‘in case it may shock the old-fashioned and excite the “tired business man” too effectually, perhaps it would be better to bring down the curtain on Stephen advancing upon Betty?’ The suggestion met with approval higher up the censor’s office; the deciding factor seems to have been the fact that Betty is in nocturnal déshabille.
That may have saved Dorothy Edwards from having to take up an undignified position across the knee of Gerald Pemberton, who played Steve, but at least it still happens to Betty, albeit offstage: in the third act, she tells her father, ‘After you had gone to bed I came down and took my spanking’, and later tells Steve, about their former feud, ‘the spanking cancelled all that out’.
And so it did. It’s the old, old story: 32-year-old ‘boy’ meets girl; 32-year-old ‘boy’ spanks girl; 32-year-old ‘boy’ gets girl. One mystery remains. The censor didn’t know the answer, neither do I, and nor, I suspect, did the authors, Sayes and Cutter. What on earth has any of this got to do with any kind of pansies?