One of the soundest spankings ever administered in a stage play features in the 1944 revised version of Wilfred Massey’s comedy thriller Such Things Happen (which he originally wrote in 1936).
There is, however, one drawback. But we’ll get to that in due time.
The girl in peril is Valerie Merton, described by Massey as ‘about 22, stylishly dressed and very beautiful, but obviously spoilt.’ Here she is in a production staged in June 2013 by the Norfolk amateur troupe, the Rackheath Players.
As the picture implies, Valerie is at the center of a love triangle, though with the number of men she dates it might just as well be a dodecahedron. On the left is engineer David Carter, who was until recently her fiancé and who still loves her very much. On the right is Philip Manders, the suave and handsome son of the local magistrate in the remote little village of Nunridge Bay on the south coast of England, where the play is set.
After a brutal jilting by Valerie, David has been taken off by his good friend ‘Fishy’ Fynne to an isolated cottage where he can get over her and work on his new invention uninterrupted. Fishy has rented Cliff Edge House, a place whose queer reputation makes it difficult to let: it was the scene of a murder last year, and now it is said to be haunted. So the owner was glad to get it off his hands for a while. Unfortunately, so were the estate agents…
While the owner was doing business with Fishy, his agents were doing exactly the same business with the elderly Miss Ursula Uttering, and she has also taken Cliff Edge House. She arrives, accompanied by her niece and her paid companion, shortly after David and Fishy move in. Unfortunately for all concerned, the niece in question is none other than Valerie Merton. There are several attempts, from members of both parties, to make a decorous withdrawal, but Aunt Ursula is insistent: they must all share the house. And since Valerie is the poor relation, she has no option but to do as she’s told.
As that implies, Aunt Ursula is what you might call a strong personality. She’s also full of disapproval of young women and their ways: according to her, ‘modern girls want wakening up’. But she does show a sneaking sympathy for the signs of mutual attraction between Fishy and Barbara Meadows, the companion: if Barbara hasn’t made Fishy ‘her young man’, she says in the second act, ‘you ought to be well slapped’!
Aunt Ursula has strong opinions about slapping in general, and about our favorite type of slapping in particular, but they are mainly not directed at Barbara, who’s a nice girl. Valerie, on the other hand, is not at all nice. One of the first things she does on arrival is to strike up a flirty friendship with Philip Manders, something her aunt doesn’t approve of one little bit. When Fishy remarks that ‘old David’ seems to have taken it in his stride, but Aunt Ursula comments, grimly, ‘I know what I should have done if I’d been “old David”!’ Later, she tries to remonstrate with Valerie, and is met with ‘cool insolence’. ‘Young woman,’ she says, ‘if I had only been your mother instead of your aunt –’ She’s interrupted before she can say exactly what maternal task she’d perform upon the recalcitrant Valerie, but I think we can guess…
The main plot of the play concerns threatening letters and a mysterious prowler whom Fishy ineptly tries to catch. But rather more interesting is the moment in the second act when Valerie comes down in the morning wearing tennis whites for a match with Philip, now officially her beau. The script gives the option of shorts or a very brief skirt, but either way Aunt Ursula nearly has a seizure: ‘Go upstairs and clothe yourself at once!’
Valerie is her usual defiant self, prompting her aunt to become more explicit: ‘Young woman, one of these days somebody’s going to take you across their knee and spank half the life out of you. And when that day comes, heaven grant that I may be there to see it!’ Valerie only laughs at her. But Aunt Ursula adds, to David: ‘And if you were half a man at all, you’d be the one to do it!’ And with that she exits in a rage, slamming the door behind her.
Some banter follows:
VALERIE: Well? Aren’t you going to oblige Aunt Ursula and try your hand at spanking half the life out of me?
DAVID: No. I don’t think it would be any good.
VALERIE: Neither do I.
And so the moment of opportunity passes. Valerie’s next appearance is in evening dress, and now she’s bantering with Philip:
VALERIE: I know Aunt Ursula’s been talking to you a lot. What awful things has she been telling you about me?
PHILIP: Well, she –
VALERIE: Don’t tell me: I know. (Imitating Aunt Ursula) ‘The trouble with that young lady is that she wasn’t spanked enough when she was a girl!’
(She laughs again gaily. Philip does not laugh. He is now very serious.)
PHILIP: I’m glad you weren’t – if it would have made the slightest difference to you.
VALERIE: Do you think it would?
PHILIP: I don’t know. All I know is that you’re the most beautiful, the most adorable, the most tantalizing creature in the world!
The third act takes place on the night when the mysterious letters have threatened another murder. So it’s evening dress again for Valerie, not a little tennis skirt. Everyone is tense. Valerie spitefully suggests that Barbara is trying to get her cut out of Aunt Ursula’s will. She also draws attention to how differently the old lady treats Barbara, to which Aunt Ursula points out, ‘she’s not my niece’.
VALERIE: So that’s it! I get all your nagging because my mother was silly enough to have you for a sister, do I?
AUNT URSULA (with a terrific bellow of rage): That settles it! (Tearing off one of her slippers.) You’ve gone too far at last!
(She goes for Valerie, who retreats towards the door.)
VALERIE: What are you going to do?
Oh, come on, Valerie – can’t you guess? Her aunt advances on her, ‘slipper upraised’:
AUNT URSULA: I’ll show you want I’m going to do!
VALERIE: Go Away! Don’t you dare!
(She runs out of the door. Aunt Ursula hops out after her. Valerie’s voice dies away.)
VALERIE: Leave me alone! Don’t you dare!
FISHY (blankly): What’s the old girl up to now?
BARBARA (laughing as she runs to the door): I think Valerie’s going to get that spanking at last!
FISHY (horrified): No!
BARBARA: Bet you she is! She’s dashed up to her room!
Barbara darts out of the door, and comes back a few moments later, ‘in high glee’: ‘I told you! Valerie’s getting the slipper!’ But the pity of it is that she’s getting it… offstage!
Quite a lot of onstage business follows, including the arrival of a nosy neighbor:
MISS FEATHERSTONE: Where’s Miss Uttering?
BARBARA: She’s engaged at the moment. With Miss Merton.
MISS FEATHERSTONE: Will they be long?
BARBARA: Well, I should think Miss Merton hopes they won’t!
The question of duration is pertinent, because when I say there’s a lot of onstage business going on while Valerie is offstage being spanked, I really do mean a lot. Including, after Miss Featherstone, the arrival of Philip:
PHILIP: Where’s Valerie? Out enjoying herself?
(Barbara smiles as she looks up as if at the room above.)
BARBARA: No, she’s not out. And I don’t think she’s really enjoying herself!
And a rough timing of all that concurrent business and dialog shows that Valerie spends around nine minutes having what Massey calls, in his notes to the producer, a ‘painful interview’ with her aunt!
Since each new arrival asks after the missing residents, and Barbara makes those deliciously coy allusions to what’s happening to Valerie, it’s obvious that not a sound can be heard from offstage, but we do get to see the immediate after-effects when Valerie reappears in what Massey’s stage direction calls ‘a very distressed condition’, and runs into Philip’s arms.
PHILIP: Valerie! What on earth’s the matter?
(Enter Aunt Ursula. She still carries her slipper.)
AUNT URSULA: She’s been having what I’ve been wanting to give her for years (brandishing slipper) – that’s what’s the matter!
Valerie asks Philip to take her away. Her aunt forbids her to leave. She leaves anyway, with Philip.
DAVID: What have you been doing to her?
AUNT URSULA: What you’d have done long ago if you’d had any sense!
Valerie and Philip don’t get far, because the crime part of the plot is waiting to trip them up. It turns out that Cliff Edge House has been in use by a ring of drug smugglers, and the leader of the gang is none other than… Philip Manders!
So Valerie has been humiliated in more ways than one. She grows hysterical… whereupon David slaps her. Only on the face, unfortunately, but at least it calms her down. And then at long last things work out for the best: the broken engagement is reactivated, Fishy and Barbara are likewise affianced, and David’s invention has come to fruition too. Everyone’s happy – except of course for those of us who would have liked to see Valerie get spanked onstage.
Such Things Happen had a good life in the theater: Massey published his own plays and marketed them assiduously to amateur groups in Britain and abroad, even occasionally managing to penetrate the very different world of US high school productions. (Such Things Happen was seen by local audiences in New Jersey in 1957 and Massachusetts in 1959.) It continued to be performed through the 1960s and was even occasionally picked up as late as the mid-1990s.
But it has to be said: it is now quite a dated play. So what on earth possessed the Rackheath Players to select it for production in 2013?
The reason was historical rather than artistic. The group celebrated its sixtieth anniversary that year, and the very first play they had staged, back in December 1953, was none other than Such Things Happen.
The aim was to make the 2013 version as close as possible to the look and feel of its predecessor of sixty years earlier: to set aside all the changes in theatrical practice and social attitudes that separate us from the world of two or three generations back. And that’s why, for three nights only in the summer of 2013, a modern young woman found herself having to act the part of the kind of 1940s heroine you just don’t get nowadays: one whose character arc goes from seriously spoilt…
… to soundly spanked!