The Eastworth family is in desperate financial trouble after the mother’s poor head for business led her to make some bad investments. Ralph, the son, has been obliged to take a job as a chauffeur, using the surname Westmore to hide the shame of going into service. His sister Joan has a more devious get-rich-quick plan: she and her siblings Alice and Leticia sneakily move into their rich uncle’s Long Island house while he’s away on vacation, intending to give themselves an entrée into the local high society and thereby meet some eligible loaded bachelors.
One of the first rich people they meet is a neighbor of the wrong gender, ‘a stunning girl of about nineteen’ named Albertine Chester, daughter of the family who employ Ralph. He has clear opinions about Albertine:
‘She’s spoiled – terribly spoiled. The way she bosses her father, it’s a shame. What she needs is someone to take her in hand.’
And as he talks about her, his face lights up. It seems there may be a little romantic ‘taking in hand’ in the offing…
The trouble is, Albertine’s interest is directed elsewhere, towards Rinaldo Gomez, a sleek Argentinian poseur who proposes to get around her father’s disapproval by eloping with her. During a party at the Eastworths’, she sends word to Ralph that she will need the car, then tells her father that she will be leaving early because she has sore feet: ‘My pumps are killing me.’ Chester isn’t fooled, and confides in Ralph:
CHESTER: Have you seen that Argentinian hanging about here tonight? Come, come, I understand your feelings. I know that you don’t wish to seem disloyal to Albertine, but I’m desperately worried.
RALPH: I can well understand, Mr Chester. I’m pretty sure this man is just a gigolo.
CHESTER: Then please cooperate with me. Now, did you see him here tonight?
RALPH: Er – yes, sir.
CHESTER: I knew it. The pumps were just an excuse to get away. (Hopelessly) What am I going to do with that girl? She’s getting completely out of hand. She’s growing incorrigible!
RALPH: She’s a wonderful girl, Mr Chester – I mean, deep down.
(Chester looks at him with surprise. Ralph glances down with embarrassment – as though he has betrayed himself.)
RALPH: The only trouble is – she’s so terribly spoiled.
CHESTER: Yes, yes, I know she’s spoiled. She’s always gotten what she cried for, even when it wasn’t good for her. And now she’s crying for this Argentinian.
RALPH: You know what that girl needs? A good, sound spanking.
CHESTER: You’re right, you’re right. Ah, you don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to give it to her – but her mother would never permit it. And now, well, I guess it’s too late.
But perhaps it isn’t. A few moments later, he tells Ralph, ‘if any situation should arise that calls for, well, drastic measures, I give you full authority to act as you see fit.’
The good news is that ‘drastic measures’ are indeed taken. The bad news is that they happen offstage in the garden, with not so much as a distant slapping sound intruding into the onstage action. This is a play in which a spanking is a key event, but a key event that we don’t get to witness. We get to hear about it, rather than hearing it, when Albertine arrives, ‘tense with rage’ and with her hair tousled. She demands that her father call the police to arrest Ralph. First, he beat up the sleazy Rinaldo…
ALBERTINE: And then, when I tried to reason with him and appeal to his better nature – oh, when I think of it! – he spanked me. (Her voice rises.) He actually SPANKED me!
CHESTER (beaming): He did!
ALBERTINE: Can you imagine? Oh, but he’ll be sorry, though. He’ll be sorry!
When Ralph comes in, Chester demands an explanation. Ralph obliges, starting with his discovery of the elopement plan, followed by his assault on Rinaldo…
RALPH: And then Albertine joined in and started to kick me in the shins –
CHESTER: And you let her have it!
RALPH: Well, she made me so mad I – well, I lost my head , I guess. So I took her over my knee and spanked her.
CHESTER: Wonderful! Wonderful!
ALBERTINE (dumbfounded): Father!
CHESTER (shaking Ralph’s hand): Thank you, Ralph, thank you. That’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life.
Well, possibly not all his life, given that his daughter has only been around for 19 years to his 47…
After it emerges that Rinaldo is not only a gigolo but a wanted thief, the scales fall from Albertine’s eyes and she and Ralph haltingly offer one another their apologies:
ALBERTINE: I’m sorry I kicked your shin.
RALPH: I’m sorry, too, that I – I mean, I shouldn’t have – you know.
ALBERTINE (nodding. Slight pause): I had it coming to me.
RALPH (involuntarily): Yes.
(She turns quickly, looks at him. He appears very much embarrassed.)
RALPH: No – no. I didn’t mean that.
(Albertine gives a little laugh.)
And so their part of the story is at an end. And when the rich uncle comes back unexpectedly, everyone else’s problems disappear with a wave of his magic checkbook…
Four Cheers for Joan had a long and complicated history before it reached its final form. It was originally written by Lou Lippman in 1927 under the title You’d Be Surprised. In 1930, he joined up with Philip Dunning to produce a new version called Vacation, and ten years later they revisited it again and renamed it Four Cheers for Mother. Finally it became Four Cheers for Joan in 1941, with Lippman inexplicably adopting the pseudonym L. G. Lighton, and that is the version described here. Since the previous versions are unavailable, we don’t know whether Ralph and Albertine and the spanking featured in the play right from the earliest draft or were introduced in a later revision, and if so, when.
The play was offered for amateur performance, but wasn’t hugely popular with 1940s high schools, something probably not unconnected with the fact that the rights cost $25 per performance, where many other plays were priced at only $10. Of course, many a schoolgirl actress might have considered the extra $15 well spent if it meant getting to play Albertine, who only has to simulate having recently been spanked, rather than Aunt Sandra in Act Your Age or Maudie in Men are Like Streetcars or Caroline in All American Family, all of whom actually have to be spanked on stage!
Four Cheers for Joan went into oblivion in the 1950s, but was pulled out again in 2006 by the Charlotte, North Carolina, company Actors Scene Unseen.
Their ‘live radio’ sound-only version, featuring Bryan Long and Amy King as Ralph and Albertine, was recorded and may eventually be made available on their website. But of course, one sound it disappointingly won’t contain is that of a sound spanking.