The farce Merry Madness is driven by its central character, the 50-year-old millionaire hypochondriac Octavius Semple, and his quirky opposition to other people’s happiness. His 20-year-old daughter Annabel loves Langdon Fitch, whose jobless status makes Octavius suspect that he only loves her for his money. Annabel’s cunning plan is to bamboozle him into a volte-face by having him catch her in the act of eloping one night, meaning her honor will be compromised and Daddy dear will have no option but to insist that the young man must marry her. The initial problem is to keep Octavius awake late enough at night to discover the pretended elopement… The second problem is that Langdon doesn’t know which bedroom is Annabel’s, meaning he mistakenly climbs through the wrong window and starts sweet-talking the occupant of the bed: Octavius himself, who becomes more convinced than ever that this young man will never be a suitable son-in-law.
Then things take an unexpected turn: Octavius’ angry behavior suddenly and inexplicably disappears and he becomes largely benign, though still dead set against Annabel’s marriage. His dog-loving, Shakespeare-quoting wife Olivia, described in a stage direction as ‘a very beautiful, somewhat queenly, white-haired but young-looking woman, with a flair for aphorisms and noble utterances’, finds this so completely out of character that she thinks he must have gone mad, and calls in a psychiatrist to examine him.
As the plot unwinds, it emerges that Langdon is only unemployed because, before he met Annabel, he worked for his uncle, who happens to be Octavius’ business rival. Clearly that was an impediment to the marriage, so he resigned in the expectation that he would be able to work for Octavius instead in a similar capacity. Octavius is duly talked round, gives the match his blessing and showers the young couple with gifts. Olivia worries even more about his sanity.
It all turns out to arise from a misunderstanding over a sick dog. The vet told Olivia that the animal must not become agitated, or it will die in a convulsion. Octavius overheard the prognosis and misunderstood it as referring to himself, which is why he has made a real effort to dispense with his customary irascibility and treat people nicely. He realizes his mistake when the dog dies, and his true character reasserts itself – and that’s both good and bad news for Olivia. He angrily confronts her over what has happened, and seizes her by the waist:
OCTAVIUS: First I’ll spank you; and then I’ll – I’ll–
OLIVIA (transported as she is literally swept off her feet): Oh my beloved! ‘And then Nature will stand up before all the world and say, This was a man! This was a man!’
And so the final curtain falls on the spectacle of Olivia laid across her husband’s knee, being spanked and quoting Shakespeare as it happens – not quite appropriately, perhaps, since the original passage from Julius Caesar begins, ‘His life was gentle’, which is a long way from how Octavius is behaving right now!
The play was written in 1929 by Sheridan Gibney (1903-88),
whose professional life extended into the 1960s and ’70s. (His later screenwriting credits include episodes of The Man fom UNCLE and The Six Million Dollar Man.) It got its first production in Chicago in March 1931, under the title When Father Smiles; Octavius was played by DeWolf Hopper, a popular comic actor now best remembered (if at all) as the ex-husband of the actress and future right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Mary Buckley was Olivia, and reviews reveal that the curtain didn’t descend quickly enough to save her from at least the start of a sound spanking. This was a man, indeed!
Even so, the play flopped.
Gibney changed the title to the more Shakespearean Merry Madness (from Twelfth Night) and copyrighted it on November 25. It became moderately successful with high schools in the 1930s, and still had life in it in the 1950s: Phyllis Merrill adapted it for television, and her version was broadcast on June 27, 1951, with Cameron Prud’Homme as Octavius – though it is not known whether it still featured the spanking payoff. In fact, it is still offered for high school performance today, though I’ve seen no evidence that it has ever been picked up in recent times. An opportunity going begging, perhaps?