Dorothy Parker, Terrorist

Dorothy Parker stepped down as drama critic for The New Yorker on this day in 1931, so ending the “Reign of Terror” she endured while reviewing plays, and that others endured while being reviewed by her. This last stint as the New Yorker critic was only a two-month stand-in for Robert Benchley, and altogether she reviewed plays for only a half dozen years in a fifty-year career; but Parker’s Broadway days brought her first fame and occasioned some of her most memorable lines.

Parker’s debut column at Vanity Fair in 1918 was that of a twenty-four-year-old newcomer filling in for P. G. Wodehouse, but it gave notice. Of the five musical comedies reviewed, one got “if you don’t knit, bring a book”; another got a review that did not include any names, because she was “not going to tell on them”; another did not get reviewed at all, Parker deciding instead to review the performance of the woman sitting next to her as she searched for her lost glove. “I went into the Plymouth Theater a comparatively young woman,” she said of a production of Tolstoy’s Redemption, “and I staggered out of it, three hours later, twenty years older….” More to her taste, and a relatively rare recipient of her goodwill, was Sem Benelli’s The Jest: “The simple, homely advice of one who has never been outside of these broadly advertised United States, is only this: park the children somewhere, catch the first city-bound train, and go to the Plymouth Theater, even if you have to trade in the baby’s Thrift Stamps to buy the tickets. The play will undoubtedly run from now on.”

The more famous lines — that a Katharine Hepburn performance ran the gamut of emotions from A to B, etc. — came later, and by this time Parker was herself a favorite target. Her quips and habits were incorporated into characters in a half dozen plays — to the point that when a publisher offered big money for her autobiography, she said that she couldn’t because she’d be sued for plagiarism. She reprised this quip when introduced to one young man who, she’d been told, had lifted some of her witticisms for his new play. When Parker, feigning innocence, asked the young dramatist what his play was about, he apparently replied, “Well, it’s rather hard to describe, except that it’s a play against all ‘-isms.’ ” This opened the door for Parker’s pounce: “Except plagiarism?”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.