PG Wodehouse

StageNotes: Jeeves & Wooster

P.G. Wodehouse: “The Gold Standard of English Wit”

By Elizabeth Williamson, Hartford Stage Associate Artistic Director

PG WodehouseP.G. Wodehouse is widely considered, as Sebastian Faulks put it, “the best English comic novelist of the century.” He began publishing at the turn of the twentieth century, writing short stories and novels about life at boys’ schools, and the occasional song for the musical theatre stage. But it was in the 1910s that he first came to prominence, as he began to introduce his great comic characters: Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, Psmith (“the p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic, and ptarmigan”), and the voluble Mr. Mulliner.

Jeeves and Wooster made their first entrance in the short story “Extricating Young Gussie” in 1915. Over the next sixty years, Wodehouse would write 35 short stories and 10 novels featuring the bumbling, hapless young socialite Bertie Wooster, and his omniscient and imperturbable valet Jeeves. Long before the last of these (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen in 1974) saw the light of day, Jeeves and Wooster had entered the collective imagination. Like Holmes and Watson, or Miss Marple, or Peter Pan, they struck a chord with readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone wanted a Jeeves to advise and minister to them; with the arrival of the internet, Jeeves even had a brief second life as a rival to Google with the search engine “Ask Jeeves.”

Wodehouse’s work is also remarkable for its intricate and masterful plotting, which may be due in part to his experience writing for the theatre; he was one of the most popular lyricists and book writers on Broadway in the 1910s and 20s. Looking back at his work in a Paris Review interview in 1975, he said:

“I think the success of every novel – if it’s a novel of action – depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘”Which are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through?”

Wodehouse is also renowned for his comic turn of phrase, for which Christopher Hitchens dubbed him “the gold standard of English wit.” Shakespeare was his favorite author (his grandson told the Times he reread the Complete Works every five years) and as Max Davidson wrote, “Like Shakespeare, Wodehouse has furnished his admirers with quotes for every occasion, little gems of wit and observation which have lost none of their sparkle.”

Although the Edwardian world inhabited by Jeeves and Wooster is now a century in the past, Wodehouse’s work continues to appeal to readers and audiences around the world. He has been constantly read, adapted, and enjoyed on the page, stage, and screen over the last century, and a spate of new editions of the novels suggests his popularity is in no danger of waning.  As Evelyn Waugh said in 1961, “Mr. Wodehouse’s world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.”