- Setting Their Sites on SatireThe Algonquin Round Table’s Non-Theatrical Spaces of Creative Genesis
On a warm summer afternoon in 1933,1 a small rowboat full of tourists landed on the shore of Neshobe Island in the tiny Lake Bomoseen near Castleton, Vermont. While enjoying a picnic lunch on the beach, the tourists were interrupted by an ax-wielding, mud-smeared naked man in a red fright wig who screamed and chased them back to their boat. This seemingly crazed person was none other than Harpo Marx who was, rather enthusiastically, preserving the isolation and privacy of the island, which was owned and populated by a special group of friends. Marx recollects, “I volunteered to deal with the interlopers. I stripped off all my clothes, put on my red wig, smeared myself with mud, and went whooping and war-dancing down to the shore, making Gookies2 and brandishing an ax. The tourists snatched up their things, threw them into the boat, and rowed away fast enough to have won the Poughkeepsie Regatta. That put an end to the snooping that season. It also, I’m sure, started some juicy new rumors about our crazy goings-on.”3 The “crazy goings-on” alluded to by Marx were the antics of the iconic theatrical and literary wits of the Algonquin Round Table.
The prevailing image of the denizens of the Round Table more often than not situated them in the refined urban space of the Algonquin Hotel’s elegant Rose Room. Indeed, dozens of comic illustrations portray them seated around the table, where they ate, drank, and vivaciously (or viciously, depending on one’s perspective) discussed the theatrical and literary events of the day.4 While their matrices of connection were initially forged around the table in the Rose Room, other non-theatrical spaces of camaraderie, whimsy, and debauchery, including Neshobe Island and Neysa McMein’s painting studio, fueled creative theatrical genesis for the Algonquin Round Table and its hangers-on. An examination of the [End Page 76] atmosphere and activities of these three social spaces—the Algonquin Hotel, Neshobe Island, and McMein’s studio—offers a glimpse of the ways in which the spatial and social dynamics of the Round Table impacted the American theatre.
The members of the Algonquin Round Table offered myriad direct and indirect contributions to the theatre of the 1920s and early 1930s. Round Table gatherings in non-theatrical social spaces profoundly shaped theatre on countless stages in New York City and beyond. Their festive and ruthless get-togethers in a number of venues generated theatrical criticism as well as theatrical production, transforming these spaces into sites of critical and creative genesis. By examining locations of collaboration and contestation outside of traditional theatres, seemingly benign social sites can be recast as charged spaces of creation that are essential to theatre-making. Additionally, the Round Table’s non-theatrical venues were simultaneously spaces of theatrical inclusion, as collaborative partnerships were forged, and exclusion, as some artists and productions were panned and reviled. These non-theatrical social spaces were the points of origin for the Round Table’s impact on the theatre. The aftershocks of their theatrical influence are still felt today.
An extraordinary number of the Round Table wits wrote theatre criticism for one of the over fifteen daily newspapers in New York in the 1920s. Yet their contributions to theatre history extended far beyond print journalism. Kevin C. Fitzpatrick asserts: “The single unifying element among almost all members of the Round Table was the live theater business. Sitting at the table at any given point was at least one person who made his or her living on Broadway. Some wrote the shows that others acted, while across the table critics lay in wait to tear both of them down. Press agents drummed up publicity and ticket sales, so they sat next to the newspaper columnist who needed backstage gossip for the next day’s edition. Directors and producers, the men behind the scenes, were among the most powerful in the city. Young actresses floated into the hotel dining room and held their own at the table.”5
Documenting their own interactions...