Magazine article The Spectator

Round and under the Table

Magazine article The Spectator

Round and under the Table

Article excerpt

Robert Benchley is a curious figure, somebody whose posthumous reputation rests as much on what he did and said while sitting at the dinner table as on anything he committed to the page. He survives, principally, as the subject of the anecdotes of others, and, compared to his energetic and enchanting conversation, as set down by his friends, his writings have the slightly fusty air which settles on even the best humorous writing. He inhabits, perhaps, one of the lower slopes of Parnassus, sharing a paddock, perhaps, with Sydney Smith and Saxon SydneyTurner in a region devoted to those whose best work, alas, went into their conversation.

This inevitably gives the biography of Benchley a rather deadly air of `you-hadto-be-there' and `it-was-funny-at-the-time'. But, fortunately, Benchley was surrounded by so many brilliant people, hanging on his every word, that one is sometimes tempted to think that his every bon mot is set down somewhere, in the diaries, letters and newspaper articles of his friends. And, really, that was what the Algonquin Round Table was for. The Round Table, or the Vicious Circle as its victims preferred to call it, began in 1919 as a lunchtime gathering of various writers, editors, actors and wits. Around Benchley and his friend Dorothy Parker, a constellation of more or less ephemeral talents gathered, ostensibly to discuss literature and the events of the day, but in fact to play silly Edwardian parlour games and be deliberately rude.

Being rude on purpose was the Round Table's most renowned trait and some of the most treasured memories of its denizens are of frank insults. Noel Coward to Edna Ferber, who was wearing a doublebreasted suit: `Why, Miss Ferber, you look almost like a man.' `Yes,' Edna replied. `And so do you.' The Round Table's appetite for offensiveness was such that they could not be satisfied with insulting each other, and, from time to time, some hapless dupe was imported to be the butt of ridicule; some innocent who was prepared to stand up and announce that his family went back to the Crusades, or that he had read the entire works of Alexander Woollcott, just so that Benchley or Parker could have their joke.

Sometimes these poor saps are so absurdly reckless that one rather suspects the joker of hiring an actor, just so that he can have his one brilliant line. Is it really likely, for instance, that anyone would spontaneously start stroking the playwright Marc Connelly's bald head, or remark that it felt as soft as his wife's backside? Surely, the man must have been a hired help, coached by Connelly so that he could reply `So it does, sir, so it does.'

There is something faintly depressing about the Round Table. They were a group of people very well pleased with themselves, whom one imagines practising their remarks in advance. Mad, like most of their generation, for parlour games, when the conversation flagged they were all too apt to start a round of `give me a sentence'. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and they all obviously had a whale of a time, but there is something odd about preserving the results. Challenged to use the word 'punctilious' in a sentence, I should be pleased to come up with something like George S. Kaufman's 'I know a man who has two daughters, Lizzie and Tillie; Lizzie is all right, but you have no idea how punctilious,' but I hope I should not think it worth printing. …

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