David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Plays, Poetry and Poets

Plays

• Changes are frequently made in the scripts of plays before they open on Broadway. Zero Mostel was in the play Beggar’s Holiday when the director said, “Okay, let’s go back to the original script, before the changes.” Unfortunately, nobody any longer had the original script — not the composer, not the director, not even the author.

• When they were teenagers, Noël Coward and Collie Knox attended at a party at which a playwright walked around with his nose stuck up in the air. Mr. Coward said, “One day, I shall write a play. It will be a success, but I shall try not to look like that. Come, let’s have an ice cream.”

• Lesbian writer Hollie Hughes’ first play was The Well of Horniness, with Garnet McClit as the main character. One of the stage directions in the play is this: “Feel free to go too far; it’s the only way to go in this play.”

Poetry and Poets

• Langston Hughes wrote poetry in what time he could and worked in a restaurant to make money. One day, while working at the restaurant, he discovered that the famous poet Vachel Lindsay was dining there. Therefore, he put some of his poems next to Mr. Lindsay’s dinner plate, where the famous poet would be sure to see them. Mr. Lindsay saw the poems, read them, and liked what he read. That night, he gave a poetry reading at which he read his own poems — and some poems by Mr. Hughes. Newspapers covered the poetry reading, and Mr. Hughes became known as an up-and-coming African-American poet.

• The literary career of poet Dave Smith took a giant leap forward in 1975, when The New Yorker began to print his poetry. Suddenly, his work was in demand. Regarding the new eagerness of literary journals to print his poems, he said, “A year ago [they] were sending my things back with straight rejection slips. I’m a little baffled by it all. I can’t believe I’ve gotten so much better in the last year and attribute it to the power of publishing in high visibility places.” His work did get better — a couple of his volumes of poetry have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

• Oscar Wilde greatly respected American poet Walt Whitman and made sure to meet him during his lecture tour through America. At the meeting, the two poets got along well, and Mr. Whitman served his guest elderberry wine. Later, a friend of Mr. Wilde’s, knowing his epicurean tastes, said that it must have been difficult for him to drink the elderberry wine. Mr. Wilde replied, “If it had been vinegar, I should have drunk it all the same.”

• Scottish poet Robert Burns attended church in Dumfries, where the minister was fiercely denouncing sinners. Mr. Burns noticed a young woman, Miss Ainslie, looking through her Bible, trying to find the passage the preacher was referring to. Mr. Burns scribbled a few verses, then handed them to her:

“Fair Maid, you need not take the hint,

“Nor idle texts pursue;

“’Twas guilty sinners that he meant,

“Not angels — such as you!”

• Emily Dickinson became a renowned American poet even though her father and her church were against reading. Her father believed that books “joggle the mind,” and the Congregational Church thought that reading was bad for young people. Nevertheless, Ms. Dickinson — always a nonconformist — started a Shakespeare Club in which members read a book and then gathered together and discussed it.

• When she was seven years old, P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, wrote poetry, which she showed to her father, who was not impressed and who told her, “Hardly W.B. Yeats.” Ms. Travers points out, “It would have been hard even for Yeats to be W.B. Yeats at the age of seven!”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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