Things Are Often What They Seem

Special Features   Things Are Often What They Seem The dictionary defines roman à clef as "a novel or play that represents historical events and characters under the guise of fiction." Some of the most entertaining stage successes have employed this device.
Monty Wooley in the original Broadway production of The Man Who Came to Dinner.
Monty Wooley in the original Broadway production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Photo by VanDamm Photography

A prime example is the George Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). It was no secret that Sheridan Whiteside, the leading character, was a parody of the acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott. The authors brilliantly evoked his rudeness and egocentricity without risking a lawsuit. Other characters in the play were thinly veiled versions of Harpo Marx, Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward.

Coward was an easy target for parody and appeared as a character in many shows. Hart had previously lampooned him in a sketch for the 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer. In the sketch Coward has a strange effect on the staff of a New York hotel where he is staying: They all begin to talk with clipped British accents and speak in sophisticated epigrams. The character was actually named Noël Coward, and the real-life playwright with the "talent to amuse" was, reportedly, not amused by the impersonation.

Undaunted, Hart continued to use Coward as a character, notably in Jubilee, the 1935 musical he wrote with Cole Porter. This time, however, the overly chic London-playwright character was named Eric Dare. The musical's leading characters - a king and queen - were inspired by England's royal family, while the skimpily dressed athlete named Charles Rausmiller bore an uncanny resemblance to "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller.

In Anything Goes (1934), Ethel Merman played Reno Sweeney, a singing evangelist traveling with her warbling band of angels. The character was said to be inspired by Aimee Semple McPherson, who was renowned as an evangelist but had a tarnished personal reputation.

Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934) was based on an actual scandal that happened in a school in Scotland. A schoolgirl spread the rumor that two of her teachers were lesbians, ruining them and their school. Hellman changed the locale to New England and gave the characters fictional names. The then-taboo subject caused the play to be banned in Boston and London, and when it was filmed in 1936 as "These Three," starring Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea, the lesbian accusation was changed to a heterosexual scandal. The 1961 film version, starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, reclaimed both the play's original title and its plotline. Although Sam and Bella Spewack denied that their hit comedy Boy Meets Girl (1935) was about screwball comedy writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, critics assumed otherwise. Like the characters at the center of the play, Hecht and MacArthur were known to disrupt Hollywood studios with their pranks and outrageous shenanigans. Boy Meets Girl was an enormous hit and ran for 669 performances.

Inherit the Wind (1955) was based on the celebrated 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" in which teacher John T. Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution to his students. Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken were all portrayed in the play, but under different names.

In terms of legends, it's no secret that the musical Bye Bye Birdie (1960) was modeled on the career of Elvis Presley, that the self-destructive pop singer at the center of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady (1970) was widely reported to have been inspired by Judy Garland, and that Arthur Miller's After the Fall (1964) depicted his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. All the names were changed, of course.

Finally, James Earl Jones's towering performance as Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope (1968) was based on the life of black boxing champion Jack Johnson.

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