Kicking off our Salon Series this year, TACT is proud to present Frederick Lonsdale’s 1929 comedy, Canaries Sometimes Sing, a twenties parlor play replete with overheard confessions, drawing room love affairs and backroom tomfoolery. In short, the play is packed with “Secrets and Lies.” Written in 1929 and an instant London smash hit, Canaries was received as most all Lonsdale’s prior plays had been to date: unreservedly well. After viewing a first preview, famously fickle critic Hannen Swaffer, of the British Daily Express, proclaimed of Lonsdale, “He has written around four characters a sparkling comedy which has at least twenty witty remarks and a plot the next move in which you could never guess two minutes before. Canaries Sometimes Sing is one long surprise . . . will be a great success unless I am more wrong that usual.” Indeed, by all accounts, Lonsdale was one of the most successful playwrights in the English-speaking world of the 1920s and 30s, and he retained this fame and notoriety until his death in 1954.
But the playwright himself is a fascinating character; he was a man of many secrets and lies of a kind, or at the very least tall tales and fibs. Frederick Lonsdale (Freddy to nearly everyone he ever met) was a man of manifold eccentricities and mysterious beginnings. Born in 1881 as Lionel Frederick Leonard and raised on the humble Isle of Jersey, Freddy had little to no education, stubbornly refusing to take advantage even of the meager schooling to which he was entitled. Despite his overall lack of grammatical knowledge, however, Freddy wrote his way into fame and the aristocracy, where he remained for the duration of his life.
His plays focus on manners and wit, particularly taking aim at the conventions of marriage and social standing, as with Canaries, and in his time he was often likened and compared to Congreve and Sheridan, the great Restoration and 18th century English playwrights that mastered the parlor play before him. His first play, The Early Worm, produced in 1908, played to an audience that included the current King of England, King Edward VIII. After the viewing, Freddy found himself summoned to court and admonished by Edward himself that the play was “bad,” though the king was quite sure of Freddy’s talent, and he assured the young playwright that he would write a good play if he took “a little more trouble.” So began the remarkable career of the uneducated, unpredictable but incessantly charmed man.
Many tales surrounded Freddy’s eccentric and eclectic personality, regarding both his flamboyant career and his bizarre and extraordinary upbringing. Even the choosing of his professional name, Frederick Lonsdale, has multiple renditions. The most popular of which is that as a young man in London, while strolling with a friend and discussing how to avoid his rampant debts, Freddy decided that a name change would be most wise and he would take on the surname of whatever street he next meandering down, which happened to be Lonsdale Road.
Similarly, his early release from the army has multiple variations, each more or less probable, though the one most often told by Freddy himself eventually asserted itself as fact. Only after his death did his daughter cum biographer discover a new, more detailed account of Freddy’s miraculous release. It was told that despite his initial excitement and seeming means of escape from Jersey, Freddy soon discovered himself to be entirely unfit for combat or even training (chronicled in copious miserable letters to his mother), and yet he lacked the money to buy his way back out of the force. Freddy did, however, find a shred of enjoyment in the army writing a sketch that was performed at a regimental entertainment one evening. He found, much to his delight, that his particularly hilarious and nasty piece about the regiment’s General had the company “rolling in the aisles.” Though he was reprimanded for it, a few days later, the General’s wife came to Freddy to thank him for the endless amusement he’d brought to her with his little piece. Upon hearing of Freddy’s discomfort with his situation, she immediately went to work getting Freddy release, requesting an army doctor friend of hers to submit a letter claiming Freddy had a faulty heart, assuring a discharge. Freddy and the General’s wife remained good friends, so the story goes, for many years to follow.
Certainly a man of unpredictable but unflinching principles, he always took great pains to assure that his will was the only way. This stalwart stubbornness – Freddy’s way or the highway – manifested itself in manifold ways through his bizarre and fascinating behavior, from hypochondria to valiant acts of faithfulness. The epitome of an anxious and fickle traveler, he’d often leave England to arrive in New York in time for a first rehearsal or read-thru or casting. To his poor Producer’s great chagrin, however, Freddy more than once ended up missing-in-action shortly thereafter, having made a last minute decision to abandon ship before clearing British waters and never arriving on Yankee shores.
Convinced all his life that he was suffering from some form of cancer, his most dramatic flourishes of sickness were brought about out of sheer boredom as opposed to any real illness, seemingly emerging so as to fill the time until the next bit of excitement came along. This hypochondria permeated into Freddy’s very psyche, rendering him psychosomatically allergic to reviews and success. Always suspicious of his own triumphs, Freddy seldom believed in the excitement others had about his shows, always exhibiting a reluctance to share in the celebration.
Not merely self-interested, though, Freddy’s pig-headed faithfulness was most admirably shown through his utmost loyalty to friends. During the First World War, for example, his good friend George Bernard Shaw was asked to leave the Dramatists Guild after making known his anti-war sentiments. Incensed, Freddy left the Guild as well, declaring, “I’m certainly not good enough to belong to any organization of dramatists which won’t have Shaw as a member.”
Despite the many half-truths, false accounts and fictions that exist about Lonsdale, though, the hard fact that truly emerges through these anecdotes, clippings and his lovingly written biography (by his “favorite daughter,” Frances Donaldson), is that he was an insatiable personality and charismatic charmer that drew people to him. His vividly blue, expectant and observing eyes were surely a draw as well.
Eventually, as with so many playwrights, when Lonsdale’s material stayed unchanged and the political climate began to become more and more turbulent through the 1930s and 40s, critics began to point out that Freddy’s work had become outmoded and irrelevant. Lonsdale simply shrugged off most commentary of this sort with the response, “I don’t want to go to the theatre to argue. I’d rather do that at the supper table; you can get all the problems you want by listening to Hitler and Mussolini these days.”
All told Lonsdale wrote and had produced 24 plays and musicals between the years 1908 and 1950, with only a handful running less than 100 performances. Among his most famous were On Approval, Aren’t We All, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and Spring Cleaning. Canaries Sometimes Sing, his 20th premiere, debuted at the London Globe Theatre on October 21st, 1929 and ran for 144 performances. On October 20th of the following year, Canaries opened at The Fulton Theatre (now the Helen Hayes).
Though Lonsdale has now drifted onto the isle of forgotten playwrights, during his lifetime, those who knew him and knew of him were doubtless of his interminable celebrity thanks to his acclaimed works and infamous character. His indelible mark on Western culture in the first half of the 20th century may have faded with time, but his treasure trove of proven material remains as sharp as ever, ripe for a 21st century airing. TACT is thrilled to have unearthed and present Lonsdale’s neglected Canaries Sometimes Sing; to welcome her back after eighty-one years away from New York City, still sonorant with sumptuous scandal and social commentary.