On Approval by Frederick Lonsdale
Directed by Anthony Biggs
Jermyn Street Theatre
In the 1920s, especially after his 1923 production Aren’t We All?, Frederick Lonsdale could walk the streets of London and New York assured that his attention would be sought and courted just about everywhere that mattered to him. The finest hotels and restaurants lay at his feet. Newspapermen noted his sayings and doings. Having written a number of successful musicals as well, Lonsdale delighted in the money and fame, the glamour of his plays’ opening nights. He loved nothing more than stepping into the Garrick Club, where he could wittily spar with lawyers and novelists and sharpen his skills for producing amusingly unpredictable dialogue.
Lonsdale had quite a few attractive and rather daring aristocratic friends, and they could be forgiven for thinking that The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1925) and the more comic On Approval (1927) depicted them and their unconventional ways, however artificially. According to Lonsdale’s daughter Frances Donaldson, a particular friend was the reckless Lady Maureen Stanley, who was “supreme” in her capacity to deflate with ridicule — “a weapon much used in those days by the upper classes in their almost unconscious struggle to hold their place”. For his part, Lonsdale’s exhibition of the faults of the gentry was largely a forgiving one. The Duke in On Approval may be completely self-absorbed, but, for that pleasure-chasing, insecure age, much of his charm would have lain in his very nonchalance.
Catered to incessantly, Lonsdale shared with his social betters an extreme impatience with anyone who tended to bore, even a little. He also needed to change his residence constantly, separating from his wife and three daughters in the 1920s and usually not staying anywhere for more than two or three days. For few people could the circumstance imagined in On Approval of spending a month on a Scottish country estate have seemed more unappealing, especially if there were no servants. Lonsdale probably wrote On Approval while staying at Lady Stanley’s country house, Witherslack. There he would wake to a breakfast tray of fruits and cream that he could enjoy with the morning paper while his clothes were put away and his bath was run. For the restless Lonsdale, Witherslack was simply a little more tolerable than most places.
So many of the faults Lonsdale attributes to members of the upper classes were his own, though born the son of an assistant tobacconist in St. Helier, Jersey. Admittedly loving her father, Donaldson yet portrays him as a lazy, selfish, uneducated spendthrift who would often not start work on his next play until he had run out of money and felt forced to provide for his family. He could be cruel and was sexually unfaithful, fathering three more daughters by the married Lucy “Glitters” Worthington. Yet Lonsdale had an instinct for charm just as he had one for constructing brilliant dialogue and unexpected endings. He was, moreover, confident in his instincts. Possessed of this self-assurance, he found an easy kinship with members of the upper classes that let him stay in their houses as an honoured guest and poke fun at them endlessly on stage.