Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Liberty Hall - Ring Lardner

Author: Ring Lardner
Date: 1924
Setting: New York and environs in the 1920s
Availability: in various collections, see link below

Story: Ben Drake is a well-known writer of scores for musical comedies. He is a man who knows what he likes in terms of comfort, but he has trouble standing up to people who have differing ideas. When at home he can have “a decent light for reading in bed,... coffee, any time... “, etc. However, as celebrities, he and his wife are always being invited to people’s homes. Ben can tolerate dinner and bridge, but hates to stay overnight.

In fact, he is often so annoyed at the small impositions of staying at someone else’s home that he has devised a series of fake telegrams to be sent to him. His secretary wires one, 24 hours after he leaves for any visit, which contains some emergency message having to do with the current show. Ben can choose whether to ignore the telegram, or use it as an excuse to leave post-haste. After several stays at less-than-satisfactory homes, he decides to go on no more extended visits.

Then Ben and his wife make the acquaintance of the Thayers. Much to their surprise, they like this couple quite a lot, and accept an invitation to spend a week at their home, just after the opening of a play. The promise is that the Drakes can use their guest room, named “Liberty Hall,” and won’t be bothered by anyone at all. They decide to go.

Immediately, Mrs. Thayer begins insisting on having things done in a certain way to please Drake. While sounding like the perfect hostess, she is actually a tyrant. He likes his coffee black. She insists that he will love their fresh cream, and forces it on him. She takes away his favorite brand of cigarette, and insists that he will enjoy their more expensive brand better. This basic scene continues through a long litany of kindnesses. Mr. Thayer takes Drake on a tour of the shrubbery, believing that he will enjoy his walks more if he understands the botany. Finally, when Ben wants to use the piano to reinforce a tune he just thought up, Mrs. Thayer refuses to let him, because she says he’s trying to be polite and play for them. The examples go on and on. Drake just wants to be left alone, but seems powerless to exert his will beyond a vague mention of discomfort at the beginning of each incident.

Even his emergency extraction ploy fails him when the indomitable Mrs. Thayer intercepts the telegram. How can he escape from Liberty Hall?

Commentary:The story is told by Drake's wife in a conversational tone, with run-on sentences, and little asides. We are drawn in, as if we are being let in on a great, personal bit of humorous family gossip.

The story is funny on many levels. We’ve all suffered from too much “kindness” by those who think they know what we want, better than we do. Irony is at play in both the title “Liberty Hall” (yet they find no liberty there), and when we learn that Ben is a member of the “Lamb’s Club.” The sheer repetition of the various ways in which Mrs. Thayer manages to torment Ben will almost bring on the giggles.

On a deeper level, "Liberty Hall" explores class structure, and tyranny. Although the Drakes are famous and the Thayers are just admirers, the Thayers hold the upper hand because Ben seems unable to assert himself enough to insist on simple things which give him great pleasure. He’d rather run away and hide than act in a way which might be construed as impolite.

Written in the 1920s, the story is probably also poking fun at the concept of it being a man’s world, and yet women control men in so many ways.

Memorable quotes: "I really believe he would prefer to spend a week in the death house in Sing Sing than in somebody else’s house."

Author info: Ring Lardner 1885 – 1933, was an American sportswriter and author of satirical short stories. His favorite themes were sports, marriage and the theatre. Lardner grew up in Michigan, the youngest of nine children. His unusual name was a shortened form of Ringgold, bestowed on him by a father who admired the distinguished Rear Admiral Cadwalader Ringgold. He was a master of using vernacular language to create the ambiance for a story, and is credited with influencing such writers as Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tragically, he died at age 48 of tuberculosis.

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


1 comment:

  1. Very nice review. We don't hear much about Lardner these days, so this was a welcome post.


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