So there I was, in the drama section of a New Jersey used book store, when I spotted a hardcover with nothing written on its spine. Quite often, those are the most interesting items, so I picked it up and — paydirt! — it was Barely Proper, subtitled “An Unplayable Play,” written in 1929 by Tom Cushing.
Never heard of it? It’s the story of Derek Leet, a young Englishman, and Frieda Schmidt, his German fiancée. He’s come to “the drawing room of the Schmidt villa in the suburbs of Berlin on a warm June afternoon” to meet his future in-laws. Frieda’s the nervous one, though, because she and her family have a secret that she hasn’t told Derek. He nobly says, “As long as you love me now, the past doesn’t matter” — but Frieda’s not so sure. “You’re so hopelessly English,” she says. “If I tell you about it now, you’ll bolt.”
She goes off to change, and soon after she exits, Frieda’s brothers Ajax and Agamemnon enter. Adds Cushing in a stage direction, “It might be remarked they are stark naked.” Derek is stunned, then more so when he sees Katrina, the maid (“She wears a cap, but that’s all she wears”) and two friends of the family, Mitzi (“She only wears a pair of tennis shoes with rolled white socks”) and Heinrich (“who clicks his bare heels together”). That’s when Frieda returns — naked, too. “There is no shyness about her,” Cushing writes, “but there is a consciousness that she’s doing the right thing.” Derek doesn’t think so: “You’re all parading around like a flock of Lady Godivas! My God!” Frieda replies, “We don’t parade. Our cult, which my father founded, practices nudity only in the home. But it’s no use! I had hoped that, coming face to face with our way of living, you would see the beauty of it. But you can’t! You’d better go before they come. The engagement’s broken!”
Derek gets noble again. “If you think I’ll give you up as easily as this, you’re jolly well mistaken!” Says Frieda, “But do you love me enough to try to not just stare at us through your distorted Anglo-Saxon glasses and condemn?” When Derek agrees, Frieda tells him to “Go into that undressing room and get ready for tea.” Derek shrieks, “Good God! Starko at tea?” But he goes. Enter the Schmidt triplets, three stunners — all dressed, of course, because they’ve come from outside. They can’t wait to meet Derek, so Frieda checks off-stage and asks, “How far have you got?” Derek’s voice says, “Too far to tell you.” When he does dare to emerge, Derek sits quickly to maintain as much modesty as he can, but he’s doubly embarrassed when Frieda’s parents enter in the buff. Herr Schmidt declares, “The day of emancipation is coming fast, where man everywhere will shed his clothes and step forward forever from his chrysalis! What a beautiful day that will be!” Derek says, “Let’s hope so. Otherwise, the poor man will be so chilly.”
Being nude does pose a problem when Frieda spills hot tea on Derek’s leg — but he doesn’t jump up. Herr Schmidt continues to pontificate: “If the good God thought we ought to have clothes, we’d have been born with them. If mankind can do such wonderful things in clothes, has it occurred to you what he could do out of them?” Derek admits that it hasn’t. Adds Schmidt, “Why, my boy, you’ve never breathed till you’ve breathed with your whole body. The dawn is at hand! Fig leaves are falling!” Hmmm; did Allan Sherman and Albert Hague read this play before they titled their 1968 musical, The Fig Leaves Are Falling?
Derek still isn’t convinced. When the three lovelies return naked, he is glad to notice a guitar, and “wears” it. (Hmmm; did Blake Edwards read this play before he had Inspector Clouseau do the same thing in a nudist camp in A Shot in the Dark?) Derek must surrender the guitar when Heinrich wants to play it, though the guitarist soon breaks a string. “Damn,” he says, “I can’t do anything without a G-string,” to which Derek moans, “Oh, for a G-string.” By now, all the nudists have caught on that Derek isn’t one of them, and they turn against him. He tries to apologize: “It’s awfully jolly to be able to go prancing about the way you do — clothed in a smile.” Agamemnon is the first to forgive. “You’ve done extraordinarily well for a coming-out party.” And soon Frieda says, “I can’t give up! I love him! I’m going with him — just as Eve went with Adam out of the garden.” This rather distorts the theory that Eve’s action got them expelled from the garden, but no one notices, for Derek is saying, “Frieda! You shan’t sacrifice your principles! They mean more to you than clothes do to me! I’ll just grin and bare it!”
Those last four words may sound familiar to people who remember the 1969-1970 Broadway season. For though Tom Cushing wrote his “unplayable play” as just an armchair exercise, it opened on Broadway some 40 years later as Grin and Bare It. Considering that it’s only 90 minutes long, the management found another play — James Prideaux’s Postcards, about two competitive postcard writers — to fill out the evening. (In those days, producers felt they had to give an audience a full evening of entertainment so they’d get their money’s worth; today, they produce one-acters and don’t think a thing of it.) The double-bill gave Clive Barnes, then reviewing for the New York Times, the chance to write, “Grin and Bare It is not the worst play of the season. Postcards is.”
What I remember most (you’re not surprised I saw this, are you?) is Ajax and Agamemnon’s entrance. A woman in the row behind me burst out with that nervous laughter you only hear when someone’s fuses are totally blown, for the lads were very well-endowed. I turned and saw the late middle-aged matron with a man, presumably her husband, next to her. He snarled to her, “You act as if you’ve never seen one of those before.” In the midst of her uncontrollable laughter, she managed to reply, “Not like those!”
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]