The Comedy of Manners


He seemed a very kind man, shy but friendly, with an English tweed jacket and a smile all his own. "I thought you might be the telephone man; I'm expecting someone this morning to connect the phone. I understand you have some questions to ask; I wish you could have left them earlier; I'm not really so good at this sort of thing. But do come in."

And with this, Louis Kronenberger closed the door to his Eliot House suite, took my coat, and offered me a seat. "They've been awfully nice to me since I came, and I feel wonderful about being at Harvard and living here in Eliot. All I've found to complain of is an occasional student whistling at four in the morning, and at Harvard even the whistling seems to be good music."

Kronenberger is drama editor for Time magazine, Sophie Tucker Professor of Theater Arts at Brandeis, and a visiting professor at Harvard for the spring term. He is teaching two courses: one on modern stage comedy ("It seems to complement Chapman's 'Drama Since Ibsen'; we have very little overlap.") and the other on the "Literature of Worldliness" ("By worldliness I mean something more than just manners--something that also involves the motivation of social life and the social scene."). Together these two courses imply a great deal about the professor and his interests.

His main interest is the current theater, comedy in particular; and he feels there is definitely something wrong with the comic stage in America. "Neither the writers nor the actors seem to have a sense of 'style' in the theater. The English have a great and persistent tradition for high comedy--drawing-room comedy--and they manage the right blend of elegance and finish and wit in their plays and also in their productions. Here, we just don't have the tradition, and there are too many other pressures on the theater."

Kronenberger wouldn't go very far in defining the sort of comedy which most interests him ("We really haven't the time now.") but did mention that "It is generally not written for great masses of people. Broadway with its stress on hits or flops (and no middle ground!) leads to wisecracking or mechanical farces.


"Our best humorists--Gibbs, Thurber, Perleman--show up at their poorest (and this may not necessarily be poor as The Male Animal will show) in the theater. When genuinely talented men find the theater hard going there seems to be some evidence to support theories of too much pressure and very little tradition.

"Let's put it this way: George S. Kaufmann was a truly witty man but he let his wit turn into wise-crack; and his successors, who are generally less witty, are even more fond of wisecracking, and these are the men who are setting the pace today. But this is enough on the theater."

Kronenberger's course on the "Literature of Worldliness" incorporates his two other major interests: the 18th century, and contemporary manners. Nor are the two unrelated. "At least you can say that one would not be interested in the 18th century were he not concerned with manners as such in his own age. And both the 18th and the 20th centuries offer sufficient contrast between the good and the bad to make study both interesting and enjoyable."

This interest in contemporary manners shows up his book Company Manners: a cultural inquiry into American life ("The subject of how titles are arrived at is an amusing one for someone to go into some day; I had thirty minutes to make up my mind on this one, and fear the result sounds a little pompous.")--a view of contemporary culture and urban life in America. ("Urban life is all I really claim to know anything about.") Kronenberger is working on a follow-up along the same lines "if I can find enough to say that is really new, and not just repetition."

His interest in the 18th century has led him to edit a portable Boswell and Jonson, and to write such amusing and entertaining books as Kings and Desperate Men and Marlborough's Dutchess: a study in worldliness. "I suppose initially it was just that I knew a great deal too little about all these people; and they turned out to be rather fascinating individuals. By the time I wrote the 'study in worldliness' I was already very interested in the period, in the Dutchess and what she represented, and in the Duke, her husband; and not being a military expert I had to use this device, and approach him as it were by hiding behind his wife's petticoats."

Kronenberger was born in Cincinnati in 1904, attended the university there, and worked for several magazines and publishing houses until 1938, when he took a job at Time, which he has kept ever since. He didn't start teaching until 1950, but since then has been at Columbia and later Brandeis, and has been a professor at Brandeis since 1953.

"In many ways I've found teaching the best way to write. You're freed from so many pressures. I've always wanted to teach a freshman course in composition. You're given a clean slate and the chance to get something from everyone. I suppose this is part of the illusion we all live in when we're outside something, but I'd still like to try it."

Then there was a knock at the door and we welcomed the telephone-repair man.