May 23: Abie’s Irish Rose

Abies Irish RoseWhen Abie’s Irish Rose opened on May 23, 1922, it was instantly heralded by critics as the worst show to ever hit the nascent Broadway stage. Despite this, it wound up running for over five years, becoming at the time the longest running play in Broadway history.

The play by Anne Nichols tells the simple tale of Abie, a boy from a Jewish family, who falls in love with Rosemary, a girl from an Irish Catholic family; stereotypical hilarity ensues. Upon its opening, the play was met with harsh reviews, but for some reason the crowds loved it. The show’s continued success annoyed the theater world, with the show becoming the subject of frequent barbs at the hands of critics, actors, and writers. In the Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan”, lyricist Lorenz Hart wrote of the play’s seemingly endless run, “Our future babies we’ll take to Abie’s Irish Rose — I hope they’ll live to see it close” and theater critic Heywood Broun called the play “synthetic farce”.

However, it was Robert Benchley who perhaps most despised Abie’s Irish Rose. As the theater critic for Life magazine, Benchley was tasked with writing capsule reviews every week for every show that was currently on Broadway. So, as Abie continued its stay on Broadway, Benchley’s critiques got snappier and snappier. Here are some of Benchley’s choicer lines:

  • “The comic spirit of 1876”
  • “In another two or three years, we’ll have this play driven out of town.”
  • “Where do people come from who keep this going? You don’t see them out in the daytime.”
  • “People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy can never be a success.”
  • “Come on, now! A joke’s a joke.”
  • “This department will not be printed next week, owing to the second birthday of this comedy, on which occasion we plan to become ossified.”
  • Closing soon.  (Only fooling!)”
  • “We refuse to answer on advice of council.”

Benchley would constantly find new variations on the joke. On the third anniversary of Abie‘s debut, Benchley wrote a column detailing a review of a performance of the show in the year 2125. Once he had Harpo Marx provide the Abie review, who wrote “No worse than a bad cold.” Late in the show’s run, Benchley realized the futility of coming up with a capsule review for the accursed play and just started sharing bits of a trivia like “Flying fish are sometimes seen at as great a height as fifteen feet” in the spot a review would go.

Eventually, word came that the play was going to close on August 7, 1927 and Benchley couldn’t be more excited. However, soon after it was announced that the show’s run had been extended, and Benchley admitted defeat: “From now on we refuse to commit ourselves to this play.  It can run forever, for all we care.” Thankfully, it wouldn’t run for much longer as it closed on October 1, 1927. Abie would return to haunt the Broadway stage in two revivals (1937 and 1954), neither of which would last more than 48 performances.

Oh, and one last note; Benchley’s best line about Abie? Simply “See Hebrews 13:8.” That bible verse by the way, is “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”

Let’s raise a glass to Robert Benchley’s favorite play with a Wild Irish Rose. This sweet Irish whiskey cocktail was created by Dale DeGroff as a twist on the Jack Rose.

Wild Irish Rose

  • 2 ounces Irish Whiskey
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 1/4 ounce grenadine
  • 1/2 ounce club soda

Shake the first four ingredients together with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Top off with soda water and garnish with a lemon zest and cherry.

Tomorrow: Funnily enough, we take Manhattan.

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