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Ian Hay's "The Housemaster" Glorifies the Best of English Pedagogues with Sentiment and Mirth

By E. C. B.

"The Housemaster" is a gentle brew of sentiment and humor, and the latter ingredient is racy enough to make the play wholly charming. Ian Hay, the author, gives more or less of an autobiography, since he too has been a master in an English boarding school. The title character is the sort of person who flogs his charges for the sake of discipline, and then invites them over for Sunday dinner. He seasons his great portion of kindliness and human understanding with a splendid vein of gruffness and stingless sarcasm. He manages to preserve enough austerity to keep up the discipline until three females appear on the scene; the sister of the woman, now dead, whom he should have married, and that woman's three daughters, aged twenty, eighteen, and fourteen. Then the old sentimental story of ordered bachelorhood's being shot to pieces by arch femininity is once more retold, with delightful complications.

The three young women are described as being completely without inhibitions and repressions, and although that may be a slight overstatement, they do manage to take a good deal of the monasticism out of the boarding school. They make their room the stamping-ground of a campaign to do something for Donkin, the housemaster. He is beginning to suffer for his unsuccessful resistance against the inhumanity of the grotesquely pious housemaster. The three young women start things off with a cocktail housewarming in the middle of the night, thus beginning a merry demoralization that almost results in the ruin of the worthy master, under whose nose it all takes place. When they think that they have cost him his job, they seek to make amends by trying to marry him off to their aunt, but he manages to cling gracefully to celibacy, and winds up in the place of the clergyman, as the new headmaster.

The blend of unblushing sentiment and desiccating humor smacks strongly of Dickens at his best. Its success (and that success was so great the first night in Boston that it drew out some dozen curtain-calls) is due in large part to the masterly work of Frederick Leicester who, besides staging the play, plays the principal role. When there is so perfect a coincidence of character and actor, no criticism is called for. Peggy Simpson in the part of the youngest of the corrosive trio is impish and irreverent to perfection; Jane Sterling makes an excellent middle sister, a beautiful, exuberant animal; and Helen Trenholme does more than her share as the eldest, who, though by no means languorous, is calm enough to fall in love with a bashful musician, and charming enough to carry him off. Aubrey Mather is equally flawless as the corpulent colleague of the hero, who irritates and is irritated by his fellow pedagogue in numerous amiable ways. Phoebe Foster is quite satisfactory as the quietly domineering aunt, relieved of her nieces in time to scare the leading housemaster with the threat of marrying him, and marrying the other one instead. You won't laugh at this play so much as you'll smile in silent enjoyment, and you'll come out gratefully relaxed.

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