In addition to being the funniest show on Broadway, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a defense of Balzac’s proposition that behind every great fortune lies a great crime, a crime that a rich man got away with.
is based on the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, which was based on Israel Rank, a suavely biting 1907 satirical novel by Roy Horniman. As everyone who follows film or theater already knows, our murderous hero (Israel Rank in the novel; Louis Mazzini in the movie; Monty Navarro in the musical) is a young man reared by a widowed mother reduced to renting rooms in her small row house on an inferior street in an inferior neighborhood even though though she is descended from a noble family. Because she married a foreigner who worked for a living, none of her noble relations acknowledge them, there is no possibility of sending her son to Oxbridge, and no one to set the boy’s feet on the first rung of a career ladder. She dies, leaving a young man with a genteel education and accent, enough money to live in a very modest way, and the fatal knowledge that he is eighth in line to become the Earl Gascoyne.
The novel is a viciously funny defense of the hero’s jaw-droppingly self-serving philosophy of life: “I am convinced that many a delightful member of society has found it necessary at some time or other to remove a human obstacle, and has done so undetected and undisturbed by those pangs of conscience which Society, afraid of itself, would have us believe wait upon the sinner.”
In addition to demonstrating the limitless human capacity for self-justificaiton, (“I could not help reflecting how much Henry Gascoyne had been the gainer by dying when he did,”), Horniman asks whether a boy whose birth, manners and diction are English and genteel, can be regarded as an English gentleman even though one parent was Jewish (in the novel), Italian (in the movie), Castilian (in the musical) or, in Horniman’s own case, Greek and neither parent was wealthy. Israel Rank is, after all, about a boy very much like Horniman. He was the son of a Paymaster in Chief in the Royal Navy – a rank comparable to Captain – but his parents mush have lacked a private income since he and his brothers attended Portsmouth Grammar School, not an aristocratic public school. Like his most famous character, his mother is said to have been an aristocrat, a Greek aristocrat.
The character was changed from Jewish to Italian for the movie because, with the Holocaust so recent, a Jewish serial-killer seemed a bit – tactless. But Horniman knew what he was doing in making his ambitious protagonist a Jew.
Israel Rank displays zero knowledge of Jewish life or thought; no more than four or five sentences would have to be altered if Horniman had given his murderer a Greek, Italian or Castilian father. Here I am not counting passages where the Rank is described as looking like a foreigner, but only those with uniquely Jewish content, as when a friend accuses Rank of “exhibiting the worst faults of the Old Testament, in that I showed unsportsmanlike exultation over a fallen foe.”
The antisemitism in Honiman’s book, exhibited by characters who lacked “the breeding to disguise” it, is the British assumption that a Jew can never really be English. His endowment of his fictional earl with French name Gascoyne is at once a send-up of the aristocratic conceit of descent from an ancestor who came over with William the Conqueror, and a challenge to the notion that the children modern Greek, Italian or Jewish immigrants cannot become as British as the Gascoynes, D’Ysquiths or Wettins.
A French, German or Italian surname does not, however, have the same valence as a Jewish one. Jews have been the West’s inescapable other even longer than there has been an England. Making a Jew heir to an English earl was the sharpest affront Horniman could offer the British caste system. And the funniest.
Roy Horniman knew something about being an outsider. The son of an immigrant mother, he spent his life in a London literary world primarily populated by the children of certified English gentlemen. He joined the Artists’ Rifles in WWI, despite not being a public school or university man, and spent his entire life at the fringe of an upper crust world he was never admitted to complete membership in. His brother B. G. Horniman led a somewhat similar life, with a long stretch as a writer and editor in the Raj. Neither brother married. Perhaps this was because as a personable single man he could be part of of the upper class world on a narrow income. Although it has been suggested that Roy Horniman may have been gay. There has been no biography. 27 cartons of his papers sit in the archives of the University of Reading awaiting a graduate student in search of a thesis.
In 2014 a gay heir ot an earldom offers no shock value and the musical doesn’t offer one, though “Better with a Man” is a very funny song. A serial-murdering Jew or Italian would, however, apparently be too shocking for the New York stage. Instead,
@PinkhamBryce plays Monte Navarro written as an a engagingly amiable ingenue who lacks the capacity to tell the difference between right and wrong.
Israel Rank, if staged as Roy Horniman wrote him, would have been the most original moralist to appear on stage since Stanley Holloway embodied Alfred P. Doolittle. But that is not the play we have.
What Freedman and Lutvak have given us is a laughter-filled evening with eight corpses and not a single dark thought.