Book Review: The Song of a Merryman

menzies.pngThe Song of a Merryman (London: Grosvenor Books, 1976) is Cliff & Edna Magor’s biography of the D’Oyly Carte and J. C. Williamson principal comedian, J. Ivan (“Jimmy”) Menzies (1896–1985). The book is obviously not new, but it is new to me.

Although I knew of Menzies, I had never read anything about him. His D’Oyly Carte career was a minor one. He played mostly small parts and went on occasionally as an understudy. Then, he was promoted to the New Company in 1925, where he was the lead comedian for two years. When that company disbanded, he left D’Oyly Carte, eventually going to Australia to play the comedy parts for J. C. Williamson, starting in 1931.

Menzies was a major star for Williamson, joining them regularly for tours throughout the depression and World War II, and making his final tour in 1951. He also made a brief return to D’Oyly Carte in 1939 at the beginning of the war, sharing the comedy parts briefly with Grahame Clifford.

Early in his D’Oyly Carte career, he began courting Elsie Griffin, the company’s leading soprano at the time. This took quite a bit of gumption on his part, given that she was a star, and he merely a chorister and bit-part player. However, he was finally able to persuade her to marry him, over her parents’ objection. He was a terrible husband. He undertook his first tour with Williamson with little regard for Griffin and their infant daughter, Mahala, whom he left behind.

While away, Menzies partied and womanized wantonly, boasting of his conquests in letters back home to Elsie, which she passed along to her solicitor, intending to file for divorce. He was an ungenerous performer, frequently hogging the stage and making extravagant demands upon management, betting (correctly) that he was too big a star to be fired.

In 1934, he met a woman named Peggy Williams from the Oxford Group, later known as the Moral Re-Armament, a Christian movement founded at Oxford in the 1920s. Somehow, Williams recruited Menzies into the fold. He resolved to change his life completely, adopting aggressively the group’s so-called “four absolutes”: honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.

Now wearing his newly-born Christianity on his sleeve, he spent virtually every waking moment proselytizing, except when he was onstage. Supposedly a gripping public speaker (at least as told here), he claimed many converts among his successes. However, he frequently did so by belittling, humiliating, and patronizing those whom he found less pious than himself.

It is perhaps telling of his insufferable priggishness, that when he returned to Australia for another tour with Williamson, he “felt it was a call from God to pioneer in a country that had never known a major spiritual awakening.” Now, Australia wasn’t exactly the bushland in the 1920s. It was a civilized nation. The notion that Menzies was going to rouse it from a spiritual slumber, all by himself, is more than faintly nauseating.

That he continued to believe this to the end of his life is clear from the quote with which the book ends: “God called me to remake men and nations . . . and that task is never finished.”

The words “As Told To” do not precede the authors’ names on the title page, but they might as well. It is an understatement to say they are sympathetic to the subject. A good deal of the material could have come from no one but Menzies himself, and they do not question any of it.

There isn’t really much about Menzies as a performer. The authors’ main purpose is to write about Menzies the evangelist, not Menzies the actor. In their opinion, he was the definitive star of his era, at least in Australia and New Zealand. Williamson kept hiring him, so they must have considered him a success, but if one is looking for a balanced assessment of his stagecraft, you won’t find it here.

By the way, Menzies did save his marriage to Elsie Griffin, although the couple must have spent at least half of their years apart, given the many lengthy tours he undertook without her. The book was published in 1976, nine years before his death (and thirteen before hers), but by then the pair were no longer traveling or performing, owing to ill-health.

The authors, or perhaps I should call them the hagiographers, clearly intend to to put Menzies in a favorable light. For my part, I don’t much like either version of him, pre- or post-conversion. One of the movement’s so-called absolutes was unselfishness, and it seems to me Menzies’ life was always all about himself. Earlier in life, he was at least honest about that.

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