It’s been quite a Kaufman and Hart week for me. First the retelling of their play You Can't Take It With You in the form of Aravind Adiga's excellent new novel, Last Man In Tower and now the Kaufman and Hart classic, The Man Who Came To Dinner gets a makeover from author Ali Smith. Smith’s novel is There but for the. Yup. There but for the.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is the story of an unwanted guest. In the play the critic of the day (That day being the early 1940’s), Sheridan Whiteside is on a speaking tour when he breaks his leg at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley in Mesalia, Ohio. In the course of his recovery he takes over their house and the lives of all around him. Whiteside is an acerbic and ungrateful guest/patient/Emperor whom all cannot wait to see the back of.
Ali Smith has taken the idea of the unwanted guest and pushed it to a newly distressing and realistic level. The start of it all is quite simple. At a dinner party in Greenwich sometime between the main course and dessert, Miles goes upstairs and locks himself in the spare room. After he is discovered and refuses to leave he slips a note under the door to reassure his unhappy hosts that he is fine. He has water in the attached bathroom and could they please keep in mind that he is a vegetarian. In response the host slips a slice of ham under the door in hopes of driving the interloper out.
In The but for the, Smith tells the story of how Miles came to be a squatter through his friends, well acquaintances really. There’s Mark, one of the invited guests who brought the uninvited Miles along with him, May an elderly woman who has lived through the blitz and the loss of a child, Anna a young woman who met Miles when they were both on a High School field trip and the academic couple who bring their own party crasher, their ten year old daughter, with them. None of these people know Miles well. It turns out that they all have had some sort of experience with Miles that gains importance in hindsight. Miles however, the incredibly intrusive presence that comes to rule the household remains mysterious.
The reluctant hosts of Miles feed the media sensation that they allow their situation to create. In fact they start it by calling a reporter instead of the police when Miles’ habitation begins. Soon they are selling T-shirts and other “Milo Merchandise” to the crowds who come by for a look.
I think the genius of There but for the is Ali Smith’s decision to have Miles stay hidden. In The Man Who Came to Dinner, Whiteside is the continually visible irritant. A self important despot whose uses his celebrity and sarcasm to expose and to mock. Miles separation of himself from society is his power over it and the reader.
Smith has a virtuoso’s gift for the right word in the amazingly right place. From the awkwardness of the title to through the hope springs eternal plan for the dinner party, to Miles annexing of the bathroom, to the disintegration and rebirth of the lives his odd behavior illicit she makes energetic choices that tell the story as well as illustrate all the intimacies and alienations of modern life. Like Miles all of Smith’s characters in There but for the are both present and absent from their lives.