The Freaks, 1918

The Freaks, an idyll of suburbia in three acts by Arthur Wing Pinero

New Theatre, London
February 14, 1918

Read the play (pdf)

Cast of Characters:

Ordinary Mortals
 Mrs. Herrick née Smith  Irene Rook
 Ronald, her son  Leslie Howard
 Sheila, her daughter  Isobel Elsom
 Lady Ball-Jennings  Helen Ferrers
 Sir Norton Ball-Jennings  Fred Kerr
 Rev. Stephen Green  Charles V. France
 Mr. Edward Waterfield Nigel Playfair
 Collingridge  Ann Walden
 Luff  Dorothy Stephen
Extraordinary Mortals
 Horatio Tilney Ben Webster
James Eddows  Walter C. Lake
Thomas Quincy Pratt  Katie Snow
 Julie Maud Pratt  Babs Farren
Rosa Balmano Laura Cowie

(Stage Year Book, 1919)


The mild and gentle Mrs. Herrick, who dwells in Mole Park, a peaceful suburb of London, inherits from her brother, who had run a circus in America, the duty of being kind to several members of his “world-renowned mammoth international hippodrome and museum of living marvels.” To fulfill the stipulations of her brother’s will, Mrs. Herrick invites to visit her, upon a quiet week-end, a group of “living marvels,” composed of a human skeleton, a giant, two dwarfs, and an acrobatic lady who is able to tie herself into intricate knots.  These freaks arrive in Mole Park, and scandalise the neighbours; and when the giant suddenly falls ill and becomes house-ridden, the suburban villa of Mrs. Herrick is made a focus for inquisitorial eyes. The purpose of the play is to emphasise the arch-satiric point that the physical “freaks” of the circus are, in reality, less freakish than those suburban citizens who gape and glare at them in their moments of basical humanity. But the author, not content with establishing this primary thesis of his satire, has made the play implausible by attempting to carry even further the dramatic appeal of his group of circus “freaks” for public sympathy. Mrs. Herrick has a daughter and a son who are depicted as absolutely normal ; but the author asks us to believe that Sheila Herrick falls in love with the human skeleton and that Ronald Herrick falls in love with the illiterate lady of the circus who is able to tie herself into knots. If these assumptions might be granted, the patterned outcome of the comedy would be more effective than it actually is. The “freaks” decide, as a matter of duty, to tear themselves away from the temptation to revert to the human privileges of ordinary life, by accepting a peremptory engagement to appear in public with a circus that is performing half the world away. This heroical decision brings about a parting that is undeniably pathetic But, when the rupture comes, the critical spectator is still inclined to wonder whether the antecedent complication was not, after all, fortuitous.
(from the Introduction of  The Social Plays of Arthur Wing Pinero, edited by Clayton Hamilton. New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922, p. 16-17)


Who are the freaks and who is the normal? That is what Sir Arthur Pinero asks us in the play produced at the New Theatre last night. The dwarf, the giant, the physical oddities, are they really more eccentric than the rest of us? And so he throws a “dime museum” of odd creatures, a giant and two dwarfs, a living skeleton, and a female contortionist, into a well-to-do suburban household, with its dear lady and its jolly boy and girl, and its old dragons of uncle and aunt. Well, aunt and uncle emerge as the most freakish by far, and the freaks as honest, kindly folks, and in an atmosphere of genial common sense the curtain falls.
An odd play, you see, of a geniality which Sir Arthur Pinero does not always permits himself, a play pleasant and interesting, but not a play of the first magnitude. It is everything by turns and nothing long, farce of half a dozen kinds, comedy of character, and comedy of sentiment, and in scheme a half-fantastic plea for the hapless practical jokes of nature. So any single and definite impression does not come to us, and there are moments when we seem to be delayed by not very brilliant trifling. That concentration, that resolute marshalling of everything and everybody to a single purpose which are the usual mark of Sir Arthur Pinero’s work are altogether absent. He seems to have been allured by the queerness of the original idea, the freaks in the suburban household, and then to have written his play for the pleasure of separate scenes.
The serious question—it is a serious question—whether the physical freak is more abnormal han the bore and the egotist, and the valetudinarian and the rest of us, is not seriously discussed. It would no doubt be possible, though we have no desire to assist at the performance, to write a play in which the effects of an extraordinary body on mind and morals were examined. But Sir Arthur Pinero leaves such grim psychology alone. The only two of his freaks who are elaborately treated are merely freaks by name, a living skelotn who took the trade by accident and a contortionist who is just like other people when not in action. The divergencies from the normal which they exhibit are the divergencies of the stroller from the bourgeois, of the uneducated from the educated. These are contrasts which Sir Arthur Pinero has always loved, and here he treats them with a pleasant mingling of sympathy and shrewed judgment. As for the others, his dwarfs, though he treats them not unkindly, are merely figures of fn and his giant a piece of machinery.
The freaks of an extinct circus came—never mind how—to a tea at a suburban household composed of a dear, motherly soul, her jovial son and daugher, and the pompous old geese who were her sister and brother-in-law. You have the farcical fun, such as it is, of the contrast between the giant and the dwarfs and ordinary humanity. Then the giant falls ill, and is seen no more, but his illness inevitably keeps the other freaks in attendance. More farce about the selfish disgust of the old fogies at the invasion, and the contrast between their mental and moral absurdity and the merely physical oddity of the freaks. Still more farce, elementary enough in design, but preposterously funny in action over the old boy reading ‘Macbeth’ to the family circle. And then solemn, earnest, impressive, and affecting by the force of simplicity, the giant lies critically ill. The other freaks are desperately distressed, and they ask the vicar to pray for him. They don’t know much about praying, but they know how to feel and to love. Ordinary mortals and extraordinary mortals, they kneel together. Obvious, if you like, but common humanity is rather an obvious force.
The two freaks who are only nominally freaks, the skeleton and the contortionis, have meanwhile won the youthful hearts of the son and daughter of the household. It is just the old story of the impossible love affair between the vagabond and the respectable, but it is set out sincerely, with kindliness and with unsentimental sanity. They must part, of course, and part they do, and the freaks go off to be freaks again and boy and girl stay at home to grow wiser.
(The Daily Telegraph, February 15, 1918)

If Trelawney was Trollopian The Freaks (produced at the New Theatre last night) may be labelled Dickensian. Dickens at any rate loved the humours of side-show oddities, giants, dwarfs, and living skeletons, and, while laughing at them, sentimentalized them. That is precisely what Sir Arthur Pinero does here. He gives his freaks not only warm hearts, but a high standard of honour. They are even capable of heroic self-sacrifice. Also they have, some of them, a taste for the florid and the rhetorical, which seems to show that on their “off nights” from the Circus they have been to see a Pinero play or two.
Or perhaps it is because he is the official orator of the little troupe that the living skeleton inclines to rhetoric. Though dreadfully thin, his bones, we are assured, do not protude; but his moral reflections do. You think it must be the sæva indignatio of Swift’s epitaph that has wasted him away. Who, he asks, are the real abnormal ones, the real monsters—the despised “freaks” or the gaping, staring, sniggering crowd of spectators? Who is the real “freak”—the living skeleton or his cruel father and the ship’s mate who kicked him down the hatchway? Even the vicar of the parish remarks thet the living skeleton is a gentleman at heart. And when the young daughter of the house—the freaks, never mind how, become guests of a well-to-do suburban family—when the daughter of the house falls in love with him he is gentleman enough to see that it won’t do, and to behave accordingly.
Nor is the lady who ties herself in a knot a bit less noble. She renouces the son of the house, whom she had captivated, and who had proposed marriage to her on a seat in the park just before the urchins he had bribed to leave them alone returned to demand another two-pence. But she does something finer still. The giant is sick, perhaps at the point of death. It occurs to heart-broken girl to ask the vicar to offer up a prayer. And here you have the freaks in their tawdry finery—living skeleton, indiarubber girl, and a pair of American dwarfs—falling on their knees in tears along with the respectable suburbanites while the prayer goes up. This is a true Pinero touch, and brings tears to the eyes of others besides those on the stage.
Another unmistakable Pineroism is the scene of an elderly bore reading “Is this a dagger?” from Macbeth, with ludicrous interruption. The bore and his terrible wife, farcical characters both, are notable additions to Sir Arthur’s famous gallery of farcical bores. Rightly and happily farcical, because in being so they avoid that risk of boring the spectator which is run by bores in fiction when too true to life.
It is all very amusing, harmlessly sentimental, at one moment sincerely pathetic, at some others rather wordy—in short, thoroughly Pineroish. If the underlying idea—that of queer “professionals” contrasted with British “respectability” and revealing kind hearts in the process—is repeated from Trelawney, it is repeated with enough difference to make the new play really new. There was obviously general and hearty enjoyment last night—enjoyment of Sir Arthur in his lighter vein and enjoyment of some capital acting. Accomplished players like Miss Irene Rooke and Mr. Nigel Playfair and Mr. France have to make the most of small parts. Mr. Fred Kerr and Miss Helen Ferrers have better luck, as the bores, and profit by it; a remarkably “forward” ingenue is prettily played by Miss Isobel Elsom; Mr. Ben Webster is good as the living (and sentimenal-rhetorical) skeleton; and two children (we presume they are children), Miss Babs Farren and Miss Katie Snow, are uncannily clever as the American dwarfs. But the highest honours are carried off by Miss Laura Cowie as the bouncing circus girl, with her heart in the right place and her h’s in the wrong. This is a vivid, fresh, sincere, wholly delightful performance.
(The Times, February 15, 1918)

It would seem that some of our playwrights, eager as ever to hold up a mirror to life, find that the times in which we are living just now are too dull and stagnant to stimulate the imagination. Anyhow, here is Sir Arthur Pinero, doyen of dramatists, straining after the grotesque and planting his novelty in a milieu that might have been mid-Victorian.
By an incredibly far-sought artifice, which I haven’t the patience to report, he introduces a company of travelling freaks to the hospitality of a large suburban villa. They consist of a giant, a brace of midgets, a living skeleton and a girl who can tie herself into knots (but never does). Now I have nothing against freaks as freaks; they are among the accidents of nature that claim our pity; and though I should prefer them not to exploit their physical deformities in public I know they may be driven to this painful course by necessity, and in any case are no worse than those who do the same thing with their physical charms. But happily I am not compelled to indulge a prurient curiousity by paying to see them, since it is fairly easy to avoid the attractions of an itinerant circus. When, however, Sir Arthur Pinero pushes them at me on the stage, then I’m done.
“For an “Idyll” (the play is so described in the programme) it was a rather ugly spectacle, not sufficiently excused by the author’s anxiety to explain to us that even a freak may be human; may actually entertain sentiments of loyalty and self-sacrifice. But did anyone doubt it? I was reminded of those revelations of the intimate life of exceptional people from which we are supposed to learn with surprise that a famous actor is fond of snowdrops, or that a distinguished warrior is decent to his dog. The concern which the other freaks felt about the health of the sick giant (though I could not share it, having had so little of his acquaintance) was the most natural thing in the world. All the same, since my eyes are more sensitive than my moral vision, these maks of spiritual beauty did not console me for the sight of so much physical ugliness. I could have borne it far better in a book.
Not that the freaks were all repellent. Mr. Ben Webster, as the living skeleton who had only joined the company in the quality of an amateur, was no thinner than I shall be after a couple of months’ rationing; Miss Laura Cowie, who never looked like tying herself into a knot, can’t help being attractive; and the giant was just a harmless figure out of pantomime. But the three-foot-six midgets were pure freaks. For some reason not confided to us they had also a touch of the automaton about them; the gentleman midget was most uncertain on his feet and both of them had to be hoisted into their chairs.
I assume that they were children disguised, and it was a very natural error of judgement by which the young daughter of their hostess, in a spasm of almost maternal tenderness, lifted the male, aged forty-one, on to her lap. She was rebuked by the lady midget, who protested in rich American accent, “I will tha-ank you to put my husband down.”
It was not easy to see how we were to get any love interest out of the scheme; yet Sir Arthur contrived, with perfect seriousness, to make the boy of the house (played very naturally by Mr. Leslie Howard) fall in love with the girl freak, despite her habit of speech, half cockney, half nigger; and to manoeuvre his sister (pretty Miss Elsom) into romantic relations with the living skeleton. Here the author lapsed into mere melodrama, and Mr Ben Webster (whatever he may have thought of the absurdity of it) was clearly resolved that we should not mistake it for anything else.
[… ] An excellent cast, including that most delightful of actresses, Miss Irene Rooke, was wasted on an indifferent play. Miss Laura Cowie in particular did good work under almost impossible conditions. Perhaps the best features in a strangely unsatisfactory entertainment were Mr. Fred Kerr’s incidental reading from Macbeth, and a very clever drop-curtain designed by Mr. Claude Shepperson. ”
(O.S., The Punch, February 20, 1918)


“The drop-scene of ‘The Freaks,’ at the New Theatre”, by Claude Shepperton. Illustrated London News

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The Bystander, March 13, 1918

The Sketch Supplement 1918-03-13c

Isobel Elsom in The Freaks – The Sketch Supplement, March 13, 1918

bystander 1918-02-27c

The Bystander, February 27, 1918