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June 20, 2005

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying - Frank Loesser

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester
in repertory 29th April - 10th September 2005

It is commonly believed that the Counterculture began in the 1960s, and that the fifties were a long dull conformist decade full of Stepford wives. In fact, all the groundwork was laid down in the 1950s, from kitchen sink drama to satirical mockery of the Western world. Lehrer, May and Nicholls, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, not to mention the coming stars of Beyond the Fringe had already incubated and were out of their shells by 1960. Feminism was on the march. So also was the sociology that was persuading us that we were putty in the hands of the hidden persuaders and that business corporations were miniature versions of servile Soviet-style mind control. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying emerges from the same world (as, indeed, a little earlier had Death of a Salesman [currently showing - previously reviewed for the Social Affairs Unit - at the Lyric Theatre, London]). Both these works might be understood as glossing that great self-help book of the 1930s Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

J. Pierrepoint Finch, the window cleaner who in rises up through World Wide Wickets Inc. is a man of the book that gives the show its title. The book applies the Carnegie principle of using flattery to serve ambition in the corporate world. It is, as they say, laid on with a trowel. We in the audience hear its principles read out like the voice of God, and it guides Finch into a career of servility that has him sucking up to his superiors by discovering their secrets often activities or facts they are keen not to have widely known and proclaiming that he too, shares them. The boss comes to think, for example, that Finch is a regular guy because he too, soothes his nerves by the unlikely device of a little therapeutic knitting or, again like the boss, went to a low ranking college whose members are totemic groundhogs. Here is the world of the hollow men, where networking is really the only thing that matters, and life revolves around careers and promotion. Look at the career supplements of any of today's broadsheets and you too will cringe at the embarrassing personal vulnerability of the ambitions on display. Like all satire, How to succeed distorts reality only by speeding it up.

On the other hand, American capitalism succeeds, where it does, by actually producing the goods, and this is done by people who work hard and are not just empty careerist vessels. The play is satirising, then, the classic pathology of modern western life, which dates in its extreme form from exactly this period, in which a dedicatedly consumerist set of people learn to despise precisely those activities and organisations on which their lives and satisfactions depend.

Frank Loesser's musical is a tour de force in that it is the story of an entirely awful set of people. "Don't go sincere on me! It's not fair", cries the dumb statuesque blonde who is one of the running gags in the show. None of them have a redeeming bone in their bodies, and even the occasional bows to sentiment that cannot be avoided with a plot featuring an anti-hero and an anti-heroine, are relentlessly mocked. "I believe in you", sings Finch to himself in the mirror! The songs in general are serviceable rather than memorable, but the dancing in Martin Duncan's production is lively and inventive. The secretaries, in particular, were marvellous, and the song "a secretary is not a toy" deserves to be remembered, as do the parodies of old college songs from "groundhogs" and "chipmunks". There are some good gags and the pace never flags. Frank Loesser did better songs in Guys and Dolls, but this is unmistakably a good show. It's also a piece of archaeology secretaries are now called "personal assistants" and bottoms don't get pinched any more. But the passion to "get on" never changes.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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