November 26th, 2021. Present (row-by-row from top left): David Whitworth; Colin Ellwood; Emi Herman; Amelie Eberle; Susie New; Susan Raasay; Charlotte Pyke
This was a slightly tricky read, partly of course because James’s characters express themselves and negotiate their complex moral dilemmas in long, nuanced, beautifully-modulated paragraphs - a joy when got right but very tricky from out modern 'un-performative/spontaneous/behavioural' linguistic norms, and double so when it's being sight read. The challenge was compounded here in that the only available text was absolutely encrusted with what initially appear as the oddest and most cheese-paring of novelistic stage directions, to the point where simply making out the dialogue from the surrounding verbiage in the heat of the moment was at times almost impossible. So it was a struggle, wading through entangled bracken with only a dim awareness of the overgrown path beneath. Doubly challenging, given that one of the central attractions of James’s characters is their supreme poise and self-possession. Watching them negotiate the complex moral dilemmas James throws at them is like being privy to an in-the-moment commentary by a group of bomb disposal experts collectively disarming an especially awkward enemy munition. James's characters are experts in moral disarmament, as it were. So under spontaneous 'reading' conditions, the necessary sureness of foot proved often very difficult to get anywhere near. It was hiking with ballet pumps on – but nonetheless - and very rewardingly - there were some characteristically heroic attempts - with some very quick-witted footwork and gusto in attack - from new attendees and regulars alike - with the consequence that the play's Rolls Royce engine intermittently and brilliantly kicked in, and its underlying potency could be glimpsed
...and what a deft, supple play by Henry James, written with a wonderful awareness of the expressive possibilities of the physical stage. More accomplished and richer in texture than pretty much all of (his contemporary) Oscar Wilde’s slightly rackety melodramas. Pared of its stage directions the play is revealed as stark and beautifully honed, making bravura use of continuous time and a single location – in this case the entrance hall of a slightly gone-to-seed country seat whose provenance stretches back to medieval times. The aged family custodian is dead. The heir is Captain Yule, a young radical politician who through family estrangement has never seen the place nor made any prior imaginative contact with his heritage. He is enticed to visit by Prodmore, a successful businessman with political aspirations, who wants Yule to marry his reluctant daughter Cora and convert to his mercantilist politics in return for the cancelling of the immense mortgages on the property the rights to which he (Prodmore) has acquired. The aim is that Yule become the local (puppet) MP. These were, after all, (at the time of the play’s writing) newly democratic times, and an 'old-family' MP would clearly be a very useful front for Prodmore’s Liberal ‘moneyed interest'. Moneyed interests being very much a thing then as now, of course, with Lloyd George flogging peerages and all.
Yule’s central moral dilemma then is either to accept the deal, or to give up the house and his inheritance. Initially it looks like he will choose the latter, honourable, path. Cora, meanwhile, dare not resist her dominant father's plan, despite being in love with another young man who makes a brief hurried appearance at the top of the play.
Into all this descends (literally and marvellously - having been rooting around in the upper gallery to savour the antiquities, with the aged family retainer's permission) Mrs Gracedew, a rich American widow much enamoured of and expert in English heritage. As the play progresses she gradually introduces Yule to his inheritance in the form of the house and its artisanal, Walter-Benjamin-esque 'aura', and persuades him of the accrued millennium-long love of which it is the material embodiment. At the same time she is progressively apprised of Prodmore’s complex machinations, the dilemma of Yule and the personal reasons for Cora's reluctance to acquiesce to her dad. The key, unspoken thing though is that it becomes slowly apparent to both Yule and Gracedew that the other is, like themselves, an evangelist for a cause (With Yule its socialism and for Mrs G the moral value of ‘taste’, the appreciation of culture and the good life) that they are each advocating to home communities from which they are themselves isolated (East London for Yule, Missoura Top for Mrs G); and that they are both also alone in terms of family. The play's fundamental underlying tectonic shift then primes their mutual and parallel escape from loneliness and into the possibility of a full life, by uniting Yule's radicalism and Mrs G's respect for heritage. The conditions for their unlikely love are discretely and thoroughly arranged by James, and when the pieces ultimately and unexpectedly fall into place, they plausibly represent a joint implicit mission to heal the political divide demarcating the culture wars of the time (and, arguably, of our time too). Given this slow, subtle assimilation, the ‘magic wand’ of the play is Mrs G’s money, which seems to know no bounds, and her waving of that wand to confound the venal Prodmore is so much more than the act of a crude Deus Ex Machina, in fact genuinely has a sense of theatre magic when it is applied, and (for Mrs G) it also has a theatrical sense of personal commitment to it. Here - to glance at a famous Wilde witticism - through the deployment of Mrs G's money, value decidedly drives out price, rather than the other way around. The upshot is that despite their age difference, Mrs G and Yule will marry (the theatrical effect of this depends surely in keeping the audience distracted from alighting on this possibility until the very moment it comes finally into play).
Yes the play is a form of wish-fulfillment, of sympathetic magic,…but it is so well crafted, its characters so fresh, so accomplished and nuanced in their responsiveness, so unlike the ‘types’ of Shaw…so psychologically fluid and 'feeling', that it seems genuinely to work in the way that the resolutions of WInter's Tale or Twelfth Night work – the implausible is given by James as with Shakespeare a kind of elemental magical and psychic power. Mrs G is a needy, feeling goddess...and her magic power is money,
Is it too much to call this a kind of 'myth drama' beneath the comedy of manners? Drama as balm, as healing ceremony on numerous levels. And ultimately enacting an escape from isolation and loneliness through the finding common ground with an opposite, and through acknowledging oneself - through birth or personal election - as being part of the main.
The 'common ground' is - literally - rooted in the play's setting, the old family seat. Throughout, the house wears its symbolic significance as ‘England’ lightly and persuasively: heritage and tradition gone to seed and in danger of becoming a tomb rather than a home; of being destroyed by socialism rather than repurposed by it, and equally of becoming nothing more than a tourist ‘heritage’ commodity
There are beautiful, deft dramatic effects throughout (the unspoken and moving revelation of the old retainer’s unpaid loyalty, beautifully tempered with a nod to his understandable keenness to pocket any money that might be going); the beautiful metaphorical enlisting of a literally-broken vase. The characters throughout are imbued with a sense of ethical ambivalence (including Yule and Mrs G). Even Prodmore transcends the Shavian chauvinist industrialist stereotype by displaying a genuine Rupert Murdoch-like acuity in verbal and intellectual combat. He is clearly at the top of a very good personal and business game. And of course overall there is the theme of political corruption, of money buying influence. Its not quite Granville Barker, but in its own Mozartian, subtle way it skirts the same swampy area.
The central love interest could all be horribly sentimental of course - love dalliance as glutinous foregone conclusion. But in the same way that Brief Encounter avoids moment-to-moment sentimentality because the proponents play it straight and are complex characters who unsentimentally acknowledge and accept their operating in a cruel and unsympathetic world (the real one, in other words), this risk surely has the potential to be avoided if played properly
And for all their distractive-ness, the ‘stage directions’ when studied at leisure are more than interesting. The initial assumption was that they were lifted from the originating James short story, but on closer inspection they are revealed as extraordinary proper director’s staging and interpretative notes, and they demonstrate a wonderful sense of the theatre and its physical possibilities. Assuming they are James’s own (they must be, surely, given his very wide experience of the theatre as a critic and spectator, and that they are clearly the work of a highly-sensitive artist), then on this evidence James would have made an extraordinary theatre director. He loved the theatre for what he saw as – at its best - its intensity of life; the extraordinary intuition and moral subtlety that could be elegantly, gracefully and thoroughly processed and attuned within a richly textured social milieu.
The play was produced in London in the '60s with Eartha Kitt as Mrs G, and you can see how that idea might have arisen. With the right cast and direction, this is surely a great possible hit now, and even a necessary play for our acrimonious times
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