Harley Granville-Barker Essay - Critical Essays


Harley Granville-Barker’s early dramatic efforts—his apprentice plays—reveal that from the beginning, his plays were preoccupied with, if not generated by, the question of how a heterosexual relationship delineates and nurtures that moral strength or secret life essential to confront absolute moral dilemmas. The protagonist of a Granville-Barker play (Shaw preferred “worm” to “protagonist” in his letters to Barker) is thrust into a moral dilemma through a conflict between his outer, public life and his inner, secret life. The dramatic action of the play, then, is ordered by this conflict between the inner and the outer life of the protagonist. Granville-Barker heightens this basic conflict by means of his deft interweaving of theatrical symbol, dialogue, and theme. The dialogue itself, condensed, close-textured, and elliptical to the point of appearing disjointed, further underscores the central conflict of the play. In addition, much of the power of a Granville-Barker play is generated by what is implied through theatrical symbol rather than what is verbally stated. Granville-Barker’s stage directions are decidedly Shavian in their wealth, precision, and breadth of detail and description. In The Madras House, for example, much of Jessica Madras is revealed through the description of her as “the result—not of thirty-three years—but of three or four generations of cumulative refinement. She might be a race horse!”

The basic conflict inherent in all the plays naturally imposes a similar structural pattern on them. The protagonist is faced with a moral dilemma in which he is opposed by a figure of authority, refuses the negative examples of his close associates, and ends by accepting a mate under his own difficult conditions. The crucial point in this pattern is the protagonist’s great refusal to accept the prevailing conditions and the prevailing wisdom in favor of his own conditions and his own wisdom. This great refusal invariably involves a sexual conclusion—that is, a consideration by the protagonist and his mate of how to continue in a world made difficult by the action of the inner life on the outer. The element of sex in Granville-Barker’s plays is not the “farmyard world of sex” denounced by Philip Madras but the relationship that prevails between the sexes, as in the case of Ann Leete and Abud, in the new world that the protagonist strives to create.

The Marrying of Ann Leete

In The Marrying of Ann Leete, the conflict of the inner and the outer life takes the form of marriage. Carnaby Leete, a parliamentarian out of favor with his party, attempts to revive his career through the marriage of his daughter Ann to Lord John Carp, as he had once before salvaged his career by marrying his daughter Sarah to a member of the opposite party. Sarah’s marriage, now falling apart in acrimonious mutual contempt, is a negative example for Ann. Her brother George provides another negative example of marriage; in defiance of his father, he has married a woman beneath his station who reveals herself to be little more than a vulgar social climber. Although Ann presumes that she will be married, she refuses to permit her father to sell her into marriage.

When Carp tells Ann he loves her, she responds: “It suddenly occurs to me that sounds unpleasant.” For Ann, marriage is the union of male and female in the service of life; it requires no metaphysical justification. Her decision to marry John Abud, the gardener, is a manifestation of her inner life, of her need to forge a sexual relationship that is true to the fundamental moral purpose of men and women. The reference to Ann as a “new woman” and as the “new generation” underscores not only her determination not to repeat the marital mistakes of her brother and sister but also the role she forges for herself: the new Eve who will bring the future into the world. Ann’s marrying, however, is left at the play’s close as a frail gesture against the unlivable present. The class suspicions that emerge in the wedding scene, along with Ann’s recognition of the experimental nature of her marriage, suggest that whatever the private significance of Ann’s marrying, its public significance is minimal. Ann’s marital experiment must bear fruit in the private life before it can be recognized by the public life.

The Voysey Inheritance

Although The Voysey Inheritance also ends with a marriage, the focus of the play is not really on marriage per se. The central conflict of the play is structured in terms of capitalism and creativity. The elder Voysey, like his father before him, has placed the family’s small solicitor’s firm on the brink of ruin by systematically defrauding clients’ accounts for personal profit through financial speculation. Moreover, the elder Voysey has managed this fraud with an artistic flair and a brilliance that ensures not only the prolongation of the game but also the temporary well-being of his clients. The elder Voysey’s death pitches his son and heir, Edward Voysey, into the moral dilemma of continuing the family “practice” or turning himself in to the authorities, thereby atoning for the family’s financial sins.

Edward is persuaded into accepting his inheritance by his potential wife, Alice Maitland. She encourages Edward to persist in his father’s game of fraud to rectify the past and to ensure the economic future of his clients and of his firm. Although he never approaches the elder Voysey’s talent for creative fiscal management, Edward’s inheritance does save him from the morally...

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