Both John Galsworthy’s strengths and weaknesses as a dramatist derive from his commitment to the ideas and methods of realistic drama. He was neither a religious man nor a political activist, and his plays spoke for no specific ideology or orthodoxy, but he believed that “every grouping of life and character has its inherent moral; and the business of the dramatist is so to pose the group as to bring that moral poignantly to the light of day.” This meant, as he said in “Some Platitudes Concerning Drama,” that “a drama must be shaped so as to have a spire of meaning.”
Such a theory of drama attempts two mutually contradictory tasks: first, the objective, balanced, impartial depiction of reality, and second, the embodiment of the playwright’s subjective, ethical, emotional response in the posing or shaping of a moral spire of meaning. Galsworthy’s plays are secular morality plays. His gentlemanly didacticism issues in dramatic sermons that attempt to evoke sympathy and understanding for the human condition and that teach the humanistic creeds of civility, compromise, and fair play. In Galsworthy’s plays, the sentimental or melodramatic pointing of a moral frequently undercuts the attempt to depict faithfully the problems of individual characters or social groups.
The realistic problem play was not a new form when Galsworthy took it up; its development in England can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Tom Taylor and Thomas William Robertson attempted to leaven their melodramas with realistic settings and restrained social comment. (Robertson’s Caste, produced in 1867 and notable for dramatizing a marriage across class lines, was Galsworthy’s favorite play when he was at Oxford.) In the late nineteenth century, this English tradition drew strength from the influence of Henrik Ibsen’s realistic social dramas, which were championed in England by William Archer and also by Shaw, who published The Quintessence of Ibsenism during this period (1891, 1913). Following Ibsen’s example but lacking his genius, Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero combined upper-middle-class marriage problems with the form of the well-made play; the result was a rejuvenation of English drama. Though he wrote comedy in the paradoxical mode pioneered by W. S. Gilbert and Oscar Wilde, Shaw’s challenging and idiosyncratic variety of dramatic realism was also inspired by Ibsen. Shaw’s plays and polemics helped to create an atmosphere of critical acceptance in England for the realistic theater of ideas and social problems. Shaw’s Candida: A Mystery (pr. 1897) appeared in 1904 at the Royal Court Theatre as part of the Barker-Vedrenne management’s effort to raise the level of English drama. When Galsworthy sent the manuscript of The Silver Box to Harley Granville-Barker, it arrived on a Saturday, was read by Barker and Shaw on Sunday, and was accepted for production at Shaw’s urging on Monday.
Throughout Galsworthy’s dramatic works, there is a tension between oppressive moralism and melodramatic theatricality. As critic Allardyce Nicoll has observed, “Galsworthian realism and Socialist Realism tend to suffer from the same pathetic complaint—deplorable and even tawdry sentimentalism.” In plays such as Strife, Loyalties, and Escape, however, Galsworthy successfully combined realistic representation with dramatic presentation of theme. His plays remain historically interesting because they embody his perceptions of English social and ethical attitudes in the early twentieth century. As examples of realistic drama, his plays have merit as the works of a sincere and careful craftsperson who wrote in a tradition made great by the true artists who made it their own: Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw.
The Silver Box
In a letter, Galsworthy remarked that the “main idea” of The Silver Box was “that ‘one law for the rich, another for the poor’ is true, but not because society wills it so, rather, in spite of society’s good intentions, through the mere mechanical wide-branching power of money.” Galsworthy’s play contrasts the unprincipled, propertied, and pragmatic upper-middle-class characters with their lower-class victims in the manipulation of the judicial system. The audience knows from the beginning who the culprits are in two related cases of petty thievery, but Galsworthy creates suspense through gradual revelation of their guilt to their families. The first thief is young Jack Barthwick, down from Oxford on vacation, who, while out drinking with a female companion, steals her purse containing seven pounds. The play opens as Jack returns to the Barthwick home with Jones, a drunken, unemployed groom. When Jack passes out, Jones steals the purse and a silver cigarette box. Jack’s theft is revealed to his family but is concealed in court at Jones’s trial until after Jones’s sentencing, when he can only cry out in helpless frustration, thus giving the audience the “main idea” of the play: “It’s ’is money got ’im off—Justice!”
The Barthwicks’ cowardly hypocrisy is illustrated throughout the play, especially in one scene at the end of act 2. Jack’s father, John Barthwick, a Liberal Member of Parliament, is so concerned that the scandal of a trial will damage his political and social reputation that he betrays his “Liberal” sympathy for the poor. One of the Jones children is heard sobbing outside the Barthwicks’ window because the child cannot find Mrs. Jones, his mother and the Barthwicks’ housekeeper (she has been wrongly...
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