In 1894, Henry Arthur Jones called for “a school of plays of serious intention, plays that implicitly assert the value and dignity of human life, that it has great passions and great aims, and is full of meaning and importance.” He set out to gain respect for the theater as a serious art form, rejecting the sensational melodrama so prevalent on the English stage. In The Old Drama and the New (1923), William Archer, a distinguished, perceptive critic, looked back at the theatrical world of late-Victorian and Edwardian England. For Archer, Jones was a natural dramatist whose chief aim was to criticize life as he saw it and especially to expose philistinism. Jones’s chief weakness, in Archer’s view, was his inability to free himself from the melodramatic traditions in which he served his theatrical apprenticeship. Jones’s work largely falls into two categories: melodrama and comedy of intrigue. “The pity is” writes Archer, “that the world of his imagination is not sunlit but limelit.”
Jones was a superb craftsperson and the author of a melodrama to outdo all the others, The Silver King, and of two brilliantly constructed plays, The Liars and Mrs. Dane’s Defence. He is remembered as a champion of the serious theater, of the theater of ideas, and as an advocate of theatrical freedom. Jones was largely antagonistic toward contemporary theatrical developments, finding, for example, Anton Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908) to be the product of “someone who had visited a lunatic asylum.” Even though Jones was eclipsed by Pinero, Shaw, and Wilde, his best plays are still appreciated. After all, as Shaw pointed out, Jones possessed “creative imagination, curious observation, inventive humour, originality, sympathy, and sincerity.”
The Silver King
The plot of The Silver King, Jones’s first major success, provides a good illustration of his manipulation of melodramatic form. The play contains dialogue that is natural without being artificial (a quality of Jones’s drama at its best), real passion, and some elements of genuine comedy (a quality sometimes lacking in Jones). The Silver King has a wronged hero, a persecuted heroine, a ruthless landlord, a snobbish aristocrat, a faithful family servant, a detective, and a Cockney comic. Wilfred Denver loses his money at the races and, while drowning his sorrows in a London pub, is taunted by his wife’s former admirer, Henry Ware. Denver publicly swears to kill Ware. Ware’s house is broken into by a gang led by the aristocrat Captain Skinner; Denver is chloroformed. Skinner, using Denver’s gun, kills Ware, and Denver, believing that he is the murderer, takes a train north from London—the dramatist not missing the opportunity to throw in a scenically lavish but costly railway scene. Denver gets out at the first station and subsequently discovers that the train he was on has crashed. The police believe him to be dead. Going to the United States, he makes a fortune in the Montana silver mines. Returning to England, Denver discovers that his starving, ailing wife and child are to be ejected from Skinner’s land without a roof over their heads. Secretly he gives them money and, in the disguise of an idiot, infiltrates Skinner’s gang in order to find out what really happened. Justice triumphs in the end. All the ingredients of classic melodrama are here: an exciting plot, a great deal of action, violence, intrigue, a wronged hero and a suffering heroine, a malignant and devious villain of aristocratic origins, asinine police officers, and the triumph of good over evil. Even Matthew Arnold (not an easy critic to please), writing in the Pall Mall Gazette, December 6, 1882, thought that Jones had managed to transcend the limitations of his chosen genre: “Throughout the piece the diction and sentiments are natural, they have sobriety, they are literature.” In spite of Jones’s subsequent attempts to free himself from the shackles of melodrama and to write serious theatrical literature, he is still remembered for The Silver King, with its masterly use of well-tried formulas and its invigorating theatricality.
Saints and Sinners
Saints and Sinners is an example of Jones’s early attempts to render contemporary social problems dramatically, to write “plays of serious intention.” The plot revolves around a village girl’s seduction by a handsome, worldly villain—the Little Emily syndrome. The honest fiancé is forced abroad, returning to claim his girl. Jones’s aim in Saints and Sinners, as stated in his preface to the published text (in which Jones changed his original ending to a happy one), was to expose the “ludicrous want of harmony, or apparently of even the most distant relation of any sort between a man’s religious professions and his actions.” Letty, the seduced, is the daughter of a pastor in conflict with his materialistic congregation. Pastor Fletcher opposes the attempt of his deacon, a tanner, to throw the widow of his former partner out of his home. The tanner, Hoggard, makes public Letty’s seduction, and Fletcher is forced by his congregation...
(The entire section is 2144 words.)