Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2134
Henry James’s legacy to drama is a perspective on American and British upper-and middle-class social life that no one else could imitate. He brought to his drama the multicultural understanding that was the basis of his best fiction. Onstage, as in a narrative, he tracked turn-of-the-century Americans and their English counterparts through courtship and marriage, leisure and business, money and art. The drama that resulted was not always successful but was an instructive experiment in dramatic style. Concentrating his effort on the creation of a social milieu in which manners function as they should, James offered a world in which morality is not a matter of right and wrong but a negotiating between individual wants and society’s needs. The two most important components of the milieu, or atmosphere, in James’s plays are the women who are in control and the missions of social and moral salvation on which they embark.
James was influenced by two dramatic traditions—those of the French and the English theaters. James’s intimate knowledge of French theater that he acquired in Paris convinced him that the well-made play was the model to imitate. In his earliest plays, he tried to approximate the neat plots, the series of climaxes, and the easy identification of right and wrong he found in the French drama. As James himself showed in his comparative studies of English and French drama, however, the French model could not be translated neatly into English. James had often complained of the crude morality of English theater audiences, going so far as to label its tastes immoral, yet as he practiced his own playwriting skills in the 1890’s, it became clear that he was finding the English tradition of the comedy of manners as useful a model as the French tradition of the well-made play. Borrowing from the English tradition both a striving to balance opposites and a stylized concentration on wit, social artistry, and women, James wrote his best plays.
James’s theater career is divided in two by the ill-fated production of Guy Domville in 1895. In the first part of his career, while still in his twenties, James wrote three short plays, “Pyramus and Thisbe,” “Still Waters,” and “A Change of Heart,” which were published as short stories and suggest his attraction to witty, comic dialogue and romantic plots. These were followed by adaptations of his novels Daisy Miller and The American, the first commissioned for an American production with Daniel Frohman in 1882 but never produced, and the second commissioned by British manager Edward Compton in 1889 and produced in 1891. Neither adaptation was successful, but James’s lifelong desire to write for the theater had been awakened and he went on to spend the five years from 1890 to 1895 consumed by drama.
These years, which Edel has labeled “the dramatic years,” are marked in James’s letters, notebooks, and life by the great hopes and disappointments tied to the stage. Although James completed at least six plays and parts of several others during these years, only The American and Guy Domville were produced. When James was hooted off the stage during the curtain call of Guy Domville in January of 1895, he pronounced himself done with theater. James’s letters of early 1895 are full of his feeling that drama (the written product) must be separated from theater (the onstage product), but, as his later involvement with the theater attests, he could not relinquish the hope of seeing his plays produced. While the second half of James’s theater career, after 1895, was not marked by the great energy, commitment, and concentration of the earlier period, the plays of this period are more mature and natural. James wrote an early version of The High Bid immediately after the Guy Domville debacle and completed four plays after 1895, his best among them.
The American and The Outcry
The failures in James’s plays are of two extremes, represented by his earliest (The American) and latest (The Outcry) full-length dramatic works. When James adapted his novel The American for the stage in 1890, his decision to use the French well-made play as a model led him to simplify the cultural collisions of the story, so that in the play, the cultured French become everything bad and the innocent American Christopher Newman is everything good. James’s imitation of his French model also produced superfluous entrances and exits and melodramatic dialogue and confrontations, and necessitated the addition of a neat, happy ending. Later, James would build a synthesis out of the meeting of European and American morals by borrowing from the comedy of manners, but in this play he offered only a stalemate. By the time of James’s last full-length play, The Outcry (written in 1909), he had mastered the basics of dramatic construction, but the play is nevertheless a failure, the wit and repartee of its dialogue obscured by oblique references and convoluted thinking. The Outcry is too much art and too little life. James’s best plays—The Reprobate, Guy Domville, and The High Bid—offer believable social milieus and delightful characters and dialogue.
The Reprobate is the best of the four plays James published in 1894 in his two-volume series, Theatricals: Tenants and Disengaged and Theatricals, Second Series: The Album and The Reprobate. The play’s two main characters, Mrs. Freshville and Paul Doubleday, are former lovers who meet by chance at the Hampton Court villa of Mr. Bonsor. Mrs. Freshville is there chasing a new love, Captain Chanter, although she eventually ends up with a third man, Pitt Brunt. Doubleday lives there as a ward of Mr. Bonsor; Doubleday is the “reprobate” of the title, whose past indiscretions have necessitated his now being closely guarded. In the course of the play he matures, aided by both Mrs. Freshville and his new love, Blanche Amber. The play is the earliest example of James’s mastery of dramatic form. The tight construction of the play is suspenseful, not artificial, and melodrama has become a technique James uses to good effect at the end of his acts. James has also adapted the milieu of the comedy of manners successfully. The dialogues are enticing mixtures of wit, innuendo, and manipulation, and the comedy-of-manners emphasis on social decorum and romance is believable.
James also developed, in The Reprobate, the controlling female character who would become the hallmark of his drama. Mrs. Freshville assumes control of the play’s events from her first entrance, displaying her understanding of her social world as one where a person gains power by knowing how to play social games. Blanche Amber is, in many ways, a younger Mrs. Freshville, just learning how her world operates and practicing her newfound social skills. Together, Blanche Amber and Mrs. Freshville direct attention to the issues of the play as they set out to “save” Doubleday. They teach the overprotected Doubleday that social power lies in an understanding of manners, and they teach him how to use that power. By the end of the play, he has learned his lesson well, and his message is James’s: Good, bad, and freedom are relative concepts which must be negotiated in the world of manners. The play’s first production came in 1919, in London, after James’s death. It received both praise and criticism but established the stageworthiness of James’s delicate brand of manners comedy.
Guy Domville is the best known of James’s dramas, although it is remembered for its melodramatic stage failure rather than its artistic merits. James wrote the play in 1893 for George Alexander, the popular actor-manager of London’s fashionable St. James’s Theatre, and worked closely with Alexander and his cast during rehearsals. On the play’s opening night, January 5, 1895, however, James was too nervous to watch the production of his own play and spent the evening at a production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (pr. 1895). In his absence, James’s first act met with great approval, but his second act was jeered, and the third merely tolerated. When James returned to the St. James’s Theatre, he was encouraged by Alexander to acknowledge the curtain-call applause, completely unprepared for the vicious disapproval and hooting with which the audience greeted him. He left the stage “green with dismay” (in the words of actor Franklyn Dyall) and vowed to friends that he would abandon the theater altogether. The play continued its run for four weeks and did not, in the end, mark the conclusion of James’s playwriting career, but James’s attitude to playwriting had been irrevocably changed. He would never again write plays in which he made such a personal investment.
As even the first-night audience knew, however, the play had its merits. Although Guy Domville is not a comedy of manners, James had created for this serious drama a mannered milieu that had a grace, charm, and delicacy rare on the English stage. Reviewers including Arthur B. Walkley and George Bernard Shaw, applauded a dialogue that was witty and playful while allowing the characters to discuss the play’s serious issues. While the play, like most of James’s other plays, has a love interest, that love is a platonic one between Guy Domville, a young man about to enter the Church, and Mrs. Peverel, a widow whose child Guy is tutoring. Instead of detailing this love, James focuses on the choice Guy must make between entering the Church and accepting his family’s call to join them in the fast-paced social world. The play is marred by the melodrama of an unbelievable scene in act 2 in which Guy and another character, George Round, feign drunkenness to trick each other, but generally its topics, seriously expressed, are those of James’s other plays: the potential artificiality of mannered life, the saving of individual freedom and morality, and the connection between manners and morals. The play is atypical of his work in that it is not a comedy and is not centered on a powerful woman, but it is the first of James’s plays in which his central character is portrayed as a social “artist” who masters the “art” of living.
The High Bid
Also in 1895, shortly after the stage failure of Guy Domville, James wrote the one-act “Summersoft” for British actress Ellen Terry. Terry never performed the play, but James expanded it to the full three-act play The High Bid in 1907 and saw it successfully performed both in Edinburgh and London by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and his company in 1908. The play is James’s best because in it he combined the clean dramatic lines that he mastered in his earlier plays with the cultural insights of his last years. The key to the play’s success is Mrs. Gracedew, an American widow who uses her position as a cultural outsider to show the play’s Britons why their society’s traditions and manners are sacred. Mrs. Gracedew comes to Covering End, the family home of Captain Yule, merely to visit, but finds herself obliged to save the majestic home from the greedy Mr. Prodmore. She also saves Prodmore’s daughter, Cora, from a bad love match and successfully engineers her own love match with Yule.
Specific structural techniques James had garnered from his long apprenticeship to the well-made play—suspenseful act closings and ups and downs in a character’s fortunes—embellish one of the simplest of James’s play plots in The High Bid. Such simplicity is balanced by the rich comedy-of-manners milieu, with characters aware of decorum and full of politeness and well-timed deference. Because Mrs. Gracedew—as an American—is an outsider to this mannered world, she has learned its ways almost better than the natives. More than any other character, she commands this world of nuance through innuendo and indirection, wit and wordplay. In her, James created his fullest portrait of the social artist and social savior. What Mrs. Gracedew must save is upper-class British society, a mission accomplished in part through her alliance with young Cora, in part by detailing for others, primarily Yule, the ideals of mannered life, which preserve culture and civilization. Although the progressive Yule raises important questions about inequities in this system that Mrs. Gracedew defends, she is successful in her mission: She saves a world in which manners are morals and life is a delicate art, as James himself sought to save the comedy of manners as a viable dramatic form. In a series of letters that he exchanged with George Bernard Shaw in 1907, James defended his dramatic art as a rarefied and complex image of life, valuable precisely because it challenges audiences to strive for the most that they can possibly achieve in life. In The High Bid, James created such a dramatic world, where life is an art worth saving.