Henry James Drama Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2134 words.)