John Galsworthy

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John Galsworthy Drama Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 2326 words.)

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idea” ofThe 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 accused, arrested, and imprisoned with her husband, even though he has admitted his guilt). The sound of the child’s suffering moves Mrs. Barthwick to suggest that the case be dropped, but Mr. Barthwick says the matter is out of their hands and refuses to help. The curtain drops on a melodramatic tableau, as Mrs. Barthwick turns her back on the crying, Mr. Barthwick covers his ears, and a servant closes the window to shut out the noise of suffering.

Galsworthy also teaches his dramatic lesson through contrasts and parallels. To illustrate further the disparity between the lives of rich and poor, he sets one scene in the Joneses’ lodgings during their meager meal of potatoes and onions and contrasts it with the following scene of the Barthwicks’ elaborate dinner. In act 3, the trial for theft is preceded by a hearing to remand the children of an out-of-work father to court custody. The court-ordered breakup of a family arouses Barthwick’s liberal sentiments, but Galsworthy shows that liberal zeal for social reform is quickly sacrificed to self-interest as Barthwick seeks to suppress all evidence of Jack’s involvement in Jones’s case.

In The Silver Box, Galsworthy attempts to portray realistically a serious issue of injustice without resorting to the heroics of melodrama. He imagines the characters as social types and describes their “keynotes” in a letter to Granville-Barker; the play has no hero, and if there is a villain, it is a social class rather than an individual. The drawback of this method was once its virtue, but the sense of recognition to be gained from its topical documentary realism has been lost, and one is left with a double overdose of obvious didacticism and melodramatic attempts to arouse pathos, as in the crying child scene.


The rise to real power of the English labor movement early in the twentieth century provided a subject suited to Galsworthy’s realistic method: Strife comes closest, among his plays, to a work of lasting value. Through the careful dramatic opposition of ideas, characters, metaphors, and structural elements, the play presents the tragedy of two fanatically iron-willed leaders who battle against each other at great cost to themselves and their followers. The play takes place during six hours on a February afternoon and evening at the Trenartha Tin Plate Works on the English-Welsh border, where a strike has lasted for five months, crippling the company and bringing suffering, hunger, and a winter without heat to the laborers. The deadlock results from the conflict between the leaders of the opposing sides, David Roberts of the strikers and John Anthony of the company directors.

Galsworthy constructed the play so that its spire of meaning would arise from the dialectic of opposing concepts represented by Anthony and Roberts. In a letter to a director who wanted to revive the play in 1931, Galsworthy insisted that “the play’s real theme” was not the battle between capital and labor but rather “hubris, or violence; Strife is, indeed, a play on extremism or fanaticism.” Both Anthony and Roberts refuse to compromise their principles by giving in to the other side; their rigidity of purpose shows a kind of heroic intellectual vainglory, producing bitterness, suffering, waste, and death. Galsworthy once more created “type” characters, but Anthony and Roberts are types as extremists, not as members of any social class—such men may be found in any class.

Galsworthy imposes structural balance on the action to achieve the resonant effect of contrast and parallelism of idea, character, and situation. The confrontations of labor and management in the first and third acts balance each other, as do the separate meetings of directors and strikers in the second and third acts, in which each side rejects its leader’s plan for action and decides to accept instead the terms for compromise proposed by the union representative. Galsworthy handles his large cast of characters with an almost schematic balancing of psychological and social types. He also uses settings, properties, and dramatic language appropriate to the theme of Strife: In several scenes, he contrasts the excesses of cold and heat, hunger and plenty, luxury and deprivation. Metaphoric language carries the idea that if Anthony and Roberts are like gods in their power over men, they are also like devils in the way they use power to cause suffering for the sake of their principles. The play has its melodramatic moments, such as the fight among the workers at the end of the second act, but overall, it is much less encumbered by the sentimentality and overly theatrical scenes that spoil many of Galsworthy’s plays.

Strife, in an understated and bitter conclusion, neither celebrates nor condemns the opposing sides in the struggle of labor versus capital; instead, it portrays the need for civility and compromise in human affairs. The plan proposed by the union representative at the beginning of the play finally is adopted; Anthony and Roberts have a moment of mutual recognition after their followers have rejected the inhumanity of blind, proud adherence to principle. The theme of hubris is, if anything, too carefully and obviously portrayed in Galsworthy’s systematic balancing of scenes, characters, and metaphors, and in the working out of a metaphoric dialectic of opposed ideas. Strife, nevertheless, remains Galsworthy’s best problem play and the best realization of his theory of drama.


Galsworthy wrote in his diary for 1921: “During the summer Loyalties was written. . . . This was the only play of mine of which I was able to say when I finished it: ‘No manager will refuse this.’” The play’s popular success proved Galsworthy to be correct; he had adapted his realistic techniques to his audience’s preference for entertainment instead of sermons. As in The Silver Box, he used a crime plot but spent far more effort creating a suspenseful modern melodrama that, along with his peek into the lives of the postwar, aristocratic, horse-racing set, includes a critique of upper-class anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, and misplaced loyalty to its own members. For the first time since The Silver Box, Galsworthy employed neither a pattern of recurrent imagery nor a central emblematic property or setting to underline his theme. The ideas in the play emerge in short speeches closely related to the action; the closest Galsworthy comes to a debate in Loyalties is the exchange between Ferdinand De Levis, a young, rich, Jewish social outsider, and General Canynge, the patrician elder statesman of Establishment values and taste. De Levis has (rightly) accused Captain Ronald Dancy, “a soldier and a gentleman,” of stealing one thousand pounds. Canynge regards De Levis as an arrogant, insolent bounder and makes no secret of his distaste for De Levis’s disregard of “the esprit de corps that exists among gentlemen.” Other significant words or phrases, such as “unwritten code,” “duty,” and “honour,” occur infrequently and unobtrusively; in context, they are appropriate to the plot and are not overly obvious guideposts to Galsworthy’s moral. Just as Galsworthy does not unduly underline the theme of intolerance, neither does he follow his usual practice of overtly pointing up the merit of charity and unselfishness. Instead, the action embodies his theme of uncharitable Christians versus charitable non-Christians in implicit and understated ways.

The play’s three acts emphasize three different kinds of loyalties in three appropriate settings. In the first act, at a country estate near Newmarket, De Levis’s accusations against Dancy are attacked by Canynge and Charles Winsor out of personal loyalty, the code of the gentleman. In the second act, at a London club, social loyalty is the subject: Canynge and Winsor fear for the reputation of the club and the army; De Levis’s loyalty to his race motivates him to refuse to sign an apology. In act 3, at the law office, loyalty to an institution, the profession of law, is emphasized. Finally, in the last scene, the Inspector embodies loyalty to a similar but more abstract institution, the Law itself.


Galsworthy appropriately structures the plot to carry the dramatic presentation of these types of loyalty and their conflicts. The controlled balancing of plot, character, and language that made Loyalties not only a popular success but also Galsworthy’s best postwar social drama served him well again in Escape, which also places less importance on ideas than on action. In a series of ten episodes organized almost cinematically, an escaped prisoner evades capture, meets a variety of characters from all social classes, and eventually, acting out of conscience, gives himself up, having come to terms with the gentleman’s code that Barthwick and Dancy betray in The Silver Box and Loyalties, respectively.


John Galsworthy Short Fiction Analysis