Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1671
First produced: 1922
First published: 1922
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of work: Early 1920's
Ferdinand De Levis, a rich young Jew
Captain Ronald Dancy, D. S. O., retired
Mabel, his wife
Loyalties is one of the first plays to deal honestly and openly with the problem of anti-Semitism. Galsworthy takes such pains to deal fairly with both sides of the question, however, that he comes close to destroying his own thesis. The most completely drawn character is probably Captain Dancy, a man of action trying to adjust himself to a static society and finding an outlet in anti-social behavior. Although he does not ask us to condone Dancy's behavior, Galsworthy certainly enables us to understand it.
Having retired from His Majesty's service, young Captain Ronald Dancy, D.S.O., was at loose ends as to what to do with himself. Accustomed to a life of action, he at first absorbed himself in horses and women, but he found in neither the violent excitement he craved. His stable was so expensive that he was at last forced to give his Rosemary filly to his friend, Ferdinand De Levis, because he could no longer afford to keep her. As for his women, he decided to throw them all over and marry a woman who admired him, and who had the spirit which Ronny desired in his wife.
In spite of the fact that he was obviously penniless, Ronny managed to keep his memberships in his favorite London clubs, and friends invited him and his wife to their weekend parties in the country. At Meldon Court, the home of his old friend, Charles Winsor, Ronny discovered that De Levis had sold for a thousand pounds the horse Ronny had given him. He was naturally embittered by the discovery, and later in the evening his resentment prompted him to bet De Levis ten pounds that he could jump to the top of a bookcase four feet high. He won his bet, but De Levis was contemptuous of a man who would indulge in such parlor games for the sake of a little money.
Around midnight, Winsor and his wife were awakened by De Levis, who announced that the thousand pounds he had received for the sale of the filly had been stolen from under his pillow. De Levis demanded an investigation. The Winsors were reluctant to incriminate either their servants or their guests, but at the insistence of De Levis the police were called.
Ronny's friends immediately arrayed themselves against De Levis for his tactlessness in handling the matter. He instantly interpreted their attitude as the result of prejudice because he was a Jew, and Ronny substantiated his conclusion by taunting De Levis with his race. Although they tried desperately to be fair, Ronny's friends had to admit that De Levis had behaved badly, and they suddenly remembered that his father had sold carpets wholesale in the city. After all, De Levis was a little too pushing; in spite of his money he did not exactly belong to the Mayfair and country set.
De Levis carried into the club to which both men belonged the enmity aroused by Ronny's insult to his race, and he openly accused Ronny of the theft. Ronny immediately challenged him to a duel, but since such barbaric customs were no longer tolerated among gentlemen, De Levis was saved.
Ronny urged his wife Mabel to go with him to Nairobi. But she, believing in her husband's innocence, begged him to remain and fight for his good name. Realizing that to do otherwise would be an admission of guilt, Ronny consulted a lawyer and entered a suit against De Levis for defamation of character. However, the lawyer selected to defend Ronny's case was the worst choice that a man in Ronny's position could possibly have made. Old Jacob Twisden, senior partner of the firm of Twisden and Graviter, was a lawyer of the old school who believed that simple justice should take precedence over all loyalties, whether they were racial, economic, social, political, or merely personal.
In addition to the fact that he had stolen De Levis's money, Ronny had also withheld from his wife and his friends his relations with an Italian girl before his marriage. The girl's father, a wine dealer named Ricardos, had threatened to inform Ronny's wife of the relationship unless he provided for the girl. Out of fear, Ronny had been prompted to make a daring jump from his room to that of De Levis to obtain the money with which to pay Ricardos. The stolen notes were eventually identified as having passed through these different hands. When Twisden learned the true circumstances on which the case he was defending were based, he advised Ronny to drop the suit and leave the country as soon as possible. In that proposal he was seconded by Ronny's own superior officer, General Canynge, who offered Ronny a way out with a billet in the Spanish war.
When De Levis discovered that the suit was to be dropped, he appeared willing to let bygones be bygones because he felt that he had been vindicated; he wanted no money in return. But Ronny's problems were still unsolved. When he confessed to his wife the truth about all that had happened, she at first refused to believe his story. At last she agreed to follow Ronny wherever he might choose to go. Before Ronny could make his escape, however, the police arrived with a warrant for his arrest. He fled to his room and called to the officers to come and get him. Before they could reach him, he had shot himself.
What Ronny never knew was that both he and De Levis were victims of social conventions. Because Ronny belonged, his friends had been loyal. But loyalty, as they now realized, was not enough.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
In an early essay on dramatic theory, John Galsworthy stated that the playwright's best and most honest approach is to present to his audience the true picture of life as he sees it, without fear or favor, and let the audience draw its own conclusions. Few of his plays follow that dictum as completely and effectively as Loyalties. Indeed, he has so balanced his sympathies that anyone searching the play for vindication of a particular viewpoint—such as an attack on anti-Semitism—is certain to be disappointed. Loyalties is not about prejudice as such; it is, as the title implies, about "loyalties"—their nature, their effects, and their excesses.
What is the line, the playwright asks, between "prejudices" and "loyalties"? To what extent is loyalty to a set or class or group or profession a necessary social virtue? And at what point do these same loyalties become questionable, even dangerous? Using the rarefied atmosphere of cultivated upper-class British society in the 1920's, Galsworthy subtly explores these questions in all their complexity and ambiguity, while at the same time telling a powerful personal story of wasted talent and inadvertent self-destruction.
Galsworthy chooses to focus his conflict on anti-Semitism because the ambiguous position of the Jew in upper-class English society makes him the perfect catalyst for a play in which all of the "loyalties" present in such a group are to be tested. Because of his money and social contacts, Ferdinand De Levis, associates with the group, but, because of his race, he is barely tolerated by it. When he accuses Ronald Dancy, one of the most accepted and well-liked members of the set, the thin veneer of courtesy dissolves and the group's latent prejudices quickly become overt. For his own part, De Levis is probably hypersensitive in his assumption that all reaction against his claims are racially motivated.
But it is unwise to overemphasize the anti-Semitic aspect of the play. Most of the characters are decent and, under pressure, do the honest thing. They are simply trying to keep faith with their own particular set. The problem is that, in one character's words, "loyalties cut up against each other." De Levis' intensity in pursuit of the thief is not due to the money itself, but to the vindication of what he feels to be a racial insult. Charles Winsor is loyal to his idea of hospitality and reacts strongly when he feels it affronted. General Canynge is loyal to his military esprit de corps ethic and so finds it impossible to believe that Dancy, a good soldier, could be a thief. Margaret Orme and Major Colford are loyal to feelings of friendship. Ricardos is loyal to his daughter. Old Twisden is loyal to his concept of the lawyer's obligation to truth and justice. And, finally, Mabel Dancy is loyal to her husband in spite of what she learns about him. Clearly, the loyalties are not bad in themselves, but, given the momentum of the situation, some of them take on wrong and dangerous aspects.
At the center of these conflicting loyalties is the character who is both the villain and the victim in the play, Captain Ronald Dancy. He is a colorful mixture of arrogant snob and likeable daredevil. The negative aspects of his character are most evident at the beginning of the play when he is brash, snide, and overtly anti-Semitic. But later on Dancy exhibits many positive qualities: personal charm, courage, devotion and loyalty toward his wife, and a strong sense of honor. His real misfortune is to be a natural born soldier thrust into a peaceful world and a trivial social class. The pressure of needing money to settle accounts with his previous mistress, the feeling that he had been cheated by De Levis, and the need for an adventure, all push Dancy to his daring, dangerous crime. And, when he is found out, his honor demands his life as expiation; "only a pistol keeps faith," his suicide note explains. But Galsworthy, speaking through Margaret Orme, makes the final comment: "Keeps faith! We've all done that. It's not enough."