Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
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.”
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