(Patricia) Ann Jellicoe THE TIMES, London - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ann Jellicoe's play [Shelley] … will come as a surprise to those who associate her simply with verbally experimental studies of the teenage scene.

But, like her two previous plays, it is the work of a writer mainly concerned with overhauling theatrical form. In The Knack content took second place to speech rhythms; and in Shelley she seems much less concerned with saying anything of interest about the poet than with putting Victorian melodrama back on its feet.

It is a rather self-conscious exercise. Actors in the programme are listed as "heavy", "walking gentleman", "general utility", and other Victorian theatrical categories.

Some of the straight melodramatic effects come off—such as the overbearing Westbrook's plot to snare Shelley into marrying Harriet, and the subsequent episodes of marital estrangement and suicide (not Harriet's actual dive into the Serpentine, though). What is missing is boldness of construction and the sheer sense of energy. Miss Jellicoe seems to have lost confidence in her chosen form, and written instead a documentary melodrama.

It thus becomes hard to tell how the play is meant to be understood. Sometimes it sticks exactly to the facts. Even Shelley's expulsion from Oxford by a tribunal of ludicrous pedagogues is given in direct quotation; and for his death Trelawny (hastily donning a yachting jacket) simply steps forward and delivers the appropriate passage from The Last Days of Shelley and Byron to the assembled cast.

On the other hand, to create a melodramatic scene, Miss Jellicoe involves Mary Godwin in fierce jealousy for Jane Williams—when, by all accounts, the historical Mary regarded Jane as one of the few comforts that life at Lerici had to offer.

Shelley himself … goes through the action in the obligatory white shirt displaying a swan-like neck; but the writing offers no interpretation of him. At one moment he seems a noble idealist and at the next a monster of self-deception.

The play is at its best in the occasional passages of old-fashioned psychological drama. These do not light up the protagonist, but they do provide powerful moments for … [the] gently hypocritical Godwin, and … [for Mary Godwin], who has one speech, blaming Italian exile for the death of her children, that has the true voice of feeling.

"Documentary Melodrama of Poet's Life," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1965), October 19, 1965, p. 16.