Henry James: Playwright

Henry James’s The American, his adaptation of his 1877 novel, had its London premiere on this day in 1891. Though his first venture into the theater, James thought that he had “written a big (and awfully good) four-act play, by which I hope to make my fortune.” The opening night of the provincial tour seemed to suggest that he was right: coaxed out from the wings, James shared numerous bows with the cast and, as described in a letter to a friend afterward, gave himself up to the thrill of the footlights:

...at the end of all, one (after a decent and discreet display) simpered and gave oneself up to courbettes before the curtain, while the applausive house emitted agreeable sounds from a kind of gas-flaring indistinguishable dimness and the gratified Compton [Edward Compton, lead actor] publicly pressed one's hand and one felt that, really, as far as Southport could testify to the circumstance, the stake was won.

A month later he was revising downwards — “You can form no idea,” he wrote to his brother, “…of how a provincial success is confined to the provinces” — but the London opening went ahead. The play got mixed reviews there, and made no money, but James came away feeling that he was “utterly launched” as a playwright. A handful of plays followed, none of them produced; in 1895, after the spectacular, jeering failure of Guy Domville — this a central event not only for the biographies but for Colm Toibin’s The Master (2004) and David Lodge’s Author, Author (2004) — James turned back to fiction.

 The birthday of the American journalist and humorist Frank Sullivan was earlier this week — September 22, 1892. Among the many pieces he wrote for The New Yorker was a series poking fun at the journalistic clichés of the day. The series ran for seventeen years, allowing Magnus Arbuthnot, the persona which Sullivan created as his “cliché expert,” to instruct on the correct chestnut for every topic, from baseball to politics to Christmas. The passage below is taken from “The Cliché Expert Testifies on the Drama”:

Q — Now, then, when great ladies of the stage are in a cast…
A — They are never in a cast. They grace a cast.
Q — I beg your pardon. When they grace a cast, how do they act?
A — With emotional intensity, consummate artistry, and true awareness. They are superb as. They are magnificent in the role of. It is good to have them back.
Q — And how are their performances etched?
A — Finely. They have the ring.
Q — What ring?
A — The ring of authority. They bring new understanding to the role of Shakespeare’s immortal heroine. They make the part come alive.
Q — I see. Now, Mr. Arbuthnot, when Thornton Sherwood writes a play…
A — Sir, the mot juste continues to elude you. Playwrights do not write plays. They fashion them.
Q — How?
A — With due respect for the eternal verities….

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