By Professor Richard J. Hand, University of East Anglia, UK
John G. Peters (ed.) Conrad’s Drama: Contemporary Reviews and Observations (Brill Rodopi 2019), pp. 516. Hardback, £92.00.
The theatre of Joseph Conrad will always be an obscure part of his oeuvre, as modest in output and achievement as his fiction is comprehensive. The plays received limited exposure and Conrad himself was uncertain about his dramatic work with moods that range from reticence to downright terror when he engages with the world of theatre. Nevertheless, exploring Conrad and the stage gives us a fascinating insight into his literary imagination and the wider cultural context of his time. All of Conrad’s plays were either adaptations of his own fiction or, in the case of The Book of Job (published 1931), his only translation from Polish, the source text being Bruno Winawer’s 1921 satirical comedy. Conrad’s dramatic opus amounts to a small cluster of titles, but they span critical years. His first play, One Day More (1905), emerged when the British stage was encouraging novelists to help inaugurate a literary theatre to make English drama catch up with the phenomenal achievements of the European stage. Conrad’s major dramatic phase is a flurry of activity towards the end of his life with his experiment in Grand Guignol theatre, Laughing Anne; the aforementioned Polish translation; and The Secret Agent (1922) which receives a high-profile West End production. Throughout this artistic endeavour, the press is never far away: these were new, ambitious works for the stage by the celebrated man of letters Joseph Conrad, after all. A prospect to pique curiosity, if nothing else.
John G. Peters has done a brilliant job in collating the reviews and observations of Conrad’s drama, exploring their reception both as works on the page and on the stage. The fact that the volume is over 450 pages long makes us realise how important this ‘obscure’ aspect of Conrad’s oeuvre truly is. We find his work being appraised from literary magazines to the tabloid press, with reviewers ranging from the contemporary giants of theatre criticism (William Archer, J. T. Grein, Max Beerbohm, Herbert Farjeon and others – the rollcall is remarkable) to the anonymous. Peters has organized the collection logically and reading this chronological assemblage takes us on a fascinating journey from Conrad’s Edwardian peak to his 1920s twilight years. This journey is as compelling for a theatre scholar as it is for a Conrad specialist. Yes, there are shortcomings and false starts: his Grand-Guignol play misfires and is not produced on the stage until the year 2000; and, in his most ambitious dramatic work, Conrad takes the ingeniously structured – and enduringly relevant – The Secret Agent (1907) and adapts it fifteen years later into a strictly chronological play which loses its irony and eventually horrifies the playwright himself. However, these shortcomings are precisely what make Peters’ collection so engaging. Conrad’s plays are not paradigm-shifting moments of English stagecraft – for that we should turn to the contemporaneous output of George Bernard Shaw and John Galsworthy or even Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike’s London Grand Guignol seasons. Rather, in Conrad, we find plays that divide opinion, that perplex or inadvertently amuse but can also be acclaimed as intelligent, experimental and ahead of their time. Peters’ magnificent collection makes us hear a diverse chorus of anticipation, reception and analysis, giving us an insight into how Conrad’s plays were received in the West End and beyond but also how they were read as literature upon publication.
One Day More – Conrad’s own adaptation of his short story ‘To-morrow’ (1902) – abides as his most successful play and in Peters’ masterfully assembled collection we find reviews that reveal how keenly the play was received when it was first performed in London in 1905 and published a few years after. The reception is largely positive – ‘welcome’, excellent’, ‘magnificent’, ‘astonishing’ – reflecting the theatre scene’s hope that writers of Conrad’s calibre might be lured away from fiction to improve the modern stage. The play enjoys a respectable legacy of performance, which Peters helps to chart, with productions during Conrad’s lifetime in Paris, Birmingham, Washington DC, and elsewhere, and significant revivals in New York City after his death. Particularly interesting are the radio productions of One Day More by the BBC (1929) and in Dublin (1930): as one reviewer comments during this burgeoning era of wireless broadcasting, One Day More is ‘peculiarly suited to the microphone’.
Unsurprisingly, The Secret Agent receives the most attention, dominating the collection with over 200 pages of previews and reception. Staged at the Ambassadors Theatre in the heart of the West End by the successful producer J. H. Benrimo and a cast of notable stage actors, including Russell Thorndike and Miriam Lewes, The Secret Agent should have been hard to miss – but most people evidently did as it ran for little over a week. This is where we are struck by the complexity of Conrad and adaptation: Conrad was doubtlessly encouraged to return to playwriting by the success of Basil Macdonald Hastings and Marie Löhr’s production of Victory (1915) at London’s Globe Theatre in 1919 and yet Conrad’s own dramatization of The Secret Agent is a flop. In many respects, the reasons are obvious: Victory is a well-crafted melodrama in an exotic setting with the outstanding Löhr in the central role as Lena. Hastings’ adaptation will retain the thrilling exposition of the novel but gives us a life-affirming ending with Heyst and Lena surviving to live – we can only assume – happily ever after. The Secret Agent is something else: it is a nihilistic and uncompromising story even in adaptation, despite Conrad’s adjustments (for example, Winnie collapses into insanity rather than take her own life), and its bleak mood and rather Continental scenography and lighting design did not chime with the sensibilities of a London audience who preferred to flock to different fare for a good night out at theatre.
Peters has brought together the full gamut of anticipation and response to The Secret Agent. Excited previews give us unique snapshots including quotes from interviews with Conrad, which give us a wonderful chance to ‘hear’ his voice. This can include insights into Conrad’s own way of looking at his most ambitious play such as when he asks the interviewer from The Citizen, a regional newspaper from Gloucester, ‘Tell the public that this is my first play about London. I am very proud to pay a compliment to this great city’. By the time the reviews come out, scalpels are drawn from some quarters and the dissection begins. When the play is pronounced dead, various interpretations are made in the autopsy. For some reviewers, the play proves that Conrad is a genius of fiction but a second-rate playwright: a fact that dooms him as completely as it did other novelists who naively dared to venture from the page to the stage such as Henry James. For other critics, the pessimistic theme and the contemporary socio-political climate would seem to be far from ideal for a play as serious as this one. Meanwhile, other critics show more sympathy when they lament that the play was far from poor but was never going to be given a chance by reviewers who unfairly condemned the production from the get-go and frightened away any potential spectator. What is remarkable, overall, is the sheer range of critical voices and approaches Peters has captured: it makes one realise that sometimes it is more interesting and revealing to explore a critical failure than a unanimous triumph. We might even dare to argue that this collection is invaluable for scholars of The Secret Agent novel as much as those directly interested in this curious, lesser-known play. It may always be a footnote in theatre history – and we must not pretend otherwise – but for Conradians it provides an exceptional insight not just into the novel and its adaptation but the creative process, reception and biography of the writer himself.
© Richard J. Hand