The Conradian: Review

By Owen Knowles, University of Hull Research Fellow

Richard J. Hand, The Theatre of Joseph Conrad: Reconstructed Fictions. London: Palgrave, 2005. Pp. xvii +192. £45.

Richard Hand begins his study on a note of teasing understatement: “Of all things, why Conrad’s plays? Why write about such an unfulfilled enterprise if not downright failure? What’s the point of venturing into a shallow and stagnant backwater of both literary and theatrical history?” In fact, as readers of The Conradian and Conradiana, will know, this “stagnant backwater” is already in the process of being reclaimed as an area of fertile cultivation.

Through a number of articles and as a stage-director, Hand himself has contributed significantly to the growing interest in Conrad’s theatre, as have Alison E. Wheatley and Neill R. Joy, the editors of the planned Cambridge Edition of Conrad’s plays. So Hand’s study comes at an opportune moment – it is the first full-length monograph on Conrad the playwright as well as a token of things to come, including a reliable edition of the plays themselves. Has the opportunity been taken? The answer is a virtually unqualified “Yes.”

Hand approaches his subject with relish, writes well, and has produced a valuable addition to Conrad studies. Careful scholarship and patient analysis combine with one other quality absolutely necessary to this kind of project – that is, an acute sense of how the play-text translates into working theatrical performance.

The monograph is clearly and unfussily organized. After a small gallery of illustrations, it opens with a preface and broad introduction to Conrad’s theatre (which also sets out Hand’s methodology for dealing with the adaptation process). There then follow four chapters on the individual plays – One Day More, Victory, Laughing Anne, and The Secret Agent – with a final summarizing coda. Victory is included in the corpus since, if not strictly a self-adaptation, it shows Conrad enthusiastically collaborating with Macdonald Hastings; although composition of Laughing Anne followed that of The Secret Agent, the latter – as Conrad’s most ambitious and high-profile piece – is reserved for the final chapter.

Hand has four stated aims: (1) to give a fuller and more systematic account of the plays than hitherto; (2) to examine them as “self-adaptations” that simultaneously throw light on Conrad’s dramatic practice and on the stories being adapted; (3) to provide an appropriate contemporary theatrical context for Conrad’s plays; and (4) to explore the ways in which they foreshadow later stage practice.

In almost all respects, this study makes good on its promises. The detailed and wide-ranging contextualization of the plays brings Conrad the dramatist into meaningful relationship with many of the most important theatrical movements, genres, and practices of the day. Its parameters embrace the English Literary Theatre Movement of the 1890s, Victorian melodrama, “New Woman” plays, the tradition of French symbolist drama, contemporary acting styles and the “star” system, and French Grand-Guignol, upon which Hand has written a separate general study.

The age’s popular tastes are also measured through its reviews and – in an illuminating addition – the stage-censor’s reports on Conrad’s plays. The only significant omission here is the period’s high opera, the possible impact of which on Conrad is acknowledged but un explored, even though it might have added a further dimension to the account of Victory as novel and stage-play.

Hand draws on these contexts selectively and adeptly in the main body of his study, making his chapters into a series of absorbing case-studies. In the analysis of both One Day More and Victory, there is a mainly convincing defence of varieties of stage-melodrama (although in the case of the Victory, Hand is perhaps overly defensive about a play whose happy and idealized ending is, in his own words, “troubling if analysed in any depth”).

But the most rewarding parts of his study are those showing the importance of Grand-Guignol conventions in the formation of Conrad’s last two plays, Laughing Anne and The Secret Agent. Conrad called the first his “little Guignol play” and seems to have written it specifically for the Little Theatre, which in 1920 introduced versions the French “theatre of horror” to London; likewise, in adapting The Secret Agent, he was always aware of the play’s nearness to Guignol effects once he had resolved to make it as “horrible” as he possibly could in order to force easy-going people to “sup on horrors” (CL6 518, 520).

Hand traces the evolution of Grand-Guignol (which, he notes, has the equivalent meaning of “Punch and Judy for Adults”) from its violent and bloodcurdling beginnings on the turn-of-the-century Paris stage to its less brazen British counterparts at the Little Theatre. Seeing it as a distant precursor of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, he comments: “Grand-Guignol is distinctly an evolution of melodrama, but it is melodrama in a post-Nietzschean world.… The Grand-Guignol parades horrors in an erratic, unstable universe resulting in a terrifying nihilism. It is little wonder that Conrad shares an affinity with it.”

Just what this “affinity” entails is made clear in an excellent analysis of the shaping power of English Grand-Guignol conventions on the themes and structure of Laughing Anne and parts of The Secret Agent, with attention given to the pot-pourri of performance horrors (ranging from grotesque physical malformation to darkly escalating terror), the yoking together of violence and the erotic, and the heightened combination of sensationalist melodrama and naturalistic detail.

In pondering the way in which Conrad’s plays anticipate – albeit sometimes only shadowily – later developments in drama, Hand produces some brilliantly apt analogies (with, for example, the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett). Only on one or two occasions do analogies seem strained, as with the comparison of The Secret Agent play and Howard Brenton’s Christie in Love, or under-developed, as in the brief allusion to possible links between Conrad and Harold Pinter.

This analogy would bear much more weight than Hand places on it. From the closet-drama of “The Return” (with its intriguing resemblance to Pinter’s The Lover) through Lord Jim to One Day More, Conrad can be found to be Pinteresque avant la lettre in his exploration of a dialogue that exploits indeterminate pause, agitated repetition, silences, and speech fragments in order to create what, in relation to his first play, he described as “the mental and emotional atmosphere of the situation.” For his part, Pinter’s screenplays are invariably prompted by a strong sense of affinity with the adapted author, a fact that surely helps to explain his engagement with the theatrical and cinematic possibilities of Conrad’s work in his screenplay of Victory.

These are, however, only minor queries and cavils. While acknowledging the more practical motives that led Conrad to write for the stage, Hand’s study nevertheless argues forcefully for the intrinsic qualities of the plays, clearly shows how the short story and full-length novel pose different sets of problems for Conrad the self-adaptor, and follows his response to those challenges. In shedding considerable light upon potentially theatrical qualities in the adapted works (as is especially the case with the analysis of “To-morrow”), it also has a much wider appeal than its specialized title might imply.

In general, Hand trusts to the well chosen example to make his case, without veering into inflated claim. His overall view of Conrad’s drama is that while it can be “peculiar,” sometimes plainly deficient, or occasionally over-faithful to the original text, it is almost always provocative in its awkwardly placed relation to the period’s standard theatrical fare and positively striking in its proto-modern elements.

The Theatre of Joseph Conrad develops the basis for this view with an impressive command of the period’s theatre history, much persuasive evidence, generous open-mindedness, and an exhilarating range of reference.

© 2006 Owen Knowles






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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.