If, as I have suggested, George used his long weekend leave to put his literary manuscripts in order, then as well as working on a detailed synopsis of Tahiti (see my posts of 14 and 21 March) he must have done something on his one-act play The Lamp, because when Kittie came to prepare all of George’s one-acters for publication in 1921 she found parts of The Lamp existed ‘only in the form of rough draft’. The draft could not have been that rough, however, as the version Kittie published reads seamlessly.
The British theatre today has a highly problematical relationship with one-act plays. In the 1980s, I seem to remember, Harold Pinter wrote to The Times objecting to a short dramatic work being described in its pages as ‘not a play’. For him, it was a ‘play’ whether it lasted twenty minutes or provided ‘two hours traffic of our stage’. But it is extremely difficult to get such plays staged, because even two of them, with interval, last less than an hour, and as numerous playwrights have discovered (including myself) a programme of shorts is considered too disparate for a modern audience to cope with.
Thus there is no ‘market’ for short plays today, except perhaps in the amateur dramatic world and especially drama festivals (see the first-rate book edited by Rex Walford and Colin Dolley, The One-Act Play Companion).
But it was not always so. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras there was a vast market for one-act plays as curtain-raisers. Not all the audience arrived in time to watch the whole of the curtain-raiser, but by the time it was over they were there and ‘settled’ for the main play. Once a curtain-raiser was in repertory, it could be trotted out over the seasons to precede entirely different plays. This meant that if a dramatist wrote a good one-acter, it might be performed all over the country for years and become a nice little earner for him (as was the case for Chekhov with his ‘vaudevilles’). This is exactly what happened to George’s The Little Stone House, which was premiered by the Stage Society in January 1911, toured Britain and to Canada with the Manchester Repertory Company 1911-13, was performed by numerous other companies, and was still being revived and broadcast on radio in the 1920s. It was so successful that George’s friend Rupert Brooke decided he must cash in by writing his own imitation of it, Lithuania.
As I shall probably discuss next weekend, the subject of The Lamp is similar to that of The Little Stone House — reprising a successful formula is always good commercial sense, of course — but the differences are crucial; fundamental. This was the last play George wrote, and his final emphasis is very significant. Doubtless he was hoping to repeat his success with The Little Stone House, which is why he was taking infinite pains in March 1915 to get such a short play (18 printed pages) right…
The scene is set in Syria around AD 50 and a stage direction requires ‘soft “Arabian Night” evening sky’. Theophanes has been converted by St Paul and is revered as a hermit. But really he is an idolater, a totemist, because he is fixated on a lamp that he has ‘vowed to keep […] always burning to the glory of God’. He is described as an ‘ascetic of about forty-two or -three’, yet he is married to a ‘beautiful woman of about twenty-eight or thirty’ called Myrrhina and they have a son, Yanoula, ‘a fair, handsome boy of nine or ten’.
When the play opens, the ‘holy lamp’ on an altar in their hut is about to go out for lack of money to buy oil. Myrrhina loves her husband for converting her, but her Christian beliefs enable her to see the lamp in perspective:
If it go out, has not its flame lighted a flame in a thousand bosoms that will never die? […] If God needed your vow, he would send you the means to fulfil your vow. No, though your vow fail, yet shall we still continue in the joys of his blessing, we three together, you and I and our son.
At this point, a ‘sleek and prosperous’ merchant, Kolónimos, appears with a bag of gold. He is a slave-trader and ‘the greatest sinner in Antioch’, but he too has made a vow: he will ‘make restitution to God’ by endowing money to buy oil for the lamp in perpetuity, and he throws the money on the altar. At first Theophanes welcomes this as a miracle, but since Kolónimos will not renounce his calling, the hermit rejects the ‘unclean’ money. As obsessional as Theophanes, the merchant says he cannot break his vow either. He tries to make Theophanes accept the money as payment for ‘some charm or philtre to restore the waning lustiness of youth’, but Theophanes objects: ‘I have nothing to sell.’ Then the slave-trader sees Yanoula and twists the story of Abraham and Isaac to persuade Theophanes that it will be ‘the will of God’ to sell his son into (paedophile) slavery. For the sake of the lamp and in the name of sacrificing ‘earthly joy’ — his own son — Theophanes agrees and the deal is struck. But Kolónimos leaves Yanoula with his parents until morning. When Myrrhina returns and hears what her husband has done, she tries to reason with him, but he is blinded by his belief that he must sacrifice others to attain what he sees as his own glory in heaven. She continues to counter his arguments, implores Theophanes to leave the lamp and their unhappy home, but he will not. She takes Yanoula and as they depart she ‘strikes down the dying lamp’.
The play ends with the direction: ‘The man stays with the money about him, and the lamp broken, weeping.’
Next entry: ‘Bifurcation’ and ‘chronotopia’ again