‘The Lamp’ (Concluded)

Today, 18 April 1915, was a Sunday. Kittie doubtless went to church (we don’t yet know which one), with Nina, Jim Corbet and her god-daughter Lesbia very much on her mind. Perhaps George thought further about what he was going to write to Nina, and he probably tinkered further with his manuscripts…

A few weeks ago someone asked me why I thought his plays had disappeared from the British repertory. I should say immediately that they had a very good run: The Fountain staged 1909-12 in four major productions, one of which toured the country; a full-blown production of Revolt in 1912; a curtain-raiser, The Little Stone House, repeatedly performed in theatres and on radio through to the 1930s; and translations of two Chekhov plays that were used in eminent productions right up to 1950.

But, yes, it was the Look Back in Anger revolution, and the revilement of the Great War nation generally, that put George’s plays and much other Edwardian drama (Pinero, Sutro, Barker, Galsworthy, Hankin, but not Shaw) into mothballs. Even so, as I was walking past one tawdry West End theatre hoarding after another yesterday I found myself thinking that British theatre does not = West End + big subsidised houses (which these days are almost as commercial). British theatre also lives — perhaps is most alive — in regional productions, fringe productions, semi-professional productions, the myriad amateur productions. And in fact it is quite possible that George’s one-acters are still alive and kicking in the amateur world, just as I recently discovered The Maharani of Arakan is. The admirable One-act Play Companion of 2006, for instance, tells its readers that several of George’s short plays are ‘of considerable interest’.

The problem where theatrical realisation of George’s one-acters is concerned is not at all that they are written in ‘Edwardian’ language, it is that each one is written in a special, different language of its own; one that we, with our naturalistic notions, automatically reject as ‘artificial’, but which is actually a product of Calderonian art.

On the face of it, The Little Stone House is written in stiff, plonking English that, quite remarkably, hasn’t a single colloquial short form English verb in it, i.e. not one with an apostrophe on the page! This is actually the opposite of incompetence. What George has very carefully done is produce something that sounds like an Edwardian translation of a Russian play. It is part of getting the audience to suspend their disbelief that they are watching a slice of Russian life. In fact it is even possible that George ‘heard’ the dialogue in Russian first, then translated it as stiffly as he could, to stress the play’s exoticism, rather than bringing it too close to ‘real’, familiar English. The result, if you can hear the Edwardian translationese in the play’s language, is hilarious. I cannot agree that the play is just Grand Guignol, or melodrama, let alone a Chekhov imitation, when you have this outrageous parody/stylisation playing all over it.

Similarly, the language of The Lamp is elevated, formal, intriguingly Biblical, with simple but very vivid images reminiscent of Oriental poetry. Remote though it is from today’s English, it has a strange beauty. It must have taken George ages to craft this effect. It partly explains, no doubt, why the whole play existed in draft but was not entirely ‘finished’: he may have felt he had more honing to do on its language. There are three main characters, and their dialogue has three distinct structures: Theophanes speaks overwhelmingly in single paragraphs, Kolónimos in two paragraphs, and Myrrhina’s speech tends to an elegant, diminishing triple structure. Today, of course, the very idea of presenting dramatic dialogue ‘structured’, in paragraphs, seems bizarre! We do not like the ‘literariness’ of George’s plays.

By the time George wrote The Lamp, Edwardians were used to the verse dramas of playwrights like Stephen Phillips, Laurence Binyon, John Masefield, and they did not expect every play they watched to be written in the same ‘naturalistic’ language.

Well, I believe as firmly as Mikhail Bakhtin that ‘there is nothing absolutely dead: every utterance’s sense will have its festival of rebirth one day’.

Next entry: 20 April 1915


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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