Sunday, February 22, 2009

"You freakish homunculus": Henry Arthur Jones's "Saints and Sinners"

Oscar Wilde once observed that there are three rules to being a successful playwright: “The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same.” The unfortunate target of Wilde’s biting remark, Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) was the author of numerous late nineteenth-century English dramas, including The Dancing Girl, The Middleman, Judah, and Wealth.

This book is a vellum-bound first edition of Jones’s five-act play Saints and Sinners, A New and Original Drama of

Modern English Middle-Class Life. This is a first edition of the play, published by Macmillan and Company, London and New York, in August 1891, and printed by R. & R. Clark of Edinburgh. The vellum is in great shape and all four original leather ties are intact; in fact, many of the pages in the volume are still uncut (when books are printed from full-size sheets of paper, the sheets are folded to create the proper page sizes and must be cut--usually along the top edge--to be separated; most modern books come machine-cut from the printer, but some classy volumes still call for the reader to own his or her own page-cutter). The pages are of handmade paper, bearing a maker’s watermark that seems to be a highly ornamental set of initials (“J & C”?). Only 100 copies of this extremely rare first edition were printed. To add to the rarity of this particular copy, it is signed by the author on the recto of the second (blank) leaf: 

Dear Mr Woodruff, 

faithfully yours

/ Henry Arthur Jones

I haven’t been able to get an estimated value for this item because no other dealers online seem to be selling a comparable copy; most other sellers listing a “first edition” of this play are actually selling the second issue of the first edition (the true first edition was the limited editions series of 100 on handmade paper and bound in vellum).

The book begins with four unnumbered leafs, a leaf with the half-title on the recto and a printer’s ornament on the verso, followed by the title page leaf with the limited edition statement on the verso. The author’s preface (dated “London, 14th April 1891) follows for 11 leaves, then a leaf with the character list and the names of the original performers of each role on the recto and scene breakdown on verso (and the claim that the play runs precisely 2 hours and 38 minutes on the stage). Above the character list is a statement regarding performance provenance: “Produced first at the Theatre Royal, Margate, on Monday 22nd September 1884; and at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, on 25th September 1884, filling the bill nightly until Easter 1885.” Why the long delay between the premiere and publication (7 years!) is beyond me; if you are interested in more details about the performance run, the website dedicated to Victorian actress Elizabeth J. Phillips has a thorough page documenting the production

All of this preliminary material is in gathering A. The body of the play itself covers gatherings B through the first part of I; each of the five acts has an appropriate subtitle. The remainder of gathering I through K contains an appendix titled “Religion and the Stage”, an essay by Jones that first appeared in the January 1885 issue of The Nineteenth Century review and that took the occasion of his play’s lengthy run (it was up for a remarkable 200 nights; despite its lukewarm reception by critics its scandalous depiction of middle-class religion in a small English town no doubt attracted curious audience members) to descant on the merits of permitting theatrical productions that examine “religious questions”. In the essay, Jones lambasts the phenomenon of theatrical censorship, from Shakespeare’s day to the present, reserving particular ire for puritanical arbiters of taste such as the late Thomas Bowdler (whose editions of Shakespeare’s plays eviscerated from the texts anything potentially bawdy, scandalous, or inappropriate to be read aloud in the presence of women and children gives us today the phrase “to bowdlerize”).

There are no markings of readers in my copy, but some owner (perhaps “Mr. Woodruff”) has cut some of the pages open. The pattern of these opened pages may suggest what parts the reader bothered to look at and what he decided to skip over: the half-title, title page, preface, and first four leaves of Act I are opened; the rest of the play remains uncut until Act V, which is entirely opened (did Mr. Woodruff find the first scene tedious but, suspecting Jones would perhaps ask him what he thought of the play, skip to the end to find out how it was resolved?). The first two and last three leaves of the appendix are also opened, but the middle eight are uncut (again, just reading the top and tail of the work?).

About Jones (shown below in a press photograph, c. 1880), Martha Bellinger, in her 1927 A Short History of the Drama, observed: 

Like Pinero, Mr. Jones learned his technique from the French. In 1884 he adapted Ibsen's Doll's House for the English public under the title Breaking a Butterfly. It would be a bold person today who would offer any "adaptation" whatever of Ibsen, and with such a title! At the time, however, adaptations were in order, and Ibsen was then only another European playwright, not a theatrical prophet. Mr. Jones continued his work with domestic comedy and social pieces, including The Masqueraders and The Bauble Shop. In 1896 he wrote Michael and His Angel, generally considered his strongest drama. It is a study of small-town people, concerned with the expiation of guilt. It is both sentimental and romantic, with the solemn attitude towards sexual irregularity which generally characterized the Victorian writer. Mr. Jones, however, has shown a kind of evangelistic spirit in regard to the stage: a perception of its possible nobility and truth, and a desire to contribute to its ethical and moral value. 

And from Alice Fort and Herbert Kates’s 1935 Minute History of the Drama:

The circumstances surrounding the early life of Henry Arthur Jones would generally be considered anything but favorable to a successful dramatic career. He was the son of a Buckinghamshire farmer. What education he received was brief and acquired in a local grammar school. At 13 he went "into business" and was a commercial traveller until he was 30. The people among whom he was raised believed that drama was the invention of the devil and that those who went to the theater were bound straight for perdition. If Jones became a dramatist it was because the urge within him was so strong he couldn't help it. His first play was written when he was 16, two years before he ever saw the inside of a theater. His first produced play, Only Round the Corner, was staged in 1878. The melodrama, The Silver King, written in collaboration with Henry Herman and produced in 1882, assured his position as a dramatist. 

Henry Arthur Jones belongs to that period sometimes referred to as the "Victorian Transition." It was the period when drama was trying to free itself from its inherited superficialities and to become a part of contemporary life. In 1884, Jones made an attempt at serious drama in his Saints and Sinners. It was hooted by the first-night audience and condemned by the press. Discouraged, Jones returned to melodrama. 

In 1896, when London had become to a certain extent "Ibsen-conscious," Jones made another attempt at serious drama with Michael and His Lost Angel. Again he was hooted by the audience and condemned by the critics. It was too forward looking for that generation and not sufficiently plain spoken for the next, as a later attempt at a revival proved. In the opinion of Jones himself and of some of his commentators it deserves to be rated as his best effort. The following year, however, he returned to the polite, superficial comedy with The Liars, following it in 1900 with Mrs. Dane's Defense. The Lie had its premiere in New York in 1914 and did not reach the London stage until 1923. There even so capable an actress as Sybil Thorndike could not save it from vitriolic comment from the pen of the renowned English dramatic critic, James Agate. 

Henry Arthur Jones made a start with the new dramatic movement. He was never able, however, to shake off the influence of that early Victorian period when his work began, nor to achieve a real success with the newer trend of dramatic thought.

Finally, Barrett Clark’s entry on Jones in the 1915 British and American Drama of Today relates:

To Henry Arthur Jones, more than to any other single force, [was] due that Renaissance and "uplift" -- let the term be accepted in its best sense -- of the English drama [of his day]. Jones carried on the tradition of Congreve and Sheridan in high comedy. His best work, with the exception of Michael and His Lost Angel, consists of comedies of manners. The Liars, The Case of Rebellious Susan, and Dolly Reforming Herself, satires on contemporary society, are among the finest character plays of the day. Jones's work is characterized by close observation of the foibles of the upper classes and the aristocracy of England; a keen sense of humor -- as opposed to the cleverness and wit of Wilde and Pinero -- which brings him much closer to the English Restoration dramatists than any other of his day; and a keen sense of dramatic construction. Jones [wrote] many comedies, but his melodramas -- especially The Silver King and The Middleman -- and his tragic play, Michael and His Lost Angel -- must be taken into account in any estimate of the dramatist's total output.

In addition to being a dramatist, Jones wrote (somewhat heatedly) on political topics, particularly “from the right” in response to H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. One such work was My Dear Wells: a Manual for Haters of England (1921), a collection of open letters to Wells originally published in the New York Times. Wells repeatedly declined to respond to Jones, writing to the Times: "I do not believe that Mr. Jones has ever read a line that I have written. But he goes on unquenchably, a sort of endless hooting. I would as soon argue with some tiresome, remote and inattentive foghorn"; and later, in 1926, in the preface to Mr Belloc Objects: "For years I have failed to respond to Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, who long ago invented a set of opinions for me and invited me to defend them with an enviable persistence and vigour."

Another sample of Jones’s political (sort of...) writing is his epic response to Shaw's manifesto in opposition to the First World War, Common Sense About the War: "The hag Sedition was your mother, and Perversity begot you. Mischief was your midwife and Misrule your nurse, and Unreason brought you up at her feet - no other ancestry and rearing had you, you freakish homunculus, germinated outside of lawful procreation."

1 comment:

  1. Nice book... What's the plot of the play?