Henry James, Garth Wilkinson and Guy Domville
Henry James is remembered and still read as a supreme novelist, but in the 1890s (already well-established as a writer and long resident in London) his ambition was to enjoy success as a dramatist for the West End Stage. He believed that Guy Domville, a costume drama set in the eighteenth century, would provide that success. The protagonist is a young aristocrat, the scion of an old Roman Catholic family, who faces the agonising choice between marrying in order to carry on the family line and to inherit the family estates, or of following his religious convictions and entering a Benedictine monastery. He chooses the latter. One impresario rejected the play, but George Alexander, a handsome and popular actor-manager, bought it and put it on at the St James’s Theatre in King Street. Alexander liked costume plays and thought that the role of Guy Domville would be an appropriate outlet for his own talents and would also give him the opportunity of appearing in romantic-looking clothes. James had high hopes for the success of his play.
The first night was on the 5th January 1895. The audience included three famous painters, Sir Frederick Leighton, G F Watts and James’s compatriot John Singer Sargent. His friends and fellow-writers Mrs Humphry Ward and Edmund Gosse were there too. Critics present included George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Arnold Bennett. Overcome with nerves, James took himself off to the nearby Haymarket Theatre to watch Wilde’s An Ideal Husband which had been playing to packed audiences for some time. He sat horrified as the audience chuckled its way through the comedy. Unable to stand any more, James left the theatre and, with a dreadful presumption that his own play would be a failure, stood (as he wrote later to his brother William) in the middle of the square ‘paralysed by the terror of this probability – afraid to go on and learn more’. Arriving at the stage door a few minutes before the final curtain, he stepped back-stage and was reassured by the heavy applause from the stalls. He was not to know that his play had not been received so well by the gallery. When Alexander in the last act delivered the line, ‘I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles’, a voice from the gallery shouted, ‘It’s a bloody good thing y’are’. Alexander, on stage to receive the customary ovation but realising that the performance had not been well received, turned to the wings and beckoned to the author, whose presence had been demanded by shouts of ‘Author, author’. James stepped on to the stage and then in the words of H G Wells:
Perhaps not in the audience on this disastrous opening night but certainly there within the next two weeks, was Henry James’s father’s oldest friend, the eighty-two year old Swedenborgian sage and homoeopathic physician, James John Garth Wilkinson. Having seen the play, Wilkinson wrote a letter to the author from his home in Finchley Road in north west London. The letter is dated 19th January 1895. Wilkinson kept a copy of the letter in an exercise book and that book is preserved in the archives of the Swedenborg Society. ‘It is,’ he wrote of the play, ‘a subtle development through two sets of characters of one great shadow which broods over the world. That darkness is the celibate Roman Catholic Church’. Under the influence of the church, Wilkinson continued, sexual love was ‘stricken in its vital and immortal part, and the flesh of it is so unclean that holy men, that is the clergy, may not have dealings with it’. The character of Domville is ‘touched to paralysis by the dogmatic torpors of celibacy, which he mistakes for cleanness’, although he was pleased that ‘the hearth of love has a bit of sunshine in the young sailor and Miss Brasier, who redeem the other base situations by contrast’. He urged James to write a new play in which the love that lives after death will be shown:
He signed the letter as ‘Your old, one of your oldest Friends’. In his espousal of the teachings on marriage love (and particularly the moral and spiritual superiority of marriage over celibacy) set out in Conjugial Love and elsewhere, Wilkinson was outspoken for his age. As long ago as 1852 he had translated Swedenborg’s posthumous work The Generative Organs, Considered Anatomically, Physically and Philosophically. Writing at the time to Henry’s father, Henry James senior, he said that he considered this work as one small step on the way to a greater liberty of thought and knowledge on sexual subjects. The Roman Catholic Church still insists on a celibate (and all-male) clergy, but modern Catholic teaching on the importance of marriage love, particularly in the post-Vatican II encyclical Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), is much closer to Wilkinson’s beliefs than was the teaching of that church in his day.
I do not know if Henry James ever replied to Wilkinson’s letter, but after the failure of Guy Domville (the play ran for only a month bringing James royalties of £750 and was succeeded by a new play which became a long-running success, The Importance of Being Earnest) he went on to write some of his greatest novels, although he did enjoy a measure of success with his play High Bid (1907). The ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, perhaps his best-known work, was published in 1898 and at the beginning of the new century he published his great trilogy of novels (perhaps his finest work), The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. These novels certainly deal with the complications of sexual love (as do The Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew, dating from the late 1890s) and have been seen as having a certain Swedenborgian inspiration, which is I believe certainly also the case with The Turn of the Screw.
Guy Domville is forgotten today, but two novels published in 2004 focus on it. The Master by Colm Tóibín (short-listed for the Man Booker Prize) is a superb evocation of James’s life and art and uses the failure of Guy Domville as the opening scene. Author, Author! by David Lodge focuses more closely on the play and on James’s ambition to achieve what might have proved to have been an ephemeral West End success.
I would like to end on a personal note. Alexander’s production was a lavish one and the St James’s Theatre was lit for the first time by electricity. My grandfather, George Lines (1872-1971), was employed from 1891 to 1931 by the St James’ and Pall Mall Electric Light Company Limited, as a framed certificate presented to him on his retirement and now in my possession testifies. The company, with its generating station in Carnaby Street, was responsible for lighting the West End theatres. Perhaps my grandfather was on duty there on the disastrous first night of Guy Domville? I never heard him mention Henry James, but he had a huge knowledge of Shakespeare and I can recall him reciting sonnets and passages from plays well into his nineties.