Cult of the Master
The later Henry James was a master of technique. But how good a novelist was he?
Henry James: Novels 1896-1899
Library of America he story of Henry James's fruitless flirtation with the theater has been so often told that it has become folkloric, invoked and repeated by generations of marveling Jamesians. Everyone knows the tale of the first night, in London, of his historical play Guy Domville (1895) --how the nervous playwright spent the evening down the road at the Wildely successful new play An Ideal Husband, by James's despised rival, the "mechanical Oscar"; how he finally slipped into his own theater just as the performance was ending; how he was led on stage by the play's actor-manager, ostensibly to enjoy the curtain call but in reality to receive the boos and jeers of a large proportion of the audience; how a few moments earlier, when this same actor-manager had declaimed from the stage, "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!," a cry had come from the seats: "It's a bloody good thing y'are!"
Leon Edel, who tells this story well in his five-volume biography of James, fails to mention only one detail: that James's play was preceded in the same program by a one-act comedy written by a certain Julian Field, titled Too Happy By Half.
That tells us, in four words, what the mandarin moralist was up against in his quixotic campaign amid the lights of the West End; he had about as much chance with his audience as Don Quixote had with his gang of convicts. Guy Domville was his only original play to make it to the boards. He had loaded it with all his longing for popular success. He was never seriously involved in the theater again.
Few writers have...