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A play by a novelist is often a curious proposition. They tend to be readable plays-- if I am reading a play by a writer who works only in the theatre, I often have to mentally visualize a stage, and mentally cast actors, and choose costumes, and try to figure out how people would move, and so on, in order to get the point of the thing, and even then a good production will teach me things I have never imagined. Whereas a novelist, being a novelist, is more likely to have written the script in a novelistic fashion. On the other hand, I am not as convinced that these novelist's plays are as performable as they are readable, because the writers are not as accustomed to, well, actually having to stage the thing and bear in mind the things that work on the stage that do not and cannot work out in a novel.

Which is to say that this is a fun play to read, but I don't think it would come off as much if seen, though it was performed after its writing, in 1913.

The setup is that a Duke is being visited by his nephew and his niece. His nephew has gone to America, worked as a mine manager, and become a hard-bitten skeptic. His niece has gone off and lived in Ireland and become, as far as I can tell, something along the lines of Elfine from Cold Comfort Farm. ("She calls it Celtic twilight," one of the characters says about her, "but I think it is bad for the lungs.") You know, the sort of young lady who is liable to see fairies, and does.

One of the fairies turns out to be in fact the conjurer that the Duke hired to entertain his family. She is distressed to find this out. ("Why, then, were you wearing that long cloak and hood with a point?" "I think you may have failed to notice it was raining.") But there is more to the conjurer than he is letting on; he is layers within layers within layers.

This is attempting to be a meditation on truth and falsehood and theology, and sets up a nice alternating rhythm of revelation/counter-revelation of the conjurer's motives, and progression and retreat of his romance with the girl, which means that he comes across as charismatic and interesting ([personal profile] sovay thinks Bergman may have borrowed some of him for his film The Magician) and both the romance and the character are rounded and work. But it is also trying to be a Chestertonian social satire, in which the Duke always gives the same amount of money to opposing silly causes at the same time, and the local Doctor is forever falling back on his friendships with famous men, and the local curate is strangled by his inability neither to believe nor to disbelieve. And this does not work, because none of the side characters have more depth than the pixels they are printed on (I read this at Project Gutenberg), and more importantly neither does the brother, who ought to be the counterweight against the romance proceeding without incident and the exhibition to the audience of the conjurer's heart.

Which is to say, a novelist's play, perhaps better as a short story, where the characters could get away with being less real by virtue of not requiring one to comprehend them as having actual physical bodies. It would be a fun thing for a community theatre to do, perhaps, but it is not essential reading, nor remotely close to the best of Chesterton.


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March 2017

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