“It’s a strange, compulsive business, the urge to make plays. To act in them, or write ‘em, or produce ‘em. It’s no use appealing to reason.” That’s Henry James counseling a friend in Author, Author, a novel (2004) by British writer and retired literature professor David Lodge. I just read this well-told tale about the failed playwright and posthumously esteemed novelist Henry James (1843-1916).
James, frustrated at midcareer with his fiction’s lack of popularity, tried to find success and improve his income by turning to the stage. Oh, what fools these mortals be!
At the center of Lodge’s engaging novel is Guy Domville, the play that James hoped would establish him as a dramatist. Guy Domville was a bust, closing after just five weeks at London’s St. James Theatre. The audience’s cruelty on opening night is particularly painful to read about.
Piling on the discomfort, Lodge identifies the play that followed James’s failure on the same stage – a new untested script by a cheeky Irish writer with sharp wit and questionable morals. Would it meet the same sad fate as James’s? Guy Domville’s successor was The Importance of Being Earnest, a boffo hit that is still regularly produced all over the world. Informing James that poor ticket sales were forcing him to cancel Guy Domville, his producer explained, “Every play is a gamble. You never know whether you will win or lose. I’ve been lucky in this theatre so far, but . . .” James was devastated and swore he would never write for the stage again.
Near the novel’s end Lodge writes that it was James’s “misfortune to consort with, and often befriend, writers far more popular than himself whose success only aggravated his own sense of failure, but time has rectified the balance. Of his peers and contemporaries probably only Thomas Hardy is more widely read today.” This observation contains the basic thrust of Lodge’s thoroughly researched and richly detailed novel: the delusions, unpredictability and historical ironies of artistic success.
The best example in Author, Author of such vagaries is the mediocre but hugely successful novel Trilby, written by James’s close friend George du Maurier. Du Maurier was an illustrator for the magazine Punch and only switched to novel-writing because his failing eyesight threatened his family’s livelihood. Trilby’s success was even more galling to James because it was adapted for the stage (though not by du Maurier) where it generated another fortune. After du Maurier and James were dead the gods piled on more injustice. Trilby’s plot inspired a minor 1910 novel with a title you will recognize, Phantom of the Opera – the source of one of the most successful plays ever staged.
Lodge’s novel gives pleasure with its vivid portraiture of the literary and theatre milieu in fin de siècle England. Henry James knew everybody who was anybody and Lodge welcomes many of those luminaries into his novel’s pages. If you’re in the market for a good read about “the theatuh” Author, Author is not likely to disappoint.