Continuing my exploration of the plays of Galsworthy…
Escape (1926) is based on that familiar twenties theme – the gentleman come down in the world. In fact, you can’t go much further down than Captain Matt Denant. Gallantly protecting a needy prostitute from an over-assiduous plain-clothes policeman, this ex-officer hit the detective, who fell back, hit his head on railings and died. So Matt is sent to Dartmoor on a manslaughter rap, and one foggy evening escapes from a working party.
The play is a series of episodes, in each of which the escaped convict meets people who will either help or hinder his escape. They divide (as people in twenties stories often do) on class lines.
- A cultivated lady responds to the fact that he is a gentleman and helps him.
- A retired judge does much the same.
- A vulgar lower middle-class family try to hinder him, but he manages to steal their car.
- A man and his wife of rather indeterminate class are divided. She shows her greater sophistication by responding to the ex-officer’s plight, while her husband is more negative.
- A tenant farmer and his labourers are against him, but easily fooled. A little girl, responding instinctively, helps him.
- A pair of spinsters are divided. Miss Dora, who goes hunting and is a freethinker, responds to his plight. Miss Grace, older, a churchgoer and a conformist, doesn’t want to help him, but is finally influenced by Dora to tell a lie to help him go free.
- Finally he arrives in the vestry of a church. The vicar had been an army chaplain, and is torn between conflicting sympathies. He hides the prisoner and misleads the pursuers, but when the police ask directly whether or not he has seen the convict, he is faced with the prospect of telling a direct lie. He is saved from this dilemma by decent Captain Denant stepping from his hiding-place and giving himself up. He can’t bear to morally compromise the vicar. And if you’ll believe that about a convict on the run, you’ll believe anything.
I imagine that the play would be exciting on stage, but unlike the other Galsworthy plays I’ve read or seen lately, it is really absolute tosh.
What could have been an interesting examination of charity towards the unfortunate becomes an indulgence in the mystique of class, which was such a potent twenties myth. A gentleman remains a gentleman even when he’s gone down in the world, and other gentlemen (and ladies) respond with instinctive fellow-feeling towards him. The lower-middles are envious and blind to his qualities. The working-class are stupid. Galsworthy, who in other pieces had played interestingly with class stereotypes, here dishes out just what a West End audience wanted to hear – that people like them are morally superior to the unthinking hoi polloi.
The play’s faith in the instinctive sympathy of the upper classes for the underdog seems a best wishful thinking; I can’t help suspecting it’s the reverse of the truth.
The picture of the ex-officer is interesting, though. He gets into the trouble because he’s gallantly gone to the assistance of a street girl (Is it too fanciful to spot a parallel with Britain getting into the war to help helpless Belgium?) When on the run he uses skills and capacities for endurance that he has learnt in France. So the ex-soldier is imagined as a challenge to the stable world of law and order.
The play has been filmed twice. Gerald du Maurier was Captain Denant in the 1930 version and Rex Harrison played the part in 1948.
Six years after this play was written, Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel prize.