At the Almeida in Islington yesterday afternoon, I saw a rock-solid production of Granville Barker’s terrific play about the destruction of a politician. This was originally written in 1909, but banned by the Lord Chamberlain. Barker rewrote it in 1924 (and that was the version shown at the Almeida) but it was not allowed to be staged in Britain until 1936.
Henry Trebell is a political maverick brought into the cabinet to handle a tricky bill disestablishing the church (more a 1909 issue than a 1924, one, but dramatically useful because it brings in private religious passions to complicate the political scheming. He has an affair with a married woman, who becomes pregnant by him. She arranges an illegal abortion for herself, and the botched operation causes her death.
Trebell’s part becomes known, and his cabinet colleagues have to work out what to do about him. Publicly he can be kept out of the scandal, but everyone in the inner circle would know, and he would lose the political credibility necessary for the difficult job of steering the bill through parliament. The scene in which the politicians gather to address the problem must be the best political scene in British drama. Each has his agenda, and in each low motives are mixed with high. The muddle of politics, as expediency meets principle, plans are scuppered by events and the personal entwines with the public, is brilliantly done. Each new twist of events brings out new sides of each of the characters, and force them into decisions they would rather not make.
Back in 1909, when the play was first banned by the Chamberlain, there was a public reading of the script, part demo, part securing of copyright. Parts were taken by Barker himself, Lawrence Housman, William Archer, H.G.Wells, Gilbert Murray and John Galsworthy – with George Bernard Shaw as the wily Prime Minister. Now that’s a performance I’d have liked to see.
After the success of Waste, maybe some enterprising company – or even the National – might like to have a go at The Secret Life, Barker’s post-war play that parallels a soldier’s disillusionment with that of a retired politician. A difficult play to do, but for my money even more resonant than Waste.