Arnold Bennett the playwright

While browsing through the second-hand books on sale at the back of the Stoke Arnold Bennett conference in June,  I came across a copy of The Great Adventure, a play first performed in 1913. Since I knew almost nothing about Bennett’s plays, I decided that  the book  might be worth the investment of £2.50, and so it proved.

The play turns out to be an adaptation of Bennett’s novel Buried Alive, which I read many years ago – so long ago that my memory of it is hazy. It’s about Ilam Carve,  a British artist who has lived for many years in seclusion abroad, who returns home with his valet, Albert Shawn.  The valet becomes ill, and when the doctor arrives the artist is mistaken for his servant.

Having a horror of publicity, Ilam Carve goes along with this, and when the valet dies takes on the other man’s  identity, meets and likes the woman Shawn had contacted through the lonely hearts column, and settles down with her in Putney. Meanwhile, the English Establishment has decided that it should honour a dead artist, though it took little interest in the living one; the valet is nominated for burial in Westminster Abbey. This gives rise to the funniest scene in the play, when Catholic Father Looe tries to claim the body for Westminster Cathedral instead.

It’s not a great play, but the character-drawing is subtle (especially that of Janet Cannot, the delightful woman who thinks she has married a valet, and despite being rather bemused by the goings-on of the Art world, takes all the play’s complications in her stride.  Could it be revived? It would look a bit light on the pompous stages of the National, which like their plays to be fraught with significance, but it seems a natural for the excellent Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond, which has made a speciality of Edwardian rarities.  Next up there is Alison’s House, by Susan Glaspell, whose Chains of Dew was performed there so successfully last year.

The New York Times review of the first American production (let down by the acting, according to the critic) can be found here.

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