Sometimes you think you know a text and then discover that you don’t.
On the basis of Hitchcock’s 1948 film, I assumed that I knew Rope. Based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play, the movie shows a pair of young men who commit murder as an acte gratuite, and invite their victim’s relatives round to a party to their flat, serving canapes from the trunk in which the body is locked. James Stewart plays the university lecturer whose shallow Nietschean philosophy inspired their crime, and who becomes shocked into a firmer morality by discovering what they have done. It’s interesting, but not one of Hitchcock’s very best. A bit slow, because of his ‘ten-minute take’ experiment, and James Stewart doesn’t fit the part he is supposed to play.
Reading Michael Billington’s review of the new production of Hamilton’s play at the Almeida, I realised that I didn’t know it at all. Instead of James Stewart’s university lecturer, there is a disenchanted war poet:
Rupert, a war-damaged Wildean poet filled with ennui, is the play’s most original creation. Bertie Carvel suavely demonstrates that Rupert is a man who minces everything but his words, but also reminds us that the play is really about the character’s moral awakening: Carvel offers a riveting portrait of an affected nihilist who discovers the hollowness of his credo, that the slaughter of 1914-18 has devalued individual murder.
Intrigued by this, I picked up a copy of the script while I was in London. Rupert is indeed an interesting character. He limps, and is
enormously affected in speech and carriage. He brings his words out not only as though he is infinitely weary of all things, but as though articulation is causing him some definite physical pain which he is trying to circumvent by keeping his head and body perfectly still.
The War has made him question normal values, and he taunts the other guests with his cynicism:
One gentleman murders another on a back alley in London for, let us say, […] the gold fillings in his teeth, and all society shrieks out for revenge on the miscreant. They call that murder. But when the entire youth and manhood of a whole nation rises up to slaughter the entire youth and manhood of another, not even for the gold fillings in each other’s teeth, then society condones the outrage and calls it war.
The anti-war sentiment is conventional enough for 1929, the year when Journey’s End and All Quiet on the Western Front found a huge public, but Hamilton is using his disillusioned ex-soldier rather interestingly. Rupert claims he has no moral standards – but then discovers that he does, and his limp does not prevent him from using a sword-stick effectively against the pair of murderers.
A possible interpretation of this would be that the soldier, while damaged and disillusioned, still has the right stuff in him, which a crisis brings out. The play is making a distinction between two types of cynicism – that of the man who has been through terrible things, and that of the two spoilt youths who know nothing.
The figure of the disillusioned war poet was common enough in twenties writing. The character was often treated comically, as in Buchan’s Huntingtower, or Rose Macaulay’s Told by an Idiot. To a degree, Hamilton is doing something similar to Buchan, showing a poet whose disillusionment is something of a pose, and who springs into action when faced with a real challenge.
In the twenties, labelling a character a war poet was a shorthand way of saying that he was both sensitive and a man of action. I wonder, though, was Carvel just a character taken from the stereotypes cupboard, or was he based on a real poet? A biography of Hamilton says that he read Sassoon and Owen soon after the War. The combination of disillusionment and homosexuality could hint at Sassoon. Sassoon was never as flamboyantly camp as Carvel, but his boyfriend Stephen Tennant was never seen without his make-up. That was the sort of fact that would have been common gossip in the circles Hamilton frequented, so those two could be conflated here.
Or maybe the character is based on some now forgotten crony that Hamilton met in the pubs of Fitzrovia or Earls Court? I’d like to know.