I’ve been reading Arnold Bennett’s 1913 novel, The Regent, which I can definitely recommend as just the thing for a long bus journey. It’s fun.
Like his wartime novel The Roll-Call, this is a ‛man from the North comes to London’ book, but it is very different from that rather grim story of compromise and disappointment. The hero of The Regent is no other than Henry Edward Machin, several years older than when his early adventures were described in Bennett’s comic masterpiece, The Card.
He is Alderman Machin now, rich and successful and with a huge reputation in the Five Towns, but dissatisfied. Chance brings him the option on building a theatre in London. He knows little about things theatrical, but sees it as a chance for adventure, and is soon involved in an enterprise that brings out all his old energy and deviousness, as he deals with ambitious actresses, pretentious playwrights, obstreperous lawyers and others. He has money, and nobody is better than Bennett at describing the sheer pleasure that can be gained by the joyful deployment of cash.
I especially enjoyed the satire on the arty poetic-theatre movement of the early twentieth century:
And with the rising of the curtain began Edward Henry’s torture and bewilderment. The scene disclosed a cloth upon which was painted, to the right, a vast writhing purple cuttle-fish whose finer tentacles were lost above the proscenium arch, and to the left an enormous crimson oblong patch with a hole in it. He referred to the programme, which said: “Act II. or A castle in a forest”; and also, “Scenery and costumes designed by Saracen Givington, A.R.A.” The cuttle-fish, then, was the purple forest, or perhaps one tree in the forest, and the oblong patch was the crimson castle. The stage remained empty, and Edward Henry had time to perceive that the footlights were unlit and that rays came only from the flies and from the wings.
The novel tells how Machin turns a stinker of a play into a resounding success, and, as I said, it’s immense fun.
One little touch puzzles me. After the first performance, which gets a standing ovation – largely because the house has been ‛papered’ with free tickets, there are cries for the author to make a speech.
Carlo Trent, the pretentious author of ‛The Orient Pearl’ is (maybe symbolically) too tongue-tied to speak, but Henry Edward Machin is never at a loss. As sole proprietor of the theatre, he strolls out, to tumultuous applause.
It occurred to him to raise his hand. And as he raised his hand it occurred to him that his hand held a lighted cigarette. A magic hush fell upon the magnificent audience, which owned all that endless line of automobiles outside. Edward Henry, in the hush, took a pull at his cigarette.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, pitching his voice well—for municipal politics had made him a practised public speaker, “I congratulate you. This evening you—have succeeded!”
There was a roar, confused, mirthful, humorously protesting. He distinctly heard a man in the front row of the stalls say: “Well, for sheer nerve—!” And then go off into a peal of laughter.
He smiled and retired.
Machin, we are told, ‛had merely followed in speech the secret train of his thought. But he saw that he had treated a West End audience as a West End audience had never before been treated, and that his audacity had conquered.’
But a West End audience had been treated in almost exactly this way before. At the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, Oscar Wilde had made a sensation by taking a curtain-call with a cigarette in his hand, and saying:
Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.
The sort of people who enjoy being offended got themselves mildly worked up about this, as much by the casual cigarette as by the egotistic speech.
Bennett must have known the Wilde story. Was he simply doing the magpie-novelist thing, and stealing a bit of real life for his own purpose? Or was he doing something else? Wilde’s was still a name to be spoken in hushed and embarrassed tones in 1913, though some of his plays were beginning to be revived. Was this reference a little tribute to Wilde? Or a way of saying that Wilde too had been a bit of a ‛card’, a spiritual brother of Henry Edward? Or, since Machin is, after all, the man that Bennett would have liked to be, is this Bennett the playwright fantasising about what he, not a particularly good public speaker, would have liked to do on a first night?
It’s when pondering questions like this that I slightly regretted being a cheapskate and downloading the free edition of the book for my Kindle. Maybe I should have invested in the Churnet Valley edition. John Shapcott’s introductions to this series are always illuminating, and might have cast some light on this little poser.