Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Henry James, the "Scenic Idea," and "Nona Vincent"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Henry James, the "Scenic Idea," and "Nona Vincent"

Article excerpt

HENRY JAMES COMPLETED HIS SHORT STORY "Nona Vincent" in 1892, and it is clear that his choice of subject--the writing of a play and its production in London's West End--reflects to an extent the circumstances of his life at the time. These were the years of his sustained efforts to achieve success (artistic and commercial) on the London stage, a half-decade when, after considerable postponement, he was professionally most engaged with theater. (1) It ended, despite some incidental but minor triumphs, with the notorious failure in 1895 of Guy Domville and, indeed, James's own public humiliation. He finally abandoned the long-cherished idea of becoming a playwright. This was a few years in the future, but I want to consider "Nona Vincent" less in some fictive relationship to these events than as a rehearsal of much earlier biographical episodes whose detail is recounted in A Small Boy and Others, the first volume of James's autobiography, published in 1913. James's aesthetic commitment to "the scene" as an indispensable strategy of narrative is, of course, familiar from his numerous theoretical discussions of the novel, but in this essay I treat the scene from a more literal and everyday perspective, in a public or private theatrical context, as a vehicle for performance, for entry into a dynamic medium which may offer the allure of public success as well as the possibility of abject shame.

James's account of pre-adolescent days is filled with the colorful detail of mid-nineteenth-century New York theater: the recital of plays and players, authors, characters, roles (many long-forgotten), catalogues the leisure pursuits of the James family and, more broadly, sketches in some of the detail of popular mass entertainment in a historical urban moment. The cumulative experience--aside from encouraging the writer's critical faculty--provided the inspiration for his own childhood experiments in play-writing and performing with family members and friends. Though private or domestic occasions, these were designated in retrospect as opportunities for the establishing of "scene" and performance. But James also introduces the idea of spontaneous, incidental performance--what might be called an introduction to "how to make a scene"--which marks a revelation for the observing "small boy," an episode of clear significance in this figurative extension of the genre in which an incident of family life can be riskily transformed into unpredictable, open-ended drama. The terms on which these (and, indeed, most other) episodes are recounted by the reminiscing author denote the experience of a life largely lived and a series of imaginative works accomplished. Their contours, as they emerge in the retelling so much later, mark both the affirmations as well as the omissions and silences which typify James's characterization of the process of representation. Events are similarly disposed in "Nona Vincent"; they occur both onstage and off, marking the contrast between public and private performance, along with the pleasures and dangers involved. The narrative is also characterized at a scenic level by a tendency toward incompletion or nondisclosure, suggesting some aesthetic as well as psychological imperative which informs James's imagining of the practice of drama. Thus my essay moves from considering the values of drama as they emerge from autobiographical discourse to examining in a fictional medium the theme of representation both as a formalized mimetic reproduction of everyday life and as (in the French sense) the occasion of performance.

One prevailing theme of James's life narrative entails the development of the artistic sensibility, a vocation he describes with studied understatement as the simple gathering of "impressions." Acknowledging the theoretical complications which arise from the necessarily selective and controlling character of autobiography as a medium, we can follow the route by which he became, as he discloses in his second volume of autobiography, "just literary" (2) The process of retrieval, as he describes it on the first page of his autobiography, carries contrasting, even contradictory, sensations, involving "interrogation" as well as an ostensibly passive state of observation, a seeking for entry through a door "to see the world within begin to 'compose'" (3)--in a formal construction as elaborately contrived as any of his fiction. …

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