Academic journal article Conradiana

Laughing Anne: "An Almost Unbearable Spectacle"

Academic journal article Conradiana

Laughing Anne: "An Almost Unbearable Spectacle"

Article excerpt

Joseph Conrad never had the opportunity to see a performance of his third and last play, Laughing Anne, which he wrote in 1920. The only one of his three never performed on a professional stage, the play was produced as a film in 1953 and was convincingly directed by Richard Hand on the stage for the International Joseph Conrad Conference at Texas Tech University, in August 2000. To understand why this play was not published or produced during Conrad's lifetime is to understand the end of Conrad's career. Considering Conrad as dramatist is still unusual, but in the context of theatrical and social history, Conrad's decision to dramatize this story helps revise earlier views of Conrad the literary artist.

First, a brief summary of Conrad's dramatic career is useful. Despite his avowed aversion to the theater, Conrad had developed an early interest in writing a play, as he wrote to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in 1897: "I have no notion of a play. No play grips me on the stage or off. ... [Yet] I greatly desire to write a play myself. It is my dark and secret ambition" (Karl and Davies I, 419). Encouraged by Sidney Colvin, a member of the Stage Society, Conrad wrote his first play One Day More in 1904. As in the case of his other plays, this play was adapted from his own fiction, the 1902 short story "To-Morrow." One Day More ran for three days in London in June of 1905, receiving mixed popular reviews but strong praise from George Bernard Shaw, among others. Despite Shaw's encouragement, Conrad did not return to playwriting until late 1919, although he remained interested in at least the financial possibilities of the genre throughout his career, especially in the teens. When, in September 1913, he gave permission to the Sunday Stage Society in Chicago to produce One Day More, which had been published by the English Review in August of that year, his motivation seemed primarily financial, as his letters with anxious calculations about possible proceeds attest in late October (Karl and Davies V, 285, 298). Throughout this period, he seriously considered collaborating on writing plays with s~everal friends, and from 1916 worked on the adaptation of his novel Victory with Basil Macdonald Hastings until the successful run of the play in the spring of 1919. Conrad seemed encouraged to attempt another dramatization by that public success and by his agent J. B. Pinker's conviction "that no one but [Conrad himself] could convey Conrad characteristics on to the stage" (29 March 1919, TS Berg). He had received a number of queries about writing plays, and in 1919 alone was approached with the idea of writing stage adaptations of the newly published The Arrow of Cold, by John Quinn, his American collector (31 July 1919, Davies VI ), as well as his already-adapted short story "To-morrow," by an unknown female writer (7 August 1919, Aubry II, 225). The request to write a stage version of The Secret Agent took hold, and he began it in 1919.

Writing a play again was invigorating to Conrad, a welcome tonic to his own ill health and writing slump, as well as the bleak prospects for his wife Jessie's health and the aftermath of his son Borys's experience of the war. About writing the play, Conrad declared to Pinker in November of 1919, "It is a terrible searching thing--I mean the stage.... It is a great experience" (Aubry II 234), alluding to Andre Gide "c'est une grande aventure" (13 November 1919, MS Yale). Despite his reservations about the play's ultimate popular success, he vowed to "see it through to the end" (ibid). By the end of March 1920, he had completed a draft of The Secret Agent in four acts, although it was ultimately cut to three in performance. As it got closer to production, he told several correspondents that "in its innermost quality it is as Conradian as anything I have ever written" (Aubry II 273). Confident about his essential qualities as a writer, and enjoying the pleasurable prospect of revitalizing his career, he would co ntinue to extol the "fascination of doing a thing like that over again in another medium; that is, if one were certain of intelligent interpretation. …

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