John Galsworthy

John GalsworthyMr. Galsworthy has reaffirmed the existence of the common man; an individual long ignored upon the English stage. The West End society drama had no place for him. The man in the drawing-room is not upon speaking terms with the man in the street. Epigrammatic comedy gave him no part, for the common man does not deal in epigrams. The music halls burlesqued him, figuring him only with a battered silk hat, a red nose and a pair of parti-coloured trousers. Even melodrama failed to represent him fairly, for the common man is not addicted to crime. Bernard Shaw, engaged in bombarding the very civilization in which the common man believes, burlesqued him as completely as the music hall, stuffed him with persiflage to bursting point, and hurled him at the social order as a new weapon of offence.

At this point, Mr. Galsworthy arrived. To all appearance he might never have read a line of Shaw, but he had just as little in common with Sir Arthur Pinero. The Court Theatre opened its doors and Mr. Galsworthy walked in. He proceeded at once to set up his pair of scales upon the stage and to test the social values. In the one pan a Liberal member of Parliament and his son; in the other Mrs. Jones, the charwoman, and her husband. As a makeweight the silver box. Here we see at once the interpenetration of classes which distinguishes Mr. Galsworthy. As in the novel Fraternity, and the plays Strife and Justice, he refuses to accept the class divisions which separate ordinary West End drama from life as a whole. He takes up the floor of the drawing-room and shows us the kitchen. He examines the psychology of the butler as minutely as that of the member of Parliament. He follows the charwoman home to her tenement dwelling. He gives us the history of her husband in search of work. He introduces the solicitor, the detective, the prostitute. He accompanies the police-court missionary upon his rounds. He sits upon the bench with the magistrate. Each of these persons moves upon a separate daily round, a separate social plane; but he brings them all together and makes drama of their lives. Briefly, his case is this. No one can live his own life merely by the virtue of possessing a thousand a year. No class can seal itself hermetically from others. Mrs. Jones' children will come and cling to the railings of the area, and even through the closed window their crying can be heard. One day there arises a petty complication, a workmen's strike, a moment of folly or crime, and the sky-scraper civilization collapses. We are all on the ground floor together, scrambling. The graduated coinage of society is in the melting-pot. Interest fights interest upon common ground.

Upon that common ground stands Mr. Galsworthy with his pair of scales. He is scrupulously fair. Even in a drama of the vices no virtue escapes his notice. No individual is altogether a blackguard. The Silver Box, in some respects the most one-sided of his plays, shows this discrimination clearly. The Liberal member of Parliament means well. If he does not understand Jones' unemployment, at least he is always prepared to "ask a question in the House." His wife is unscrupulous, but only in defense of her son. The son himself, although a vicious type, is amiable enough. He has a rudimentary notion of playing the game. Jones did not steal the silver box; he "took it" half-contemptuously while he was in liquor. The magistrate is kindly. The police-court trial is as fair as it can humanly be considering the balance of interests. Jones is sent to prison, it is true, in order to prevent a newspaper scandal. But "one law for the rich and another for the poor" is not merely a propagandist cry; it is a platitude. The trial scene is as mechanically inevitable as all the forces which move Mr. Galsworthy's characters. The limitations of free will are narrow. In a social crisis the common man is helpless. He must accept his fate for good or evil. The Silver Box is an indictment of society, although not one of its characters would accept it as such. It is more than an indictment--a complete trial, in which Mr. Galsworthy appears both for the prosecution and the defense.

In Joy he failed because the subject did not suit him. Still the balance of pleading is honourably adjusted. On the one hand the mother of middle age with a lover; on the other the daughter who cannot comprehend until she, too, discovers romance. In Strife he returned to social drama on a larger scale. Here class meets class once more. A strike of quarrymen brings them together. The conflict appears at first sight individual, for two figures, the chairman of the employing firm and the leader of the strikers, stand out clearly from the rest. Actually neither drives. Both are driven. Strife, like Justice and The Silver Box, is an interplay of forces rather than of persons. The collective will to resist concentrates upon either hand in the strongest individual. In the quarrymen's leader it is active; in the old employer obstinate and passive. The lesser characters propose compromise, offer sympathy, attempt reconciliation; but the forces are too strong for them. The play ends with a settlement which might have been made at the beginning. The balance remains steady.

In Justice the scales are loaded. Mr. Galsworthy is as fair as ever to individuals, but he attacks deliberately a part of the social system that they have created. In the first act we learn that William Falder, a clerk in a lawyer's office, has stolen eighty-one pounds for the purpose of carrying off the woman whom he loves and rescuing her from a brutal husband. He is found out, arrested and sentenced to three years' penal servitude at the following assizes. The third act shows him in solitary confinement, and in the fourth, returning to the world after two years on ticket-of-leave, he finds conditions against him, is arrested again for forging testimonials, and commits suicide. That is, baldly stated, the history of William Falder. He is no heroic figure pursued by Fate; nothing but a pitiful creature who is not wanted, an unsolved problem in a world too busy with its own affairs to study him. It is his life that is painful; his death brings nothing but a feeling of intense relief.

Mr. Galsworthy has named this play a tragedy. Just as Mr. Barker has created a new type in the hero-raisonneur, so he had created a new form in the tragedy without a hero. There is not a single person in Justice whose removal could be a loss to the world in any but a limited personal sense; no one (with the possible exception of the counsel for the defense) who could conceivably entertain a universally valuable idea; no one with the individual power and passion which alone can give inspiration to drama. Lawyers and clerks, judge, jury and officers of the court; governor, warders and chaplain of the prison--they all exist by the thousand, and they could all be raplaced a hundred times a day. They go about their work as slaves of inexorable law. Their human feelings, their kindliness and sympathy, are the emotions of people who, in the midst of a world unknown, and therefore presumably hostile, find two friendly camps of men and women like-minded to themselves--the family and the office--and cling to them both as instinctively as sheep huddle beneath a hedge for shelter from the drifting snow. There is no color, no mystery, no surprise about them. We can see not only their part in the passing incidents of the play, but the whole round of their lives. They may be interesting or uninteresting personally, but their chief business in life is to be a part of the social machinery. William Falder is one of them. He becomes entangled in the machinery, and it crushes him. The process is as mechanical as an execution. One feels that it is inhuman, barbaric, detestable; but never that it is tragic. It arouses anger and pity, not inspiration. And inspiration is the test of tragedy. In the conflict of the gods and men the sense of the tragic depends upon the greatness of the protagonists. He who fights well cannot but die nobly. Mr. Galsworthy's Falder does not fight at all, and he dies like a rat in a trap.

It should be the tritest commonplace to say that no playwright can make great drama out of little people. The naturalistic drama has had opportunities enough ... and it has justified itself only in proportion as it has created exceptional figures and splashed the grey background of actuality with living colours; in proportion, that is to say, as it has become unnaturalistic. It's naturalism is then only external. Mr. Galsworthy's is internal. The characters of Justice are grey at heart. The play has many extraordinarily moving passages. It is a fine destructive attack upon solitary confinement as a part of the prison system, but it is not a tragedy, and it is not great drama. Mr. Galsworthy has a place of his own upon the modern stage. Every play of his has a strongly marked individual atmosphere; his characters are distinctive without being distinguished. He understands the limitations of the theatre as well as its advantages, and he has never sacrificed drama to dialectics. At the beginning of the newer movement the English stage was out of touch alike with art, with ideas and with actual life. The latter two are only accessories--but let that pass. Bernard Shaw and Mr. Barker brought the ideas; in a measure, too, the art. Mr. Galsworthy's preoccupation is with actuality. A gulf still remains.

†This article was originally published in Modern Dramatists by Ashley Dukes. New York: Books For Libraries Press, Inc., 1912. pp. 141-50.

Galsworthy's Plays  |  Other Works  |  Biographies


Galsworthy's Plays

Other Works


Related Sites

Galsworthy Monologues

Related Playwrights

Harley Granville-Barker

Arthur Wing Pinero

Bernard Shaw

Moonstruck Drama Bookstore  |  Theatre News  |  Theatre Links  |  Email Us