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HEIDI J. HOLDER 'The DramaDiscouraged':Judgmentand Ambivalence in The Madras House Harley Granville Barker's The Madras House is a particularly frustrating play for audiences and critics, the more so for its strengths. Performed in 1910 during the first and only season of the Frohman Repertory theatre,:1 The Madras House is usually seen as an important and impressive failure. Critics and audiences frequently find the relentless but lively debating to be one of the work's most engaging features; at the same time, however, they claim that the play is 'coldly ventriloquial,' and complain of a 'fixed, static quality' in the characters.2 Responses to the first production would set the tone for most later commentary on the play. Max Beerbohm insisted that 'anyone who leaves the Duke of York's Theatre after the third act of The Madras House will feel that he has derived an immense amount of amusement and instruction. For here is a debate that has unity.'3 Unfortunately, the play has a fourth act, a fact which severely . qualifies Beerbohm's praises. A.B. Walkley, writing for The Times, is more forthright about his mixed feelings, declaring, 'what a strange, amusing, suggestive, disconcerting, sometimes boring play.'4 And in her diary Beatrice Webb tersely summed up the playas 'intellectual but dull.'5 Harry M. Ritchie best indicates the usual complaint when he observes that 'theatergoers demanded more than talk on the sexual issue,'6 and The Madras House offered talk without conclusion or resolution. Indeed, the 'action' of the play is almost entirely the discussion of problems. In Act I the Huxtable family, with its wasted, middle-class, unmarried daughters, is introduced to us; and the impending arrival of Constantine Madras, wayward husband to Mr Huxtable's sister and owner of the fashionable shop of the title, is the catalyst for a family argument. In the second act, Philip Madras, son of Constantine and ostensibly the play's protagonist, attempts to resolve two 'family' difficulties: one member of his staff, a Miss Yates, is pregnant, and another stands accused of paternity; and Philip's own wife Jessica is apparently engaged in a flirtation with his close friend Major Thomas. The third (and most analysed) act is one long debate - among the male characters assembled to negotiate the sale of the Madras House itself - concerning the nature and proper fate of British women; the debate takes place during a parade of lovely, mute models, Who enter and exit throughout the act. The last act of the play has been harshly criticized, not least by Beerbohm. Aside from a fruitless encounUNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 58, NUMBER 2, WINTER 1988/9 276 HEIDI J. HOLDER ter between Constantine and his deserted wife, and a confession from Constantine that he is the father of Miss Yates's child, this act focuses on intense but subdued talk between Philip and Jessica about their financial and domestic future. The consensus among critics seems to be that these discussions are fascinating, but the staging presents problems. This perception is accurate: here is a drama about sex in which the women outnumber the men, and the men never stop talking - mostly to each other. There is a deliberate distance, consistently maintained, between the spoken and the visual aspects of the play. If we consider this characteristic as a tactic, rather than as the blunder of an overenthusiastic intellectual, other aspects of this work take on a new importance. But before we consider Granville Barker's tactics in this play, it is important to put those tactics into context. The Madras House is usually treated as Granville Barker's contribution to the sex-and-woman question ; a play on this theme was an inevitable exercise for the Edwardian playwright, particularly for the advocate of the I new drama.' But the ways in which Granville Barker departs from the conventional representation of sexual issues are largely ignored. Cary M. Mazer, in a recent survey of criticism on Granville Barker, suggests that 'we must, in effect, be better historians if we are to be better scholars of his plays.'7 Mazer is here addressing the effects of the critic's'selective vision' of Granville...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 275-294
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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