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British Comedy of Manners Distilled: Henry James's Edwardian Plays by Susan Carlson Galenbeck, Iowa State University In 1914, when Harley Granville-Barker notified Henry James that the Moscow Art Theatre was interested in his play The Outcry, James discouraged the production, writing Granville-Barker that the play would do only for an AngloAmerican audience: "the thing isn't for that alien scene . . . It's essentially of this our own air & of these conditions--an Anglo-American opportune comedy or pièce d'occasion of which the very subject and basis of interest & irony relate but to England & . . . the U.S."1 Realizing that the value of his play depends on its culture-bound mirroring of traditions, James guards his manners game from foreign misunderstanding. While both of James's Edwardian comedies--The High Bid and The Outcry—depict the international manners game from an Anglo-American perspective, they do not succeed in quite the way James intends. As stage pieces they are respectable enough to have earned London revivals in the late 1960s, but they are most important as comments on the British comedy of manners. As no one else before or after him, James writes comedies of manners which are attempts to purify and preserve the nuances of a theatrical tradition and a society. As a term much tossed about in criticism of James's fiction and plays, "comedy of manners" is a chameleon which adapts to fictions like Washington Square, The American, and The Golden Bowl as well as to plays like Disengaged, Guy Domville, The High Bid, and The Outcry. Changing colors mark the history of all literary labels, but for the comedy of manners, change is also an important part of the term and the tradition it circumscribes. The generally accepted definition of "comedy of manners" posits a high-society world of graceful characters creating their own heady milieu of wit, love, innuendo, and morality to insulate themselves from the artificial and pretenders.2 While most critics also agree on the presence of social criticism in comedies of manners, James's plays clarify how such criticism is bonded to the seemingly antithetical presence of social affirmation. In addition, James manages to show what most critics overlook—how, in a comedy of manners, tradition works hand-in-hand with change. An alloy of social criticism and social affirmation braces most British comedies of manners. Congreve, Etherege, Sheridan, Boucicault, and Pinero present haughty societies complacent in their exclusive achievement, but always do so by stressing the bending, changing, and compromising that allow for the haughtiness by tempering it. In Congreve's Love for Love, for example, the aftertaste characters like Tattle leave is washed away by the sweetness of the regenerative triumph and union of Angelica and Valentine. Individual desires and communal needs are kept in balance. For James, this balancing is inextricably tied up with the struggle of the upper classes to deal with 1. Henry James, letter to Harley Granville-Barker, 21 March 1914, as quoted in Raymond D. Havens, "Henry James on The Outcry," Modern Language Notes, 70 (February, 1955), 106. 2. David Hirst's Comedy of Manners (London: Methuen, 1979) contains the latest of such definitions. HENRY JAMES REVIEW 61 FALL, 1982 change. All comedies of manners deal with social change. But to an extreme his fellow comedy of manners playwrights rarely approach, James consciously labors to affirm his upper-class society by dwelling on its crises of change. In The High Bid and The Outcry, James charts a "comic" course of survival through the radical social change moving Britain from the social rigidity of the Victorian years to the social chaos of the Georgian ones. Edward VII's death prevented the opening of The Outcry and led to the closing of England's last age of high society, but not before James captures a final telling moment of the belief that the comedy of manners is a tradition because it assimilates the changes that dissolve lesser forms. As Wylie Sypher notes, James has the "generous perspective on life" that is the pinnacle of comic achievement. In the plays James wrote in the 1890s, those Edel cites as such an important prelude to James's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 61-74
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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