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CONRAD'S "SUCCES DE CURIOSITÉ": THE DRAMATIC VERSION OF THE SECRET AGENT By James F. Kllroy (Vanderbilt University) In the hierarchy of Conrad's fiction, The Secret Agent is recognized as one of his superb accomplishments. F. R. Leavis reflects the current estimate when he praises the novel's maturity and consummate art.l But to some critics it seems a flawed masterpiece: the novel's "calculated coldness" and "ironic hauteur and control," Albert Guerard argues, prevent the reader from emotional or Intellectual involvement In the plot.2 Adolph Verloc is fascinating, but alien to the reader; what little author identification exists is with a secondary character, the Assistant Commissioner.3 What has been overlooked, or at least slighted, in such criticism is Conrad's insistence that the main character is not Adolph Verloc, or even the Assistant Commissioner, but Winnie Verloc. We need not be put off by the novel's title: Conrad's prior novel does not revolve around the Italian, Nostromo; despite this novel's title, it centers on another figure.^ In the evolution of The Secret Agent from serial form to novel, expertly traced by Walter F. Wright and Harold E. Davis, Winnie is not the main figure.5 But an author's intention may change in the course of revision. In I92O, when he added an Introductory note, and later when he returned to the story to rewrite it as a play, Conrad insisted it centered on Winnie, not her husband. In the Author's Note to the novel, Conrad refers to the novel as "Winnie Verloc*s story."6 Although the domestic plot In which she is featured is not as extended as the espionage of her husband, it nevertheless Is the focus to which all other plots are related. Conrad, at least, considered the other characters to be "grouped about Mrs. Verloc and related directly or indirectly to her tragic suspicion that 'life doesn't stand much looking into*" (N, pp. xxil - xxlii). More convincing proof that Winnie Verloc dominates this plot Is found in Conrad's dramatic version of the story, produced on November 2, 1922, fifteen years after its publication as a novel. Its plot is essentially the same as the novel's, although telescoped to fit dramatic form; Conrad insisted he had been careful not to change it in any major way, although revising it had brought a new focus on the story: "I will confess that I myself had no idea of what the story was till I came to grips with it in this process of dramatization. Of course I can't stop now. Neither can I tamper with the truth of my conception by introducing into it any extraneous sentiment. It must remain what it is."7 Although it was not a theatrical success, Conrad did not consider his play an artistic failure. He argued that the critics had not given it proper consideration, and encouraged a Polish production of It. The London production was probably not satisfactory : he complained about miscasting and rewrote parts of the 82 play to compensate for the actors' limitations. But he was convinced that It had merit; It was, in his confident estimate, "as Conradlan as anything I ever have written."8 The horror of the situation and the delicacy of the theme would prevent the play from ever being popular, but he hoped It would be a "succès de curiosité."0 For modern readers it deserves closer examination than it has received for two reasons: it is a well-constructed, powerful play, conveying a strong theme; and, not secondarily, it leads to a fuller understanding of Conrad's novel of the same title. Winnie Verloc dominates Conrad's play. She is first in the list of characters, indicating her importance rather than the order of appearance, although the play does open and close with her controlling the stage. Her concern for Stevie is more than sisterly or even maternal: dialogues between them could be mistaken for love scenes, because of the overt show of devotion by both brother and sister. Her situation is more complex than in the novel, because her marriage to Verloc is more clearly only a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 81-88
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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