- Conrad & the Performing Arts
Katherine Isobel Baxter and Richard J. Hand, eds. Joseph Conrad and the Performing Arts. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. viii + 165 pp. $99.95
If Joseph Conrad lived today, he might fill the stagnant periods at his writing desk scouring Youtube for the newest viral videos. He may also still listen to Verdi on 78 RPM shellac phonodiscs. Exaggerated [End Page 118] they may be, but these are two of the tacit claims made by a new essay collection edited by Katherine Isobel Baxter and Richard J. Hand. Joseph Conrad and the Performing Arts gathers eight essays treating Conrad’s engagement with the performing arts both in and through the enterprise of fiction writing. The first two essays, by Linda Dryden and Susan Barras, stand apart from the others in focusing on the cultural performances of characters in some of Conrad’s Malayan fiction. The remaining six essays investigate and attempt to estimate the influence of various performing art forms and practitioners on Conrad’s canon: Stephen Donovan examines the influence on Conrad of a recently passé form of performance, shadowgraphy; Robert Hampson and Suzanne Speidel interrogate the author’s equivocal relationship to the nascent, technologically driven form of cinema; Hand and Baxter consider the influence on Conrad of a variety of theatrical forms and styles, including melodrama, commedia dell’arte, and Shakespearean drama; and, finally, Lawrence Davies illustrates the operatic qualities of some of Conrad’s fiction.
The editors’ introduction situates Conrad as a figure whose career spanned a period of great transition in performing arts history, when older forms of entertainment such as shadowgraphy and opera were giving way, in popular culture at least, to radio and cinema. Baxter and Hand tell us that when Almayer’s Folly appeared in 1895, literary fiction stood tall as “the pre-eminent art form in contemporary English culture.” This was no longer the case by 1906, with the advent of narrative film targeting the middle classes. Literary writers who survived this transitional period, such as H. G. Wells, did so because they began thinking of themselves not strictly as writers of novels and stories but as content providers for the growing entertainment industry.
Conrad was by no means at the vanguard of this movement. The author’s personal writings communicate frustration with new media that threatened the book’s status. Cinema he characterized as “just a silly stunt for silly people” (Conrad’s Letters, VII: 163), and at one time Conrad declared: “I hate the stage” (Conrad’s Letters, IV: 218). Earlier in his career, however, he was compelled to confide, “I greatly desire to write a play myself. It is my dark and secret ambition” (Conrad’s Letters, I: 419). Over the course of his career, Conrad adapted stories, composed for the stage and screen, and sold film rights to several of his novels. Scholars addressing Conrad’s dabbling in other arts have typically cited the ambivalence expressed in his personal writings as [End Page 119] evidence that when he did engage with these other forms, he did so primarily for financial gain.
Taken together, the contributions to Joseph Conrad and the Performing Arts provide a significantly more complex portrait of Conrad’s interaction with the performing arts and show through careful, historical readings of the texts that Conrad’s privileging of literature, skepticism toward new media, and enthusiasm for old forms of entertainment cannot be reduced simply to stodginess, neophobia, or sentimentalism. The research presented in this volume “suggests a far more complex process of cross-fertilisation between media” than is typically granted to a literary figure. While Conrad may not have engaged wholeheartedly with the performing arts, these essays show that throughout his career Conrad indeed “smuggled himself across artistic borders” as a way of experimenting with narrative technique and appealing to the developing tastes and expectations of his readers.
The authors collected in this volume accept Conrad’s ambivalent attitude toward the performing arts as an opportunity to participate in ongoing discussions and begin some new ones. Donovan’s history of shadow and marionette theater provides historical precedent for the emphasis on descriptions of light and dark throughout Conrad’s oeuvre. But...