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190 Comparative Drama Elmer W. Salenius. Harley Granville Barker. Twayne English Authors Series, no. 309. Boston: Twayne Publishers, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982. Pp. xvi + 167. $17.95. One need hardly repeat the usual complaints about the formulaic brevity and superficiality of the Twayne’s series. The new TEAS volume on Harley Granville Barker is hardly exceptional. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a book of this length more repetitive in its general outline, its specific observations and its verbal style. Nevertheless, Elmer W. Salenius knows his subject well, and has evidently been studying Barker for some time, judging from the letter he solicited from Bernard Shaw on the subject shortly before the elder playwright’s death in 1950. The bibliography of primary sources (derived largely from Frederick May and Margery Morgan’s bibliography in C. B. Purdom’s 1956 biography) is always useful; the bibliography of secondary studies is nicely annotated if hardly complete; and the book is reasonably accurate in its factual data. (To set the record straight, Barker did not actually produce Caesar and Cleopatra at the Savoy in 1907, but merely presented the production which Forbes Robertson had mounted some years before on the road; and The Marrying of Ann Leete was revived in 1975, not by the National Theatre, but by the Royal Shakespeare Company). A book on Barker as a playwright, even one which does not super­ sede Morgan’s 1960 A Drama of Political Man, is always welcome. In many ways, Salenius’ study indicates future directions for scholarship on Barker’s dramaturgy, for there are a modest number of genuinely interesting critical observations which, for reasons of either space restric­ tions or limitations in the author’s critical imagination, are not fully developed here, and might be taken considerably further with some profit. These observations spring from Salenius’ conviction that Barker’s work in the theatre as an actor and director should be brought to bear upon our consideration of his efforts as a playwright. Barker’s close affiliation with Shaw is an obvious example; but one need only look at the list of plays Barker worked on in the theatre to imagine new contexts for evaluating his peculiarly muted, indirect style. In reference to The Secret Life, Salenius compares Barker to Chekhov, whose works Barker knew but did not direct, and to Maeterlinck, several of whose plays he directed and anthologized. Half a chapter is dedicated to Prunella, written in collaboration with Laurence Housman, and Barker’s most frequently performed play (indeed, it was the non-Shavian play most often per­ formed during the Vedrenne-Barker years at the Court Theatre). Here is a sadly neglected play which certainly bears comparison with the numer­ ous contemporary continental fantasy plays, especially those which draw upon the characters and motifs of the Commedia. Salenius often classifies Barker’s realistic plays as “Meredithian Comedies”; even more can be made of this if one considers Barker’s assessment of Meredith’s attempts at dramatic writing (‘Tennyson, Swinburne, Meredith and the Theatre,” in The Eighteen-Seventies, Cambridge University Press, 1929), and his 1910 production in The Sentimentalists. My one major quarrel with Salenius’ analyses of the plays comes from a consideration of Barker’s work in the theatre: surely an actor who created Marchbanks, Tanner, Cusins, and other Shavian roles, and Reviews 191 who directed Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and The Wild Duck, playing Hjalmar Ekdal in the latter, would hardly expect his own dramatic creations— Ann Leete, Edward Voysey and Philip Madras—to be labelled “idealists.” Barker undoubtedly subscribed to Shaw’s Shelleyan definition of idealism, as put forward in The Quintessense of Ibsenism: each character starts out as an idealist until he “dared to begin pulling the Masks off and looking at the spectres in the face—dared, that is, to be more and more a realist.” To admire these characters for their idealism is either to misuse critical vocabulary or to miss the points of the plays altogether. This book is unlikely to bring about any long-awaited revival of Barker’s plays in performance. But with steady flow of new work on Barker’s directing and criticism, as well as Eric Salmon’s new...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 190-191
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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