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May 23, 2006

"Don't imagine your money has been specially selected for pilfering": The Voysey Inheritance - Harley Granville Barker

Posted by Richard D. North

Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance
directed by Peter Gill
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory 18th April - 7th June 2006

Harley Granville Barker is the past century's most consistently successful and influential man of the theatre. Perhaps one needs to modify that by saying, "…of the serious theatre". That gets Wilde and Coward out of the way. George Bernard Shaw, the only figure to rival him, was his mentor and a very frank admirer. Besides, GBS's plays are brilliant debates, compared with HGB's proper theatricals. Martin Kettle notes in The Guardian that Shaw said The Voysey Inheritance - first staged at the perennially radical (Royal) Court Theatre - showed:

a mastery that threatens to put us all on the shelf.
What a figure Granville Barker was. His work as director and producer set the Court on the path it has maintained since (Shaw then being a staple). He dreamed of a National Theatre, and so nearly made one happen that it was never again such a difficult thing to imagine.

But what is so peculiar is the status of his "Prefaces to Shakespeare" (reissued by the NT), written when he was flush with a wife's money (the stuff that emboldened him to hyphenate his surname). They are ostensibly a practical guide to staging Shakespeare, and set themselves to avoiding both a slavish "Elizabethan" purity and an Edwardian tendency to "upholster" the plays in effects. He is acknowledged by modern directors (especially Richard Eyre) as important to them, but it is in a way even more surprising that he is so helpful to an ordinary member of the audience. He shows us how Shakespeare gets us to see his purposes without falling over them. A C Bradley, J Dover Wilson, and G Wilson Knight made an extraordinary recent background of Shakespeare commentary against which to achieve such prominence.

The miracle of the HGB as playwright is that, whilst he hasn't always been fashionable, there's never been a time when his plays, and especially his 1905 story of an embezzling solicitor - a chiseller from Chislehurst - did not resonate. On stage, The Voysey Inheritance was revived in the West End in 1934 and again at the National in 1989. I first saw it in a BBC Play of the Month production in 1979. A couple of years earlier, the same slot had had his Waste. It was a time when he and his near-contemporary, John Galsworthy, were regarded as a useful television counterpoint to the grim dramas which John Osborne ushered in. Indeed, Osborne's Luther kicked off Play of the Month's intermittent run, beginning in 1965, and he appeared in one of its classic moments, David Mercer's The Parachute in 1968.

Osborne is an obvious reference point, not least because Peter Gill, HGB's current director, is a devotee. Firstly, it is of course too early to know whether Look Back In Anger (premiered, naturally, where The Voysey Inheritance had been) and the rest will survive except as curiosities, both theatrical and sociological.

As we saw in this month's rerun of Tony Palmer's friendly - perhaps too friendly - 2003 TV biography, or in John Heilpern's new book, Osborne's radicalism was hopelessly undermined by his colossal thwarted snobbery. When he burst on the scene, mass affluence (not radical theatre) was about to sweep away the lower middle class and its pretensions and bigotries. These were the sort of failings which Osborne so hated in his mother, though (nobly, one might think) he seems to have taken her everywhere. But there was also the oddity of a new wave of theatre people who hated "the well made play" (itself a fashion by then a century and half old and no threat) and the conventions of Edwardian and pre- and post-war theatre. Beyond trumpeting left-wing ideas, or ancient class resentments, they haven't much changed theatrical convention. You can't make Terrence Rattigan trivial, and Samuel Beckett can be valuable (if he is) without denting older norms.

Besides, Osborne was trapped by his conventionality. Like Evelyn Waugh (as we have been reminded by this month's re-run of the 1987 Arena three-part TV biography) he couldn't be an English country gentleman. We have a mobile class system, but not one which can help people to embody a social phantasm of their own invention. These writers' passage from rebel to reactionary is such a familiar, well-rutted, track that one wonders anyone will dare follow it again. They will, of course, as surely as Germaine Greer and Malcolm McLaren have become national treasures. Thirdly, whilst there is of course a left-wing audience for left-wing plays, the bourgeois mass audience has always expected to be teased and taunted by its playwrights. It is much easier to upset writers than their audiences.

It's against this background that one suspects that in 1979 and 1989, staging The Voysey Inheritance seemed ironic, at least to vaguely dissident theatre people. It concerns Mr Voysey, a solicitor of apparent respectability and affluence, who secretly uses his clients' capital to fund high-roller investments. He does so partly to maintain the expectations, and to avoid exposing the muddle he and (unknowingly) his clients have inherited from his father. The tension arises as his son, Edward, in turn learns of his baleful inheritance.

By re-staging the piece, one could be seen to cater to "conservative" audiences whilst seeming to show an argument about how those romanticised Edwardian days were corrupt:

Look, there was embezzlement then; those well-upholstered people were hypocrites. You say how much better the pre-Beatles days were. Well, cop a load of this.
Equally, producers could proclaim, then as now:
See what a subtle commentary we are making on contemporary society. There's always corruption and crass commercialism. Capitalism's like that.
In 1979 it might have been: "Look at Slater Walker!" In 1989: "Look at Thatcher!". And now: "Look at Enron!"

To be fair, whilst Martin Kettle supposes that the play reminds us of the courtroom drama surrounding Enron executives, he makes a more useful point when he reminds us that there is little good modern drama about money. As Minette Marrin also notes (Sunday Times, 21st May, 2006), what little there is, is unsympathetic to the world of getting and spending. The 1980s remains stereotyped as a period of greed, not liberation. A A Gill is as tedious as Marrin is accurate when he writes (Sunday Times, 21st May, 2006) of Andrew Davies' TV adaptation of Alan Hollingshurt's The Line Of Beauty (BBC2 - 17th, 24th, 31st May, 2006). He thinks of the 1980s as an:

excessive decade when so much was discarded and so much bought, with Grantham morality hiding devil-take-the-hindmost gathering venality, and when society made hypocrisy a form of haute etiquette.
Actually, it was a decade in which vast numbers of Britons breathed a sigh of relief and when a country shrugged off mediocrity. The real humbug is to reap this harvest whilst sneering at the woman who brought it home.

We have reason to think Granville Barker would have written wonderfully about the modern snobbish left. Certainly, HGB captures the machinery of money-making, but also its necessity and even its value.

The National Theatre's own programme material doesn't make the Enron comparison. Linda Davies, a banker turned novelist, gives them a note which compares old man Voysey with Robert Maxwell (who "dipped" pension funds to bail out his firm), with Ivan Boesky's insider dealing, and - this is a common comparison - with the eminent Victorian, Jabez Spencer Balfour, who invented vast savings and property scams. All fraud shares a common thread of deception, but the more one thinks about the Voysey case, the more one realises that neither Kettle's nor Davies' comparisons really work.

Maxwell, Enron and their predecessors were all exploiting weaknesses in "corporate governance". But Voysey's sins were professional, and that means that they were personal. The apparent paradox is easily unravelled. Voysey was trusted in a very particular way: as a solicitor, it was expected that he would be an almost quasi-judicial figure. He would be expected to behave with the kind of integrity which ought to attach to any person, but which is rendered institutional in a profession. And he is able to steal from his clients - borrow from them, he might say - because they trust him so. Actually, indeed, the client we get to know best - Mr Booth - knows Voysey as his best friend. And yet the crime has claims to be "victimless" because the swindler always paid the modest returns which were all his clients had been led to expect - indeed he is more than generous with the poorest of them. One of the play's best passages notes Mr Booth's self-righteousness. Reminding him that he need never have had the worry of knowing he has been swindled, Edward boldly seeks to rob Mr Booth of self-pity:

Don't imagine your money has been specially selected for pilfering.
The play can be revived at any time, not because capitalism keeps generating a side-show of wheezes and scams (as it does of course), nor even because there will always be bent solicitors. Even in a time when there don't seem to be many crooked solicitors (now, surely?) we can easily imagine the issues HGB's embezzler gives rise to. As HGB points out when he's writing about The Merchant of Venice, you don't need to have an attitude about 16th century Venice to get the point of Shakespeare's writing about Shylock's bargain and his being caught out by the letter of the law. The play isn't, as he says, about the intricacy of banking rules or "the alien and his griefs".

In short, moral and social dilemmas are perennial. The Voysey Inheritance is about a man becoming less of a prig and more of a hero by being less fastidious about his "honour". Pushing it, one could even say he becomes more honourable as he becomes less honest. Scion of two generations of scam merchants, Edward becomes a man because he has to learn to duck and weave, to compromise, to operate a front. He gets sexier as he does so, and it gets him the most spirited girl in the piece. She's close to wanting to persuade him to develop a positive appetite for deception, as his father had. The mechanics of the scam are of course interesting, but even more so is the problem that the world, certainly Edward Voysey's world, begins with a muddle - and being moral in it cannot be had by clinging to the law or to churchy virtue. This play does not excoriate hypocrisy: it flirts with sophistry to test our sympathies toward unexpected virtue.

Edward's dilemma is that if he comes clean, everyone loses except himself. It is sharpened by the realisation that exposure will mean the poorest and hardest-working of his father's clients might be hurt more than the richest and idlest. It is of course the least worldly (the vicar and the nice old gent) who bargain with him to preserve their advantage (a bargain Edward is very tempted to kiss off).

Of course, Granville Barker is also giving us social comedy. He is an entertainer. People have given their money to the Voyseys to look after because the rich are too "gentlemanly" to look after it themselves. They trusted two generations of Voyseys because they had been conned by the firm's affluence and swagger - indeed, they make the mistake of not trusting decent third-generation Edward because he is not "manly" enough. When he becomes so, Mr Booth is too stupid to notice it.

The play has a subtext about the ancient battle between creative, free-wheeling, priggish, youth, which dreams of over-throwing convention, and the older, smug, corrupt generation and its steady virtues. There have always been Bright Young Things and their foil, "Society" with a capital "S". HGB gives us blimps and bluster, and talentless young painters, and Marxist rhetoric, and worldly young women longing for a few hundred a year and a room of their own and wise old birds whose lives have encompassed several evolutions of morals and manners. But he is friendly toward the world of "brown furniture", as the Bloomsbury set called it.

His cheerful acceptance of human nature is of course shocking to people who are fired up about the complacency of society. This kind of play shocked the post-war revolutionary young because it resolutely refused to see that there was anything very much to be angry about. Most infuriatingly, such plays could note and absorb and be charming about youthful outrage.

If the National thought there was something especially timely about putting on The Voysey Inheritance now, they don't tell us - and I can't see - what it is. But it's very welcome anyway. The 2006 production was well-received as being a piece of ensemble playing. Perhaps rightly, Julian Glover was thought not to have attacked his speeches as he might. It was commented, rightly, that the comedy was over-milked: the chiaroscuro of the text was not cherished.

Latent chippiness, or insecurity, may be at work here. The production was a bit Disney. Park-keepers dealt with leaves, passers-by meandered. Historical sound snippets were sprayed out into the auditorium. It was all a sign of a certain nervousness, as though the play needed all the context it could get or its relevance might be missed. HGB, the enemy of clutter, might have disliked these vulgarities.

But he might also have relished the way the staging did nearly as much work as the text. The costumes and the approach to "stage business" were rather lovely. We had the sense of a well-staffed household with personalities at work from master to housemaid. We saw the sheer variety that the family had produced and attracted. From the bohemian son to the blue-stocking daughter-in-law, from the lawyer to the soldier, it was a fully working model of society. Voysey's youngest son, Hugh, can rant all he likes against the smugness of this life, but he knows the worst of it is that it contains him without effort. He dreams of escape -

from tyranny…. from hypocrisy…. from boredom!…. from his Happy English Home!
But the crisis is existential. As his clever wife remarks, he is clever enough to see the problem, "and no cleverer".

Indeed, the household is the real hero of the play. As Mr Booth, Voysey's best friend and prime victim, perhaps dimly did see, the lawyer's crime was almost justified by the life it sustained - and one of its chief successes was to provide Mr Booth himself with a surrogate family. The Voyseys gave him human capital in exchange for his bonds. He got a very good deal and it is hinted that he may have just enough good sense to connive at its continuation.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

To read David Womersley's take on The Voysey Inheritance, see: David Womersley explains why the newspaper reviewers have all got it wrong - The Voysey Inheritance is a far more morally-explosive play than it has been given credit for.

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