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October 24, 2006

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: The Voysey Inheritance - Harley Granville Barker

Posted by David Womersley

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

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - is amused by Harley Granville Barker's stage directions - and explains why The Voysey Inheritance is a far more morally-explosive play than it has been given credit for.

What is The Voysey Inheritance about? If you had followed the reviews of the recent National Theatre production, you would have been seriously misled. For instance, this is Michael Billington's summary in The Guardian of the core of the plot:

Edward Voysey discovers that his solicitor father has been speculating with his clients' capital; and that his father himself was the inheritor of a fraudulent business. And after his father's death Edward, while covertly trying to restore the clients' money, finds himself similarly imprisoned by his legacy.
In The Independent, Rhoda Koenig is in one respect more accurate, but still falls short:
the elder Voysey has been defrauding his clients for more than 30 years, first to repair his own father's malfeasance, then because he liked it.

Kate Bassett, in The Independent on Sunday, makes the same mistake:

Having been made a business partner, Edward has just discovered that his father has, for years, illegally speculated with their clients' savings. Mr Voysey's children have unwittingly profited and the old man insists his intentions were good, particularly at first. The speculating was an inherited problem sustained to avoid disgrace and bankruptcy.
And Benedict Nightingale in that journal of record, The Times, stumbles, I'm afraid, into the same error:
like his own father, he [the elder Voysey] has been ripping off the firm's clients by speculating with their trust funds while paying them enough interest to keep them happily ignorant.
Old Voysey initially tells his son Edward that the fraud which has sustained the Voysey family was begun by his own father. But once his father has died, Edward (as he tells his astonished family when he breaks the news to them):
can only find one irregularity that's more than ten years old.
His father had not inherited the practice of swindling the firm's clients: he had invented it. Nor was it the case that he had been obliged to persevere in crime because he saw no way out. Peacey, the firm's clerk, tells Edward that his father had:
got things right as rain once . . . but he started again.
And nor does Edward simply carry on the swindle, but rather he trims, modifies and abates it: he does not carry on the tradition of buying Peacey's silence with a £200 "gift" at Christmas, and he does not fall in with the proposals of one of the firm's clients, the pampered and selfish George Booth, that he should be given preferential treatment, his capital being as far as possible restored, and devil take the hindmost. So this play is not quite either the exposť of Edwardian hypocrisy, or the allegory of the triumph of grubby pragmatism over vapid idealism, that has been praised in the papers. It is more curious, and more psychologically subtle, than that.

One can see how the approximations and misconceptions arose. The sets of the National's production were particularly splendid, and in their very meticulousness suggested a solidity which we nevertheless knew of course to be a fake. The theatrical space itself then seemed to be almost a symbol for what my great-grandmother used pithily to call "a good-looking nowt" - what could be easier than to assume that the play itself was predicated on similarly direct oppositions of appearance and reality.

Another reason is to be found in Granville Barker's attitude to drama. He was certainly at moments a great dramatist, but he also to some extent saw drama through the lens of the novel, and nowhere is this more evident than in his stage directions. Most actors, I imagine, welcome stage directions of the form: "Jim enters stage left and sits down". What I imagine they find rather difficult to handle are stage directions such as this, which heralds Edward Voysey's first entrance:

EDWARD has little of his father in him and that little is undermost. It is a refined face but self-consciousness takes the place in it of imagination, and in suppressing traits of brutality in his character it looks as if the young man had suppressed his sense of humour too. . . .
And so it goes on, for almost three times the length of what I have quoted. One can only imagine the rehearsals, if a director were to take this seriously as a stage direction:
Can we try that again, please, and this time make the suppression of brutality by self-consciousness just a bit more evident as you walk in?
It reaches a pinnacle of ludicrousness when Granville Barker, at the end of the play, writes a stage direction for a prop, namely the picture of old Mr Voysey:
From above the mantelpiece . . . the face of the late MR VOYSEY seems to look down upon his son not unkindly, though with that curious buccaneering twist of the eyebrows which distinguished his countenance in life.
Hard enough for an actor to express "that curious buccaneering twist of the eyebrows"; surely impossible for a portrait to bring it off. But of course these are not simply stage directions. They are also explanatory and interpretative notes from the playwright to the actors and the director. What they reveal is that Granville Barker was drawn to, or felt the need of, the possibilities of direct authorial comment which are available to the novelist but denied to the playwright.

Granville Barker's deepest concern in this play is not some mature admonishment that callow idealism must yield to sober pragmatism. The Voysey Inheritance is a less preaching play than that. Rather, what engages Granville Barker's imagination here is the sheer pleasure we take in wrongdoing and rule-breaking - in breaking free and getting away with it. This is the element which unites the financial misdemeanours in the play with another aspect of the action which receives little comment, namely the familial tribulations of the Voyseys, in particular the break-up of the marriage of Hugh and Beatrice.

Peacey's revelation that Old Voysey had managed to climb clear of the fraud he had embarked on, but then relapsed into it, suggests that he did it simply because he liked it. It is an insight underlined by a generic twist at the end of the play. Edward Voysey's final marriage to Alice depends, not on his forsaking the paths of unrighteousness, but on his resolve to persevere in his journey down them. The point is not so much that crime leads to pleasure, but that crime is itself a pleasure. The Voysey Inheritance is a far more morally-explosive play than it has been given credit for, and this is because its vision exceeded Granville Barker's powers of dramatic expression.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read Richard D. North's take on The Voysey Inheritance, see: "Don't imagine your money has been specially selected for pilfering": The Voysey Inheritance - Harley Granville Barker.


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