Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
Theatricals: Second Series

Theatricals: Second Series

Ask a question about 'Theatricals: Second Series'
Start a new discussion about 'Theatricals: Second Series'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
Theatricals: Second Series is a book of two plays
Play (theatre)
A play is a form of literature written by a playwright, usually consisting of scripted dialogue between characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading. There are rare dramatists, notably George Bernard Shaw, who have had little preference whether their plays were performed...

 by Henry James
Henry James
Henry James, OM was an American-born writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr., a clergyman, and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James....

 published in 1895. As a follow-up to his 1894 book Theatricals
Theatricals is a book of two plays by Henry James published in 1894. The plays, Tenants and Disengaged, had failed to be produced, so James put them out in book form with a rueful preface about his inability to get the plays onto the stage....

, James included two more unproduced plays in this volume, The Album and The Reprobate. James wrote a longer preface for this book, where he discussed writing for the theater and the sacrifices involved.

Plot summaries

The Album opens at the country house of Courtland outside London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, where the owner Bedford is dying upstairs and the fate of his estate
Estate (law)
An estate is the net worth of a person at any point in time. It is the sum of a person's assets - legal rights, interests and entitlements to property of any kind - less all liabilities at that time. The issue is of special legal significance on a question of bankruptcy and death of the person...

 is unclear. Sir Ralph Damant appears on the scene; he's the nearest heir so he figures the estate should be his. Artist
An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only...

 Mark Bernal (long lost and thought dead) also shows up. He's a distant relative and comes with an album of sketches dated "September, '91." Three women are already hanging around: Lady Basset, Bedford's buddy who now wants Sir Ralph so she can get the Bedford estate; Maud Vincent, beloved by Teddy Ashdown but wanting more; and Grace Jesmond, Bedford's put-upon secretary who falls for Mark.

An incredible amount of stage bustle ensues, much of it revolving around that album of Mark's. Eventually, Mark and Grace decide to get married, as do Teddy and Maud. Sir Ralph wants to get rid of the fortune-hunting Lady Basset, so in a fit of generosity that closes the play, he gives the Bedford inheritance to Mark.

The Reprobate, a play which James described as better than The Album, opens with an unannounced stranger, Mrs. Freshville, appearing at Mr. Bonsor's Hampton Court villa. It develops that she is Nina, Paul Doubleday's lady friend, who spent time with him in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 many years ago. For the past decade Paul has been kept under close control in the villa, well away from life's temptation
A temptation is an act that looks appealing to an individual. It is usually used to describe acts with negative connotations and as such, tends to lead a person to regret such actions, for various reasons: legal, social, psychological , health, economic, etc...

s, by his widowed stepmother Mrs. Doubleday and his co-guardian, the bachelor Bonsor.

Blanche Amber, Bonsor's niece, meets Paul and dislikes how he is being treated almost as a child because others suspect him of a dissolute and unreliable nature. Meanwhile, Captain Chanter is pursuing Mrs. Doubleday. After many trials, tribulations, entrances, and exits, Blanche accepts Paul's marriage proposal, which gets him out of his isolation. The "reprobate" Paul turns out to be mature and responsible. To make the ending even happier, Mrs. Doubleday embraces Chanter.

Key themes

If there's any genuine interest in these plays, it resides in the character of Paul Doubleday, the heir to a large fortune who has been kept in virtual isolation because others fear what he might do if he enjoyed complete freedom. Paul is based on Henry Wykoff, a distant relative of James who was kept in much the same kind of isolation, as described in the novelist's autobiographical book, A Small Boy and Others
A Small Boy and Others
A Small Boy and Others is a book of autobiography by Henry James published in 1913. The book covers James' earliest years and discusses his intellectually active family, his intermittent schooling, and his first trips to Europe.-Summary and themes:...


The twist is that both the real Wykoff and the fictional Doubleday turn out to be much more dependable and reliable than anybody had thought. This idea might have made for an intriguing psychological narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

 by James, but instead he wasted it in the mediocre farce of The Reprobate. There are few if any themes that can be extracted from The Album, except that constant stage bustle can be painfully unfunny.

Critical evaluation

In his introduction, which is probably the most interesting thing in the book, James wrote that these plays were designed to be mostly mindless: "a short comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

, the broader the better, thoroughly simple, intensely pleasant, affording a liberal chance to a young sympathetic comedian, calling for as little acting
Acting is the work of an actor or actress, which is a person in theatre, television, film, or any other storytelling medium who tells the story by portraying a character and, usually, speaking or singing the written text or play....

 as possible besides, skirting the fairy-tale
Fairy tale
A fairy tale is a type of short story that typically features such folkloric characters, such as fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, dwarves, giants or gnomes, and usually magic or enchantments. However, only a small number of the stories refer to fairies...

, straining any and every point for the agreeable falsity, entailing no expense in mounting, and supremely susceptible of being played to audiences unaccustomed to beating around the bush for their amusement—audiences, to be perfectly honest, in country towns."

Henry James was not the sort of writer who could produce a masterpiece, or even acceptable fluff, under these constraints. As mentioned before, the figure of Paul Doubleday—suspected of irresponsibility but in fact thoroughly dependable—might have made for a clever James short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

. But when such a character
Fictional character
A character is the representation of a person in a narrative work of art . Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr , the earliest use in English, in this sense, dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of...

 gets ground into a farce meant to be brainless entertainment, any real interest he might have generated disappears.

By the way, The Reprobate did receive a few performances after James' death. The reviews were mixed. The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

 critic liked it: "a plain tale in plain language, an action all bustle and snap, characters all the broadest, drollest caricatures." But Arnold Bennett
Arnold Bennett
- Early life :Bennett was born in a modest house in Hanley in the Potteries district of Staffordshire. Hanley is one of a conurbation of six towns which joined together at the beginning of the twentieth century as Stoke-on-Trent. Enoch Bennett, his father, qualified as a solicitor in 1876, and the...

gave the usual verdict on James in his playwriting efforts: "an unusually able and gifted man trying to so something for which his talents were utterly unfitted."