Harley Granville Barker: Lost Edwardian play sheds light on a forward-thinking writer
As Agnes Colander receives its premiere after 116 years, Nick Smurthwaite investigates why Harley Granville Barker’s potentially incendiary work never made it to the stage in the playwright’s lifetime
There are moves afoot to restore the reputation of Harley Granville Barker. The playwright was once regarded as the most influential figure of early-20th-century British theatre.
Author and academic Colin Chambers has no hesitation in declaring Barker “the single most important person in the English theatre, right up there with Stanislavski and Brecht”.
Along with the playwright Richard Nelson, Chambers edited a collection of theatre essays, Granville Barker on Theatre, published in Methuen’s Theatre Makers series last October.
During their research for the book, Nelson and Chambers came across an unpublished and unperformed Barker play Agnes Colander, written in 1900 when he was 23. It is now being produced for the first time – other than a staged reading at the National Theatre in 2016 – at the Ustinov Studio Theatre, Bath, directed by Trevor Nunn.
Chambers tracked down a typed and hand-annotated manuscript – the only one in existence – in the British Library, and received permission from the Society of Authors, which manages Barker’s estate, to send a copy to Nelson, who lives in upstate New York.
Given that Barker wrote three of the most frequently revived plays of the Edwardian era – Waste, The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House – it was surprising to come across a full-length work that both men considered worthy of production languishing in obscurity for more than a century.
“We believe the play was unfinished,” says Chambers, a former literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he worked closely with Nelson and Nunn. “I think Barker must have felt there was more work to be done on it, and for various reasons he never got round to it.”
Nunn wonders if Agnes Colander was never produced because Barker may have thought it would never be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. “I think he put it away in a drawer because he knew it would cause an uproar,” the director says. “When I first read it I was gobsmacked. It was so modern.”
The eponymous heroine is a young married artist fighting against conventional morality in order to discover her own sexual identity.
Barker’s literary hero was Henrik Ibsen, who had already stormed the barricades of middle-class gentility with plays such as Ghosts and A Doll’s House. Indeed, Barker has often been dubbed “the English Ibsen”.
Even at such a young age, Barker was clearly fascinated by the struggle for women’s emancipation, not just in the public domain but also in the bedroom. He put women at the forefront of all his major works and appreciated, like Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, that women had as much to contribute to society and public discourse as men.
So why did Barker resist any attempt to produce Agnes Colander? “We know he sent the manuscript to his friend, the critic and producer William Archer, who ran an independent company called New Century, which didn’t require a licence to produce plays,” says Chambers. “But unfortunately we don’t have any record of Archer’s assessment of it.”
Curiously, 30 years after writing Agnes Colander, Barker wrote on the typescript: “I suspect this play to be very poor. It should certainly not be published. It might well be destroyed.” Some time later, he added: “This should be destroyed,” with the word ‘destroyed’ underlined. But he never did.
“I think at the time he was writing it he was exploring different ways of writing about people,” says Chambers. “It is basically a sequence of duologues about how a small group of people relate to each other. Chekhov did a similar sort of thing as a young writer.
“Barker wrote in one of his essays that action was the least important thing in drama, and that what made drama interesting was excavating the human condition.”
Despite being regarded by his peers as a theatrical genius, Barker quit the London theatre scene at 40 to live with his second wife in Devon, and latterly in Paris, where he died in 1946.
“I believe that by 1929, Barker was suffering from a disease, most likely tuberculosis,” wrote Nelson in the introduction to his revised text.
“At this time he was beginning to look back and summarise his life’s work. Throughout his creative life, [Barker] continued to return to his early plays and revise them. Waste, The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House have all been published in different versions. In each of these cases, his revisions attempt to make what can seem quite obscure into something a bit less obscure.
“He wrote these instructions [to destroy Agnes Colander] and yet he did not follow them. It is one of the few manuscripts he kept in his possession until the day he died, 17 years after leaving those instructions.”
It remains to be seen whether Barker’s reservations about the play will be borne out by its critical reception in 2018, but the very least we can expect is a theatrical curio of one of early-20th-century British theatre’s greats.
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