Henry James had a love-hate relationship with the theatre. He had boyhood dreams of becoming an actor, wrote first-rate dramatic criticism and aspired to be as successful a playwright as novelist. But his hopes were shattered at the first night in 1895 of his play Guy Domville, which was roundly booed by the gallery. I would still argue that he was a natural dramatist and that, among his later works, The High Bid eminently deserves revival.
The play had a tortuous history. It began as a one-act piece, Summersoft, created for Ellen Terry but never staged. In 1898, James turned it into a short story, Covering End. That came to the attention of the actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who commissioned James to rewrite it as a three-act play. Driven by what he called “the lust of a little possible gold”, James complied, but the loot was not forthcoming. After its premiere at the Edinburgh Lyceum in 1908 and five matinee performances in London, the play quietly expired until it was successfully revived by Bernard Miles at the Mermaid in 1967 and, less happily, in the West End in 1970 with Eartha Kitt in the key role of an American widow, Mrs Gracedew, in love with the English past.
It remains a seriously fascinating play that, as one commentator says, combines a melodramatic set-up with Jamesian sophistication. As so often, everything hinges on a large country house: one that is inherited by a Captain Yule but which is heavily mortgaged to a voracious businessman, Prodmore. A dubious bargain, however, is proposed by Prodmore: he will cancel the debts if Yule marries Prodmore’s daughter and, forsaking his socialist principles, stands as the local Tory MP. At which point Mrs Gracedew, an American visitor enthralled by the house and its history, intervenes. Unaware of the marital aspect of the deal, she urges Yule to accept Prodmore’s offer: that changes, however, when she realises that the preservation of the past involves a sacrifice in the present.
All the classic Jamesian ingredients are here: property, money, class and the eternal conflict between the old world and the new. Back in 1878, James wrote a brilliant short story, An International Episode, in which a bookish Bostonian shows a far greater reverence for England’s history than a languid, castle-owning aristo. Something similar happens here, with Mrs Gracedew gushing over the house’s antiquity in a way that perplexes its owner. The text is studded with elaborate stage directions that are best ignored. But what you have is a play with a strong plot, an acute moral dilemma and rich dialogue typified by Captain Yule’s inquiry to the house’s white-haired retainer, “I mean to whom do you beautifully belong?” If ever the theatre returns, it would be good to see someone putting in an offer for The High Bid.