The Literati: Henry James’s Final Curtain Call

Concerned about diminishing royalties from his novels, Henry James in his mid-40s began to write plays. Over five years of failure, few made it to the stage, but one, “Guy Domville,” succeeded in opening at London’s St. James’s Theater on Jan. 5, 1895. The highly respected George Alexander produced it and acted the title role.

The play opens in the garden of Mrs. Peverel, a wealthy young widow. She loves Guy, her son’s tutor, but he is leaving to become a Catholic priest. Suddenly news arrives that his only remaining relative has died, and Guy, the last of his line, must now decide between taking over the family estates and marrying, or entering Mother Church. When the curtain came down on Act I, the audience seemed intrigued by this dilemma. James might have been encouraged had he been there, but he was too agitated to go to the opening. He was down the street at Oscar Wilde’s new play, “An Ideal Husband.”

At the St. James’s that night were two different audiences. The orchestra was made up of literary and artistic Londoners and the author’s friends. Those in the balcony, however, were unfamiliar with James, and by the third act were fed up with Guy’s vacillations, and disgusted when he chose life in a monastery over the widow. After Guy delivered the play’s final line — “I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!” — an angry voice shot through the darkness: It’s a bloody good thing y’are!”

James made it backstage for the closing minutes. He heard both the sneers from the gallery and the enthusiastic applause from the stalls. When Alexander took his curtain call, Henry’s friends in the audience began shouting “Author, author!,” and the unnerved actor took James by the hand and led him onstage. A civil war ensued.

“All the forces of civilization in the house,” Henry wrote to his brother William a few days later, “waged a battle of the most gallant, prolonged and sustained applause with the hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs, whose roars (like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal ‘zoo’) were only exacerbated (as it were) by the conflict.” The novelist fled the stage, while Alexander quieted the rival armies by offering an apology and vowing to do better. Forgiveness was bestowed by one unsatisfied customer in the balcony: “T’aint your fault, guv’nor, it’s a rotten play.”

Henry James had promised his brother that he would give up the theater if this play didn’t succeed. He kept his word.

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