Thursday, 22 February 2018

LEONARD MERRICK The Actor-Manager (1898) [Re-Post]

Hodder & Stoughton Collected Edition (spine), c 1922
Hodder & Stoughton Collected Edition (cover), c 1922

'An author never remembers anything except his grudge against the critic who gave him a bad notice, but I shall remind him who I am.  I hear they have only engaged the principals so far, and the first call is for twelve o'clock tomorrow.  I mean to waylay him as he goes in.'
  To waylay a man as he goes in; to scheme for an introduction to another who doesn't want to know you; to submit to rudeness, and disguise privation under well-cut clothes; to smile in the Strand and break your heart in private, are the essential preliminaries to success on the stage, unless you have money, or your father was a favourite actor.

The Novel:  Royce Oliphant, a jobless London actor and unperformed playwright, meets a fellow actor named Alma King while they're eating their meagre Christmas dinner in a shabby restaurant located not far from the British Museum.  Oliphant is depressed about his career and his failure to live up to the high ideals which saw him abandon his plans to become a clergyman in favour of pursuing a career on the stage.  He befriends Alma who, after initially feeling wary of his kindness, permits him to accompany her back to her lodgings, the long walk and their mutual loneliness encouraging him to open up to her about his private vision of a theatre in which art will no longer be subordinate to the demands of the box office.  Unfortunately, their plan to have tea together is interrupted by the arrival of Alma's curmudgeonly landlady, who throws her out for failing to pay her rent, retaining her luggage as security.

Outraged by this, Oliphant insists on taking the now homeless Alma back to his own lodgings where she's immediately offered a room by his landlady, the kindly Mrs Tubbs –– a woman who has a soft spot for actors because her own niece, now deceased, was a former member of what she admiringly calls 'the perfession.'  Oliphant and Alma go on to form a bond which is only broken when, after months of struggle, he finally lands a supporting role in a bad play and she's engaged by a travelling repertory company set to undertake a similarly unpromising tour of South Africa.  They part reluctantly but willingly, apparently blind to the fact that their mutual sympathy and growing affection for each other have accidentally blossomed into love. 

Oliphant is quickly replaced in his role –– the actor-manager who hired him suspects him of sucking up to the play's author behind his back, an unforgivable sin and an inexcusable threat to his authority –– and finds himself jobless again.  Luckily, his agent soon receives an offer to have an unproduced play he wrote, The Impostor, staged in a London theatre.  He's offered another small part in this production and soon becomes smitten with Blanche Ellerton, its pretty blonde leading lady.  When the play's leading man becomes ill one night, Oliphant substitutes for him and makes the role his own, launching his London career and obtaining a lucrative offer to tour the provinces into the bargain.  Blanche joins the touring company and the two naturally fall in love –– or what they manage to convince themselves is love –– and make plans to marry.  In the meantime, Oliphant's star continues to rise, resulting in an offer to join the repertory company of Greatorex, one of London's most respected and 'artistic' actor-managers. 

Oliphant and Blanche marry and move to a new flat, where they entertain lavishly and become known to their rich and fashionable friends as 'the romantic couple,' appearing together in many a successful Greatorex production.  By the time their son is born, however, Oliphant has realized that he and Blanche are temperamentally unsuited to each other and has come to regret their hasty, emotionally unsatisfying marriage.  Blanche, who has no time for her husband's high ideals, begins to play up to his rich but silly friend Otho Fairbairn, convincing him to back her 'darling Royce' in a theatre of his own in which she, of course, will play every leading female part.

At a rehearsal for a new play, Oliphant is unexpectedly reunited with Alma –– now returned from South Africa and performing in a role which, while minor, allows her unrecognized talent to shine at its brightest.  They resume their interrupted friendship, with Oliphant continuing to deny his feelings for her because to do so would be, in his eyes, a caddish betrayal of his principles.  When he receives news that his beloved son is sick, it's Alma, not the self-centred Blanche, who supports him during the boy's illness and subsequent death.  Blanche's callous, self-dramatizing response to this event –– she pretends to be overcome by grief but still finds time to send news of the 'sad event' to a magazine in hopes of gaining some free publicity –– proves to Oliphant that he no longer loves her if, indeed, he ever did.

But this is Victorian England where divorce, justified or not, is not easy to arrange.  Blanche and Oliphant stay together and Blanche uses Fairbairn's growing passion for her to secure them a lease on a refurbished London theatre.  Oliphant clashes with his wife over his refusal to bow to popular taste, choosing plays for his first two productions which, while artistically sound, prove to be commercially disastrous.  Only his third production –– a fashionable French comedy he despises –– makes money, proving Blanche's point that audiences will always choose what's entertaining and amusing over what's edifying and ennobling.  

Oliphant's dreams of creating high art have now been shattered.  He gives up the lease on his theatre, along with the ever-supportive Alma (whom he has hired with Blanche's full consent) and what's left of his reputation, and resigns himself to being no more than a mercenary 'talent for hire' for the rest of his career.  Blanche tries to persuade him to abandon his idealism and stage another popular play, arguing that they have a position in society to uphold that mustn't be sacrificed for anything as meaningless as artistic integrity.  Putting her own needs first as always, Blanche uses her gifts as an actress to persuade the sexually-obsessed Fairbairn to take her to Europe, where she can divorce Oliphant and marry him without news of their elopement becoming the kind of scandal that will permanently destroy her career.

Although its plot may sound preposterously melodramatic, The Actor-Manager is actually a shrewd and damning investigation of the conflict between art and commerce or, to put it another way, between impracticality and pragmatism.  Like the title character in Merrick's 1911 novel The Position of Peggy Harper, Blanche Ellerton embodies the word 'pragmatism' and all the sacrifices –– love, family, duty, plus any sense of shame inspired by notions of fidelity or conventional morality –– which must, in her view, be made to gain success and all that accompanies it.  Oliphant, on the other hand, is the epitome of the high-minded, noble-hearted failure –– a proud, often blindly stubborn man who possesses all the qualities society pretends to admire while secretly despising anybody foolish enough to actually try to live by them.  

This conflict is echoed, even parodied, in the figures of Blanche's parents –– a mother who writes cheap newspaper novelettes which support the family while the father, an 'artistic' novelist whose work consistently fails to sell, adopts a superior attitude to her more remunerative efforts, making him as cruel as he is bombastic and ridiculous.  Like Oliphant's landlady Mrs Tubbs, these characters threaten to dominate the story at times because they're so realistically drawn and so uncannily believable –– qualities which may explain why Merrick, like his protagonist, was always more popular with his fellow writers than he was with a public which demanded fairytale endings where sin was always punished and virtue always received its predictable if consistently implausible reward.  The appeal of The Actor-Manager –– which could easily be adapted for a modern audience by making Oliphant a RADA graduate and Blanche a would-be reality TV star –– was best captured by William Dean Howells in the introduction he wrote for a new edition of it published in 1918:  'I can recall no English novel in which the study of temperament and character is carried farther or deeper, allowing for what the people are, and I do not remember a false or mistaken line or colour in it.  For anything to equal it, we must go to the Slavs, in such triumphs of their naturalness as Turgenev's Smoke, or the society passages of Tolstoy's War and Peace.'  

You read Leonard Merrick not so much for his plots, but for his remarkable ability to delineate a world of shabby gentility where hope, slender though it is, is forced to co-exist alongside the unpleasant and usually inescapable realities of loneliness, disillusion, compromise and failure.

The Writer:  Leonard Merrick was born 'Leonard Miller' in Belsize Park, London on 21 February 1864 to wealthy Jewish parents.  He was raised in luxury and educated at Brighton College, after which he expected to go to Germany to study law at Heidelberg University.  However, the sudden collapse of his father's business meant this plan had to be abandoned, forcing him to make his own way in life as best he could from that point onward.  

At eighteen he travelled to South Africa with his now-impoverished parents, where he worked as a supervisor in the diamond fields and for a time as a clerk in a local courthouse before almost dying of typhus –– a brush with death which almost certainly hastened his return to England.  Stage-struck from an early age, he talked his way into a position in a provincial repertory company (living and acting in the same down-at-heel environment in which so many, but not all, of his novels are set) before abandoning the stage in 1884 to try his luck as a novelist.  It was around this time that he changed his surname by deed poll from 'Miller' to 'Merrick' –– the name he had always been known by as an actor.

His first novel, Mr Bazalgette's Legacy, was published in 1888 and was not successful.  Its low sales forced Merrick to return to the stage and, after borrowing money from a friend, he sailed for New York, where roles for genteel Englishmen proved as difficult to come by as they had been in London.  To keep himself occupied between auditions, he wrote a second novel called Violet Moses, for which he was offered $150 by one American publisher and nothing at all by several others.  Rejecting the $150 even though he was sick and could barely scrape together the money required to pay his passage home, he returned to England where Violet Moses was finally accepted and published, again to little acclaim, in 1891.  A third novel The Man Who Was Good followed in 1892 and sold well enough (but not well enough to permanently ease his straitened financial circumstances) to encourage him to keep writing.

In 1894 he married, fathering a daughter who, like his wife, would eventually pre-decease him.  For the next dozen or so years he spent much of his time in Paris –– a city that would serve as the background to many of the short stories he wrote about poets, boulevardiers and others striving to live la vie artistique in its cafés and brasseries.  His friend, the American-born author and journalist Frank Harris, described Merrick during his Paris years as 'a small, handsome man, slight but wiry and healthy, with melancholy, dark, brooding eyes, long straight nose, and large black moustache.'  

Although he apparently possessed no gift for self-promotion –– a skill every bit as vital to literary success in Victorian times as it is today –– Merrick nevertheless went on to publish nine more novels, five plays and nine volumes of short stories between 1896 and 1930, many of which were reissued in a 1918 Deluxe Edition featuring specially commissioned introductions (a great honour at the time) penned by famous authors of the day including HG Wells, Arthur Pinero, GK Chesterton and William Dean Howells.  Despite being described as a 'writer's writer' by JM Barrie (the world famous author of Peter Pan, as played by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film Finding Neverland), Merrick's work, which cleverly combined subtly-rendered satire with clear-sighted honesty, never attained the popularity it deserved during his lifetime.  He died alone and virtually penniless in a London nursing home on 7 August 1939.  He was one of George Orwell's favourite novelists and one of the first to write realistically and unsentimentally about showbusiness and its associated pitfalls.

His best novels are generally considered to be Cynthia (1896), The Quaint Companions (1903), Conrad in Quest of his Youth (also 1903) and The Position of Peggy Harper (1911), although any of his early work (ie. anything he published between 1896 and 1915) is worth reading if you can find it.  This won't be as difficult as it sounds because much of it is still available second-hand and is now beginning to be republished online.

Click HERE if you would like to read a free copy of The Actor-Manager in digital format.  The work of LEONARD MERRICK is also being sold in 'new' paperback editions published by Indian print-on-demand companies like BiblioBazaar and the Nabu Press.  Be warned, however, that these are cheap and sometimes very poorly-executed digital scans of the Hodder and Stoughton 'Collected Edition' which, at prices ranging from US$25-$35, are frankly not worth the money. 

A biography by WILLIAM BAKER and JEANETTE ROBERTS SHUMAKER titled Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist's Novelist was published by the Fairleigh-Dickinson University Press in 2009.  

You might also enjoy:
LEONARD MERRICK The Position of Peggy Harper (1911)
IVAN GONCHAROV Oblomov (1859)

Originally published 9 June 2012 

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