Thirty-five years ago, writing in Radio Times, critic Michael Billington observed that ‘an amazing transformation’ had recently taken place in the reputation of the dramatist Harley Granville Barker. He had been, Billington observed, ‘rescued from near obscurity and shown to be one of the major British playwrights of the twentieth century.’ (‘The Barker Inheritance’, Radio Times, 1 February 1979, p. 9) There had been a much-lauded production of The Madras House at the National Theatre two years before, in 1977. That same year the BBC demonstrated that Waste remained a startling and powerful play, and now Michael Billington could celebrate the mounting of The Voysey Inheritance in the Play of the Month strand, with Jeremy Irons in the lead. On Thursday 15 May The Voysey Inheritance is being screened at BFI Southbank as part of the Screen Plays season ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’. And on the following Tuesday that 1977 presentation of Waste, directed by Don Taylor, is in the programme. The pairing is a unique opportunity to appreciate the two greatest plays by a writer whose standing is if anything even higher now than back in 1979.
Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946) was an experienced actor, a theatre director and an influential campaigner for a national theatre as well as a playwright. His first play, The Marrying of Ann Leete, was produced in 1902 by the Stage Society. This was a members-only club that presented Sunday matinees of plays that could not, for reasons of commercial viability or censorship, otherwise be produced. Two years later Granville Barker, in partnership with J. E. Vedrenne, initiated a repertory season of new plays at the Court theatre (today, The Royal Court), and it was here that he presented dramas by his friend George Bernard Shaw, by modern European dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and Maurice Maeterlink, and in 1905 The Voysey Inheritance.
The three years of the Granville Barker-Vedrenne management of the Court are associated with what has come to be known as ‘the New Drama’, which Cary M. Mazer has characterised in this way:
The plays examined social and political issues – class inequities, “the woman question” (the marriage market, the sexual “double standard,” and women’s suffrage) workers’ rights, and the class system – using the tools of politically progressive, often socialist, political economics; they were dramaturgically unconventional, eschewing many if not all of the plot devices and formulae of more contemporary drama, and were often structured around extended discussion and debate; [and] with only a few exceptions, the plays were contextually and scenically realistic. (‘New theatres for a new drama’, in Kerry Powell, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 2004)
The Voysey Inheritance is a key text of the New Drama. Although it begins in the offices of a seemingly respectable solicitor, Mr Voysey, much of the action takes place in his home. His sons represent two of the key pillars of turn-of-the-century English society, law and the army, and the church is present via a family friend. But as quickly becomes clear all of this is an elaborate facade. Voysey has used his clients’ investments to enrich himself, even though he has ensured the expected return to those who have trusted him with their capital. The drama is concerned with the moral implications of this, as worked through by Voysey’s son, Edward.
Ian Clarke has written of the drama that
In The Voysey Inheritance, the dishonesty implicates not only the individual Voyseys but the institutions, ideology, and economic base of Edwardian England. The play reverses the endorsement of conventional values which defined the society drama. Voysey’s rejection of conventional codes of behaviour is presented a sign of his vitality. His casting aside the trammels of the legal and financial systems becomes a form of heroism… Barker takes the logic of capitalist enterprise and uses it to invert the very ethical and legal codes which capitalist society invokes to protect and perpetuate its own structures. (Edwardian Drama, London: Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 78)
Perhaps it was coincidental that the rediscovery of Granville Barker, and of this play in particular, developed in parallel with the economic monetarism of the late 1970s that would be fully realised under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the ‘loadsofmoney’ 1980s. In any case, British television had offered two earlier full productions of The Voysey Inheritance, together with a radically shortened 23-minute version for the schools series Conflict from ATV (tx. 13 March 1967). Perhaps prompted by this, ATV offered a 75-minute adaptation by John Bowen in the Summer Playhouse strand later that year (tx. 4 September 1967). Clive Morton was Mr Voysey in director John Gorrie’s presentation, with Edward Fox taking the role of Edward. The BBC’s earlier production was in 1951, when a live studio production by Campbell Logan starred Allan Jeayes as Mr Voysey and David Markham as Edward. None of these versions exists today.
The 1979 presentation was produced after David Jones had taken over from Cedric Messina as the executive responsible for Play of the Month. Jones brought a more adventurous and more politically aware sense to a strand that had become dominated by lavish costume drama, and he it was who asked Don Taylor to take on Waste in 1977 (tx. 4 December 1977). Dramas by David Mercer and Edward Bond featured in his choices, as did a remarkable adaptation of Georg Buchner’s Danton’s Death directed by Alan Clarke (tx. 23 April 1978). This was one of the moments when classic theatre on television was at its most exciting and when it felt most relevant to broader social concerns. Robert Knights’ accomplished studio production of The Voysey Inheritance made an important contribution to this repertory.
Viewers responded positively, with The Voysey Inheritance achieving a more-than-respectable Reaction Index score of 76 (compared to only 65 for Waste), but there was little critical writing at the time. In his widely-read column for The Observer, Clive James pronounced the production ‘excellent’ and commented on how he felt the multi-camera studio production had aided Jeremy Irons’ performance:
Jeremy Irons put on maturity with the solid assurance of a knight putting on armour… The gradations of his performance were precisely judged. On film he would probably not have been able to manage it, since the scenes would have been shot out of sequence. But on television he was able to keep the continuity.
James also reflected that, ‘David Jones, the man behind Play of the Month, has done a lot in the past year to back up his claims for the importance of television drama.’ (‘Enoch’s answer’, 11 February 1979, p. 20) Echoing this praise, Richard North in The Listener wrote of the play and production,
It knew its economics and its class warfare… Freud and Marx, and Kropotkin, could have sat happily in the front stalls and not thought it naive. They would have had a perfectly good time, I think. The Voysey Inheritance had, in other words, guts. (‘A tricky business’, 8 February 1979, p. 225)