The story of Henry James's fruitless flirtation with the theater has been so often told that it has become folkloric, invoked and repeated by generations of marveling Jamesians. Everyone knows the tale of the first night, in London, of his historical play Guy Domville (1895) —how the nervous playwright spent the evening down the road at the Wildely successful new play An Ideal Husband, by James's despised rival, the "mechanical Oscar"; how he finally slipped into his own theater just as the performance was ending; how he was led on stage by the play's actor-manager, ostensibly to enjoy the curtain call but in reality to receive the boos and jeers of a large proportion of the audience; how a few moments earlier, when this same actor-manager had declaimed from the stage, "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!," a cry had come from the seats: "It's a bloody good thing y'are!"
Leon Edel, who tells this story well in his five-volume biography of James, fails to mention only one detail: that James's play was preceded in the same program by a one-act comedy written by a certain Julian Field, titled Too Happy By Half. That tells us, in four words, what the mandarin moralist was up against in his quixotic campaign amid the lights of the West End; he had about as much chance with his audience as Don Quixote had with his gang of convicts. Guy Domville was his only original play to make it to the boards. He had loaded it with all his longing for popular success. He was never seriously involved in the theater again.
Few writers have been as reliably amnestied as Henry James. From the 1940s to the 1970s he was steadily enshrined as both the greatest American novelist and the most solid object of academic study. There was something cultish about the way modern American critics talked about "the Master" and his exquisite refinements; it was palpably painful for them to admit that James ever blotted a line. Edel's biography was the breviary of that cult, and it was Edel who—with some help from James himself—converted James's disastrous pursuit of theatrical success into a narrative of the novelist's failing at success but ultimately succeeding at failure. James, it was argued, took from his many wasted years of playwriting a new style of novel writing: one based on what he called the "divine principle of the Scenario." Plundering his own efforts at stagecraft, he began to cut away all extraneous detail, to write only in dramatic scenes, and to make his dialogue wholly germane to the thematic forwarding of the story. The most glorious results of this late, post-theater period are the last novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). But the immediate results, the first fruits, are The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, and The Awkward Age, written from 1895 to 1899 and now collected, with The Other House (1896), in a useful single volume by The Library of America.
There is some justice in the idea that the theatrical experiment "rescued" James at a pivotal moment in his life. He had been interested for many years both in the theater and in certain popular novelists, especially those who wrote extensively in dialogue. "I have worked like a horse—far harder than anyone will ever know—over the whole mystery of 'technique,'" he wrote to William James, referring to his intense study of questions of dramaturgy. In 1882 he had turned Daisy Miller into a play, though it was never produced. In the early 1890s he was led toward Ibsen, whom he admired, though with the usual precise flutter of Jamesian qualifications: "so dry a view of life, so indifferent a vision of the comedy of things." Ibsen, he felt, wrote "moral tales in dialogue." James, one feels, wanted to write novels in dialogue and then stage them.
But it is still an open question—isn't it?—whether James was a great writer of dialogue. He rightly complained that all Wilde's characters spoke like Wilde; but many of James's characters, especially in the late work, sound like James. The particular difficulty, and the difficult reward, of late James is the way in which he transfers his own acute sensitivity to verbal calibration onto his characters: they become Chief Justices of the word, forever raising to moral scrutiny certain anointed terms and phrases. This is what gives late James its strongly philosophical flavor. Most readers learn not to read this speech as realistic dialogue and instead consider it as essentially continuous with all the other language that surrounds it on the page—a borderless region of inquiry. His fictional dialogue needs his fictional nondialogue to apologize for it, as it were. One can sense this just by looking at the way that James, even in the supposedly "dramatic" novels collected in this volume, is always restlessly confirming his characters' speech: "she passionately asseverated" (this is at one of the most obviously passionate moments of What Maisie Knew, when Maisie is clearly asseverating); "[she] wonderingly moaned"; "she helplessly wailed"; "she then simply ejaculated."
Orphaned from its larger family of prose, the dialogue in James's plays can seem precious, a silken music for cloth ears. Whatever the reason, popular success in the theater was never to come his way. In 1894 he published four unproduced plays—something of an admission of failure for a writer as distinguished and famous as James then was. By February of 1895, a month after the Guy Domville collapse, James had abandoned the theater and was beginning to speculate about how he might turn his recently acquired knowledge to fresh use. He wrote The Spoils of Poynton over the next several months (it was serialized in this magazine from April to October of 1896) and immediately afterward began work on The Other House, which was developed from a discarded play scenario. What Maisie Knew followed a year later, The Turn of the Screw (not part of this collection) in 1898, and The Awkward Age in 1899.
The four novels in this collection are indeed peculiar ones—and very peculiar ones to come from Flaubert's great (if critical) disciple, because they are distinctly anti-Flaubertian. Exposition, for example, is starved to a thin dramatic minimum, though people—or certain people—are flamboyantly and sharply described. The formidable and morally questionable women who dominate most of these novels—Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton, Maisie's mother and stepmother in What Maisie Knew, and Mrs. Brookenham in The Awkward Age —are painted with fitting luridity. But James has hardly any interest here in setting up characters in the usual visual way, by piling details of clothing and gesture and face on top of one another. Instead he selects one or two attributes and then works them until a strange, grotesque essence is achieved.
He was clearly influenced in this by Dickens's genius for caricature, though he affected to have little time for Dickens. Thus Maisie's mother, Ida Farange, is seized, descriptively, by her eyes: "like Japanese lanterns swung under festive arches." Later in the book we read that "her huge eyes, her red lips, the intense marks in her face formed an illumination as distinct and public as a lamp set in a window." One of her lovers, the unfortunate, heavily moustached Mr. Perriam, is seen as a Dickensian gargoyle: "He seemed also to have moustaches over his eyes, which, however, by no means prevented these polished little globes from rolling round the room as if they had been billiard-balls impelled by Ida's celebrated stroke." (Ida is known in society for her skill at billiards.)