Monday, September 3, 2007

Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929)

Sierra Club


There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same. - Oscar Wilde


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Henry Arthur Jones offered his first play, A Clerical Error, in 1879. Like Pinero, Mr. Jones learned his technique from the French. In 1884 he adapted Ibsen's Doll's House for the English public under the title Breaking a Butterfly. It would be a bold person today who would offer any "adaptation" whatever of Ibsen, and with such a title! At the time, however, adaptations were in order, and Ibsen was then only another European playwright, not a theatrical prophet. Mr. Jones continued his work with domestic comedy and social pieces, including The Masqueraders and The Bauble Shop. In 1896 he wrote Michael and His Angel, generally considered his strongest drama. It is a study of small-town people, concerned with the expiation of guilt. It is both sentimental and romantic, with the solemn attitude towards sexual irregularity which generally characterized the Victorian writer. Mr. Jones, however, has shown a kind of evangelistic spirit in regard to the stage: a perception of its possible nobility and truth, and a desire to contribute to its ethical and moral value. [Adapted from A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 308-9.]

The circumstances surrounding the early life of Henry Arthur Jones would generally be considered anything but favorable to a successful dramatic career. He was the son of a Buckinghamshire farmer. What education he received was brief and acquired in a local grammar school. At 13 he went "into business" and was a commercial traveler until he was 30. The people among whom he was raised believed that drama was the invention of the devil and that those who went to the theater were bound straight for perdition. If Jones became a dramatist it was because the urge within him was so strong he couldn't help it. His first play was written when he was 16, two years before he ever saw the inside of a theater. His first produced play, Only Round the Corner, was staged in 1878. The melodrama, The Silver King, written in collaboration with Henry Herman and produced in 1882, assured his position as a dramatist.

Henry Arthur Jones belongs to that period sometimes referred to as the "Victorian Transition." It was the period when drama was trying to free itself from its inherited superficialities and to become a part of contemporary life. In 1884, Jones made an attempt at serious drama in his Saints and Sinners. It was hooted by the first-night audience and condemned by the press. Discouraged, Jones returned to melodrama.

In 1896, when London had become to a certain extent "Ibsen-conscious," Jones made another attempt at serious drama with Michael and His Lost Angel. Again he was hooted by the audience and condemned by the critics. It was too forward looking for that generation and not sufficiently plain spoken for the next, as a later attempt at a revival proved. In the opinion of Jones himself and of some of his commentators it deserves to be rated as his best effort. The following year, however, he returned to the polite, superficial comedy with The Liars, following it in 1900 with Mrs. Dane's Defense. The Lie had its premiere in New York in 1914 and did not reach the London stage until 1923. There even so capable an actress as Sybil Thorndike could not save it from vitriolic comment from the pen of the renowned English dramatic critic, James Agate.

Henry Arthur Jones made a start with the new dramatic movement. He was never able, however, to shake off the influence of that early Victorian period when his work began, nor to achieve a real success with the newer trend of dramatic thought. [Adapted from Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 94.]

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