A Period Theatre Review presented by www.stagebeauty.net
IT is next to impossible when recounting the story of a play based on so well-known a book as Kipling's much-read novel, to avoid a pause here and there for the purpose of reviewing the necessary additions or curtailments which have fitted it for its dramatic representation.
In that final estimate of men and things which the true artist has to assess according to his capacities and powers, it is infinitely better that Dick Heldar should die in the Soudan desert, with an Arab bullet through his brain, than that he should hug to himself the fond delusion that after all the girl of his choice was what his own ardent imagination painted - a generous, sympathetic, and loving woman.
The predilection and prejudices of an ordinary audience have, howvever, to be considered, and the characters so adjusted that the repentance of Maisie should not appear unreal, nor her final abandonment to an impetuous affection improbable. It is also a lamentable necessity that the boy and girl companionship of the two should only be known to the audience by reminiscent references.
"I've often thought," says Nilghai, "when I've seen men die out here in the desert, if the news could be sent through the world, and the means of transport were quick enough, there'd be one woman at least at each man's bedside." The scene is the war correspondents' camp in the Soudan, and the speaker is prompted to his remark by the wailing voice of a wounded comrade calling in his delirious moments a woman by name.
Thus early we hear of Maisie and surmise her lasting influence over Dick Heldar who has not seen his play mate for ten years. Wounded while bringing in his friend into a broken square, the sabre cut from which he suffers so far affects his sight as to make it imperative that his eyes should be bandaged if they are to be preservcd. Against this the restless spirit so strongly rebels that on the first alarm of battle he tears the wrappings off in the full glare of a tropical sun, despite the protestations of his friends who fear the penalty he will eventually have to pay.
Whatever Maisie was when a child when we first meet her, with a supreme belief in her power of rivalling Dick in his art, she has developed into a selfish and discontented woman bent on great achievements. We find Dick a familiar visitor to the studio, vainly engaged in trying to persuade her to marry him. She refuses, having what she is pleased to call her work to do in the world. In vain Dick tells her there is no special reason she should do the work at all; it consists merely of painting indifferent pictures rarely hung and still more rarely sold.
"Who was the man," the Red Haired girl asks, "the Roman man, who wished the world had one throat that he might cut it? I believe you'd use up all the world and all the men and women in it, if only that would give you the sort of success you want." And in this bitter reflection Maisie is summed up by her friend, herself so much in love with Dick as to resent the treatment accorded to him.
But Maisie expresses the position differently when, in reply to Dick's persistence, she says :-" If you don't suppose I see all you're offering me, Dick, you're mistaken. I see it, I like it, I want it, to a certain extent just as a man would, and then I weigh other things against it too. There's my profession. There's all I've worked for, and paid for with years of trying disappointment. There's the pay due to me for all the things I've done without, and all the things I've suffered. I tell you I put it all - all in a scale and weigh it against the love you offer, and I refuse to break with my life, Dick, just as thousands and thousands of men have refused the same sort of offer."
But a fresh interest is created in the appearance of Bessie Broke, a poor ill-conditioned little drab whom Dick finds fainting on the stairs and brings into Maisie's studio. Struck by her forlorn appearance and by more than a trace of beauty in her features he sees in her a possible model for a great picture. With Bessie installed in his studio Dick is now feverishly working, under the influence of strong stimulants, at his "Melancholia," a subject adopted also by Maisie. The breach between the two has widened. Sight is failing, and to drown the memory of the one, and increase the power of the other, Heldar allows drink to get the better of him. But not so completely as to make him absolutely oblivious of his surroundings.
For Bessie has been exerting an influence over his friend Torpenhow, which he can only regard with indignant misgiving, and having now virtually completed the picture, Dick peremptorily dismisses her. In a momentary fit of rage the wretched girl hacks and smudges the picture out of all recognition but of this disaster Dick is fated to remain some considerable time in ignorance, for while writing to Maisie, now in France, a letter of apology for having forced a kiss upon her, the long dreaded darkness comes. Meanwhile Maisie, in ignorance of the impending disaster to Dick, labours on with her " Melancholia," with what success let her own words tell.
"And this," she says, "this is wvhat some people call life. Life! This is a profession. A career. You go every morning and sit in a stewing room, smelling of paint, doing feeble work and," quoting Dick, "there is no special reason in the world why you should do it." But failure in her work is not the only reason of her discontent. Four letters to Dick remain unanswered, and despite her attempt at indifference, this neglect, so different to what he has accustomed her to, gives Maisie cause for anxiety.
While in this frame of mind, Torpenhow arrives from England with news of his friend, and for the first time Maisie hears of Dick's blindness. The unanswered letters are explained now, Dick, though he would sit fingering them for hours when he thought no one was looking, would not hand them over with the rest of his correspondence to be read to him. Gradually her position dawns on Maisie. Without knowing it, she is in love with Dick, and after a momentary hesitation, obstinacy, false pride, and false ambition, all disappear, and she sets off with Torpenhow for England.
Of Torpenhovw's journey and its object Dick is in complete ignorance. A new war has brokcn out. All his old comrades, full of joy at the prospect, are leaving for the front. His loneliness is complete; Maisie has left him, Torpenhow must leave him too, and in the desperation of utter solitude, he thinks of Bessie as a possible solace. He has considerable balance at the bank. That should prove attractive, and in return he will have at least one person who will take some interest in him, and be constantly with him, and so he makes his proposal to Bessie, who sees comfort for the rest of her days.
But ignorant of the fact that neither Torpenhow nor his other friends had informed him of the wilful damage to his great picture, she recklessly refers to the matter, and for the first time Dick learns of this further calamity. His desperate plan comes to nothing, and the unfortunate little model is once more and finally dismissed from his studio. It is to be loneliness after all for the rest of his days, solitude and darkness until the end.
At this juncture Maisie returns with Torpenhow. But what a different Maisie. A Maisie who pleads against refusal where before she had herself refused. For Dick will not accept what he feels is too great a sacrifice. But with all the courage of freshly awakened love, she refuses to be turned from her purpose.
"It's the old Maisie," she says, "the little girl you knew come back to you, come back to play with you across the years and changes, and she doesn't know about pity and all that. She doesn't understand a word about obligations and sacrifices and things. You can be as proud with her as you like, only she never will understand it, Dicky, for it's only the old Maisie who used to be your Maisie - come back to stay with you, because she can't be happy anywhere else without you. And as this pathetic lovemaking wins its way at last, from the other room comes the song of the departing war correspondents:
"Mine eyes have seen the glory at the coming of the Lord, He is tramping out lhe vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, He hath loosed the faithful lightning of His terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on."
SCENES FROM THE PLAY