1919, March: Rafael completed his most ambitious stage work so far, a play named JOHANNA in manuscript, revised and re-named THE SACRAMENT OF SHAME for the typescript – a title more likely to pique interest. (He altered the name in the list of Characters on the first page of his manuscript from Sapphira to Johanna, but it remains Sapphira in the rest of the document.) The conclusion of the play in the manuscript version has no part for Kuoni. (At present I have no information about the manuscript beyond the first and last pages.) The play called for costly outlay on its production, but its chief drawback was the imbalance of roles between leading lady and leading man: the former was undoubtedly dominant. In opera that is no problem; in plays of his time, from a novice playwright, it was. It was also a matter of the existing theatre world. Neither of Rafael’s friends, Matheson Lang and John Martin Harvey would have accepted the relatively feeble role of Count Arnault, while there was no English actress who had such drawing power as a Sarah Bernhardt in France. Without a star to fill the theatre, no producer would look at the play. Charles Kenyon might be an acquaintance, even a friend, but he returned the typescript.
Was it a well written play? Mine is a personal view. The chief fault in this play is that in Act I Johanna is impressed by Count Arnault but she is newly married and much in love with her husband; by Act III she can be deeply grateful to Arnault and overcome by his offer, but one cannot believe that she falls in love with him at once. Arnault is very much ‘a romantic prince’, but in Act I his praise of Johanna to Philip (“purity and wisdom”) on so little acquaintance seems extravagant. His expressions of admiration in Act III are heard by Duke Charles with understandable surprise followed by scepticism. In retrospect, at the end of the play, one may wonder if it is not almost cynical to foist on the Philip of Act I the Philip of Act II, even though he has been cruelly tortured by then. It may almost appear that Philip had to die as he did to bring Johanna and Arnault together legitimately, just as it was necessary for Johanna to love Philip so much that both her sacrifice and her demand for justice stem from her love. That Rafael recognised these weaknesses is clear from the note he placed in the typescript. Yet the play would have been well worth saving if he could have obtained some guidance from an experienced playwright. There are some fine scenes, and the latter part of Act III, after the entrance of Duke Charles, is notably effective. The depiction of the Duke here, the give and take of dialogue, and the justice he metes out, are in consonance with the story from which the play derived. It was a story to which Rafael apparently felt a special attachment and, pre-existing in its original form, was better worth this attachment than some others (such as that of Princess Yola)!
How hard did Rafael try to get the play staged? We do not know. But we can be thankful that it survives in manuscript and typescript, and that his failure led to his reworking much of it into his novel, The Romantic Prince.
1920s: THE TRAVELLER is a strange piece of work. Although George Locke assumes that it dates to “the 1920s” he cites no evidence for this. It was found as a typescript with numerous margin notes by Rafael, but no date nor any indication of whether it was intended for a play or a film scenario. (One has to remember that in the early 1920s Rafael was active as a co-founder of the Hardy Film Company.) Whatever his intention, THE TRAVELLER would only have met with rejection and even ridicule. Its demands for scene setting and action were not practical. To some extent Rafael realised this, and his notes offer alternatives to the arrangement of scenes, but the action required in the Prologue (which Rafael admits is taken from Alexandre Dumas’ novel, Memoirs of a Physician/ Joseph Balsamo) was not going to work in either play or film.
An important detail in Joseph Balsamo Part 1, Chapter 15 is copied in the scene in Cagliostro’s laboratory, when he shows Marie-Antoinette her future. With so much lifted from the novel one might well ask if this concoction was meant to be a dramatisation of it, but it is not, and it draws even more matter from Rafael’s own writings, The Night of Gems, and The Lord of Time. Into this he stirred a large helping of the operatic, and a speech in blank verse, with a note that another speech is also to be set in blank verse. His special new ingredient is Cagliostro’s recognising in Marie Antoinette his soul-mate down the ages, whom he has rescued in certain reincarnations but on this occasion must send to her doom – a familiar operatic element. “Passionately now he inveighs against the work that Fate has thrust upon him, against the suffering he has caused the Queen, and against what she must yet suffer that her destiny may be fulfilled.” This has the making of a final aria for the primo tenore in a grand opera! The final moments of THE TRAVELLER are unmistakably out of opera: the beloved goes to her death while the lover cries out her name and the drums roll before the curtain falls.
THE TRAVELLER as found is a detailed plan for scene setting, motivation of characters, and action for them, interspersed with fully worked out passages of speech for them. Even a seasoned and successful playwright would have had some difficulty in converting the passages descriptive of action into theatrical interplay that would convince an audience. The Masonic ritual taken from Dumas is one such case. In the scenes requiring animated gossip from a crowd of ‘extras’ this cannot be suggested by murmurs of “rhubarb.” Their chatter is meant to convey to the uninformed audience what has been going on between scenes. On the whole, reading this work is not advised for an admirer of Rafael Sabatini.
1921: J.E. Harold Terry collaborated with Rafael on a play titled THE RATTLESNAKE. Rafael’s name took second place, which may reflect the extent of his contribution to it. First performed in November at the Theatre Royal in York, the city of Terry’s birth, it moved to the Shaftesbury in London the following January and had a modest run of twenty-two performances (according to The London Stage 1920-1929 by J.P. Wearing). A balanced review in the Times praised THE RATTLESNAKE as full of “picturesque” characters who, naturally, could not be fully developed within the limits of a play, but could be realised by the skilled actors who took those parts. Praised too, the “critical moments of dialogue” which were “frequent and agreeably stimulating,” and the local colour, which was “fresh and amusing” – citing the “British hauteur, the American earnestness” and the language of the time, which would not be familiar unless one had read Thackeray’s The Virginians. But, said the critic, there were too many complications which resulted in an excess of explanatory detail that required too much “mental gymnastics” from the playgoer. However, “that the play was received with every token of favour attests not only its dramatic merits, but the tact with which its authors have contrived to present incidents of British discomfiture without offence.” (Those were civilised societies!) There is a copy of the play typescript (presumably) in the New York Public Library. George Locke has a copy for £335.
1923: Either because he now felt confident of success with a play of his own, or was possessive about his novel, or was persuaded by Charles Wagner, Rafael wrote SCARAMOUCHE. Wagner was an irrepressible enthusiast all his life and took a special interest in Rafael Sabatini. He came to London, along with Sidney Blackmer whom he had chosen for the main role, to make sure they got the production and interpretation done as Rafael would have wanted, pressing him to attend the premiere. Yet, somehow, the play was an artistic failure. John Corbin in the New York Times described it as a romantic melodrama long past its time, the tinsel having lost its attraction. In what Corbin found an unsatisfactory part, Sidney Blackmer’s performance had occasional moments of charm, “marred throughout by tricks of slovenly speech.” The parts of Aline and Climène were also judged “unsympathetic and undramatic.” Only the production was praised without reservation. Nevertheless, doubtless riding on the astounding worldwide popularity of the novel, SCARAMOUCHE saw 61 performances at the Morosco Theatre in New York, during the last months of the year. (Photographs of Blackmer do not suggest an acceptable physique for the role, and at 28 he was slightly older than the character was at the start of the novel. In the film, Ramon Novarro both looked the part and was the right age.) George Locke has two undated typescripts but is unable to say, lacking background knowledge, which is the original and which the revised version, or even if they differ at all. Only someone able to examine them or willing to pay £3100 for the two would be able to decide. The story of SCARAMOUCHE the play continues, later.
1924: IN THE SNARE resulted from the keeping of a seven-year-old promise made by Rafael to his long-time friend Leon Lion. Lion had “given him the story” for the novel The Snare, widely recognised to be eminently suitable for dramatisation. And this was a promise between the two friends. But it took long to fulfil. On this occasion, it was Rafael Sabatini’s name that took precedence over Leon Lion’s. Whether or not that reflected the nature and degree of each collaborator’s contribution can only be guessed from a copy – of which none has at present been found. As a writer for stage and screen and an actor on stage and screen, Lion knew his onions, which his old friend had not learned to. However that may be, it is the more likely that Lion’s influence got the play staged at the Savoy, although the producer was Tom Walls, whose stamping ground was the Aldwych. It ran for 66 performances and was reviewed by several publications of repute but only the Times’ review is available to me. That review largely gives away the plot but almost nothing of the critic’s opinion of the play! The labelling of a collection at the Harry Ransom Center suggests (and material with George Locke supports the supposition) that Rafael designed costumes and sets for the play but, yet again, only examination will deliver a correct opinion on this.
If there is a thing that George Locke did right with his priceless Sabatini Hoard, it was to transcribe THE TRAVELLER and publish it in his Researcher’s Companion.
Charles Kenyon (1878-1955) was an actor-manager. He toured with his own company and produced shows. Kenyon was wealthy, handsome, and possessed a fine deep voice. He was generally to be found at the Savage Club, known for its membership from the literary circle and the stage. He also enjoyed foxhunting and tennis, and was reputed to be one of the best dressed men in London.
J.E. Harold Terry (1885-1939) was a novelist, playwright, actor and critic, from a family strongly connected to the theatre: he was a grandson of Sir Joseph Terry, and a nephew of Eille Norwood. He was a member of the Savage Club as well as the Garrick.
Charles Wagner was a renowned concert manager and theatre producer. It was said of him that “the mere fact that Mr Wagner will book an artist is accepted by the local managers as a guarantee of the artist's excellence.” He is remembered for being the one who launched the careers of stars from Allan Jones and Jeanette MacDonald to Walter Gieseking, Alexander Kipnis, pianists, Jussi Bjorling, Amelita Galli Curci, opera singers and Helen Hayes, Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert, actors.
Leon Marks Lion (1879–1947) was an English actor of stage and screen; playwright, theatrical manager and producer. His successful career on the stage included touring with light opera and Shakespeare companies, regularly performing in London's West End; as well as writing and producing for the theatre. He was a member of the Savage Club from at least 1917, when he cited it as the address to which to return his copy of The Snare, should it be lost by him and found by another. (It reflects his sense of humour that in the copy, after the address, he inscribed: All rights reserved and protected.)