1925: Dissatisfied with the limitations that a play enforced on the story, Rafael re-worked THE RATTLESNAKE as a novel, The Carolinian, which he dedicated to J.E. Harold Terry. Charles Wagner, however, was not giving up! Release of the novel had begun the year; Wagner’s production of the play – as THE CAROLINIAN – was to round it off. More of that below.
March: One may choose to imagine Rafael rubbing his hands in anticipation before he drew forward his “Goldoni Book” and pen, folded the pages so as to write in two columns, and embarked on THE KISS OF JUDAS. 1920, states George Locke, on no internal evidence. It may have been so, but the play that was finally presented was called THE TYRANT. All on his own, Rafael adapted his own long short story The Lust of Conquest. Whatever the reader may think of it, Matheson Lang, the eminent actor and manager, the glamorous, the one who filled seats and enthralled audiences, friend of Rafael, adopted the play. At all events, that was sufficient in the U.K.
Neither collaboration with successful playwrights, nor the criticism in such reviews of THE RATTLESNAKE as the one that appeared in the Times had taught Rafael a lesson regarding his besetting weakness. THE TYRANT was deservedly criticised for informing theatregoers at tedious length of historical circumstances – Rafael lacked the skill of Shakespeare, who could do this so magically with the Prologues in Henry V. The swift cut-and-thrust of verbal exchanges, the rapidly moving action, that characterise so many of Rafael’s novels, are missing here. And Cesare Borgia had become an obsession; certainly Rafael was combative in defending most people’s favourite villain. That inevitably undermined his play. Yet it is the only one to be published and so to be available for evaluation. (Hutchinson in London and Thomas Allen in Toronto published it in 1925, but Houghton Mifflin waited until 1927, appending it to The Nuptials of Corbal, which was the title more likely to be sought.) How was it published at all?
Matheson Lang was an actor whose face, physique and voice would each have sufficed, married to his acting ability and stage presence, to carry him to the success and fame that he enjoyed. All brought together in one person, they made him a powerful attraction. Lang’s connection to Rafael went back a long way – to the Laleham days by the Thames. Lang evidently saw the possibilities in a flamboyant role in this gorgeous costume melodrama, a grand opera without music (which is what this play is). In fact, he designed the sets, and instead of the pomander that Rafael assigns to Cesare, Lang carried a red rose. (Laurence Olivier, in his notorious 1964 Othello at the National, also carried a long-stemmed red rose, but he had no justification for it in Shakespeare’s play.)
THE TYRANT opened at the Royal Theatre, Birmingham, in early March. At London’s New Theatre (now Noel Coward Theatre), from its opening in mid-March the play ran for 126 performances until early July. The programme featured Matheson Lang with his red rose, looking devilishly cunning and cruel, a picture that Hutchinson and Thomas Allen reproduced on the dust jacket of the first edition.
Said the Illustrated London News, “Mr. Lang’s admirers do not mind so long as he is provided with a picturesque masquerade and there is the excitement of plots and sword-play [there’s none!], threats of torture, duping of assassins, and love at fever heat.” However, it noted that Cesare “sees through conspiracies a little too miraculously for the human interest to be kept strong,” and when the chief conspirator, on whom the tables are turned, falls in love with her intended victim, “the sentimental scenes have an air of artifice.” Two other critics put a finger on the play’s faults. “If the play marched in a stately way,” said the Manchester Guardian in an entertaining review, “it also plodded upwards and had the unusual quality of a fourth act more potent than the third.” The Christian Science Monitor gave good advice: “It is probable that, with wider experience of stage requirements, this clever writer of romances will be able to do better still. He will be less disposed to work in duologue, and more ready to bring upon the stage effective acting scenes.” Too much action took place “off” and Matheson Lang’s ability in action was neglected, while his part was over-full of “catechising and of love-making.” From this comment on Lang it is clear that the actor-manager carried an unsatisfactory play to its success: “probably no actor upon the English stage could bring to Cesare so authoritative a bearing, and so supple a massiveness of style.”
Rafael Sabatini frequently cites ‘Fortune’ in his fiction, and Fortune did favour him in giving him three actor-manager friends, each able to take their companies on tour with one of his plays. After moving to the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, THE TYRANT went on tour around Britain, to the Grand Theatre, Leeds, the Opera House, Manchester (in mid-August), His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and the Wimbledon Theatre.
What does reading the printed play script reveal? There are a few good things in it; passages which demonstrate how much better Rafael could have been as a playwright had he taken instruction. One notices also the influence of Victorien Sardou once more, this time his Fedora more than La Tosca. (Both were turned into operas, which tells one something about Rafael’s play.) Cesare’s outcry at the end of the play – so like Cagliostro’s in THE TRAVELLER – is matched by many such moments in opera.
October: THE CAROLINIAN, presented by Charles Wagner at the Sam H. Harris Theatre in New York, with Sidney Blackmer as Harry Latimer, lasted twenty-four performances. It was also performed at the Bonstelle in Detroit, and in Boston. I have no access to reviews at all, or to information about its showing in either of the latter places. George Locke has a typescript for sale (£225).
1927: More good friends, a couple in fact, Sir John Martin-Harvey and his wife (whose stage name was Nina da Silva), and their company, threw themselves with gusto into Rafael’s play, SCARAMOUCHE, presented at the Garrick Theatre, London. It had opened at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, on 4 April, and ran in London for 64 performances from mid-April to mid-June, besides being given at the Prince’s Theatre, Bristol, and possibly elsewhere. This being a touring company, it went to Canada with the play (among others), a country always welcoming to Sir John Martin-Harvey. Although he was then 64, playing a character in his twenties, he is said to have looked the part.
Did Rafael revise it after the devastating reviews in New York? The reviews in England and in Canada took a different line, contrary to that of the critics in New York. In London, the slightly tongue-in-cheek review in the Times praised Sir John and Gordon McLeod (the Marquis) for making “portraits out of sketches.” I read that as a side swipe at the playwright, whose main characters are “sketches,” but “swift action, a high romantic colour,” is unequivocal commendation. Equally unequivocal is Graham Sutton in the Bookman: “The whole theme is admirably handled,” and “the play is both intelligent and well written.”
George Locke is of no help unless one tries to ferret a choice out of this data, keeping in mind that there are four acts: Typescript One has 52+34+37+approximately 40 pages, bound in cloth, and states that it is typed from the original manuscript; Typescript Two, looking a little worn, has 45+33+54+35 pages and is string-bound in card covers, but has laid into it Rafael’s pencil sketches for stage settings, and the programmes for both productions, in New York and in London. On so little data I would not venture an opinion.
1930: J. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times shredded THE TYRANT with savage wit. The play, he said, lacked glamour, its characters “as solemn as doctors of philosophy,” in spite of everything being draped “in festoons of ornamental verbosity.” The torture scene “is drowned under a flood of phrase-making,” and he found it the first drama in a long while that “has cut its cloth with so many flounces.” Like the English critics, Atkinson and Stirling Bowen in the Wall Street Journal deplore the painfully detailed discussion of tactics by the Council in Act I, and the equally slow following through of a plot that is already known both to theatregoers and to the intended victim. In Act II, Bowen remarks, “there is more than enough swashbuckling and courtesying. After all, this is not opera, though Meyerbeer could have used it.” Atkinson is equally sharp: “‘Conduct their notabilities,’ says Cesare to a page, “Mr. Sabatini has conducted his notabilities with a guide’s fearful caution through the lounging rooms of a tediously frescoed play.”
Far from being able to carry the play with his personality and acting, Louis Calhern gave a “perfunctory” performance, “more dashing than sinister,” Macchiavelli was not audible, at the premiere some actors were unsure of their lines, and some were more concerned with their costumes as they moved about heavily over-decorated sets. And Rafael Sabatini was there to witness this; he had supervised the staging. THE TYRANT only lasted thirteen performances at the Longacre Theatre, New York.
post 1932: We know of THE BLACK SWAN: Play in 3 Acts by Rafael Sabatini and Harold Simpson because a typescript is being offered by George Locke (for £850; along with The Head of Tom Leach, which was published as The Duel on the Beach).
In an irony that could have come from Rafael’s own pen, the financial returns from, and the reception accorded by theatregoers to, three of his plays (one in collaboration), mainly because of the actor-managers who each embraced one play, gave Rafael Sabatini a false idea of his ability in writing for theatrical presentation. Only the catastrophically altered circumstances of his life (when Rafael-Angelo died) prevented him from pursuing a Fata Morgana.
Matheson Lang (1879 – 1948) was Canadian-born, a stage and film actor as well as a playwright. However, his career was chiefly in Britain, and began with Shakespeare, for which he was suited in every way. Lang and his actress wife, with their company, toured India, South Africa and Australia from 1910 to 1913, mainly with Shakespeare, but presumably also playing BARDELYS occasionally, since he had bought the South Africa rights and probably it was he who bought the India rights. Coincidences abound in Rafael’s life-story: Matheson Lang died in Bridgetown, Barbados.
John Martin Harvey (1863 – 1944), was knighted as John Martin-Harvey. He was slim, with an intense look, and first tasted fame as Sydney Carton in The Only Way, a part and a play thereafter frequently invoked almost as a calling card or a label for this English stage actor. He and his Chilean wife had both begun in Sir Henry Irving’s company. They and their company regularly toured Great Britain and North America.
F. Kinsey Peile – the little that can be found indicates that he was an actor (played Lane in the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest) and a playwright mostly of short comedies, accustomed to collaboration and to dramatisation. His most ambitious effort was the dramatisation of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, the ms sold at auction in 1935.
Harold Simpson – all that can be found out at present is that he was a song writer who occasionally collaborated on plays. In 1927 he collaborated in Daisy Fisher’s The Cave Man, staged at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth and the Savoy Theatre, London.
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