Cover of original 1894 J. Miles & Co. edition of Guy Domville
|Publisher||J. Miles & Co., London|
Guy Domville is a play by Henry James first staged in London in 1895. The première performance ended with the author being jeered by a section of the audience as he bowed onstage at the end of the play. This failure largely marked the end of James' attempt to conquer the theater. He returned to his narrative fiction and recorded this memorable pledge in his Notebooks on 23 January 1895: "I take up my own old pen again – the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself – today – I need say no more. Large and full and high the future still opens. It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life. And I will."
The play is set in 1780s England. Frank Humber proposes marriage to the widow Mrs. Peverel, whose son is tutored by Guy Domville. The tutor Domville is planning to become a Catholic priest but learns that he is the last of his family. He starts to believe that it is his duty to marry and carry on the family line. When Mrs. Peverel rejects Humber's proposal, Frank suspects she may be in love with Domville.
Guy is later about to wed Mary Brasier, but she really loves Lieutenant George Round. Once he understands the situation, Guy refuses to go through with the marriage and instead helps Mary and George elope. Domville also realizes that Frank Humber and Mrs. Peverel are in love, and commends them to each other. He will enter the priesthood, as he previously planned.
Themes and criticism
James thought this storyline of scrupulous renunciation involving the Catholic priesthood would succeed with a London audience of the 1890s. However, although the play offered many finely written lines, the whole concept was too remote and unappealing for much of the audience.
The fiasco of the first night was witnessed by Somerset Maugham, and recounted in the chapter 'Some Novelists I have Known' published in Maugham's anthology 'The Vagrant Mood' in 1952.
The play did manage to run for five weeks but never recovered from the boos of the first night. James cut his losses, returned to his fiction, and eventually consoled himself that his playwriting attempts helped make his narratives more dramatic. Critics have disagreed about whether James' efforts as a playwright actually helped his fiction or just wasted his time.
Two recent narratives have treated the failure of Guy Domville: The Master (2004) by Colm Tóibín and Author, Author (2004) by David Lodge. It is also a central incident in the standard biography of James by Leon Edel, especially the fourth volume, The Treacherous Years: 1895–1901.