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"The stage is a terribly searching thing" Joseph Conrad's dramatization of 'The Secret Agent'.

Joseph Conrad is a novelist of giant significance, but he also dabbled in the dramatic media. In his adolescence he had written "patriotic plays, like The Eyes of Jan Sobieski." (1) In 1905 the adaptation of "To-morrow," One Day More, is produced and Conrad is acclaimed a "Dramatist!" by an ecstatic George Bernard Shaw. (2) However, 1919-1920 is clearly the pivotal year of the "dramatic" Conrad, because he worked on adaptations of The Secret Agent and "Because of the Dollars" (Laughing Anne) for the stage as well as adapting "Gaspar Ruiz" into a screenplay (Gaspar the Strong Man).

Richard Curle writes:

[Although Conrad's] activities in dramatic composition were considerable, he did not regard the drama seriously. I imagine that he dabbled in play- writing partly to prove to himself that any novelist could write a play and partly in the hope of making money. That he was not more successful is perhaps due to the mood in which he approached the subject. (3)

Curle' s statement seems apt for the Conrad-dramatist of 1904, where we find creative self-confidence (it was after all at the center of the "great" phase) combined with a desire to make money. The Conrad-dramatist of 1920 also needs money but it is significantly a period of crisis and he is attempting to rejuvenate his creativity, his zenith in fiction having passed. Frederick Karl writes that Conrad "saw the stage not as something to be achieved but as an escape from malaise and stagnation." (4)

To return to Curle, in what way does Conrad "not regard drama seriously"? In 1920 Conrad asserts that drama possesses "inferior poetics" which can play havoc with an artist's "individuality" and falsify "the very soul of one's work both on the imaginative and intellectual side." (5) It is reminiscent of the "Preface" to The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), where Conrad informs us that the "artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife ... he finds the terms of his appeal." (6) The artistic writer is a focused individual who presents a unique vision. The theatre is a diffusing art. There is in the writing of fiction a "concentration" in the creative process. This is evident in the comparative individual freedom of the novelist both artistically (no "stage conditions") and legally (no Lord Chamberlain). Even in the field of reception we could argue that a novelist is writing for one reader: an "ideal" reader. By stark contrast, drama is immediately a diffused art not necessari ly on the grounds of the playwright's initial "creation" but in the production and reception of the staged play.

Conrad's dismissal of drama includes the actual experience of theatre. Conrad, like other self-adapters such as Henry James, is afflicted with a kind of agoraphobia: a horror of the audience. Conrad states on the opening night of The Secret Agent adaptation: "I don't want to be in the house. Theatres frighten me and always have. I never see plays." (7) Similarly, Conrad does not have much time for actors, writing a hyperbole to Cunninghame Graham:

The actors appear to me like a lot of wrongheaded lunatics pretending to be sane. Their malice is stitched with white threads. They are disguised and ugly. To look at them breeds in my melancholy soul thoughts of murder and suicide--such is my anger and my loathing of their transparent pretences. There is a taint of subtle corruption in their blank voices, in their blinking eyes, in the grimacing faces, in the false light in the false passion, in the words that have been learned by heart. (8)

This description may be about actors but it could be a description of the anarchists in The Secret Agent.

While writing The Secret Agent, Conrad is constantly aware of the importance of the "dramatic" at the heart of this novel. He writes to Pinker that the work has "an ironic intention but a dramatic development." (9) When the novel is published, Conrad writes in Richard Curle's edition of the novel, "As a literary aim the book is an attempt to treat consistently a melodramatic subject ironically." (10) The concept of melodrama is useful in reading the novel and still remalns obvious, I think, to contemporary readers of The Secret Agent, above all in Chapter XI, the fatal encounter between Winnie and Verloc.

In the novel there are sometimes blatantly dramatic allusions, such as in the following description of Stevie:

[He] was easily diverted ... by the comedies of the streets, which he contemplated open mouthed, to the detriment of his employer's interests; or by the dramas of fallen horses, whose pathos and violence induced him sometimes to shriek piercingly in a crowd, which disliked to be disturbed by sounds of distress in its quiet enjoyment of the national spectacle. (11)

We see here three different types of the theatrical: comedy, drama, and spectacle. It would seem that the streets of the city are inherently "comic," while injured horses are "dramatic." Moreover, the public forms one huge audience. This is a disturbing prospect. Everything is performance, a sham, and it is impossible to get beneath the surface of the world we see. In other words, we are never able to behold reality.

In Chapter II, when Mr Vladimir tells Verloc about the type of outrage that is required, the various options are discussed:

A murderous attempt on a restaurant or a theatre would suffer... from the suggestion of non-political passion; the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge. (66)

A theatre is an obvious target for an act of "social revenge," but not for a political statement. It'd be "mere class hate" (67).

In the same chapter we are informed that Winnie used to visit the theatre with the local butcher's son until Mr Verloc turned up "providentially" and there was "no more question of the young butcher. It was clearly providential" (72). Despite the double reference to providence, "theatre" and "butchery" are destined to return to Winnie in the melodramatic confrontation (hence theatrical) with her husband in which she kills him with a carving knife ("butchery"). It is all the more ironic that in the first chapter we are told that Verloc "never offered to take Winnie to theatres" (48). Moreover, these references to the theatre, butchery and providence serve to suggest ominously the denouement of the Verloc-story partly in an ironic establishment of the murder as predestined and also in a very early "theatricalizing" of the crime. Winnie is destined to play the role that has been cast for her and this questions the possibility of self-determination despite her ironically confident belief that "No one need be a sl ave" (185).

If Winnie is an ironic melodramatic heroine, Inspector Heat is a "tightrope artist" (128) who feels that the manager of the Music Hall is shaking the rope in the middle of the performance. As for Verloc, he is wooden and "stony-eyed... like an automaton whose face had been painted red" (186).

Over all, the theatricality of the novel is like that of puppetry, with the rational narrator a puppet master pulling the strings. This reminds us of Conrad's letter to Cunninghame Graham:

I love a marionette show. Marionettes are beautiful ... Their impassability in love, in crime, in mirth, in sorrow,--is heroic, superhuman, fascinating...I love the marionettes that are without life, that come so near to being immortal! (12)

Unfortunately for Conrad, his play had to rely on flesh and blood actors, people who, he writes to Edward Garnett, "have no imagination." [13]

The play does not have the chance to use the forty or so specific locations of the novel and, most critically, cannot--in the theatrical milieu of the time--recreate that "overwhelming" sense of wandering through the London streets. There are only five locations in the play and yet Conrad still attempts to create the concept of the city. In the cafe scene we see the fragmented presence of anonymous Londoners: "one or two heads of customers...may be seen." [14] In Act IV, Conrad's attempts to convey the city are especially sophisticated. Scene II opens with Winnie sewing and then the off-stage presence of the news vendor:

(A) distant voice outside is heard, high-pitched:

Greenwich Park Outrage. All the details! (WINNIE sews on. Shrill voice nearer.) Bomb in Greenwich Park. (Fainter.) Latest edition. Bomb... (Dies out. WINNIE lets hands fall on lap and remains lost in thought...) (153)

Winnie is playing the "housewife" by sitting and sewing, but the world of the city and journalism begins to encroach on this private domesticity. In Scene IV we see the light of a street lamp casting "a dim sheen" (178) into the shop and soon afterwards there is the lantern and "measured footsteps" (178) of a policeman. These intrusions from the public world into the increasingly nightmarish Verloc house become more pronounced as the play draws to an end: Ossipon flees, leaving the shop door wide open, allowing a "gust of wind" after which there is a "distant shout and the blowing of a whistle" (180). The breeze is symbolic of the final intrusion of the public world into this ironically 'comfy' English household. This is chillingly underlined with the sound of Ossipon "screaming in the street" (181). Near the end of the play we find this section:

CONSTABLE (at the door). A tidy lot has collected there already, sir.

HEAT (to PROFESSOR). Some day maybe a crowd may tear you to pieces.

WINNIE (a wail). Nothing! Nothing but blood and dirt!

PROFESSOR. Oh, yes. The vile crowd. The countless multitude, unconscious, blind... Well-let them!

(CONSTABLE opens the door a little. Exit PROFESSOR, and CONSTABLE shuts the door. Confused murmur of the crowd in the street.)

STERN VOICE (outside). Pass on... Pass along there!

HEAT (to CONSTABLE). Nip out and bring a four-wheeler here as quick as you can.

CONSTABLE. Yes, sir. (Exit. Murmur of crowd swells and dies.)(...)

STERN VOICE (outside). Pass along there! (184)

The crowd gathers and Heat warns the Professor that it may tear him "to pieces." Conrad is constructing a very different sense of the crowd than in the novel: they are more of an audible and potentially violent mob than the amorphous multitude in the novel. The "STERN VOICE" is a suitably anonymous emblem of authority attempting to control the city crowd which is only safe if it is kept moving.

Like the novel, the play tells "Winnie Verloc's story to its anarchistic end" (43) and her fate follows the same path. After Winnie has murdered her husband, she staggers into the street trying to get to the river to drown herself, haunted by the newspaper cliche 'The drop given was fourteen feet.' In the play, Winnie "stumbles" (168) into the shop and after closing her eyes to a count of three gazes at the audience with a "stare of terror" before crying "No! That must never be!" (168). This is one of Conrad's best attempts at compensating for the loss of the urban locale of the novel: by having Winnie stare at the audience, we get the sense of the woman alienated in a sea of people (literally a theatre audience). It is also an ironic counterpoint to Act I where Winnie looks at the audience and declares "Yes, I am lucky" (80): in Act IV Winnie has "fallen" and this time the breaking of the fourth wall is a chilling moment of empathy.

There is a pressure on Conrad to be as expedient with dramatis personae as he is with location. The novel has twenty-four speaking characters. Conrad retains the majority of the characters in the adaptation with over twenty-one players in the cast. In fact, he includes too many of them. Conrad brings Vladimir into the shop simply because he has an important expository function. He also brings the Professor into the shop so that he can be the coda to the play just as he is to the novel. In the novel, Verloc goes to them, not vice versa.

Although the scene with Lady Mabel (the name Conrad gives Michaelis's anonymous patroness) is memorable, it blurs the focus of the play: in the novel it is a satirical vignette but in the play it may be too much of a digression to warrant an act to itself. V. S. Naipaul writes of the patroness in the novel that "in spite of appearances, this grand lady... was not Lady Bracknell... Not Lady Bracknell. Someone much more real." (15) Several of Lady Mabel's pronouncements in the play-"They may think what they like. My eccentricity is well known," (145)-do have Wildean edges. Lady Mabel is not Lady Bracknell even if both figures are satirical creations: The Secret Agent and The Importance of Being Earnest are masterpieces of satire, but operate in different ways. If Wilde's play is a comic satire, then Conrad's play is a tragic satire, or perhaps a melodramatic satire. The genre of the play is hard to define, Conrad himself admitting that it evades "exact definition," (16) a tribute, I would argue, to its ambitio n. The play is not a conventional whodunit or thriller but rather a macabre satire. There are elements of melodrama that Conrad exploits, like the Act IV Scene III encounter between Winnie and Verloc; but there is also a touch of Sir Henry Irving in The Bells in Winnie's deterioration into insanity. There are also allusions to late nineteenth-century realism, including the "New Woman" plays, and a quality best described as Grand Guignol. The Illustrated London News praised Russell Thorndike, who played Ossipon, for his "Grand Guignol spasms." (17) There are even some expressionistic elements, especially evident in the use of light and shadow in Act IV. There is also a parallel to be drawn with Ernst Toller's inexorable destruction of the eponymous hero/victim of Hinkemann (1921) in his similarly horrifying urban landscape, complete with news-vendors peddling their maculated filth. Conrad is not quite an expressionist, but he is heading in that direction.

The Times critic of the premiere argues that "Conrad has tried... to bring too much of his novel on to the stage. The result is a play with a certain excess of talk." (18) Close analysis of the novel and play reveals that Conrad makes very slight alterations to the language of the speeches (changing "economic" for "social" and so on). This gives the impression that the process of dramatization was pernickety when really a wholesale reorganization of the plot was required, not least to admit more action. However, the most fundamental problem in the play is caused by making the story chronological.

Conrad exploits the narrative time techniques of analepsis, prolepsis and ellipsis in the novel. The play is, in contrast, strictly chronological and Conrad only uses the technique of ellipsis. One very obvious problem in straightening out the chronology is that Stevie is killed early in the play. An actor playing Stevie has a very short time to make an impact. After all, Stevie remains as integral to the story in the play as he is in the novel.

Straightening the chronology of the narrative seems to simplify the story, but it also makes it more macabre if not ghastly:

[It] is bound to appear to the... audience a merely horrible and sordid tale.... [I] gave to the narrative a sort of grim dignity. But on the stage all this falls off... It is a terribly searching thing ... the stage. (19)

At the end of the novel the characters drift away, all affected--in different ways--by what the newspaper coins "madness and despair" (266). The London Conrad has constructed has extended into a wider world (if not universe) devoid of reason. In stark contrast the play seems to have a moral climax as it is brought to a close by the arrival of the police. Far from "getting away with it," Ossipon is arrested. For a while in the final act the young revolutionary is a parody of the romantic hero, but ultimately Inspector Heat fulfils the role of dramatic hero. Having said that, Conrad goes to pains in the stage directions to point out the physical similarity between Heat and Verloc:

There is a certain similarity in their personal appearance, both big men, clothes the same sort of cut, dark blue overcoats and round hats on. (159)

In the final tableau, "HEAT, his hand on his chin, stands looking down profoundly at the crouching WINNIE" (184). The inspector, representative of justice, legality and reason stands above Winnie, the victim of madness and despair. This may seem a much more comfortable ending: justice is seen to prevail. However, it is possible to see it as just as uncompromising as the novel. In the original, Winnie commits suicide: she has murdered and then taken her own life, and she is significantly a victim of the media. Conrad firmly establishes this in the novel, but even in the play with the "newspaper torn on the floor" (168) this aspect of her fate is still suggested. In the play she does not kill herself but rather, as The Sunday Times reviewer puts it, "The woman ends the play by becoming as imbecile as her brother." (20) Perhaps this was an attempt to temper the work, by presenting us with one less death. However, the death would have had to have been off-stage and maybe Conrad preferred to shock the audience wi th Winnie's disintegration before their eyes rather than absent. Her presence also serves to strengthen the idea of the victim alienated in the amorphous crowd.

In his letters about writing the play Conrad states: "I have resolved that since the story is horrible I shall make it as horrible as I possibly can." (21) Hence, we can interpret the final tableau as either a moral concession or as a disturbing, ironic conclusion.

The Sunday Times critic celebrates the final act:

The sordid horror of the last scene, when the wretched woman is robbed and deserted... and is found by the police babbling and crazy, is as terrible as anything in Dostoievsky. This scene, moreover, is superbly played by Miss Miriam Lewes (Winnie), with a passionate intensity that sends a shudder through the whole house.... We left.., the theatre with a certain relief, and minded to read the novel again. For Mr. Conrad is a great novelist, but not yet a great dramatist. (22)

There is an irony here (not just in likening Conrad to his hated Dostoievsky): despite the redeeming qualities of the adaptation which shocked the audience-indicating the success of Conrad's intention to horrify-the reviewer wants to return to the novel. The critic will not, however, find this scene in the original: the episode he praises most is an original invention peculiar to the play of this not "great dramatist".

Despite its shortcomings, some recognized the radical nature of the play immediately. Arnold Bennett writes:

The play is certainly the best I have seen for a very, very long time, and by a long way the best. It is highly distinguished. Twenty years will pass before such a play can possibly hope to have a success in London. London is fed on pap, and dishonest pap at that. I should think that on the continent the thing ought to have a very considerable success. It is, artistically, a most disturbing play, for the reason that it shows up, in a way that nothing but a first-rate work of art can do, the superlative fatuity, futility, infantility, and falsity of even the respectable better-than-average English plays that we talk seriously about in this here city. (23)

The work is ahead of its time, but jeopardized by being performed in England and not in a more enlightened Europe. The play is further endorsed in the 1990s. Christopher Hampton states: "It's not surprising that Conrad's play failed in the climate of the twenties; it was considerably ahead of its time." (24)

All in all, Conrad may not have done justice to the vision and range of his novel, but the stage version of The Secret Agent remains an interesting and at times compulsive experience which the English stage of the 1920s was not ready to receive. Conrad himself was aware of the play's failings as much as anyone, but still asserts that "in its innermost quality it is as Conradian as anything I have ever written." (25)

Conrad found dramatizing The Secret Agent to be a profound and personal crisis. On the opening night of the production he said:

Notice that Conrad claims that he had no idea how gruesome his novel was until he came to adapt it. For Conrad, self-adaptation is a brutal form of self-analysis where the writer is forced to behold the "bare bones" of his original work. It is an intriguing and curiously schizophrenic conceit: a 1920s playwright called Joseph Conrad tackles a classic of Edwardian fiction, written by the same man. It becomes poignant if we accept that Conrad was attempting to rescue his creativity. The experience of adaptation in which Conrad discovers, to his shock, the "gruesome," "horrible" and yet truly "Conradian" essence of his own creation, is not far short of a Kurtzian epiphany at a creative heart of darkness.

I found the writing of The Secret Agent very trying; it meant cutting all the flesh off the book. And I realized then, as I never had done, what a gruesome story I had written. In writing the novel I had veiled the plot to some extent by all those elements which go to make a book. I had to get to the bare bones of the story in making my play.(26)

RICHARD J. HAND is a lecturer in Theatre and Media Drama at the University of Glamorgan, Wales. He completed a Ph.D. on "Self-Adaptation: The Stage Dramatisation of Fiction by Novelists" at the University of Glasgow in 1997.


(1.) Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad (London: John Murray, 1991), 27.

(2.) See F. R. Karl and L. Davies, eds. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad Volume 3: 1903-1907 (Cambridge University Press 1988), 272 (30 June 1905).

(3.) Richard, Curle, The Last Twelve Years of Joseph Conrad (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1928), 111.

(4.) F. R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 838.

(5.) Quoted in Curle, 125-26.

(6.) The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1945), 3.

(7.) Quoted in R.L. Megroz, Joseph Conrad's Mind and Method (London: Faber and Faber, 1931), 24.

(8.) Karl and Davies, eds. Letters Volume 1: 1861-97, 1983, 419 (6 December 1897).

(9.) Letters Volume 3, 326 (4 April 1906).

(10.) Curle, 100.

(11.) The Secret A gent (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 49. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

(12.) Letters Volume 1:419 (6 December 1897).

(13.) Letters Volume 4 1908-11, 1990,218 (17 April 1909).

(14.) Three Plays (London: Methuen, 1934), 109. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

(15.) V. S. Naipaul, "Conrad's Darkness" in The Return of Eva Peron (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981), 208-09.

(16.) Karl, The Three Lives, 856.

(17.) The Illustrated London News, 11 November 1922, 784.

(18.) The Times, 4 November 1922, 8.

(19.) Letter to J. B. Pinker, 11 November 1919, quoted in Allan Ingram, Selected Literary Criticism and The Shadow-Line (London: Methuen, 1986), 94-95.

(20.) The Sunday Times, 5 November 1922, 6.

(21.) Ingram, 94-95.

(22.) The Sunday Times, 5 November 1922, 6.

(23.) James Hepburn, ed., Letters of Arnold Bennett Volume 1: Letters to J. B. Pinker (Oxford University Press, 1966), 317 (8 November 1922).

(24.) Letter to the author, 17 July 1991.

(25.) Quoted in Robert S. Ryf, 1972. "The Secret Agent on Stage," Modern Drama 14 (1971), 1:59.

(26.) Megroz, 25.
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Author:Hand, Richard James
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Date:Mar 22, 2000
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