Introduction to "Joan La Romée"

This is the amusing introduction to Joan La Romée, a play by Frank Harris, from the English edition, dated 1926.

My thanks are extended to Edgar M. Ross for his permission to reproduce this copyrighted text.

Scanned for your delight as part of the Frank Harris Preface Project.

Introduction

My publisher asks me to write an introduction to this play. I am not much in favor of introductions to works of art but fortunately in this instance my good or evil fortune has provided me with some interesting material.

I sent my play "Joan La Romée" to Bernard Shaw, and he wrote me the most astonishing letter about it, which I answered almost as frankly. Here are both letters, and they may help to a judgment of the play because Shaw's letter is as rank in condemnation as mine in eulogy.

[Thanks to the Society of Authors for their permission to quote from and paraphrase Shaw's letter to Harris:-

Shaw had received a copy of the play from Harris. His initial response is to ask how Harris could be so "unbusinesslike", to come into Shaw's "market for saints" "with the one saint in whom [he, Shaw] had made a hopeless corner".

He then proceeds to criticise Harris' approach to drama, which he considers too akin to short-story writing. Specifically, Harris had taken out all sense of the historical background of the subject and written it as if it were set in latter-day America. He recommends that Harris should "throw [the play] into the fire and write [his] story" - but even so, that would not work, for the subject is not suited for the short story form. Harris should "drop the thing into the waste paper basket with a goodhumored laugh".

He finishes by apologising for his insensitivity to Harris' feelings, which he blames on his poor health.]

Villa et Boulevard Edouard VII
Comiez - Nice
May 27, 1926

My dear Shaw:

Your letter on "Joan La Romée" has reached me. What an extraordinary letter for you to write to me. I remember the shock I had when I read in your criticism of my Shakespeare that you annexed my discovery that the Countess of Rousillon was Herbert's mother, Sydney's sister, and coolly said that I wouldn't have it though my words were "I think Shakespeare had this fine model in mind when drawing the old Countess of Rousillon." You went on to poke fun at me and pretend that I said that Shakespeare had his own mother in mind - all pure invention.

Now this criticism of my Joan is just as astonishing. It is the "pre-seventy part" of you at its worst which still exists. I had written my play before I saw yours, and Joan had been in my head for twenty years with Jesus; and it wasn't until I saw from the bottom of her garden at Domremy that she could see the church that a glimpse came to me of the way her soul grew. But you see nothing of my work at all except that my Executioner is a very modern American because he dares to cheek an English lord and disagree with the Holy Office.

You talk of the "Joan ground" as being yours and you would shoo me off this grass. This inspires me to tell you something of the truth about your play in your own vein. In the interminable four hours of it there were only two moments in which you tried to realize Joan. You make the peasant girl speak to her King as "Charlie" in open court - an anachronism as glaring as your epilogue; and you make Joan tear up her renunciation, which is contrary to the historical fact but which is a fine theatrical gesture; so much for your attempt to realize the heroine; but your Chief Inquisitor gets a speech of fifteen hundred words, which an actor can make effective by giving it his own individuality and character but which otherwise simply makes one yawn to hear. Then you place three men at a table to tell all you know about France in the beginning of the fifteenth century for thirty-two intolerable minutes by the watch and they say nothing of any value to any human soul; - and yet you call this your drama!

Your idea of a drama is to make Jesus call Pilate "old-top" and give two hours of conversation to Caiaphas and his compeers.

Our disagreement, you see, goes to fundamentals. You think the Cauchons and the Inquisitors and all ordinary persons worth depicting at length but these like the poor you have always with you. We don't need a Shaw to portray them. Pinero does that and Henry Jones and a dozen others: but here in Joan is a great character, a heroic soul if ever there was one, and we want above all to learn how she came Into being and how she was treated by men. You shirk the real problem altogether; there is more creative faculty in the first three pages of my work than in all your four hours of drama! You should have seen the effort at least in my work to realize Joan; you should have known that nothing is gained by cheap sneering.

I am sorry to hear that you have not been well. I have been troubled too by my old enemy - Bronchitis - but as the warm weather comes on I get better; and when I heard that you had gone to Madeira I thought it would have been better if you had come down here, but you had gone before I knew of it.

What a curious dearth of poets in England today in comparison with the period I am writing about of my life in the nineties. You are, to me, the chief figure from 1895 to 1900, as Oscar Wilde was in the previous years. I shall always remember the pleasure your "Candida" gave me, much the same sort of pleasure that I had hoped to give you with my Joan. I have failed, it seems, but whether the failure is yours or mine is not yet easy to determine. I remember reading once how Cervantes praised Lope de Vega for his excellent comedies and sent him "Don Quixote," and de Vega replied that he couldn't help in any way because there was no talent in the book, "Don Quixote."

Yours ever,
FRANK HARRIS.