Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anecdotage: Arthur Machen, Ernest Benn, A. L. Greening and the Stage

In discussing the two publishers Greening & Co. and Ernest Benn in recent posts, memories of Arthur Machen were aroused. Arthur Machen was a "reader" for Ernest Benn in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and upon being let go of this position at age 70, Benn commissioned a short novel from him for 50 pounds. Machen was not a young man, and yet he managed to finish the novel called The Green Round for this rather lukewarm-hearted commission and it was eventually published in 1933. Benn wanted it for his Ninepenny Novelist series. In a letter to his friend Colin Summerford, Machen wrote:

"Poor Uncle Ernest. What he will say to The Green Round, I do not know. Gollancz told me that Sir Ernest was a man absolutely without religion; but I trust that this is not the case. He will want consolation." (quoted on page 149 of Arthur Machen: a Biography by Aidan Reynolds and William Charlton).

The book did not sell well. This was not unusual for Machen. For another commission for The Faith Press, he wrote The Great Return which was published in 1915. This too did not sell at all well. A few years later, Machen was browsing in a bookshop and came across a large dusty stack of the title. Reynolds and Charlton in their biography relate that: "The bookseller had not sold one for a long time, but when Machen told him who he was, he had not the heart to charge him for a copy." (ibid., p. 116).

The trial of Oscar Wilde created a backlash among publishers towards any type of literature which could possibly be considered decadent, and though Machen's works were not, he suffered from this reluctance, making the last half-decade of the 1890s a rather challenging period. Machen eventually tried his hand as an actor. He made his debut in 1901 and became a strolling player with Sir Frank Benson's company. An interesting crossover, writing to acting. Arthur Greening, the publisher, had been involved with light theatre, variety, musicals, and he switched over to publishing. I have yet to find if Machen ever met Greening but I rather doubt they would have gotten along. Different fish altogether. The only connection I have found so far, is the journalist and hack writer, T. W. H. Crossland who was involved with Greening and edited an edition of Hudibras for the publisher. Crossland reviewed books for various periodicals, and was a rather malicious enemy of Machen. He always referred to him as "MacHen".

Like anyone involved with the theatre, there are stories and anecdotes galore. Arthur Machen had his store as well. Reynolds and Charlton quote from O. B. Clarence's autobiography No Complaints, where he describes Machen's initial steps as a strolling player: "It pleased him [Machen] later on to make one of the crowd in several of the productions. I remember him among the rioters in Coriolanus. We were all brandishing clubs and shouting ourselves hoarse--'Down with him. Traitor', etc., and there at the back stood Machen muttering softly in mild disapproval of Coriolanus--'Down with him. Traitor. Oh, yes, distinctly traitor, oh impossible fellow.' Before long, however, he was shouting with the best." (ibid., p. 84).

Machen seems to have found his footing--and possessed natural talent--for in 1907 playing Sir Daniel Ridgeley in Pinero's His House in Order, in such small venues as Market Driffield, Hexham, and Ledbury, he was quite a comic turn. Reynolds and Charlton write: "Whenever Machen appeared, there were howls of mirth--'by the end of the show there was an old fellow in the front row who was reduced to nothing but a rattle and a wheeze and an agony in the region of the ribs'. There must have lived about Ledbury then a dreary long-winded, long-bearded bore ejecting moral sentiments in a pompous voice. Years later members of the company were still calling Machen 'The Ledbury Pet.' " (ibid., p.93).

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