First-Class Fellow Traveller
- Patrick Hamilton: A Life by Sean French
Faber, 327 pp, £20.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 571 14353 9
Stalinist, alcoholic, sexually ambivalent, Patrick Hamilton had all the prerequisites of a successful Thirties writer. That his success was uneven would seem simply another sign of the times, the mark of an epoch grimly wedded to failure. His work was praised by Greene, Priestley, Lessing, Powell; but if he survives today it is for a couple of memorably macabre dramas – Rope and Gaslight – which Hamilton himself scorned as callow sensationalism. Rope, a savage homo-erotic farce by Orton out of Wilde, made his name and fortune, and was filmed without cuts by Hitchcock in a celebrated cinematic experiment. Gaslight, first performed in 1939, is a spooky tale of patriarchal paranoia which the sexual politicians of our time have yet to catch up with. But though several of Hamilton’s sub-Dickensian novels sold widely at the time, only a meagre clutch them (Hangover Square, Slaves of Solitude, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse) have survived in contemporary editions; and by the Fifties their author was hurtling towards spiritual skid row, plagued by the dipsomania which killed him in 1962.
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Vol. 16 No. 1 · 6 January 1994
In his piece on Patrick Hamilton (LRB, 2 December 1993), Terry Eagleton alludes very briefly to ‘an impressive drama’ for which Hamilton ‘hasn’t been remembered – The Duke in Darkness’. Some time during the late Forties or very early Fifties, for our annual school play at Colston’s, Bristol, this was the choice of our producer (presumably the English master). It was also my very first experience of working backstage. Someone (the English master again, probably) had had the idea of setting the play to Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis. Half a century later, the images immediately conjured up by mention of the play, the sound of the music or the smell of greasepaint are identical: though I am not sure which is the real trigger, it is certain that the Duke lives, at least in my own ‘turbulent unconscious’. Is there anybody else out there who remembers this production?
Vol. 16 No. 3 · 10 February 1994
There is somebody else out there who remembers Patrick Hamilton’s The Duke in Darkness (Letters, 6 January). I heard the play on BBC Radio in about 1955, when I was 16. It was one of a series in which well-known actors were invited to choose dramatic vehicles for themselves. I believe it was chosen by Michael Redgrave, who had played the part of the Duke’s crazy servant, Gribaud, in the original 1942 production, which he also directed, at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and then at the St James’s Theatre, London – and I seem to recall that Alec Guinness also appeared in the radio version.
It made enough sinister impression on me to recommend it to my English teacher as an excellent choice for our next school play (no doubt fancying the idea of playing the lead myself), but unlike Mr Featherstone’s English master, who actually initiated the school production himself, mine dismissed the idea pretty decisively, probably deterred by its sadistic elements and total lack of uplifting Eng Lit values.
The Duke of Darkness was produced some years after Hamilton’s better known stage plays, Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938). Perhaps its subject of an incarcerated tormented aristo had some special resonance during the war years, but I’ve certainly never come across any reference to a professional revival since my mid-Fifties hearing.