Dramatic Works

The Tables Turned

Introduction transcribed here from The Tables Turned, Ohio University Press, 1994

INTRODUCTION

William Morris’s most active years in the early British socialist movement were accompanied by a series of unusual writing projects. From 1883 until his death in 1896, the artist-craftsman-poet who had made his fame as the “idle singer of an empty day” engaged himself in the exhaustingly active task of educating the would-be and the already-converted mass of humanity toward socialism. It was a task that George Bernard Shaw later claimed “called on [Morris’s] mental reserves for the first time” and one that also called for an impressive repertoire of generic variety.

All for the cause, Morris wrote socialist chants, eulogies, lectures, essays, dialogues, book reviews, romances, histories, and—in the fall of 1887—a play.  After his “little interlude,” as he referred to it, was first presented on 15 October 1887, the front page of The Pall Mall Gazette proclaimed that Mr. William Morris, “not content with writing the songs of Socialism, . . . aspires to write its plays” (17 October 1887, 1)

Most modern readers will undoubtedly regard The Tables Turned: or, Nupkins Awakened as an intriguing digression in Morris’s literary career. Those more familiar with the languid, narrative poetry of The Earthly Paradise, or with the chaotically dreamy and nightmarish quality of his now more popular Defence of Guenevere—or even with the archaic “Saxonisms” of the late prose romances—will find The Tables Turned an unusual piece indeed, a courtroom farce piled up with the kind of political and contemporary allusion of America’s Saturday Night Live or Britain’s Monty Python.

Few among Morris’s current reading public have had access to the witty, conversational, and even  “unliterary” prose found in his “little interlude” of 1887. The play was not canonized in May Morris’s edition of the Collected Works (24 volumes, London, 1910 – 1915). An early, handwritten draft can be found in the Morris Collection of the Huntington Library (HM 6433) and is also now available in limited access on microfilm through Research Publications. First edition texts of the play, printed at the Socialist League’s Commonweal newspaper offices shortly after the play’s inaugural performance, are now collectors’ items, the relatively few surviving copies scattered among rare book libraries and private collections in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Heretofore, the only wider public access has been through the text included in May Morris’s limited print edition William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (1936, 1966).

This textual unavailability can only have contributed to the fact that critics, even Victorianists and Morrisians, have paid little attention to The Tables Turned. With the exception of a few recent discussions of the play (Stetz 1990, Sargent 1990, and Wiens 1991), Morris’s genuine experiment in dramatic form has been relegated to the marginal status of a biographical footnote. Although all major biographers since J. W. Mackail have mentioned the play, few have offered more than a sentence or scant page of reference to its possible significance in the fledgling development of a truly “socialist drama.”

This relative silence on the subject of Morris’s “socialist interlude” may in fact rest largely on an opinion established quite early in its prospective critical history, one formed by no less important a figure than Mackail, Morris’s first biographer. Mackail claimed quite categorically that “as a matter of fact, nothing came of the experiment in which the method of the Towneley Mysteries was applied to a modern farce” (Mackail 1899, 2: 187). Although recognizing the influence of the cycle of medieval mystery plays Morris admired, and the contemporary plays he did not, Mackail regarded The Tables Turned as little more than a short detour of dramatic interest which ultimately proved to be a dead-end.

Not many contemporaries held  the same view, however. The young poet W. B. Yeats insisted, for example, that Morris intended to write other plays, and that during the winter of 1888, he was in fact “writing another—of the middle ages this time (letter to Katharine Tynan, 20 June 1888, Kelly 1986, 1: 60). No evidence of such a project has yet been uncovered, but its very mention attests to Morris’s excitement about the possibilities of his dramatic experiment. Almost ten years later George Bernard Shaw also recalled:

Morris was so interested by his experiment in this sort of composition that he for some time talked of trying his hand at a serious drama, and would no doubt have done it had there been any practical occasion for it, or any means of consummating it by stage representation under proper conditions without spending more time on the job than it was worth . . . It was impossible for such a born teller and devourer of stories as he was to be indifferent to an art which is nothing more than the most vivid and real of all ways of story-telling. No man would more willingly have seen his figures move and heard their voices than he (Shaw 1932, 2: 213).

One of the most important reasons why Morris may not have rekindled his dramatic inclinations can be found in the term “proper conditions.” Although the generation of young, aspiring—or soon to be aspiring—playwrights surrounding him were already contemplating the “rebirth” of drama and its political repercussions, Morris seemed to share with his older, Victorian contemporaries an antitheatrical prejudice. This prejudice was later seasoned by his view of the arts in relationship to a truly revolutionary form of socialism. Morris openly expressed dislike for what Shaw referred to as “the contemporary theatrical routine of the Strand” (Shaw 1932, 2: 210), and he had severe doubts that proper dramatic conditions could exist until “after the Change.” Morris once wrote,

Now-a-days the arts have fallen into such a miserable state of degradation . . . [and] as to the stage itself, it seems to me that of all the arts the drama, acting in all its forms, has sunk the lowest . . . How can it be otherwise? Society is rotten to the core and only waits for revolution to sweep it away: in the new society only lies the hope for the Arts. (letter to James Frederick Henderson, 28 December 1885, Kelvin, 1884, 1987, 2: 507-08)

As he was to later elaborate in his collaborative vision of Socialism, titled Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, he believed that the drama as “a wholly co-operative art . . . could be more easily and pleasantly dealt with by a communal society working co-operatively” (Morris and Bax 1893, 311).

In the light of his aversion to almost all aspects of “the routine of the Strand,’’ as well as the absence of those revolutionary conditions allowing a co-operative art, it may seem surprising that Morris would indeed have complied with what Shaw remembered as a request to provide “a dramatic entertainment” to “raise the wind” of the Socialist League (Shaw 1932, 2: 21 1). Dramatic entertainments had become regular features of League and other socialist organizations’ entertainment repertoires, though evidence from the advertisements of socialist newspapers of the day, such as The Commonweal, suggests that most of these had been short dramatic pieces or one-act plays appropriated from the texts of popular East and West End theatre playwrights.  As Raphael Samuel, Ewan MacColl, and Stuart Cosgrove note in their seminal work, Theatres of the Left, these plays were primarily regarded as “adjunct forms of entertainment” (12) and not as ideological reinforcement or propaganda.

Morris’s “little interlude” appears to mark an important shift in this appropriation practice. An early Commonweal advertisement for The Tables Turned includes the important pronouncement “ON SATURDAY OCTOBER 15 . . . AN ORIGINAL DRAMATIC SKETCH WILL BE PRODUCED FOR THE FIRST TIME” (1 October 1887, 320). Within the next few years other “original” plays were produced for League entertainments, now written by fellow League members no doubt influenced by Morris’s interlude.

The co-operative and communal spirit of such amateur productions, written “by and for the people," seems to have struck Morris with a spiritual sense of the medieval guild play. This may have fueled the energy he expressly put to work on what he self-consciously referred to (perhaps for the first time in a letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones dated 24 September) as an interlude: “I have been writing a—what?—an ‘interlude’ let’s call it, to be acted at Farringdon Road for the benefit of Commonweal” (Kelvin 1984, 1987, 2: 695).

This seemingly arbitrary label suggests Morris’s spiritual allegiance to medieval dramatic traditions. By the mid­nineteenth century, the theatrical connotation of the term “interlude” included “popular stage plays or comedies” (OED), but Morris—with his great affection for and knowledge of the Middle Ages—may have been applying interlude in the sense of the light, humorous pieces “commonly introduced between the acts of the long mystery-plays or moralities” (OED).

Morris’s sense of the comic in drama was naturally inclined toward the humor of the medieval playwright. Shaw remembered, for example, Morris quoting ‘‘with great relish . . . scenes in the Towneley Mysteries between the ‘shepherds abiding in the field’“ and claiming them as “his idea of a good bit of comedy” (Shaw 1932, 2: 210). Not surprisingly, Morris’s general dislike of the Renaissance extended to an indictment of the “absurd” set of dramatic conventions that had begun with Shakespeare (Kelvin 1984, 1987, 2: 507). May Morris later remarked that her father believed “Shakespeare had done great harm to the drama . . . having imposed a certain tradition on the future, which no one after him has been strong enough to get away from” (May Morris 1910-15, 22: xxvii).

The interlude label therefore seemed appropriate, and when the play was later printed by the offices of Commonweal, Morris subtitled it, “A Socialist Interlude.”

The production of Morris’s interlude did proceed in the spiritual vein of a medieval guild play. Like its medieval prototype, the entire production of The Tables Turned affirmed the camaraderie of a group of “fellows,” being written and performed by members of a fellowship of “co­workers” in the cause. The printed text of the play includes in its list of “Dramatis Personae” the original members of the cast, all of whom were active members in the Socialist League.

Even the content of The Tables Turned reveals its undeniably subtle link to the rough and boisterous comedy of his beloved Towneley mysteries. As one biographer notes, Morris ‘s play was a “queer” production, “a kind of collaborative effort by a pageant-master with a bluff sense of humour, and the Evangelist John” (Bloomfield 1934, 259). Indeed, like his Wakefield master, Morris combined contemporary allusion with comedy, broad farce, and, in his case, the religion of socialism. As in The Second Shepherd ‘s Play, Morris ultimately balanced an optimistic ending with social complaint. Although Nupkins, like Mak, fears the death penalty from a people’s court, he ultimately receives only comic retribution for his sins. At the end of Morris’s interlude, however, socialists—not shepherds—sing together in harmony.

Despite Morris’s proclivity for the medieval, however, an irony of The Tables Turned is its surprising link to many features of the popular Victorian stage play, that is, to the farce and melodrama of the very Strand to which he admitted a strong aversion. Morris adapted several classic melodramatic elements: the confrontation of good versus evil, the false accusation, the final denouement into poetic justice, and the use of musical accompaniment. The opening courtroom scene of the play was in fact a common one in many East End melodramas. But the farcical elements in the play are more readily apparent and include the kind of slapstick antics demonstrated by the inept court clerk in Part I.

Morris also peopled his interlude with the kind of typecast characters standard in both popular dramatic forms. Characters with such evocative names as Mary Pinch and Jack Freeman are like the innocent and falsely accused victims of melodrama. Mary’s personal testimony reveals that her whole life is lived in a “pinch,” a slang term which provided a double edge of humour, as it connoted both stealing (the accusation against poor Mary) and “to bring into difficulties or troubles, to afflict or harass” (OED). One of the villains in the piece is none other than the lawyer, Mr. Hungary, who almost lives up to the melodramatic stereotype of the shifty and dishonest lawyer. (Grimsted 1968, 201). He is “hungry” for anything but justice, and has an appetite instead for “making Socialists pay.” Hungary’s testimony against Pinch and Freeman, the “hero” of Part I—who continues to conduct himself, though accused, as a “free man”—is provided by bumbling and perjuring policemen with the equally evocative names Sergeant Sticktoit and Constable Strongithoath.

Morris’s professed preference for simplicity of characterization and his aversion for “elaborate realism” on the stage (May Morris 1910–15, 22: xxvii) actually aligns itself to both early and late dramatic traditions, to medieval drama’s one dimensional “vice” and “virtue” characters and to nineteenth-century farce and melodrama’s equally evocative—and pedagogic—dramatis personae. In his adaptation of simple iconographical symbols for many of his characters, Morris was aligning himself to important conventions of both forms. Shaw in fact noted this propensity, declaring that Morris “always contended that no more was necessary for stage illusion than some distinct conventional symbol, such as a halo for a saint, a crook for a bishop, or if you like, a cloak and dagger for the villain, and a red wig for the comedian” (Shaw 1932, 2: 2 12). And when Morris created his own Archbishop of Canterbury, he identified him by such symbols as “a pair of clerical bands and black stockings” (213).

An unusual hybrid of medieval and contemporary stage conventions, Morris’s “little interlude” would prove to be something new to its audience. Its enthusiastic Gazette reviewer went so far as to consider it a regenerated alternative to already existing dramatic forms.

[The] two or three hundred people who crowded the hall of the Socialist League on Saturday night assisted, perhaps, at the birth, or at any rate the regeneration, of a dramatic form destined to supplant the milk-and-water comedies and ‘leggy’ burlesques in which our bloated capitalism delights. (Pall Mall Gazette 17 October 1887, 1)

The final product of Morris’s eclectic dramatic composition was, all records seem to agree, an exhausting and yet energizing piece of amateurish collaboration. Despite what proved to be the light and comic vein of the interlude, once Morris had accepted the task he went to work on it with typical gusto. Almost a month ahead of its opening performance, he claimed to be “still very busy about interlude” in a letter to May (Kelvin 1984, 1987, 1: 694). His energies resulted in the creation of an artfully balanced dramatic structure with two “trial” scenes (or “Parts” as the earliest printed text indicates) ironically mirroring one another. The bourgeois courtroom of Justice Nupkins in Part I of the interlude is thereby reversed and comically corrected in the outdoor, folk-mootish Council of the Commune in Part II.

Morris’s choice of the courtroom scene for Part I seems quite appropriate. His involvement in several important legal infractions on the Issue of free speech is well documented  in both his Socialist Diary and in his daughter’s accounts of his socialist activities in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist. Earlier in 1887, Morris had recorded his disgust with the Norwich affair, a demonstration of unemployed workers which led to some window smashing and a sentence of nine months for one of its leaders. Morris particularly noted his disdain for the judge, whose “summing up of the case was amusing and instructive  . . . showing a sort of survival of the old sort of bullying  . . . mixed with a grotesque attempt at modernization on philanthropic lines; it put me in a great rage” (25 January 1887 in Boos 1981, 20). Again on 23 February, Morris marked his disapproval of both the steep fines involved in a magistrate’s punishment of a poor Leaguer arrested for street preaching and of the rough treatment of poor East Enders by the police (Boos 1981. 34).

May also elaborated on her father’s involvement in the kind of “Free Speech in London” confrontations which Part I of the play recounts. These had begun a early as 1885. She quotes his outrage against both the courts and the police:

On May 17[1885] . . . occurred the first of the series of Police outrages which we have had to endure . . . The Socialist League took an active part in the attempt to vindicate before the Courts the freedom of citizens, which was of course unsuccessful. (May Morris 1936, I: 223)

One of these courtroom confrontations involved Morris directly. As the treasurer of the League’s Committee of Defense, Morris either stood bail or helped defend League members arrested for any infringements on the right to assemble and make public demonstration. In September of 1885, this role led to a somewhat comical court proceeding during which Morris was himself arrested for having called out “Shame” and hissing after the judge had passed a sentence of two months’ hard labor on the defendant. In a fashion that now seems quite appropriate to the way her father would later make dramatic use of the incident in The Tables Turned, May described her father’s day in court as a theatrical production.

The various accounts of the next day’s proceedings . . . read like a scene in a comic opera. Picture the Thames Police-court on an autumn morning, the actors, a magistrate of limited vision and no sense of humour, angry policeman ready to lie through thick and thin, in the dock a poor East-end Jew tailor, who is convicted for—apparently accidentally—kicking a policeman; later steps up a world-renowned poet charged with disturbance in court, and after a humorous dialogue with the magistrate, let off because he was famous; chorus and crowd made up of the police rushing everyone around . . . and the London sightseers only too happy over any sort of public shindy. (May Morris 1936, I: 225)

Morris obviously had first-hand and ready fuel for a biting satirical look at unfair judges and inept policeman. But he also seemed intent upon satirizing the bourgeois establishment that supported such a system of justice. Ironically the three witnesses for the defendant, Jack Freeman, are none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Alfred Lord Tennyson (another “world-renowned poet “), and the famous scientist, John Tyndall. Morris’s opinion of these famous Victorian leaders and their utter lack of understanding for the socialist movement was used to effectively comic ends.

Morris’s correspondence in September of 1887 suggests that he was not just concerned with writing a play as the mouthpiece for his frustrations with the free speech in London confrontations, however. In fact, he ended up demonstrating an appreciable interest in a well-rounded sphere of theatrical production, engaging himself not only as writer and actor, but as active director and producer as well. As The Tables Turned’s producer, he carefully designated appropriate actors to specific parts. On 1 September he wrote May, “I was obliged to nail Miss Courthorne for the woman’s part, not being sure of you for rehearsals . . . I have got it all roughed in now, and the reading is to come off after this day or two. I feel very shy about it I must say” (Kelvin 1984, 1987, 2: 692).

The same letter indicates that Shaw, already) with some amount of amateur stage experience, had consented to take the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury). Later it appears that Shaw had to decline the role, and Morris then asked Walter Crane, his artist friend and also a League member, to read the part (Crane 1907, 261). At last resort however, Morris himself had to play the prelate, which may account for H. A. Barker’s later memories of opening night for the Walthamstow Weekly Times and Echo. He recalled that Morris as “[h]is Grace of Canterbury,” like the other cast members packed into the wings of the small stage, was, “with the rest, in a high state of excitement . . . due, in part probably, to the fact that this was his first appearance as actor and dramatist.” Morris, trying to stay aware of everything that was going on, “got excited again,” forgot his own part and had to improvise his lines (from Walthamstow Weekly 15 November 1896, cited in Thompson 1976, 699).

Shaw was nonetheless impressed with the final and overall effect of Morris’s performance. Ten years later, he also recalled for his Saturday Review readers: “Morris played the ideal Archbishop. He made no attempt to make up the part in the ordinary stage fashion . . . [this] he did by obliterating his humor and intelligence, and presenting his own person to the audience like a lantern with the light blown out, with a dull absorption in his own dignity which several minutes of the wildest screaming laughter at him when he entered could not disturb” (Shaw 1931, 1: 212–13).

This stylized role-playing on the part of Morris appears to have been intended with no personal malice toward the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, a prelate whom Morris knew through the Firm’s work in ecclesiastical design (Kelvin 1984, 1987, 1: 521). In his own “realization” of character, Morris dispensed with straight parody or, as the Pall Mall Gazette review indicates, impersonation:

In a shovel hat and with large white bands Mr. Morris looked more like an Archmandrite than an archbishop, and his beard, of course, put out of the question any attempt to “make up” in imitation of Mr. Benson. (17 October 1887, 1)

The shorter role of defense witness John Tyndall, leading Victorian scientist and friend of T. H. Huxley, was equally free of direct character representation, though Morris would surely have used him as a type of bourgeois single-mindedness. For this role he chose H. Bartlett, a “young gentleman,” the anonymous reviewer noted, “if possible still more unlike his prototype” (Pall Mall Gazette, 17 October 1887, 1).

For the part of Tennyson, however, Morris was willing to play up the parody of a fellow poet—or at least to allow the actor to play full reign with it. Shaw recalled that for this role, Morris carefully chose a socialist (a Mr. A. Brookes) “who happened to combine the right sort of beard with a melancholy temperament, and drilled him in a certain portentous incivility of speech which, taken with the quality of his remarks, threw a light on Morris’s opinion of Tennyson which was all the more instructive because he delighted in Tennyson’s verse” (Shaw 1932, 2: 212). The Gazette reviewer also noted that “the representative of Lord Tennyson . . . with his bald head, his long beard, and his flowing Inverness cloak, vaguely suggested the Laureate, whose manner, too, he was popularly reported to reproduce” (1). When Brooke’s Tennyson recited his scripted line, “I don’t want to understand Socialism: it doesn’t belong to my time,” both his contemporary audience—and the modern reader—can recognize Morris’s own quibble with the venerable Laureate’s ostrich-like response to the relevance of the socialist movement.

As an active director, Morris’s attention to the details of casting seemed to be matched by his perfectionism in regard to the production. More than thirty years later another cast member, John Turner, then a union activist, recalled the rehearsals. Though playing only a minor role, that of the inept court clerk, “he remembered more than anything else the strong language used by the producer at the rehearsals and how fiercely Morris stamped and shouted when things went wrong” (Arnot 1964, 87).

The opening night of Morris’s “coming out as a playwright” was accompanied by a certain amount of fanfare, deserving no doubt of Morris’s wider literary reputation. Shaw noted that one dramatic critic “took care to be present—Mr. William Archer” (Shaw 1932, 2: 213). We may assume that either Archer, or Shaw himself—who was at this time a professional dramatic critic-wrote the Gazette’s front page review of the play. It appeared the following Monday, October 17, under the bold headline, “ARISTOPHANES IN FARRINGDON ROAD: A Socialist Interlude by the Author of ‘THE EARTHLY PARADISE’.” The anonymous reviewer dramatically recounted the ambiance of the scene:

The hall of the Socialist League is, in fact, a long, narrow garret, with whitewashed roof and rafters, and red-ochred walls, boasting as their sole decoration a photograph of Karl Marx . . . and a few red flags which look as if they had ‘braved a thousand years the bobbies and the breeze.’ The whole available width of stage is certainly not more than fifteen feet, with a depth of perhaps eight or ten—a rather narrow cradle for a new art form. The audience was mainly composed of the working-class Socialists, who naturally form the bulk of the League, but there was also a sprinkling of artistic Utopians. (Pall Mall Gazette, 17 October 1887, 1)

Among this sprinkling were such notable artistic and literary figures as Walter Crane, who later referred to it as “a very interesting performance” (Crane 1907, 161), and Yeats’s young friend Ernest Rhys. Over forty years later, Rhys recounted the dramatic moment right before the play’s opening, when Jane Burden Morris swept in:

before the curtain went up, I had the sensation of seeing a figure, which might have stepped straight out of a pre-Raphaelite picture, passing through the audience. It was Mrs. Morris, whose superb tall form, long neck, and austere, handsome pale features looked more queenly than any Guinevere or Cleopatra. (Rhys 1931, 53)

According to the Commonweal review, the drawing of the curtain revealed “a very effective . . . and realistic” court scene designed by the stage manager, H. A. Barker, and his wife. This was replaced in scene two—described in the stage directions as “The Fields near a Country Village; a Copse close by”—with a “pretty Landscape, with its tree for the open-air communal council, and its dwellings in the distance” designed by a “Mr. Campfield” (Commonweal, 5 November 1887, 350).

Although the opening night performance was beset with a few of the mishaps of any amateur theatrical—not only did Morris forget his lines, but at the climactic moment when he was making his entrance, “Lord Tennyson fainted in the wings . . . [and] the prompter struggled into his get up” (from Walthamstow Weekly 15 November cited in Thompson 1976, 699)—Commonweal proclaimed it a dramatic success. On 22 October 1887 it was reported that

The play was well received and much applauded. So many people were unable to obtain admittance that it decided to repeat the performance this Saturday (Oct. 22), when the same tickets will be available. Performances are also being arranged for Hammersmith and Bloomsbury; and it was further announced that any Radical Club or branch of the League or S.D.F. possessing a stage and willing to aid in the raising of the Commonweal Fund, could arrange with the manager to have the same company, scenery etc . . . (Commonweal 22 October 1887, 343)

At least eleven more performances were advertised in the pages of Commonweal between October of 1887 and June of 1888, varying in location from large halls to local clubs, like the small meeting room of the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League where the play was billed for 5 November 1887. After the second performance at the Athenaeum Hall (22 October 1887), the anarchist Prince Kropotkin and his friend Elisée Reclus, the French geographer, were reportedly “talking of putting Nupkins into a French dress, and sending him forth to do additional good in that fashion” (Commonweal, 5 November 1887, 350).

One of the last performances appears to have been as late as 17 June 1888—by professional theatrical standards a healthy run for any play—when a performance at the International Club for the East-End Propaganda Fund was given by what Commonweal now referred to as “the Nupkins Company”:

On Sunday . . . the Nupkins Company gave a dramatic representation of “The Tables Turned” to a large audience who thoroughly appreciated the various points in the play. (Commonweal 23 June 1888, 200)

Yeats was one of the appreciative among the audience of this performance. He wrote to Katharine Tynan on 20 June 1888:

I was at the east end of London to see Morris act in his Socialist play. He really acts very well. Miss Morris does not act at all but remains her self most charmingly throughout her part . . .” (cited in Kelly 1986, 1: 74)

Yeats’s interest in the play seems to have preceded its performance. Three months earlier he had sent a copy of the play to Katharine. “I send you a copy of Morris’s play,” he wrote on 11 April 1888; “it is a little soiled as it is one of the copies used by the actors—no others being to be had” (cited in Kelly, 1: 59–60).

By April of 1888, Commonweal copies of the play were in print, but perhaps because of the relatively small print runs made in their printing offices, copies may have been hard to find due to the play’s already healthy reading audience. For four shillings, the curious as well as the unconverted could read the fruits of Morris’s coming out as a playwright.

The propaganda potential of an original production such as The Tables Turned was immediately recognized by its Commonweal reviewers. Although stage historians Ralph Samuel, Ewan MacColl, and Stuart Cosgrove point out that agit-prop, or self-consciously political propaganda theater, was not formally developed in those early days of socialism, the possibilities for theatrical conversions were obviously recognized by the  “Nupkins’ Company.” A Commonweal review dated 5 November 1887 clearly stated that two subsequent performances were well attended, and that the audiences included “many people who are not often seen at a Socialist meeting; and in this way there is no doubt that some good propagandistic work is being done” (350).

Part I of the play undoubtedly functioned cathartically for the League members in the audiences, offering comedy in the most generally accepted theoretical sense of “the baring of teeth to the enemy” (Barreca 1988, 8). But Part II of The Tables Turned was indeed much more, for it allowed Morris the opportunity to fulfill his own demand for art to show people “things decidedly above their daily life” (Kelvin 1984, 1987, 2: 36). Though his dramatic techniques were far from the more “sophisticated” theoretical advancements of later agit-prop and particularly workerist theater, Morris’s play was nonetheless an obvious attempt at drama for the purpose of propaganda. In its revolutionary artfulness, an equation Samuel, MacColl, and Cosgrove themselves claim as constitutive of agit-prop (xix), The Tables Turned was left-wing drama providing more than entertainment and demonstrating—unlike many other plays of the period—politically engaged, rather than merely socially conscious performance (Samuel, MacColl, and Cosgrove 1985, xviii).

One Morris biographer has recognized Morris’s socialist interlude as breaking “new ground in the creation of agit prop” (Lindsay, 1975, 324). Though later agit-prop would turn to visions of the future, Morris’s “new ground” was of a decidedly nostalgic nature and turned perhaps inevitably toward models from his own beloved Middle Ages and its equally polemic morality plays. This medievalesque “simplicity” Morris advocated as a virtue in all of the arts, including the drama, and it was very likely the source of inspiration for socialist plays for the next few decades.

Twenty years later, for example, a short play titled Brotherhood was widely staged in an adjunct variety of socialist society, the Socialist Sunday School. In its pedagogic echo of The Tables Turned it offered its young initiates a vision of ideal characters to imitate and ultimately celebrated a socialist victory of virtue over vice. Like Morris’s play, Brotherhood begins with a courtroom scene in which “the Working Man has been convicted for stealing.” The climax of the play also incorporates a scene in which a socialist comrade interrupts a policeman’s attempt to take away the convicted prisoner. The final scene of Brotherhood, like that of The Tables Turned, concludes in a beatified post-revolutionary vision in which “all [are] singing in beautiful chorus” (Samuel, MacColl, and Cosgrove 1985, 15).

Despite its obvious influence on later socialist drama, the play has drawn sporadic criticism. Some have faulted The Tables Turned for its blatant, unabashed idealism (no doubt a reference to Part II) and for its bourgeois, even counterproductive use of humour.

Not all of Morris’s literary and artistic contemporaries offered effusive praise for his dramatic and visionary experimentation. William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, joined others of Morris’s circle in criticizing his socialism. While he strongly praised Morris as an artist and poet, Hunt found Morris’s political views to be misguided. For him The Tables Turned proved this view. Hunt once advised a friend to read “Nupkins Awakened” as a good example of Morris’s political and ideological naivete (Edith Hunt typescript of Hunt letter to an anonymous recipient, Item 42, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas).

However, judged by purely aesthetic, or even dramatic standards, Morris’s vision of an idyllic, agrarian, post-revolutionary society achieved without bloodshed and maintained without malice or a need for revenge is consistent with his philosophy of art. May Morris explained that her father believed “[n]obody should be killed on the stage, of course, and no sick or dying persons should be presented” (May Morris 1910–15, 22: xxvii). And Morris himself once wrote that “those who want to make art educational must accept the necessity of showing people things decidedly above their daily life” (Letter to Thomas Coglan Horsfall, 24 March 1881, Kelvin 1984, 1987, 2: 36).

Later criticism of The Tables Turned follows in a somewhat similar vein. Recently, in one of the few discussions of the play to emerge in post-modern critical discussion, Margaret Stetz expressed severe skepticism about the value of Morris’s bourgeois sense of comedy, especially in regard to anarchism. She claims that Morris’s complicity in “the fin-de-siecle comic discourse about anarchism” helped “to check the spread of that philosophy in England” (Stetz 1990, 3). But if Morris’s “peculiar attempt at political high comedy” (3) did indeed succeed in turning the tables on anarchism as Stetz contends, it was one of his own problematic intentions. Morris’s relationship to anarchism, and more particularly to the divisive faction of anarchists within the Socialist League itself, was at one point quite clear. Despite his friendship with the anarchist, Prince Kropotkin, Morris stood firmly against their philosophy and noted that “[t]he Anarchist element in us seem determined to drive things to extremity and break us up if we do not declare for Anarchy: which I for one will not do” (letter to Bruce Glasier, Kelvin 1984, 1987, 2: 841).

The Tables Turned does not satirize only the anarchist faction of the Socialist League, however. Morris’s satire is leveled at all of the divisions within the current body of British socialism. The play is full of insider jokes and topical allusions to not only the Anarchists, and their familiarity with “the use of dynamite,” but to members of the Social Democratic Federation, described by Lawyer Hungary in the play as one of two “dangerous and malevolent associations,” and to the Fabians, labeled again by Hungary as “the third and most dangerous” of all “three principle societies.” After comically rechristening them, Morris could poke fun at the eccentric personal practices of some well­ recognized Fabians, among these Shaw’s avid vegetarianism, Annie Besant’s conversion to theosophy, and Sydney Webb’s rigidly mechanical economic theory.

Above all, the humour and satire in The Tables Turned does not seem to have insulted the “political correctness” of any of the principle socialist societies for whom it was performed. Its strongest endorsement was perhaps demonstrated by Kropotkin and Reclus’s interest in taking the piece abroad.

Beyond the play’s polemic posturing, however, one may make some legitimate criticisms of Morris’s experimentation in theatrical prose. Despite the liveliness of several key interactions between characters in The Tables Turned, specific passages can be no better described than flat or wooden. Mary Pinch’s long soliloquy-like defense in Part I of the play—in which she describes at some length first the beauty and then the hardship of the country life that led her to London—though particularly expressive of Morris’s empathy for the plight of the transplanted London laborer, is perhaps the best example of a prose style not quite suited to stage performance. Readers will note its Nowhereian flavor, but most will, in any case, puzzle over poor Mary’s sophisticated diction and Morrisian expressiveness. Morris seemed better able to consistently sustain an overall conversational prose in the few dialogues he contributed to Commonweal; among these “Honesty is the Best Policy; or the Inconvenience of Stealing” (November 1887) and “Whigs Astray” (January 1889).

Readers of this edition will no doubt find other criticisms and/or disappointments in The Tables Turned. Some will conclude that the interlude is not at all what they would expect of the better known sensibilities of William Morris. The sarcastic humour, contemporary parody, and overall realistic ambiance of especially Part I seem far removed from Morris’s medievalesque temper. The Tables Turned is far less “Morrisian” than, for example, the kind of pageant plays which circulated throughout England for the next few decades. Pageant plays—or masques as they were often called—like those produced by Walter Crane seem much more in tune with Morris’s earlier proclamations in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome about what makes appropriate or valuable drama. Crane’s masque, Beauty’s Awakening: A Masque of Winter and Spring (1899), for example, offers the kind of visual tableaux and ideological correctness we might expect of a Morris drama (Crane 1907, 452–455). We may speculate that Crane’s masque took the shape which Morris’s subsequently planned yet unwritten, or undiscovered, play of the Middle Ages might have.

Despite its previous reputation as an unlikely and uncharacteristic one-time experiment in the career of a prolific and diverse Victorian figure, The Tables Turned has gained a trickle of attention from avid Morrisians. At least three groups have restaged or attempted to restage the play for modern audiences. Morris’s dramatic experiment can and should be regarded as an intriguing biographical commentary on his admirable and eclectic energies. But it also offers evidence of several other worthy literary and aesthetic concerns.

Immediately of interest to Morris students and scholars is the play’s demonstration of Morris’s biting satiric ability, as well as his highly colloquial prose style, which could (at points) accommodate lively and humorous dialogue. The Tables Turned reveals his largely unrecognized conversational style, one which balances out his more visible reputation as the archaic poet/dreamer of an idle day. Additionally, the play will be of interest to social historians, as it offers a valuable compendium of political allusion highlighted by the sensibilities and attitudes of the socialist movement in its formative stages. And, finally, Morris’s socialist interlude will be of interest to theater historians and students of early workerist theater. Morris’s The Tables Turned is a noteworthy and commendable example of employing original works to the leftist cause before theories of agit prop and left-wing theater were developed  and espoused.

Morris’s socialist interlude is indeed more than an intriguing digression in his prolific and eclectic career. Unlike his first biographer, J. W. Mackail, modern readers may now be able to ascertain for themselves whether something came of “the experiment in which the method of the Towneley Mysteries was applied to a modern farce,” both in terms of its contemporary “success” and possibly even in terms of its more far-reaching influence on the Socialist cause and its place in the development of dramatic art forms as the vehicle for Socialist propaganda and education. As this edition sets out to demonstrate, Morris’s “little interlude” is not so little after all. The Tables Turned; or, Nupkins Awakened provides new ground for critical attention to yet another worthy and worthwhile Morris experiment.

Editor’s Note: The play text is typeset from a first edition, printed in London at the office of The Commonweal in 1887 with the title, The Tables Turned; Or, Nupkins Awakened. A Socialist lnterlude. In preparation of the Introduction, Notes, and manuscript, I would like to thank Mark Samuels Lasner and the William Morris Society of the United States and Peter Cormack at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. For helping to clarify points of British social history, as well as editing an early draft of the introduction, I owe much thanks to Frank Sharp. And for his patience and support, my gratitude to Clifton.

Pamela Bracken Wiens
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

Prepared by Pamela Olson, 2015.