(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/10; Billy Russell in The High Bid at the Mermaid theatre in 1967. Photograph: Tony Gibson/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock.)
James’s rich dialogue and clashing-cultures theme make his country-house play worthy of a renewed offer
Henry James had a love-hate relationship with the theatre. He had boyhood dreams of becoming an actor, wrote first-rate dramatic criticism and aspired to be as successful a playwright as novelist. But his hopes were shattered at the first night in 1895 of his play Guy Domville, which was roundly booed by the gallery. I would still argue that he was a natural dramatist and that, among his later works, The High Bid eminently deserves revival.
The play had a tortuous history. It began as a one-act piece, Summersoft, created for Ellen Terry but never staged. In 1898, James turned it into a short story, Covering End. That came to the attention of the actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who commissioned James to rewrite it as a three-act play. Driven by what he called “the lust of a little possible gold”, James complied, but the loot was not forthcoming. After its premiere at the Edinburgh Lyceum in 1908 and five matinee performances in London, the play quietly expired until it was successfully revived by Bernard Miles at the Mermaid in 1967 and, less happily, in the West End in 1970 with Eartha Kitt in the key role of an American widow, Mrs Gracedew, in love with the English past.