Copyright was a thorny issue for Victorian authors. A British author enjoyed protection in the UK but was powerless to prevent pirated editions of his or her work appearing in the USA or in Europe almost contemporaneously with the first British publication. There was also no protection for an author against adaptations appearing in their own country. Thus Anthony Trollope was unable to prevent Charles Reade adapting his novel Ralph The Heir for the stage in 1872 under the title Shilly Shally.
In fairness to Reade, he did speak with Trollope’s son, Henry, who agreed to the adaptation in principle, while his father was absent on the prolonged trip to Australia to visit his other son, Fred. Furthermore, Reade wrote to Trollope explaining that he was dramatising the story and that he intended to give Trollope full credit as co-writer. In his letter to Trollope he said:
“Though the law, as I know to my cost, gives anyone the right to dramatise a novelist’s story, I would not have taken this liberty without consulting you if you had been accessible. Having done it I now propose to give the inventor that just honour, which is too often denied him in theatrical announcements.”
Reade also promised, and fulfilled that promise, to send Trollope a copy of the completed script. He also offers to split the profits with Trollope.
To understand Trollope’s reaction to this it is necessary to go back a little in time to 1850. In this earlier period in his writing career, Trollope wrote a play, The Noble Jilt. However, friends to whom he passed a copy for comment, were critical of the work and Trollope filed it away, never to be produced. He did, however, resurrect the play in fictional form – it provides key elements of the plot of his later novel Can You Forgive Her? and enjoys a fictional West End production attended by characters in The Eustace Diamonds, in which it is slated by the critics in terms drawing on the earlier comments of his friends which led to its actual consignment to the author’s filing cabinet.
Then in 1869, Trollope was asked by impresario John Hollingshead to dramatise his own novel The Last Chronicle of Barset. This he did, producing Did He Steal It? Once again the play was rejected.
So Trollope was almost certainly a little over-sensitive to the notion of adaptations of his work for the stage. His failures would make it galling for another to do so and succeed.
Trollope was also, it should be remembered, a keen champion of the rights of the author in respect of copyright to his original works and campaigned to extend the protection it afforded him to cover overseas rights.
It was in this frame of mind that he, somewhat belated, as a result of the distance to Australia and resulting delays on receiving post from home, received the letter from Reade. Trollope responded negatively but by then it was too late. Reade’s play had been put on.
The play was moderately successful financially but attracted criticism in the press. The Orchestra:
“Mr Charles Reade…will say things in his books and pieces that no gentleman should utter in the presence of ladies. He goes out of his way to do this. In his scorn at the conventional decencies of society, he seems to delight in the startling and shocking…An aggravation of the offence is that these excrescences of club-room wit should be foisted on an innocent story of Mr Trollope, of all authors – Mr Trollope who is so careful never to offend.”
While Reade did enjoy something of a reputation for stretching the boundaries of what was acceptable to public taste, he was successful both as a playwright (perhaps as a result of his daring) and as an author. His best known novel, The Cloister and the Hearth, written in 1861, remains in print today. He could not therefore be accused of trading on Trollope’s reputation. Quite the reverse, Trollope’s only successful play was this “co-write” with Reade.
Nor can Trollope’s anger be justified on the grounds that Reade, as the critics accused, inserted ribald passages into an otherwise unblemished work. In fact many of the offending passages cited by the critics were not from the pen of Reade but were direct lifts of dialogue from Trollope’s novel.
No doubt, much of the coarseness complained of was attributable not to either Trollope or Reade but to the delivery of the lines by the principal actors. John Lawrence Toole, who played Neefit, the tailor and breeches maker, was famous as a comic actor for his roles in Thespis – the first Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals and similar roles where his ad-libbing and ability to “milk” a line to maximum effect with the audience were famous – one might say, notorious. He was ably assisted in this respect by his opposite number, Mrs Nellie Farren, who had worked with him in many of his successes. Together they exaggerated the pathos and the humour in the productions, bringing a bawdy tone to their scenes, much to the delight of the audiences.
So it was that scenes such as Neefit measuring Ralph for a new pair of breeches and Polly’s scandalised response to Moggs’ innocent – or not so innocent – request for assistance in changing his wet clothes after he is soaked when he throws himself into the “briny” at Margate in over-wrought despair at her rejection of his suit, were the subject of much hilarity in the theatre and much tutting in the press afterward.
Perhaps such reactions were inevitable. The play was put on at the Gaiety Theatre which enjoyed a reputation for pushing the boundaries of decency with its Gaiety Girls showing more than the modest amount of leg that a respectable girl might be expected to do in society. By doing so, of course, some of them actually succeeded in snaring for themselves as husbands younger, faster living members of the higher echelons of Victorian society.
It therefore seems a shame that Trollope should have so allowed himself to be carried away by his anger as to write open letters to the press for publication disowning the play and to fall out with Reade so that, for many years afterwards, when the pair found themselves playing whist at the same table in the London clubs, such as the Athenaeum and the Garrick, of which both were members, that the atmosphere was said to be invariably silent and frigid.
It took the two men years to heal the breach and, sadly, Trollope never did write a successful play. Perhaps his talent was more for the minute observation of characters in everyday situations and not for dramatic incident that plays out well on the stage.