The Magician by William Somerset Maugham (1908)

‘It was the face of a fiend of wickedness.’ (Susie describing Oliver Haddo)

This is, surprisingly from Maugham, a horror story.

The set-up

The book begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. Young English surgeon Arthur Burdon knew Margaret Dauncey’s parents. When they died he was named the girl’s executor and guardian, a duty he faithfully performed. When Margaret turned 17 she expressed a wish to go to Paris to study art, which Arthur supported and enabled. It was during her studies in Paris that Margaret discovered her father had died penniless and that Arthur had paid for her entire education and living expenses out of his own pocket.

During the tearful conversation where Margaret asks if this is true and Arthur admits it, they both also admit that they’re deeply in love with each other.

‘Don’t you know that I’d do anything in the world for you?’ she cried.

And the upshot of these tearful confessions is that agree on the spot that they would like to get married. Nonetheless, Arthur insists that she goes off to Paris to study, see life and so on, before they get wed. He is a thoroughly decent chap.

In Paris Margaret stays in the studio of Susie Boyd (at 30, a lot older and more experienced than Margaret), located in Montparnasse, and becomes a regular at the local bar, Le Chien Noir, much frequented by poets, writers and artists.

It is at this point that the story proper begins, with Arthur arriving in Paris to meet Margaret and finalise plans for their wedding (all the preceding is told as exposition).

Commenting on the action is a much older man, Dr Porhoët, who was friends with Arthur’s parents and has known him ever since he was born. Dr Porhoët is a wise and bookish old man. He spent most of life working as a doctor in Egypt and is now retired, thus conveniently available to the characters for tea, conversation and advice as required.

Porhoët candidly tells Arthur he is surprised that he and Margaret are in love because Arthur is such an extremely unimaginative, prosaic, practical man who, by dint of working hard, has made himself into a leading surgeon – whereas Margaret is young and fanciful, not only beautiful but highly imaginative.

The magician

So far, so standard. The novel looks like settling down to become another of Maugham’s stories about the trials and tribulations of another mismatched couple. Except that into this fairly run-of-the-mill setup Maugham throws a bomb, in the shape of the tall, monstrously obese, absurdly flamboyant and utterly sinister, self-proclaimed magician and master of the dark arts, Oliver Haddo.

In the introduction to The Magician which Maugham wrote years later, he freely admits to basing the character of Haddo on the notorious black magician, writer, poet and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, who he met in Paris in the early-1900s, when Maugham was living with the painter Gerald Kelly.

In fact not only Haddo-Crowley but many of the other characters and settings are borrowed directly from life. Margaret’s studio is modelled on Kelly’s. Maugham and Kelly were regulars at a bar in Montparnasse called Le Chat Blanc, where local poets and artists congregated almost every evening. In the book this café becomes Le Chien Noir and many of its real-life habitués are coped into Maugham’s book with only slightly altered names. Maugham was notoriously sloppy about this, writing many of his stories almost directly from life and sometimes not even bothering to change people’s names – a habit which got him into trouble, particularly in the classic short stories from south-east Asia a generation later.

The main characters

I enjoy the old-fashioned way Maugham gives detailed, physical and psychological descriptions of his characters – unlike the modern style for fleeting, brief flashes, or having character revealed by dialogue. In Maugham every character is sat down, given a cup of tea, and thoroughly introduced to the reader.

I like the way they appear stiflingly conventional but often have unexpected aspects. We’re so culturally conditioned by Hollywood and advertising stereotypes to expect protagonists of dramas to beyoung, physically fit and good-looking protagonists that it’s a pleasure to go back before the domination of American advertising to be presented with characters who are far more diverse in age and quality. Who, en masse, bespeak an entirely different set of values. Here’s the hero, Arthur:

He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman’s solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering.

Margaret is the most stereotypical of the characters, being young and beautiful. But I still enjoyed the way the longest description of her occurs while she and Arthur are looking at a statue of a perfect young woman in the Louvre:

In Arthur’s eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of the statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl’s; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess’s hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret’s hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

Whereas here is Maugham’s meticulous description of the older Susie:

She was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned.

And, a passage to make feminists explode with outrage pithily sums up the (cramped patriarchal) expectations of the era:

Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man’s wife and the mother of children.

It is fascinating, chilling, informative, amazing, that at age 30, Susie considers herself an old maid, a spinster, over the hill and on the shelf. It is a vivid insight into social history.

Anyway, Susie plays the well-worn role of friend and confidante to the heroine and secret admirer of the hero. It’s a similar role to that played by Miss Ley in Maugham’s second novel Mrs Craddock, and in just the same way that Miss Ley comments sardonically and insightfully into the story of Bertha and Jim in that marriage, so Susie, at least initially, finds everything in the earnest love affair of Arthur and Margaret funny and mockable.

(In a tiny grace not, a ‘Miss Ley’ is mentioned in the letter written to Arthur from a friend who knew Haddo at Oxford: the letter describes the dark rumours which described the man even as a student, but it is this casual reference to a ‘Miss Ley’ which makes the Maugham fan’s ears prick up and wonder whether, at one stage, he was going to create an overlapping universe of characters appearing across all his novels. Intriguing thought. Instead of a Marvel Comic Universe, a Maugham Character Universe. To some extent he did do this, with the character of ‘William Ashenden’ narrating both the novel Cakes and Ale and figuring as the protagonist of the spy short stories, Ashenden. Similarly, several of the novels are set in north Kent (where Maugham himself grew up), town of Whitstable appearing in several novels renamed ‘Blackstable.’)

Anyway, alongside these good character, there is the villain, Haddo, whose main characteristic is his gross fatness:

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.

And:

He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest.

Big, fat and evil, Haddo is designed to send shivers of horror through the reader and, as the book proceeds, does so very effectively.

Having created and described these characters in great detail, what does Maugham do with them?

The plot

Through a series of carefully orchestrated events, Haddo becomes an increasing and insidious presence in the lives of the young couple. It is on Arthur’s very first night in Paris that Margaret and Susie take him to Le Chien Noir where he is introduced to the gallery of bohemians, and into which Haddo erupts, fat and grandiloquent and ridiculous and spooky.

At first, as Haddo tells a series of preposterous stories about what a wonderful big game hunter and mountain climber he is to the audience of poets and painters at Le Chien Noir, he is met with mockery and scorn.

But it isn’t long before the theme of magic is raised and Haddo prompted to tell at length the lives of the famous magicians and alchemists of old – Paracelsus, Raymon Lull et al. (Contemporary critics of the novel drew attention to these factual passages, pointing out that they felt like they had been cut and pasted out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Maugham candidly admits in his introduction to spending weeks in the British Museum researching the background. I like medieval history and the voodoo feel of the medieval and early Renaissance intellectual world, its domination by powers and thrones and hugely complex theological models, so I enjoyed the atmosphere of flickering candles in darkened cellars, and mystic shapes drawn on the floor and ritual incantations.)

Haddo intersperses stories about the alchemists with tales of his own encounters with strange men and women who possess second sight, the ability to control animals and to conjure spirits. Helping to reinforce all this, Dr Porhoët chips in, mostly sceptical but admitting that, during his time in Egypt, he also witnessed strange and unaccountable events.

‘I have seen many things in the East which are inexplicable by the known processes of science.’

The same night, after eating at the bar, Haddo ends up tagging along with Susie, Arthur and Margaret to a fair ‘held at the Lion de Belfort’ in Montparnasse. There then follow a sequence of spooky events. Haddo lays his hands on the mane of the horse which pulls the cab they go to the fair in, and the horse starts whinnying and shivering in fear. As soon as he removes his hand, the horse stops. At the fair they visit a scruffy booth presided over by an oriental woman who has a weird control over the snakes she tends.

The role of Dr Porhoët

Throughout these scenes the core trio of Arthur, Margaret and Susie are generally accompanied by Dr Porhoët. It becomes clear that his function in the book is to provide a plausible support for Haddo’s supernatural stories. If Haddo had been the only one talking about the Zohar and the Clavicula Salomonis and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum of Wierus and the Grimoire of Honorius and the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l’Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre and Delrio’s Disquisitiones Magicae he would have been isolated and much less believable. But Maugham has given Dr Porhoët a career in Egypt so that he can have him witness umpteen weird oriental scenes, have Porhoët backing up and reinforcing many of Haddo’s claims.

A few days later, when the trio visit Dr Porhoët’s apartment, they discover it to be lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound ancient volumes by all the great masters of the dark arts. While Porhoët isn’t himself a magician and is drily ironic about most of the ‘learning’ contained in his books, he does have one or two stories of weird and inexplicable events he saw occur during his time in Egypt…

So Dr Porhoët is like a straight man to Haddo’s dark magician, not quite believing in magic but helping to establish the fact that there is a vast body of writings on the subject, and that, maybe, you know, there’s something to it… Thus he and Haddo are shown having learned conversations about the old magicians, alchemists and their texts. This dramatic to and fro, spiced with Porhoët’s scepticism, is much more persuasive than if Maugham had had Haddo just give long monologues covering the same material.

Dr Porhoët is Haddo’s enabler. He is the door which lets Haddo in. Dr Porhoët’s testimony makes Haddo’s belief in ancient magic much more believable. If a man of science who is basically a sceptic believes some of these stories, then maybe…

The crisis of the plot

Out of politeness, after the fair outing, Margaret invites Haddo a few days later to come to tea.

Part one of this tea party is another long disquisition between Haddo and Dr Porhoët, touching on the lives and works of Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. It builds up to the long and vivid story of how Paracelsus created and nurtured ten little homunculi or spirits in jars. Silly though it sounds, the telling, amid plenty of detail, and horror-stricken intensity, creates a real atmosphere.

The story ended, Dr Porhoët rises to leave the little party and disaster strikes. Margaret’s little pet dog, which had started whining and gone to hide in a corner when Haddo first arrived, now inexplicably springs at him and bites Haddo in the hand. Without thinking, Haddo brutally kicks the dog right across the room at which Margaret screams and Arthur – who has met all of Haddo’s stories with mockery and disbelief – punches him full in the face then, while he is on the ground, kicks him again and again.

For the usually sedate and restrained Maugham, this is a shocking scene. While they all turn their attention to the dog, Haddo staggers to his feet, where he makes a dignified apology for his behaviour, bows and leaves the apartment. But not before Susie has seen a look of implacable demonic hatred on his face!

Haddo’s campaign of seduction

Next day Margaret encounters Haddo in the street. The fat man promptly stumbles and collapses. Passersby say he is having a heart attack. Margaret is forced to take him into her apartment, despite her misgivings, to rest, give him a glass of water etc. She is full of dislike but her good manners prevail.

This is a bad mistake because Haddo proceeds to seduce Margaret, but not in a sexual sense, something far worse. He entrances her somehow. He is meek and apologetic, he begs forgiveness, she finds herself touched by the tears in his eyes, she finds herself noticing the beauty of his lips and face. He recites Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa and then goes on to spin flowery prose poetry about other paintings, paintings characterised by dark atmosphere and unknown sins… the whole thing sounding very much like the purple prose used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray – paintings, art, strange moods, rare emotions, unknown pleasures and so on…

When he commands her to listen to him playing the piano she follows and sits meekly, aware that she can do no other. He has somehow hypnotised her into admiration and submission. He doesn’t take advantage of her body. Much more insidiously, she finds him entering her heart and affections.

Haddo performs magic. He scatters a pinch of blue powder onto a bowl of water and, behold! the water burns up and disappears. Haddo elaborates a fantasy in which he scatters enough blue powder over the world to burn up the oceans!

He then scatters dried leaves over the fire to produce a pungent smoke which he tells Margaret to inhale deeply. He takes her hand and suddenly they are transported to a barren cross-roads in a bleak landscape of burnt heather where Margaret sees a sort of witches’ sabbath.

Margaret’s gaze was riveted upon a great, ruined tree that stood in that waste place, alone, in ghastly desolation; and though a dead thing, it seemed to suffer a more than human pain. The lightning had torn it asunder, but the wind of centuries had sought in vain to drag up its roots. The tortured branches, bare of any twig, were like a Titan’s arms, convulsed with intolerable anguish. And in a moment she grew sick with fear, for a change came into the tree, and the tremulousness of life was in it; the rough bark was changed into brutish flesh and the twisted branches into human arms. It became a monstrous, goat-legged thing, more vast than the creatures of nightmare. She saw the horns and the long beard, the great hairy legs with their hoofs, and the man’s rapacious hands. The face was horrible with lust and cruelty, and yet it was divine. It was Pan, playing on his pipes, and the lecherous eyes caressed her with a hideous tenderness. But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michelangelo who wakes into life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows. Impelled by a great curiosity, she sought to come nearer, but the vast figure seemed strangely to dissolve into a cloud; and immediately she felt herself again surrounded by a hurrying throng. Then came all legendary monsters and foul beasts of a madman’s fancy; in the darkness she saw enormous toads, with paws pressed to their flanks, and huge limping scarabs, shelled creatures the like of which she had never seen, and noisome brutes with horny scales and round crabs’ eyes, uncouth primeval things, and winged serpents, and creeping animals begotten of the slime. She heard shrill cries and peals of laughter and the terrifying rattle of men at the point of death. Haggard women, dishevelled and lewd, carried wine; and when they spilt it there were stains like the stains of blood. And it seemed to Margaret that a fire burned in her veins, and her soul fled from her body; but a new soul came in its place, and suddenly she knew all that was obscene. She took part in some festival of hideous lust, and the wickedness of the world was patent to her eyes. She saw things so vile that she screamed in terror, and she heard Oliver laugh in derision by her side. It was a scene of indescribable horror, and she put her hands to her eyes so that she might not see.

It is preposterous like all horror stories but, if you give yourself permission, if you read sympathetically and let your imagination go, many passages of the book are genuinely visionary and creepy.

All this has taken place on this one visit to her flat prompted when she saw him stumble and collapse in the street. Now Haddo finally leaves, and Margaret comes back to herself. But over the following days she finds herself thinking of him more and more. Haddo had scribbled down his address before he departed and now Margaret finds herself drawn to go and see him, despite her better judgement.

Susie returns from the studio. Arthur arrives and takes Margaret in his arms – but she is changed utterly, and walks and talks as in a daze.

The wrong marriage

Long story short – Margaret makes excuses to Susie and lies to Arthur and starts to visit Haddo every afternoon. He shows her more of the Dark Side, explaining more foul mysteries and mysterious sins.

If this was a modern movie I might have expected them to have sex, the camera lingering on the sight of the enormous repulsive slug-like magician ravishing the slender beautiful Margaret in a variety of pornographic postures.

However, two things appear to have restrained Maugham from going down this route. One was the censorship of his day, which was smothering. A whole raft of publishers refused to publish Mrs Craddock simply because it merely depicts feelings of arousal and lust. Any hint of actual physical sex would have gotten it banned. (It was a real eye-opener to me to learn just how much Maugham, generally portrayed as a reactionary and second-rate writer, in fact played a progressive role in pushing at the limits of censorship. Nonetheless, there was a definite line he could not cross.)

But reason two is that it will become important to the plot that Margaret remain a virgin.

Thus, all the time that ‘sensible’ Margaret is making plans for her wedding to Arthur, naming the day, choosing the dress, the cake and so on – ‘possessed’ Margaret is secretly seeing Haddo and, to the reader’s horror and amazement, agreeing to marry him! She is overcome with horror and revulsion but unable to stop herself.

On the day that she and Arthur were due to catch the boat train from Paris back to London to get married, Margaret sends a note to Susie to say that she has married Haddo and left town.

Flabbergasted, Susie spends a day visiting Margaret’s dressmaker, Haddo’s apartment and the British Embassy, establishing the truth of the story – before she tells Arthur, who is, as you might expect, absolutely devastated.

Thus Haddo wreaks the revenge on Arthur that Susie had read on his face, on that fateful day when Haddo had kicked the dog, and Arthur knocked him to the ground. Revenge!

Haddo and Margaret’s peregrinations

Arthur returns to London where he throws himself into his work, taking two jobs, delivering lectures and editing a big book of surgery in order to try and blot out his intense emotional pain.

Susie takes up an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Italy for the winter. In the spring she passes on to the Riviera. In both places she discovers Haddo and Margaret have been staying, behaving scandalously. Haddo gambles intensely, getting Margaret to lay the bets at the tables. They have high society parties but these tend to be ruined by Haddo’s caddish behaviour – he cheats at cards, he tries to pass forged money – and he is blackballed and cold shouldered by Society.

In Monte Carlo, Susie witnesses Margaret gambling and then shudders with horror as she sees the once-innocent and pure Margaret smile acquaintance with a notorious courtesan. Into what depths of sin has Haddo dragged her!!

Susie returns to London, and meets with Arthur a few times. What Arthur doesn’t realise is that Susie is passionately in love with him. It gives an added intensity to the story that Susie loves Arthur with a pure disinterested love which she knows can never be returned because of Arthur’s total commitment to Margaret.

They go to the opera (music, Susie realises, is a drug Arthur uses to help transport him away from his pain at Margaret’s desertion) and bump into an acquaintance of Arthur’s who invites them to make up a dinner at the Savoy.

Here they are horrified to discover that two of the other dinner guests are Haddo and Margaret. Margaret behaves coldly and disdainfully to Arthur, while Haddo politely but cruelly mocks Arthur at every opportunity in the conversation. And Susie has to sit watching her beloved suffer, wincing at every one of Haddo’s cruel jibes.

They abduct Margaret

Convinced that Margaret is not happy but somehow hypnotised by the obese bully, Arthur goes to the Savoy the next day and, after a long pleading conversation in which Margaret reveals that she is unhappy, abducts her – marching her out of the room, into a hansom cab, directing it to Euston and fleeing to the country.

There then follows a chapter where Arthur tries, with Susie’s help, to detoxify Margaret. Maugham explains the type of late Victorian divorce which they will arrange for her. But when Arthur returns to London to resume his work and organise the divorce, Margaret becomes more and more restless, and one day Susie goes into her room to find she’s left. She has returned to Haddo.

Arthur goes to Haddo’s country house

Susie, by now convinced that Haddo’s hold over Margaret really is irrational and magical, travels back to Paris to see Dr Porhoët. This is an opportunity for Maugham to give us more learned tales of how ancient magicians exerted power and control over their victims (designed to reinforce the plausibility of the situation).

A few weeks later, Arthur turns up in Paris and tells Susie a long story about how he has visited Haddo’s country seat. (Apart from everything else, Haddo is posh; he went to Eton and Oxford and is heir to a big estate in Staffordshire, named Skene.)

Arthur stayed at the local inn and then walked through the bleak and blasted countryside to Skene, to discover that it is a spooky old Gothic house. It is protected by a fence surrounding the grounds. Arthur finds a loose plank, wriggles it loose and and – in an effectively chilling sequence – stumbles through a dark wood to a clearing with a bench.

After a while (in a spectacularly convenient coincidence) Margaret comes and sits at this very bench. When Arthur walks out in front of her, she initially thinks Arthur is a phantom and explains to Arthur that she knows Haddo is carrying out all kinds of black magic in the house.

She quite calmly tells Arthur that she thinks Haddo is going to kill her, using her in some black magic ritual. Terrified, Arthur pleads for her to come with him but she wriggles free and says No, Haddo will punish her if he knew she was speaking to Arthur, she must go she must go now — and runs off into the pitch blackness of the woods.

Arthur searches through the grounds for her but fail, gives up, then retraces his footsteps to the hole in the fence, walks back to the local inn, gets a cab ride the next day to the station, catches the train to London, catches to boat train to Paris and is now standing in front of Susie and Porhoët telling them this narrative.

As it happens, Susie and Dr Porhoët had just been having another one of those conversations about black magic and speculating on Haddo’s motives. Now Susie remembers one of the many black rumours about Haddo that she had heard in Monte Carlo.

‘They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.’ She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. ‘Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.’
Arthur gave a horrified cry. (Chapter 13)

Susie persuades the by-now distraught Arthur to accompany her for a few days to Chartres to calm his nerves. But one day he rushes into her room convinced that something has happened to Margaret. How? Why? He can’t explain it. Even staid, boring, unimaginative Arthur is now caught up in the atmosphere of magic and irrationality.

Back to England, back to Skene

They rush back to Paris, co-opt Dr Porhoët (what a hectic retirement he’s turning out to have!), catch the next boat train to London (‘Susie never forgot the horror of that journey to England’), catch a cab to Euston, catch the train to Staffordshire, catch a cab to the local inn at the village of Venning, and hear from the innkeeper’s nosy wife that, Yes, Mr Haddo’s beautiful wife passed away earlier that week. The funeral had taken place the previous day.

Arthur is even more distraught. He takes the others to confront the local doctor, slow-minded provincial Dr Richardson, who blandly claims that Margaret died of heart disease. Infuriated at the man’s obtuseness, Arthur lets fly a stream of insults and abuse before storming out. He tells Susie he has a plan. (For a moment I thought he might have been planning to dig up Margaret’s coffin – which would have made for a grim and compelling scene. But no…)

Instead, he plans to break into Haddo’s house. Arthur drags Susie and Dr Porhoët along with him to the gates of Skene House, pushes past the outraged gatekeeper, bangs on the front door, and loudly demands admission from the stroppy doorkeeper. While they’re bickering on the doorstep, Haddo himself appears, more physically repulsive than ever.

Dr Porhoët, who had not seen him for some time, was astounded at the change which had taken place in him. The corpulence which had been his before was become now a positive disease. He was enormous. His chin was a mass of heavy folds distended with fat, and his cheeks were puffed up so that his eyes were preternaturally small. He peered at you from between the swollen lids. All his features had sunk into that hideous obesity. His ears were horribly bloated, and the lobes were large and swelled. He had apparently a difficulty in breathing, for his large mouth, with its scarlet, shining lips, was constantly open. He had grown much balder and now there was only a crescent of long hair stretching across the back of his head from ear to ear. There was something terrible about that great shining scalp. His paunch was huge; he was a very tall man and held himself erect, so that it protruded like a vast barrel. His hands were infinitely repulsive; they were red and soft and moist. He was sweating freely, and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and on his shaven lip. (Chapter 14)

Haddo simply brushes off their concerns and accusations. Margaret died of a heart attack, the local doctor says so. If Arthur attacks him, Haddo, now, in the doorway of his house in front of witnesses, he will be compelled to report it to the village constable.

Incensed with frustration Arthur turns on his heel and marches back down the drive with the other two lamely following in his wake.

And now there comes a genuinely unexpected plot development: Arthur – cool, phlegmatic, Anglo-Saxon, rational scientist Arthur – asks Dr Porhoët to raise Margaret’s ghost from the dead!

Without his books, and relying on memory, given just a day to buy the basic ingredients from the local store, Porhoët, against all expectations, but in accordance with the book’s by-now dream logic, manages to do this.

Out on the blasted heath which surrounds Skene House, miles from any other people, at night, Porhoët arranges bowls, burns incense and commences reciting magic spells.

Inexplicably, a sudden terror seized Susie. She felt that the hairs of her head stood up, and a cold sweat broke out on her body. Her limbs had grown on an instant inconceivably heavy so that she could not move. A panic such as she had never known came upon her, and, except that her legs would not carry her, she would have fled blindly. She began to tremble. She tried to speak, but her tongue clave to her throat.

Margaret doesn’t appear like the ghost of Hamlet’s father – in the same shape as in life, and clearly commanding revenge. Instead, much more piteously, they at first only hear her, hear the sound of a woman weeping uncontrollably.

And then, seeming to come out of nothingness, extraordinarily, they heard with a curious distinctness the sound of a woman weeping. Susie’s heart stood still. They heard the sound of a woman weeping, and they recognized the voice of Margaret. A groan of anguish burst from Arthur’s lips, and he was on the point of starting forward. But quickly Dr Porhoët put out his hand to prevent him. The sound was heartrending, the sobbing of a woman who had lost all hope, the sobbing of a woman terrified. If Susie had been able to stir, she would have put her hands to her ears to shut out the ghastly agony of it.

And in a moment, notwithstanding the heavy darkness of the starless night, Arthur saw her. She was seated on the stone bench as when last he had spoken with her. In her anguish she sought not to hide her face. She looked at the ground, and the tears fell down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved with the pain of her weeping.

Then Arthur knew that all his suspicions were justified.

Fiery climax

The die is cast. In the long final chapter two things happen: the fight and the storming of the old house.

Several days go by while Arthur goes for long walks in the countryside and Susie and Dr Porhoët worry about him. One afternoon the sultry air is growing heavy with a storm when Arthur returns to the inn. It is getting dark as Susie and Dr Porhoët beg Arthur to tell them what his plan is. He tells them. He is going to kill Haddo.

As he utters these words, the wind in the darkness outside rises to a howl and then the lamp in the room they’re in is suddenly extinguished. In the darkness they all realise that someone else is in the room with them. Reading this at night I found it genuinely scary. A huge black shape fills a corner and without a word Arthur flings himself on it, identifying arms and head and neck, rolling over, struggling, fighting for a grip.

Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them.

Arthur fights to the death in the pitch blackness, breaking the thing’s arm and then strangling it to death. He staggers to his feet. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says hoarsely. Except that, when Susie lights a candle with the rasp of a match… the room is empty. There is nothing there!

When so much of the dialogue and behaviour is polite, restrained and civilised – these scenes of sudden bestial violence are all the more striking.

Arthur insists that they must go, go now, go immediately to Skene. And so he force marches Susie and Dr Porhoët  the three or so miles from the inn to the fence of the old Gothic pile. He breaks in through the broken fence. He bangs on the door but there is no answer. They know from the gossipy landlady of the inn that the servants are sent away at night so, confident that the house is empty save for Haddo, Arthur breaks into a ground floor window then comes to the front door to unlock it and let the other two in.

Room by room they then search the house, finding half of it abandoned and cold. They search two floors then are stymied about how to get up to the upper floor, the only rooms which they saw lit up from the outside. Arthur finds a secret passage concealed behind the wood panelling.

Up they go and discover – chambers of horrors! Three long rooms which are a) dazzlingly lit b) immensely hot, warmed by open furnaces. There is a lengthy description of all the alchemical equipment Haddo had gathered and was using, but the climax of the entire novel comes with the revelation of a series of glass bowls in which Haddo had been experimenting… to create humans, to create human life. This goes far beyond the tales of the homunculi created by Paracelsus and into a world of creating and moulding human beings which is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s horrifying fantasy of a decade earlier, The Island of Dr Moreau.

All of Maugham’s habitual taste and decorum is thrown to the winds as he describes, at nauseating length, a series of half-human abortions and monstrous lumps which are kept in the glass basins, palpitating, or writhing or scuttling on deformed limbs.

As a modern reader, who has read about (and seen in umpteen movies) inventive descriptions of disgusting things – I still found the descriptions sickening. God knows what contemporary Edwardian readers must have made of them.

In another [bowl] the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

And then, over in a corner, they see the vast body of Haddo, lying dead, strangled with protruding eyes and tongue. His arm is broken, as Arthur broke the fat body he fought with in the blackout at the hotel. Somehow, by some magic which we are now totally prepared to believe, Haddo transported his body, or a version of himself, to the hotel room, and Arthur, killing the phantasm there, also killed the host body back here.

‘Out, out,’ cries Arthur, ‘We must leave now,’ and hustles them out of the rooms and down the stairs. Aren’t you coming? cries Susie. ‘In a moment,’ he replies. Moments later he rejoins them at the front door. They run down the drive, then detour into the dark wood, find the hole in the fence and walk the long way back towards the inn.

Dawn comes as they approach the inn. Susie feels an enormous sense of life and colour returning to the landscape. And then she realises there is red in the west too. Arthur had set Skene alight. Now it is blazing out of control. The old Gothic ruin, along with the body of its black magician master and the horror of the creatures he made, will all be wiped from the face of the earth.

Arthur puts his arm around Susie to support her and she suddenly feels safe and protected. The warm sun rises over the rejuvenated landscape. All will be well.


The pleasures of the text

Entertainment

Although it’s a preposterous story told in often lurid and over-wrought prose, it is still, like most of Maugham, immensely entertaining and readable.

Escapism

There’s the obvious escape any story offers, namely of escaping your present-day concerns into a world where you are able to understand all the characters and what is going on – where the stories have neat beginnings, middles and ends – all so very unlike the experience of messy, complicated and often inexplicable life that most of us experience.

There’s also the pleasure of escape into another era, the Downton Abbey syndrome. There are different clothes (for women an amazing array of rich costumes, gowns, cloaks, dresses, and hats – lots of hats – and fine jewellery). There is the way the streets of London, Paris or the towns they visit are not clogged and poisoned by cars, lorries, buses, taxis and other sources of poisonous toxic fumes.

And, something I noticed in Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock as well as here – all the characters take it for granted that they can just swan off abroad whenever they feel like it. We are told that Arthur is a busy surgeon at a leading hospital but he can not only pop over to Paris for weeks at a time, but go gallivanting off to Chartres, or spend the latter part of the novel running off to Staffordshire, at will. I wish I had that kind of job.

Even more I wish I led the life of Susie. On the one hand the modern feminist reader might be horrified at the way she – and presumably the society around her – consider her an old maid on the shelf at age 30, and might object to the rather harsh way in which Maugham repeatedly emphasises the plainness of her looks, verging on ugliness.

But on the upside – she doesn’t have to work! As far as I can tell she has no job because she enjoys a modest allowance. This means she spends all day strolling round Paris, visiting galleries, having little tea parties and, when Margaret goes off with Haddo, she simply accepts an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Rome for the winter, where she visits the opera, goes out for dinner, strolls round the galleries. When she gets bored of that, she moves on to the Riviera for spring. Some oppression!

Manners

Everyone is so polite. It is lovely to dip for a while into the decorum and manners of a long lost era. Sure, it acted as a terrible restraint on people’s feelings – for example, it is made very clear that Arthur suffers immensely because he feels he cannot speak openly to anyone about his anguish over Margaret – but the general level of exquisite politeness at almost every level of society is wonderfully remote from the everyday rudeness and curtness of our own times.

And you have to enter into this world of exquisite manners in order to understand, and enjoy, when they are being deliberately manipulated by the characters. For example, it is one of Haddo’s entertaining (shocking) traits that he combines wicked heartlessness with the most polished manners, twisting the emotional knife into Arthur with the politest words and most refined diction.

Take the scene where our trio barge their way up to the front door of Skene House to find the truth about Margaret’s death. When Haddo appears he behaves with provocative good manners, the soul of politesse.

‘I have come about Margaret’s death,’ said Arthur.
Haddo, as was his habit, did not immediately answer. He looked slowly from Arthur to Dr Porhoët, and from Dr Porhoët to Susie. His eyes rested on her hat, and she felt uncomfortably that he was inventing some gibe about it.
‘I should have thought this hardly the moment to intrude upon my sorrow,’ he said at last. ‘If you have condolences to offer, I venture to suggest that you might conveniently send them by means of the penny post.’

In the midst of all the horror, Maugham makes Haddo the source of wonderfully cynical jibes, clothed in his immensely lofty Eton-Oxford-aristocratic refinement. Here is Arthur shouting at Haddo, and Haddo fending him off with unimpeachable civility.

‘I saw Margaret three weeks ago, and she told me that she went in terror of her life.’
‘Poor Margaret! She had always the romantic temperament. I think it was that which first brought us together.’
‘You damned scoundrel!’ cried Arthur.
‘My dear fellow, pray moderate your language. This is surely not an occasion when you should give way to your lamentable taste for abuse. You outrage all Miss Boyd’s susceptibilities.’ He turned to her with an airy wave of his fat hand. ‘You must forgive me if I do not offer you the hospitality of Skene, but the loss I have so lately sustained does not permit me to indulge in the levity of entertaining.’

Well, if you’re going to be a black magician confronted by the fiancé of the woman you stole from him and subsequently murdered as part of your fiendish experiments – this is the style to do it in.

The movie

The Magician was made into a fabulously melodramatic black-and-white silent film in 1926, directed by Rex Ingram.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1908 The Magician
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)

‘These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.’ (Dr Moreau, chapter 14)

The main text is a ‘lost narrative’, in this case a written account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, which is found among his papers after his death by his nephew, Charles Edward Prendick, and is now being given to the public ‘for the first time’.

This is a time-honoured old literary convention but it always makes me perk up, as it promises a certain kind of text, an old-fashioned adventure narrative, much as Conan Doyle’s story The Horror of the Heights transcribes the ‘blood-stained notebook’ belonging to a Mr. Joyce-Armstrong, or the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is told through letters and diaries, the kind of textual fragments which also throng the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Shipwrecked

The story is simple enough in outline. Prendick describes how the schooner he’s a passenger on in the South Seas (The Lady Vain) hits a wreck and sinks. He scrambles into a dinghy with two others. After days without food or water, the two sailors he’s with attack each other and fall overboard. It is in this state, alone, half delirious and drifting in an open boat, that he is picked up by another schooner, the Ipecacuanha, and nursed back to health by a passenger on this boat, Montgomery, a former medical student.

The captain of the second boat is a disreputable drunk (John Davis) who argues incessantly with Montgomery and his strange, malformed manservant, not least about Montgomery’s cargo of wild animals – a pack of savage hounds, a caged puma and loads of rabbits.

When they reach their destination, a remote island, the drunken captain unloads Montgomery’s animals into a waiting launch steered by an aloof man who is obviously Montgomery’s boss – but then drunkenly insists that Prendick leave the ship, too. Montgomery refuses to take him, and so the drunk captain gets his men to manhandle Prendick into the boat’s dinghy which he sets adrift. Seeing all this, Montgomery and his boss reluctantly turn around their launch and come back for him.

The captain of the launch now introduces himself as Doctor Moreau. He is a big strong, grey-haired man who makes it quite plain to Prendick that he is an unintended and unwelcome guest, but that they couldn’t leave him to drift and die. Now he accompanies them in the boat which docks at a primitive quayside, where the animals are unloaded by yet more men who are strange and almost animal-like in appearance.

The island

And thus Prendick arrives on the island of Dr Moreau, and slowly realises that the good doctor is practicing vivisection – ‘performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research’ – before going on to make the horrific discovery – that he is operating on men, too.

I picked myself up and stood trembling, my mind a chaos of the most horrible misgivings. Could it be possible, I thought, that such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here? The question shot like lightning across a tumultuous sky; and suddenly the clouded horror of my mind condensed into a vivid realisation of my own danger. (Chapter 10)

Thus there is a secret at the heart of the island, which involves physical danger, and is potentially horrific – and Wells’s task as storyteller is to share Prendick’s slow unravelling of the secret, and to punctuate the narrative with scenes of jeopardy and horror.

Terror

For example, the day after he’s taken in and given a spare room in the ‘compound’, Prendick finds himself deeply disturbed by the sound of the screams of the puma. Moreau is clearly operating on it, with no anaesthetic, all day long. So Prendick goes for a wander around the island which, of course, is a bad idea, because, once he is in the forest, he becomes alert to strange sounds and snufflings, and realises that any number of horrible, misshapen half-men, are loping around it. In one shocking scene he glimpses one of these half-men go down on all fours to slurp water from a stream – just like an animal!

I read this scene late at night and, as I followed Prendick’s realisation that he is lost at night in a tropical jungle filled with half-human beasts – the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. I read on in genuine fear as Prendick blunders through the darkness, realising he is being followed by something he can’t see, but whose inhuman gruntings and snufflings he can hear getting closer and closer.

A twig snapped behind me, and there was a rustle. I turned, and stood facing the dark trees. I could see nothing – or else I could see too much. Every dark form in the dimness had its ominous quality, its peculiar suggestion of alert watchfulness. So I stood for perhaps a minute, and then, with an eye to the trees still, turned westward to cross the headland; and as I moved, one among the lurking shadows moved to follow me.

My heart beat quickly. Presently the broad sweep of a bay to the westward became visible, and I halted again. The noiseless shadow halted a dozen yards from me. A little point of light shone on the further bend of the curve, and the grey sweep of the sandy beach lay faint under the starlight. Perhaps two miles away was that little point of light. To get to the beach I should have to go through the trees where the shadows lurked, and down a bushy slope.

I could see the Thing rather more distinctly now. It was no animal, for it stood erect. At that I opened my mouth to speak, and found a hoarse phlegm choked my voice. I tried again, and shouted, ‘Who is there?’ There was no answer. I advanced a step. The Thing did not move, only gathered itself together…

It was some time before I could summon resolution to go down through the trees and bushes upon the flank of the headland to the beach. At last I did it at a run; and as I emerged from the thicket upon the sand, I heard some other body come crashing after me. At that I completely lost my head with fear, and began running along the sand. Forthwith there came the swift patter of soft feet in pursuit. I gave a wild cry, and redoubled my pace. Some dim, black things about three or four times the size of rabbits went running or hopping up from the beach towards the bushes as I passed.

So long as I live, I shall remember the terror of that chase. I ran near the water’s edge, and heard every now and then the splash of the feet that gained upon me. Far away, hopelessly far, was the yellow light. All the night about us was black and still. Splash, splash, came the pursuing feet, nearer and nearer. I felt my breath going, for I was quite out of training; it whooped as I drew it, and I felt a pain like a knife at my side… (Chapter 9)

Exciting, eh? Note the (generally) short sentences. Aspects of Wells’s prose occasionally betray his Victorian background (‘forthwith’ and other such ornate phraseology) but for the most part you can see how the need to convey heightened sensations and terror force the prose into shorter, pithy sentences, like outbursts of panting.

Chapter titles

Even the titles of each chapter are designed – with their insistent use of ‘the’ to start each one – to convey a sense of primitive and elemental experience.

The Man Who Was Going Nowhere
The Strange Face
The Evil-Looking Boatmen
The Locked Door
The Crying Of The Puma
The Thing In The Forest
The Crying Of The Man
The Hunting Of The Man
The Sayers Of The Law

The wrecking outsider

There must be a generic name for the kind of story in which a stranger, an outsider, blunders into a fairly stable situation or society, misunderstands and disrupts it, and sets off a train of events which lead to its destruction. Happens in loads of science fiction and adventure stories.

This is a classic example. In chapter 10 of this 22-chapter text, Prendick, overcome with panic that Moreau and Montgomery might be about to experiment on him, breaks free of the compound, running away from Montgomery, and finds himself being befriended by the strange – the really strange – motley of vivisected half-humans and hybrids which Moreau has let run loose on the island.

Prendick discovers that there are far more of these mutants, these ‘beast men’, than he’d imagined, maybe hundreds (Moreau later tells him there are some 67, plus a fleet of 60 or so smaller half-animals). And is inducted into their strange religion, led by a deranged Beast-Man prophet, and reinforced by rhythmic chanting and swaying:

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Moreau and Montgomery track him down to the village of the beast-men, in order to rescue him but Prendick, in his ignorance and panic – still convinced that they mean to operate on him – yells out to the Beast Men that Moreau and Montgomery are just men like them, that they can be easily overcome and defeated, that they are not gods.

In other words – he plants the seeds of The Revolt of the Beast-Men.

Moreau’s justification

Moreau and Montgomery finally persuade Prendick they mean him no harm by handing over their revolvers to him and saying he can keep them. Reluctantly, he agrees to go back to the compound with them. It is here that Moreau makes his Big Statement, justifying  his work to Predick, mixing together contemporary knowledge about vivisection and evolution, into a horrifically amoral quest to mould and create new species.

‘I wanted – it was the one thing I wanted – to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape.’

He explains that none of the things Prendick saw in the village of the Beast-Men was human. All of them were animals who Moreau had extensively experimented on to give new craniums, larger brains and, above all, larynxes with which to utter sounds. His amorality, his unflinching heartless willingness to inflict unspeakable pain are meant to horrify us.

And Wells sense the mythic necessity for the story of describing Moreau’s anger and frustration at continually failing to create a man from a beast. No matter how subtle his knife and his anatomical knowledge, something is always lacking. The creatures always relapse, the bestial part reawakens.

Neither Moreau nor Wells names it, but Wells is gesturing towards the idea of a soul, as somehow separating man from the beasts, and therefore incapable of any surgical intervention.

This notion that the beast in the vivisected animals rises especially at nightfall, when they dare to do things they would never do during the day, reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a full-length novel devoted to describing creatures which can only live at night, which was published the year after Moreau, in 1897.

(Interestingly, Wells had already published the factual core of Moreau’s speech as a scientific article about the limits and possibilities of vivisection in the Saturday Review in January, 1895. An example of the close linkage between current scientific debate, and Wells’s scientific ‘fantasies’.)

Blood is spilt

The catastrophe is slow but remorseless in building up. A rabbit-like creature is discovered which has been killed and eaten. Now, eating meat and tasting blood are against ‘the Law’ which Moreau has been at such pains to instil into his monstrous creations.

He, Montgomery and Prendick go armed with revolvers, whip and a big hunting horn to the Valley of the Beast Men, where Moreau blows the horn and assembles the mutants. The Beast-Men listen while Moreau repeats the law about not tasting flesh, and then repeat it like surly retards. But as Moreau pushes his questioning about who has broken the Law and tasted blood, the Leopard-Man betrays his guilt by suddenly bounding at Moreau, pushing him over and fleeing.

This gives rise to a mass hunt, with the howling yowling beast-people chasing alongside the three men, until they corner the Leopard-Man in a thicket. Here Prendick is overcome by the horrible futility and pointlessness of all of it. If Moreau had some noble purpose in mind, was curing some disease, the pain he inflicts might be acceptable. Instead he creates one botched hybrid after another, releasing them onto the island to live lives of pain and fear, plagued by human thoughts, but without human traditions or feelings to contain them.

Prendick shoots the Leopard-Man to put it out of its misery, but this is just the latest in a long line of his mistakes, which are giving the Beast-Men ideas that the men are no the strong gods they have been whipped into believing.

Many had noticed that when Prendick had sought refuge in their camp, he was bleeding, he was hungry, he was weak. Then, when Moreau and Montgomery had him at bay in the sea, he deliberately shouted to the Beast Men that the white men were just men after all, vulnerable and exposed.

All these seeds which the outsider Prendick has sown now finally bear fruit in a Revolt of the Beast-Men.

The crisis

The actual spark is struck when the puma which Moreau has been operating on for six weeks suddenly breaks free. By now it is half-monster enough to be able to tear its fetters out of the wall, fling Prendick aside (breaking his left arm) and rush for the jungle.

Moreau pursues with a revolver. Montgomery and Prendick follow with Montgomery’s loyal servant, M’ling tagging along. They hear shots and crash through the jungle to find the puma shot dead – and Moreau’s dead body next to it!

Devastated, Montgomery lets slip the words, ‘He’s dead’, but the Beast-Men – who have quickly gathered round – ominously begin to repeat this. Prendick, seeing the danger, steps forward and says in his loudest voice that Moreau is not dead, he has merely cast off this body and gone to heaven to watch over them.

Still, the Beast Men fall to muttering among themselves. Only mindless repetition of the Law, combined with terror of ‘the House of Pain’ (Moreau’s laboratory) have kept them in line. With Moreau dead – what next?

Montgomery, Prendick, M’ling and some of the Beasts carry Moreau’s body back to the compound. The beasts leave. The white men burn Moreau’s corpse, and then lock themselves in.

The next thing is that Montgomery gets drunk and tells Prendick the story of his life. Because of some obscure scandal at medical school he was forced to pack in his career and leave London. He drifted around the South Seas. He was taken in by Moreau and has been living on the island for ten years. His only friend is the mutant M’ling.

Montgomery now gets really drunk, pushes Prendick out of the way and staggers across the beach to find M’ling to persuade him to join him in a drink. Prendick watches figures of some Beast-Men emerge from the forest around the stumbling man, apparently joining in with him, and they all go off together, Montgomery singing.

Prendick realises he has to escape the island. He goes back into the compound to search for things he can pack into the launch, planning to set sail the next day. But then he hears shouting. Looking out the windows he sees that someone has built a fire on the beach and the drinking has turned to violence.

Then he hears shots. He runs towards the fire only to discover that a hairy-grey Beast-Man has mortally wounded Montgomery. M’ling has been savaged and killed. Three of the beasts are dead. Montgomery just has time to say ‘Sorry’, before he dies. And, as the sun rises, Prendick looks round the beach and realises that Montgomery and M’ling, in their nihilistic drunkenness, had chopped up the dinghies and set them on fire. The stupid fool must have drunkenly thought that, if he couldn’t go back to ‘civilisation’, then no-one could.

Still dazed by this realisation, Prendick hears bangs and flares. Looking round, he sees the compound alight, flames climbing higher into the dawn sky. All his plans to flee are crushed.

Among the Beast-Men

There follows what is, in a way, the most enthralling part of the story. Prendick decides to take his courage in his hands and marches to the village of the remaining Beast People. With some of their more rebellious members hot dead, the remnant are, initially, cowed by Prendick. But it soon becomes clear that he is hungry, tired and thirsty. By slow degrees, over the course of days and weeks, he loses his rank as Ruling White Man and, step by step, declines until he is little better than one of them.

So in solitude I came round by the ravine of the Beast People, and hiding among the weeds and reeds that separated this crevice from the sea I watched such of them as appeared, trying to judge from their gestures and appearance how the death of Moreau and Montgomery and the destruction of the House of Pain had affected them. I know now the folly of my cowardice. Had I kept my courage up to the level of the dawn, had I not allowed it to ebb away in solitary thought, I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau and ruled over the Beast People. As it was I lost the opportunity, and sank to the position of a mere leader among my fellows. (Chapter 20)

Prendick is forced to spend the next ten months among the beasts and during this period, something awful and awe-inspiring happens. Slowly, one by one, he watches as they degrade and decay, reverting to their bestial origins. One by one they forget how to speak, forget how to walk upright, forget about fire, and revert to all the behaviour banned by Moreau’s ‘Laws’ – such as going on all fours and slurping water from streams.

None of them threaten him, but Prendick nonetheless lives in mounting terror.

He keeps a lookout on the horizon. A couple of times he sees what he thinks are sails and lights fires to attract their attention but nobody comes. He makes a series of half-cocked attempts to build a raft, but he is no engineer or handiman.

Finally, one day Prendick sees a dinghy drifting slowly towards the reef. When he swims out to inspect it he finds two well-rotten corpses in it. He tips them out and moors it, fills the empty kegs with fresh water, collects sacksful of fruit – and then pushes off, drifting with the waves, eating and drinking sparingly – in such an abandoned state of mind that he doesn’t really care whether he’s rescued or not. Just to be away from the Island of Beasts is enough.


Degeneration theory

To quote Wikipedia:

Towards the close of the 19th century, in the fin-de-siècle period, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European creative imagination, partly fuelled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Only a few years before Moreau, in 1892, the German physician and social critic Max Nordau had written a book – Degeneration – arguing the case that Western civilisation was in irreversible. It struck a nerve and become a surprise bestseller.

This cultural trend sprang to mind, particularly as I read the penultimate chapter of The Island of Dr Moreau – the description of Prendick’s ten months among the Beast-Men which is, in effect, an extended fantasia describing the decline and degeneration of Moreau’s half-men back into a state of complete bestiality.

It is horrible to read Prendick’s vivid descriptions of their slow loss of all mental powers and reversion to crude animal behaviour. It is Nordau’s notion of degeneration given fictional flesh.

But the point is really rammed home when Prendick finds himself eventually rescued by a passing ship, and then returned, eventually, back to England, and back to London.

Here he experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for, as he walks the streets, he cannot see the passersby as people, but only as beasts-in-waiting, each on the verge of that horrible degeneration, such as he saw on the island.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel – and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered ‘Big Thinks’, even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone… (Chapter 22)

Politics

Wells was left-wing from the start, joining the Fabian Society in 1903 and going on to write numerous works promoting socialism.

As early as The Time Machine he gave his fable of the future a political slant by speculating that the two races of sylph-like Eloi and underground ape-like Morlocks might be the remote descendants of the increasingly differentiated classes of his day – a terrifying but logical extrapolation of England 1895, when the nation’s cities seemed to be ever-more starkly divided between a luxury-enjoying bourgeoisie and a degraded, half-bestial proletariat.

The same issue winks out at us from Dr Moreau, though not so centrally as in Time Machine. The first time he discovers the Beast Village, a crevice in volcanic rock into which the pitiful results of Moreau’s vivisection experiments have excavated sordid little alcoves, Predick finds himself comparing the skulking creatures who turn from his gaze, to inhabitants of the worst slums of London.

I say I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things which had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me. I suppose everything in existence takes its colour from the average hue of our surroundings. Montgomery and Moreau were too peculiar and individual to keep my general impressions of humanity well defined. I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway.

Yet every now and then the beast would flash out upon me beyond doubt or denial. An ugly-looking man, a hunch-backed human savage to all appearance, squatting in the aperture of one of the dens, would stretch his arms and yawn, showing with startling suddenness scissor-edged incisors and sabre-like canines, keen and brilliant as knives. Or in some narrow pathway, glancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils… (Chapter 15)

Predominantly The Island of Dr Moreau is a horror story. But it also invokes the great political issue of the day. By the 1890s the appalling state of the working classes was on everyone’s lips, in the form of ‘the labour problem’, ‘the employment problem’ or ‘the population problem’, which dominated the newspapers a bit like Brexit does today.

Either side of The Island of Dr Moreau were published countless novels, newspaper articles and factual studies exposing the poverty and squalor at the heart of Britain’s large cities and especially London. The Sherlock Holmes novels revel in it. An entire new genre of lowlife novels, by authors like George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, described it with bitter anger.

Underlying the political issues, though, is the deeper anxiety about individual and cultural degeneration. What if the wealthy, educated élite will, in time, be swamped by the wretched poor? What if we are all just animals lifted beyond out natural sphere and the entire race will, eventually, revert to bestial incomprehension and violence?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is all about the moral degeneration of the privileged central character, a narrative which takes the hero to squalid opium dens in the East End and unmentionable depravities. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a really obvious expression of the theme, with the cultivated Dr Jeckyll reverting to the ape-like brute, Hyde. Charles Marlow, narrator of The Heart of Darkness, points out that London, too, was once one of the dark places of the world. And, by implication, it could become so, again.

The final chapter of the Island of Dr Moreau, describing Prendick alone among the decaying Beast-Men, really taps into this anxiety with a biting sense of horror and premonition.

Futility

When you’re a teenager, it’s a common temptation to feel that everything is pointless, futile and stupid. Much science fiction gives that feeling point and definition. If you adopt the Wellsian, materialist perspective, then human beings are just one among millions of life forms currently inhabiting the planet, themselves descended from countless billions of ancestor species, and our planet is itself one among unknown billions filling an infinitely large universe which is an inconceivable 15 billion years old.

The incorporation of these vast and thrilling perspectives into his stories gives Wells ample opportunity to have his narrators or protagonists reflect, at some point, on the pitiful triviality of their own – and by extension – all human lives.

Thus, at the height of the chase of the Leopard-Man, Prendick – watching Montgomery and Moreau lead their pack of mutants across the rocks towards the poor victim – is suddenly overwhelmed by the horrible arbitrary futility of it all.

The Beast People manifested a quite human curiosity about the dead body, and followed it in a thick knot, sniffing and growling at it as the Bull-men dragged it down the beach. I went to the headland and watched the bull-men, black against the evening sky as they carried the weighted dead body out to sea; and like a wave across my mind came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island. Upon the beach among the rocks beneath me were the Ape-man, the Hyena-swine, and several other of the Beast People, standing about Montgomery and Moreau. They were all still intensely excited, and all overflowing with noisy expressions of their loyalty to the Law; yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me, that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had here before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form. The Leopard-man had happened to go under: that was all the difference. Poor brute!

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau’s cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau’s hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau – and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object, I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even, had his motive been only hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on; and the Things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer, and at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves; the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another; the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In those days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear for Moreau. I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, and alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind Fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

To a certain kind of mind, or to the mind in a certain mood, these ideas are really powerful, and Wells’ nihilism takes its place in a long line which stretches from Gulliver, revolted by humans at the very end of  his travels, through to the oppressive misanthropy of Wells’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad.

The way the tale ends with Prendick incapacitated by revulsion on the streets of London, really rams home the horror of what he has witnessed, and imprints his haunted vision of a universal human degeneration into bestial animality.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

%d bloggers like this: