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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Halves - An American Citizen

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Halves - An American Citizen is an article by A.B.W. published in The Speaker on 24 june 1899.

In the first part he reviewed the Arthur Conan Doyle's play Halves and Mrs. Madeleine Ryley's play "An American Citizen".


Halves - An American Citizen

The Speaker (24 june 1899, p. 713)
The Speaker (24 june 1899, p. 714)

Suppose that two brothers, setting out on their different ways in life, solemnly promise their mother that they will meet that day twenty-five years, "pool" whatever fortunes they may have amassed in the interval, and "go halves." This is the initial idea of a little comedy by Dr. Conan Doyle now running at the Garrick Theatre; and, fantastic notion though it is, if you can only get yourself to admit it as a possible point of departure, you may have some fun, because there is practically no limit to the number of developments of which the idea is capable.

For instance:— Twenty-five years later, to the day, Brother William, his last ha'penny spent, his last crust eaten, staggers into the workhouse. Ah! if he only knew where Brother Robert was, and could exact the fulfilment of the promise! And his mouth waters at the thought of the good square meal he would promptly enjoy at Brother Robert's expense. Instead of this skills, old port, and — who knows? — perhaps a shilling cigar! Absorbed in this Alnaschar vision, William jostles against the neat man on the workhouse bench, who turns savagely and curses him. It is Brother Robert!.... But that would be the pessimist's solution, and will not do, therefore, for Dr. Conan Doyle, who is all for robust optimism.

Another way:— William and Robert meet on the appointed day. Each has acquired a large fortune by avarice and humbug, but each guesses the other to be poor because each thinks of the other as still the raw, honest lad of a quarter of a century ago. We know of the changes that life works in our own character, but nevertheless are apt to assume that people whom we have not seen for a long time have stood still in the interval. Accordingly, as each fancies that a fulfilment of the compact would be to his disadvantage, the pair diplomatise, and adduce reasons for laughing, as men of the world, at a silly promise given by ignorant boys. It was, they finally decide, an immoral contract," and, with complete satisfaction, they both cry off. Thereupon, it appears that each has amassed exactly the same capital. And then there is more cursing, as they see that, had they stuck to their bargain, they would have been in exactly the same financial position as at present plus the kudos — so valuable to astute business men — attaching to the heroic fulfilment of a sentimental duty.... But that would be the ironeïst's way, and Dr. Conan Doyle is nothing if not simple and straightforward.

For a third shot:— You can imagine William and Robert meeting casually twenty-five years after their promise. They make no allusion to it. They do not enquire about one another's incomes. They just meet, "pass the time of day," engage in a keen discussion about the prospects of the English eleven in the neat test match against the Australians, and part. In fact, they simply converse like any other pair of brothers about indifferent topics. They did so yesterday, and will do so again to-morrow. This particular day has no significance for them. The day is not connected in their minds with any promise. They have clean forgotten it.... But that would be the realist's development, and Dr. Conan Doyle is an incorrigible idealist.

It is time, perhaps, to indicate the author's own way of treating the idea. On the appointed day Brother Robert returns from Mexico to find Brother William a fairly prosperous country doctor — thanks to the pinching and scraping and book-keeping-by-double-entry of his wife. Mrs. William has lost not only her youth but her better nature in this process — she has become hardened, she can think only of money. And when she learns of the solemn compact — which William has foolishly kept from her knowledge all through their married life — she is naturally terrified for her savings. Is Brother Robert rich or poor? Brother Robert tells interminable stories of his mining experiences in Mexico which alternately raise and depress Mrs. William's hopes; at one moment he seems a millionaire, at another a pauper. For Robert sees the meaning of the lady's anxious enquiries into his affairs, and resolves to baffle them — just "to test" the characters of his brother and sister-in-law. He carries the test rather far — so far, indeed, as to let the lady quit her husband's roof in disgust when William (supposing Robert to be a pauper) declares his intention of abiding by the solemn compact. And it is not until the lady has come back chastened and repentant that Robert reveals — what, of course, we have guessed all along — that he had made a large fortune, half of which is now to reward the virtuous William. From a common-sense point of view, of course, Robert's trickery, with its serious results on William's household, is abominable. But the standards of ordinary human life and character are not applicable to what is to all intents and purposes a fairy tale. I only mention the point because work of this class is generally held up as, above all things, "wholesome," a "welcome correction to nasty problem plays," and so forth; and I have some difficulty in perceiving the "wholesomeness" of a picture of life which is based, to say the least of it, upon a queer code of conduct. For the rest, Dr. Doyle writes pleasantly and freshly, without any pretence to subtlety of characterisation or to adroitness of dramatic construction. He approaches the theatre de coeur léger with all the old stock-in-trade of ingénues, comic love-making, and faithful family servants who bestow their hard-earned savings upon ruined masters. And as he is a modest, sensible man, I take it he will be the first to admit that as a work of art Halves does not invite serious consideration..... Non omnia possumus omnes, as Partridge observed, and so we need not be surprised if the creator of "Sherlock Holmes" does not happen to be a born dramatist into the bargain. Mr. James Welch and Mr. Brandon Thomas are the two brothers — if you think of the different physique of these two actors, you will know which plays which — and Miss Geraldine Olliffe is the wife.

An American company, headed by Mr. Nat Goodwin and Miss Maxine Elliott, are now at the Duke of York's Theatre, playing with that brightness and gusto which one expects from American companies plays of the somewhat crude description which one has also learned to expect from the same quarter. The Cowboy and the Lady, by Mr. Clyde Fitch, was a piece of Bret Hartean inspiration which hurried you from the delights of a "cake walk" to the absurdities of a trial scene compared with which the Dreyfus court-martial was a model of pedantic legality. This was soon withdrawn for An American Citizen, by Mrs. Madeleine Ryley, a curious hotch-potch of eccentric wills, impossible marriages "of convenience" turned, after various arbitrary delays, into marriages of affection, jokes from the American Sunday papers, villains from melodrama, and Christmas sentiment from Dickens. Mr. Nat Goodwin is a comedian of sly and dry humour, and Miss Maxine Elliott a beautiful woman with what beautiful women are sometimes said to lack, a keen scene of fun.

A. B. W.





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