This will be a relatively short introduction to what has been an obsession of mine for approximately 10.5 years. Admittedly, vocational and financial struggles, school, and other assorted humbug–in short, life itself–have often prevented the subject from remaining in the foreground of my directed reading and research, which have been more sporadic. However, the haunting fascination remains. It has influenced creative writing, and notes for future work.
Of course, as two of my mottoes in life are “Dickens is a Way of Life,” and “All Things Relate to Sydney Carton,” well, these will explain much of the fascination:
Sir John Martin-Harvey, born on 22 June, 1863, of a family of shipbuilders in Wivenhoe (Essex), was a turn-of-the-century “actor-manager”–one of the last of his kind. He was also one of the last of the so-called “Romantic” stage, specializing in Victorian/Edwardian melodrama. (A fascinating, but somewhat wild and
whirling, read on this subject is Maurice Willson Disher’s The Last Romantic: The Authorised Biography of Sir John Martin-Harvey.) Sir John’s early years in the theatre were spent acting under Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum until breaking out on his own in what would become his signature role: his portrayal of Sydney Carton in a stage adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities called The Only Way, written by Freeman-Wills and Canon Langbridge. (Sir John and his wife Nina de Silva also had a significant uncredited hand in the adaptation, however.) Being Dickens-obsessed, and most especially Carton-obsessed, I have found Sir John’s life to be a source of wonder above and beyond that of the other fascinating actor-managers of the day. And what is most astounding and unusual about this role is that it is one he played and toured for forty years.
The Only Way premiered on 16 February, 1899. Sir John was nearly thirty-six at the time. Clearly, the role and his portrayal struck a deep chord, and is was a hit in his provincial tours, as well as in Canada and the US, and the volume of letters he received from those whose hearts had been touched, or whose lives had been changed, was enormous. So much so, that he donned the Sydney garb as late as his farewell tour of 1939…when Sir John was well into his seventies!
His was a somewhat otherworldly Sydney. Based on contemporaneous accounts, Sir John had a magnetic and somewhat ethereal quality, and even in the dissolute character of our hero, gave the impression of one who was, at heart, too sensitive and too beautiful for this world.
Interestingly, a silent film version of The Only Way starring Sir John himself (1926) was made when Sir John was in his sixties. Of course, he was, as far as earthly time goes, a good twenty years too old to play Sydney, who, ideally, based on the original, might be anywhere from about 37-45 by the end of the novel. (And he is often younger in adaptations, due to cuts which take out the suggestion of the lapse of time between the Lucie-Darnay marriage and the problems that arise for Darnay as a result of Gabelle’s letter–not to mention the lapse of time in the Conciergerie.) However, Sir John did have the benefit of looking younger than his years, for one; for another…it was Sir John. For many, he became the face and voice of Carton, and one might consider the film something in light of his farewell stage performance: a tribute and a legacy to pass on to future generations a glimpse of what might easily be forgotten otherwise. It might only give us a whisper of what it would have been like to see him live on stage during his peak years in the role, but a very significant one.
In April of 2007, I emailed a relation of Sir John’s, who, with immense kindness and generosity, gave me a wealth of information–and a digital copy of the original play, The Only Way, which I devoured–and who also introduced me to the idea that one could still see the film at the British Film Institute on request. (Finally, nine years later, I was to finally save and plan sufficiently to make my first trip to England; alas, the viewing was not to be part of the itinerary, as I contacted someone connected to the BFI’s new streaming service who believed it was no longer viewable. This was a mistake on my part; it was the wrong point of contact.) With the kind help of a kind fellow seamstress-twitterer who has the same obsession, I now realize that one can indeed see it at the BFI’s “Mediatheques”–there are several of them, one being in London. As it happens, I will be in London for one day, October 17th, before going to Paris to see my opera hero Jonas Kaufmann in my favorite role. So, here’s hoping that I can finally have this glimpse into a fascinating phenomenon of theatre history. Apparently, the film is quite literally a “silent” one, as not even the musical score remains.
I realize that acting styles are immensely different now from what they were at the time–perhaps overwrought and florid to a modern sensibility–but I am over-the-moon with excitement for it. For me, anyone who can play Sydney Carton convincingly–let alone to inhabit the role for forty years–is already beatified in my book. I will try with all my heart to get a viewing of this treasure of cinema and stage history on the 17th, and will post about it as I’m able.