I wrote a paper a while back about a non-character in The Odd Women… I think her name was Bella Royston. I saw her as a non-character because she was talked about, and she influenced the plot, but she never actually showed up in the novel. My new favorite non-character is Mr. Hand, in Charles Reade’s Foul Play. First of all… Mr. Hand?! What an obvious name for the false identity of a forger….! As far as I can tell, Mr. Hand does actually exist, but he sailed for America for an unspecified reason about two or three months before the events at the end of the novel (“I don’t know the exact date,” Arthur equivocates when confronted) (527). The point is, we never meet the real Mr. Hand. In handwriting, Arthur is Mr. Hand, but in person, Mr. Hand is played by an unnamed son of one of Wardlaw senior’s old clerks:
An old clerk of his [Arthur’s] father’s, now superannuated and pensioned off, had a son upon the stage in a very mean position. Once a year, however, and of course in the dogdays, he had a kind of benefit at his suburban theatre; that is to say, the manager allowed him to sell tickets, and take half the price of them. He persuaded Arthur to take some, and even to go to the theatre for an hour. The man played a little part, of a pompous sneak, with some approach to Nature. He seemed at home.
Arthur found this man out; visited him at his own place. He was very poor, and mingled pomposity with obsequiousness, so that Arthur felt convinced he was to be bought body and soul, what there was of him.
He sounded him accordingly, and the result was that the man agreed to perform a part for him.
Arthur wrote it, and they rehearsed it together. (507)
This is fascinating because, here, at the end of a novel written in collaboration with a playwright, is a portrait of playwriting and acting associated with villainous doubleness, more reminiscent of the antitheatrical prejudice that Nina Auerbach talks about than the more reparative exploration in Lynn Voskuil’s Acting Naturally. Playwriting is clearly associated with forgery and theft in this plot element, so I wonder if this ultimately supports Auerbach’s points. I wonder if this small moment in the plot is evidence of a larger struggle between the novel form and the theatrical mode. I definitely need to find out more about the details of the collaboration between Charles Reade and Dion Boucicault.
What ultimately interests me here is the idea that the writing process is somehow performative, which is obvious in this section of Foul Play, but which I think is also a dimension of Lady Audley’s Secret, and certainly of Woman in White and The Moonstone. I wonder how (and if) this writerly performativity gets represented on stage.