A Pleasant Evening

A Brief Introduction:
The New Dramatist as Popular Entertainer, or the Centenary of a Failure
Rudolf Weiss


Finding a hitherto unknown Hankin

During my research into the Edwardian new drama I also compared the LCP copies of the plays of St. John Hankin with the published texts with a view to discover textual revisions. When checking the catalogue in the Department of Manuscripts of the British Library I came across a Hankin play I had never heard of: A Pleasant Evening. An examination of all bibliographical data on Hankin’s oeuvre proved that the play had never appeared in print, never been listed in any bibliography, and never been mentioned in any other publication whatsoever.

A farcical comedy; or an alternative playwright gone astray

It appears appropriate to bring this farcical comedy to the notice of an interested public exactly one hundred years after it received a licence from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1905. What makes this play particularly interesting is its absence of quality rather than its literary merit, its popular appeal rather than its critical stance, its awkward position among St. John Hankin’s dramatic works, usually infused with the subversive spirit of the new dramatist.

A Pleasant Evening or A Little Dissipation, a tolerably entertaining play, is an entirely untypical Hankin in its conventional structure, one-dimensional character portrayal and simple thematic content. The prominent exponent of the alternative theatre tried his hand at commercial drama, which he had always criticized and looked down upon. Ironically, the circumstances of the reception of this comedy – it has remained unpublished, there is no incontrovertible evidence of its staging – indicate that the new dramatist failed as a popular entertainer.

Hankin classifies his play as a farcical comedy. On the one hand, Hankin relies more on the plot machinery of the farce – comic coincidences, misunderstandings, incriminating letters, dissimulation and deceit – than on convincing character construction; on the other hand, the plot development lacks the high tempo of the farce, the acceleration, the increasing entanglements, the multiplication of accidents. Although the typical movement of farce from order to chaos and back to order can also be observed in A Pleasant Evening, the figures never find themselves in a world of the absurd, of nightmare and anarchic confusion.

In contrast to the French variety, in English farces the protagonist, though tempted and on the point of going wrong, ultimately remains innocent. Only very reluctantly does Gus yield to Jack’s plans; moreover, he does not fancy Kitty at all but finds her rather trying. The danger of discovery and the entailing consequences of a damaged reputation are never of an existential nature, nor do they trigger off a crisis of identity. Gus’s exposure would merely be detrimental to his sentimental attachment. Moreover, the protagonist is not an eccentric like the main characters of Arthur Wing Pinero’s major farces, as for example Aeneas Posket in The Magistrate. The farcical movement receives its essential impulse from a problem in an affair of the heart rather than from a character’s eccentric mode of behaviour. In this respect A Pleasant Evening shares more features with the sentimental comedy of the Victorian and Edwardian periods than with a genuine farce.

While farces usually foreground visual and situational rather than verbal effects, in A Pleasant Evening Hankin employs verbal wit to compensate for the lack of excessive physical action. However, some of the female characters do yield to anarchic and aggressive impulses, the most memorable being the application of the hot mustard plaster, with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Among the barely individualized characters there is only one figure with Hankinian features. Emily, the widow of a notoriously unfaithful husband, well acquainted with the dark side of the male sex, contributes a considerable number of ironical and sarcastic comments.

For all its popular ingredients A Pleasant Evening ends on an ambiguous note, reminiscent of St. John Hankin’s published plays. The farcical comedy does not end with the unmasking of the deceiver but with the embarrassment of the deceived, it does not end with the discovery of the truth but with its obscuration. Essentially, the harmony of the happy ending is based on an illusion.

Mystery of performance

Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence of a performance.

The text was submitted for licensing by a certain Herbert Swears, or someone of a similar name (the handwriting on the LCP copy No. 110 is hardly legible), and received a licence on 15 March 1905 to be performed at a theatre in Croydon (the abbreviated specification of the theatre is, again, barely legible; it may read R.Th., P.Th., R.H., P.H.).

Research at the Theatre Museum and at the Croydon Public Library did not produce any results. Research into newspaper collections yielded only scanty information. Under ‘Provincial Notes’ (p. 7) The Era of 15 April 1905 refers to the presentation of a sketch entitled A Pleasant Evening at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in Croydon. A short note in The Croydon Chronicle, Norwood Selhurst and Thornton Heath News of the same date reads as follows, “The highly diverting sketch ‘A Pleasant Evening’ is presented with the most humorous results [...] and proves one of the most enjoyable features in the programme.” (p. 5) A similar notice can be found in The Croydon Guardian and Surrey County Gazette of 15 April 1905. (p. 5) The closeness of the licensing date to that of the staging of the sketch of the same title may indicate a performance of the Hankin play. However, the reference to a sketch which was part of a variety programme raises doubts that this piece for the stage was actually Hankin’s play. On the other hand, the hypothesis that, perhaps, a shortened version of the Hankin comedy was performed may well be considered.

© Rudolf Weiss (March 2005)