John Galsworthy as dramatist

John Galsworthy trained as a lawyer. He was born at Kingston, near London in 1867, the son of a wealthy solicitor, whose ancestors were small farmers in Devon, a connection Galsworthy was proud of. Educated at Harrow and New College, Oxford, he qualified as a barrister in 1890, but owing to his father’s wealth he had no need to earn his living and never practised law. To begin with he led an aimless social existence, before travelling in the Pacific and the Far East, where he met Joseph Conrad. As a result of his travels and his friendship with Conrad and others, he began to be disturbed by the hypocrisy of his own class. He discovered the London slums and was horrified by what he saw. Meanwhile a secret love affair with his cousin’s wife Ada, whose marriage was unhappy, culminated after ten years in her divorce and remarriage to Galsworthy. This set the seal on his rebellion. Ada was shunned by polite society and the couple settled in Manaton on Dartmoor (just a few miles from John Ford’s childhood home at Ilsington) to escape from the public gaze. It was Ada who first persuaded Galsworthy that he had it in him to become a writer, and she helped and encouraged him for the rest of his life. At first his work was a failure, but by the time they were married in 1905, Galsworthy was on the way to a highly successful career as playwright and novelist, which eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. By this time he and his wife had been accepted back into society.

john galsworthy dramatist dartmoor resource

Galsworthy, who liked to regard himself as a Devon man, felt more at home at Manaton than did his wife Ada, who missed London life. His short story The Apple Tree, based on the local Dartmoor legend of Kitty Jay, suggests both the passion he felt for things Dartmoor and his ultimate reluctant need to return to London. The Oxford-educated hero of The Apple Tree chooses the middle-class Stella over the peasant Megan, but is haunted by a profound sense of guilt and regret. In the midst of his public success, Galsworthy died thinking his work a failure. Galsworthy is remembered best as a novelist, but he made his name as a playwright arguing for social reform, one of the angry young men of the Edwardian London stage, and his plays were well enough known for T.S. Eliot writing in 1924 to refer to English drama ‘from Kyd to Galsworthy’. He espoused may social and political causes, including slum clearance, a minimum wage, reforms in the divorce law and prison system, votes for women, improvements in slaughter houses and better working conditions for ponies in mines, although later in life he became rather more conservative. He died in North London in 1933.

Galsworthy’s first play was The Silver Box, produced at the Court Theatre in London (now the Royal Court) in 1906 (Galsworthy, 1931). It was a play of ideas, in the tradition of Ibsen and Shaw, and set the tone for his dramatic output of 19 full-length plays, notably Strife,JusticeLoyalties and Escape. Perhaps it is significant that his one play overtlyabout Dartmoor is called Escape, first performed at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, in the summer of 1926. It was a huge commercial success and ran for a year. Ostensibly Escapeis a humorous thriller about the escape from Dartmoor Prison of a man whose only crime has been to protect a prostitute from wrongful arrest. At a deeper level, through a series of encounters between the escaped prisoner and people going about their lives on Dartmoor, the play proceeds to argue how rebellion against the edicts of authority, even where those edicts are wrong, causes such disruption to the lives of innocent bystanders that its pursuit eventually becomes morally intolerable.

Escape can be seen as a something of a parable for Galsworthy’s own life. Like his hero Matt Denant, Galsworthy ended up in the isolation of Dartmoor for helping a woman in distress. Like Matt Denant, he became attached to Dartmoor in the very process of his escape. Like Matt Denant, he eventually gave up his rebellion against the hypocrisy of the establishment, and courted acceptance by the powers that be, for others’ sake rather than his own. As in John  Ford’s work, there is a focus on the conflict between personal integrity and public morality, though the London stage culture in which he was working was a much shallower one. Dartmoor is used for its sensational characteristics – the prison, the mist, the remoteness, the dialect – characteristics established in the popular imagination by The Hound of Baskervilles (Conan Doyle, 1904). However, as Matt Denant nears the moment when he is persuaded to give himself up in one of the in-country villages, we do get a glimpse of Dartmoor as a place where people are living their lives, the kind of Dartmoor Galsworthy himself must have known:

FARMER. Which way d’ ‘e go


FARMER. Convict. Mun cam’ over your waal un’ round the corner ther’.

MISS DORA. Oh! Yes. I thought I saw. Across the lawn, and the far end, Mr. Browning. Quick!
[Behind her the figure and face of MISS GRACE are expressive.]

FARMER. GudeWoi! Over the waal ‘e went. To him, boys! Chop him before he’em into the spinney.
[The hue and cry crosses the window, running – the TWO LABOURERS, the CONSTABLE, and TWO TOURIST YOUTHS. the cries die off and leave a charged silence – the TWO LADIES on their feet.]

MATT [Emerging, still breathless with his hat in his hand. Noting MISS DORA’S riding kit, he turns to MISS GRACE]. Thankyou madam.


MATT.[Making a bow to MISS DORA]. That was great of you, great!

MISS DORA. Keep back-one of them might see.[She draws the curtains and MATT shrinks back.] 

MISS GRACE. Great! To tell such a lie! And for a convict!

MATT [Recovering his selfpossession]. If you’ll forgive my saying so, it makes it greater. To tell a lie for an archbishop wouldn’t strain one a bit.

MISS GRACE. Please don’t blaspheme.

MISS DORA. [Pouring out tea].Will you have a cup of tea, sir ?

MISS GRACE.[In a low voice].Really, Dora.

There is no clue as to whether Galsworthy ever supervised or took part in any theatrical activity in Manaton.There may have been informal performances or readings in private houses, as I have suggested might have been the case with Ford once he returned to Ilsington. By the time Galsworthy wrote Escape, however, he was looking away from Manaton towards London once more, where he was to live his last days. Like Phillpotts, he writes about Dartmoor as someone reporting back to the capital from the provinces, whereas Ford’s work gives the feeling that, for all his eschewing of direct reference to his home, he is in some way reporting back to the provinces from the capital.

Mark Beeson

1Another play of his, A Bit O’ Loving, seems to owe something of its setting to Manaton Village Green and its surroundings, though it does not mention Dartmoor as such.

Read about the film of Escape (1948)