Module Two, Workshop Three.
George Oswald James. 1922 – 24.
With the 1922 Hunger March over, George realises his prospects in Liverpool are no better. Leader of the unemployed demonstrations, arrested as one of the leaders at the walker Art Gallery ‘riots’ in Liverpool; George knows his name will be first among equals on the blacklist. With a growing young family to provide he heads to Southampton, gets work on the Homeric, and sails once again for his beloved New York. But this is a different George Garrett than the one who sailed before. He’s not just sailing for money, he’s leaving Liverpool to find some space to write. He boards the Homeric as George Garrett and alights in New York as George Oswald James; just one of the many pseudonyms he used throughout his life.
He finds a place on East 42nd Street, and shares rooms with young actors Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaglen, both of whom achieve success in Hollywood, appearing in John Wayne’s 1952 Film, The Quiet Man. According to George’s son John, these actors introduce him to theatre, although it is possible he is already writing drama as his play Two Tides appears to have been written between 1920-22, just after George’s first stint in the States.
In Liverpool George can hardly step out of his front door without being accosted by people seeking his help with benefits, appeals to the Poor Law Guardians, knowing that if he can’t help he will at least provide a sympathetic ear for their woes. In New York, as George Oswald James, he can live below the radar, live out the siege in the room, giving him the first opportunity he has had for some time for a sustained period of writing.
It’s a measure of how intensely he applies himself to his work that in 1925 he registers two plays with the Washington Library of Congress; Flowers and Candles and Tombstones and Grass. Unlike Two Tides these two plays are set in America, but all three plays show clearly just how much he has absorbed, and how tuned in George is to the new age of drama coming ut of New York; drama that will change the face of theatre, with the charge being led by one of George’s most powerful influences – so powerful that he names one of his sons in his honour - Eugene O’Neill.
George is living, both physically and spiritually, at the centre of the dramatic universe. He comes in at the point when the The Ghetto pastoral movement is in full swing. In 1920 Eugene O’Neill’s play, Beyond the Horizon has taken Broadway by storm, winning the playwright the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes for Literature. With characters full of ‘Dis, dat, dem and do’s’, he’s the first playwright to bring the vernacular to the stage, real American characters full of anger, frustration, revenge and repressed desire, played out within tight, confined spaces in tenements and rooming houses. It’s easy to see, coming from the close drawn terraces where he grew up, what impact this would have had on George, and imagine the ‘light-bulb’ moment for him, the realisation that here was the way for him to tell his stories. Being so close to the life of the New York Theatres and living among working actors would have given him the route he was looking for to go from script to stage.
Unfortunately, although we have as a record of his ambition a number of rejection letters from New York theatres where he sent his plays for reading, we don’t have a record of any of his plays being accepted for performance, although it would be hard to imagine, in the circles he was mixing, that he didn’t receive support, and maybe somewhere, in a union hall or among friends, hear his plays read out. Maybe his plays were too influenced by O’Neill – there can be little doubt that there would have been many attempting to emulate his work and follow in his footsteps – but that’s for another discussion.
But still, it takes nothing away from his enormous achievement of completing the three plays – each in four acts as was the style of the day, which have clearly undergone numerous drafts, and bound and sent out who knows how many theatres, written within no more than five years, and most likely within three or four years. He situates his characters in the intense locale, and puts them under a microscope. The plays work well within themselves, the characters by and large are well drawn, and the drama is strong.
In the workshop we divided the parts and read out the first act of ‘Flowers and Candles’. The passage from the play will give you an idea of how much wedded he is to the geography of the city:
“Flowers and Candles”
Scene – Act 1
The Scene is the parlor of one of the many rooming houses situated near the North River, the lower west side, New York City. The furniture is cheap and gaudy, with the exception of a glass bureau, containing souvenirs from different parts of the world…
We all felt it was hugely enjoyable to read out the play, and in the following discussion points were made about how he made it clear it was a typical seafarers house, as recognisable in Liverpool as in New York; how the women dominated the family, the matriarchal line in control as the men were away at sea; how George used the same style as O’Neill and other playwrights to keep the action tight, held in just one room, with people always coming and going towards and away from the action.
George, like the American playwrights, deals with many progressive, challenging themes, and issues of morality are never from the surface of this or his later work. While he may have been influenced by American playwrights, what is remarkable is just how far ahead of UK and Liverpool playwrights of his time he must have been. While George played a key role in the founding of The Unity Theatre in Liverpool in the 1930’s, there is again, sadly, no evidence of his plays being performed in Liverpool either, but again, that is research for another day.
The workshops are free and open to all. We meet every Monday, 6-8pm in Liverpool John Moores University’s Aldham Robarts Library, Maryland Street, L1 9DE (off HopeStreet).