The Voysey Inheritance


By Harley Granville-Barker



The Royal Court


Directed by Jane Howell


The English Stage Company





The Cast



The action of the play takes place in the office of Voysey and Son in Lincoln’s Inn and in the dining room of Mr. Voysey’s house in Chislehurst.

Mr. Voysey

Mrs. Voysey

Trenchard Voysey

Major Booth Voysey

Edward Voysey

Hugh Voysey

Honor Voysey

Ethel Voysey

Emily Voysey

Beatrice Voysey

Denis Tregoning

Alice Maitland

Mr. Booth

Rev. Colpus





….Sebastian Shaw

….Gwen Nelson

….Roger Booth

….Jeffry Wickham

.John Castle

….David Leland

….Gillian Martell

….Janette Legge

….Jean Boht

….Ann Firbank

….Timothy Carlton

….Avril Elgar

….George Howe

….Bernard Gallagher

….Joseph Greig

….Jaqueline Harrison

….Janet Chappell




To celebrate the tenth anniversary of their tenancy of the Royal Court Theatre, the English Stage Company nod a gracious acknowledgement at the Vedrenne-Barker management of sixty years ago, by reviving The Voysey Inheritance.  In the theatre, as in politics, it is dangerous to seek historical parallels:  Osborne wasn’t Shaw, but it is undeniable that twice in this century the Royal Court (ridiculous and inappropriate name!) revolutionized the English theatre.


and Players


June 1966


Reviewed by:


Frank Marcus




Looking Back


Both times it was the result of the content, not the  form, of the plays performed.   They were both very English, domestic revolutions.  What they did was to erode the rigid class structure of society:  they changed the quality of life.  These revolutionaries were not interested in ‘art for art’s sake’:  ‘art for life’s sake’ might have been their slogan.



And that’s where the similarity ends.  Granville-Barker wasn’t Shaw either, and I can’t see, say, Wesker or Arden claiming him as a spiritual godfather.  What are we to make of this enigmatic man?  “It is in the representation of intellectual emotions that he excels,” Desmond MacCarthy wrote of his performance as Marchbanks in Candida.  Later, he lived abroad, translated plays in collaboration with his second wife, and acted as a guru to a whole generation of actors and directors, revered by John Gielgud, among many others.  I found The Voysey Inheritance a curiously impersonal play, lacking both flavour and vitality.  The inheritance in question is fraud:  financial speculation with clients’ capital, carried on over three generations by a respected firm of solicitors.


When the play opens, the son, Edward, a somewhat priggish young man of high principles, has just discovered his father’s criminal activities.  Shattered, he threatens first exposure, and then withdrawal from the firm.  Subtlety, his father makes his inescapable involvement—however innocent—plain to him.  The father dies; Edward tells the awful truth to the mourning family.  Here comes the first surprise.  Some of them knew, others suspected, and those who didn’t are realistic enough—after being decently shocked, of course—to suggest that the embezzling, which has gone undetected for thirty years, be continued.  This is a very good scene.  The ruthlessness and amorality of the upper middle-class family where money is concerned is truly shocking.


What follows is, unfortunately, one long anti-climax.  Edward shoulders the responsibility, continuing the fraudulent investments, but using all the profits towards straightening the depleted accounts.  Inevitably, the crash comes.  Edward faces disgrace and possibly imprisonment, but his beloved cousin, who had previously turned down four-and-a-half proposals of marriage by him, now pledges herself to him in his hour of need.  He has proved himself in her eyes as a man.


This ending is not intended to be ironical.  The cousin, Alice, is broadminded, compassionate, and wise.  She is clearly the author’s mouthpiece, remarking, for example, that the trouble with the principles s that one is too concerned with attitudes to notice whether one is of use.  In the end, the trials of Edward are only a sort of moral Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, with Alice as the prize.  It’s a very sentimental view of life.


This is all the more annoying because Barker touches on some explosive issues.  After the father’s death, the family crumbles.  Are we to deduce that a family—a microcosm of society—is only held together by fraud and hypocrisy, but not by an open complicity in crime?  We are never told.


Then there is the father-son relationship.  It is an almost exact replica of that between Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie in Shaw’s play.  The difference is illumination.  Granville-Barker is a much better craftsman:  the construction is much neater and better balanced.  But Shaw was angry.  He had it in for society.  His passionate reformer’s zeal, as revealed in his clumsy play, is worth the entire literary output of Granville-Barker.


Still, it’s futile to grumble that Granville-Barker wasn’t as good as Shaw.  The revival at the Royal Court could have been a hazardous and foolhardy enterprise.  It’s nice to report that it was completely successful.


I found Jane Howell’s direction rather on the slow side; indeed, towards the end, it nearly ground to a halt.  It’ll probably speed up when the cast have played themselves in.  On the credit side—one can’t help using financial terms!—there is an unpretentious honesty and seriousness.


And the actors do seem to enjoy playing something so very different.  Avril Elgar, as Alice, eagerly embraces the change of playing a woman of wit, warmth, and intelligence.  She is very good.  The father (Sebastian Shaw) is also good company; the kind of stately presence, seemingly constructed of polished wood and leather, at one time personified by Godfrey Tearle or Clive Brook.  Unfortunately, he only survives until the first interval.


The others are types, rather then characters.  There is a deaf mother (Gwen Nelson) interjecting irrelevancies gleaned from Notes and Queries (‘The Chinese empire must be in a shocking state!’).  As a booming army type, Jeffry Wickham gets a lot of laughs; Roger Booth and Gillian Martell, as two more Voysey children, are also well in the picture.


The hero, Edward, is played by John Castle.  It is notoriously unrewarding to have to portray decency and integrity.  Mr. Castle plays him on a note of glum sincerity.  He is like a public school boy, wrongly accused of stealing.  One hates him for being so good.  They say that virtue is its own reward….


The Voysey Inheritance, then, has none of the icy magisterial fervour of Ibsen, none of the vibrant poetry of Chekhov.  It foreshadows Galsworthy and Priestley.  The final entry in the ledger says:  ‘Decent, but dull’.





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