Friday, June 21, 2013

Theft: A Play in Four Acts by Jack London

London’s best play, for what that’s worth
Jack London was one of America’s most successful writers of all time, achieving worldwide fame with his short stories and novels. Despite being a household name in the literary world, he was never able to translate that success to the stage, but not for lack of trying. He published about a half dozen plays during his lifetime, the majority of which were never produced. Theft was originally published in book form in 1911, but did not see the inside of a theatre until it was staged by the Lithuanian National Drama Theater in 1955. There is nothing in Theft that will make you think London’s failure as a playwright is undeserved, yet it is probably the best play he ever wrote.

Theft takes place in Washington, DC. Howard Knox is a well-intentioned Congressman crusading for reform. He is scheduled to make a speech in which he will expose the corrupt activities of an industrial magnate and his congressional stooges. The wealthy capitalist in question, Anthony Starkweather, along with his son-in-law and political puppet, Senator Thomas Chalmers, will do everything in their power to foil Knox’s great speech and publicly disgrace him. To complicate matters, Margaret Chalmers, wife of Senator Chalmers and daughter of Starkweather, forms a friendship with Knox and begins to sympathize with his cause. The play opens with Knox in the lion’s den, attending a tea party surrounded by his corrupt adversaries. Knox chastises them in a political dialogue that is reminiscent of the debates between Ernest Everhard and the oligarchs in London’s novel The Iron Heel, though Knox never mentions the word “socialism”. He accuses Starkweather, Chalmers, and others of stealing the fruits of the working class’s labor, including the labor of children. The success of Knox’s upcoming speech hinges on the possession of a bundle of documents, a “smoking gun” which will provide the American public with proof of his shocking accusations.

Like many plays written a hundred years ago, Theft is dreadfully overdramatic at times. The romantic subplot alone is nauseatingly histrionic (“Kiss me, my dear lord and lover. Kiss me”). Really the only readers today who are going to be interested in this play are fans of Jack London, and perhaps those of Upton Sinclair, for it’s very similar to the latter author’s dramatic works, in particular his play The Machine. Though Theft is essentially a piece of political propaganda, London manages to strike a good balance between preachiness and entertainment. He injects enough sensationalistic melodrama into the narrative to elevate a dry political treatise into something that you might actually sit through for two hours in a theatre. The story defies believability at times. One instance, when a character forgets that someone else is in the room, is particularly unforgivable. But to London’s credit, the plot is not predictable. It takes some unexpected twists and turns, and the ending is neither trite nor obvious.

Theft didn’t take the theatrical world by storm a century ago, and it’s unlikely to experience a revival anytime soon. Jack London enthusiasts who have some interest in his muckraking political works may find some enjoyment in this unconventional treatment of his familiar political themes. Casual fans of London would do better to stay away from his dramatic works and stick to the novels and short stories that made him famous.

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