Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Scorn of Women by Jack London

A good story turned into a bad play
Though Jack London is famous for his novels, short stories, and essays, he also tried his hand as a playwright. Success in the theatrical world eluded him, however. He managed to publish a handful of plays during his career, but none were considered worthy of production during his lifetime. Scorn of Women, one of these forgotten plays, was published in book form in 1906. It is an adaptation of an earlier short story of the same name which is included in London’s 1901 collection The God of His Fathers. While the original story is quite entertaining and engaging, much of its charms have been lost in translation for the stage.

Floyd Vanderlip has struck it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush. Not only does he enjoy an abundance of wealth, but he also finds himself with an abundance of women. He is all fired up to leave Dawson with a Hungarian beauty, but two other ladies try their utmost to hinder his departure. The lovely and respectable Mrs. Eppingwell, despite having a husband, begins to show an interest in him, as does Freda Moloof, a gorgeous Greek dancer and reputed man-eater. Little does Floyd know that the sudden outpouring of affection from these two beauties is only a ruse meant to detain him from fleeing with his mistress, just long enough for his fiancée Flossie, en route from the lower 48, to arrive in Dawson and claim her man.

The original short story “The Scorn of Women” is a delightful comedy of manners. Not only does it humorously illustrate the power of intelligent women over a clueless man, it also satirizes the pretentious class distinctions—even in the remote Yukon Territory—between the upper class miners’ wives and the dance hall girl of ill repute. For the dramatic adaptation, London has emphasized the class conflict between the female leads at the expense of the humor, in an attempt to make Freda into some sort of Ibsenesque heroine. While in the short story Floyd was mostly a harmless comic boob, in the play he develops into more of a villain, which leaves one to question whether the happy ending is truly a happy one.

The short story develops its plot over time, providing back story on the characters and establishing the relationships between them. It all leads up to a climactic ball in which all the players come together under one roof. The play, on the other hand, begins on the day of the ball, when the scheming of the women is already underway, and the audience must figure out the back story from disconnected bits of dialogue. If I hadn’t already read the short story, I doubt I would have been able to figure out what was going on. Yet, having read the short story, I couldn’t help feeling the stage adaptation was inferior and pointless.

It’s doubtful any of us will ever see Scorn of Women at our local theatre, and the only people who are likely to seek out the book are diehard fans of Jack London who have read almost everything else he’s ever written. Even to that devoted audience, this play is an unnecessary read. Better to go back and enjoy the short story again. It’s much more worthy of your time.

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