Friday, February 3, 2017

Prince Hagen by Upton Sinclair

Sinclair’s revenge phantasy
Upton Sinclair originally wrote Prince Hagen as a novel, which was published in 1903 with the subtitle A Phantasy. He later rewrote the story as a play, which debuted in 1909 at the Valencia Theatre in San Francisco. The play, published as Prince Hagen: A Drama in Four Acts, was printed in book form later that year. It was also included in his 1912 anthology Plays of Protest, along with The Naturewoman, The Machine, and The Second-Story Man. This review discusses the play, not the novel.

The curtain rises on a forest scene, where Gerald Isman, a poet and son of a wealthy railroad magnate, is sitting at a campfire. He is approached by a representative of the Nibelungs, a race of centuries-old beings who dwell in an underground civilization. Sinclair, an avid classical music fan, adapted the characters from Richard Wagner’s series of operas known as The Ring of the Nibelung. The Nibelungs spend their lives digging for gold and hoarding it in a massive treasure trove. Gerald is invited into their world and introduced to the king. The Nibelungs would like to send the king’s son, Prince Hagen, to the surface world, to learn the ways of Earth society. They ask Gerald to act as his guardian, and he agrees.

Once let loose in America, Prince Hagen develops an intense hatred of our corrupt capitalist system. He uses his seemingly unlimited fortune in gold to manipulate the stock market and crush the world’s wealthy industrialists and financiers, punishing them for their exploitative sins. The original subtitle of the novel was quite apt, as this is clearly Sinclair’s revenge “phantasy,” his way of saying, “If I had all the money in the world, I would beat those bastards at their own game!” Hagen’s cutthroat tactics would seem to run counter to Sinclair’s socialist ethos, but at least the author embraces the absurdity of his own premise. The story is all rather silly, but there’s moments of good humor in it, and the characters are occasionally given the opportunity to go off on the sort of ranting soliloquy one expects from Sinclair. For example, there’s a delightfully acerbic passage about how religion and morality are used to subjugate the masses, and another brief dialogue about how money is the great oppressor of the people.

Of course, these philosophical points are standard fare for readers of Sinclair. Here he simply attempts to repackage them in a novel way. The use of mythological beings seems like a dumb idea at first, but at least it lifts this drama above the level of mediocre propaganda tracts like The Millennium or The Second-Story Man. That said, Prince Hagen got bad reviews when it hit the stage and is unlikely to undergo a revival anytime soon. Only the most curious Sinclair enthusiasts are likely to read it, and that’s about all it’s good for.
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