What is it about young ex-pats writing single performance plays performed by amateurs at Christmas? A recent Jot told the story of The Princess and the Pauper, a drama by the 24 year old British humorist Harry Graham, which was performed by amateurs at Christmas 1900 in Government House, Ottawa. Exactly a year earlier, a one-off performance of The Ghost, written mainly by the 27 year old American Stephen Crane, best known for The Red Badge of Courage, was acted out by amateurs, at Brede, near Rye in Sussex.
In 1899 Crane and his wife Cora were renting Brede Place, a crumbling mainly late medieval manor house, a mile from the village, with huge fireplaces but no indoor plumbing.
Though the Cranes were enchanted by its old-world charm and maintained an open house for all and sundry, some visitors were less enamoured. One was Karl Edwin Harriman, who in print complained of the ‘chill, damp and draughts of the old house ‘, and of the wind ‘which whistled through the casements every moment of the day and night ‘. Ford Madox Ford described it in Mightier than the Sword as ‘ an ill-fated mansion…full of evil influences ‘.
There had been several references in biographical works and memoirs to a play that the Cranes had put on at Christmas that year, but until 1952, when a copy of the play’s programme was discovered in the Berg Collection by John D. Gordan, scholars were unaware of any details. According to this programme, which may be unique,The Ghost was written by Stephen Crane, with contributions by Henry James, Robert Barr, George Gissing, Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, H. B. Marriott-Watson, H. G. Wells, Edwin Pugh, A .E. W. Mason, all of whom were invited to Brede Place on the 27th December to share three days of celebrations. The players seem to have been mainly made up of locals, augmented by Mason as ‘The Ghost’, with H. G. Wells’ wife on the piano.
There is no doubt that the inclusion of these big names, many of whom were local (ie Sussex or Kent) authors, was designed to attract people to the production, which was to be performed on 28th December in the village School House as a Christmas present for the villagers. Although essentially the work of Crane, he suggested to his writer friends that a simple contribution of an ‘ it, they, you ‘ would be enough to register them as co-dramatists. The plot, such as it was, looked forward to the appearance of a ghost at Brede Place in 1950.In a letter Crane called his play ‘awful rubbish’, and recalling that night, C. L. Hind, one of the guests, thought the same. However, measured as bums on seats, the play was a roaring success. There was even a report in the local newspaper.
The strain of putting on such an event, however, did Crane no good at all. He was a consumptive and renting such an insalubrious property as Brede Place was possibly the worst decision he could have made. On the day after the performance the novelist suffered a severe hemorrhage of the lungs, and although his health improved for a short while, in March and April two more serious hemorrhages followed. Sensing, perhaps too late, that Brede Place might eventually prove fatal, Crane and Cora moved to a health spa near the Black Forest on 28th May. A week later Crane died there of TB aged just 28. [RMH]