A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Voysey Inheritance

Harley Granville Barker’s 1905 drama about a respected paterfamilias, who also is an embezzler, has returned to  the National Theatre, where its first sell-out run prompted a comeback at the Lyttelton. Suggesting that we are still fascinated by financial fraud on a major scale in light of recent ones, like those involving Kenneth Lay or Robert Maxwell, the splendid production also owes its popularity to the impeccable acting of a large cast, directed by Peter Gill.  Julian Glover portrays financier Voysey, who, questioned by his second-in-command son Edward (Dominic West), confesses that it is fraudulent dealing which has provided the high style of living enjoyed by the large Voysey family.  To astonished Edward, Voysey notes that he was doing only what his father, who founded the  firm, did before him: speculating with the money of his investors who trust him as a friend and pillar of society.

When we meet the stylish family gathered around the dinner table with friends George Booth (John Nettleton) and vicar Evan Colpus (Roger Swaine), the men are passing the port and making decisions, while the women, banished after dinner according to Edwardian custom, enter later for decorative purposes. But even while family decorum is preserved, revolt is afoot.  Youngest son Hugh (Martin Hutson) has become a painter, even though he is aware that his talent is modest, being confined to making “paintings of paintings.”  His wife Beatrice (Kirsty Bushell) is a writer, and the two make known to the astonished and disapproving group that they plan to separate because they “do not get along.”  This, however, will have to wait until the pair have the means to live well. The eldest son, Trenchard, already has rebelled, having left the fold and become an academic, to his father’s intense distaste.

Most fully developed is the character of Edward, impressively acted by Mr. West, for he, unlike the others, must change from a superficial man of the world to assume responsibility as the head of a shaky firm. He must decide whether to continue the shady practices of his grandfather and father, or to try righting the wrongs that have been done.  Should he declare bankruptcy, and possibly go to jail, or should he confess to the investors and ask them to accept a substantial reduction of their capital?  By working hard and cutting family spending to the bone, he might slowly earn back some of the small amounts entrusted to the firm by working people whom the fraud would hurt most (like Maxwell’s pensioners). Or might he carry on and say nothing?

As the entire family is gathered on the day of their father’s funeral, Edward announces the scandal.  Their disbelief turns to dismay when Edward then declares that their individual incomes will be curtailed and used for the payback.  His tough decisions do not endear him to the family nor to the trusted office clerk who will use blackmail, if necessary, to obtain his annual bonus drawn from the ill gotten gains he has, until now, kept silent about.

In addition to the conviction of the ensemble acting, the audience can take delight in designer Alison Chitty’s recreation of the Edwardian scene – especially the dress and the atmosphere that reinforce the mores of gracious living. It is not surprising that some of the humorous, sharp dialogue sounds Shavian, for Shaw was Barker’s partner at the Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and Barker enacted some of his mentor’s best roles, including John Tanner in “Man and Superman.”  Before his marriage to a millionairess, Barker, like Shaw, was an activist in the Fabian Society. So it is not surprising that this play satirizes capitalism and hints at changes, like the position of women, which are brewing beneath the surface. Though some of his characters are briefly sketched, even the minor ones are recognizable, like the subservient office clerk (well interpreted by John Normington) who turns nasty over his withheld bonus. And “The Voysey Inheritance” reminds us that human nature – and greed – are still the same.