TIME AND PLACE
Mark Sheridan, a descendent of R.B. Sheridan’s elder brother, is ‘stage-struck’. Though his theatrical ambitions are thwarted by a slight stammer, he joins Beerbohm Tree’s company as an unpaid ‘walk-on’. He tells the story of his two years in the company and his relationship with Esmond, a young actor.
Flashbacks take us to his childhood in China, his schooldays in Paris, visits to the London theatres, his university days in Cambridge and eighteen months in St Petersburg, where he witnesses the beginning of the 1905 revolution. Famous names appear in these pages: Bernhardt and Duse; Irving and Terry; Mahler and Massenet; Melba and Caruso; Edmond de Goncourt and Bergson; Alphonse Daudet, and his sons Léon and Lucien; Gide and Proust; G.E. Moore and E.M. Forster; Isadora Duncan and Stanislavsky; Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes; Vanessa and Virginia Stephen.
At the end of the book, of no fixed abode and with no occupation, but now the possessor of a private income, Mark decides that he will travel for a while and try to write. But will he be any more successful as a writer than Esmond was as an actor? For a homosexual, to be a writer requires even more subterfuge in his work than in his life. He discusses The Longest Journey (1907), suggesting that its shortcomings were due precisely to Forster’s being unable to write about what he wanted to write about. (When, in 1914, he managed to do so, the result, Maurice, could not be published.) He also suggests that Proust’s abandonment of Jean Santeuil was due to the same reason. (Proust overcame the problem by publishing the ‘shocking’ parts of À la recherche du temps perdu in the more liberated 1920s and even then by portraying the homosexuals as unpleasant and turning the ‘positive’ homosexuals into ‘normal’ men and women.) He would like to write a book that was both picaresque novel (a sort of homosexual Tom Jones, with the hero’s encounters explicitly described) and Bildungsroman, a young man's attempt to understand his life. The attentive reader will realize that Time and Place is the book that Mark Sheridan would like to have been able to write, but could not have done so. For one thing, at twenty-eight, he was too young: the Fielding who wrote Tom Jones was ‘a respectable, gout-ridden magistrate of forty-one with only five more years to live’. For another, in 1908, such things could not be published.
‘This is, very largely, a true story,’ the ‘Author’s Note’ tells us. But how much is very largely? That Author’s Note, unlike a blurb, is part of the book, the fiction, and not therefore to be taken on trust. It’s an old, time-honoured device. Yet the number and range of the characters’ names (of diplomats, actors, singers, writers, schoolmasters, childhood and university friends) suggest truthfulness. Research would reveal that almost everyone whose existence could have been recorded actually existed. And what of Mark Sheridan, the first-person narrator? In his Note, the author claims that he has made use of ‘diaries and notebooks given me by a relation of mine, Mark Sheridan (1880-1969), dating from 1903 to 1912’. Did he exist too? the reader is expected to wonder.
This book may be truth presented as fiction. Is it also fiction presented as truth? This ambiguity lies at the heart of the book, as, in various ways, it is at the heart of all artistic creation. All art strives to convey truth through illusion. Of all the arts, this is most evident in the theatre, of all theatre in Shakespeare, and of all Shakespeare in Hamlet: it is by means of the actors’ art, the ‘play-within-the-play’, where Claudius’s secret is ‘imitated’, that Hamlet obtains corroboration of the ‘truth’ told him by the Ghost. Hamlet is the quintessential play, which may be why it is the most famous play of all. This book begins with Mark Sheridan standing on the stage of a Berlin theatre at the end of a performance of Hamlet. Time and Place – the two words usually appear at the beginning of any printed version of a play and in theatre programmes – is about theatre, the telling of truth through illusion; but theatre is not confined to the stage; religious services and funerals, political demonstrations, even an ‘orgy’, complete with non-participating spectator-hosts, are also seen as theatre.
IAN McKELLEN: ‘The people, the events and the setting of this tale are utterly convincing... thoroughly enjoyable… a wonderful read.’ MARGARET DRABBLE: ‘A strange, erudite and intriguing work, hovering between fact and fiction, chronicle and memoir... The result is convincing but curiously disconcerting, as though we were watching a familiar play in the theatre from the wings or indeed the flies. The narrator describes his erotic experiences and his passion for the theatre with a wealth of frank and sometimes startling detail and his apologia, in the last pages, is a stark and touching reminder of the literary and legal constraints which bound his contemporaries’
C.L. DALLAT / TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT: ‘Alan Sheridan’s ‘largely true’ tale opens with Shakespeare’s ‘The rest is silence’, as the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree concludes his Prince of Denmark in 1907 Berlin. The notion that Time and Place is the actorly memoir of one Mark Sheridan (1880-1969), sometime Tree spear-carrier, is soon discarded as reflections on Berlin’s ultra-efficient transport arrangements propel the narrative forward to a Trans-Siberian Express journey to China three years before, an episode notable for heavy Russian table d’hôte and sexual encounters with the Parisian waiter, François, and the less sophisticated, if equally eager kitchen hand, Dmitri. The Peking trip leads our subject back to more conventional biographical starting-points: diplomatic parents, birth in China, education, an interest in literature. His picking up a copy of Principia Ethica by G. E. Moore on Nevsky Prospekt (after Peking) takes him back to Cambridge and, among others, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Thoby Stephen and a garrulous Lytton Strachey, who keeps him apprised, over many years, of happenings among the Apostles and their acquaintance - including Stephen’s sisters Virginia and Vanessa, Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Desmond McCarthy… His glory, or at least the delight of this memoir, is that he had, to quote Yeats, ‘such friends’.
Mark Sheridan is the grandson of Thomas (great-nephew of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and a friend of Henry Irving). Through his father’s diplomatic world he encounters a high proportion of consular officials with connections to his own family (including members of the Spring-Rice/Monteagle, Lascelles/ Harewood and Blackwood/Dufferin dynasties), while through Thomas’s Garrick world he meets all of theatrical London. His Dumollard grandparents are equally well received in Paris’s salons, and through them he meets the Goncourt brothers and Lucien Daudet, the son of Alphonse...
Time shifts, a risk in the absence of conventional plot, succeed in allowing the writer to slip between history and diplomacy, family and friends, avant-garde art and theatrical reminiscence, in what is essentially a tale of the fin de siècle in several cities. To recitals of revolutions and uprisings are added reportage from the funerals of Verlaine and Henry Irving and the first run, at Stanislavsky’s Art Theatre, of The Cherry Orchard in the year of Chekhov’s death…
A counterpoint to all this high culture is Sheridan’s litany of sub rosa indulgences: organized orgies in Moscow and Berlin; a relationship with Esmond (Rosencrantz to Tree’s Prince) and casual encounters in Moscow’s kloseti, Boul’ Mich’ pissoirs and Cambridge conveniences - all recounted with a candour that could not have appeared in Edwardian England. One of the book’s delights is the author’s refusal to invest encounters with hindsight: thus Mark Sheridan is not to know if young Proust ever finished his novel, whether E. M. Forster was of the ‘fraternity’ - or whether any of Cecil Spring-Rice’s poems would merit publication (his ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’, set to music by Holst, still enjoys some popularity).
Alan Sheridan’s comment, in a prefatory note, that he has ‘made use of diaries and note-books given me by a relation of mine’ gives the work a metafictional twist. The difficulties attendant on writing openly about homosexual relationships and encounters is explored in the contexts of Gide and Proust. Yet, after the Berlin Hamlet, the rest is indeed silence, as the diarist appears to have made his mark neither as an actor (a speech impediment limiting his chances of following his Sheridan forbear), nor as a writer (due presumably to legal impediments). The implied intervening silence suggests that the author of this impressively researched and vividly conjured life acknowledges a desire, perhaps even an obligation, to break a particular silence, if not on behalf of one named individual, then on behalf of all those whose stories of life and love were until recently denied public utterance.
DAVID ROBSON / SUNDAY TELEGRAPH: 'If John Gielgud had written his unexpurgated memoirs, they might have borne a passing resemblance to this elegant, if somewhat eccentric novel … A wealth of human material, along with evocative vignettes of a vanished age … Names are dropped with an abandon that would be vulgar if the writing were not so stylishly understated. Time and Place blends high art with low sex. Casual homosexual encounters, described in graphic detail, break up the long procession of first nights ... When the hero loses his lover, a fellow actor, in tragic circumstances, the book achieves real poignancy.'