Charles Morgan (1894-1958)

The novelist, playwright and dramatic critic Charles Morgan came up to BNC in 1919 – a kind of ‘Jude the Obscure suddenly given his chance’ who, as a naval officer, ‘had been dreaming of Oxford in the Atlantic and the China Seas.’[1] After some serious coaching in Classics, the ‘improbable dream’ had come true: ‘Oxford, at last, with its bitterness and beauty’[2] where Charles would learn the tricks of his trade. One can smugly remember that BNC had been the first to set up a college Drama Society in the mid-nineteenth century; this sparked a round of dramatic activity that was to continue to enliven the Oxford scene; and still does. Charles Morgan took to the theatre like a duck to water; as The Oxford Magazine reported in January 1921, ‘O.U.D.S. – C.L. Morgan, G. Alchin, and others of Brasenose are actively engaged in theatreland.’[3]

In the days of youthful receptivity, Charles Morgan found himself in irresistible harmony with his BNC hero, Walter Pater, who became almost eponymously that: his spiritual father. This early exposure to the aesthete par excellence fostered Charles’s own unflinching allegiance to aestheticism and its metaphysical ecstasies. The Pater Society was for him (and still is, for us) a forum for the literati, not to say a sanctuary for the arties. He was also the President of the Ingoldsby Essay Club in 1920. Similarly, outside College, the Oxford University Dramatic Society (O.U.D.S.) awaited his dramatic flair: instrumental in its resuscitation after the First World War, Charles, with his intellect and good looks, soon became ‘an Isis Idol.’[4]

Ingoldsby Essay Club Minute Book 1919

Ingoldsby Essay Club Minute Book 1919

The revival of O.U.D.S. was marked by the production of The Dynasts in February 1920, in the presence, on that occasion, of its elderly, yet sprightly author, Thomas Hardy. It was the first time O.U.D.S. had selected a play by a living author (and it was at Charles Morgan’s suggestion). Charles was honing his skills. Indeed, election to the Presidency of O.U.D.S., in 1920, must have been almost inevitable; it would prefigure his successful career as a leading drama critic. As today, O.U.D.S. was very much a springboard for successful careers in London. As President when Antony and Cleopatra was staged in February 1921 by William Bridges-Adams, Morgan invited The Times dramatic critic, A.B. Walkley, to the last-night dinner: a shrewd move since Walkley, also a Francophile, was soon to take Charles under his wing at The Times. Upon Walkley’s death in 1926, Charles promptly succeeded him as Principal Dramatic Critic until 1939.

Throughout his life, Charles Morgan enjoyed widespread sales, the warm esteem of the elite and lesser creatures, and various accolades. He was a pundit, a member of the glitterati and one of the few foreigners to become an Académicien in the Institut de France. Yet he seems to have disappeared in a puff of smoke. By the time he died in 1958 he had become a victim of the tides of fashion; his high seriousness, in the form of fastidious penmanship and romantico-platonic tendencies, had become anachronistic.

The two recently published volumes, Three Plays and Dramatic Critic. Selected Reviews (Oberon, 2013)[5] will certainly bring Charles Morgan back into the public eye. The revival of The River Line, at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2011, hints at a renewal of interest in Charles Morgan. Similarly, my recent talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club – attracted a number of alumni (including Charles’s son, Roger), one of whom made the trip from Strasbourg!

Morgan’s oeuvre is certainly thought-provoking with its emphasis on ‘Liberty of thought and imagination’, Liberty of the mind, and the uniqueness of every human being; it is a celebration of our greatest gifts: passion, imagination, freedom, language[6], one’s capacity for creating beauty or responding to it: in short one’s capacity for improving oneself, for cultivating an ‘open imagination’, one’s own personal vision and ‘principle of individuality.’ An antidote to complacency. Nothing more rewarding. Nothing more Oxford.

It was indeed at Oxford that some of these values were instilled in Morgan and that the contours of his glorious future were formed: of his own admission, ‘Oxford enables one to acquire “habits of perspective” that equip us for the fierce competition in the world.’[7]

Almost a century later this creative spirit shows no sign of slackening in his own College where the theatrical tradition is still alive, nay thriving!

Carole Bourne-Taylor

Senior Member

The Pater Society

 

[1] Charles Morgan, ‘On learning to write’, in The English Association Presidential Address 1936-1955, July 1954, p. 11

[2] To Thomas Hardy, November 11th 1922, Dorchester County Museum, [3293] H. 4352, p. 2 (by kind permission of Dr Jon Murden)

[3] The Oxford Magazine, Friday, January 28, 1921, vol. XXXIX, number 10, p. 158

[4] See Oxford Type: The Best of the Isis, edited by Andrew Billen and Mark Skipworth, London, Robson Bks Ltd, 1984. ‘Presidency of O.U.D.S., the university drama society, or the Union, would ensure the ‘Idol’ treatment’, introduction, p. 12. See also ‘Isis Idol’ n˚253, ‘C.L. Morgan (BNC), President of the O.U.D.S., in The Isis, February 10th 1921, n˚ 576, p.3.

[5] Edited by Charles’s son, Roger (also BNC) and introduced by Carole Bourne-Taylor

[6] Cf. his collection of essays, The Writer and his World (1960).

[7] ‘To Max Beerbohm’, p. 333

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