“This fine, splendid joke” Jane Mason’s Safari
Trogdon, Robert W
THE PUBLICATION OF JANE MASON’S Safari will not,as Alane Salierno Mason points out in her introduction,”inspire the heroic championing of an unfairly neglected great American writer.” The play has many weaknesses and would, I believe, fail if staged. However, the work is of great interest to Hemingway scholars for what it reveals about a woman who was a vital model for at least two of his most memorable female characters. Perhaps more importantly, Safari provides a portrait of a place that both Hemingway and Mason found inspirational.
When I read the play for the first time, I will admit that I was not impressed. The play has a cluttered feel to it. Quite simply, there are too many characters. Most of the twenty-two characters add very little to the dramatic action. The subplots of the play-John Halstead’s affair with Tanya Bunde, Rosie Halstead’s infatuation with “Mitch” Mitchell, :the killing of the gun bearer through Lilla and Donald’s stupidity-do little to advance the action of the main plot- whether or not April Randolph will leave her husband and stay with Mitchell. If the Halstead party (Rosie, John, Peggy, Bibs, and Count Nino) represents the society of April’s husband, there would seem to be little reason for her to return to America. They are petty, silly people, and April’s decision to stay in Africa results not only in a happy ending, but in the only possible ending that makes any sense to me.
During my, first reading I was also looking for signs of Mason responding to Hemingway’s portrayals of her. Not only did Hemingway use Mason as the model for Margot in “The Short Happy Life. of Francis Macomber” (1936), he also drew on her for the character of Helene Bradley in To Have and Have Not (1937). If Mason composed her play after reading these works, one might expect her to use the play as a way to get a measure of revenge. She does not. The one overt comment on Hemingway in Act i, scene ii is similar to comments reviewers made about his work in the 1930s, indicating that Mason may have intended the remark as a harmless joke for Hemingway. What higher praise for a writer could there be than the fact that a shallow character like Bibs does not understand his work? Mason may have also intended Tanya’s entrance with Harkins and Lawton to recall Brett Ashley’s entrance with Lett and his friend in The Sun Also Rises (1926).
But the play most obviously parallels Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935) and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” April’s reactions to Africa almost exactly match those Hemingway reports in his safari narrative. Unlike the other Americans on safari, April embraces life in Africa, telling, Mitch in Act i, scene i that she “couldn’t be,more impressed” with the landscape; earlier she had described Mitch’s plantation-with its broken plumbing, lighting, and furniture-as “complete heaven!” April falls in love not only with Mitch, but with the,country, just as Hemingway described in Green Hills. In that book, while returning from his successful kudo hunt, he writes: “I loved this country and I felt at home and where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go” (283-284). Mason’s portrait of the Halsteads also recalls Pop’s statement in Green Hills about safari narratives that have “`this damned Nairobi fast life”‘ (194).
While echoes from Green Hills of Africa are noticeable in Mason’s play, the most obvious apparent influence is Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Peggy’s shooting of the lion in Act i and Lilla’s report of shooting her lion from a car in Act ii both echo Francis Macomber’s cowardly performance in the short story. Mitch and Robert Wilson have much in common. Like Mitch, who Rupp reports in Act One has “had masses of affairs, countless women mad for him,” Wilson adapts himself to the needs and desires of his clients:
He…carried a double size cot on safari to accommodate any windfalls he might receive. He had hunted for a certain clientele, the international, fast, sporting set, where the women did not feel they were getting their money’s worth unless they had shared that cot with the white hunter. He despised them when he was away from them although he liked some of them well enough at the time, but he made his living by them; and their standards were his standards as long as they were hiring him. (CSS 21)
The most obvious connections are between April and Margot Macomber. Both women are fictional projections of Jane Mason. Where Margot seems-after a cursory reading of the story-to be controlling and emasculating, April is-to the reader of the play-nurturing and needs the love of a good man. I do not think that Mason meant this character as a correction of Hemingway’s portrait. Rather, I think she may have been a more insightful reader of the story and the character than most critics; her April is similar to the Margot that is presented in Nina Baym’s “`Actually I Felt Sorry for the Lion’: Reading Hemingway’s `The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”‘ In the final analysis, though, April is most similar to the heroines of Hemingway’s early short stories, such as the American wife in “Cat in the Rain” and Jig in “Hills Like White Elephants”: women who want a home and who are stuck with men who do not understand them. Mason also adapts Hemingway’s use of the guide figure in Ann Jameson; just as Frederic Henry and Jake Barnes take instruction on how to behave and how to think from characters like Count Greffi and Count Mippopolous, April receives instruction from Ann in Act III.
The relationship of the two writers and their use of the African setting makes comparison of Mason’s play to Hemingway’s work particularly inviting. However, I believe that Mason’s inspiration for her play lay elsewhere. While reading it, I was reminded most often of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904). Both plays are most accurately described as farce, and April in Safari -faces the same choice as Lubov in The Cherry Orchard: whether to do what is expected by society or to do what her heart tells her to do. Both women choose love over duty. And just as the other relationships in Chekov’s play (Lopakhin and Varya, Trofimov and Anya, etc.) serve as commentary on Lubov’s devotion to her lover in Paris, the other relationships in Mason’s play (John and Peggy, Bibs and Nino, Tanya and Rupp) serve as commentary on April and Mitch’s love. As in all good comedies, April makes the only choice that can produce a happy ending, just as Lubov’s choice to return to her lover in Paris results in the only fulfilled love relationship.
Mason’s Safari, if not a totally successful work of art, is an interesting diversion and gives me a new appreciation of her talents. Too often we judge the people in Hemingway’s life by how they act as the characters Hemingway created. Jane Mason was neither Margot Macomber nor Helene Bradley. While Safari may have been no more than an elaborate piece of wish fulfillment on, Mason’s part, it gives us-her new and unanticipated readers-fresh insight into Mason, making her for me at least a more interesting character than I had heretofore thought her to be.
Copyright The Hemingway Review Spring 2002
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