H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) was the first science fiction novel I read, at the age of 11. I can date this precisely because I was in hospital for an operation. Far from the association with surgery putting me off it, I have always had a soft spot for the book, with its vivid descriptions of the Time Traveller’s journey to a far-future world inhabited by the passive Eloi and the predatory Morlocks. I have also been a fan of Robert Lloyd Parry for some time, having seen him perform stories by M R James in the intimate surroundings of the Corpus Christi Playroom in Cambridge. So it was with great anticipation that I visited Anglia Ruskin University’s Mumford theatre to see Lloyd Parry’s one-man performance as Wells’s much put-upon chrononaut.
There were two performances at the Mumford, on 23 and 24 May. Each had an Initial talk, and that on the second night was by Professor Roger Luckhurst of Birkbeck College. Luckhurst is currently editing an edition of The Time Machine for Oxford World’s Classics to coincide with Wells’s books coming out of copyright in 2016, and his talk, ‘Forward to the Past! Some contexts for 1890s time travel’, was presumably a dry run for the introduction. Addressing the audience flatteringly as ‘hard-core Wellsians’, he took us on a tour of the novel’s themes and historical background. Starting with an overview of Wells’s life, Luckhurst outlined his immense reputation while alive, yet its rapid decline after death. The lively popular early scientific romances gave way to increasingly turgid didacticism, his distrust of democracy and conviction that a rational technocratic world government populated by the intellectual elite would create a better future sounding increasingly naive.
Luckhurst situated The Time Machine within both science fiction and the fin de siècle Imperial Gothic and saw it as futurology, projecting current trends forward. It was in dialogue with other books, such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) and the futuro-mediaeval socialism of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). Before his journey the Time Traveller thinks that the future will continue on a smooth progression, whereas when he arrives in it he sees only decay and an end to evolution. There were concerns in the 1890s over such issues as the decadence of society and degeneration which the novel tapped into (Max Nordau in his influential 1892 book, Entartung, published in 1895 as Degeneration, talked about ‘the unchaining of the beast in man’, and what is the beast if not a Morlock?). Humanity in Wells’s novel has bifurcated into two species, heirs of present-day social classes for whom social distinctions have become biologised. The feeble Eloi, living in the ruins of a vanished civilisation, are a mockery of the Victorian decadents that Wells despised, the subterranean Morlocks represent a retreat back down the evolutionary chain. The Time Traveller is appalled at what we have become while acknowledging our kinship with these creatures. When he escapes into the even further future he finds the world exhausted, its death surely not far off as it succumbs to entropy.
Luckhurst argued that Wells’s best work had been done by 1901, with much rubbish produced after that date by the prolific author, to the extent that writers as diverse as Henry James and the literary modernists defined themselves against him. However, Luckhurst stressed that there was a great deal of snobbery in this because of Wells’s lower-middle class background, even though he was unusual as a novelist during the period in actually having had a science education. E M Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) was a humanist attack on Wells’s technocratic ‘utopia’, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was an even more influential satirical riposte. Yet The Time Machine is an ambiguous text, balancing optimism and pessimism; the future inhabited by Eloi and Morlocks can be changed, if we have the will to do it.
After this entertaining and illuminating introduction, it was off to see what Lloyd Parry had made of the role of the Time Traveller. The set comprised the titular machine, a garden chair and a bird bath, the last filled so that from time to time he could plunge his face into it for a refreshing draught before continuing his story. The time machine itself was a beautiful construction. The designer had avoided the temptation to go steampunk and have whirring gears and flashing lights. When seen initially on its side it looked like small tapered mahogany missile but when upright it was in the form of a huge metronome, with time increments displayed on the pendulum which handily could be pressed into service as a weapon later in the action. The machine was a versatile bit of kit because it doubled up as aspects of the far-future scenery, an effect facilitated by staples up one side that the Traveller could climb. It could be a hill enabling him to survey his surroundings, and even masquerade as a well by the process of hinging back the tip and staring down into it. The script was complemented by effective sound effects and lighting, insistently chiming clocks particularly helpful in ratcheting up the tension.
The setting at the start is the garden outside his house (hence the bird bath and garden chair) and the beginning bore a similarity to that of the Corpus Christi James performance I witnessed, in that he was on stage but hidden in the machine before the audience entered. The Time Machine started with him falling out of it exhausted and writhing about until he regained his composure. Whether intentional or not, it was reminiscent of the beginning of Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production of Frankenstein, when the creature (alternately Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) emerged from a womb-like structure and fell about helplessly while learning to control its limbs.
The wildly bearded Traveller – as in the book we never learn his name – presented a contrast to Lloyd Parry’s clean-shaven bespectacled M R James. It was curious too to see the actor so mobile after his seated performances as James. The Traveller was cast in the mould of the Victorian gentleman explorer, perhaps the John Hanning Speke of time travel, though Lloyd Parry seemed to be channeling Professor Challenger in his vigorous physicality. He spent the evening wearing extremely disreputable-looking long-johns, signifying what a tough time he has had/will have (oh these time paradoxes) in 802,701. (The publicity leaflet is misleading in showing the Time Traveller properly attired and sporting a neat moustache.) A thought did occur that if he has only the one pair, and wears them for every performance, by the end of the run it won’t be a one-person show because they will be able to participate independently. A change from the novel is that one actor cannot easily replicate the circle of friends who listen to his story, and instead the theatre audience stands in for them. At the same time, the audience plays the part of a jury weighing evidence; we are explicitly given the option of taking the story as untruth, and have to assess its plausibility.
As the action continued, Lloyd Parry was able to generate a real sense of tenderness when talking of Weena, an Eloi who had become devoted to him, and of menace when recounting his trip into the underground lair of the Morlocks in search of his purloined time machine. Overall the Traveller did not come across as a particularly likeable character: he showed that he could be petulant under stress, and mean to Weena when she became irritating. He was put out by the failure of the Eloi to be suitably impressed by his achievement in visiting them, and not unreasonably disappointed to find that intellectual and social development had not made a smooth progression from the 1890s to some higher plane. Whether or not our descendants have such a future to look forward to – and who knows what the Traveller would have found had he ventured out of the Thames Valley – Wells’s novel is a rich text, and Lloyd Parry’s interpretation was enjoyable and thought-provoking. You do worry though about the foolhardiness of travelling to unknown places with only a box of matches but without a firearm or a change of underwear. It all seemed most unlike the correct behaviour of a Victorian gentleman.