View the Footage

john cowper powys on film

We are grateful to Amélie Derome who contacted the University of South California and was told that the footage was available online. Amélie Derome, a French literature student at Aix-Marseille Université, is currently working on a translation of John Cowper Powys' Homer and the Aether

The film of the “Marriage Debate” rehearsal between John Cowper Powys and Bertrand Russell was unearthed in 1993. Paul Roberts’ speculation in his volume Singular Figures (1989) that some footage of the rehearsal might have survived set me off on a search for it, at a time when I was compiling a list of Powys materials held in US archives (in pre-Internet days, a laborious process). I learned from a friend in the US that the Fox Film archives were held by the University of South Carolina and it was there that the film was found, and I was able to purchase a copy of the footage in video format. Given that this film was recorded only two years after the first "talkie”, The Jazz Singer (1927) with Al Jolson (which was at any rate the first full-length Hollywood movie featuring spoken dialogue) it has borne up remarkably well.

The debate took place on Friday, December 13, 1929 at the Mecca Temple in New York before an audience of about 2,000 people. The background to the debate (from JCP’s perspective) is revealed in the 1929 Diary entries for November 8, 11, 15, 28 and December 5, 6, 9, 11 and 13. These entries make it clear how John prepared (or not) for such events – he seems rather nonchalant, or just supremely confident in his own abilities. Both JCP and Russell were old hands at public debates, and neither of them thought much of this one. As the Diary reveals, the debate was not the only thing on John’s mind that day. After the debate Russell, apparently, slipped away immediately to catch a boat back to England, arriving at the port five minutes before the gangplank was raised.

In The Powys Review No. 13 there is a useful article by Carl Spadoni on the reprinted Is Modern Marriage a Failure? (1983), but the opening statement, that this was the only encounter between Powys and Russell, is not true. Despite being contemporaries at Cambridge, the debate was the first time they had met, according to JCP’s Autobiography, but it was not to be the only time. John was favourably impressed by Russell, if not by his arguments. He mentions him in friendly terms in a letter to Louis Wilkinson of 1 September 1955, and Richard Graves notes in The Brothers Powys (1983) a letter of 14 July 1958 in which John mentions a visit from Russell and Gamel Woolsey (with whom Russell had once been, or tried to be, romantically involved) when both he and Russell were living in North Wales. There are other references in late letters to a visit by Russell and his wife, and to how John practiced phrenology on him, to Russell's quiet amusement. What the two octogenarians talked about and whether they made any reference to their verbal jousting of three decades earlier is, alas, lost to us forever.

There was an obvious irony to the debate in that the man speaking in favour of marriage is one whose marriage had failed and who was secretly cohabiting with another woman, whilst the man arguing that marriage is a failure was one who had such an obvious attachment to the institution that he married four times! Another point to make is that neither of the speeches rehearsed in this footage were actually used in the debate itself, according to the published account, and the closing remarks on the day by both men were completely different. It’s particularly interesting that Russell, in his final remark in this rehearsal footage, should say that the question is not whether marriage is a failure but whether modern marriage is a failure, as this was precisely the point which the chairman of the debate, Heywood Broun, in his closing remarks, chastised both speakers for not really addressing. (The actual motion of the debate (narrowly resolved) was “That the present relaxing of family ties is in the interest of the good life”.) 

Broun, incidentally, was a well-known radical journalist, who was once dragged before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to face the usual charges of being a communist, which he denied. The jacket blurb to his extravagantly titled biography describes him as “perhaps the most towering of the journalistic legends pre-dating the Second World War.” He put his career on the line to fight for clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti, campaigned against literary and theatrical censorship, and spoke out against anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. He was obviously a man, in some ways, after JCP’s own heart, but disappointingly his biography makes no mention of either JCP or Russell – so this debate was clearly no big deal for him either!

When I first showed this footage at the Conference in 1993, I had thought it was unique in that it must be the only such footage made or surviving of John Cowper Powys “in action”. I now know this is not the case and that a 33-second clip of JCP at the real debate also exists. It would indeed be interesting to compare John’s somewhat embarrassed performance here with what he was like “live”. I also originally thought this footage might have been used to publicise the debate, but now I very much doubt it was. I suspect it was mainly a rehearsal for technical purposes, to enable the technicians better to record parts of the real debate in New York.

Anthony Head

Is Modern Marriage a Failure: A Debate, with an introduction by Margaret Moran, was reprinted in a limited edition by Warren House Press in 1983. [SEE BELOW]

The Diary of John Cowper Powys for 1929, edited by Anthony Head, was published by Cecil Woolf in 1998 and is still available from the publisher.

Heywood Broun: The Life and Career of the Most Famous and Controversial Journalist of His Time (1975), by Richard O’Connor.

We hope to learn more about the unique extra half-minute. This may be what was shown on the “News Reel”—- see back cover of NL 70.

The End of the Debate

JCP: The real truth is that we all feel, the moment we approach this symbol, this ritual, this situation -- I will not call it a sacrament, though the word sacrament meant the oath taken by a Roman soldier to his cause -- that it has a stoic, stark, austere, rather than a springtime, ideal, sentimental, shadowy connotation. But I put that aside; let it be no sacrament; let it merely be the coming together of a man and a woman, and, I contend, quite apart from children, that as years go by, this thing is the most fulfilling of the nobler nature, the subtler nature, the more imaginative nature; yes, Mr. Russell, and the more rational nature of human beings, than any other great institution of modern times! Together they dig in; together they experience; together they feel; together there is this tragic tension. But, after all, in the final issue, something emerges, a tenderness toward the other, a pathos in regard to the other, a strange feeling that only comes in marriage; that this other human skeleton, clothed in flesh like your own and yet not like your own, did not ask to be born into this bitter world any more than you asked, and the same curse of being born into the world at all lies upon her, lies upon him; and out of a real marriage emerges not mere poetical, springtime idealism, but that human virtue, the greatest and the last of all, that used to be called pity.

Chairman Broun: That will be all the speaking because my watch says two minutes to eleven, which means that it is about twenty-five after. After all, the two debaters didn't really touch upon the question, "Is Marriage Modern?" Both assumed that marriage as it exists today is modern. I think there could be another debate some other night; I don't know when. I want to make one point about modern marriage. I am assuming that marriage at the present time is not modern. As I understand it, two people go into a church together, and they come out one. I believe there are realms, mystical realms in mathematics, realms of which Bertrand Russell knows, which I don't understand. But to a man who never quite got through college, you can't put one and one together, and get one -- you must get two. Until two people go into church, and two people come out, I won't feel that marriage is modern.

Thank you very much.