On a mid-June night in London, in 1898, the curtain rose on His Excellency, the Governor, by Captain Robert Marshall. Three acts later the echoing laughter started the career of one of the funniest writers in English literature. In the next few years Marshall turned out hit after hit and also found time to produce one short but unforgettable novel, The Haunted Major.
This classic of golf, reprinted many times in Britain, made a brief appearance in this country in 1920 and was then lost to view here until it reappeared in 1958 in the anthology, Great Stories from the World of Sport, edited by Peter Schwed and Herbert Warren Wind. The warm response it evoked there has persuaded SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to bring it before a much wider American audience.
Next week's issue begins a two-part condensation. Editing the work, Robert Cantwell came to know a good deal about its remarkable author.
Marshall was born in Edinburgh in 1863 and evaded his father's designs to make him a lawyer by enlisting in the Highland Light Infantry. He served some time in the ranks, eventually was commissioned a lieutenant and for the next 12 years pursued a fashionably Victorian career in Her Majesty's Service at such way spots as Cape Town, Bermuda and Natal. When His Excellency was accepted for production, Marshall resigned and hurried from Natal to London. His success as a playwright was immediate and phenomenal. In the next six years his five major hits starred Ethel Barrymore, John Drew, Cyril Maude and others as popular, and Marshall became one of the best-known and best-loved figures of the Edwardian stage. "It has fallen the lot of few authors," said the Daily Telegraph, "to make such a sudden leap into fame."
The plays were all characterized by absurdity of plot, comic invention and what was well described as "a refined and harmless cynicism." He often put sport into his comedies, was himself an ardent golfer, fencer and motorist.
All the qualities of his plays are in his one book, which he wrote in 1902 at the height of his theatrical career.
Marshall died in 1910, leaving a fortune of ¬£22,000. Says Cantwell, "He had this, at least, in common with Shakespeare. He did not value his manuscripts highly. He put the rights to all his plays at only ¬£3. He carried The Haunted Major on his books at only five shillings. He was wrong. The book has long been the favorite work of golf fiction in the land where the game began."
Next week readers of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED will have their own chance to discover why.
CAPTAIN ROBERT MARSHALL