Theatre (Acting) – ‘The Heiress’
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- Category: Theatre
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The Heiress is the story of Catherine Sloper, a plain young woman in her mid-twenties who lives in a grand house in Washington Square, New York City, in the 1850’s. She lives with her father, the prominent Dr. Austin Sloper, and his sister, Aunt Lavinia. The play is an adaptation of Henry James’s novel, WASHINGTON SQUARE. First produced in New York and London as a stage play under the novel’s original title, it was not a critical success; consequently, it was also made into a film several years later.
The Heiress is recognized for many things, including its performances and outstanding art direction. The story takes place mainly in one location, the Sloper home a limited setting ideally suited for the theater; however, in the theatre it becomes a challenge to keep the audience engrossed and the play visually exciting. THE HEIRESS succeeds on both counts. THE HEIRESS is a period piece in the true sense; not only the costumes and sets are evocative, but every nuance of dialogue and behavior is consistent with the formality and elegance of mid-nineteenth century New York.
The simple story revolves around Catherine’s love affair with Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a young man whom her father considers a fortune hunter interested only in her inheritance. Since the action is very limited, the success of the story depends upon close attention to detail and complex characterizations. It is essential to get a sense of the drives and needs of each character as they interact within the stifling social regimentation of the period. Dr. Sloper and Catherine form the most complex relationship which gradually unfolds, revealing the raw emotions which lie beneath their facade of propriety.
Dr. Sloper is a model of respectability and elegance. The unresolved pain he experienced at his wife’s death years ago permeates his life. Ralph Richardson’s performance succeeds in creating a character who, without straying from accepted behavior, becomes racked by bitterness and hatred. It is necessary to perceive the poisonous effect of that pain in order to understand the doctor’s failure as a father in his relationship with Catherine. His suppressed hatred toward the child that caused his wife’s death at childbirth reveals itself little by little, and it is the appearance of Morris which finally brings that hatred to a head.
To Catherine, Morris’ arrival in her life is a dream come true. He is handsome and charming and professes to love her. The doctor uses his own low opinion of Catherine in judging Morris’ motives, and he is determined to keep them from marrying. In view of Dr. Sloper’s attitude towards Catherine, it is easy to see how vulnerable she is and how deeply she yearns to be loved. The first third of the story prepares the audience for Catherine’s exploitation. Her starvation for affection is seen in her desperate attempts to please her father; but another side of her character is revealed through her relationship with her aunt, who accepts and loves her.
With Aunt Lavinia, Catherine is clever and vibrant and reveals an innate charm; yet a story she amusingly tells her aunt becomes an awkward fiasco when she attempts to retell it to her father. The damage of his influence becomes increasingly evident. When Catherine is first introduced, she still has the spark of what she might be away from her father’s emotional domination; the remainder of the story traces the extinguishing of that spark. To better understand and contrast the mechanics of the play, we must discuss how the film was made.
The first time Catherine appears she is buying fish, an obvious contrast to the first introduction of Dr. Sloper and his elegant home. Thinking the fish will please her father, she is instead reprimanded for not letting the servant carry the fish. This, like all of Catherine’s attempts at pleasing him, is met with criticism and with negative comparisons between Catherine and her late mother.
Dr. Sloper’s memory of his wife as a beautiful, talented, and charming lady pits Catherine against a ghost to whom she can never live up in his eyes. Catherine has never known her mother except as an ever-present reminder of her own inadequacies. For example, when Catherine wears a red dress because she thought her mother wore one like it, her father responds mainly to its expensiveness, quietly adding that her mother, unlike Catherine, was fair and dominated the color.
Morris Townsend is more the embodiment of all Catherine’s dreams than a real man, and to stress this point, he is often photographed in such a way that he is faceless. When he first approaches Catherine at a party, he is a finely dressed torso with a voice; his face is hidden when the two embrace. The audience sees only Catherine’s blissful face against Morris’ neck and dark shoulder. Morris convinces Catherine that her awkwardness and shortcomings are charming and lovable to him. Even as his mercenary nature surfaces, Catherine’s blindness to his motives is understandable. She is not stupid; she simply wants desperately to believe him. Montgomery Clift as Morris combines good looks with a perfect ability to behave appropriately.
His charm is inexhaustible as he skillfully maneuvers his way into the hearts of Catherine and her aunt. Clift’s is a difficult role, since he must be slightly shady at the same time that he charms the audience (as well as Catherine) into wondering whether it might not be a good idea that he marry Catherine.
His words and behavior are convincing as he deftly counteracts every suspicion directed toward him; but his questionable motives become more evident when he is dealing with Dr. Sloper, with whom his compliments sound false, his promises empty. The doctor and Morris are transparent to each other; their mutual hostility results from the similarity of their feelings towards Catherine. Morris, as a mercenary suitor who desires Catherine’s wealth more than her, does not seem any worse than a father who hates his daughter for not being her mother.
The Sloper house is extremely important as a living environment to which each character reacts as if playing against another real character. The house is frozen in time and serves as Dr. Sloper’s shrine to his wife; the furnishings are all as she left them more than twenty years earlier, the only change being a visible expansion of the doctor’s medical practice downstairs. The most conspicuous furnishing is the spinet, which is introduced as a symbol of everything Mrs. Sloper was and Catherine is not. When first seen, it is being tuned unnecessarily, since it has not been played since it was last tuned six months earlier; it is religiously kept in perfect shape in memory of its last player, Mrs. Sloper.
To Morris, the house is a lure whose elegance and lavishness are more desirable to him than Catherine. Viewed through his eyes, it is a showplace of wealth and taste, as close-ups are utilized to show off its fine craftsmanship. Morris adapts to the house in a way that Catherine never seems to. He is at home amongst the rich furnishings and is able to sit down at the spinet and play and sing. To Catherine, on the other hand, the house represents the embodiment of her mother’s memory. Like the presence of the spinet, the house constantly reinforces her inability to fill her mother’s place. There is no evidence of Catherine’s presence in the main rooms other than her embroidery loom which eventually becomes an overt object of her father’s disdain for her. The house represents enclosure to Catherine; and it will eventually become her prison.
When Doctor Sloper takes Catherine to Europe in the hope that she will forget her marriage plans, Morris is extended the honors of the house by Aunt Lavinia. He eases comfortably into the rich life as he helps himself to the doctor’s cigars and brandy, all the time properly yearning for Catherine. Upon returning from Europe, the doctor realizes he has failed in his attempt to keep Catherine from Morris. He threatens disinheritance and unmercifully confronts her with his feelings that she is dull and unattractive, and desirable to Morris only because of her prospect of thirty thousand dollars a year. His climactic bite is that she does, however, embroider neatly.
Catherine’s shock at her father’s release of hostility makes her need for Morris more desperate. She meets him to plan their elopement and naively tells him of her threatened disinheritance; they plan to leave that night. The scene that follows is certainly one of the most torturous of the play. As Catherine waits for Morris at the front window, it becomes increasingly evident that he will not come. Her aunt, knowing the truth, wishes that Catherine had just been a little wiser and not mentioned the disinheritance. Catherine suffers the harsh realization that she has been deceived and manipulated by those who supposedly love her.
In the time that follows, the doctor falls ill. It is a hardened Catherine who refuses to go to his deathbed. De Havilland’s performance excels here as she makes the transition from a naive and hopeful young woman to a bitter and cynical heiress. When the story picks up five years later, Catherine is an icy, hard woman. Sitting in her own home now, the loom has taken a more prominent place. There is some mystery as to her psychological state at this point. Morris has returned from California after five years and with Aunt Lavinia’s help comes to see Catherine. He begs understanding for deserting her, claiming it was in her best interest.
His current flattery is as charming as always; he proposes again and seems truly delighted when Catherine appears to weaken and agrees. It is soon evident, however, that she is now toying with him. He leaves to gather his belongings and Catherine sits down to finish her embroidery. When her aunt realizes that Catherine has no intention of marrying Morris, she asks how she can be so cruel. Catherine’s response is that she has been taught by masters. The ultimate revenge occurs as Morris arrives at the appointed moment and futilely bangs on the bolted front door. Catherine once again mounts the stairs, her eyes bright with perverse satisfaction.
For the film version of this grand play, the Academy recognized de Havilland’s performance in THE HEIRESS with the Oscar for Best Actress; the art directors, John Meehan and Harry Horner, also received Oscars for their work. Edith Head received the award for costume design, and Aaron Copland for his musical score. The blend of these talents as well as the direction and script make THE HEIRESS a beautiful play which brings to life believable characters from a different time.
Analysis of the Play
The basic plot conflict in Washington Square arises out of Doctor Sloper’s opposition to Morris Townsend. However harsh and lacking in understanding as a father he may be, Doctor Sloper is a shrewd and accurate observer and judge of human character. He soon sees through Townsend’s scheme, and makes clear in no uncertain terms that he will not allow Townsend to marry his daughter. But he misjudges his daughter, or rather misjudges her ability to mature. Catherine, at the outset at least, is all that her father believes of her-provincial, naive, untalented, and lacking in social charm and grace. Provincial in her outlook, she is overwhelmed by the social ease and manner of Townsend; naive in her innocence, she takes Townsend’s interest in her at face value.
The one quality she has, or at least develops, is courage. It is courage which love for Townsend gave her, courage to defy her father’s wishes and remain true to her ideal of love. Both Sloper and Townsend are without scruples or conscience in the methods they use to attain their ends. Only Catherine, though she suffers the most, is enriched in experience and depth of understanding.
Doctor Sloper, once having made his observation and judgment about Catherine and Townsend, is blind to any change. Townsend’s superficiality, however clever he may be, is apparent at the end because he never really understands why Catherine will not marry him. She rejected Townsend, though she was free after her father’s death to marry, for the same reason that Madame de Mauves refused to forgive her husband and accept his love. An ideal of conduct, an ideal of love, motivates both of them.
Morris Townsend is the opposite of Longmore and Winterbourne. Townsend is an extrovert and a man of action; Longrnore and Winterboume are introspective observers, passive by nature. This lack of reflection in the hero makes Washington Square one of the least ambiguous and least intellectual of James’ novels and at the same time one of the fastest moving of his narratives.
Townsend, because he is superficial and unreflective, is defeated by a superior moral sense; Longmore, especially, and Winterbourne are enriched by their experiences and come to a deeper understanding of moral life. Townsend is unscrupulous, an adventurer; both Longmore and Winterbourne, though both approach compromising themselves, are almost too refined in their feelings, too scrupulous in their reactions. Townsend is the counterpart of Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady; Longmore and Winterbourne are the counterparts of Ralph Touchett.
The “germ” or idea for the novel came to James from an anecdote based on a real life situation. This method of utilizing anecdotes from real life as a starting-point for the creative process is used by James again and again. It is similar to the method used by Hawthorne in the notebooks, except that whereas with Hawthorne the idea was often an abstract or allegorical statement, with James it was often a situation or incident. The anecdote that resulted in Washington Square is different in that it corresponds closely to the main outline of the plot.
Though divided into chapters, Washington Square is actually developed by a series of short scenes as though on stage. It is not surprising then that Washington Square has been adapted for the stage (entitled The Heiress) for its scenic method lends itself well to dramatization. Each scene corresponds to a chapter division; but, except for the first three chapters which are mainly expository and introductory and therefore predominantly narrative in method, it is the scenic method with its dramatic dialogue and limited setting which dominates.
Washington Square was published in six parts corresponding to its six-part structure, five groups of six chapters and one group of five chapters (chapters twenty-five through twenty-nine).
The first part (chapters one through six) has two functions and is divided into two groups of three chapters each. The first three chapters are introductory; the mid-nineteenth-century setting and the middle class urban atmosphere are presented and explored as an integral part of the social background which helped form the personality of Doctor Sloper.
Doctor Sloper’s condescending attitude toward his daughter, Catherine, is evident from the beginning –an attitude that never changes. For Catherine is not what he wants her to be, clever; she is the “dull, plain, commonplace girl” of the anecdote. The second three chapters introduce the basic plot conflict: the mutual interest of Townsend and Catherine in each other, and Doctor Sloper’s immediate suspicion of Townsend’s real purpose–a suspicion based on the (correct) belief that Townsend must be interested in the money and not in his dull daughter.
An important narrative device is used in Washington Square, which James later used to great advantage in What Maisie Knew. This device is the confidant and go-between, Catherine’s aunt, Mrs. Penniman. The device is by no means original with James, having a long tradition in English literature from Chaucer Troilus and Criseyde to Jane Austen’s novels. The climax of the novel (chapter twenty-nine, ending Part five) is the realization by Catherine that Townsend intends to give her up and not marry her.
Her disillusionment is the implication that her father was right about Townsend, that he was interested in the inheritance and not herself. It was not that she would want to deny him the right to inherit her father’s money and house, but after all she had an income of her own, substantial enough for both of them. The disillusionment then is not the discovery that Townsend is an adventurer, but rather that he betrayed the ideal of love she had experienced in loving him and he had promised in return.
It might be well to look at this climactic scene (chapter twenty-nine) in some detail, for it is typical in many ways of the novel as a whole. The scene begins with a narrative bridge from the previous scene–Townsend’s decision to break with Catherine, but his inability to tell Catherine unequivocally. Most of the chapters begin with this device of bridging the previous scene with narration before the next scene itself is begun.
The setting of this scene is the Sloper home, the setting of many of the scenes of the novel, just as a play is limited in its settings. The only characters “on stage” in this scene are Catherine and Townsend; this limitation is typical of the scenes in general in Washington Square, and it is typical of drama. The dialogue and the style of this scene, and the dialogue and style of Washington Square as a whole, is different from Madame de Mauves and Daisy Miller. It is urbane rather than cosmopolitan: a note of amused ironic detachment from the provincial society portrayed in Washington Square pervades the style throughout the novel.
Further, the emotions and attitudes are more directly and overtly portrayed than in the earlier two novels. The characters are sharply contrasted in their traits: the shrewd, practical, cynical Doctor Sloper as against the overly romantic and overly melodramatic point of view of Mrs. Penniman; the calculating shrewdness of the adventurer, Townsend, as against the romantic idealism and innocence of Catherine. Each attitude is balanced by its opposite (or by its counterpart so that there is a sharp conflict, as in the conflict between Doctor Sloper and Morris Townsend). This balancing of opposites within the novel is further balanced by the corrective ironic detachment of the narrator who is outside the narrative.
The final section of Washington Square (chapters thirty through thirty-five) shifts in tone. The irony that pervades the whole remains, but the lasting effect of disillusionment on Catherine makes the irony more bitter, the mood more serious. Doctor Sloper’s declaration, “It’s a great pleasure to be in the right,” is a bitter commentary on his lack of understanding and sympathy. Catherine, after a period of overt emotional suffering, achieves a measure of outward calm and resignation. But she has changed inwardly:
From her own point of view the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring. Nothing could ever alter these facts; they were always there, like her name, her age, her plain face. Nothing could ever undo the wrong or cure the pain that Morris had inflicted on her, and nothing could ever make her feel toward her father as she felt in her young years. There was something dead in her life, and her duty was to try and fill the void. Catherine recognized this duty to the utmost; she had a great disapproval of brooding and moping.
Inwardly she will never again let herself open to strong emotions or intimate affections. She has neither love nor hate left in her: “‘I can’t begin again–I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life.'” No one understands this change in her: not Doctor Sloper who unnecessarily altered his will in the fear she would take up with Townsend after he, the doctor, dies (although he was right in assuming Townsend would try again); not Catherine’s aunt, Mrs. Penniman, who has kept in touch with Townsend and urges him to come back; and certainly not Townsend who does not understand, even after Catherine tells him, what he has done to her. Catherine does not forgive; she is not bitter even though she has more reason to be. There is no one like Longmore to feel awe and wonder at her behavior, Mrs. Penniman least of all. But the idealism, the disillusionment, and the resignation of martyrdom are there in Catherine.
This hit of the 1947-1948 season was one of the ten best plays of the season and also garnered Tony awards for Basil Rathbone’s acting and Mary Percy Schenck’s costumes. The authors had had a previous play about a father-daughter relationship on Broadway, 1945’s One-Man Show, also directed by Jed Harris. They assuaged their bad feelings about that failure by recalling that Henry James had been hooted at the opening of one of his plays, and they at least did not have to face that. Thoughts of James led to their rediscovery of his long-unread book Washington Square, similarly about a father and a daughter, and they soon wrote the present drama.
Although Harris was sent the script, the Goetzes were not very anxious to work with him again; when Wendy Hiller, whom he wanted for the lead, proved temporarily unavailable, they went elsewhere for a director and producer. This was not an easy task, as their adherence to the original’s unhappy ending put many producers off. Oscar Serlin agreed to produce it, but he had the authors change the ending to a happy one in which the title character, instead of sending her deceitful but contrite lover away, calls him back. However, audiences in New Haven and Boston where it was presented with the novel’s title reacted negatively to this artificial conclusion and the production closed out of town.
Harris now stepped in and insisted that he could fix the play and turn it into a success. He found a backer in producer Finklehoffe, who was gambling $35,000 on a play that already had flopped. Hiller was hired, other major casting changes (apart from Peter Cookson, who remained) were made, and, in addition to other textual revisions by Harris, the book’s original ending was reinstated. Harris restored his badly slumping career to legendary heights by turning the play from a failure to a hit. In his account of the production, Watchman, What of the Night?, he took sole credit for the ending, but Martin Gottfried in Jed Harris: The Curse of Genius suggested that this was attributable to Harris’s egocentricity, and that the revision was more likely a collaborative one. At any rate, Rathbone recalled in In and Out of Character that at the first rehearsal, the cast was gathered on stage, when Harris looked out into the house and said, “Those two people sitting out there are the authors. . . . If I catch any of you talking to those people out there you will be sacked immediately. Mr. and Mrs. Goetz know nothing about this play. I have completely rewritten it. Now let’s get to work!”
The play begins in 1850, its locale the expensive home of widowed Dr. Austin Sloper (Basil Rathbone) in Washington Square, New York. It tells of the doctor’s ugly-duckling daughter Catherine ( Wendy Hiller), whose shyness is a major social disability. Dr. Sloper is a tyrant who holds a secret resentment of Catherine because her birth meant the death of Mrs. Sloper, whom he loved deeply and whose loveliness and charm Catherine sorely lacks. Despite her being the rightful heiress to her father’s fortune, no beaus pay her court until the appearance of the handsome, well-bred, but poverty-stricken Morris Townsend (Cookson).
Catherine is swept off her feet, but Dr. Sloper suspects Morris of being an adventurer and takes Catherine to Europe to get her away from him. Catherine retains her affection for Morris and arranges to elope with him when she returns. But Morris, discovering that she has been cut off from her father’s money, jilts her on the night of the elopement. This kills all spark of feeling in Catherine, who inherits Dr. Sloper’s money on his death. Morris, penitent, returns two years later and attempts to regain her good graces. When he comes to elope with her again, Catherine, having seen through his lies, refuses to let him in the house, which has become her old maid’s tomb.
On opening night, wrote Gottfried, the eccentric director was drunk and paranoiac. He stood tensely at the rear of the theatre as the audience applauded during the curtain calls. As two critics moved up the aisle, he believed that he heard one of them carping about the play. Without warning, he began to beat the critic over the head with a rolled-up newspaper. When the other critic tried to protect his colleague, he received the same treatment before making his escape. Nevertheless, apart from some reservations on the part of the morning reviewers, the play received notices strong enough to turn the play into a hit.
Dramaturgy – Analysis
The Heiress was brilliantly acted by all those already named, as well as by Patricia Collinge as Lavinia Penniman, Catherine’s aunt, Betty Linley as Morris’s widowed sister Mrs. Montgomery, and Augusta Roeland, Fiona O’Shiel, Katherine Raht, and Craig Kelly in smaller roles. It seemed a somewhat static play, quiet and lacking in overt dramatics, but was nevertheless gripping because of its honest characterizations and lack of sentimentality. The play “maintains magnitude and merit,” thought Robert Garland ( NYJA). Thomas R. Dash ( WWD) said that it was “distinguished for its simple but absorbingly developed story, the precision of its suave direction, and the capital quality of its performances.” Brooks Atkinson ( NYT) noted the difficulty of making a strong play about “a stupid woman,” but otherwise found this a drama “of intelligence and good taste.”
Atkinson was not convinced by Hiller’s acting of what he thought an unactable part, but most of his colleagues thought her superb. “Miss Hiller has a sensitive touch,” wrote Rosamond Gilder ( TAM), “a retarded grace as though each action were thought out in advance but approached with a sort of spiritual reluctance. It is an admirable though perhaps unconscious transposition into acting terms of James’ own stylistic manner.”
Rathbone did the play because he was anxious to break the public’s association of him with his successful Sherlock Holmes films. He found working with Jed Harris a fascinating experience, partly because Harris insisted that the actor wear the character’s beard from the very beginning of rehearsals, and partly because the cast sat at a table and read for ten days before the blocking began. Not long after the opening, Rathbone fell while walking his dogs in Central Park and broke his arm badly. After the bones had been set by an idiosyncratic doctor friend of Harris’s, the director instantly worked out a way for Rathbone to perform the play with his arm in a sling, doing all his business with his left arm only. This worked so well that many spectators actually thought that the sling and cast were intentional parts of the characterization.
The Heiress (9-29-47, Biltmore), Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s theatricalization of Henry James Washington Square, ran a solid year even though New York’s two most prestigious newspaper drama critics, Brooks Atkinson of the Times and Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune, stood united against it and the rest of their colleagues, who hailed it as “superb,” “absorbing,” and “something to cheer about.” Rejecting the knowledge that her unloving father, Dr. Austin Sloper ( Basil Rathbone), strongly opposes her entertaining Morris Townsend ( Peter Cookson), the shy, slightly homely Catherine Sloper ( Wendy Hiller) is not averse to the dashing young man’s courtship.
But after Townsend, a fortune hunter, learns that Sloper will disinherit his daughter if she weds, he jilts her. Following her father’s death, when she has become wealthy in her own right, he returns. For a time the vengeful Catherine strings him along, then abruptly spurns him. The play ends with Townsend pounding at her door for admittance to her home and calling her name, as she, lamp in hand, slowly, resolutely ascends a long staircase to her bedroom and probable spinsterhood. Even those critics who supported the play took divergent stances on the playing, although Rathbone’s smooth, icy father and Hiller’s slightly sugary Catherine were generally well received.
The unconscious motives of a father are fully explored in The Heiress ( 1947), an adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz of Henry James’ novel, Washington Square, which Dr. C. P. Oberndorf called a “penetrating study of the effect of an unconscious, perhaps incestuous father-daughter relationship.” The authors astutely trace the young daughter’s neurotic shyness and feelings of inferiority to her father’s constant comparison with her beautiful and accomplished mother who died when she was born.
Remaining a widower, the father had transferred all his wishes for feminine affection to his daughter and demanded of her that she follow an impossible pattern. The daughter, as a result, grows up feeling unwanted and unloved, turning with pathetic hunger to the young fortune-hunter who makes love to her. The father’s motives in disinheriting the girl are as much realistic awareness that she is being used as they are unconscious desires to hold her for himself. Abandoned when her fortune is diminished, the girl finds a way to exact a cruel revenge on the suitor some years after her father’s death, and remains alone in the old home with her fortune if not her mental health intact.
The team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz, here as well as in their most recent play, The Immoralist, give evidence of having one of the best working commands of psychoanalytic insight among the newer dramatists. They had treated the father-daughter theme once previously, in One-Man Show ( 1945), a play which just missed fire although it depicts with sensitivity a father keeping his grown daughter attached to him while they run an art gallery. She is about to give herself to a wealthy older man who promises to endow the father’s gallery when a young man arrives who diagnoses her trouble as father-fixation and proceeds to win her for himself. The Goetz’ interest in this theme was rewarded when they found the Henry James story and made it into one of the hits of the 1947-8 season.
Theater happens in the first person; fiction, however, has the freedom to happen in the third. How lucky for novelists. How frustrating for playwrights and directors trying to adapt books for the stage. Novels and other books, including works of non-fiction, have often inspired plays (and movies). Yet the transition from one genre to another, guaranteed to be difficult, is by no means guaranteed to be a success. The impulse is not hard to understand. You read a book; you love the story and the characters; you don’t want to let it go. Suppose all that were true, and you had the power to do something about it. Suppose you were in a position to turn the book that captured your imagination into a play. Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you will not. Either way, you’re bound to suffer in the process.
Playwrights willingly tackle those problems time and again. Perhaps they are inspired, at least in part, by some of the impressive successes of the past. “Washington Square,” a novella by Henry James, turned into a lively and durable stage property, “The Heiress,” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Christopher Sergel turned Harper Lee’s Southern coming-of-age novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” into an equally effective drama. “The Diary of Anne Frank” has probably reached as many in its stage adaptation by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, as well as in the play’s film and teleplay versions, as the original non-fiction work.
Recently, however, some St. Louis theater-goers have encountered less successful adaptations. Unity Theatre Ensemble’s recent production of Terry McMillan’s first novel, “Mama,” adapted and directed by Ralph E. Greene, featured performers reciting huge chunks of expository prose. Were they acting? Not exactly. Earlier this season, the New Jewish Theatre staged Ari Roth’s “Born Guilty,” a play based on journalist Peter Sichrovsky’s interviews with the adult children of Nazis. Roth, however, chose to focus on the interview process itself. The main character is Sichrovsky, often portrayed with his tape recorder in hand. The play avoids its own story; it settles for being a play about getting a story, a decidedly less compelling subject.
Obviously, Greene and Roth must have really loved the books that inspired them to take on the task of stage adaptations. But love may not be enough or maybe it is too much. In the effort to be “faithful” to a book, the writer may ultimately prove faithless to the stage, a different medium with a style uniquely its own. A first-person style. Steven Woolf says you don’t even need a whole play to appreciate how critical that distinction is; it comes through even in so short a piece as an audition monologue. Occasionally, young or inexperienced actors want to audition by reading a narrative passage from a favorite novel. No matter how good the novel is, this is a terrible idea, says Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (a theater that, in recent seasons, has staged polished productions of both “Mockingbird” and “The Heiress”).
In the third person, there’s an emotional distance that turns deadly onstage. Don’t tell me about something or somebody else. Show me something which means, show me something yourself. Otherwise, it’s pointless. And it’s generally dull, too. So if you are adapting a novel, the question is: Can you activate the narrative? Can the characters do something that brings the story to life and keeps it moving forward? Films are different from plays. Although both involve words and visual images, words generally drive live theater whereas images drive movies.
That, Woolf suspects, is why Jane Austen’s wonderful novels have inspired many enjoyable movies. The period clothing and settings have terrific visual allure, and close-up photography can convey emotional information that takes paragraphs to state. We still can savor that kind of prose in novel form, where we as readers have both leisure and the ability to go back and reread anything that we either especially enjoyed or managed to overlook the first time around. But in live theater, it tends to sound forced. That, Woolf believes, is partly because long, complex sentence structure tends to fight against theatrical notions of time.
You cannot stop a play. Even if there are flashbacks, the motion of a play always has to be forward. You cannot say, Let’s see that scene again. The audience doesn’t get that vote. The author of a book presumably understands that distinction as well. For example, he or she knows that the reader is unlikely to encounter the work in a single sitting. That opens up a more leisurely time-frame, one the author is almost certain to try to use to advantage. If authors come up with an intriguing plot development, a clever turn of phrase, a fascinating but incidental character, they can include it! Why not? In a book, time is never of the essence.
A play is another matter, though. Too much love for those subplots, clever phrases and compelling little characters may prove obstacles rather than assets. This may help explain why some excellent adaptations involve works that are not stellar examples of their genres to begin with. Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” is an entertaining novel, but nobody ever mistook it for a masterpiece. On the other hand, the movies that director Francis Ford Coppola made from it are nothing less. Maybe a novel wasn’t the ideal genre for “The Godfather” in the first place or maybe Coppola didn’t come to the work burdened with too much devotion, too much love for the work exactly as it stands.
Overcoming that kind of love and misguided loyalty is the biggest problem that the adapter confronts. No matter how much fondness for an original work draws in an artist, when it comes time for adaptation, tough love is what he needs. Tough love implies hard choices: a willingness to chop out favorite characters, phrases, even entire plot lines if they do not serve the story in its new incarnation. One of the cuts most apt to be made involves the interior life of the characters. For the novelist, interior life is not a side issue: It is often the sum and substance of the work. It is also relatively easy to convey, through narrative, and nobody ever did that better than Henry James.
But “Washington Square” is a relatively early James novella, one with a clear-cut plot (involving a wealthy young woman’s romance with a charmer who may or may not be interested only in her money) and characters who manifest their interior life in their outward behavior. Notice that there are no stage adaptations of his late great novels, such as “The Golden Bowl” or “The Wings of the Dove,” which are set almost entirely in terms of interior life. As novels, they are breathtaking in both insight and technique (the author’s brother, psychologist William James, coined the phrase “stream of consciousness”).
As film, the re-imagined “The Wings of the Dove” was powerful while “The Golden Bowl” sunk almost immediately into obscurity. As plays well, they aren’t plays. That pretty much says it. There exists at least one on-stage life of the mind executed with superb dramatic force: “Hamlet.” The status of the exception, however, virtually proves the rule. Occasionally a playwright may create the sense of the interior landscape that the novelist does, but this is very hard to pull off on stage (because) the essence of a play is dialogue,” an outward conversation. From a novelist’s viewpoint, however, dialogue is only one device among many. Consequently, the adapter has to find a way of converting the currency of one genre into another. Every adaptation is a new work.
There are seasons within every Broadway season fleeting intervals when the wind shifts, the atmosphere changes. But these days, as doomsayers are seeing ever darker clouds in Broadway’s future, the weather is not all that it’s supposed to be. It’s as if inscrutable forces have been working to upend our generalizations. Has Broadway been overrun by high-tech, low-heart monster musicals? This year the embarrassing problem confronting the Tony Award givers is that the season’s monster, Sunset Blvd., is one of just two new musicals to have opened and the only one with new music. As a result, the Tony administrators have given their nominating committee the option of simply awarding the Tony summarily to Sunset in the categories Best Original Score and Best Musical Book where it has no competition.
Is Broadway most hospitable to Neil Simon’s brand of amiable but unthreatening comedies? Simon does have a new show this spring, a series of four one-acts called London Suite, and in many ways it’s a characteristic product: well proportioned and comfortably predictable. But in protest against Broadway’s huge costs, he has taken his work downtown. For the first time, a new Neil Simon show has opened off-Broadway. Meanwhile, running in the teeth of every stereotype, Broadway has embraced subtle, intellectually challenging theater.
In the past three months we’ve had a pair of Moliere one-act comedies (the delicate weights and balances of their rhymed couplets judiciously meted out by the show’s star, Brian Bedford) and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Brian Friel’s Translations, which closed two weeks ago, offered the cheeringly unlikely sight of a handsome Broadway production about an impoverished Latin instructor in rural 19th century Ireland. If the play suffered from casting problems (and some bilious reviews), its nobility of intent shone clear: here was a drama about the potency and mystery of language.
Language likewise is at the center of Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Arcadia along with the evolution of the English garden, Fermat’s Last Theorem and the perils of biography. And the next few weeks will deliver Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles (retitled Indiscretions) and Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. All that and a new Hamlet too, starring Ralph Fiennes. Perhaps nothing encapsulates Broadway’s unexpected season better than The Heiress. The play, whose run has been extended because of surprisingly good business, is based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square.
Disaster might plausibly have been foreseen for this chatty drawing-room drama, whose sexiest moment involves a kiss and whose most violent act is the barring of a door. But over the years, James’ tale of chaste spinsterhood has given birth to a number of robust offspring. The present production might be called a pair of revivals: of the 1947 Broadway play written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and also (at least in atmosphere) of the wonderful Hollywood film, starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, spun from it two years later.
If the current production opens stiffly (as though conversation had to be slower in the 19th century because contractions hadn’t yet been invented), the actors soon zero in on their thrillingly cold target. As is often true in James, we witness a battle that can have no victors. Dr. Austin Sloper (Philip Bosco) is a wealthy widower whose earnest daughter Catherine (Cherry Jones) pales beside his resplendent memories of his wife (who, to make the comparison all the more pointed and painful, died giving birth to Catherine).
Reared in an atmosphere of genteel censure, Catherine only gradually surmises that “no one has ever loved me in my life.” When love surprisingly appears or its slick semblance, in the form of a fortune hunter (Jon Tenney)she comes to realize that if there is a choice between two forms of counterfeit affection, a cash-based passion may be superior to a condescending paternalism.
The Heiress is a play of bleak and haunting subtleties. It would be easy to make too much of Broadway’s new braininess. Any season responsible for coaxing Jerry Lewis into his first Broadway appearance (as the devil in Damn Yankees) will hardly go down in history as unstintingly cerebral. What’s more, many of these serious dramas are (as usual) British imports, in whole or part. Even so, at a time when many playgoers have lost faith in mainstream theater’s ability to satisfy serious tastes, the change in the wind is heartening. Pick a night. It’s a good time to be sailing for Broadway.
The depth of David Mamet’s imagination has earned him a number of citations both in the literature and filmmaking communities. As a critically acclaimed filmmaker, Mamet has directed a number of award-winning projects, including ‘The Edge,’ ‘The Spanish Prisoner,’ and ‘American Buffalo.’ As a literary expert, on the other hand, Mamet has produced a number of prestigious essays including ‘Writing in Restaurants,’ ‘The Cabin,’ and ‘Make-Believe Town.’ His most recent project, entitled ‘House of Games,’ Mamet introduces his viewers to the possibility of entering an alien world by changing one’s identity.
As Aristotle long ago observed, mimesis is a two-way street: as much as humans take pleasure in seeing representations of themselves, so much are they disposed to imitate what they see. As Plato’s dialogues suggest, however, dramatic characters can take different forms, just as there are different ways of responding to art or to the dramatic experience: at one extreme there is the Socrates type who evaluates the performance by the standards of “thought, intelligence, memory…right opinion and true reasoning,” while at the other there is the Philebus type who abandons himself to the “mixed pleasures” involved in encountering the characters and events of a play (Philebus 11b, 50e).
Contemporary philosophers, of course, continue to believe in the learning experience involved in theater, and indeed Hans-Georg Gadamer devotes a section of Truth and Method to this topic. As he sees it, drama as Erlebnis (“experience”) provides “something of an adventure” and operates by interrupting “the customary course of events….It ventures out into the uncertain” (69). As he further explains in The Relevance of the Beautiful, for this very reason theater provides “the alien shock that shakes our comfortable bourgeois self-confidence and puts at risk the reality in which we feel secure” (64).
For David Mamet as for Gadamer, the theater challenges our ideas of what is real, engaging us in a “marvelous adventure filled with … risk and danger” (Some Freaks ix-x). Although Mamet is now most widely known as film writer and director (e.g. recent popular films like The Edge and The Spanish Prisoner), his stage career has also earned him recognition as a major playwright. American Buffalo in 1975 was the first of his critically acclaimed plays, followed by other successes such as A Life in the Theatre, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna.
In addition, Mamet is known for his critical theorizing which has been dispersed in several volumes of essays, including Writing in Restaurants, The Cabin, and Make-Believe Town; and he has published fiction as well, notably The Village and The Old Religion. The diversity of his accomplishments, finally, also includes film directing, a role he performed in his House of Games.
Both this film and the play Speed-the-Plow raise those questions about reality that are central to Mamet’s drama, looking from one side and then the other at a woman’s entry into a man’s world. In House of Games the protagonist, the psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Ford, descends into the underworld to encounter Mike and his con men, whose base of operation is the bar and gambling house, the House of Games. From another perspective, in Speed-the-Plow the audience is engaged in the world of Hollywood entrepreneurs, Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox, who ritualize their treatment of a female interloper, the temporary secretary Karen.
Mamet’s collection of essays on acting, True and False, begins with an epigraph by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin: “A magician is an actor impersonating a magician” (vii). Throughout that volume, the author inverts, amplifies, and adapts this assertion, simultaneously stripping acting of the psychic baggage of the “Method” and locating thespian training in the same practical realm as magic. “Singing, voice, dance, juggling, tap, magic, tumbling. Practice in them will perfectly define for you the difference between possession and nonpossession of a skill” (True 103). Magic is the conspicuous item in the list, yet it perfectly suits Mamet’s pragmatic thesis.
The magician as craftsman is the figure employed here as exemplar for the novice actor: “He or she is as free of the necessity of ‘feeling’ as the magician is free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers. The magician creates an illusion in the mind of the audience. So does the actor” (True 9). Again, the actor/magician as professional, possessing honed and practicable skill, is separated, as in the plays, from whatever psychic or mystical occurrence may result. The “magician’s” job, whether in the parlor, pool hall, or theatre, is to perform with expertise, precision, and courage.
A profound connection is developed between actor and audience, between in the case of The Shawl” seer” and client. Actress Lindsay Crouse recalls the original production: “How do you get across the idea of someone being a medium? Do you have to have Mike wear a turban? … If the audience is told you’re a king and you carry yourself like a king, the audience will believe it” (in Freedman). This echoes Mamet’s own credo of an audience’s willingness to trust; to, in essence, be duped by the proffered “reality” of performance. “The audience will accept,” the playwright asserts simply, “anything they are not given a reason to disbelieve” (True 114).
Knowledge is attainable not by intellect, but by submission to the unknowable. Dennis Carroll notes that in The Shawl, the final moments between John and Miss A in are “enriched by ever-increasing trust, and by mutual respect for the primacy of the intuitive and the mysterious. Their rapport recalls that of Edmond and the black cell-mate, and the final conversation in that play about the privileged knowledge that certain people can develop in isolation from society” (113). Curiously, as in The Shawl, the emergence of Edmond’s homosexuality he is sodomized by his cell mate seems to assist his internal blossoming, the shedding of a restrictive masculine identity.
The prison cell allows, indeed demands, introspection, relative solitude, and an ascetic habit comparable to monastic life. This connection is fully explored in the screenplay We are No Angels, an intriguing albeit comic treatment of escaped convicts masquerading as priests. The script explores the necessity of faith and communion to one’s physical or spiritual release and offers Mamet countless opportunities to satirize the trappings of the Catholic church: the convicts’ attempts to hide are routinely mistaken for prayer or confession, their nonsense “messages” as profound and refreshing theology.
“Sometimes you just need help” (77, text only), the convict Ned asserts. In his role as priest help is asked of him and, ultimately, help is offered. In this burlesque landscape, the bumbling Ned and Jim are effective priests. Jim notes that cloistered life is, like prison, “three squares and a cot” (87) and begins an unorthodox but profound spiritual enlightenment.
His later public sermon ends with this recognizable encouragement: “All I know, something might give you comfort … maybe you deserve it … it comforts you to believe in God, you do it” (108). Like Mamet’s Mr. Happiness, who declares himself “no priest,” Jim nevertheless offers a colloquial message of support, a message readily embraced by his audience. Father Levasque applauds the impostors for the text they are credited with writing, a pragmatic explanation of the weeping Madonna:
That’s the wonderful thing about what you have
written, you and your friend. (Beat.) That we
never forget that it’s simply a hole in the roof.
FATHER LEVESQUE and then NED look up.
Point of view: The hole in the roof- Night. The
water dripping on the head of the Madonna. (76)
The hole in the roof, the icon’s miracle, is another example of seeing the trick or performance “from the back.” In Three Uses of the Knife, additional recent essays on theater, Mamet asserts an important conflation of beliefs: “The purpose of the theater, like magic, like religion those three harness mates is to inspire cleansing awe” (69).
Like the convicts, John in The Shawl pretends to be what he is not, and the role of clairvoyant offers numerous analogies to that of priest. “For we look to the stars. As they did. What do we see? We see this: that they named the constellations on their knowledge of the traits which appear” (3). Later, attempting to dispel Charles’ belief in “tricks,” John refers derisively to earlier mysteries and offers an interesting juxtaposition: “Are you free now? Now that you know the Mysteries? (Pause.) The Pythagorean mysteries? (Pause.) The Sacred …? (Pause.) Three cups. And which cup hides the ball …” (47).
As in Edmond, religion and huckstering are linked, yet it is clear throughout The Shawl that John recognizes and cannot betray his priestly function, and his con man rhetoric cannot quite convince us of its disingenuousness: “And the questions of the spirit rise. And troubled, you come here. And we will lift your troubles. And answer your doubts” (13). His compelling performance allows the “sinner,” Miss A, to expose herself. He explains: “Only common sense, and the idea of the mystic frees her to expound” (17). To seek comfort, Mamet suggests, to put aside fear and to trust, is to receive comfort, regardless of the legitimacy of the seer.
“Common to many Mamet plays, The Shawl concerns people who, needing mystery, are desperately trying to exorcise the meaninglessness out of their lives. This life may indeed be a sham and a hoax, but there is a destiny to it …” (Christiansen). It has been further argued that Miss A needs John as “psychologist and surrogate father” (Carroll 116) more than as psychic, and John does at times co-opt the language of therapist: “To … face herself … as we will help her … and she will reward us.
And we are making progress. As you saw” (20). Although Charles would prefer to believe that “we are making progress” involves his approach to a lucrative pay-off, John is more concerned with the “we” of therapist and patient, seer and client, priest and confessor, the latter hinted at by his ascetic lifestyle: “What I have … whatever I have, whatever I have is yours. Just now that’s very little. In material things” (25-6). The Shawl concerns John’s own spiritual growth, his increasing “capacity for self-knowledge in the midst of corruption” (Schvey 78).
The theatre of the thirties will be remembered for its playwrights, not because they produced masterpieces for the ages, but because they responded to the challenge of their times vigorously and excitingly. They had the defects of their virtues, but they were faulty and alive instead of perfect and dead or meticulous and tepid. Just as the social playwrights kept an eye on box office receipts and reviews and on the political and economic events of their day, they also watched their techniques and constantly tried to improve them. They borrowed ideas from every possible source, tried them, and kept or discarded them as they proved effective or disastrous.
It was an exciting era in the development of a genre if for no other reason than because of the variety of different forms being tried out on the Broadway stage. On a given evening agit-prop, high comedy, melodrama, and tragedy might be playing in the various theatres of the Great White Way, and the willingness of playwrights to seek new and innovative forms for their social messages created a versatility and freshness the theatre had never known before.
Additionally, the development of technologically improved sets and lighting and sound systems, the use of modern acting techniques adapted from Stanislavski, and the increasing developments of expressionism and cinematic techniques all enhanced the “modernism” of the theatre of the thirties. The experimentation with structural form also helped to bring the American drama to maturity. It had discovered something significant to say when it explored social issues, and in its physical changes and structural experimentation, it discovered a new way to say it.
Between the opening of Philip Barry Holiday in 1928 and the closing of The Philadelphia Story a decade later, the development of the drama in the United States revealed a series of tenacious trials and errors. The first synthesis of the social comedy and radical Marxist plays produced the political satire and soon gave way to the combination of political drama and agit-prop protest plays, the proletarian drama. This synthesis also yielded to the combination of plays which examined the decay of the middle class, Odets from the bottom and Hellman from the top of the social order.
And from melodramatic thesis and antithesis and synthesis which emerged brought all classes together in an attitude which was no less critical of social ills, but which used the old arguments as ironic counterpoints to a theme which demonstrated the possibility of mutual reliance and mutual understanding of all classes. Along the way, the social drama went through many tumultuous forms: the high comedy of Philip Barry’s plays, the well-made political satire of Maxwell Anderson, the unstructured but bombastic didactic agit-prop and proletarian drama of Clifford Odets, and finally, the “middle-class” naturalism and melodramatic plots evidenced in Clifford Odets’ post-Lefty works and Lillian Hellman’s plays.
Although each of these is dynamically different and some of them are iconoclastic both in their makeup and in their polemics, all of them, even those which consciously followed the “drama as weapon” philosophy, sought to interpret life. They wanted to produce life on the stage just as it appeared in the streets, homes, and businesses of American society; but they also attempted to penetrate the surface of mere imitation and expose the human relationships which were being played out every day in the streets of the nation.
Odets and Hellman’s experiments in naturalistic theory and the defeat of the hero maintained an imitative quality as they slipped again and again into stock, melodramatic devices and depicted the forces of society in forms of good and evil locked in combat over the fate of individual fortune. But their attempts to render sound interpretations of life continued.
Philip Barry ultimately re-emerged as the master of high comedy and proved that art which could successfully interpret life instead of merely imitating it was possible. In The Philadelphia Story Barry illustrated through comedic metaphor the significance of human quality in solving the problems of society through understanding. After all the bombast, polemic, and exhortations of the thirties, Barry illustrated through his interpretations of life that, as Tracy Lord puts it, “there are no rules about human beings.”
Ekman’s experiments show that the six “target emotions” of surprise, disgust, sadness, anger, fear, and happiness elicit “emotion-specific activity in the ANS”. He got these data in two ways, using actors from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. In one, subjects “were told precisely which muscles to contract…constructing facial prototypes of emotion muscle by muscle”; in the other, “subjects were asked to experience each of the six emotions…by reliving a past emotional experience for 30 seconds” (Ekman 1983:1208-9).
This reliving of a past emotional experience is the classic acting exercise from the turn of the century, called “emotion memory” or “affective memory” by the Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski developed this exercise to help actors actually live on stage the emotional lives of the characters they were portraying. The same exercise, with modifications, is practiced today by many actors following the Method of Lee Strasberg and his Actors’ Studio in New York. In fact, Ekman wrote, “The idea of studying actors was suggested to me by Lee Strasberg some years ago. Although I never met Strasberg, we corresponded at some length about how our research might be used to explore the nature of the physiological changes that can occur when the ‘method’ is used” (Ekman 1983: personal communication).
The actors who made Ekman’s faces were not aware of what emotions they were constructing; rather they were coached muscle by muscle as they looked at themselves in mirrors. Their work was a flagrant demonstration of “mechanical acting”—the kind despised by most American performers, but exactly what is learned by Indian young boys beginning their studies as performers in kathakali dance-theater. There a most rigorous system of body and facial training is followed, one that more or less adheres to the ancient Sanskrit text on theater, the Natyasastra, which I will discuss below in connection with Ekman’s work.
What should be noted now is that the facial f acial and body displays practices by students of kathakali are not “natural” but exaggerated, wholly composed “deconstructions/reconstructions” of human behavior. If the kathakali displays also elicit changes in the ANS, might this not indicate that the human neurological system accepts a very deep emotional learning? That is, human “fixed action patterns” or “ethological rituals” might be specifically transformable—a Batesonian play frame built into the brain.
Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s theatricalization of Henry James Washington Square, ran a solid year even though New York’s two most prestigious newspaper drama critics, Brooks Atkinson of the Times and Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune, stood united against it and the rest of their colleagues, who hailed it as “superb,” “absorbing,” and “something to cheer about.” Rejecting the knowledge that her unloving father, Dr. Austin Sloper ( Basil Rathbone), strongly opposes her entertaining Morris Townsend ( Peter Cookson), the shy, slightly homely Catherine Sloper ( Wendy Hiller) is not averse to the dashing young man’s courtship. But after Townsend, a fortune hunter, learns that Sloper will disinherit his daughter if she weds, he jilts her.
Following her father’s death, when she has become wealthy in her own right, he returns. For a time the vengeful Catherine strings him along, then abruptly spurns him. The play ends with Townsend pounding at her door for admittance to her home and calling her name, as she, lamp in hand, slowly, resolutely ascends a long staircase to her bedroom and probable spinsterhood. Even those critics who supported the play took divergent stances on the playing, although Rathbone’s smooth, icy father and Hiller’s slightly sugary Catherine were generally well received.
Reviewers recalled that Donald Ogden Stewart had been a most promising writer before deserting to Hollywood, and they concurred that if his How I Wonder (9-30-47, Hudson) was any indication, all those years in the California sun had left him befuddled. Professor Lemuel Stevenson ( Raymond Massey), an astronomer searching for a possibly undiscovered planet, frets over his own planet’s bent toward atomic self-destruction.
He discusses his concerns with the personification ( Everett Sloane) of his own mind and with a strange, lovely redhead named Lisa ( Meg Mundy), who may be a visitor from another planet, one destroyed by an atomic holocaust. He also does battle for his Negro watchman’s brother, who has been jailed on trumped-up charges but actually for his attempts at unionization. Donald Oenslager’s rooftop setting, with its observatory and its star-spangled sky, earned a solid round of applause, as did Massey’s quiet, thoughtful performance.
There was nothing befuddled about William Wister Haines’s Command Decision (10-1-47), and although no one hailed it as a great play, most fell in line with PM’s Louis Kronenberger, who wrote, “It puts on a good show which is all the better for being a serious one.” Many of his colleagues are disturbed by Brig. Gen. K. C. Dennis ( Paul Kelly), whom one of them describes as “a man so drunk with power he thinks he can cover anything he does with other people’s blood.” With Dennis ordering his bombers to fly far beyond the range of fighter protection, even some of his officers have balked at what they deem are suicide missions.
Futhermore, he has disobeyed orders about which targets to bomb, deciding for himself the targets he will give priority. Yet he will not ask his men to do anything he himself would not do. He has even flown a captured enemy plane to learn its potential. When he is finally transferred to the Pacific, he confesses to his successor that their predecessor was driven to suicide by the job, and that he, too, often contemplated it. Taut, crisp acting by Kelly and a strong, all-male supporting cast added an extra punch to the drama.
Robinson Jeffers’s nearly twenty-year-old Dear Judas (10-5-47, Mansfield) was finally given a Broadway hearing, only to have aisle-sitters agree it should have been left on the printed page. The blank-verse drama was done in modern dress, with Bach music for an accompaniment. Its single setting, the garden at Gethsemane, was an austere picture of tumbled crags and “a barren, malevolent-looking fig tree whose roots are like dragon’s claws and whose branches are like the twisted fingers of the dead.” Judas ( Roy Hargrave) betrays Jesus ( Ferdi Hoffman) not out of greed or hatred but because he fears that Jesus is turning away from his original ideals” How hard he has grown toward suffering lately, and careless of the poor.” But Jesus’ apparent understanding of Judas’s actions and the betrayer’s own guilt drive Judas to hang himself. Margaret Wycherly was Mary.
An English horror play, Mary Hayley Bell Duet for Two Hands (10-7-47, Booth), received a chilly reception in New York. A mad surgeon ( Francis L. Sullivan) has given Stephan Cass ( Hugh Marlowe) new hands after the young poet lost his in a mountain climbing accident. But at the surgeon’s isolated home on the storm-swept Orkneys, the poet begins to act strangely and also to fall in love with the surgeon’s daughter ( Joyce Redman). The doctor reveals the new hands are the hands of a demented murderer, who once tried to court his daughter, but when the doctor moves to forcibly cut them off, the hands reach out to choke him and he dies of a heart attack.
Two major revivals followed. First done in America forty-two years before, Man and Superman, Shaw’s examination of the battle of the sexes and the place in that battle of a “life force,” was a surprise smash hit all over again when Maurice Evans brought his splendid mounting into the Alvin on the 8th. Evans’s John Tanner was lauded for its “gusto and vitality,” and his supporting cast was also praised. A real, glittering 1904 Franklin motorcar added to the spectacle and period color. The comedy delighted New York audiences for nine months.
Although Robinson Jeffers’s adaptation of Euripides’ Medea ran only six and a half months after premiering at the National on the 20th, that was a remarkable record for a classic Greek tragedy. Its success was attributable wholly to the bravura performance of Judith Anderson. The Post’s Richard Watts, Jr., wrote of her, “Visually magnificent, she can be hideous, beautiful, frightening and infinitely sorrowful,” and he concluded, “Hers is a portrayal… in the heroic tradition.” Many saw director John Gielgud’s rather flaccid Jason as the weakest of the evening’s major performances (and he quickly relinquished the role), but had laurels for the eloquence of Florence Reed’s apprehensive nurse.
The year January 1948 business was bad in fall in the theatre. Behind time, as usual, the entertainment industry is just now feeling the slump which began last year for the book trade and the department stores. There were fewer openings; empty rows of seats compromise plays that are classified as successful; a school has been organized for the benefit of unemployed “name” actors to provide them, like patients hooking rugs in a mental institution, with some therapeutic occupation. * Plays which have weathered the season display, for the most part, a certain workmanlike solidity.
The well-built stage set of The Heiress, the safe, well-constructed plots of Command Decision, The Druid Circle, and The Inspector Calls, all reassure the playgoer against the prevailing storms; they are built to last, for an evening. As the value of houses and land, of what is called “real” property, becomes inestimable during a dangerous inflation, so the “real” property of the theatre, sound plotting, plausible characterization, a balanced outlook, appears to be quoted during this crisis at an almost exaggerated premium there is something slightly ridiculous about those open, well-padded boxes of experience into which, at the rise of a curtain, we can gain admission for a few hours in the evening.
These plays are not contemptible: upon a modest segment of human life, a family, a school, an air force unit, a temperate beam of justice plays impartially a small truth is told. But the heavy workmanship of these structures is out of all proportion to their function; it is as though one were to make an umbrella out of solid marble. These plays are honest but not serious. The playgoer can participate in them with a mild sense of satisfaction, but he hesitates to recommend them to others; the experience has been too relaxed, as it were, and domestic for public comment.
The Heiress, as mentioned earlier, is an adaptation of Henry James Washington Square. It has a stage-set of such massive authenticity that it is almost a contribution to the housing problem, a wind blowing in freshly from the square, whipping the white curtains, fine intimacies of lighting, and one of those evening scenes, simple, melancholy, and uncorseted, at which Mr. Jed Harris, the director, excels, a scene in which the masks of the day, the postures of action and decision, are laid aside for the night and two middle-aged people, brother and sister, facing each other wearily in a dishabille of gesture, yawning, intermittently conversing, their voices slowly decelerating, acknowledge the failure of all things, the daily death of belief.
The interjection of fatigue, with its nullification of “problems,” has a peculiar poignancy in the theatre, where action is the sine qua non: Brutus in his tent, Emilia combing Desdemona’s hair and offering to go fetch her nightgown, Sonya and the doctor, too tired to feel, sitting glassy-eyed over the samovar toward the end of Uncle Vanyasuch intermissions of conflict are the musical rests of the drama. There is the murmur of all those lingering good nights in Dr. Sloper’s conversation with Mrs.
Almond; what is unfortunate about The Heiress is that its sound is less real than its silences.
It would be idle to complain that the authors of The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, had missed the point of James’s story, if only they had missed it completely. This, however, they failed to do. The vague, large, awkward figure of Catherine Sloper is still dimly there at the center, embarrassing the playwrights as she embarrassed her father and her aunt Lavinia, who, like Mr. and Mrs. Goetz, wanted to “make” something of her. Her father wished her to be a sensible woman; her aunt wished her to be a romantic heroine; Mr. and Mrs. Goetz wish her to be a thumping Freudian case-history, a repressed libidinal impulse which, thwarted, destroys itself.
But it is poor Catherine’s fatality that she cannot “be” anything; a great block of recalcitrant material, she confounds all efforts to mold her. She has the stubbornness of inert matter, lacking both the power to move and the power to resist movement actively; she can be carried along, dropped, and retrieved, but nothing can really happen to her she is too unwieldy. Dr. Sloper’s failure to perceive this is the tragic error that keeps the story in motion; he has observed that he himself cannot alter her, but, neglecting to reason from experience, presumes that the fortune-hunter who courts her can actually affect her destiny.
His parental firmness, based on this mistake, has an arbitrary and almost impious character; the reader opposes him, for the reader divines, through his instinct, that the doctor’s fears, however applicable they might be in any ordinary case, are in this instance groundless nothing can happen to Catherine. And the doctor’s death, in the novel, has the irony of a pure irrelevance; he dreaded what would happen when he left her, but everything goes on as before.
Catherine, clearly, is a square, that least dynamic of all shapes, the shape that gives the book both its pattern and its title. Yet this unbudging entity can feel this is the miracle of the novel, which has a charm truly pantheistic: the hills are skipping with Catherine, and a rock can quiver at a slight. In James, there is a delicate tenderness toward Catherine that is a courtesy extended to all inanimate objects and inarticulate creatures. The coercion attempted on Catherine by each of those interested parties, father, and suitor, and aunt, appears, in the light of this tenderness, as a cosmic want of refinement, a crass insensitiveness on man’s part to life of a lower order.
All plans made for Catherine must of necessity deny her nature, and the well-meaning efforts of Aunt Penniman are quite as cruel in this respect as the selfish schemes of the suitor and the father’s clever maneuver. But this cruelty, too, like everything impinging on Catherine, fails to dent its object. A cry of pain, a silence, and then Nature resumes its habits. Human beings, the past, sympathy itself are defeated in the serene middle age of the heroine, which knows no grudges or regrets, but smiles placidly back on its memories like a blue and empty day.
The Company of Women had its origin in a piece called Mouthings from Beckett and Shakespeare that Kristin Linklater put together after she had been working on Samuel Beckett Not while directing a production of Hamlet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She recalls that “my brain was going crazy with these different rhythms, the dislocations and the jaggedness of Beckett juxtaposed with the smoothness and harmony of Shakespeare. I was so interested in what was happening in my own brain that I wanted to put this piece together, so I did. What kept erupting from Shakespeare was a lot of Henry V and other kings.”
While the piece fulfilled her own desire to play the kings, Linklater realized that many other women in theatre would also like to do the big speeches from Shakespeare speeches written for male roles. Linklater and two associates, Frances West and Daniela Varon, then conceived a “Women Love Shakespeare” Day and sent invitations to Boston actresses, proposing that each prepare a speech and perform it in a small rented theatre on the designated day. About 75 women came and 40 of them presented monologues, some wearing robes and crowns they had rented, others in sweatpants with book in hand.
The spirit and excitement of that venture led to a weekend exploration of scenes between men and women but all performed by women. It was then that Linklater noticed that hearing Shakespeare’s speeches through women’s voices brought out different information in them. She decided to experiment with scenes from Shakespeare on the basis of that observation. “If we speak his words through the resonance of women’s experience and women’s voices,” says Linklater, “then we are transforming the culture within its most central organ.”
Spurred by the idea of using Shakespeare not only to strengthen female voices but also to enable women and girls to enter the world of power and authority through the demystifying process of make-believe, Linklater joined with well-known psychologist Carol Gilligan in 1990 to found The Company of Women. Linklater’s work on the voice, as exemplified in her books Freeing the Natural Voice and Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice, combined with Gilligan’s work on the psychology of women and girls, proceeding from her influential book In A Different Voice, form the philosophical and programatic basis for the company. They developed a mission statement:
The Company of Women’s mission is to free and strengthen the voices of women and girls. The Company of Women will bring the fresh resonance of female voices into the mainstream of live theatre through all-women productions of the plays of William Shakespeare. Touring nationally and internationally, The Company of Women means to affirm the ancient power of theatre to and heal its community.
The Company of Women will also create a network of Companies of Girls whose interaction with the Company of Women and with the works of Shakespeare will encourage them to speak out freely, respecting the value of their voices in the world. Linklater and Gilligan share fund-raising responsibilities. They began by making their presentation in various Boston salons, generating many small individual contributions that totaled about $75,000 in the first two years just enough to rent office space at a Shakespeare & Company rehearsal studio and to staff the office with two people two days a week.
The Company of Women’s first workshop was held at the University of Southern Maine in Portland in June 1992. Twelve women participated in a two-week program that included training in voice, movement, stage combat, and Shakespearean verse speaking as well as exercises and discussions led by Gilligan on the psychology of women and girls.
A three-day weekend in the middle of the 14-day workshop was set aside as a “theatre camp” for girls between the ages of 10 and 13, so that women and girls could interact through theatre games, Shakespeare scene playing, outdoor activities, and discussion. This interaction was designed to “explore authentic relationships between girls and women,” as a reflection of the company’s belief that “girls at the edge of adolescence possess a clarity of voice and vision that can teach their elders how to hear and see life from a different perspective.”
Plans for subsequent activities include the formation of a Company of Girls, continuing workshops, residencies, and educational outreach programs, and an international tour of Henry V The choice of Henry V as the first full production is intended to allow the women to adopt the perspective of Shakespeare’s men and thus to shed some light on the causes of confrontation in war and politics as well as the tactics of aggression and courtship. The experience demonstrates that conflict stems from breaks in relationships, whether between women and men, men and men, or nations and nations.
As the apex of English-language culture, Shakespeare’s plays show that “free voices in creative relationship can underscore our common humanity from the personal level to the political, and expose the out-of-relationship causes of violence and war that threaten our community.” Linklater and Gilligan acknowledge “a very strong political and social mission attached to the forming of the company.” Through careful planning and a commitment to the project by hundreds of supporters, TCOW has progressed on a timetable remarkably close to that drawn up at the company’s inception in 1990. Its founders look forward to having a “product” to tour in 1994.
In the problem of awareness it sets itself, the recognition of consciousness in a creature mute and inglorious, this story is, in essence, a poetic feat of personification. To “humanize” the tale in the vulgar sense, which is the task Mr. and Mrs. Goetz have undertaken, to make Catherine, that is, sympathetic by making her socially presentable, teaching her how to walk and speak, like a DuBarry Success Salon neophyte, how to do her hair and respond to the advances of a lover, is to undo, with infinite labor, the work of the original author. If the playwrights are not wholly lacking in invention, a fresh start would have been more advisable, for though a passable melodrama results when the adapters have got their hand in cruel father, abused daughter, deceitful lover, Victorian setting, crashing psychological finale which calls for a subtitle, The Spinster’s Revenge yet enough of the novel is still protruding, particularly in the first act, to throw the sequel into very flat relief.
The audience which has beheld Basil Rathbone, a tired, trenchant practitioner, handing his bag to the maid and turning to face, once again, the friendly image of opaque good nature presented to him by Wendy Hiller, can only be disappointed that it sees no more of these people as the play proceeds; it wonders what can have happened to them and feels the boredom and restlessness that follow an unwanted interruption.
Later in the evening, when passion is understood to have awakened her, Miss Hiller floats gracefully about the stage in arabesques of womanly feeling, and still later she burns with anger and her eyes flash terrible meanings (she has gotten to resemble her father), but all this appears a little tawdry and professional after those first few insights into the clumsy joys and lumbering sorrows of an amateur. Mr. and Mrs. Goetz, were congratulated for their integrity in resisting a happy ending, but the temptations the devil labels for us as evil are not usually the most dangerous.
- Mamet, David. True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
- Mamet, David. The Shawl and Prairie du Chien. New York: Grove, 1985.
- Mamet, David. Speed-the-Plow. New York: Grove, 1988.
- Mamet, David. A Life in the Theatre. New York: Grove, 1977.
- Mamet, David. The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions. New York: Turtle Bay-Random, 1992.
- Mamet, David. House of Games. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1987.
- Kane, Leslie. David Mamet: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1992.
- Kolin, Philip C. “Revealing Illusions in David Mamet’s The Shawl.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 16.2 (Mar. 1986): 9-10.
- Freedman, Samuel G. “Theater Returns to Lincoln Center.” New York Times 21 Dec. 1985: L15.
- Christiansen, Richard. “Mamet’s Shawl Plays Perfectly in New Theater.” Chicago Tribune 24 Apr. 1985, sec. 2: 5.
- Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. London: Macmillan, 1987.
- Linklater, Kristin (1976) Freeing the Natural Voice, New York: Drama Book Specialists (Publishers).