Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The (British) Plays of Yesteryear: Female Problems

I always look through the bin of discarded books when I visit the Hudson Park Library, and it never fails to be full of books no one would ever want. Memoirs of the 2nd Viscount Palmerston (not Pam -- he was the 3rd); a 1910 history of the Medici with chapters on each of the dynasty (80 pages on Catherine alone); Sixteen Famous British Plays (pre-World War II). No one would read such books, would they? Well, I got 'em. The Medici is very soothing when I am depressed; the Palmerston is full of fascinating glimpses of life in the 18th century; the plays -- I'll get to the plays. None of these is for keepsies, you understand.

The plays are quite a lineup. They underline a thing I have always wondered at: Why there ARE no great English playwrights after Congreve until one gets to Pinter and Stoppard and Mike Leigh (all Jews, interestingly enough). The editors regret the absence of Shaw, who turned them down flat, but then Shaw -- like Sheridan, Boucicault, Wilde, O'Casey and Beckett -- was an Irishman. NONE OF THE GREAT PLAYWRIGHTS OF THE MODERN ENGLISH THEATER HAS BEEN OF ENGLISH STOCK! The collection under discussion includes one Irishman (Wilde) and one Scotsman (Barrie) and one Welshman (Emlyn Williams); the rest appear to be English (never heard of Rudolf Besier; know nothing of his ancestry) and not one of their works here is revivable today. I must make an exception, I guess, for R.C. Sherriff's "Journey's End," since it WAS revived last season and, what's more, won a Tony. (It didn't make money, but the producer who took the award pointed out that it never had.) And Journey's End is pretty much the only play in the bunch that doesn't deal with an issue that has been completely transformed since World War II: the woman question.

Are none of these plays "timeless" then, you may wonder? Yes: one. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is undoubtedly that (unlike, say, Wilde's earlier melodramas, such as "Lady Windermere's Fan," which has aged beyond resuscitation). Earnest, bless its heart, will last as long as the language, and the theater.

The only other play here that might be revivable (though if you really want to know it, you have only to rent Bette Davis in the film version) is Williams's The Corn Is Green, about an English spinster who decides to rescue Wales. She gets what she wants, but she also gets her comeuppance. The plot creaks just a little, but it still seems wonderfully solid. The characters have at least two dimensions each. (Most of them.)

For the rest:

"The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," Arthur Wing Pinero (or: Don't marry a woman who's been around the block; she'll trip over the leash of an old acquaintance -- Did anyone still CARE about non-marital het sex in 1893?) (What a contrast to Shaw's deliciously shameless Mrs. Warren!)

"What Every Woman Knows," James M. Barrie (or: If you go into politics without a sense of humor, have a Scottish wife to cover for you -- Barrie was a charming writer, but his submissive if manipulative heroine is hard to swallow -- his humorless hero impossible. Audiences today would throw things at both.)

"Milestones," Bennett & Knoblock. Three eras in three acts, the characters growing old, unredeemed, fortunes made and lives wasted -- unplayable today because no one would "get" the three chosen eras -- but the formula has been re-used constantly, for "Vanities" and "Steel Magnolias" and many other farragos. ("Merrily We Roll Along" is the machine running backwards, and THAT dates from 1934.) Audiences never tire of the theme, but the eras must be those they know and remember -- or think they know and remember. Side note: the liberated and unliberated female is once again a main theme. But since none of them are likeable (the final, "liberated" one, gives up All to follow her man to Canada), who cares?

"The Green Goddess," William Archer -- A love triangle among stiff-lipped Brits complicated by a crash landing in Himalayan Rukh, ruled by a civilized sinister Raja and his devouring deity (q.v.). Evidently the great success of the collection in its first run; today, if we could resuscitate Charles Ludlam (as the Raja, George Arliss's part), it might be hilarious. Of course, the lady, being English, prefers death to a barbarian's throne (or bed).

"Mr. Pim Passes By," A.A. Milne -- A vehicle for Laura Hope Crews in her glamour girl days. I'm not making this up, you know. Her stodgy husband is aghast that her first husband (thought dead) has turned up alive. They've apparently been living for five years in -- no, don't say it! But Olivia (Crews) thinks love more important than propriety. How like a modern woman! (Amoral.)

"The Circle," Somerset Maugham -- Short stories and novels made his reputation; his plays made money. A stodgy M.P. has invited his bolted mother and the lord she's been living with for 30 years in Florence for a weekend home. But his father, the cuckold, turns up. So does a youth who wants to bolt with the M.P.'s adorable young wife. A bit mathematical -- the older adulterers assure the young wife (Estelle Winwood!) that love isn't worth the trouble. But since her husband is named Arnold and her lover is named Teddy, and Teddy offers to take her to Malaya where they will rule grateful natives (instead of dusty old Florence), we know how it must end. (I guess they haven't seen Liz Taylor in "Elephant Walk.")

Are you getting the idea that the West Enders loved to see adultery on the stage so they could imagine it wasn't occurring in their own homes? (That's why everyone loved La Traviata.)

"Loyalties," John Galsworthy -- Dash it all, you just don't accuse another guest at a house party of stealing 1000 quid from under your pillow -- especially if he's an officer of the King -- you'd think even a rich young Jewish bounder would know that. (Galsworthy attempts to draw the sting of this by having elegant Lady Adela remark, "It's not his being Jewish -- my great-grandmother was Jewish, and I'm terribly proud of her" -- which settles that point, eh? It's just -- not knowing the code, not playing the game, what?) Ends badly -- the officer really did steal the money -- to pay off an old mistress so his adoring young wife won't find out -- not that she cares. There's only one honorable way out -- a pistol and a locked door. And the Jew is blackballed by all his clubs. Universal tragedy.

On the bright side: At least it didn't even pretend to solve the Woman Question.

"Outward Bound," Sutton Vane -- is that a pseudonym? I'd never admit having written it. For anyone who has been on a week's cruise and thought it duller than death -- you'll know what inspired this Afterlife metaphor. (Couldn't the dead play charades or bingo?)

"Cavalcade," Noel Coward. Perhaps not the worst of Coward, or the most unrevivable -- but I'm putting my money here. Soap about the decline of English class distinction, ergo the Empire. The Jubilee. The Titanic. World War I. Jazz. Hell in a handbasket. Shaw would have had such FUN sending this sort of thing up.

"Journey's End" -- Stiff upper lip (with whisky on it) in the trenches. The cook knows his place, but War is still Hell. When will they ever learn?

"The Barretts of Wimpole Street," Rudolf Besier. The private lives of poets are still stage fodder (I just saw a winsome musical about Charles Bukowski), and this one was popular while the Brownings were still read. That day has past. Now it's Dickinson (cast: one) or Austen or Woolf or Plath. Too bad: Elizabeth B B's pathological father was a Freudian treat! (Charles Laughton in the movie, almost a match for Fredric March.) You might call this a Woman's Problem play, but her father didn't oppose her working -- just marrying.

"Dangerous Corner," J.B. Priestley -- Priestley still has some shreds of reputation -- but why? Did he ever, in any medium, create a credible human being? These are robots; the interlocking secrets they reveal at regular intervals (you'll never guess which secret is so horrible as to be only hinted, never quite mentioned: "He should never have married") are not engrossing; they are 12 shoes dropping, thump thump thump. Worst play of the whole collection. Cavalcade is at least fun as soap.

"The Green Bay Tree," Mordaunt Shairp (a pseudonym for Sutton Vane? Or vice-versa?). Laurence Olivier met his first wife, Jill Esmond, while playing the beautiful boy rescued from dreadful (not just low class and inebriated and Bible-ridden, but Tasteless too) antecedents by a prissy but rich and TERRIBLY CONTROLLING old fruit. What can be the nature of their bond? (It is never made clear. Did I miss something?) It all ends tragically -- no woman is quite so attractive as fresh flowers, all that property, a new motorcar, the villa in Italy and Leo G. Carroll as the devoted butler who knows how (and when) to whip up a sidecar.

"Victoria Regina," Laurence Housman. Quick: which TWO playwrights in this collection recently appeared as characters in a Stoppard play? Aw, you guessed. This one had Helen Hayes and (dear God) Vincent Price as the Power Couple of Olde England. I bet Helen Mirren could breathe some life into it by simply reading all the lines in a spirit entirely opposite to Housman's. That would be FUN.

Victoria is not a modern or liberated woman, in this version or any other.

"The Corn is Green," Emlyn Williams. As I said: besides Earnest, the other decent play in this collection. Ethel Barrymore played the schoolteacher on the New York stage, with Mildred Dunnock trailing after. Beats hell out of "The History Boys," if you ask me -- it's ABOUT something, but it doesn't PRETEND to be about something.

So: Ten plays about society's hypocrisy about Women and their changing role in the World.

Eleven plays about society's hypocrisies in general.

Five plays about the survival of the British Empire in spite of Everything (even hypocrisy).

Three plays about soldiers, but only one of them about War.

Several plays about squeamish sexuality aside from the issue of Women who have been around the block: adultery, homosexuality, interracial harem horror, incest and/or miscegenation and/or religious mania.

One play that actually touches on politics (but it's by a Scot).

One play gloriously about absolutely nothing (but then, it's by an Irishman -- the characters are English -- and anyway, he was sent up for two years' hard labor soon after the play opened).

Tastes, like mores, have changed.

... I wonder what was playing at the Fringe in 1893.

Dunkirk may be the best thing that ever happened to the British theater. At least since the Irish Protestant Ascendancy went under and stopped producing West End playwrights. (BBC-TV probably helped a lot too. And Joe Orton.) (And the Irish are still producing playwrights!)


Miguel S said...

Coward and Maugham are actually quite good in their best plays. And the proof is that whenever they are revived they are usually successful.

Brightshadow said...

I don't know Maugham's plays, but I agree about Coward -- the choice of Cavalcade is almost inexplicable to me. (It was another age.) I enjoy many of Maugham's novels (esp. Theatre, The Narrow Corner, The Hidden Veil) and can easily see that any older actress would adore playing Lady Kitty in The Circle. Very clever of Maugham to make her at once ghastly and irresistible -- and a part any actress of a certain age would crave.