Monday, September 5, 2011

Comedies of Manners: The Admirable Crichton & Heartbreak House at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and  Nicole Underbay

James Barrie’s comedy of manners The Admirable Crichton has spawned so many movies that it’s in the collective imagination even if people no longer recognize its title. Gloria Swanson starred in a Cecil B. DeMille silent version called Male and Female in 1919; there was a breezy, vaudeville-style musical adaptation called We’re Not Dressing in 1934 with Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Ethel Merman and Burns & Allen; and a faithful English film, released in North America as Paradise Lagoon, came out in 1957. Lina Wertmüller’s Marxist variation, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, received undeserved acclaim in 1975. Yet, serviceable as it is, the play itself is rarely revived. The Shaw Festival is mounting it this season, for the first time in thirty-five years.

The premise is ingenious. An English lord with liberal ideas  he has a habit, wearying to his family and embarrassing to his domestic staff, of inviting the servants to tea  winds up shipwrecked on a desert island with his daughters, an indolent young member of the leisure class who is paying court to one of them, and a pair of servants, including his indispensable valet Crichton. Because only Crichton possesses the practical skills to keep them alive and thriving, he becomes the ruler of the island community and his employer, the Earl of Loam, is demoted to the position of servant  until they’re rescued and returned to England. Loam learns through experience what Crichton has been protesting all along: that class boundaries can’t be traversed, even though the make-up of the upper class may shift according to Darwinian dictates. (Except for Paradise Lagoon, the film versions don’t stick to Barrie’s high-comedy ending. We’re Not Dressing adopts romantic-comedy mode  Lombard is the snobby heiress who has to be brought down to earth by Crosby’s unpretentious sailor  and Swept Away, which is rather nasty, takes great pleasure in putting down the rich bitch, Mariangela Melato, by showing that she can’t resist the sad-eyed macho prole played by Giancarlo Giannini. Male and Female veers away from comedy of manners early on straight into melodrama.)

Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919)
The Admirable Crichton would seem to be an ideal text for the Shaw, and its structure is airtight; it shouldn’t be hard to pull off. But Morris Panych’s production, set against one of those incomprehensible Ken MacDonald sets that looks like pages torn from a biologist’s sketchbook (didn’t his design for last year’s The Doctor’s Dilemma look pretty much the same?), is dressed up with so many irrelevant oddball ideas that you have to squint to see Barrie’s play through the flounces and furbelows. The characters are introduced, through the descriptions in the stage directions, by actors dressed up as animals (The Wolf, played by Billy Lake, acts as a sort of Master of Ceremonies) who also perform songs from the 1920s  two decades, that is, after the play was written, long after the Victorian era was over and Loam’s social experiment would have ceased to make any sense  though Charlotte Dean’s costumes belong to Barrie’s era, not Gershwin’s. The play opens with movie titles projected onto a scrim, but when he simulates the storm at sea that strands the characters (in Barrie’s script, it occurs offstage between acts one and two), Panych draws on the conventions of nineteenth-century stage spectacle. There’s an elaborate musical-comedy finale that’s quite well choreographed by Valerie Moore, but it’s not even in the same style as the music-hall interludes. You get the sense that Panych pulled these tricks out of a chest of discarded concepts from other shows.

The cast of twenty-seven includes a number of talented Shaw stalwarts, most of whom don’t have much to do; the best of the lot is the redoubtable David Schurmann as Loam. When the animals clear out of the way and the production settles down to the actual script, the actors, who are, after all, trained to perform plays just like this one, appear at their ease and we get a chance to settle back and enjoy Barrie’s banter. Only Steven Sutcliffe, as Crichton, seems tentative and uncomfortable throughout, as if he weren’t exactly sure what’s expected of him. But Crichton has perfect confidence, whether representing the servant class in England or the natural, Rousseauesque aristocracy on the island; he’s as unflappable as Jeeves. Sutcliffe is playing the wrong text. But then, who knows what play the director thought he got hold of?

Deborah Hay and Michael Ball (photo by David Cooper)

Heartbreak House, which is receiving a tip-top production by Christopher Newton at the Shaw this season, isn’t like anything else George Bernard Shaw ever wrote, though you recognize the Shaw trademarks  the ironic reversals, the high-comic use of language, the social satire. He subtitled it “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” and the Russian he was thinking of was certainly Chekhov, spokesman for the heartbroken, the emotionally disenfranchised: like Chekhov’s figures the characters in Shaw’s play keep falling in love with people they can’t have. So the play is more melancholy than Shaw generally got, though it’s considerably wittier and sprightlier than his Chekhov models. The specific Chekhov he must have been thinking of is The Cherry Orchard; both plays spotlight the way in which an aristocracy has set itself up for destruction. (Shaw wrote Heartbreak House during the First World War, though it wasn’t produced until 1919, and you can clearly see the influence of that cataclysmic event on his depiction of a doomed upper class.)

There is a conventional premise, but it’s quickly undermined. Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis), the ingénue, is a poor girl who has decided to marry a man she doesn’t love, the industrial magnate Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell), because she sees no practical alternative. Besides, she’s grateful to him for rescuing her father, Mazzini (Patrick McManus), after his business went south. We expect that, when Mangan admits that he actually bankrupted her father, she’ll refuse to go through with the engagement, but his confession only fascinates her; it doesn’t change her mind. She’s in love with someone else, a romantic adventurer named Marcus Darnley, but he turns out to be an extravagant liar whose name is really Hector Hushabye (Blair Williams) and who is married to her friend Hesione (Deborah Hay). Both of these revelations occur the day these and other characters assemble, high comedy-style, for a weekend at Hesione’s father’s house in Sussex. Aside from Hesione’s father, the retired antiquated seaman Captain Shotover (Michael Ball), an inventor whose creations keep the family from falling into ruin, we meet his other daughter Ariadne Utterword (Laurie Paton), who has returned to England after years abroad with the man her father warned her not to marry; her brother-in-law Randall (Patrick Galligan), who follows her around like a puppy dog and whom she treats like a pest; the housekeeper who raised the two children, Nurse Guinness (Patricia Hamilton); and her estranged husband, Billy Dunn (William Vickers)  no relation to Mazzini, though Shotover keeps confusing them. Billy is an inept thief who, like Ariadne, wanders back into this house from which he has been long absent.

Mary McCarthy
It’s a very strange play, really: its locale is a house built to resemble a ship that carries the characters to and fro on the ocean of life, if you will, but doesn’t actually take them anywhere. (Newton emphasizes this idea in the third act: when the characters sit out in the garden at night, they’re really rocking gently on the waves, and Leslie Frankish’s set places another house in the distance, foreshortened as it would be if viewed from the perspective of a ship bobbing some distance from the shore.) Almost nothing happens in the course of the day and evening during which the play takes place except that the house is unsuccessfully burgled (by Billy Dunn) and at the end some other nation begins to drop bombs on England. One explodes the dynamite in the shed, killing  and thus equalizing  Billy Dunn and Boss Mangan, who have run there to take shelter. The dramatic device of throwing a disparate group of characters together and having them change in the course of their encounter is a classic one, and not only in high comedy, but what’s odd about Heartbreak House (Ellie’s name for the place) is that the characters don’t change at all. Or rather, they’re changing constantly throughout the play because they’re fluid by nature. 

This fluidity encompasses major contradictions. In a brilliant essay about the play Mary McCarthy writes, “None of the characters keeps his shape; none is consistent. The captain is wise, but he is also crazy; he is the only strong person on the stage, but he gets his strength from rum. The powerful capitalist has no capital; he lives on traveling expenses and commissions. He is a hard bargainer, but his heart is pitifully vulnerable. The braggart and liar is a courageous man. The worldly diplomat [Randall Utterword] is a lady’s lapdog. The ingénue is a materialistic schemer. The burglar is no burglar. . . . These [and other] contradictory traits of character, revealed one by one as the play goes on, succeed but do not permanently displace one another. They ebb and flow through the characters, and it is no accident . . . that Heartbreak House is a ship, its owner and philosopher a captain, and the play’s most poetic imagery predominantly marine.” Hesione addresses this fluidity when she insists, “People don’t have their virtues and vices in sets: they have them anyhow, all mixed.”

The play has an unorthodox shape; McCarthy argues that it’s a layer cake in which the top tier is about “a houseful of unhappy, articulate, rudderless English people of the upper middle class,” the middle tier an allegory of the downfall of that class (certainly the characters’ names prepare us for allegory), and the bottom tier a treatise on human nature. Here’s McCarthy again: “It is this third layer on which the play rests; yet it is a foundation neither fixed nor solid, and it keeps the other elements, superimposed upon it, in a kind of dizzying perpetual motion.” The top layer suggests a combination of melodrama, farce and comedy of manners. The second layer is where Shaw’s social and political focus comes into play. And the third makes a true allegory impossible: the characters can’t stand for anything because they keep shifting, and the play contains no moral.

To put it in a slightly different way, Heartbreak House is a dramatic convenience, or an allegorical setting, that transcends itself in the course of the play: the exchanges between the characters, and the characters themselves, are so extraordinary that you accept the parameters of this place, symbolic as they are, as real. Heartbreak House may be a preposterous  or at least an exaggerated  dramatic locale, but the psychology of the characters feels authentic, and so does the milieu they come out of. This bizarre setting gives them dramatic license to behave unconventionally; only the visitors maintain some semblance of normal comportment, and not for long. They break their hearts (besides Ellie’s fruitless adoration of Hector, Mangan falls for Hesione, Hesione for Mazzini, and so forth), but even heartbreak doesn’t arrive as expected. “I have a horrible fear that my heart is broken,” Ellie confides in Hesione, “but that heartbreak is not like what I thought it must be.”

Rex Harrison & Amy Irving in the 80s
The play is, I think, a sublime piece of work, more complex and surprising than anything else Shaw produced (even than Man and Superman and Major Barbara, his other two masterpieces), and a production as confidently directed and finely acted and imaginatively designed as Newton’s inspires gratitude, at least in this viewer. Everyone in it is terrific except for William Vickers, whose dullness in the role of Billy Dunn should possibly be blamed on Shaw himself. The brief interlude in which he appears is often cut in production for length; you wouldn’t expect the Shaw Festival, with its inclusive attitude, to leave him out, but his appearance around the mid-point of the show seems to unbalance it and it doesn’t recover until shortly before the second intermission.

Michael Ball is a light, puckish Captain Shotover. He doesn’t anchor the play as Rex Harrison once did (in a marvelous New York revival in the eighties that was shown on television); he’s too quicksilver, and you get the sense that his wisdom is irrelevant, though it enchants Ellie. The other wise man on the scene is Mazzini Dunn (played with ineffable sweetness by Patrick McManus), but he doesn’t have the practical skills to keep himself solvent. Meanwhile the practical man, Mangan, is reduced to a wailing baby by Ellie  who declares she’s going to make a domestic convenience of him and then uses some mesmerist’s skill she picked up to put him to sleep (or at any rate to silence)  and by Hesione, whose beauty incapacitates him in every other way. Benedict Campbell brings his amazing vocal technique to bear on Mangan’s driven-to-distraction speeches, and he’s such a bear of an actor that his character’s helplessness is almost painfully funny. The men sway in the wind in this production. Though Blair Williams gives Hector the declamatory power of a nineteenth-century matinee idol, his sad eyes reveal what Ellie learns  that he’s a sham. Patrick Galligan makes Randall sound like a wag used to holding court in an Edwardian drawing room, until Ariadne handles him with the roughness of an unsentimental nanny sending her charge off to bed. All these men  except for Shotover, who’s past desire  view the women with wonder or terror or some combination of the two, and indeed the women are formidable (including Patricia Hamilton’s Nurse Guinness, who quietly ignores everyone’s commands and always does what she thinks is best). But they’re not cruel. I’d say that in this production it’s Hesione who provides the ballast, because Deborah Hay brings a maternal warmth to the role as well as an element of sorrowful longing. Her performance is the main reason that this may be the most emotional Heartbreak House I’ve ever seen.

That directorial choice, however, doesn’t detract from its dottiness. I’ve
sometimes thought that the Shotover sisters were reminiscent of the Red and White Queens in Alice Through the Looking Glass, but they’re not the only Lewis Carroll-like figures in this production: Ball’s inscrutable Shotover is a bit like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and at different times Williams and McManus suggest the White Knight, Williams because of his woebegone air and McManus because of his dusty, fragile look. Frankish, who also designed the costumes, seems to have had a particularly grand time with the characters’ hairstyles, which are so extravagant and individualized that they play off each other. The production gets at Shaw’s peculiar brand of poetic fancy, which keeps Heartbreak House afloat. Mangan is thrown into a tizzy by this house, because he has no imagination and no poetry in his soul  he’s open to nothing. So he goes a little crazy in this exotic, uncorseted atmosphere, while the facades tumble about him and he can’t duck fast enough. Even the supposedly conventional Ariadne stays upright as the night winds on and the conversation becomes wilder; she was brought up in this house, and though she ran away from it she’s more than capable of holding her own when she returns to it. But Mangan whines pitifully that his head is splitting, and at the end of the play there’s nothing for him to do but get himself blown up. The apocalypse at the finish is the only way the play could possibly end after all the characters have been through, emotionally and philosophically, and after all that Shaw wants them to stand for. But it’s a joyous sort of apocalypse; it doesn’t spoil our good time, or theirs.

Ellie calls Heartbreak House “this silly house, this strangely happy house, this agonizing house, this house without foundations.” It’s a house where all absurdities are real, all emotions are played out, all opposites are possible. It is, of course, humanity.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes forThe Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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