Monday, June 24, 2019

Rutherford and Son: Imitation Ibsen

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son at London's National Theatre.. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Roger Allam delivers a flawless performance as the icy, single-minded North Country industrialist John Rutherford Sr. in the National Theatre production of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son. Allam is an actor’s actor. I saw him last season as quite a different sort of rich man, the warm, voluble John Christie, the founder of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, in David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano, and the two characters are so utterly unalike you can scarcely believe they’re created by the same man. The film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Jane Fonda as the prostitute Bree Daniel in Klute that when she walks toward the camera it’s Bree and not Fonda you see coming toward you, and that’s the way I felt about Allam in Rutherford and Son: he’s sealed himself inside the character, and the completeness of the portrait is mesmerizing, in the way that a great Rembrandt or Monet portrait is.

Sowerby received some acclaim for this play when it was first produced but she was never embraced as a major playwright. (She died in 1970.) The National, which mounted Rutherford and Son twenty-five years ago, and the Shaw Festival, which has done both it and her play The Stepmother, have attempted to correct that omission, but though Polly Findlay’s production is impressively acted and sumptuously designed, I can’t see Sowerby becoming a repertory staple. Rutherford and Son bears the imprint of Henrik Ibsen; the dialogue is literate and the characters drawn with intelligence. But it doesn’t burrow underneath the conventions of melodrama the way Ibsen did to reveal the rooted obstacles and contradictions underneath. Here’s the dramatic situation. Rutherford is a working-class man who used his genius for business and his insight into character to rise to wealth and prominence as the owner of a glassmaking factory, but the calculating, dispassionate way in which he manages those qualities is the same attitude he uses on the members of his family. His wife, who might have been a softening influence on him, is dead, and when he mentions her it’s only to blame her for making their three children weak and inadequate to his purposes, a process that he admits to exacerbating in the two boys by sending them away to school to turn them into gentlemen. (Here we recognize Shaw, too, among Sowerby’s influences.) His eldest, John Jr. (Sam Troughton), has never taken an interest in the business, but having failed at making a living any other way – and now recovering from an unidentified illness that appears to be consumption – he has moved back home with his wife Mary (Anjana Vasan) and their baby son. John’s brother Richard (Harry Hepple) became a minister; his parish has been his home village of Grantley, but, having met with stubborn resistance from the workers and their families, for which he credits his father’s indifference to religion and disdain for his endeavors, he has finally decided to seek a position elsewhere. Janet (Justin Mitchell), the only Rutherford daughter, has the worst of it. Her father treats her like an unpaid servant while his expectations that she needs to marry a man who befits her station has made it impossible for her to find the domestic happiness she envies in the local women. She has fallen in love with her father’s foreman, Martin (Joe Armstrong), but they have to sneak around, and when Rutherford uncovers their relationship, his response is – as she expected – to call her a whore.

The first act takes a while to unfold – longer than it needs to, since the situation is clear enough. But the problem with the play isn’t really repetition or overwriting. Early in act two Dick pleads with his father to see the mother of a worker he’s just fired for stealing. Rutherford doesn’t want to, but Dick has already invited the woman, a Mrs. Henderson (Sally Rogers), to come by the house. She’s slovenly and drunk, and though we may wish that Rutherford were more humane in general, we can’t help thinking that he was probably right in concluding that giving her son a second chance (a third, as it turns out) isn’t likely to improve his morals. The scene, which goes on for a long time, doesn’t tell us anything we need to know except to confirm our sense that Dick is a well-intentioned sap who’s not much good at reading people. If you don’t look at the scene in terms of the ideas it could be developing, then it’s easy to see what it’s doing there: it’s melodrama. And that’s what Rutherford and Son adds up to. Ibsen starts with melodrama – the conventions of the well-made play – and undermines them to explore profound ideas about the Scandinavian society of the late nineteenth century, his society; Sowerby gets the lay of the land right but whatever you’re going to learn about the characters and their environment you’ve acquired by the end of the first act.

There are, however, a few surprises. When we learn that John Jr. has come up with a formula for a cheaper glassmaking process and his father pooh-poohs it, we may sympathize with his resentment at his father’s dismissal of him, but because Sowerby has written John as weak and entitled we expect that it won’t turn out to be any good. But in fact it’s good enough that Rutherford contrives to steal it from him. And at the end of the play, Mary, who has remained quietly in the margins of the household and whose father-in-law scarcely deigns to speak to her or otherwise acknowledge her presence, strikes a bargain with him that illustrates a genius for strategizing that we never suspected. But it’s Rutherford himself who engages us most: melodrama this may be, but he’s no stock villain. He wheedles John’s formula out of Martin, to whom John has entrusted it, by calling on his loyalty and arguing that his motivation isn’t greed for profit but devotion to the business he built up from nothing, which is doomed to go under in a few years if he doesn’t find a way to protect it. This may sound like just a way of dressing up greed for profit, but Sowerby makes the distinction clear. His argument wins Martin over – not just because loyalty is his defining characteristic but also because, in his experience, his employer is always in the right. That is to say that his judgment is generally sound, even though his callous treatment of his children repels us. Sowerby moves partway toward Shaw in her depiction of this character, but she can’t go all the way because she’s tied to the impulses of melodrama that Shaw, like Ibsen, moved precipitously past. By the end of act three Janet’s father has thrown her out of his house and, since Martin lacks the courage to marry her over Rutherford’s objections, her fate appears to be sealed; all that’s missing is a leap into the river.

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 for The Threepenny Review 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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