School for Scandal at the Folger

 Joseph Surface attempting to seduce Lady Teazle

 

          Is it possible that the eighteenth-century stage offered more adventurous female possibilities than our own can imagine?  Or is it that we can’t imagine that they imagined them?

 

          These questions run through my mind nearly every time I see an eighteenth-century play on stage—or as the public radio commercial for the recent Folger Theater production of R. B. Sheridan’s School for Scandal would have it, a “Restoration comedy.”

 

 

          First let me say that there were some very wonderful moments, fine acting, and astute theatrical decisions in this production.  The cast nailed the “screen scene,” in which the hypocritical Joseph Surface hides Lady Teazle behind one panel while her elderly husband peeks out from behind another, only to have Joseph’s rakish brother Charles expose the lady (and her would-be seducer) in this compromising situation.  Kate Eastwood Norris brought exactly the right balance of ambition, provincialism, and good-heartedness to her Lady Teazle.

 

                              

 

          Undermining this otherwise successful production was the decision to cast a man in the part of Lady Sneerwell.  Apparently, skilled actresses over 35 are in such demand that none were available. Gender-blindness was not the point, for the production opens with a wigless and topless Sneerwell enjoying a massage from Snake.  Why does the original Gossip Girl, who controls all the reputations in London, become a transvestite male in the Folger production?   

 

 

 

          The most obvious possibility is an attempt to get some mileage out of eliding the eighteenth century with the nineteenth century, setting the play in “the time of Oscar Wilde” when “the veneer of respectability covers the hidden depth of scandal” (Director’s Notes). If you are setting a play in the time of Oscar Wilde, why not turn one of the female characters into a gay man?  Directors often think that Restoration and eighteenth-century plays aren’t funny enough, and add things to make them more contemporary.  Sometimes such ideas work and sometimes they don’t.

 

 

 

          But I have a darker theory.  With Lady Sneerwell, Sheridan recalls the figure of the powerful, sometimes embittered, and always sexually experienced women who appeared regularly in the period’s earlier, less sentimental comedies that Sheridan admired.  They include such memorable characters as Mrs. Loveit from The Man of Mode, the Fidget ladies in The Country Wife, Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, Betty Frisque in The Countrey Wit, Mrs. Turnup in The Morning Ramble, Mrs. Jilt in Epsom Wells, and Angellica Bianca in The Rover.  These women attempt to turn neglect into power and/or pleasure, with varying degrees of success.  Unlike these earlier figures, however, Lady Sneerwell embraces an alternative to sexual maneuvering: gossip.  While The School for Scandal, like The Rover and The Man of Mode, ultimately expels its dangerous amazon, she offers an intriguing alternative to the virginal, rumor-adverse Mariah. (If a director really wanted to challenge the audience, why not Mariah as a gay transvestite man?)  Contemporary readers and directors find these disreputable female characters puzzling because they do not comport with popular images of pre-1900 female gender constructions.  Yet it also seems possible that the Restoration- and eighteenth-century theaters imagined possibilities for women that lie beyond the scope of the contemporary scene.

 

LR

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6 responses to “School for Scandal at the Folger

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  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Laura,

    I have to say that most of these period switches drive me up the wall: I hope the director can tell the difference between the “time of Oscar Wilde” and the “time of Sheridan.”

    And the gender play suggested by such drag staging seems about as transgressive as La Cage aux Folles.

    But that doesn’t seem as interesting to me as this question: how could a production make a theatrical case for a powerful, experienced older woman without turning her into a hag or a harpy? (in other words, without diminishing her sexual power) The best example I can name is Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons. Is that the kind of performance you’re talking about?

    DM

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    I’m not sure I remember this film well enough to comment, but I think the problem with many of these productions is that they don’t fully appreciate the complexity of these characters and take them for comic absurdities (which they are in part). Robert Erickson has a great article on Lady Wishfort called “Lady Wishfort and the Will of the World,” in which he points out that she is the comic butt, of course, by there is also a poignancy in her vulnerability [(MLQ) 1984 Dec.; 45 (4): 338-349].

  4. Dave Mazella

    Ah, I see: the difference lies in the decision to treat the older woman’s sexuality/power as comic rather than tragic. Close can be quite witty in this role, but she is never the object of other characters’ contempt.

    DM

  5. Mark Howell-Meri

    Dear Laura Rosenthal, I’d be delighted to be in touch. I am a theatre specialist and a performance-practitioner. My views of 18th century play production are regarded as radical by some, especially conservatives who prefer to see plays staged without any cuts, in a supposed attempt to represent “the views of the author” whatever they might be. Because play production is concerned with audiences NOW (and should have no regard at all for audiences in the past) then I am we should be searching for meanings we can find in them which ring with the same values and interests we have today. I am currently trying hard to finish my book “Theatre & Liberty: Eighteenth-Century Play Production in England” which supports the work of J. Slagle Catherine Burroughs and others by tracing a feminist stance in much eighteenth century writing. The plays I research are “acting plays” not “reading plays”. When one only reads these plays there is a problem. They were never intended to be read. When one acts speeches from these plays by women, the feminist stance is perfectly clear. (I use “feminist” not to name a movement from the 18th century – which didn’t even exist then – but as a critical lens through which to reveal meanings in 18th century plays.) This stance can be clearly traced (most evidently, of course, in Wollstonecraft’s writing but also in other radical writing first reprinted in Bridget Hill’s wonderful anthology “Eigteenth Century Women”. My view is this: the views of strong female characters on the 18th century stage have been deliberately ignored and suppressed by 20th century literary critics. One only has to give students copies of speeches by Sarah in The London Merchant (1731), Mrs Sullen in The Beaux Stratagem (1708), Yarico in Inkjle and Yarico (1787), the scene between her aunt and Ms Biddly Bellair in Garrick’s Miss in her Teens (1747) or the hysterical scene between Capt. Flash “fighting” with Fribble, or ask them to perform the central prostitute scene in The Beggar’s Opera (1728) – which initiates the downfall of the monstrous Macheath. Without discussing any of these scenes. Without telling them anything about 18th century plays – ask them to brainstorm what they see as the themes of these hit plays. I am pretty sure they will mention – at some point – the “gender debate” or “attack on male abuse of women”. I have been arguing this point for more than 20 years to various professors and 18th century specialists. My draft book will attempt to link the suppression of free play production in England for fifty one years (1737-1788) to the fact that women were allowed such a free voice onstage in some of these characters. These plays – together with Sheridan’s The Rivals – which also has very strong and direct attack on men staged brilliantly at the Theatre Royal Bristol (1766) in 2005 (the production can be ordered from Heritage Videos on DVD) – were amongst the most performed acroos the UK and internationally during the 18th century. It has never been a coincidence for me that 18th century people across the world regarded Liberty as female. This was not “Women’s Lib”: it was the 18th century people celebrating the fact that “Liberty is Woman”. This is an area of scholarship which has been completely and deliberately ignored by positivist male and politically conservative scholars. Instead they have distracted our view of 18th century play production to encourage us to view it conservatively, using language like “Romantic” “Sentimental” and pressing us to regard 18th century play production as heavily scenic and operatic – with huge 18th century dresses, wigs, high heels and breeches. We should reconsider and challenge these views for which there is only a small amount of evidence when the spotlight shifts from the three Theatres Royal in Westminster (no 18th theatres in the city of London at this time – they were all abolished and suppressed) and shines on the Long Rooms and tented booth theatres where strolling players learned their skills of audience engagement on three-sided stages. They had no scenery. They wore their own clothes to perform plays. These performers needed to engage audiences in something that mattered – I believe the theme of Liberty can be found in every single one of the plays most performed during the eighteenth century. This should not be surprising given the English Revolution of 1688 – which made “Liberty” the popular theme for debate across the UK (see Kathleen Wilson) – and the French Revolution almost exactly one hundred years later. We should rethink the 18th century theatre and start to see how productions of 18th century plays might be staged with performers wearing their own clothes, in theatre spaces with stages no larger than 15ft 6in wide by 15ft deep (the dimensions of the stage at the surviving Georgian theatre in Richmond Yorkshire (1788)). I think if performers follow this approach they will find that 18th century plays become much more popular – just as we have found Shakespeare’s plays became more popular with teenagers and adults once performers started staging them in contemporary dress in major English theatres from c1945. Mark Howell-Meri

  6. Laura Rosenthal

    Mark,

    Thanks for your comments! Your project sounds very interesting and it would indeed be an enlightening to give these speeches to students without the plays first. Millwood in The London Merchant says some pretty startling things, as do many other women on stage. I would ultimately want, of course, to put them back in context as well, which certainly (at least from a literary critical point of view) shapes the meaning, but you’re right that there is value in looking at them on their own as well. It is also of course true that these plays were not initially meant to be read but performed, although 18th-century playwrights certainly made money on the print copies of their plays. Characters IN the plays talk about reading plays–often country cousins coming to town. Doesn’t Margery Pinchwife buy up a bunch of plays in The Country Wife? Also, more basically, there aren’t many other ways to getting the plays to your students than in print, although I do try to discuss performance as much as possible. I have always thought that Restoration and 18th century plays are perfect for college productions, but we don’t get to see them nearly as often as we would like. I’m certainly not against modernizing, but I feel like it works best when it’s in the spirit of the original–or at least a director’s coherent fantasy of the spirit of the original. I saw an amazing production of The Revenger’s Tragedy that was semi-modernized at the Red Bull Theater in NYC a couple of years ago, which I though was considerably better than the Nation Theatre production in London this spring, in which they approached the play more like a ‘classic.’