Category Archives: Theater

When you’re done grading, go to the theater

 

Colley_Cibber_as_Lord_Foppington_clipped

Ever on the lookout for productions of drama from the extra long eighteenth century, I am passing along the announcement of this production of Le Cid (1636) by Pierre Corneille (translated by Richard Wilbur) at the Storm Theatre in New York.  This is the same theater and the same director responsible for an outstanding production of The London Merchant,  discussed here and here on this blog. The Red Bull Theatre’s production of Volpone might also be of interest.  I have not yet seen this, but admired this company’s deliciously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy a few years ago and hope to see Volpone as well.  Finally, today’s New York Times reviewed a production of Amy Freed’s play, Restoration Comedy, based in part on Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. The review did not make the production sound particularly tempting, but I would be happy to hear from anyone with a different perspective.

The (Other) London Merchant

Millwood’s character might be the hardest to read in the play, but the Storm Theatre’s production offered a successful interpretation.  In the opening of this performance, Millwood (played brilliantly by Jessica Myhr) appears on one side and Thorowgood on the other.  While Thorowgood instructs his apprentices on the higher purpose of the merchant, Lucy transforms Millwood, through dress, hair, and makeup, into a fashionable beauty with (I think significantly) no obvious markers of her profession.  Thus Thorowgood and Millwood are set off against each other from the beginning.

One surprising possibility that this production brought out but that is less obvious in reading is the comic potential of the first half of the play.  Millwood could have been Helena from The Rover, flirting impishly with George.  She is manipulative, but performs these scenes with a light touch.  While readers of the play know what will happen and critics pause over her ominous lines about treating men like the Spaniards treated the native Americans, in this production Millwood seduces the audience along with George.  Even when she returns with the story about the rapacious guardian, the scene has a more comic than ominous effect, like a Restoration play in which a husband needs to be manipulated so that a lover can sneak out the back door.

Millwood’s character takes a darker turn in the second half of the play.  Interesting, though, her most truly nefarious demands take place off stage, reported by Lucy.  This, one the one hand, makes the play a bit talky.  On the other hand, it seems actually to preserve Millwood’s character in certain ways.  Lillo seems to be leading us toward maintaining some sympathy for Millwood by leaving the murder request off stage. We don’t actually know exactly what transpired between her and George.  If this scene were staged, it would clearly occupy the center of the play, as George would be choosing between his passion and his sense of humanity.  It is worth thinking about, then, that Lillo didn’t want this decision to displace other tensions in the play.

Critics have often read Millwood as simply evil.  Feminists have alternatively pointed to the ways that Lillo builds sympathy for her position through her sense of her own victimization.  But this production did not take either of these routes.  Myhr’s Millwood is instead a Hobbesian, a rationalist, and a skeptic.  In the hanging scene at the end (included in this production), George and Millwood stand side by side awaiting their death.  George prays, then prays for Millwood; the performance compares her panic to his resignation.  Thorowgood observes that while the laws of man cannot distinguish them, a higher law will recognize the difference.  Nevertheless, we see them dramatically meet the identical fate, walking in coordinated rhythm to the same gallows.

Myhr’s powerful Millwood, then, does not assert female victimization, but instead demands that we consider the possibility that nothing exists beyond the material world as she and Barnwell sink into the same abyss.

The London Merchant at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory

I recently had the privilege of seeing George Lillo’s The London Merchant performed in New York at the Storm Theatre/Blackfriars Repertory.  The entire short run has sold out:  good news for the theatre but bad news for everyone else (unless you have tickets for next weekend).  The production demonstrated the extraordinary stageworthiness of this play.  I hope to put up a few posts on the different character portrayals to suggest how much depth this company discovered in a play routinely dismissed as either morally simplistic or ideologically overburdened. I will begin with Thorowgood, and the recognition of how much of the interpretation of this play depends on the way he is played.

In this production, Thorowgood is not a looming tower of strength, but a rather weak and ineffectual; he represents himself as knowing, but turns out to be somewhat baffled by the passions of the young .  Remember, he has no idea that his daughter loves his apprentice, even though she comes close to revealing this when she refuses the attentions of the men who court her.  In this production he walks with a cane; he is literally and perhaps metaphorically “lame.” An early scene gives him a crucial opportunity to save George.  George begs his master to hear his confession of the night of passion with Millwood, but Thorowgood refuses to listen.  We can’t really tell why.  Is Thorowgood uncomfortable hearing about George’s sexuality?  He seems like he is trying to be generous and forgiving, but there is an undertone in his refusal that suggests something else.  It need not be sinister; he might simply be oblivious. As George’s sins accumulate, we realize that had Thorowgood allowed George to confess at this early stage, then George might have discussed with him Millwood’s subsequent claim to distress. Thorowgood probably would have seen through her manipulation and thus prevented the entire tragedy which depends, after all, on George’s isolation.  Millwood is able to lead to George further and further astray because George becomes so ashamed of his own desires that he won’t share his predicament.  Unlike Thorowgood, Trueman begs to hear about his friend’s source of misery, but the damage has already been done. The only authority figure in the play has essentially rejected his plea for counsel.

This reading of The London Merchant is consistent with some other moral texts of the period.  Richardson, for example, makes clear in Clarissa that her tragedy could have been prevented by a more forgiving father.  Young people get in deep trouble in these texts when figures of authority abandon them, or simply prove weak.

Thorowgood’s weakness becomes further apparent in his confrontation with Millwood.  Disarmed of her pistol and thrown to the ground by Trueman, Millwood delivers her damning speech against men on her knees.  Yet, with these two men towering over her, she nevertheless astonishes and humiliates them.  When she refutes Thorowgood’s milquetoast speculation that she must have known only bad men by reporting how she has served the full gamut, he looks sheepish.  Maybe even guilty.  He admires her wit.  When reading the play, “wit” always came across to me as devious cleverness.  But in this production, it seems to mean “brilliance”; or more specifically, Hobbesian rigor.

By the time we get to Thorowgood’s  directive to “See there the bitter fruits of passion’s detested reign” as George lies in the dungeon,  we know what the merchant does not: that passion cannot entirely explain the horrific chain of events that lead George to this dismal scene.  George, like Millwood, has fallen victim to institutional as well as personal failures.

This is not to say that it was a “pro-Millwood” production.  That would be inaccurate.  The Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, according to the program, was “the first professional religious theatre ever tried in New York City.”  In spite of– or perhaps because of– connections to Catholic institutions, this production took a play that appears to be about moral certainly and revealed it to be, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Gaming Table at the Folger

Here is story in today’s Washington Post on the Folger production of Centlivre’s play (The Basset Table), in which I am quoted praising her feminism.  There are also links to the production in progress.

The London Merchant

The Storm Theatre and  The Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York are now producing George Lillo’s The London Merchant!  The play received a favorable review in The New York Times.  I have never seen this play produced or even heard of a modern production, but students consistently like it. The production seems like it would be well worth seeing.

Centlivre play at the Folger next year!

For anyone who can get to DC next winter:

The Gaming Table
By Susanna Centlivre | Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
January 24 – March 4
A sparkling comedy as effervescent as a glass of champagne. The thrills of the gaming table stylishly play out against the eccentricities of English manners in this comedy by one of the most successful playwrights of the 18th century.

I’m guessing that this is The Basset Table, renamed because no one plays basset anymore.

The Bitch of Living

According to Samuel Derrick’s General View of the Stage  (1759), opera came to England when William Davenant (who claimed to be Shakespeare’s natural son) organized musical entertainments with story lines. These were not “plays,” of course, because Oliver Cromwell had forbidden that; they were just musical entertainments that happened to tell a story.  There wasn’t anything particularly subversive about these operas, but their inception suggests that there might have been something right from the beginning about the form that was pushing the envelope.  As least in England, musical entertainments were designed to get away with something.  Their disturbing potential did not go unnoticed. In The Prompter, Aaron Hill rails against the popularity of opera: it is foreign; it is performed by freaks who can’t possibly feel the desires they sing about; it banishes reason.  The Spectator also muses about how audiences will flock to performances they can’t understand and that historians of the future will be deeply puzzled by this phenomenon.  John Gay fully mined their seditious potential in The Beggar’s Opera.

 I was thinking about this last weekend when I saw Spring Awakening at the Kennedy Center.  I think if Gay and Brecht had met as teenagers, they would have come up with something like Spring Awakening, an exquisitely poignant musical about, as one of the characters puts it, the “parentocracy” and, of course, “the bitch of living” (as the song goes).  Rather than attempting to naturalize its form, Spring Awakening, like so many plays from the early eighteenth century, explores it.  Spring Awakening highlights the musical interludes as the places where the most devastating critique becomes apparent by having characters conspicuously pull microphones out of their vest pockets and put them away after the song, returning to their repressive and sometimes abusive communities. Characters borrow microphone stands from the band playing in the back; one distributes a handful of them to a line of restless teenaged girls with their hands raised, poised to express themselves.  Like a pre-Garrick eighteenth-century play, Spring Awakening seats a segment of the audience on stage (although I didn’t spot any royalty).  You could read this as a postmodern blurring of lines between stage and spectator, but you could also read it as part of the production’s theatrical self-consciousness.

 The only part I didn’t quite follow was the end. After a series of children are crushed by adult ignorance, brutality, and fear (on the back wall hangs a single blue butterfly wing, elegizing the failure of their metamorphosis) all the characters, living and dead, gather for a final song, smiling affectionately as if they had finally solved the tensions between the drama club kids and the jocks.  “That’s because,” my daughter explained, “it’s a musical so they have to end it that way.  It’s what everyone expects.  But it’s not really what happened.”  Could a beggar have put it any better? See this show with an adolescent you love.