Category Archives: Theater

When you’re done grading, go to the theater



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.

Legacy of What?

Voltaire, Father of the Enlightenment


Last night I saw the play Legacy of Light, which I had previously mentioned on the blog. It follows the story of Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet as she struggles to finish her work upon discovering a pregnancy (not by Voltaire) that she suspects will lead to her death.  The play parallels her story with that of 21st-century Olivia, an astrophysicist married to Peter, a schoolteacher.  Olivia, a middle-aged cancer survivor, wants to have a baby after many years devoted mainly to her work, so the couple hires Millie, a young girl who wants to be a fashion designer, to bear a child for them.


Emilie du Châtelet, mother of three children

I was tempted to see this play by past good experiences with Arena Stage (South Pacific, Damn Yankees) and the possibility of an engaging story of an eighteenth-century women scientist and the “father of the Enlightenment” (a phrase used to describe to Voltaire about 47 times), as well as the play’s claims to a feminist, or at least nonsexist, perspective.  Alas, it pretty much struck out on both counts.  The most distracting element was the playwright’s embarrassing misreading of Voltaire.  Both du Châtelet and Voltaire chirp throughout the play that they live in the “best of all possible worlds.”  When Emilie dies, Voltaire repeats this line with a bit of sarcasm, but this is the only glimmer of recognition of the profound irony of those words.  The play explains du Châtelet’s complex personal life (married, but also living with Voltaire and sleeping with a younger poet as well) in one line: “We’re French!” 



The modern plot digs a little deeper into the characters but also disappoints by suggesting that Olivia will not become truly valuable until she becomes a mommy.  Olivia conceives the idea for a child in the midst of a car crash.  As the baby grows inside Millie, however, Olivia becomes more and more reluctant to compromise her pursuit of science and face motherhood.  She becomes fearful of how the baby will change her life to the point of backing out of the adoption, a possibility she announces hysterically after climbing up a tree (where she meets Voltaire, the father of the Enlightenment) to hide from Millie.


Millie’s plot offers the greatest complexity.  Grieving over the recent loss of their mother, Millie and her brother struggle to keep their family home out of foreclosure.  Millie tells Olivia and Peter that she wants to have their baby to earn money to go to fashion design school, assuming that her true motive (avoiding homelessness) would come across as unworthy.  There is more potential here for the analysis of middle-class values around family, education, reproduction, and bloodlines than the play takes advantage of, but it is nevertheless a poignant plot. The play also creates an ominous sadness around Millie’s apparent attachment to the unborn child.  At the same time, even Millie’s intricacy felt a bit manipulative as it was pitted against Olivia’s resistance to maternity that must be broken down before the end of the evening and the sense that du Châtelet’s legacy, unlike that of Voltaire (father of the Enlightenment) ultimately must rest with her offspring rather than her science.

Emilie du Chatelet

From the Arena Stage (Washington, DC) blog, about two new plays that have opened based on the life of Emilie du Chatelet:

Emilie is everywhere

by Janine Sobeck

This past weekend I attended the Pacific Playwrights Festival, hosted by South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa.  A great weekend full of new play enthusiasts celebrating the next chapter in American playwriting. 

Among the works offered (and let me tell you, they ran the full spectrum of styles, subject matter, and languages) was South Coast Rep’s production of Emilie by Lauren Gunderson.  Yup, it was based on Emilie du Chatelet, the same woman who inspired the writing of Karen Zacarias Legacy of Light which will be opening here next week.  Talk about synergy.  Both plays are commissions, started around the same time, and are premiering within weeks of each other.  And both plays are truly unique.  It was absolutely intriguing to sit in the audience and watch the woman (as well as the men in her life) that I have gotten to know so well through all the research, drafts and rehearsals portrayed through a different artistic vision.  In talking with fellow PPF attendees, Emilie has captured their interest, leaving a strong fascination about this intelligent and enchanting woman that very few people know about.  I hope that some of them will get to see Karen’s play, allowing them the opportunity to continue to expand their vision of who she was and what she did.

I think Emilie would be very intrigued…and very pleased.



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.