Thursday, September 9, 2010

Playing Away

Last Saturday I enjoyed seven plays, four of them at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond and three in the London Library.

The Orange Tree – a wonderful theatre I’ve mentioned before – had put on another staged reading of suffragette plays. This time we were treated to Edith by Elizabeth Baker, The Surprise of His Life by Jess Dorynne, and The Pot and the Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Chris St John. In Edith a family gather to discuss the terms of the father’s will: to their surprise and horror he has left his retail business to his daughter rather than his son. In Edith’s absence they decide to sell the shop – but when Edith arrives she has other ideas. The Surprise of His Life tells the story of a young working class woman who is pregnant and has been deserted by the father: her father struggles to persuade the young man to marry her though he is a horrible piece of work.

Both had comic moments but the second was moving too as the girl faced her father’s wrath, confronted the ghastly young man, and learned of her mother’s and aunt’s experiences. The best for me though was reserved to last, with another delight from Hamilton and St John. A young respectable woman is charged with assault after attending an anti-suffrage meeting – only it turns out that she is an anti and her victim a suffragette!

Then off to the London Library for an afternoon in the reading room. I am very irritated by (mostly male I think) critics and writers who treat women’s fiction as if it is no more than a precursor to the superior and fully realised work of male authors. I am thinking, for example, of Eliza Heywood and Samuel Richardson. Having recently seen Sheridan’s The Critic I had Sheridan on the brain, and in particular his Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals. It’s often said that while he may have got the idea for a character who misuses words to comic effect from his mother, Frances – a successful writer in her own right – he vastly improved on it. Frances Sheridan’s prototype is Mrs Tryfort in her unpublished play A Journey to Bath. It was in order to read this play that I went to the London Library, finding it in an edition of Sheridan’s plays published by David Nutt in 1902 (edited by W Fraser Rae).

Well, dear sweet honied reader, I have to report that it is perfectly true that Richard Brinsley Sheridan took what was in his mother’s drama nothing more than the germ of an idea and made it into the glorious Mrs Malaprop of The Rivals. I had time to read two more of his plays: St Patrick’s Day which was laugh-out loud funny, and The Duenna, a droll and well-plotted piece in the tradition of Behn’s The Rover with closeted ladies, fiercesome duennas, Don Pedros galore, and some very comic songs.

Back then to the Orange Tree for the evening’s performance of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Thunderbolt. I’d read two plays of Pinero previously, and admired them enormously: The Second Mrs Tanquerary and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith. I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see one of his plays performed but, once again thanks to the Orange Tree, here was another well-deserved revival. I’d tried to find a copy at the Library, thinking to read it before the performance, and I’m glad they didn’t have one. I was on the edge of my seat as events unfolded: discovery and counter-discovery as an unpleasant, greedy clan vulturise over the estate of their brother who has died intestate. The situation seems clear cut: the wealth will be divided amongst them. Then they learn that there is someone else with a right to the property. What follows is a most satisfying satire on greed and family relationships.

I love a good story, and The Thunderbolt certainly delivered that. There’s nothing like a will to get the fiction flowing. I hope to read some more Pinero in the coming months, and of course any more suffragette drama that comes my way.


The Thunderbolt by Arthur Wing Pinero at the Orange Tree Theatre – http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/The-Thunderbolt/

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