We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_School for Scandal_ at the Folger · 13 May 08

Gentle readers,

Another year and another 18th century play at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. For several years now I’ve noticed the Folger Shakespeare theatre company makes it a habit to have one 18th century play. There (among others) I’ve seen Behn’s The Rover, a production which combined Dryden’s All for Love (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) with the bitter disillusioned story of 2 dissatisfied married couples from Marriage a la Mode, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (a coterie opera); three years ago there was such a good production of Colman and Garrick’s Clandestine Marriage I went twice (the 2nd time with Yvette, then home from Sweet Briar); two years ago a Marivaux concoction pretty well down. Well, this year there was the more commonly-done Sheridan’s School for Scandal.

Like Sheridan’s The Rivals and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, School for Scandal is a thin much-chastened version of the strong unconventional comedies of the Restoration and early 18th century. No sex occurs during the play; no disquieting or disturbing ideas or truths or behaviors; no ravaged victim-heroine. They are updated Plautine disguise, trick, people hiding behind screens plays. I put down their persisence in the repertoire to the prestige of the male authors at the time and original reception. It’s true calumny and contumely in the era (and since to some extent still) can ruin people’s lives, and for the audience at the time this one could have had bite, but, as (unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I’ve got a little list”) there is no tradition of updating, the scenes of nastiness seem oddly pastoral-like theatrical stylized acting. Lady Sneerwell was made into a tranvestite part and Malvolio-like stalked off at the end with Sir Joseph Surface (rejects from the cheerful happy ending), & Catherine Flyte was effective as Mrs Candour, but otherwise the scenes of mean innuendo were irrelevant to the story and audience. Jim thought that the production puffed up the characters throughout. I’d say we enjoyed some of the wit combats (and sharp sayings) because the actors worked hard and wittily to make us enjoy them.

Still, the play has good feeling at its heart in its understanding of what decent and kind conduct really is (as does Goldsmith’s She Stoops—especially in the character of the intelligent Mr Hardcastle, a soft anticipation of Austen’s Mr Bennet), and three “mixed” characters of potential interest: the “bad” nephew, Joseph Surface; and Sir Peter and Lady Teazle (played ably, effectively by David Sabin and Kate Eastwood Norris), an old man who has bought a pretty woman young enough to be his daughter for his wife. Jim thought the Lady Teazle a kind of weak version of Wycherly’s country wife. There is enough in the text to suggest Lady Teazle is having a liaison with Joseph, and this trio had a little suggestive depths: the most serious themes of the 18th century are about the miseries of economically- and family-enforced marriages. There’s another theme here though: there’s a word for teasing in Austen’s novels where her crueler superficial show-y supposedly gregarious characters go over to others and mock and parody them and then say outrageous truths: quizzing. Lady Teazle vexes Sir Peter this way. Sir Peter (like Austen’s Lady Susan) keeps wishing aloud for news shes’s dead. Not that Norris and Sabin brought out this undercurrent in their dialogues too strongly. The two were too brightly controlled for that.

Kate Norris & David Sabin as the Teazles

Also thrown away most of the time (and partly in this production too) is the role of Sir Charles Surface (who is to Sir Joseph like Tom Jones to Blifil in Fielding’s novel). Sir Charles is the younger brother who lives a dissolute life, gambling, wasting his inheritance, but good-natured and in danger of being utterly ruined for life by the backbiting destructive tongues of local cliques. I like the young actor who played Sir Charles Surface: Clinton Brandhagen who played in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (and was the actor who chased Yvette when young around when she was 9 and we were in the audience as his long lost Susan); he was also effective as the hero in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost (which we saw at the Clark Street Washington Theatre). He did his best in the scene where he auctions off the family pictures, and was appealing as the romantic hero who won the heroine, Maria (in danger of a forced marriage) with a tone that called to my mind what I know of Sheridan’s romance with poor Eliza Linley. (Not the marriage as he then forbid her to go on stage, got her pregnant continually and she died young.)

Austenite as I am, the play has this interest: in private or family productions or maybe just readings aloud, it’s said by one or another of Austen’s family members, she was particularly good at Mrs. Candour, and enjoyed doing it. Mrs Candour presents herself as continually giving the kindest most benign interpretation of whatever Rumor is spreading, all the while implying the meanest. Austen had a “candid” character in her books: Jane Bennet who tells her sister, Elizabeth, that she sees the disillusioned interpretation of things as well as Elizabeth, but prefers to make herself hold to a candid one or she would be in life too unhappy. She is candid out of desperation; Sheridan’s Mrs Candour should have been shown to enjoy destruction. Sheridan is on record as having said after reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that it was one of the most intelligent books he’d ever read.

There is so little intelligent theater in the world, and such a drive to make huge sums of money, it’s a credit to this company they keep this kind of production up. As a scholar, I know the library is rich in 18th century theatrical materials because the age was one where Shakespeare’s works were continually done (adapted but done) and celebrated. I recommend this play as an evening’s light entertainment which if you think about has something better than that just below the surface, or should I say just below both surfaces, and in the sneers and teasing. Next year the company is doing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a partial return to the 18th century (Edwardian style and they used pseudo-Edwardian costumes in this production), & Jim and I hope to see it.


Posted by: Jim

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