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

Summer theatre, New England '07 · 19 August 07

Dear Anne,

As I wrote, from Amos Brown House, Vermont, the Admiral, I and Yvette managed to drive to see 4 plays and an opera. I didn’t say how women-centered these were. While the plays and operas we saw reflected our group taste, without trying for this we ended up seeing two plays by women (Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Lilian Hellman’s The Autumn Gardern), and a powerful third about women’s issues, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. The Offenbach at the summer festival in Glynebourne also made the two central female protagonists of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a woman called “Public Opinion” and Eurydice far more important than Orpheus. Stoppard’s Rough Crossing was the only theatre work we attended not to address women’s concerns or issues.

Crimes of the Heart (a 1979 play, this time directed by Kathleen Turner) is the most difficult to describe, since Henley mocks while empathizing with her heroines. The heroines are women who are good at heart, but at a severe disadvantage in the world’s marketplaces. Lenny McGrath (Jennifer Dundas) has reached 30 without having had a lover; she seems to be dependent on her grandfather who as the play opens is sick in the hospital. Babe Botrelle (Chandler Williams) shot her husband after a couple of years of cold manipulative behavior on his part, as well as emotional and physical abuse. Her husband survives the shooting and now has some 40 photos of her having sex with a young African-American man. He will use these in a court case. Meg McGrath (Sarah Paulson) has not been able to make a go of her life outside their community. She tried acting and couldn’t stand the rigorous schedule. She owns to liking sex, cigarettes, and many other wicked ways. As Lenny fears sex, so Meg has allowed herself to have sex with many comers, including one young man who risked his leg and hurt his leg permanently on her behalf.

What happens during the play is the sisters rebond. They argue, confess, briefly berate, and come together again. They find they have no one but each other to depend on and they come through emotionally for one another. We learn their mother committed suicide by hanging herself shortly after their philandering no-good father left her for good. They grew up taken care of by their grandfather. The play opens with Lenny singing happy birthday to herself over one candle stuck in a pancake; it ends with all three singing happy birthday to Lenny over a beautiful cake. It’s a moment of shared pleasure and joy. Their troubles do not go away, but they are no longer alone and can yet throw themselves into simple pleasures. Chandler Williams gave a remarkably moving performance as the sister who has shot her husband, found some joy with a black young man (by which she endangers his life—he flees town for good during the play) and tries to commit suicide, giving it over saying you just have to accept you are going to have some very bad days.

George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893, this time directed by Anders Cato) sets up an irreconcilable debate. With the financial help of Sir George Crofts (Walter Hudson), Mrs Kitty Warren (Lisa Banes) becomes a successful manageress of a string of brothels. Mrs Warren rose from prostitution. She had 3 sisters, and two took the other options: one married, had many children and now knows a life of endlessly drudgery and little money. While at first act Mrs Warren’s daughter, Vivie Warren (Xanthe Elbrick) will not accept under her roof such a sexually shameful pariah, gradually she is won over to condone her mother once she thinks that Mrs Warren’s profession has to come to an end. When she discovers her mother is still doing this work, she repudiates her: how that she no longer needs her mother’s money, she will not accept such “tainted” wealth.

Shaw exposes realities. Mrs Warren has grown rich on the miseries of prostitutes (it’s not denied she drives them like beasts let’s say like cleaning companies do cleaning women today as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her Nickel and Dimed), the alternative was to live in misery herself. Her daughter’s fancy education and opportunities came from her mother’s earnings. The play sympathizes with and criticizes both women. I particularly loved Mrs Warren’s closing defiant speech where she declares she loves making a lot of money, loves living in luxury, and given her daughter’s disdain for her regrets not having brought her daughter up in the brothel, but rather turned her into a privileged ungrateful gentlewoman. The play attacks hypocrisy: the men include a fatuous conceited male ass, Frank Gardener (Randy Harrison) a reverend’s son, and the Rev. Samuel Gardener himself (Stephen Temperley), a hypocrite (he is probably Vivie’s father). Shaw also shows the hypocrisy is an attempt to cover up how readily family members and friends drop one another. The reverend’s son and Vivie turn away from one another though they supposed themselves in love; in her final speech Mrs Warren refuses to shake her daughter’s stretched-out hand as she leaves the stage: the girl is dropping her.

I wish I had had the courage to clap louder or more forcefully as Mrs Warren left the stage. I began a clap and one woman joined me, but no one else had the courage to endorse Mrs Warren’s refusal to pretend. She revealed her daughter’s hard use of her is a commonly justified crime of the heart (to coin Henley’s phrase).

My friend, Judy, wrote a blog on the iconic movie, All About Eve (1950, directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, produced Darryl Zanuck, based on a story by Mary Orr, the cast Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Saunders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill); her blog prompted me to write about Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden (1951, this time directed by David Jones) as a mirror of the 1950s. All About Eve is one of the great, the iconic movies and centers on an intense rivalry between the two women, a relationship between an aging woman and her younger husband (he leaves her for the yet younger Eve); it shows the price of worldly success. It’s also very much a 1950s movie—like Hellman’s Autumn Garden. All about Eve seems to me to reveal how men see women; Autumn Garden is by a woman but (alas) Hellman’s sympathies are with the men who want out of relationships or commitment and not with the women who endure the indifference and hurt meted out to them.

The Admiral asked me what did The Autumn Garden illustrate? Its themes are embodied in its characters and their unresolvable life situations. We are shown a group of characters who have been asked to lead lives where they sacrifice their individual personal needs and joy. It shows people who find the marriage laws and customs at the time intolerable (it was hard to get a divorce and not acceptable to divorce); who use the repressive mores over sex to harass and then blackmail one another. The most sympathetic male in it, General Griggs (Brian Kerwin) longs to free himself of a narrow-minded stupid aging wife (Rose played by Maryann Plunkett) made up to look like Billie Holiday; Nina Denery (Jessica Hecht), a woman who protects her crude drunken husband, Nick Denery (John Hickey) says she does so because she enjoys feeling contempt for herself; the girl he harasses, Sophie Tuckerman (Mamie Gummer) manages to wrest $5,000 from the couple to return to France to pay off her mother’s debts. We see active strong women working to protect males (including the woman who runs the summer boarding house where the action takes place, Constance Tuckerman( played by Allison Janney), & women who use the sex mores to wrest money from the system. The best (the most wry, perceptive and funny) lines were given to the oldest character in the play, Mrs Mary Ellis (Elizabeth Franz), a rich woman who supports her aging widowed (or divorced) daughter, Carrie (Cynthia Mace) who cannot bear to be parted from her homosexual son, Frederick (Eric Murdoch) for even a day and prevents him from choosing a life partner who would enable him to come out of the closet,

I’d say movie and play reflect a particular era in US life as well as art. Henley’s and Shaw’s plays seem to me to transcend their particular era. I’d say All About Eve and The Autumn Garden belong to the same vision which justifies Nabokov’s Lolita (I take the supposed irony towards the narrator to be a cover-up on the author’s part). Douglas Sirk’s Far from Heaven (is that the title?) gives us the woman’s view.

I skipped over Offenbach’s Orpheus as it was done as essentially frivolous. The music and working out of the story made fun of the myth and musical theatre of the era. The costumes were an extravaganza of sexual caricature. I much prefer Offenbach’s La Perichole which we saw several years ago now in Paris: it had an extravagant plot-design of the perils of Pauline kind and was also meant to present a continuing party on stage. Offenbach’s choice of “Public opinion” as the major character who forces Orpheus to chase after a wife he doesn’t want, and Jupiter as the patriarch who goes to save Eurydice shows the 19th century roots of the play in the mores of the era. The music as played anticipated Gilbert and Sullivan.

Perhaps we should have tried to see one of the three sublime productions which took the myth seriously: Monteverdi, Gluck (in 18th century costume), or Glass. But they didn’t fit our schedule. The book we were given did give us much information about all four, and provided some remarkable Orpheus poems and translations. No Carol Ann Duffy (“The World’s Wife”), but two by Margaret Atwood of which I copy out one here:


Whether he will go on singing
or not, knowing what he knows
of the horror of this world:

He was not wandering among meadows
all this time. He was down there
among the mouthless ones, among
those with no fingers, those
whose names are forbidden,
those washed up eaten into
among the gray stones
of the shore where nobody goes
through fear. Those with silence.

He has been trying to sing
love into existence again
and he has failed.

Yet he will continue
to sing, in the stadium
crowded with the already dead
who raise their eyeless faces
to listen to him; while the red flowers
grow up and splatter open
against the walls.

They have cut off both his hands
and soon they will tear
his head from his body in one burst
of furious refusal.
He foresees this. Yet he will go on
singing, and in praise.
To sing is either praise
of defiance. Praise is defiance.

by Margaret Atwood

I will write one more letter about the books we read—for we all read a lot in Vermont too.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. P.S As opposed to the popular Jane Austen movies we’re being inundated with and many of the sequels, the themes I refer to are about women’s lives realistically considered, and the “solution” for happiness is not simply marriage, babies and submission. I was reading my JASNA newsletter today and found it ironic how so much in the JASNA newsletter is about the real Austen who did not just submit; alas that modern plays don’t pick up her texts. The last contemporary type texts to do so seriously seem to me the women writers Virago reprinted from the early part of the century (dealt with in a superb article in Lynch’s Janeites under “The Virago Jane”).

    Elinor    Aug 20, 8:12pm    #
  2. We got into good talk on Trollope-l comparing Mrs Warren’s Profession to Orley Farm. Martin N. wrote:

    “Dear Ellen,

    Did you put the review of Mrs Warren’s Profession on Trollope-l because of the parallel with Orley Farm? Because it seems there are some comparisons to be drawn, at least as far as Lady Mason and Lucius are concerned. I don’t know what is going to happen when Lucius finally realises what has gone on, but he will have been put in a very odd situation.

    In the ordinary way, a child cannot choose their parents, and cannot be expected to have a clear view on things to do with them, until when?

    I suspect this is one of the reasons why Great Expectations seems to bite so deep with some people. Pip looks up to Miss Haversham and Estella, and is “educated” with Magwitch’s money and intention to look down on Joe and Magwitch, generally valuing the opposite of what does him good.

    There ought to be a category name for dilemmas of this kind, they seem to be so common. What relationship does a younger generation have to the misdeeds of their parents (and the people their parents may have mistreated)? In Britain there are recurrant anxieties about whether figurehead people like the Queen or the Prime Minister should apologize for something done in the past e.g. the British response to the Irish famine, Slavery. Still worse, is there reparation due, from whom, to whom? We also saw people carry posters about the Iraq war, “Not in my name.” One could get lost in the possibilities, they seem to be endless.

    It just shows that a human story (Lady Mason and her son) can encapsulate many profound issues, which is one reason for watching dramas, reading novels, etc. Not to provide one-size-fits-all answers, but to develop in us the ability to discriminate, to find a language for inarticulate feelings, and what for me would be “good taste”. But that is only one reason. They must be satisfying on more dimensions than that, or else life would be one long ethics tutorial.

    Elinor    Aug 21, 8:07am    #
  3. Dear Martin and all,

    I was not thinking of a parallel between Mrs Warren’s Profession and Orley Farm but Martin’s posting does make clear there is one. And it’s not surprizing as after all Shaw’s play is a 19th century one. And Martin’s comments further illuminate the distance between the 19th century and our own time. If anyone is interested enough to go to my blog, you will discover a summary and brief critique of two further plays and one movie: Beth Henley’s _Crimes of the Heart_ (1970s), Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden (1950s), and Harold Clurman and company’s All About Eve (1950s too).

    Henley’s and Hellman’s plays are similar to Shaw’s play and also Trollope’s novel in that they are about family situations. Melodrama has long been very popular, especially familial and romantic melodrama (for obvious reasons). And there are real parallels because love relationships within families are often as adversarial and pressure-ridden as they are supportive. What Martin calls “misdeeds” can be found in the 20th century plays: the heroine’s father in Crimes of the Heart was a philanderer and then deserted the mother; the mother committed suicide sometime later; both were alcoholics. In a Victorian or 19th century novel these would be presented as misdeeds; in The Autumn Garden I can’t begin to recount all the different things the four couples do to one another, to their children and their children’s unkindness, resentment, and self-destruction at the hands of tyrannical behaviors—though it’s ambiguous as in Hellman’s play we are to feel very sorry for the homosexual young man whose mother supposedly to protect him will not allow him to live his own life.

    That last statement highlights the difference. In 20th century serious art (and 21st century) we are not given a plot-design which presents acts as punishment. In his very great recent novel (won a Booker Prize), Graham Swift’s Last Orders, Swift has the heroine say of a retarded child she had by her husband (conceived before marriage, a pregnancy which coerced them into marriage), is the thing is not to take what happens as a punishment. I couldn’t endorse this sentiment more and find the idea that we are to take what happens to us as punishments deeply self-destructive (a form of flagellating which we do see in Millais’s portraits of Lady Mason).

    In other words the paradigm Martin sees in both 19th century plays is one we nowadays find inadequate to begin to understand what’s happening. Partly it makes for clarity. Shaw’s was the only play which set an issue squarely and cleanly (so to speak before us). Jim, my husband, suggested we were to sympathize equally with the daughter and mother, only that since the last speech was given to the mother and it was made so clear the daughter had become what she was because of the mother’s profession and sacrifices (the mother has endured unpleasant sex with strangers most of her life), that the thrust was tipped on behalf of the mother. The audience was a little stunned because to critique parent-child relationships is still tabooed. That’s why only one person besides me clapped for the mother when she refused to indulge the child who was dropping her with a hypocritical handshake.

    Martin seems to sympathize strongly with Lucius, and Trollope does say (a little later, not this chapter) that had his mother put her case in Lucius’s hands he would not have acted so coldly and unkindly to her. But this is power too; Lucius will only love his mother if she gives him power over her, and we see he’s more than a little stupid about people. She would have ended up in jail, and he would have despised her then and even hated her.

    Yet like Vivie Warren, had the mother not forged that will he would not be a gentleman. Now we could argue what a fool she was. This is the Lear scenario of the novel. She has spent a life of hiding and cringing to give him property and what does he do: he tries to take more (from Dockwrath) and won’t even give her the small pleasure of walking in a wood because to him she’s an object who has to keep up his status. I would agree that in order to get the respect of the neighborhood in Trollope’s novels a woman has to live this repressed life so it’s hard to say Mary Mason would have been happier had she not forged the will, but she would not have lived in fear (as she has) and not suffered what she is suffering now.

    I don’t see any dilemma, Martin, or none that was not made by Lucius himself. Simply he is incapable of real love for another person; that’s common in human nature and Trollope’s characters are by and large intensely egoistic. The twentieth-century take on Lucius in my view is that he commits a crime of the heart towards his mother (as does Vivie towards hers).

    If the dilemma is shame that Lucius can’t stand, to endorse it is going in the direction of thought that supports honor killings among Muslims.

    In Mrs Warren’s Profession, Vivie wants to rid herself of her mother lest her mother’s reputation hurt her chances in office work and promotion. She too feels shame over her mother’s sexual life— more than shame over how her mother abused other women or participated in the abuse of them. But it’s not clear that she would suffer in her reputation. The reverend is a hypocrite, and Vivie separates herself from him as well as his son. She says she wants nothing to do with their worlds either.

    The situations are different because Mrs Warren does not hide her profession (and only did it from the girl when the girl was in school and now she’s out of college). Mrs Warren is not in danger of going to jail. According to Mrs Warren, the girl could keep up the relationship, and I thought at any rate the deeper harder idea in the play is how fragile are so-called permanent family bonds. We see family members dismiss one another when the other person is no longer useful to them. In Trollope’s world this cannot happen as jobs are so interdependent with family cliques.

    In her bitterness, Mrs Warren says she regrets having educated her daughter so the daughter can despise and dismiss and doesn’t need her. We get nothing like this in Trollope, but I would understand Lady Mason more and find her realer if she were to at least indulge in raw anger against this cold-hearted son and regret she signed that document as much because it made him this arrogant gentleman as that she’s now at terrible risk from the act.

    Elinor    Aug 21, 8:12am    #
  4. Martin’s posting took up many serious issues, and here’s another response to his comments on public apologies and the parallels of Pip and Lucius.

    Martin brought up how politicians are often driven to apologize for what groups of people did in the past. I take the thinking here to be unreal, absurd, magical. Individuals living today is not responsible for acts of individuals in the past; groups of people living today live in very different circumstances from people in the past. Clinton apologized to black people in the US some years ago—on behalf of whom? White people? My ancestors were illiterate peasants, most of whom lived in dire poverty and died young. Acts are done by individuals and the so-called spokespeople for imagined communities are what make people think there are such things as a general will or consensus of ideas. Not so at all. I would argue the way Muslims murder women because the woman has “shamed” the man or community comes out of the same pernicious confusion of individual resentments today (individuals often live with terrible hidden hurts from class and race and other bigotry) with ideas about the past. The past is another country; they really did things differently then. And this imagination is used as excuse for horrific and injust acts today.

    I recommend a novel by Orhan Pamuk, Snow: the hero is a journalist who goes to investigate a rash of suicides of women and young girls in an area of Turkey.

    I grant there are people who live in such confusion, and politicians make hay this way. It’s true that if an idea exists, no matter how false (say when a huge proportion of European people were said to believe the sun went around the earth), it’s important, but that does not make the idea true, and often the idea is one which causes immense harm and suffering (like the idea black people are inferior to whites or fierce anti-semitism). Ideas we know to be false have made an indelible effect on the world, but they are nonetheless false. Samuel Johnson (optimist here) suggested slowly people are coming to base their understanding on real experience and empathic imagination over his century. We are not so certain as the enlightenment or Trollope’s generation (which believed in progress) this is happening.

    I agree that Dickens's Pip seems to value the opposite of what does him moral good (not financial and in Orley Farm, Trollope's Dockwraths and Joseph Masons as well as Lucius Masons of the world would not forget financial good—as neither does Judge Staveley). Pip is at least seared at the ending of Dickens’s novels and filled with remorse, regret and seems to transform. Trollope is ever the realist and we will find Lucius undergoes no such radical change in attitudes.

    Modern play versions of Great Expectations are deeply sympathetic to Magwitch; they tend to sentimentalize him. Miss Haversham is (alas) still presented as a freak and the deeper apprehension of women’s position in Dickens’s world which his symbolism and her egoistic power-drive (especially turning Estella into a cold woman too) is not presented in the adaptations adequately.

    Elinor    Aug 21, 8:33am    #
  5. As the comments on my blog about the WSC’s naked Macbeth are now turned off (past a certain date, we turn comments off to prevent spam), I’ll put this comment on the production here. To see the review go to 7 July '07, http://server4.moody.cx/index.php?id=708, "The Macbeth where they saved on costumes."


    I am a theatre student at London Metropolitan University in London, U.K. I’m originally from Virginia, and have recently come across your writing on WSC’s rendering of The Scottish Play. I am trying to find as much material on the performance as possible, and am wondering if you know of any other scholarly reviews (Washington Post and LA Times are just not what I’m looking for). As well, since I was unable to see the performance, I am wondering if there is somewhere I could access a copy of the performance or simply major scenes (for instance, the presentation of the witches as trees or Lady Macbeth’s ‘murdering ministers’ speech. I can imagine the criticism that has come out of my humble ‘Bible-belt’ state, which is surely scathing, and I am eager to explore this production in its social context. Such a performance in London is a tame affair, and being grounded in political, gendered and body performance theory and having experience and knowledge of both social spheres (Virginia and London theatre), I hope to lay the groundwork that will become my MA thesis.

    All the best and thanks for writing your review.

    Peace and Cheers,
    Nadia Abdelaziz"
    Elinor    Sep 1, 10:00am    #

commenting closed for this article