Old Wine in Old Bottles

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Old Wine in Old Bottles

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 10.3 (Summer 2017)

There are always new plays on Broadway, of course, but it will be a rare week when more than half the mere handful of non-musicals playing there are new, as opposed to revivals. And these revivals seldom hold out much promise of novelty, especially in the casting. Instead, productions of revived plays on the Great White Way tend to rely on the formula of old wine in old bottles, warhorse dramas starring actors we most likely know already, from the big and/or small screen. While we know that novelty is not an indispensable ingredient in theater, and that star-power exists for a reason, it is still a fair question whether this recipe provides adequate theatrical nutrition.

Empty Calories?

The answer to the question, naturally, is: It depends. I sampled one enjoyable mess of empty calories and one more substantial treat on a recent Wednesday, watching Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes with Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon and Richard Thomas, in the afternoon, and Noël Coward’s Present Laughter with Kevin Kline and Kate Burton and television star Cobie Smulders in the evening.

As I watched, I tried to articulate the problems that were nagging at me. What I came up with was this: These are plays written in another time for other theatergoers, preoccupied with other issues; do they speak to us? And are we over-relying on established actors?

Lillian Hellman supplied the empty calories. Her reputation has taken a tumble from heights it occupied in her heyday (she lived from 1905 to 1984). That reputation always came with a sort of asterisk for fabulation and political dissimulation. For instance, Hellman would not allow Tallulah Bankhead and the original company of The Little Foxes to do a benefit show for Finland, recently invaded by the Soviet Union. Hellman claimed she had been to Finland and “it seems like a little pro-Nazi Republic to me.” In fact, Hellman had not been to Finland, and her motive for the refusal seems to have been reflexive Stalinism, plain and simple. People had always known this about her, and it took an increasing toll on her reputation. Dishonesty and totalitarian sympathies (however congenial in modern Washington) have never been popular on Broadway.

This is not to say that probity or political wisdom is necessarily required of an artist, although it tends to matter more with artists whose work has a definite political dimension, as much of Hellman’s did. Take that issue out of the evaluation, however, and give due note to the fact that still her plays continue to be produced, the most recent case in point being Washington’s Arena Stage, which devoted much of its 2016-17 season, including ancillary programming, to a Lillian Hellman Festival.

Rating Hellman

Has the consensus that she is not of the first rank been wrong? It is time for a reevaluation? It has recently been so asserted: Washington Post critic Peter Marks, reviewing last year’s Arena Stage revival of The Little Foxes, starring Marge Helgenberger, which kicked off the Festival, argued that the fact that the play “has not been judged to be quite in” the league of Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire “is an oversight.” Making allowances for the caveat that I do not admire Salesman as much as most other critics do, I found little, at least in the Broadway revival, to incline me to incline me to agree with Marks. The Little Foxes is, to be fair, a smoothly running drama with various crises for which the groundwork has been properly laid, and the dialogue is workmanlike, and the characterizations are strong. But none of this adds up to a cast-iron case for either reevaluation or revival.

What exactly is the value proposition of The Little Foxes? Well-made drama? Exposé of Southern gentility? Eruption of bitterness at the folly of life? Or just a star vehicle? I’d argue against any of these responses but the last. The play is set in “a small town in the South” in the year 1900, and concerns the efforts of three Hubbard siblings, Oscar, Ben, and Regina, middlingly prosperous but not aristocrats, to establish an aristocratic level of wealth, via construction of a cotton mill which requires a bit more capital than they can summon without tapping the wealth of Regina’s ailing banker husband Horace, who does not want to contribute. In the end, thanks to considerable skullduggery by all the Hubbards, the money is secured, Horace is dead, effectively murdered by Regina, and in the process Regina has lost all hold on her young adult daughter Alexandra, who sees her mother for what she is.

Mismatched Title

It is worth considering before proceeding how the title and this plot fit together (or, more accurately, don’t). The title refers to a line from the Song of Solomon, which reads (in the wording of the New American Standard translation): “Catch the foxes for us, The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards, While our vineyards are in blossom.” In the biblical context, the vineyards are the paradisal environment of the lovers at the heart of the poem, and the foxes despoilers of that environment.

The quote does not well match the play. The opening dialogue makes clear that any paradisal environment in this southern town is long gone. Oscar’s abused wife Birdie is the only actual aristocrat. Oscar married her for that status and wealth. But that wealth has faltered. Her family’s plantation “in its day was the best cotton land in the south,” but apparently does not yield as it used to. In the Jim Crow era of 1900, Regina and Horace’s household has two African American servants, who are not mistreated but who live in an obviously troublesome power imbalance with their employers. Nor is there a paradise in Regina and Horace’s union; they have a sort of standard-issue failed marriage: on his part “fancy women” whom he does not bother to deny, on her part a refusal to sleep with her husband of ten years’ standing. Obviously, the “foxes,” Regina and her brothers, are not disrupting any existing paradise; arguably, in their rapacity, they are helping build one up, at least a paradise for the Southern oligarchs of their day.

A better, if slightly oversimplified, title might be Bad People Behaving Badly. Yet the play does not invite us to derive entertainment from that kind of spectacle as do, say, The Beggars’ Opera or A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder or Chicago. There is no tongue in Hellman’s moralistic cheek. But moralizing is more familiar and workable in plays with some kind of strong moral center, exemplified by an identifiable hero or heroine. Here, we may have sympathy for Horace, who with his candor and his terminal illness certainly has his pathetic side, but he has not been a good husband, and he is ineffective in the end against his scheming wife. Birdie, the put-upon and beaten spouse who has retreated into alcoholism to escape her unhappiness, is certainly a kind and gentle soul, but she too is ineffective. Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra comes closest, but all she can do is make her escape at the end; she redeems herself, but she is a character with one significant scene only; it is not her play.

So: yes, this is a well-made drama, but one in which we can only bring ourselves to care for the losers, and the losers are not tragic figures. Better well-made dramas will induce us to care.

Taking Down the Already Taken Down

And if the play is an exposé of anything, it is of crass arrivism, but the crassness cannot be justly blamed for debasing an admirable society, since post-Reconstruction Southern wealth had little to recommend it, at least in Hellman’s condemnatory view. (Hellman herself had grown up in mercantile New Orleans.) And even if we accept it as a takedown of the South of that era, so what? By the time the play premiered in 1939, that era was nearly forty years in the rear-view mirror, and now it is going on three times that. Notwithstanding Faulkner’s crack about the past not even being past (especially in towns like the one where Foxes is set), in fact this past differs quite a bit from the present. An argument could be made, I suppose, that the Hubbards are not dissimilar, spiritually, to the rapacious yahoos running our country right now, but I could list as many differences as similarities. Foxes does not seem topical to me.

An eruption of bitterness at the folly of life, then? If so, it is not a perceptive one. If there is anything forcing so many of the characters to be so nasty, Hellman has failed to point it out. They might well be typical of us all, for all the clues in the script to the contrary. But this is no Brechtian cry of despair at human perversity either. The bad characters are simply bad people. Hellman does not think it necessary to explain them or excuse them (there is a hint, not greatly elaborated on, that Regina’s hardness comes from her having been passed over in her father’s will for the male heirs), and in that failure disappoints the modern sensibility. Much of today’s best dramatic writing is for long-form television, and we have all become used to that genre’s signature flawed heroes and villains with redemptive qualities. In contrast, Hellman’s characterizations may be, as I said, strong, but their flatness tells against them.

Great Actors to the Rescue

This all begs the question why then we have had two major productions of the play in a year. The answer, I think, is Regina: a big role for a big actress. In the current remounting, there are two Reginas, alternating, with the role of Birdie serving as a consolation prize for the other lead. The afternoon I saw it, Laura Linney was Regina and Cynthia Nixon was Birdie. Both were wonderful, of course, but Linney was stunning in her villainy, her voice going low and guttural when she was doing her worst, dishing out evil, even death, with a charming smile. Nixon tremulously made the most of a role that called mostly for dreamy alcoholic neurasthenia and vulnerability. I hear good things about the shifts in which she takes over the helm as Regina.

I would add that it was a pleasure to re-encounter Richard Thomas, now much older than when audiences first encountered him, as the moribund Horace. In Horace’s long second- and third-act duel with Regina, where most of the hostilities are carried out with some residual friendliness and warmth before the killing starts, there was still a trace of boyishness in him that played well.

So if there is a reason to see Foxes, it is as a showcase for actors. I would argue that this is seldom enough. Without getting into philosophical debates about the relative importance of the performer and the work, an audience generally does best checking off both columns.

Prewar Play, Postwar World

Present Laughter was written in 1939, the same year that The Little Foxes premiered, and was nearly produced in that year, but production was halted by the War. The play did not reach the West End until 1942, and the original Broadway production had to wait until 1946. Though there is a reference in the script to events in 1937 that seem recent, nothing in the script absolutely rules out a setting in a postwar world. Nonetheless, this play, like Hellman’s, somehow exudes a prewar air. In The Little Foxes, that air derives from the treatment of race relations and the depiction of Southern social structures based on segregation without any apparent need to critique them deeply, something that would not have been possible after the war. (Read James Gould Cozzens’ 1948 novel about white people, Guard of Honor, set on a Florida Army Air Force base during the war, to see how inescapable race relations had become by that point – though clear thinking about them did not necessarily ensue, as Cozzens’ confused wrestling with the subject betrays.)  In the case of Present Laughter, the sense of pre-war-ness derives from a studied and determined frivolity that does not seem consistent with Cold War strictures, nor with the postwar austerity that structured so much British humor at that time. (See Kingsley Amis’ 1954 masterfully frivolous Lucky Jim for a useful illustration: the pinched circumstances of that world which so limit Jim Dixon’s opportunities in life become the very soil from which the comedy grows.) By contrast, the humor of Present Laughter is the humor of plenitude: a plenitude of money, social capital, sexual opportunity, and fame: things England was not to enjoy so comfortably again until the time of the Beatles and Carnaby Street.

What Coward was being frivolous about in Present Laughter was himself. The protagonist Garry Essendine is without any dispute largely a self-portrait: a star performer as dependent upon an entourage as its members are upon him. They are a family: a bickering and transgressive family, to be sure, but a family nonetheless. While Coward devotes a limited quantity of comedic attention to Garry’s art, largely through Garry’s near-stalking by Roland Maule, a working-class would-be playwright who inexplicably idolizes Garry, the main focus of the play is Garry’s management of his chaotic sex life. Separated from his wife Liz, who, still part of the entourage, has taken on the role of a complaisant ex-spouse, he seems to subsist on a steady diet of one-night stands, including one with the stage-struck Daphne (who in another generation might have been called a groupie), and (more dangerously) one with Joanna, the wife of one member of the entourage and the inamorata of another. The farcical and romantic complications of the lifestyle, not to mention the strains they place on Garry’s psyche and schedule, are resolved when, at the end, Garry and Liz reunite, literally fleeing the “studio” which has been the scene of Garry’s sexual hedonism.

Coward Straight and Gay

I have said that Garry was largely a self-portrait, but with at least two important limitations. In the 1940s, it was widely known that Coward was gay (he told Gore Vidal he had never slept with a woman), so only in certain respects could the events of the play be said to have been based on life. There are at least two double-entendre lines in the play that might be interpreted as suggestions that Garry is bisexual, but the character is basically straight. That meant, inevitably, that there was a cleavage between Coward and Garry, because a straight Coward would not have been Coward. As Coward’s biographer Philip Hoare has pointed out, Coward was not effeminate in manner nor did he particularly approve of gays whose persona was effeminate. But there was still a difference between gay and straight matinee idols, if only as a matter of distinct social networks, and the availability of marriage to heterosexuals. (Garry’s retreat into marriage was not just the resolution of the plot’s problems; as Hoare points out, it also served as an inducement for the Lord Chamberlain to license the play, risque subject matter notwithstanding). In the current revival, unlike the original West End production, which starred Coward himself (whose homosexual reputation had preceded him), Garry is played by Kevin Kline, so the straightness of the character is reinforced.

Secondly, except for freakish ultra-self-referential pieces like [title of show], the difference between the creator of the work and any character in the work is that the character is not the creator of the work in which the character appears. Garry is not the playwright of Present Laughter, and probably would not have sent himself up the way Coward sends up Garry. Garry is vain, as witnessed by this exchange between Liz and Monica, Garry’s secretary:

Liz I’ve brought him a dressing-gown.

Monica How thoughtful – he’s only got eighteen.

Liz Don’t be acid, Monica, you know he loves peacocking about in something new.

At his age, Garry’s promiscuity is no longer suitable

Garry What’s on your mind?

Liz Your general behavior.

Garry Really, Liz! What have I done now?

Liz Don’t you think it’s time you started to relax?

Garry I don’t know what you’re talking about….

Liz You’re over forty, you know.

Garry Only just.

Liz And in my humble opinion all this casual scampering about is rather undignified.

Garry is unrealistic about his artistic scope (maintaining he is capable of playing Peer Gynt when his handlers know he is not), conscious of how much his entourage owe him while ignoring his dependence upon them, given to overacting both onstage and off. If Coward actually thought himself to be just like his creation, it would probably have led him to despair or reform.

Moreover, the resolution of the “casual scampering” problem, a return to monogamy, was not Coward’s resolution at all. In fact, there is little evidence Coward saw it as a problem in the first place. At around the time the play was produced, Coward took up with Graham Payn, with whom he then maintained a sexually open relationship for many years, with ample room for “scampering” on both sides. Payn therefore was in somewhat the same position that Liz occupies at the beginning of the play, the complaisant significant other; he never sought or achieved the position Liz occupies at the end.

So, what we have at the center of the show is a self-portrait with huge exceptions, exceptions big enough to justify downplaying the self-portrait aspect altogether. Kline plays the role as a generic British pre-war matinee idol, not as Coward, and this is a sound choice.

Narcissism Not Such a Draw

So we return to value propositions. We can ignore the self-portraiture of the artist, since, as we have seen, it was never seriously meant: just the work of a very talented playwright having fun with his image. We can likewise ignore any semblance of a moral tale, because, regardless of what in the play might have placated the Lord Chamberlain, it too is unserious. Promiscuity is a delightful if slightly exploitative game Garry plays, and if he gives it up, he does so because it has become too much trouble to go on with. What is restored at the end is not the moral order, merely the peace.

There are two things of potential value left: the chance to spend a couple of hours in the company of Garry, who is simply fun to watch in his comic self-absorption, and the farce.

As to the first of these things, the comically self-absorbed artist, lost in self-serving narcissism, was probably more of an original figure once. Now he comes close to stock. Think of Gulley Jimson, the exploitative painter in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), conductor Sir Roy Vandervane in Kingsley Amis’ Girl, 20 (1971), Georges Seurat in Sundays in the Park with George (1984), prima donna concert musicians and conductors depicted in the Mozart in the Jungle series (2014 – ) and of course the cavalcade of egomaniac thespians portrayed in one-man and -woman shows like Looped (2010) about Tallulah Bankhead, or Barrymore (1996). It would be nice to say that Garry is more amusingly or even insightfully depicted than many of his successors, but to be candid, many of the later ones are done better, and, while it is unfair to Coward, even if one is hearing the words in Garry’s speeches for the first time, many of them now carry the ring of over-familiarity.

For instance, when Garry is brushing off his first conquest of the play, Daphne, he says:

Listen, my dear. It isn’t that I don’t love you, I do … but my life is not my own – I am not free like other men to take happiness when it comes to me – I belong to the public and to my work.

In today’s world, Coward could not have written these words, no matter how tongue in cheek. If Daphne had read or seen the works listed just above, she would have rolled her eyes at the cliched self-importance of the line, and have understood she was being put on. Instead, being a creation of 1939, she goes away dejected, looking a bigger fool than Coward could have meant her to be – particularly since she is bright enough by the end to work out how she has been had, and to exact a very witty revenge on Garry.

In short, Garry as a personality is not the fun today he might have been once.

But, Hey, the Farce!

That leaves farce. Fortunately, the best farce is just about timeless. And on this score Present Laughter qualifies. The set contains the requisite complement of doorways, and the script contains sufficient indiscretions that must be concealed, sources of confusion (like a phone wired to ring in the wrong place), and manic characters like the unstoppable young leftist playwright. It remains good for plenty of laughs.

There is even an interesting variation on the typical progression of farce. The usual pattern is that matters get more and more excruciatingly complicated until at the end of the play the dam bursts: secrets come out, confusion is dispelled, and the characters must finally adjust to whatever the burst dam has washed up. That, or a variation where everyone’s deceptions somehow carry the day, is usually where the play ends. Here, the dam bursts in Act Two, and Act Three returns us from farce to the world of ordinary comedy – but with what amounts to a farcical dynamic. There are no more secrets: Garry’s (and others’) secret liaisons and Garry’s character flaws have already been revealed in comically catastrophic fashion. In Act Three, Garry is going away for an extended tour in Africa, and finds, to his surprise, that the unmasking of those liaisons and flaws has done nothing to quench the ardor of his admirers Daphne, Joanna and Roland – all of whom plan to come along on the tour with him. Self-delusion of Garry’s admirers has taken the place of concealment, lies, and misunderstandings and has become the new engine of the plot. Now Garry is in a comic dilemma, as he possesses little ability to say no to ridiculous demands. And if he fails to say it, he will wind up immersed in the hell these fellow-travelers would inflict upon him. The resolution, Liz taking him in hand, reinstating the marriage, and fleeing the scene with him, is straight, character-based comedy played as farce, complete with two of the interlopers isolated behind separate doors as the couple escape. It is, incidentally, the same use of flight to cut a Gordian Knot in the plot that Coward employed in his own Hay Fever (1925), where the histrionics of a theatrical family caused a group of visitors to the household to end the play by fleeing, but with this twist: this time it is the theatrical family doing the fleeing and the visitors who are left behind.

As I have said, the best farce is timeless. The farce of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Goldsmith all continue to work, just as Noises Off and Boeing Boeing will probably continue to do. The reputation of that part of Present Laughter may likewise be deemed secure. The problem (if there is one) lies in the fact just mentioned, that farce is only intermittently the predominant element. It is only a small part of Act One and a smaller part of Act Three. Satire and classic comedy of character take up at least as much space. And that part, for reasons already largely discussed, creaks quite a bit. It requires masterful execution to hush the creaking.

Fortunately, the revival here is up to the challenge. It starts, of course, with Kevin Kline rocking dressing gowns and smoking jackets, a pencil-thin moustache, hypocrisy and world-weary one-liners; the audience would expect no less. But there is much to be said for the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel; having immersed myself in the script in the morning before seeing the show, I detected many little changes: changing a place name to something American audiences might more likely recognize, boosting Garry’s alleged age from 40 to 45 (Kline exceeds that by over twenty years, while Coward by contrast was 42 when he appeared in the role), and the like, all emendations designed to smooth potential rough edges. Having the excitable Maule played by Bhavesh Patel with a somewhat Indian accent and playing into stereotypes (fair or not) of excitable South Asians worked well. Smulders as Joanna and Burton as Liz were each superb too. Most of all, the pacing was spot-on, a thing that matters, particularly in farce. (I recently saw a Noises Off that simply went too fast for the audience to absorb enough facets of the carefully orchestrated chaos.)

In consequence, the audience was willing to be indulgent during the unavoidably creaky parts (which were still noticeable). The show, then, is not perfect, not profound, and has value primarily as a vehicle for clowning and farce. But, as Mercutio remarked in a rather different context: “‘Tis enough, ‘twill serve.”

Old Bottles

The more interesting question is whether devoting two among Broadway’s mere forty-one stages to these revivals, and among the perhaps six devoted to plays on this particular Wednesday, was what zoning lawyers call “the highest and best use” of these venues. There is no definitive answer to the question; the scarcity of seats and the height of the prices at both shows establishes that the producers were behaving sensibly from a financial standpoint. Revivals with familiar faces certainly do sell. The biggest value proposition for such a production is probably one which, frankly, motivated me too somewhat: the ability to say “I saw [insert name of star]!” But is that really a good enough reason to sell so much old wine in old bottles when so much deserving younger wine goes undrunk?

Should we be focusing so upon sales or should we be talking about nourishing the theatergoers’ artistic souls? As I’ve said before in these pages, we are in the midst of a golden age of playwrights, with great new scripts competing for attention every day. And most of it, if it ends up in New York at all, will find itself Off-Broadway, or Off-Off. Don’t newer playwrights deserve center stage in their lifetimes?

And what goes for the shows goes for the performers as well. Yes, Kevin Kline is brilliant as Garry, but he is over a quarter century older than the original script calls for. If he weren’t doing this show, he would probably still be working. But somewhere there are various actors who could show us equally good if not even better things in that role. We probably won’t get to see them do it. The same goes for the other big-name performers I’ve mentioned here.

I recognize that I’m suggesting the desirability of a certain paternalism on the part of Broadway producers, a certain responsibility to keep the public taste from being satisfied too easily, with too many comparatively empty calories. And I know that it’s not likely anyone with money on the line would listen. But a critic can dream.

A critic can go on maintaining a cardinal rule for the paternally-inclined: The sensible parent would not ordinarily let the child start dinner with the dessert; the main meal should come first.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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