The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, May 9, 2014

Did We See The Same Show? [The Rivals]

I had initially planned to write up my most recent play-going experience, but my partner in crime beat me to it. So I didn't. There, that'll teach you, hmmm….? Quonk? (OK, that's more Sir John Tresize than William Hartnell, but what would you?)

And then, I read yesterday's review by David Rooney of The Pearl Theatre's production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals. Quoth Mr. Rooney:
Restoration comedy, however, is tricky, requiring a canny balance of theatrical artifice and delicacy to animate its wit, wordplay and satirical irreverence. Push too hard, as this cast tends to do, and it lands with a thud. This is language to be savored for its playfulness, not bellowed with declamatory bluster.


Mr. Donaldson deploys droll charm in the central role, and Ms. Love has an amusing way with a petulant flounce. There are also lonely notes of understatement from Ms. Botchan and Mr. McNall. But for the most part, the buoyancy is pummeled out of the play by all the shouting, straining and busy gesticulating of the colorfully outfitted and bewigged cast.
Now, I am no Sheridan expert, but I was an English major, and studied Eighteenth Century literature with Verlyn Klinkenborg (who deplored my going to law school, kindly saying he thought I'd make a literature scholar), and I can tell you this: For once, Wikipedia is right: Restoration comedy spans 50 years, 1660-1710, that is, from the Restoration of the Monarchy (that'd be Charles II, in 1660, d'ye see) to 1710. The Rivals (1775), is a Georgian comedy of manners.

That said, Eighteenth Century comedy could be excessive in its love or wit and wordplay, and sometimes was done in an artificial manner utterly disconnected from human life--Blackadder had some fun with the notion:

--and, several rather irritating people behind us expressed themselves displeased with the play because "Sheridan should be more mannered."

Absolute rubbish. Sheridan in fact fought two duels in 1772 with a rival suitor for his wife, and was seriously wounded in the second duel. That experience colors The Rivals, staged less than three years later. The theme does not concern, as Rooney's review hints that it does, the harms of too much novel-reading (a theory limited to women as expressed by Sir Anthony Absolute in the play, and he's not exactly an oracular figure in the text), but is rather best summed up by its most sensible character, Julia, who replies to her over-romantic friend Lydia's declaration that "our happiness is now as unalloyed as general," with a caution:
Then let us study to preserve it so : and while
Hope pictures to us a flattering scene of future bliss,
let us deny its pencil those colours which are too bright to be lasting.
When hearts deserving happiness would
unite their fortunes, Virtue would crown them with an
unfading garland of modest hurtless flowers : but ill-
judging Passion will force the gaudier rose into the
wreath, whose thorn offends them when its leaves are
Julia's words (and not the frivolous epilogue the author tacks on at the end) makes the point surely--in this play, "ill-judging passion" creates a series of potential, all too unnecessary, tragedies, whether that passion be the arbitrary "frenzy" of Sir Anthony Absolute--a sort of infantile temper tantrum done to indulge his own desire to be at the center of all things, the morbid pre-disposition of Faulkner to find betrayal and calamity at every turn, the fire-eating desire for dueling, on any pretext, of Sir Lucius O'Toole, Lydia's romantic desire for dramatic martyrdom, or the intellectual pretensions of Mrs. Malaprop. None of these characters is, at bottom, presented as evil--they all have charming moments. But each in his or her own way invites tragedy by rejecting the good in life that is offered to them, in preference of giving way to ill-judged passion.

Sheridan nearly lost his life to just such passion, in a situation not too different from that in which Jack Absolute finds himself; the notion that this play should be played in a brittle, artificial manner is, frankly, at odds with the text. By bringing life into the play without losing the elements of farce,the Pearl Theater Company did Sheridan justice, and should be proud.

As Karen noted, I tried to start a standing ovation. It was well earned.

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