Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Way of the Postmodern World: Thoughts on the Staging of the Way of the World

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Way of the Postmodern World: Thoughts on the Staging of the Way of the World

Article excerpt

Directors of film and stage are fond of taking liberties with the "periods" of plays, especially Shakespeare's, giving us, for example, compelling nineteenth-century Hamlets and Nazi Richards in recent memory. One of the most fascinating components of Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, however, has been its innate resistance to such treatments. The plays simply do not seem to perform very well when set in other eras, and audiences seem to expect the period wigs and costumes to conform (within broad limits) to some fuzzy sense of historical accuracy. Admittedly, "historical representation" is a slippery topic, and I shall return in my conclusion to some thoughts on why these plays resist un- or a-historical treatments, but my primary intention is to consider a recent production of The Way of the World by the Royal National Theatre (Lyttleton) in London during October 1995. The National Theatre took Congreve's play in directions of considerable imagination, but in so doing left behind virtually every important element of the play's internal logic. We may disagree about what Congreve meant in this complex play, but none of those possibilities was covered by this National production, and, indeed, whole new topics were raised by their manipulation of the production values. The results were puzzling at best, and variously untrue to the script or incomprehensible at worst. After a review of the production elements and values, I will address what I see as the import of these issues.

I.

The first element of the NT production in question is the "time period." Actually, one hardly knows what to say on this count, for this version of the play is a curiously inconsistent mixture of historical signifiers in costuming and set design. Anthony Witwoud (performed by Julian Rhund-Tutt) was costumed in a style presumably meant to suggest the Wildean late nineteenth century, as was Cyril I Nri as Petulant, but Millamant (Fiona Shaw) and several other actresses wore what I found to be bizarre costumes consisting of a type of balloon dress that seemed strikingly (and weirdly) futuristic.

Designer Anthony Ward's sets, too, defied historical sensibility. Most striking was the transfer of the Pall Mall scenes to an art gallery, with the characters gazing upon Jackson Pollock - like abstractions while delivering Congreve's devilishly sharp dialog. This pastiche of elements lead me to the conclusion that the director (Phyllida Lloyd) wished to evoke no period whatsoever, and that the play, therefore, transpires outside of history entirely, to be viewed as "universal" - an intention of dubious value.

The choice of the play's touchstone character is also curious, indeed, even outrageous. Whereas I always thought that Mirabell and Millamant were the chief characters, concerning whom the greater percentage of the play's focus is concerned, in this production another character emerges as most important. If I were asked before viewing this production which character other than M and M was actually the most important, I would have been hard pressed to choose the one actually emphasized by director Lloyd. Did you guess Lady Wishfort? This production suggests that we should find in Lady Wishfort the true center of the play, for she is duped and mistreated by Mirabell (and others) and thus deserves our attention and sympathy. Major hurdles, however, resist a refocusing the play on Lady Wishfort (performed admirably by Geraldine McEwan). For example, in Congreve's version she appears seldomly and has very few lines of dialogue. These are serious challenges, but Lloyd rises to the occasion in creative ways. Thus Lady Wishfort is made to appear early or late, but often, in scenes, or parts thereof, where her presence is not indicated by Congreve's script, most notably in the play's finale, where the lights go down on her as the sole remaining character on the stage, as she drowns her crushed feelings with a bottle of wine.

My point in discussing these production choices is not to condemn them (well, maybe it is), but rather to use them as an opportunity to explore several philosophical and interpretive issues which they evoke. …

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