A FAREWELL TO THE THEATER & THE FLATTERING WORD
November 16, 2000
The Mint Theater presents a double bill of one-act plays about the theatre. Farewell to the Theater is by Harley Granville-Barker (Waste, The Voysey Inheritance) and is described as “a remarkable short play that celebrates the power of the theater and the power of love.” This is the first performance of record of this lost play, which was written in 1916.
The Flattering Word, also from 1916, is by George Kelly (The Show-Off, Craig’s Wife) and tells the story of a charismatic actor who visits an old friend and her husband while on tour. The husband is a minister who disapproves of the theatre, leading to an interesting face-off between the two men.
With this esoteric pairing of plays, the Mint Theater Company once again gives audiences a lesson in cultural history. This time it’s a study in contrasts: the two pieces comprising this double bill, Harley Granville Barker’s Farewell to the Theatre and George , Kelly’s The Flattering Word, simply couldn’t be more different. Both were written in the same year—1916—and both deal, more or less, with the same subject – the theatre. But the sensibilities of the authors-the one a 40-year-old English playwright/critic looking back on an already accomplished career; the other a twenty- something American ex-vaudevillian looking forward to even greater success—inform these works in fundamental ways that make this evening of theatre a fascinating and provocative one.
Farewell to the Theatre is a florid valentine to the theatre, hearkening back to the glorious epoch of the actor-manager in British theatre: its heroine, Dorothy, is a stand-in for someone like Ellen Terry or Mrs. Patrick Campbell, one of those luminous stars who traipsed all over England in the days of Victoria and Edward VII. By the time of World War I (when this play was written), such careers were in decline: Farewell to the Theatre recounts the last gasps of Dorothy’s, as she meets with her solicitor Edward to review the failing financial health of her company. The play is intended, I think, as a sort of last stand for Dorothy and the fading legends for whom she is a proxy; it’s unfortunate that, at least at the performance I attended, Sally Kemp fell short of the larger-than-life star quality that would have made this the tour de force it ought to be.
There’s also a love story between Dorothy and Edward—an unrequited one, as it turns out, for though Edward has nursed a passion for lo these many years, Dorothy can’t abandon the profession she was born to. This aspect of the play works better in this production, thanks largely to George Morfogen’s solid and unsentimental reading of Edward.
Farewell to the Theatre has, as far as we know, never been performed before professionally; kudos to the Mint for putting it on its feet. I wouldn’t expect a rash of revivals anytime soon, however, for this is a rather prolix piece. Director Gus Kaikkonen has labored hard to give it some life, but it remains a difficult, awkward sit. Nevertheless it’s certainly of interest, especially juxtaposed, as it is here, with its more-or-less opposite number in The Flattering Word.
This delicious little comedy is a revelation, at once a delightful expose of American provincialism and a sly tribute not just to the theatre but to the theatrical in all of us. Kelly’s set-up is simple: Eugene Tesh, a noted thespian on a cross-country tour, drops in on his old schoolmate Mary Rigley one afternoon in her Youngstown, Ohio home. Mary is married to the Reverend Loring Rigley, who is both pillar of his community and something of a prig, especially in his narrow-minded opposition to the theatre. Rigley at first refuses to even see Tesh in his home, but Mary prevails and the dashing actor arrives and proceeds to turn the household upside down.
Tesh begins his conquest by wooing Rigley’s busybody assistant, Mrs. Zooker, by giving her “the flattering word”: dripping sincerity, Tesh inquires as to whether Mrs. Zooker has ever appeared on the stage. As the visit progresses, Tesh turns his flattery on the Reverend, while getting a bit of payback himself when Mrs. Zooker retrieves her shrill young daughter for an impromptu recitation of Tennyson.
It’s a funny and charming piece from start to finish, and not so dated as you might expect. (And where it is dated, The Flattering Word gives us a healthy appreciation of what average Americans thought about the theatre some 85 years ago.) Stylistically the play feels very much like the smart, brash American comedies that Kelly would write in the 20s—The Torchbearers, The Show-Off, Craig’s Wife, and others. And in Rigley and Tesh, Kelly gives us two classic American dramatic prototypes: self-important snob and smooth-talking wiseguy, the one ripe for comeuppance by the other.
Kaikkonen has staged and cast The Flattering Word flawlessly. Allyn Burrows is dashing and appealing as Tesh, while Michael Stebbins is likably foolish as the smug Rigley. Sioux Madden is fine in the small but catalytic role of Mary, and young Sara Barnett is a hoot as the talentless Zooker girl. Colleen Smith Wallnau, meanwhile, threatens to walk away with the play as Barnett’s bleating, besotted mother.
I think it’s safe to say that if you relish The Flattering Word you’re going to be less than thrilled by Farewell to the Theatre, and vice versa. But don’t let that keep you from sampling both: this savvy pairing lets us glimpse images of the theatre of a century ago, from both sides of Atlantic. It makes for a stimulating and absorbing evening.