J.M. Barrie’s Half an Hour at the Shaw Festival

This one-act play really does take just half an hour to perform, and we’re still puzzled as to why the Shaw Festival didn’t put another short one-act play into its mid-day show, which is generally close to an hour long. But James M. Barrie’s Half an Hour still packs a lot into one show. 

In some marriages not every touch is welcome, or kindly intended.

Into some people’s lives there comes a moment that decides everything — sometimes, as in this play, a moment of high drama and irony. We meet the high-toned Lady Lillian (Diana Donnelly) in the middle of an intense, bitter, late-afternoon marital quarrel that crushes the last hope she may have had of living amicably under the same roof as her brute of a husband, Richard Garson (Peter Krantz). She keeps our sympathy even when we learn that for months she has had a lover, the adventurous and dashing Hugh Paton (Gord Rand); she flees to his arms instead of dressing to receive the dinner guests her husband has invited. 

Norman Browning and Laurie Paton as Mr. and Mrs. Redding; Peter Krantz as Richard Garson

Until now Lady Lillian has resisted Hugh’s urgings that she leave England with him — he is returning to his work as an engineer in Egypt — but in the wake of this last quarrel with her husband she decides impulsively and desperately to abandon her miserable marriage, leave everything behind, and join her lover. What follows is an emotion-drenched and entirely unpredictable series of events. 

The scenes of this short play linger in the mind, and the final suspenseful scene, with Peter Millard, Laurie Paton, and Norman Browning, is unforgettable. Diana Donnelly, one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, is superb as the desperate, trapped Lady Lillian. 

The lovers are torn between their carnal passions and their need to pack.

Since James M. Barrie himself was apparently immune to carnal passion of any kind, we were a little surprised at the director’s decision to add touches of eroticism to the first two scenes. In the opening quarrel, Richard Garson strokes his wife suggestively even as his words make clear that he despises her; the implication is that their relationship included not only cruel words, but also sexual brutality. Minutes later, when Lady Lillian jumps into the arms of her lover, patrons are likely to wonder whether the Shaw Festival is about to cross new boundaries of explicitness in portraying physical passion.  But it all worked only to heighten the dramatic tension inherent in the story.

Eating our picnic lunch in the park after the play, we got to thinking about other short pieces of dramatic fiction from the same era (Half an Hour premiered in 1913). We were reminded not only of the characteristic “twists” in O. Henry stories like “The Reformation of Calliope,” but also of the wonderfully clever and sometimes cruel stories of Saki.  And we thought in particular of the final line in Saki’s short masterpiece “The Open Window”: “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” 

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