Before this year we had never seen the very first performance of any Shaw Festival show. Last Friday afternoon, though, we caught the first preview performance of Githa Sowerby’s A Man and Some Women at the Courthouse Theatre. I was ready to pounce on glitches but was largely disappointed. Early on, one of the actors stepped lightly on another’s lines; a bit later, an actor turned to speak to another who hadn’t yet moved to where she was supposed to be. That was all I caught; first preview or not, there was plenty of polish.
We thoroughly enjoyed this 1914 play, which gives us an emotion-laden look at tensions and secrets in a respectable English family consisting of Richard Shannon (Graeme Somerville), his childless, money-grasping termagant of a wife, Hilda (Jenny L. Wright), his two old maid sisters, and a young visiting cousin, Jessica (Marla McLean).
Our first encounter with the women made us feel sorry for Richard before he appeared on stage. As they pass an evening together in the parlor, the sisters, Elizabeth (Sharry Flett) and Rose (Kate Hennig), complain that their mother, who has just died, cared only for Richard, not for them, and complain about his tardiness in coming home from the funeral. Hilda has just rudely turned away a close friend of Richard’s who has called. (How did they manage to make a woman as attractive as Jenny L. Wright look so frumpy?) The fiercely uncharitable Rose is tearing up cloths to send to an overseas mission but goes out of her way to make a young cousin whom Richard has taken into his household feel unwanted and shamed because he was conceived out of wedlock. Hilda is equally unkind to the boy, whom Richard loves; both idle women resent Richard’s spending money that might otherwise come to them.
Richard’s sisters hope that, even though they were not favorites of their mother, Richard will bring them news of an inheritance. After Richard comes home and the older women go up to bed, Rose spies on Richard and Jessica to see if her brother is being unfaithful to his wife.
The play is perfectly crafted; its plot unfolds at just the right pace, building up to a “cliffhanger” at the end of the first act. After half an hour, we’ve gotten, not just a quick pencil sketch, but a full-blown color portrait of each of the characters. And portraits of relationships too: a husband and wife who have nothing in common; then a man and a woman (Richard and Jessica) between whom there is perfect sympathy.
On the evidence of A Man and Some Women and The Stepmother, which we saw and loved at the Shaw several years ago, I’d say that Githa Sowerby had a special talent for villains. Our audience for The Stepmother was full of righteous indignation against a blackguard and embezzler who deceives and marries a girl for her money. Our audience for A Man and Some Women was equally outraged at the hypocrisy of Richard’s blackmailing sister Rose and the selfishness of his wife Hilda, at their cruelty to the fatherless boy, and at their willingness to sacrifice Richard’s happiness for their own ends.
Populated with characters who are almost entirely bad or almost entirely good, the play seems indebted to a lost nineteenth-century tradition of stage melodrama. But in this play the melodrama is fresh and delicious, never overwrought or over-sentimental. The characters are not caricatures; we recognize them as flesh-and-blood people.
How much differently might audiences in Sowerby’s day, a hundred years ago, have reacted to the situations in A Man and Some Women? Would they have identified and sympathized with the fatherless boy as we do? Today we have not only shed the sense that the sins of parents should be visited on their children, which is well, but have also lost the sense of sin on the part of the parents, which is perhaps not so well. Clearly the playwright, following in the footsteps of Dickens, thought it necessary to remind the audience of her day that God takes the part of the fatherless (Psalm 146:9) and that charity begins at home.
And in 1914 there was no higher value than an Englishman’s “duty,” about which much is said in this play. But today we preach “self-fulfillment,” not “duty.” Would a 1914 audience have felt, on the whole, that Richard’s “duty” to his wife and sisters outweighed his “right” to personal happiness?
The cast of A Man and Some Women was flawless and its entertainment value very high. It’s hard to criticize anything about the play itself except its awkward title. The program notes indicate that A Man and Some Women would have come to Broadway in 1914 but for the outbreak of the Great War. I feel sure that any Broadway impresario would have insisted on a different name for the American production.