Lennox Robinson’s Drama at Inish at the Shaw Festival

Corrine Koslo as Constance, Ric Reid as hotel proprietor John Twohig, and Peter Krantz as Peter Hurley

(September 2011) It is rare that this writer can’t find something to complain about, but in the case of Drama at Inish, we couldn’t. We loved this gentle, unpretentious comedy and weren’t surprised that it pleased everyone else enough to induce the Shaw Festival to add half a dozen more performances to the original run.

Drama at Inish is a gentle, affectionate satire of Irish provincial people and the troupes of performers that toured through Great Britain during the 1920s. Most of the play’s characters live or work at a hotel in the quiet seaside town of Inish, where proprietor John Twohig has engaged the De La Mare Repertory Company to perform for the summer season in the hotel’s playhouse. The placid John (Ric Reid, in the nicest turn we’d seen from him in a while) and his wife Annie (Donna Belleville) run the hotel with the help of John’s spinster sister Lizzie (Mary Haney), a maid, and a boots.

But things change in Inish when the actor Hector de la Mare (Thom Marriott) and his wife Constance Constantia (Corrine Koslo) arrive at the hotel for their summer run. Their playbill will be different from the low-comedy variety shows and circuses that usually come to Inish; Hector’s traveling troupe plays “serious” theater. As Hector explains (self-importantly) to another guest:

I now confine myself entirely — with the co-operation of Miss Constantia — to psychological and introspective drama. The great plays of Russia, an Ibsen or two, a Strindberg — I think very little of the French.

Mary Haney as Lizzie Twohig and Maggie Blake as Helena

To everyone’s surprise, the people of Inish flock to the playhouse night after night. In short order, they begin to identify all too closely with the heroes and heroines of A Doll’s House and Uncle Vanya and to imagine that they too are caught in the same sorts of tragedies as the heroes and heroines of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s plays. Lizzie, for example, convinces herself that her life is blighted because a neighbor, Peter Hurley (Peter Krantz, as a delightfully hapless local politician), toyed with her affections by “skylarkin'” with her when they were both young.  John Twohig’s son Eddie (Craig Pike), like a Chekhov character, comes to doubt that life is worth living after he fails, for the dozenth time, to persuade Christine Lambert (Julia Course) to marry him. 

Constance (Corinne Koslo) and Hector (Thom Mariott) never really step out of character

We have enjoyed Mary Haney so much in so many roles at the Shaw that it would be hard to say that the endearing Lizzie Twohig is the one we liked best, but every scene she plays in this play is a treasure.  And Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo, as the well-traveled, impossibly vain, and ever-theatrical leading man and lady, are inexpressibly funny. Hector and Constance live so much in the emotionally overcharged world of their plays that they never really leave it anymore; it’s no wonder that they pull the people of Inish from the real world into theirs.

As traveling actors, Hector and his company follow squarely in the tradition of the Crummleses, the 1830s repertory company affectionately portrayed by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby.  (See this post for some thoughts we had about the Shakespeare actors in Nickleby.)  They also remained us a little of the traveling variety show performers who play so prominently in J. B. Priestley’s novel The Good Companions, which we read just last year.  Hector and Constance are even closer relatives, dramatically speaking, of George and Lily Pepper, the vaudeville pair immortalized by Noël Coward in his wonderful one-act play Red Peppers, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2009 (see this post). 

We don’t read the newspaper reviews of Shaw Festival shows very faithfully, although they’re easy to find on the internet, but at least one review we saw suggested patronizingly that Drama at Inish is not a very substantial play and doubted whether it was worth reviving.  Of course, the very premise of Drama at Inish is to poke gentle fun at plays that professional critics do consider substantial!  The themes of Drama at Inish may not be as profound as those in, say, Waiting for Godot or The Glass Menagerie, but its portrayals of human nature, with all the foolishness and vanity and self-absorption to which we are prone, are as true as true can be. That’s an accomplishment, and it’s good enough for us.  Along with the wife of our bosom, we would have liked to have seen it again.

Until the Shaw’s 2011 playbill was announced, we were unfamiliar with the Irish playwright Lennox Robinson, who was a contemporary and colleague of the Irish playwrights Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and W. B. Yeats. We were grateful that director Jackie Maxwell did not insist that her actors use authentic, heavy Irish accents, which we would have had trouble understanding, and we hope for more Irish plays at the Shaw Festival.  In the meantime, we were amused to see that one of the plays mocked by Drama at Inish, Ibsen’s masterpiece Hedda Gabler, will be on the playbill at the Shaw in 2012.

Lorne Kennedy as Norrison and Jeff Meadows as Tony Foot

Nothing could make the case for a repertory acting company better than the trio of Drama at Inish, Bernard Shaw’s Candida (which we appreciated at the Shaw Festival earlier this year), and the Shaw’s 2011 one-hour lunchtime play, The President, an inordinately clever play to which we will not devote a separate post. Lorne Kennedy, the star of The President, played the lead role three years ago at the Shaw; we missed the show that year and were grateful to have a second chance to see it. The President is the most concentrated hour of laughs anyone is ever likely to experience, and if the motor-mouthed Mr. Kennedy is still up to this demanding role, we’d gladly see it again in another couple of years. If it’s revived a third time, we trust that Jeff Meadows will also return as Tony Foot, the vulgar New York cab driver that Kennedy transforms into a successful businessman and pillar of society in a mere 60 minutes.

Left-wing ideology (again) in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday

We’re tired of being assured by essayists in theater programs that the vintage plays we’re about to see are still “relevant”.  Why wouldn’t they be? Why would any great play lose its “relevance”?  Human nature doesn’t change from one century to the next, and what else is a great play about?

But sometimes a play’s “relevance” jumps up and barks in your face.  When we heard the following lines a couple of weeks ago at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-in-the-Lake, Ontario) in the opening scene of Born Yesterday (first produced in 1946), we thought for a moment that a few new lines might have been specially added to the script.   Here’s a Washington journalist (Paul Verrall) talking to a Washington hotel maid (Helen):

Helen: Changed much, do you think?
Paul: What?
Helen: Washington?
Paul: Not enough. I could stand a little more change. The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.

This made us think immediately about the President who swept into office as the candidate of “change”.   How many Americans who voted to elect Barack Obama are wondering why it is that, six months later, our troops are still in Iraq, the cabinet still includes George W. Bush’s Obama changeSecretary of Defense, Hillary Clinton’s in charge of foreign policy, there’s been a “surge” in the war in Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo is still full, and the federal deficit has tripled in only six months?!?

A “little more change,” indeed!

But what a curious line playwright Garson Kanin (writing at the end of 1945) put in the mouth of Paul Verrall: “The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.”  Did Verrall really think the idea of the war was to bring about change?  What other agenda for the second World War was there but to defeat fascist aggression?

In fact, in 1945 the far left was thinking opportunistically, much like Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.”  The ruin left by the war gave the left an opening to push through a long list of socialist programs, and in Britain and other European countries that’s mostly what they got. Paul Verrall’s complaint (presumably his creator Garson Kanin’s as well) was that the government was wasting its chance to do something radical in Washington.

Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin

Now Emsworth hasn’t succeeded in learning anything in particular about Garson Kanin’s politics.  They never seem to have made much of a splash, unlike the views of Lillian Hellman, J. B. Priestley, Leonard Bernstein, and of course Bernard Shaw, all people of the left, all admirers of the Soviet Union in their day, and all artists whose work has been at the Shaw Festival the last couple of seasons.

But we can gather something of Kanin’s ideology from Born Yesterday.  It’s a brilliant comedy. But embedded in it is as much leftist propaganda as in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (as we catalogued in this post after seeing the play at the Shaw Festival last year) and J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (which we dissected in this post after seeing that play at the Shaw last summer). 

Helen: Listen, you know what they charge for this layout?
Paul: Two hundred and thirty-five a day. [This was 1946; Harry Brock had rented a hotel suite that would probably cost $5,000 a day in 2009.]
Helen: Listen, anybody’s got two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day to spend on a hotel room there ought to be a law.
Paul: Too many laws already.
Helen: While I’m getting eighteen a week I don’t see why anybody should spend two hundred and thirty-five a day.
Paul: For a hotel room.
Helen: That’s what I say.
Paul (smiling). I know some people who’d call you a communist.
Helen (darkly). Tell them I’m thinking about it. Seriously.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

We hate to sound like a broken record, but Born Yesterday leans on the same leftist themes of “class struggle” and capitalist venality as the Hellman and Priestley plays. Harry Brock in Born Yesterday is a corrupt business tycoon who’s made a fortune, not by building a better mousetrap, but by ruthlessly stomping out competition.  Like Ben Hubbard in The Little Foxes, he’s an enemy of the working man — his mistress Billie Dawn casually lets it slip that Harry actually arranged the murder of a labor agitator who was trying to organize a union.  And like Ben Hubbard, Harry gets ahead by bribing public officials to eliminate competition. 

Daily_WorkerYet in his play, Garson Kanin has Harry Brock claim that he’s a champion of “free enterprise.”  Harry was actually just the opposite; monopolization and thuggery are enemies of free-market capitalism. But the radical left had a stereotype to promote — the capitalist as corrupt and brutish — and that’s what Kanin made Harry Brock. Harry might as well have been one of the cartoon capitalists in The Daily Worker.

We’re not aware of any direct evidence that these left-leaning playwrights were consciously parrotting a prescribed party line in their plays. Yet how curiously similar are some of the speeches in The Little Foxes, An Inspector Calls, and Born Yesterday! Here’s Addie in Hellman’s The Little Foxes:

Addie: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.

Here’s the Inspector in An Inspector Calls:

Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”

The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”

And here’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday:

Billie: Well, all this stuff I’ve been reading — all that Paul’s been telling me . . . All of a sudden I realized what it means. How some people are always giving it and Soviet mansome taking. And it’s not fair. So I’m not going to let you any more. Or anybody else.

Talk about sticking to your talking points! Was Garson Kanin, like Hellman and Priestley, hoping for the day when Marxist revolution would come to the United States and Britain as it had in Russia? We don’t know, but consider one of the last lines in Born Yesterday, after Harry Brock is roundly defeated:

Brock (to Devery): What’s goin’ on around here?
Devey: A revolution.

Play, Orchestra, Play at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jamieson and Turvey2

The Peppers are a bit old in the tooth to pass for a pair of young sailors

After seeing three of them, we can say with assurance that it was an excellent idea for the Shaw Festival to give four of its season’s shows over to Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. The show at the Royal George Theater, Play, Orchestra, Play is every bit as entertaining as the others. 

The three one-act plays that make up Play, Orchestra, Play are quite different from each other: one is comic, one is brutally serious, and one is essentially a romantic fantasy. This is pretty much the same mix as in Brief Encounters, which we loved (see this post), but there is a good deal more music in Play, Orchestra, Play than in Brief Encounters — five songs in all, plus musical interludes between the plays.

First in order is Red Peppers, a slice from an evening in the life of George and Lily Pepper, a vaudeville pair who are are hanging on by their fingernails as the end of that era nears. The Peppers are still working, in cheap regional music halls, but their cross-talk is stale and their act’s not very good.

Jamieson and Turvey3

The Peppers squabble in their dressing room

We meet them on stage, dressed as a pair of sailors singing “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship”; the end of the number is spoiled when Lily (Patty Jamieson) drops her prop as they dance off the stage. As they change in their dressing room (the period costumes include vintage British underwear!), George (Jay Turvey) blames Lily for flubbing her exit, and they start rehashing old grievances.

But they stop bickering, close ranks, and redirect their fire toward the common enemy: the conductor of the house orchestra, the house manager, and another performer, all of whom drop by during the interlude before they go on again. (At some point in his career, Coward himself must have had to rely on unreliable house musicians for tempos; in Red Peppers he settles a score or two. In this production, unfortunately, the orchestra’s just a little too loud, so that we couldn’t catch all the lyrics to “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship” and “Men About Town.” No doubt the Peppers were familiar with that problem, too.) The insults fly around the dressing room; the pugnacious Peppers are shockingly willing to alienate the very people on whom they depend for professional survival. It’s all very funny, and very real.

Noel Coward


Coward was at the top of the entertainment world when he wrote this play in 1935. But he clearly loved people like the Peppers, who were at the bottom of the profession, for their fierce independence and their commitment to their craft. We met people a lot like the Peppers last winter when we read J. B. Priestley’s 1929 novel The Good Companions, which tells the story of a traveling troupe of perfomers who play small music halls throughout England.

The middle play, Fumed Oak, features the equally vulgar and far less lovable wife, daughter, and mother-in-law of Henry Gow. Fumed Oak is straight drama and has no musical numbers, but this was the play in Play, Orchestra, Play that we liked best.

Henry Gow & wife & child

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) does his best to ignore his whining daughter and bitchy wife

The unfortunate Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) has been stuck for years in a job as a retail clerk; worse, he’s married to Doris Gow (Patty Jamieson again), who long ago tricked him into marriage with the old pregnancy ploy, thereby frustrating his dream of going to sea and seeing the world. “You’re a bad lot, Dorrie,” Henry tells his wife. “Mean and cold and respectable.” It took three years after their “little rough and tumble” for a baby to be born; their daughter Elsie (Robin Evan Willis), now a teenager, is a “horrid little kid,” as Henry says. His mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher) lives with them in their tiny, noisy apartment and whines and bitches at everyone.

Henry Gow loses it

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) declares himself free

During the first part of Fumed Oak, Henry sits silently at his breakfast listening to the females snipe at one another. (Unlike the bickering in Red Peppers, there’s nothing funny about it.) During the second part, Henry carries off an enormously satisfying coup, gives the women what for, and escapes his hellish home. Is this play misognynist? We thought about it and decided it wasn’t.

We wondered what the title of this play meant. Henry Gow says that when Conrad and Kipling wrote about the sea, they “knew there was a bit more to it than refinement and fumed oak and lace curtains and getting old and miserable with nothing to show for it.” When we got home, we looked it up and found that “fumed oak” is oak that has been darkened by exposure to ammonia — not a bad metaphor for Coward’s character.

The show concludes with Shadow Play. Unlike the first two plays, which deal with working class folk, Shadow Play delves into the lives of the rich and fashionable. (Coward was remarkably familiar with people of all stations in life.)

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe2

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe as Vicki and Simon in Shadow Play

In Red Peppers, vaudeville partners George and Lily Pepper had only each other to lean on. In Shadow Play, Vicky Gayforth (the exceptionally fetching Julie Martell) and her husband Simon (Stephen Sutcliffe again) are socialites who have forgotten why they needed each other in the first place. Simon is carrying on a notorious affair with Sibyl Heston (Robin Evan Willis again); Vicky is letting an infatuated young man pursue her, but hasn’t yet decided how far to let him go.

After Vicky and Simon have come back from a romantic play, Simon proposes that they divorce. But the desperately miserable Vicky has already taken extra sleeping pills, and the rest of the play is a drug-induced dream sequence, much of it in song, as Vicky relives their early romance. Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe are fine duet partners (as they are in the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George this summer, as well). The songs in Shadow Play are “Play, Orchestra, Play,” “Then,” and the melodic and memorable “You Were There.”

The backdrops for each of these one-act plays consist of scenes projected onto a screen (see the picture at the top of this post). These work very well and are especially effective during the fantasy sequences in Shadow Play.

Director Christopher Newton programmed a good many of Noël Coward’s full-length plays while he was the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director. We hope the Shaw doesn’t take too long a break from Coward after this year. Surely, in a couple of years, it will be time for the Shaw to put on Cavalcade again — what an unforgettable show that was! And we’d really love to see The Vortex.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)

Why would a black actor want to play in a Priestley play, anyway?

As Emsworth noted in an earlier post, certain factions have been lobbying the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) to hire more actors of color and to cast them in lead roles. Why wasn’t a black actor considered for the lead in An Inspector Calls, they ask, referring to the J. B. Priestley play that was at the Shaw in 2008? (See Emsworth’s review in this post.)

j-b-priestleyWe’re just not sure Priestley himself would have returned the compliment. We’ve been reading Priestley in recent weeks, and just as we were annoyed by the hard-left politics of An Inspector Calls when we saw it on stage at the Shaw last spring, we bristled at the casual racism we found in the old lefty’s books.

Not that the three Priestley books we read (two novels and his travel book, English Journey) actually had anything to do with race.  The novels don’t have any black characters, and Priestley apparently failed to meet any black people during the several-month tour of England that he took in 1933 to gather material for English Journey.

good-companionsNo, the references to race in these books of Priestley’s are entirely random and gratuitous. It’s not just that Priestley’s fictional characters have a habit of dropping the “n” word from time to time — including characters who are presumably speaking Priestley’s own mind. It’s also offensive passages like this one, from the sixth chapter of The Good Companions, Priestley’s successful 1929 novel. One of his characters, Inigo Jollifant, walking near a train station, is surprised to hear someone playing the banjo:

Tired as he was, Inigo found that his feet itched to break into a double shuffle. If the station had been crammed with grinning coons, buried under melons and cotton blossoms, he would not have been surprised.

Or this telling passage from the Lancashire chapter of English Journey, in which Priestley describes his visit to a school in a Liverpool slum quarter for mostly mixed-race children. Most of the girls, the vicar at the school told him, would probably become prostitutes, “following the female family tradition of the quarter.”

I suggested that some of them, especially those with negro blood in them, might prove to have theatrical talent, like the “high yallers” of Harlem; but he replied that in his experience they had never shown any signs of possessing such talent. (But have they ever been given a chance? I doubt it.)

Sadly, this talented playwright, this supposedly progressive thinker who was one of Britain’s leading intellectuals, was also one of those people who felt compelled to pigeon-hole people. To Priestley, what black people were good at was pickin’ and grinnin’.


Eddie Anderson was Donald in You Can't Take It With You. Anderson also worked with Jack Benny as "Rochester."

What a strange pathology! But it was widely shared in his era. I saw another random example of it over the holidays in the Academy-Award-winning movie You Can’t Take It With You. Toward the end of the movie, the eccentric Vanderhoof family is packing up to move from Manhattan to Connecticut, and there’s a quick exchange in the kitchen between Rheba, the household cook, and Donald, the handyman, who are black.

Donald tells Rheba he’s worried about having to move — what if they don’t have “relief” in Connecticut? Assured by Rheba that they have “relief” everywhere, Donald gives a wide smile and relaxes. (This cringe-making scene cannot be blamed on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote the original Broadway hit play; it appears only in the movie and must therefore be blamed on Frank Capra.)

That was in 1938. But public stereotyping of black people was still going on in the United States in 1959, when Bob Gibson, one of the heroes of my youth, was coming up with the St. Louis Cardinals. In his fine autobiography, Stranger to the Game, which we just finished, the Hall of Fame pitcher tells how he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in 1959 during spring training.

I felt reasonably good about the interview. When the magazine came out, there was a forgettable short story accompanied by a photograph with an unforgettable caption that said something like: “I don’t do no thinkin’ about pitchin’. I just hum dat pea.”


Gibson's 1961 Topps baseball card

Gibson was a college graduate and an articulate man who certainly did not talk like Uncle Remus. Gibson resented the “quote” (he never said any such thing, let alone in dialect) and boycotted the magazine for decades.

How might a black actor feel about speaking the lines of a playwright who thought about black people as J. B. Priestley did? Well, the plays themselves — we’ve read several besides Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls, which we’ve seen — don’t get into race. Presumably Priestley was careful to keep it out of his plays, and if he hadn’t, we suppose that a Shaw Festival director would make cuts and alterations.

The actors at Shaw Festival have no qualms about the works of Bernard Shaw, despite his appalling enthusiasm for the vicious, ruthless, totalitarian Soviet Union, next to which Priestley’s off-handed racism hardly seems worth mentioning. So bring on an all-black cast for the next production of An Inspector Calls!

Left-wing playwrights at the Shaw Festival (comment on The Little Foxes)

Four plays down for Emsworth so far in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), and each one the work of a deeply committed leftist! Consider:

J. B. PRIESTLEY, playwright for An Inspector Calls. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) One of England’s leading radical socialists from the 1930s through the 1950s, a politician as well as a writer. A founder of the socialist Common Wealth Party. Favored permanent wage controls, nationalization of industry, and public ownership of land.

LILLIAN HELLMAN, playwright for The Little Foxes. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) More than a mere “fellow traveler.” Openly admired Stalin and his methods; indifferent to the efficient brutality with which he eliminated opponents; approved the Soviet occupations of Finland and Poland. Traveled to Russia in the late 1930s while Stalin was intentionally starving millions of Ukranians; found nothing in the U.S.S.R. to criticize and much to admire.

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, playwright for Getting Married. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) Britain’s leading socialist thinker from 1890 until his death in 1950. Admired Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini; praised the U.S.S.R. Opposed Britain’s involvement in both world wars. Not only promoted radical socialism, but used his plays to attack the cultural and economic institutions that held England together: the Christian religion, the institution of marriage, private ownership of property, the free enterprise system.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN, composer for Wonderful Town. The epitome of ‘60s radical chic. Notorious as an uncritical supporter of left-wing causes during the 1960s; his high-society parties to raise money for the Black Panthers were lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his essay “These Radical Chic Evenings.”

Bernstein gets a pass, since the script and the lyrics to the songs in Wonderful Town were written by others, since the music is glorious, and since it’s hard to find anything ideological in this wonderful American musical (the Shaw’s production of which I enthusiastically recommend; see my review).

But the Priestley, Hellman, and Shaw plays positively burst with leftist cant. And Shaw’s anti-capitalist Mrs. Warren’s Profession is yet to come in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season!

If I took account of a playwright’s principles in deciding whether to see a play, I might have given The Little Foxes a pass. But the play had a high reputation, and we had enjoyed Hellman’s The Autumn Garden at the Shaw a couple of years ago.

But my, how that woman hated our country! The Little Foxes is disguised as a character study in greed and selfishness and a portrait of a dysfunctional family; in fact, it is a rant against American capitalism and a barely disguised call for violent revolution.

In The Little Foxes, the already wealthy Hubbard family (Southern merchants and bankers) are trying to round up capital to build a cotton mill in their town.

But the Hubbard brothers and their sister, we learn, are every bit as rapacious and corrupt as the French aristocracy before the French Revolution, or the Russian nobility before the October Revolution of 1917. Hellman wants us to feel that the Hubbards, and the world of American business and finance for which they stand in the play, deserve the same fates as those French and Russian aristocrats.

Consider all the sins and vices Hellman inflicts upon the characters in her play:

The Hubbards were the children of slave-owners, just as many of the Russian aristocracy murdered by the communists in 1917 had owned Russian serfs. Hellman has Ben Hubbard make the offensive comment that he’d put his aging cook out to pasture “if we hadn’t owned her mother.”

The Hubbard brothers got rich by cheating black people on staple goods and by charging them usurious interest. The Hubbards plan to use their political muscle, probably through bribes, to get water rights for the new mill for practically nothing.

Illustrating the Marxist propaganda point that capitalists grind the faces of the poor by turning them against each other, the Hubbard brothers brag that they’ll be able to keep wages low at a new cotton mill by playing the poor whites off against the poor blacks. They assure their new business partner from Chicago that no labor union will ever be allowed to get a foothold in a cotton mill in their town.

An exquisite touch borrowed from Les Miserables: Just as the French aristocrats famously used to put mantraps in their forests to maim peasants who hunted small game to feed their starving families, Oscar Hubbard goes out hunting every morning in his large, privately owned spread and leaves his dead game to rot, even though malnourished townspeople haven’t had meat in months. He promises to have the law against trespassers.

Reinforcing the link to the doomed French and Russian monarchy, Hellman names the sister “Regina.” Preoccupied with fashion and spending money, like Marie Antoinette, she is both the strongest-willed and the most heartless of the siblings. Regina doesn’t hesitate to blackmail her own brothers to get a larger interest in the new cotton mill.

In one of the play’s crudest scenes, Oscar Hubbard encourages his own son, Leo, to steal a packet of valuable bonds from a safe deposit box.

Reminding us again of those inbred monarchical families: the Hubbard brothers and Regina connive to marry Leo to his 17-year-old first cousin, Alexandra. Fortunately, Alexandra despises Leo because of his cruelty to animals, among other reasons.

When Oscar’s wife, Birdie, warns the girl of the matchmaking plot (“don’t you see, they’ll make you marry him, Zan”), Oscar strikes his wife – perhaps the most shocking moment in the play.

Who would defend such people? Wife-beaters, corrupters of children, animal-abusers, cheats, thieves, swindlers, and usurers, bribers, blackmailers, oppressors of the poor, enemies of the working man!

True to Marxist stereotype, Hellman takes care that the only characters in the play with any moral sense are the “oppressed” characters. Oscar’s ill-usage of his wife Birdie has beaten her down and driven her to drink, but she still has enough spirit to become indignant over the way her in-laws “made their money charging awful interest to poor ignorant n***s and cheating them on what they bought.” The Hubbards’ black servant Addie lays out the moral justification for a class-based revolution:

Well , there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. (Softly) Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.

At the end of Hellman’s play, the spunky Alexandra remembers Addie’s remark, flexes her youthful muscles, and sets off to mount the barricades:

Addie said there were people who ate the earth and other people who stood around and watched them do it. And Uncle Ben said the same thing. (Tensely) Well, tell him for me, Mama, I’m not going to stand around and watch you do it. Tell him I’ll fighting as hard as he’ll be fighting some place where people don’t just stand around and watch.

Hellman wants us to understand that the Hubbards are not just small-town characters, but are cut out of the same cloth as the wealthy, despised industrialist tycoons of the day. Driving home the connection, she has Ben Hubbard invoke Henry Frick, the steel magnate (also a noted art collector), in a toast to the success of the cotton mill venture:

It was Henry Frick who said, “Railroads are the Rembrandts of investments.” Well, I say, “Southern cotton mills will be the Rembrandts of investment.”

The Little Foxes lacks integrity. There has always been sharp practice in business, but merchants succeed in the main by being honest, by living up to their contracts, and by giving customers what they promise. The industries founded by Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Henry Ford dramatically improved the lives of all Americans, and as philanthropists they gave much of their fortunes back to the public – which can still view Henry Frick’s Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Van Dycks at the art museum (The Frick Collection) he built on Fifth Avenue.

Hellman could have given us an fair picture of a representative slice of the business world, even a sour slice (we think of Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance, produced at the Shaw a few years ago, among many examples). But that never would have served her purpose. She knew that revolution would never come in America unless Americans came to view all capitalists, from Andrew Mellon down to the local cotton merchant, as useless leeches, irredeemably corrupt. She wanted us as fellow revolutionaries.

In The Little Foxes, the Hubbards never get their just deserts; in Hellman’s worldview, justice is not possible in a capitalist society. Her play ends, instead, with the little foxes still on the loose. She leaves the task of bringing them to bay, and setting on the dogs to tear them to pieces, to us.

An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Festival (a review)

The Inspector Calls, playing through October at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is an ingeniously plotted classic mystery play, full of well-timed twists and turns, a sure bet for an evening’s entertainment. (I rant about this play’s strong ideological content in a separate post.) The Shaw Festival’s presentation is done well, but is not, to our mind, fully satisfying.

Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.

In The Inspector Calls, the well-to-do Birling family has gathered for a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Arthur Birling’s daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft. But the party is interrupted by the arrival of a man who identifies himself as Inspector Goole, and who tells the family he has just come from the morgue to ask them questions about a poor young woman who had just taken her own life.

The Birlings (Peter Hutt and Mary Haney) and Croft (Graeme Somerville) indignantly disclaim any knowledge of the girl. But as the Inspector questions them (moralizing as he goes), it becames apparent to the smug, well-to-do Birlings that they have more to do with the fate of the late Eva Smith than they thought.

Revelations follow upon revelations, and playwright J. B. Priestley feeds us just enough clues to let us guess what will unfold next. In fact, at the performance we attended, we could hear elderly, hard-of-hearing theater-goers behind us loudly whispering “I’ll bet it was really him that . . .” to their spouses during pregnant pauses in the action. At intermission, the conversation on the sidewalks outside the Festival Theater buzzed with speculation as to how it would all turn out.

It is a pleasure, year after year, to see Benedict Campbell at the Shaw Festival. What an outstanding, versatile actor! Six years ago, he was superb as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent, at the Stratford Festival (playing with Christopher Plummer as Lear). Since then, happily, he has been at the Shaw, where, two years ago, we were genuinely moved at his and Kelli Fox’s portrayal of the the complex relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Last year, we were astonished to see him singing and dancing up a storm in Mack and Mabel, in which, energetically and single-handedly, he set the tone for a fabulous production. We had no idea!

This year, Campbell is the Inspector in Priestley’s thriller, and he has just the solid heft and authoritative presence that the role requires. He is, in fact, so convincing as an English police detective that many in our audience seemed to have difficulty accepting the possibility that he might be something else altogether. As to that, Priestley gives the audience plenty of clues, beginning with the Inspector’s name, “Goole.” Even so, I think many left the Festival Theater genuinely baffled as to just who had been visiting the Birling family.

The set for An Inspector Calls features a large platform that rotates imperceptibly by 180 degrees during the course of the play, moving the actors and the props with it. We are to understand, I supposed, that just as the self-satisfied Birling family come to see themselves in different ways, so we the audience are also to see them from different perspectives. (As noted in my earlier post, Priestley’s objective in this play is as much to indoctrinate as it is to entertain.)

All said and done, however, the “thrill” was missing from this thriller. The revelatory moment in the last act when chills should have run up and down our spines came and went without chills. We never made any sense of a mysterious light that flitted randomly along the edges of the set. A female figure (who had no lines) appeared hazily on stage between scene changes for no apparent reason. As the Birlings, two of our very favorite actors, Peter Hutt and Mary Haney, were not permitted to demonstrate their dramatic range and left us flat.

The Shaw Festival’s artistic director, Jackie Maxwell, seems to be following the practice of her predecessor, Christopher Newton, in allocating at least one slot in a season’s playbill to something in the nature of a mystery or thriller, plays like Laura, Sorry Wrong Number, and adaptations of Agatha Christie. Here we are reminded that our very worst experience at the Shaw Festival involved a play in this slot, 2006’s disastrous The Invisible Man. The sets and the costumes were gorgeous, the special effects superb, and the acting unobjectionable. But what mediocre material the cast had to work with! This “suspense” play, in which invisible parts of Griffin’s body were revealed during the opening scene, was about as suspenseful as the slasher movies in which teenagers start getting axed in the first five minutes. Nothing built up to anything, and the Invisible Man himself was a whining johnny-one-note. We never got to know any characters well enough to care about them, and the playwright failed to introduce two important characters, Dr. Kemp and his wife, until the play was mostly over. This year’s An Inspector Calls is more like it.

Interested in reading more about J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls? See my post An Inspector Calls and old-fashioned propaganda at the Shaw Festival.

The Shaw Festival’s 2008 production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1939 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.

An Inspector Calls and old-fashioned propaganda at the Shaw Festival

On their face, how could two plays be more different than An Inspector Calls and The Little Foxes?  (Both are in repertory at the Shaw Festival throughout its 2008 season; I review An Inspector Calls in this post and The Little Foxes in this post)  In one play, a police detective explores the life and untimely death of a young woman in an English industrial town; the other deals with greed and infighting in an Alabama family.

Yet these plays — a British mystery classic and a classic American drama — were cut from the same cloth. They have parallel plots, parallel themes, even parallel characters.

Two capitalist families

In The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman gives us the Hubbards, a family of Alabama cotton merchants whose money has still not given them a unsatisfactory social position.

In An Inspector Calls, written only six years later, J. B. Priestley gives us the Hubbards’ English counterparts, the Birlings, a family of manufacturers in an English industrial town. The Birlings’ money has still not given them a unsatisfactory social position.

Two unholy business alliances

Each play begins with a dinner party. In The Little Foxes, the Hubbards are toasting a proposed business alliance with an industrialist from Chicago. The new partners count on avoiding the labor agitation that plagues industry in the north by building a cotton mill in the Hubbards’ southern town.

At the dinner party in An Inspector Calls, the Birlings are also celebrating a business alliance, the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft, the son of their principal business competitor. Arthur Birling and Croft expect the marriage alliance to lead to business understandings that will yield higher prices and suppression of labor agitation.

Two lead characters motivated by social ambition

In The Little Foxes, Regina Hubbard intends to leverage her new business relationship into a prominent social position in Chicago society.

Similarly, An Inspector Calls finds Arthur Birling angling for a knighthood.  With a title and a connection with the socially superior Crofts, he hopes to vault into the upper echelons of English society.

Two sons

Each family has a dissolute son in his early twenties. Leo Hubbard works in his uncle Horace’s bank and embezzles. Eric Birling works in his father’s office, drinks, and embezzles. Both young men patronize brothels.

Two daughters

Each family has a daughter in her late teens. The Hubbards plan to marry Alexandra off to her wastrel cousin Leo to keep all the money in the family.  Alexandra is the only member of the family with a moral or social conscience (her aunt Birdie has strong humane instincts, but she is one of the Hubbards’ victims, not properly a family member).

The Birlings plan to marry Sheila Birling off to the son of a competitor to consolidate their financial and social standing. Sheila is the only one of the Birlings with much of a conscience; she sees that her father’s factory workers “aren’t cheap labour — they’re people.”

Two indictments

Each of these two plays indicts a capitalist family on multiple counts of crimes both personal and social.

By the end of The Little Foxes, we know that the Hubbards strike their women, teach their sons to steal, hunt for sport while the poor go hungry, beat their horses, keep mistresses, blackmail one another, cheat black folk, charge usury, corrupt public officials, and beat down attempts by working people to organize. (I complain about Lillian Hellman’s use of the Hubbards as whipping boys for American capitalism in this post.)

Initially, the Birlings seem far less dreadful. We learn, however (as do the characters themselves), that they are guilty of the same sorts of crimes.  Arthur Birling has discharged and blackballed a factory employee for having the temerity to ask for two shillings more per week (think Oliver Twist) and trying to organize a strike. Sheila Birling gets the same unfortunate girl discharged from a job as a shopgirl for looking at her the wrong way. Crofts, the future son-in-law, finds the girl unemployed and hungry, makes her his mistress, then abandons her.  Then the Birlings’ wastrel son meets her, now a prostitute, uses her, and gets her pregnant.  At the end of her rope, the girl seeks charity from a private aid society controlled by Mrs. Birling, who turns her away.

Two soap boxes

Each playwright divides the world neatly into those who take and those who are taken from.  In The Little Foxes:

Addie: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.

In An Inspector Calls:

Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”

The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”

Putting out somebody’s talking points

In an otherwise excellent essay in the program for the Shaw Festival‘s production of An Inspector Calls, Professor John Baxendale softpedals the play’s political implications.  Far from implicitly condoning violent Soviet-style revolution, he says, Priestley was not even promoting his political party’s radical legislative agenda.  The essay maintains that Priestley was merely seeking to foster feelings of mutual responsibility among his countrymen.

The play is not about social reform [says Professor Baxendale], better health care or full employment, important though these things are, but about a vision of how life could be different if we acknowledge the truth that we are all members of one another.

Indeed, at first blush that seems to be what the Inspector is saying when he deliveres his grand, melodramatic, climactic speech:

One Eva Smith has gone — but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their hopes and fears, their suffering, and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other.

But warm fuzzy communal feelings and private charity were not what either J. B. Priestley or Lillian Hellman were about.  Nor did they have in mind the Biblical admonition to “love thy neighbor”; nothing could have been further from Priestley’s mind than the Christian communalism of the second chapter of Acts.

His message, instead, was that if Britain and America refused to accept socialism, bloody times were ahead, and mercy could not be expected.  And so Priestley ended the Inspector’s grand lecture with exactly such a grim warning:

We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

Professor Baxendale asserts that the Inspector’s “fire and blood” language refers to the two world wars, rather than to revolutionary violence, but this is not a fair reading.  Priestley made no attempt in this play to disguise his admiration for Soviet socialism.  In explaining the methods of the Inspector to her family, Priestley has Sheila Birling allude explicitly to Lenin’s famous boast about capitalist rope when she says, “No, he’s giving us rope — so that we’ll hang ourselves.”

One can almost believe that these two extraordinarily talented dramatists, Hellman and Priestley, were working from a list of Marxist “talking points” for their plays:

* Portray all capitalists as instinctive monopolists and enemies of organized labor
*Caricature capitalists as holding extreme, selfish, individualist points of view
*Portray them as willing to pimp their own daughters for gain
*Portray their sons as thieves and as sexually ravenous
*Portray private charitable institutions (like Mrs. Birling’s) as corrupt and degrading
*Portray private ownership of land as unjust
*Show the world as divided into “us” (the worker class) versus “them” (the capitalist class)

Little wonder that An Inspector Calls and The Little Foxes turned out to be practically the same play!

Priestley preached the party line that capitalists were on the wrong side of history and that Soviet-style socialism represented the best hope for mankind.  Early in An Inspector Calls, set in 1912, he has Arthur Birling complacently telling his family how nicely the world is shaping up.  There’s no war coming, he says, just “a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing.” Look at the new aeroplanes, look at the automobiles, “bigger and faster all the time,” look at the huge new ocean liner set to sail the next week, the Titanic. In thirty years, Birling assures his family, labor troubles will be a thing of the past, and the world will have forgotten “all these silly little war scares.”

Writing in 1945, Priestley expected his audience to smile sadly at Birling’s unfilled prophecies. How short-sighted Birling and the capitalists were, we are to think!  And not only that: Birling was predicting “peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere — except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.”  Wrong about the Titanic, wrong about Russia!

In fact, Priestley was worse than a poor prophet; he failed to see what was before his own eyes. Like so many other fellow travelers, Priestley believed that the great socialist experiment in the U.S.S.R. had already succeeded; in fact, the blood of millions in eastern Europe had been shed only to sustain a brutal Soviet regime in which the tyrannical old bosses had been replaced by murderous new bosses.

In his preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (also part of the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, but not scheduled to open till early July), Shaw was forthright about what he intended to accomplish in his plays: “I am convinced that fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective means of moral propagandism in the world . . . .”  In An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley proved himself Shaw’s staunch disciple.

See my review of the Shaw Festival’s production of An Inspector Calls in this post.

See my review of the Shaw Festival’s production of The Little Foxes in this post.