Present Laughter at the Shaw Festival

Steven Sutcliffe and Claire Jullien as Garry and Liz Essendine

The Shaw Festival does Noël Coward practically as well as it does Shaw, and this year’s Present Laughter, a 1939 comedy, is a good example. In fact, a repertory company like the Shaw’s, whose players have a lot of experience with one another, is especially suited to perform Present Laughter, which is a play about the intimacy and cohesion of a small group of friends.  These actors have collectively played a lot of Coward; the show’s star, Steven Sutcliffe, was in the cast 20 years ago when the Shaw Festival last did Present Laughter. It’s a briskly-paced, well-acted show.

This play gives us a few chaotic days in the life of British actor Garry Essendine (Sutcliffe), a character who closely resembles Coward himself, especially the way Mr. Sutcliffe plays him – charismatic, vain, flamboyant, supremely self-confident.  I liked Noël Coward all the more after seeing this play again; there’s a lot to be said for someone who is sufficiently self-aware to poke fun at his own foibles.

Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Haney as Garry Essendine and his secretary, Monica Reed

I’d be glad to trade my chaos for Garry Essendine’s.  What play to pick for my next star turn?  What theater to put it in?  What actress to pick to replace the one who just broke her leg?  How to get rid of a star-struck airhead who’s still there in the morning?

Fortunately for Garry, he has plenty of support.  Besides the valet and the Swedish cook who keep his apartment/studio functioning (my wife and I loved William Schmuck’s loft-style set and the extravagant dressing gowns for Garry), Garry has a long-time personal assistant (the wonderful Mary Haney, whose deadpan one-liners cracked me up) and a tight inner circle of associates that includes his still affectionate ex-wife, Liz (Claire Jullien, in a complex role that she makes look easy).

Steven Sutcliffe as Garry Essendine and Moya O’Connell as Joanna Lyppiatt

The fly in the ointment is the sexually voracious Joanna (Moya O’Connell, and very convincing in the role), who has been married to Hugo (Patrick McManus) for five years but is still viewed as an interloper by the rest of the circle.  Garry is alarmed to learn that Joanna has been having an affair with Morris (Gray Powell), which threatens to break up the “family.”  Garry is even more discomfited when, late one evening, Joanna tries to seduce Garry himself.

In the midst of all these crises, Garry finds his apartment infested with Roland Maule, an aspiring young playwright who is obsessed with Garry.  Jonathan Tan’s high-speed portrayal of Roland was a great crowd-pleaser the night we saw this show, though it seemed to me a bit of a diversion that interrupted the feel of the play.  Far more perfectly in the spirit was the iridescent Jennifer Phipps, who plays an elderly society lady who has persuaded Garry to give her niece an audition.

Present Laughter is a brilliantly constructed comic masterpiece.  People insinuate themselves into Garry’s apartment under false pretenses, a la Wodehouse and Wilde; inconvenient people are hustled into side rooms to avoid awkward encounters.  The repartee dazzles.

But if I can’t list Present Laughter as one of my favorite Coward plays, it’s because the world of Garry Essendine is simply too far removed from mine.  Garry and his pals aren’t just in show business, they’re at the top of the pile.  How much different are the lives of these stars from the lives of George and Lily Pepper, the fading vaudeville performers in Coward’s Red Peppers (see this post)!  Garry Essendine, poor fellow, has to deal with impudent servants, with wannabe playwrights, and with women who throw themselves at him.  The Peppers, on the other hand, have to cope with drunken musicians who play their songs too fast; they have to worry about where they might get their next engagement.  We can identify with George and Lily, never with Garry.  And what a contrast between the characters in Present Laughter and the work-a-day families in Coward’s Fumed Oak (see, again, this post) and This Happy Breed, which is perhaps the quintessential portrayal of the English middle class.

Coward is almost the only politically conservative playwright whose works are presented at the Shaw Festival, and Present Laughter is, without making a big deal about it, a capitalist-friendly play.  Like other business people, Garry and his associates are concerned with maintaining their brand, new product development, business finance, personnel issues, and so on.  (Hugo, who produces Garry’s plays, is one of the few capitalists who is favorably portrayed in any notable twentieth-century play.) And in its way Present Laughter is a “family values” play — the plot is primarily about how Garry, Monica, and Liz fend off threats to their clan.

And yet we couldn’t help seeing Present Laughter as an expression of Coward’s views on freedom in sexual behavior and as an “apology” for his own lifestyle.  The moral of the play, if it could be said to have one, is that what a fellow does in bed with someone shouldn’t matter to anyone else (a proposition expressly defended not only by Garry but also by his valet, Fred).  And so, in the final scene, Liz comes back to Garry knowing full well that in their future life together he will surely not be faithful to her.  Indeed, the climactic joke in Present Laughter, which comes in the play’s last minute, is that Garry, Hugo, and Morris forget their jealous quarrel over Joanna the second she leaves the flat and turn instead to what really matters – what really binds their “family” together – which is the joy of hammering out the details of their next production.

This is fantasy, of course – fantasy to suppose that any husband, wife, or lover, whether in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, can realistically be expected not to be jealous when a partner has a little casual fun on the side.  Sexual possessiveness is not a conditioned social reflex; we’re hard-wired to feel it. No doubt Coward felt that more people should have “open” relationships like that of his friend Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee Thomas.  Unfortunately, human nature is not so flexible.

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The Admirable Crichton at the Shaw Festival

We found J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, now playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), so clever and delightful in every detail that we’ll see it again if we can. We haven’t enjoyed ourselves so much at the theater in a long time.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby, David Schurmann as Lord Loam, and Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton

Crichton (pronounced “CRY-ton”) is a 30-year-old butler in the high-toned Mayfair household of the Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), described by the playwright in the printed version of the play as “a widower, a philanthropist, and a peer of advanced ideas.” One of Lord Loam’s ideas is that class differences are artificial, and he has decreed that, once a month, all the servants in his house must take tea in the drawing-room with him and his family as guests and equals. These social events are dreaded not only by Lord Loam’s three daughters, but also by the servants. Crichton, who as butler is head of the servants’ hall, finds them excruciating:

ERNEST: Do you know, Crichton, I think that with an effort you might look even happier. (Crichton smiles wanly.) You don’t approve of his lordship’s compelling his servants to be his equals — once a month?

CRICHTON: It is not for me, sir, to disapprove of his lordship’s Radical views.

ERNEST: Certainly not. And, after all, it is only once a month that he is affable to you.

CRICHTON: On all other days of the month, sir, his lordship’s treatment of us is everything that could be desired.

Lord Loam’s daughters know how profoundly uncomfortable Crichton is with this charade of equality:

LADY MARY (sarcastically): How Crichton enjoys it!

LORD LOAM (frowning): He is the only one who doesn’t; pitiful creature.

CRICHTON: I can’t help being a Conservative, my lord.

LORD LOAM: Be a man, Crichton. You are the same flesh and blood as myself.

CRICHTON (in pain): Oh, my lord!

Under pressure, Crichton reluctantly explains his distaste for “equality” to Lady Mary:

CRICHTON: My lady, I am the son of a butler and a lady’s-maid — perhaps the happiest of all combinations; and to me the most beautiful thing in the world is a haughty, aristocratic English house, with every one kept in his place. Though I were equal to your ladyship, where would be the pleasure to me? It would be counterbalanced by the pain of feeling that Thomas and John were equal to me.

Steven Sutcliffe as Crichton and Nicole Underhay as Lady Mary Lasenby

A few days after the “servants’ tea,” Lord Loam and his family leave on a private yacht for an extended voyage to the South Seas. Crichton suggests a kitchen maid, Tweeny, as ladies’ maid on the yacht for Lady Mary and her sisters, and Crichton himself is persuaded to go along as Lord Loam’s valet.

Two months later, the entire party is shipwrecked on a deserted island in the South Pacific, where it becomes immediately clear that Crichton is the only one of the Londoners with survival skills. Indeed, Crichton finds himself in his element, able, intelligent, and masterful. He disabuses his erstwhile superiors of the notion that they can continue to be idle on the island, and as “nature” takes its course, their roles are reversed: Crichton becomes a benevolent, respected master of a smoothly run island establishment, and the others, who call him “the Gov.” (which is how the servants back in London referred among themselves to Lord Loam), become his servants.

Ready to fend off a wild beast on the island

Nature also takes course in the form of a blossoming romance between Crichton and Lord Loam’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary (who in the new “natural” order of things has been rechristened “Polly”, just as household servants in London households were given arbitrary new names by their superiors). After two years on the island, none of the party expects to be see London again. The sight of a ship forces the issue of what must happen to their relationships if they were to be rescued and restored to Mayfair.

In this show, every touch from director Morris Panych is golden; every minute a dozen small things tickle your fancy. It all works: the narration, the costuming, the songs, the singing animals (Panych’s idea, not Barrie’s), the little bits of pantomime business, the vanity of Ernest, who annoys everyone with his epigrams. The narration is taken directly from J. M. Barrie’s stage directions (reading his plays in print is a treat). The animals sing clever arrangements of swing tunes from the 1920s in close harmony. The “servants’ tea” scene in the opening act is comic genius. Panych’s material is superb, as Barrie’s characters are fully drawn and brilliantly colored, and Panych has given this show all the sauciness and scope of a well-directed musical.

David Schurmann as The Earl of Loam and Marla McLean as Tweeny

What’s priceless, though, is the way this superb cast delivers Barrie’s lines. No better Crichton could have been found anywhere than Steven Sutcliffe. He is as commanding on the stage as a Mayfair butler as he is as the buff, masterful “Gov.” on the island. The diminutive Marla McLean is an arresting and remarkably convincing Tweeny. David Schurmann, a world-class Shavian actor, plays the naïve and ineffectual Lord Loam. We were especially glad to see the ravishing Nicole Underhay back at the Shaw Festival.  Her transformation from a bored, jaded Londoner to an exuberant, accomplished island-dweller is something to see.

Crichton is a marvelous character, and he’d probably be better-known today if The Admirable Crichton hadn’t been overshadowed by the the popularity of Peter Pan, and if P. G. Wodehouse had not created Jeeves, who since the 1920s has been by far the best-known fictional member of the English serving classes. Jeeves was not strictly speaking a butler; he was a gentleman’s gentleman, serving Bertie Wooster as valet, personal secretary, butler, and jack of all trades. Still, Jeeves and Crichton have a lot in common as polished, intelligent, well-read masters of their own domains.

We think Wodehouse, a man of the theater who happened to be one of J. M. Barrie’s cricket pals, surely had Crichton as one of his models when he brought Jeeves into being. Early in The Admirable Crichton, for instance, we learn that Crichton has an ulterior motive for promoting Tweeny as a maid for Lady Mary and her sisters on the yacht:  the promotion will elevate Tweeny’s social status and make her a more eligible mate for himself.

CRICHTON (after hesitating): There is in this establishment, your ladyship, a young woman —

LADY MARY: Yes?

CRICHTON: A young woman, on whom I have for some time cast an eye.

CATHERINE (eagerly). Do you mean as a possible lady’s maid?

CRICHTON: I had thought of her, my lady, in another connection.

LADY MARY: Ah!

We thought immediately of Jeeves. In story after story, as Wodehouse devotees know, Jeeves manipulates his employer to his will, whether to inveigle Bertie Wooster into taking a vacation in the country (so Jeeves can go fishing), to further a romantic scheme of Jeeves’s, or to tighten his control over Bertie’s selection of ties and dinner jackets. Like Jeeves, Crichton manages to further both his employer’s needs and his own personal wishes at the same time.

And who can doubt that the title of Wodehouse’s first great collection of Jeeves stories, The Inimitable Jeeves, echoes the title of The Admirable Crichton?

The two essays in the Shaw Festival’s program for The Admirable Crichton, by Mr. Panych and Michael Billington, claim to find egalitarian socio-political overtones in the play; Mr. Billington says it has “subversive implications.”  We don’t see it at all.  J. M. Barrie was a romantic, not a socialist, and we’ve never detected any political agenda in his novels and plays. Indeed, if anything political can be extracted from The Admirable Crichton, it would be the fundamentally conservative notion that class distinctions aren’t the bastard offspring of leftist bogeymen like imperialism, feudalism, and capitalism, but arise naturally in every society.

But Barrie did have, along with the similarly apolitical P. G. Wodehouse, a genuine sympathy for and interest in servants as human beings. The Admirable Crichton includes an exquisite portrait of the social distinctions between different kinds of servants in large English establishments. Consider what we learn when Tweeny is interrogated by Lady Mary as a possible lady’s maid for the voyage:

LADY MARY: And you and Crichton are — ah — keeping company?

(CRICHTON draws himself up.)

TWEENY (aghast): A butler don’t keep company, my lady.

LADY MARY (indifferently): Does he not?

CRICHTON: No, your ladyship, we butlers may — (he makes a gesture with his arms) — but we do not keep company.

AGATHA: I know what it is; you are engaged?

(TWEENY looks longingly at CRICHTON.)

CRICHTON: Certainly not, my lady. The utmost I can say at present is that I have cast a favourable eye.

Another great English dramatist, by contrast, had no interest in servants as people. Many of Emsworth’s readers will recall the exchange between Algernon and his butler Lane in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

LANE: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

ALGERNON (languidly): I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

But Wodehouse and Barrie do find servants interesting. In “Jeeves in the Springtime,” Jeeves speaks to his employer about his own personal life with the same delicacy and reserve as Crichton. Asked how he knows that Bingo Little’s uncle lives in Pounceby Gardens, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, who is narrating the story,

“I am on terms of some intimacy with the elder Mr. Little’s cook, sir. In fact, there is an understanding.”

[Bertie narrates:] I’m bound to say that this gave me a bit of a start. Somehow I’d never thought of Jeeves going in for that sort of thing.

“Do you mean you’re engaged?”

“It may be said to amount to that, sir.”

“Well, well!”

The stories of P. G. Wodehouse owe much of their interest to the cooks, butlers, valets, gardeners, secretaries, and pig-keepers who populate the country estates of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster’s relatives.

J. M. Barrie, one of Emsworth’s favorite writers, was a elegant English prose stylist who can fairly be mentioned in the same breath as Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. The Admirable Crichton first appeared in 1902, two years before Peter Pan. The play is less fantastical than Barrie’s Peter Pan, and also much lighter — we’re remembering the dark, wonderful Peter Pan at the Shaw Festival in 2001.

To those who appreciate this production of The Admirable Crichton, we recommend not only the reading editions of J. M. Barrie’s plays, but also Barrie’s novels, like A Window in Thrums and The Little White Bird. We hope fervently that the Shaw Festival will be doing more Barrie plays over the next few seasons.

An Ideal Husband at the Shaw Festival

Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) with the woman whose wiles he frustrates (Mrs. Cheveley, played by Moya O'Connell) and the woman he loves (Mabel Chiltern, played by Marla McLean)

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband seems to us to have a bipolar quality.  Its main plot is heavy stuff: everyone thinks the world of Sir Robert Chiltern, but a dark secret haunts him. As a poor young man in the British foreign office, he made his fortune by selling a state secret to a speculator, and now he’s being blackmailed. His idealistic wife will despise him if he gives in, but he’ll lose his reputation and his career if he doesn’t.

But the play is also a comedy about what Lady Chiltern calls the “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics” that compose London society. Chief among them is Lord Goring, a dandy who devotes himself to clever conversation, opera, and the perfect boutonniere. He flirts throughout the play with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, with whom he is on the precipice of becoming engaged, and spars with his father, Lord Caversham, who thinks he is a wastrel.

Patrick Galligan as Sir Robert Chiltern is blackmailed by Moya O'Connell as Mrs. Cheveley

So while parts of the play are farce (a taste of what would make Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written a year or so later, such a delight), the rest is dramatic tragedy. In this excellent production the contrast is sometimes startling. The second act, for example, ends in full drama mode with a long, impassioned speech from Lord Chiltern (Patrick Galligan) about his predicament.  But the third act (right after intermission) picks up with a comic exchange between Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) and his manservant Phipps (Anthony Bekenn) that could also have been played by Algernon and his manservant Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest. Only in the final scene do the farce and the drama finally intersect, as the villainess, Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell), is stymied and the truth comes out about Lady Chiltern’s much-misunderstood note, “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you.”

Mortal enemies: Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) and Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Catherine McGregor)

This is the best “An Ideal Husband” we’ve seen.  Jackie Maxwell gives equal attention to telling the story and to showing off Wilde’s glittering repartee. The dramatic main plot is so grave that a director could be tempted to downplay the comedy. Not so here; every outrageous epigram is milked for full effect.

Lord Arthur Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) in all his decadence

There isn’t a weak performance in this show; it’s an awfully good cast. We thoroughly enjoyed Steven Sutcliffe, as Lord Arthur Goring, and his backhanded courtship of Marla McLean, as Mabel Chiltern. Mr. Sutcliffe’s performance helped us understand something we hadn’t quite seen before: by the time he wrote An Ideal Husband in 1893, Oscar Wilde badly wanted his public to understand that there was more to him than the “dandy” image he had cultivated over the years, and that despite his reputation for frivolity and pleasure-seeking he was a man of principle.

That is, Wilde wanted people to see — through Lord Goring, who stands in for the playwright — that he’d grown up. Wilde still gives Lord Goring many of the best comic lines of the play, like this exchange with his father (Lorne Kennedy):

Lord Caversham: I don’t know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It’s the only thing I know anything about.

But he also gives Lord Goring a speech that would grace any soap opera, one so melodramatic as to be laughable — except that for once Wilde does not want us to laugh:

You came here tonight to talk of love, you whose lips desecrated the word love, you to whom the thing is a book closely sealed, went this afternoon to the house of one of the most noble and gentle women in the world to degrade her husband in her eyes, to try and kill her love for him, to put poison in her heart, and bitterness in her life, to break her idol, and, it may be, spoil her soul. That I cannot forgive you.

And in the end he makes Lord Goring the moral center of the play, the character who tells his friend Lord Chiltern that his philosophy of power is “a thoroughly shallow creed.” When Lord Chiltern describes Baron Arnheim as a man of “culture, charm, and distinction,” Lord Goring calls the Baron a “damned scoundrel.” In this show, Mr. Sutcliffe delivers one-liners and pronounces moral judgments with equal pungency.

Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O'Connell) fails to convince Lord Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) that he's the only man she's ever loved

We weren’t enthusiastic about the non-period, jungle-gym-style set in this show, which certainly didn’t give much of a sense of the opulent London townhouses in which the play is set. But we did get a charge out of some of the extravagant costumes, like the outlandish dressing gown Lord Goring wears during the late-night visits to his apartment by Lord Caversham and Mrs. Chevely and the attention-grabbing dresses of Mrs. Cheveley and young Mabel Chiltern.

We arrived at the Festival Theater in time to catch a fine pre-show talk about the life and times of Oscar Wilde by the Shaw Festival’s Autumn Smith, who was assistant director for this play.

Sunday in the Park with George at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Julie Martell in the park

Anthony Malarky and Julie Martell as Louis the baker and Dot

On our way home from Niagara-on-the-Lake, we tried to think how they could have made Sunday in the Park with George more . . . well, more interesting. Better leads? Not the problem. Steven Sutcliffe and Julie Martell (as George and Dot) both sang well, acted well, looked well. We really didn’t think the show was badly paced.

It was hard to pinpoint any particular problem with the Shaw Festival’s show. But we both had trouble staying awake, and so did other people in the seats around us. Rochester friends who saw the show a week later reported the same.

There’s an expression “as exciting as watching paint dry.” That’s not literally what we were doing at the Royal George Theater, but it’s not much of a stretch between that and Seurat - Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jattewatching someone sketching a model and then watching him work on a painting, one tiny stroke at a time, in his studio.

Of course, this Stephen Sondheim musical does tell a story. And it revolves around one of the world’s most celebrated paintings, Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (at the Art Institute of Chicago).

Seurat_bathers[1]

Seurat's large painting Bathers at Asnières is at the National Gallery in London

The first half of this musical play is a fictional vignette in the life of young Georges Seurat, whose first major work, Bathers at Asnières, was mocked by the critics.  George is now applying his innovative, dot-by-dot style to another, even more ambitious painting (ten feet wide) of Parisians enjoying the sun and the sights in La Grande Jatte, an island in the Seine.

Sunday in the Park

George's models for Bathers at Asnières

We meet George on the island working on a sketch for his new painting. His model (and mistress, who is in love with him) Dot is having trouble keeping still for him; she sings a song about how hot and uncomfortable she is. Colorful characters, including a mentally confused old lady (Sharry Flett) who turns out to be George’s mother, wander past George and Dot. They all end up in the painting. Dot is the young woman on the right with a parasol.

Seurat - Port-en-Bessin Entrance to the Harbor (1888 MOMA)

Several years after the scenes in the play, in 1888, Seurat painted Port-en-Bessin, Entrance to the Harbor, also in his pontillistic style. This smaller painting is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Back in George’s studio, Dot sings about how frustrating it is to have a lover who spends all his nights painting instead of paying attention to her and taking her to the Follies.  Out on the town by herself, Dot meets and is courted by Louis the baker, who is planning to emigrate to America.  Should she marry the steady Louis, who will take care of her even though she is carrying George’s baby, or stick it out with George? Meanwhile, George’s paintings continue to be unappreciated by the Parisian art world. We learn most of this through the show’s songs; there’s relatively little dialogue.

All this takes place in 1884. The second act, somewhat more lively than the first, takes place a hundred years later in 1984 (which, not coincidentally, is when the show was premiered on Broadway). The “George” in the second act (also played by Steven Sutcliffe) is the fictional great-grandson of Georges Seurat, who died in 1891 at the age of 31.

Sunday in the Park3

George works the crowd

Twentieth-century George is an artist too; he creates Chromolumes, which are a kind of electrified sculpture and invention. Like his famous ancestor, he struggles with gaining recognition and funding for his work. At an art museum gala, George unveils and demonstrates his latest Chromolume, which is supposed to relate to Seurat’s masterpiece; with him is George’s very elderly grandmother, who is Dot’s daughter (born in America), and who tells the gathering about the people in Seurat’s painting.  At a reception afterward, George works the crowd, flattering potential patrons for his art. 

Of course Sunday in the Park With George won a Pulitzer in 1984, and who are we to argue? And personally, we enjoyed Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated score, which riffs off Seurat’s pontillistic style of painting with short jagged motifs and dissonant chords. This music is challenging, but we disagree with those who say the tunes in this show aren’t memorable.

But it must be said that Sunday in the Park With George, taken as a whole, just isn’t compelling drama. The characters aren’t terribly interesting or sympathetic, and if the show’s creators meant to say something profound about Art and the plight of misunderstood artists, we failed to see that it was especially profound. For us the play had a kind of static quality. Much of the time nothing much seemed to be happening; halfway through the first act we felt as if we were waiting for Godot. The energy level rose during the whirlwind of the art museum reception in the second act; only then, and only briefly, did we feel drawn into the lives of the characters.

As for this particular production of Sunday in the Park With George at the Shaw Festival, which is well done, we have no complaints.

Georges_Seurat_-_Les_Poseuses[1]

One of the very few other large-scale paintings by Seurat, titled The Bathers, is at the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. A good portion of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is reproduced by Seurat in the background of the Barnes picture.

And we were tickled to see some of our favorite works of art on stage. As nearly as we can determine, the character of Dot, Georges Seurat’s mistress, is not a historical personage, so we didn’t learn much more about Seurat or his famous painting than we already knew. But we do like Seurat, and we enjoyed the fantasy of being present at the creation of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. And we were amused by the end of the first act, when all the characters arranged themselves on stage in a tableux that recreates the painting.

Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières is also seen on stage early in the first act. And in this show one of Claude Monet’s best-known paintings, Garden at Sainte-Adresse, also makes a cameo appearance in the arms of of a rich American who is carrying it onto a ship that Monet - Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867)will take him (as well as Dot and Louis the Baker) to America. The scene (improvised by the director and not in the script) represents, we suppose, the cultural drain of art masterpieces from Europe to America. As a matter of history, the use of Monet’s painting is a bit of a stretch. According to information on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Garden at Sainte-Adresse was purchased from Monet by one Victor Frat, apparently a Frenchman, before 1870. The painting did not come to America until 1926; the Met bought it at a Christie’s auction in 1967.

Emsworth reviews of other 2009 shows at the Shaw Festival :

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)