The Country Wife
Repertory theater for New York? Weren’t we all thinking of something like Laurence Olivier as Hotspur one night and as Justice Shallow the next? I found, to go back a little, that it was difficult to make out what we were supposed to feel about David Wayne and Hal Holbrook in a “challenging” variety of roles. This was a puzzling privilege we were being offered. One mentions the leading actors in the Kazan-Whitehead company only because the names of the actors in the Blau-Irving Company are not yet familiar to us. We now have their second production, Wycherley’s The Country Wife, and it is clear that the company and its whole organization must be immediately modified. To refuse to do this, out of some fidelity to old longings, would be puritanical pedantry. This group is an emerging country that must have foreign aid or sink. Outside American and foreign actors and directors will have to be brought in for particular roles and particular plays, for single performances and single productions. It is one thing to collect a group of dedicated people working together on a shoe-string outside New York, bringing interesting theater where there would perhaps be no theater at all. But you cannot play around with the gold of Lincoln Center, buying the most splendid costumes and the most intricate staging, and, like a millionaire hoarding soap shavings, cut off consumption just where it is needed most, in the leading roles. It is often thought that the repertory ideal is sacred, that somehow the company working and learning together will be sufficient to its tasks. I do not, however, from my seat in the audience, get the impression that the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center is made up of youngsters learning their craft. I have the belief that the contrary is true: that these actors are in the prime of life and that they are as they will be. Those roles that cannot be filled among them will have to be filled from the outside.
The Country Wife, as the textbooks used to have it, is a “blast at sexual hypocrisy.” It is a cynical comedy with scarcely more than an occasional subplot trace of human feeling. Fornication is the sole concern of the plot. The characters exist in an isolated, dream-like world of zestful copulation; they take time out only for perverse tricks that will heighten the pleasure. Pinchwife’s jealousy lashes him on: “I’m on the rack!” Sparkish is just the opposite and throws his betrothed into the arms of his best friend, or his fellow fop, since friendship is not a sentiment in this work. The most outrageous diversion is that being played out by Horner, the “hero” of the play. He spreads the word that he has gotten clap abroad and been made impotent by treatment. This is indeed an extreme “conceit.” Thinking him impotent, husbands will have no fears for their wives, etc.
Horner could be a number of things in order to make some kind of sense out of his squalid plans. He can be an attractive rake or an importunate lecher, or a philosophe of the boudoir. In any case, he must make something of the role. One could not say precisely that he should be convincing; but he must suggest the hysterical sexuality that leads him to the famous “china” scene, where, on the pretext of showing her a china teapot, he makes fast love to Lady Fidget behind a door and with her husband surely able to hear their breathing.
A comparison of Horner and the Bill Maitland of John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence comes to mind because they are both currently being performed. Osborne’s fascinating play and Nicol Williamson’s perfect performance almost restore one’s desire to carry on. Of course, rare things seldom last long with us and Inadmissible Evidence may have already gone by, like the first forsythia blossoms, while our backs were turned. To return to Maitland in Inadmissible Evidence and Horner in The Country Wife. Maitland has had many women in the past and even though he is in a state of disintegration he still has quite a few going for him at the time of the play. Nicol Williamson acts this role with startling imaginativeness. He is no beauty; he is rangy, awkward, dish-faced, sweaty, sodden and soiled in every pore. There is not a soul who really cares for him since he is a mess, but we never doubt for a moment that he can make it with his wife, his mistress, and even the attractive young girls in his office. This “success” is simply the result of his own overpowering lechery. “Do you like it, do you want it, those are the only questions I have ever thought worth while going into,” he whines, and with a horrible conviction.
In the Lincoln Center production of The Country Wife, it is not easy to discover what sort of Horner the actor, Stacy Keach, is playing. Horner is a vicious, soulless man for all his cant against hypocrisy, and yet he is ardently desired by nearly every woman in the play. The impression Keach as Horner makes is of a sort of slightness, attractive enough, and even genial. He is decked out in a splendid red suit with black lace trimmings, but the feats of fornication that are his life’s work can hardly be credited to this nice, capable actor who is neither young nor old, neither dominating as a stage presence nor entirely without skill. You feel that this actor in this role is a compromise; he was seized upon by a desperate computation that eliminated the others in the company without being able to come up with the right choice. Only imagine Nicol Williamson as Horner!
And there is Elizabeth Huddle as Margery Pinchwife, the girl from the country. Hers was the most successful effort of the evening and yet how can we fail to note the questionable broadness of the interpretation? I was reminded more than once of Bobby Clark, if he can be imagined as a girl. But once Elizabeth Huddle settled into her style the comic invention stopped and the rest was repetition. Long ago, Leigh Hunt wrote of a Mrs. Jordan in this part: “Those who remember how that delightful woman seemed made for every trusting enjoyment—how she could unite boisterous animal spirits with a brimful sensibility—how she would come dancing on the stage at forty, a girl in spite of her fat—what a breath and music there was in her voice…how she would divide sobs of sorrow with the comforts of a great slice of bread and butter, anticipate a world of delight with rubbed hands and huddling shoulders…” Ah, well, many sweet things are gone forever. It appears from the work at Lincoln Center and from Herbert Blau’s interesting writings that perhaps contemporary plays are more suited to the company’s talents and we may regret that they opened with two classical works. If this should be true of them, it means that they are at one with the rest of the American theater.
Inadmissible Evidence is a monologue in two acts, but it is such a brilliant monologue that I could well have heard it for two more acts. Actually Osborne’s efforts to make it into a “play” by the occasional interruptions of other characters were the only times my joy abated. Bill Maitland, a shoddy, self-made lawyer, is a genuinely important creation. His superlative, disspirited wit saves us from despising him; we surrender to the swollen rush of his language; he is a dreadful man but his bitter consciousness causes something like sympathy to rise up in our hearts. Who can condemn the pathos of his desperation, his alcohol at night and pep-up pills in the daytime, his self-hatred and begging vanity, and his understanding of the telephone! Maitland is always on the phone, miserably saying he will ring back, or desperately ringing up to tell lies about why he didn’t ring up earlier. The telephone is his lifeline; through it he tries to ward off insanity and to forestall his collapse, but he no sooner gets his wife or his mistress or his daughter or his clients on the wire than he wants to hang up. “Hullo…Hullo…Stay in won’t you. Stay in, I’ll ring you. Bye.” The assertion of Maitland’s disintegration is not one of those half-felt frauds we are accustomed to expect from our playwrights. You know his failure will be complete, that he will, by his harassed boredom with his clients, destroy the business his greed and cynicism have built for him. He fears he will be involved in some slashing scandal and no doubt he will. He hates everything around him but there is no ideal that could pass through the rubbery obstruction of his cynicism. He has no respect for his own sordid divorce practice nor for respectable barristers, “with their fresh complexions from their playing fields and all that, with their ringing, effortless voice production and their quiet chambers, and tailors and mess bills and Oxford Colleges…” Maitland is a middle-aged drop-out, compelled by his insolence and his soul-destroying clarity to scorn everything. He speaks with contempt of those “who go every year like it was holy communion to have a look at the Christmas decorations in Regent Street.” Youth is “jazz and noise and black leather and sour teenage squalor and necking…” or, “They’re young I said, and for the first time they’re being allowed to roll about in it and have clothes and money and music and sex…No one before has been able to do such things with such charm, such ease, such frozen innocence as all of you seem to have.” The extremity of his scorn is his only dignity. What is so disturbing is that there is no proper disillusionment because he never hoped for much. The only loss he really feels is for a corny dream that he and his daughter might have had one of those impossible friendships. “I’d take you out to restaurants for dinner, big restaurants like I used to think posh restaurants were like, with marble columns and glass and orchestras…”
Perhaps it is true that Osborne’s gift is for the tirade and that he is weak on construction. But Inadmissible Evidence is fantastically interesting and to be interesting is the first law of art. Indeed “construction” in the arts has become the last claim of hacks. This unforgettable lawyer up on the stage, haranguing us for several hours in the most life-like and the most artful dialogue is the best theater on Broadway, by far. Maybe what takes the place of action in this play is the rare skin and one relation of the character to his style. Surely this is what it means to have an important gift for the drama.
The mere thought of The Devils leads me to insist that when I say Lincoln Center must bring in outside actors for certain roles I do not have Jason Robards or Anne Bancroft in mind. Jason Robards, as everyone says, is excellent in O’Neill; he is not always convincing as a worldly priest in seventeenth-century France in John Whiting’s cumbersome play. But the torture of watching Anne Bancroft as a possessed nun can scarcely be described. She grunts and humps with a drastic confidence. The whole production is one of the most unworthy we have had in a long time—or perhaps one should say the most unworthy since the most unworthy one just before it.