I was really glad to have some time to sit and talk about our ideas about the play in an informal way. I didn't take notes so I'm just going to try to recall as much as I can about the ideas that were tossed around during our 3 hour discussion.
Several of us had read Frances Burney's "Farewell" letter that I posted earlier today. We found it very touching and some even wondered if we could work it somehow into the production. Some people suggested a framing device, where Frances Burney or the text itself would appear on stage-- we imagined the pages of the text being locked away in a box, waiting for someone to set the characters free. We even speculated about a piece of stagecraft where the characters might somehow climb out of a chest on stage, a la Pandora's Box (didn't Bill Irwin do a trick like this in Fool Moon, where people kept coming out of a trunk that was brought on empty to the center of the stage?). We all agreed that whether we use a literal frame or not, it is a powerful idea that Frances Burney's voice will finally be heard onstage after 229 years. Did you know that the original text of The Witlings is part of a rare books collection that is housed here at the New York Public Library? How amazing that these handwritten pages that live right here in New York City will be brought to life about 40 blocks north in May.
We actually called Betty Rizzo, a Professor Emeritus and Burney scholar who has expressed her interest in our project. She cleared up a question about Lady Smatter (it's her opinion that she's based on Elizabeth Montagu, although other scholars have suggested that she is partly based on Frances Burney's stepmother, which might explain why Mr. Burney found the play objectionable. Some have even suggested that perhaps Mr. Dabbler is a jab at Mr. Burney himself). We sat for a while discussing questions of status, i.e., why does Censor seem to have so much power over Lady Smatter? Ultimately it seems that he doesn't care what people think of him, and knows that Lady Smatter does care, which is ultimately her downfall. Live by the sword, die by the sword-- her investment in being "famous," well known, and admired by her peers is what causes her to unravel.
Britney Spears was brought up, as the subject of a discussion about fame and infamy. All those gossip rags love to report on stars when good things happen to them, but they love it even more when they fall apart. One of the Burney scholars (Doody?) points out that all of Dabbler's poems seem to be about disaster befalling beautiful young women-- perhaps Burney making a little fun of herself?-- just as this play depends upon our enjoyment at watching a young woman suffer financial ruin and loss of home, love, esteem of her peers, and sense of her own self-worth, even if only temporarily. Interestingly, Mr. Crisp in his letter to Frances about the play (before he more or less shut it down completely) wondered if it would be better if Censor didn't give Cecilia the money at the end of the play, saying that perhaps she should get herself out of trouble. Should Cecilia shave her head mid-play? Hard to pull off, especially more than once, but it's worth thinking about these kinds of pop culture references that we can appropriate or adapt for our own purposes.
Several of us brought up images we had concerning the characters-- we were saying it might be funny if Lady Smatter was extremely tall and thin, perhaps with a very tall wig or hat, and perhaps Mrs. Sapient is very short and wide. There's an exhibit in the Costume Institute at the Met right now called blog.mode: there are some modern avant-garde outfits which might be inspiring, but there are also a few period men's and women's garments that are worth looking at. I was thinking about the idea of restriction-- that whether the garments we use are ultimately period or modern, the upper-class characters are probably wearing things that are restricting in some way. Period men's suits are very tight silk breeches and heavily embroidered jackets with lace collars, and in some cases both men and women wore corsets. One of the garments at the Met is one of those dresses with the panniers that make the woman look as if she is wearing a small shelf under her dress-- a costume like that certainly has possibilities for comic movement on stage-- Sapient taking out Jack with an ill-timed turn?
One image I had about Cecilia is that she is somehow stripped during the course of the play-- if she's covered in ruffles and furbelows and jewelry at the beginning of the play, perhaps these things are given away or taken away from her? This could either be very literal, i.e., Cecilia gives Mrs. Voluble a ring to let her stay in the room, or could be a more expressionistic scene where ruffles, sleeves, shoes, petticoats are stripped off of her (perhaps by the milliners shop ladies?). Again, whether or not it's actually done on stage, I like the idea of Cecilia somehow being stripped down and forced to stand on her own two feet. In the end, when Beaufort says, "All I have now to offer you is my heart," and she says "it's all I ever wanted," she has to mean it. It's more interesting I think if she starts out taking certain things for granted and has a genuine awakening both that she's had it pretty easy for a long time and that in the end, all she really wants is Beaufort, rich or poor.
I also talked about a theatre "philosophy" for lack of a better word, which has been heavily influenced by my college mentor, Arden Fingerhut. I'll try to formulate my ideas and discuss them further at a later date, but the shorthand version is that you don't put "The Moral of the Play" directly on the stage-- hopefully you create an environment where these ideas are evoked in the mind of the audience.
More than enough for now. Please feel free to comment on this entry or start a new one with additional subjects that we discussed yesterday. I'm really excited about the possibilities and opportunities that this play presents...