Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What is the play about?

Sunday's discussion consisted of an interesting exercise-- try to tell someone what the play is about. Our esteemed colleague Ralph joined us for the afternoon, and served as our guinea pig. We tried to discuss the action of the play to him, sometimes talking over one another (sorry about that, Margi) and stopping at the end of each act to try to determine what, if anything, had actually happened. For instance, the first act is full of information that sets up the rest of the play, but in terms of events that advance the action, really one thing happens: Cecilia doesn't show up for her appointment at the milliner's shop.

What is this play really about? We have been encouraged to come up with one sentence or phrase to which we can refer, so we can make sure that all of our actions as actors support that theme. As he pointed out, it would be quite easy to get caught up in all of the silliness and ornament and completely lose the action of the play. My teacher Arden used to refer to the "gesture" of the play, and would ask us to try to construct or find something three-dimensional to represent this essential gesture in our design classes.

I would love to hear other company member's opinions about what the "gesture" or "theme" of this play really is. Some of the suggestions Sunday had to do with Passion tempered by Reason, or similar formulations. Cecilia and Beaufort's love story is clearly at the center, but they also clearly get saved by Censor's quick thinking and good sense. Cecilia's romantic ideals (or naivete about what true love is: i.e., if he really loved me, he'd come to me right away) jepordize her real-life relationship with Beaufort-- she nearly leaves the country without even confirming that he has in fact abandoned her.

The strength and fire of Love tempered by the common sense of Reason? Or is the play ultimately about Censor, someone whose love seems to be entirely confined to his brotherly love of Beaufort, but who has little patience for romantic love? What would have been the story if he had not come to Cecilia's rescue with his five thousand pounds? Is the message then "Only love where you can afford it"? The epilogue has to do with Self-Sufficiency, an ironic theme for a play which was never performed during its author's lifetime because she was not in fact self-sufficient.


Magis Theatre Company said...

As promised, here is the final speech of Beaufort from the unabridged version:

Allow me, ladies, with all humility, to mediate, & to entreat that the calm of an evening succeeding a day so agitated with storms, may be enjoyed without allay. Terror, my Cecilia, now ceases to alarm, & sorrow, to oppress us; gratefully let us receive returning happiness, & hope that our example,— should any attend to it,— may inculcate this most useful of all practical precepts: That self-dependence is the first of earthly blessings; since those who rely solely on others for support & protection are not only liable to the common vicissitudes of human life, but exposed to the partial caprices & infirmities of human nature.

This was the end of the play. One of the first cuts I made was this speech. I think it is a disappointing end to so much that came before it. Somehow with this speech it is ONLY about this, but I think for the complete discussion on "what is the play about?" we need to see this as Burney's intended final punch. Given the historical context, it seems a hot topic to talk about self-dependence, or if you will, to give voice to Beaufort's "Declaration of Independence."
One "gesture" that I have thought of would be when Beaufort breaks from Smatter to evoke a gesture used by St. Francis of Asissi and his own father. When held to his "dependence" and therefore his owed obedience to his father, Francis asserted himself by removing all the clothes his father had given him and walking away from him with nothing. I would see that happening in Act IV after this speech of Beaufort:
I will not hear it! I disdain Lady Smatter, & her future smiles or displeasure shall be equally indifferent to me. Too long, already, have I been governed by motives & views which level me with her narrow-minded self; it is time to shake off the yoke,— assert the freedom to which I was born,—& dare to be poor, that I may learn to be happy!
For me this speech says everything that the last speech does, but it does it in the moment, with action, with decision and does not smack of the "preachiness" of the final speech.

Erika said...

If we use this idea of Beaufort stripping and rejecting the wealth given him by Lady Smatter, and Cecilia gives up ruffles and furbelows as the play goes on, it could be a funny meeting up at the end if they were both in undergarments-- crinolines and boxer shorts? Or bloomers and long johns?

Frank Mihelich said...

I believe that THE WITLINGS is a play about the need of balance between passion and reason. It is a funny picture of a community where pretense and the way that we are seen, is more important then truth and integrity. The message of the play seems to be balance.

Frank Mihelich