A New Stratagem: The Making of the New Adaptation of The Beaux' Stragatem, by Akiva Fox
From "Asides" Magazine of The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC
When The Beaux' Stratagem opens this fall at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, audiences will witness the results of 300 years of theatrical history in every performance. This production came into being through three fateful meetings, centuries apart: the first, in which the actor Robert Wilks convinced his dying friend George Farquhar to write one last play, took place in 1706; the second, in which the producer Cheryl Crawford convinced Thornton Wilder to adapt Farquhar's play, took place in 1939; and the third, in which Wilder's literary executor and nephew Tappan Wilder invited Ken Ludwig to complete the adaptation, took place in 2004.
Time has obscured the details of the first two meetings, but Ken Ludwig is proud to share the story of the meeting that led to his collaboration with two great writers of the past. Two years ago, the Washington-based playwright (author of Leading Ladies and Shakespeare in Hollywood) traveled to the Alley Theatre in Houston during a Thornton Wilder celebration. Over lunch, he found himself discussing his life-long fascination with Restoration comedy with Tappan Wilder. Wilder, in turn, shared with Ludwig a secret known only to those familiar with the contents of Thornton Wilder's archive at Yale: his famous uncle Thornton had begun an adaptation of The Beaux' Stratagem in the late 1930s, but he abandoned it half-way through. “We discovered that we lived two miles apart in the D.C. area,” Ludwig recalls. “When we returned home, Tappan called with the proposition that I finish the Farquhar adaptation. I was flattered beyond words. Co-authoring a work with Thornton Wilder? Be still my heart. An hour later, a messenger delivered a copy of a manuscript in Thornton Wilder's handwriting!”
Ludwig set to work immediately. He could see that Wilder's adaptation of the first half had left him a basic model to follow. By cutting or expanding Farquahar's text and characters, Wilder aimed to make the play more accessible to an American audience. And Ludwig inherited not only a method from Wilder but also a mission. He likes to imagine what his predecessor's thought process might have been in 1939: “While nobody is performing this play, it has so much good material in it. I'll bet if I roll up my sleeves, take out the parts that aren't as interesting or amusing in this day and age, expand the best parts and preserve all of its divinity, then I'll have done a wonderful thing; I'll have given the play a new life, and it deserves it.” With that charge in mind, Ludwig completed his own adaptation of the second half of The Beaux' Stratagem.
But after adapting his half of the play, Ludwig realized that he could not simply stop there. “It became clear to me that in order to make it feel all of a piece, I would have to change parts of the first half that Wilder wrote,” he says. “The question in my mind was whether the Wilder estate would agree to let me do that. And Tappan was terrific about it. His view was that our goal should be to fashion a living piece of drama rather than an exhibit for a theatrical museum.” Ludwig's major contributions to Wilder's half included introducing new soliloquies and expanding the role of Lady Bountiful. Above all, he wanted to create a cohesive work. “I've asked myself not only ‘How would Wilder have completed the play?' but also ‘What would Thornton and I have produced—and rewritten and revised—if we were working together, hand-in-hand, right up to opening night?'”
With a completed draft of the play in hand, Ludwig and Tappan were eager to see it produced. Ludwig immediately thought of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “The best classical theatre in America happens to be in Washington, and I happen to know Michael Kahn,” he says. “My first impulse was that it would be the most fabulous thing in the world if he took an interest, so I sent it to him. And he was very positive from minute one.” Kahn organized two staged readings of the script and contributed his own director's eye to honing a version that would be funny, modern and theatrical.
And so, nearly three centuries to the day after Robert Wilks first encouraged George Farquhar to write The Beaux' Stratagem, Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig's new adaptation will take the play off the shelf and bring it to a new audience. “I'm so happy to be a part of this,” Ludwig admits. “These were two real geniuses of the theatre, and I'm thrilled to be in their company.”
Copyright Akiva Fox
Copyright The Shakesepare Theatre Company