Artists' Words At The First Rehearsal of "The Beaux' Stratagem" At The Shakespeare Theatre
From "Asides" Magazine of the Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC
• In my second year teaching at Juilliard, I chose to do Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer as a final project. It was a mess. None of us knew what to do, and it wasn't much fun. I thought, “I'm never going to do another play by Farquhar.” Then I went to see The National Theatre's production of The Beaux' Stratagem; it had a lot of well-known actors, including Maggie Smith. I laughed occasionally but not very much, and I thought, “Well, maybe it wasn't all my fault.” So I was never terribly interested in Farquhar after that. Then a couple of years ago, I received a call from Ken Ludwig saying there was a new version of The Beaux' Stratagem that Thornton Wilder had started and that Ken had finished. I thought, “Well, I'm not really interested in The Beaux' Stratagem,” but I worked with Thornton Wilder and I know Ken very well. So I read it, and I laughed out loud. We did a reading of it, from which we learned some things. Ken went back and worked on the script, and then we did another reading, and it worked like a charm, except for a little bit at the end, so we worked on that, and now I think we have a terrific script. It's Farquhar. It's Wilder. It's Ludwig.
• This play is Farquhar, but it is seen through other lenses. I think that's part of our mission: to rescue and bring back plays that need to be seen but perhaps need to be thought about somewhat differently. We did this a couple of years ago with Lorenzaccio, which I think is an extraordinary play, but it was not written for the stage. We asked John Strand to adapt it, and through workshops we developed a play that was both de Musset and John Strand and that can now be part of the repertory of classical theatre.
• For me, it is wonderful to do a premiere of a Thornton Wilder play at this point in my life. My second production in New York was Three by Thornton Wilder, produced by Edward Albee and Dick Barr at the Cherry Lane. It was very early in my career. I would sit in the box office, because I was so excited that people were actually coming to the play. One night, this tall man came in, and—I think it wasn't a union box office so I was actually selling the ticket—this man said, “I'd like a ticket for the 10 o'clock show.” I looked up, and I said, “You look awfully familiar to me. Aren't you Thornton Wilder?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, then I'll have to give you the ticket for free!” And then I introduced myself. We were doing Happy Journey, Queens of France and Long Christmas Dinner, and a week later I got a four-page, handwritten letter, talking about the plays and why he liked them. He wrote, “You must be European because you understand my plays,” and I thought that was odd coming from this quintessentially American playwright, but, of course, as you know, he was an extraordinarily educated and cosmopolitan person who spent a lot of time in Paris. I knew what he meant, because the plays have a wonderful critique of but at the same time affection for America. One of the things I understood, too, is that the plays, while affectionate, are not sentimental. I later directed Our Town in Stratford, and then I was supposed to do Skin of Our Teeth, and on both occasions he wrote me letters. So I knew him mostly through my work and through letters.
• Once upon a time, I was reading Thornton's manuscripts in Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it's so quiet you're afraid to even breathe, when I came across the script of his unfinished adaptation of The Beaux' Stratagem. It's always been there, but nobody seems to have paid any attention to it. I started laughing so hard as I read it that a starchy scholar (English, of course) working on Medieval illuminated manuscripts at a nearby table gave me a public dressing down. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to The Beaux' Stratagem.
• Let me provide a bit of rapid-fire context of where this play fits into Thornton Wilder's work. He entered the decade of the '30s, which was his 30s, determined to achieve Broadway standing. He had all sorts of resources to help make this happen. He was, for example, a world-famous novelist by this time, which meant that many a door was open to him. But he had also been writing drama from boyhood on and publishing plays from college on. And destroying them, too. By nature, Thornton Wilder wasn't a “keeper.” Starting young, he threw away tons of material. (“I don't want future scholars to be bothered,” he said later, adding his much-quoted line: “A wastepaper basket is a writer's best friend.”) One of the plays he wrote as a young man was a Restoration comedy. It's gone.
• He was prodigiously well-read, knew his French, German, Italian and Spanish, and thus seemed to know the language and literature of drama from everywhere in the original. So it is no surprise that he first got to Broadway by way of translation and adaptation. It wasn't an especially satisfying experience. He translated André Obey's Lucrece for Katharine Cornell in 1932. The play, which Cornell called “her favorite failure,” died after only 31 performances. Again, it is no surprise that his first Broadway success was another adaptation/translation—a new “stage version” of A Doll's House for Jed Harris and Ruth Gordon. He tossed this one off in early 1937 before departing for Europe to write the plays buzzing in his head. A Doll's House opened that summer in Central City, Colorado, played with enormous success that fall in the Midwest, and opened on Broadway at the end of 1937. This time … wonderful news. The production set the record for the longest running Doll's House on Broadway—144 performances—which stood until 1997.
• We now come to Our Town, which opens February 4, 1938; that play has never closed. Wilder closes out 1938 with an adaptation from a Johann Nestroy comedy he calls The Merchant of Yonkers. It died a quick death, but everyone who mattered knew it would be a success—someday. In 1952 Ruth Gordon picked it up again and two years later turned it into The Matchmaker. The rest is happy history.
• At the end of the '30s, Wilder is exhausted. He gets to mid-1939, and he says, “I'm going to enjoy people this fall. I'm going to do little tasks. I'm not going to write my own plays.” He rents an apartment on Irving Place in Greenwich Village for six months and starts on happy little tasks. He writes an essay about Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and another with his views about the nature of playwriting. Then, out of left field, he gets slammed by Sol Lesser, the producer trying to make a film out of Our Town. Wilder had not counted on this diversion, which involved face-to-face meetings, telegrams, constant letters, etc. His free time is shrinking away to work on a task promised to theatre producer Cheryl Crawford; an adaptation of The Beaux' Stratagem. He starts work on it in September, just as war is declared in Europe. It's getting dicey out there. By early December, he realizes that he has lost his way with The Beaux' Stratagem and must give it up, although Crawford apparently had a Broadway address not only in mind but even reserved. Given Wilder's propensity for destroying paper, it speaks well for his view of the fragment's merits that he did not, thank heavens, destroy it. And soon enough, in 1940, he begins writing a new play that spoke to the times, The Skin of Our Teeth.
• I carried The Beaux' Stratagem around in my head for several years, thinking what fun it would be to finish it. We could laugh and see still another example of the trenchant social stuff wrapped up in a great big ball of wild and crazy entertainment that my uncle liked to write about. In the context of the “realism” of much of the America stage before World War II, he stood out when he called for (as he put in '40) “the great theatre of enchantment and ecstasy.” And two years ago in Houston of all places, I met Ken Ludwig—and here we are.
• Thornton Wilder's work on The Beaux' Stratagem is extraordinary in many ways, but particularly because it does something that few, if any, other playwrights have ever done before. Normally, when a dramatist chooses an underlying work to adapt, the underlying work is in a different language; or it is in another medium altogether, be it a novel, a poem or, lately, a movie. What Thornton did was take a play in English and create an adaptation into another play in English, set in the same time period with almost all of the same characters. And the work he chose to adapt was already a minor classic.
• Thornton must have said to himself: “Here is a great piece of theatre with remarkable comic exuberance, gloriously funny characters and an abundance of genuinely witty dialogue; and it sits on the shelf, unperformed for decades at a time, because it is too long, contains many turgid, unedited passages (it was written and performed shortly before Farquhar's death in 1707), and features two minor characters who are given far too much stage time and whose 18th-century stereotypes (the funny Frenchman and the funny Irishman) leave us cold today. So why don't I pick this piece up and shake it a bit? I'll keep the exuberant storyline, the major characters and the great speeches, and I'll cut out all the boring bits. And to make up for the cuts, I'll add some new plot twists and write some new scenes. Then, perhaps, I can restore this play to the glory it deserves as a true classic of the 18th century, ready to stand beside its only peers: She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals and The School for Scandal.”
• Thornton's view of literature is that we are a part of a great continuum; we are part of a literary fellowship, and we stand upon the shoulders of those great writers that came before us. He once said, “Literature has always more closely resembled a torch race than a furious dispute among heirs.” Thus Thornton saw this project as a part of the tradition he loved best. He was standing on the shoulders of George Farquhar. And now I get to stand on the shoulders of both of these great writers. And so, in working on this play, when I get to a particular scene or speech that I have to write anew or change, I ask myself two questions: First, what would Wilder or Farquhar do in this passage if he were standing in my shoes? And then—the ultimate question —what would the three of us do if we were working together right now, collaborating, and preparing for opening tonight?