Veanne Cox and Julia Coffey - PC Carol Rosegg.jpg
Veanne Cox and Julia Coffey in The Shakespeare Theatre's Production of The Beaux' Stratagem; PC: Carol Roesegg

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Collaborating With A Master Playwright: Ludwig and Wilder Adapt Farquhar's "The Beaux' Stratagem"

'Collaborating' With a Master Playwright

By Joseph Garaventa
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006; WE22

Talk about a work in progress. The adaptation of "The Beaux' Stratagem" that begins previews at the Shakespeare Theatre on Tuesday has been nearly three centuries in the making.

Wait, there's more: Audiences will also be seeing the premiere of a comedy by one of the most esteemed playwrights of the 20th century, Thornton Wilder ("Our Town," "The Skin of Our Teeth").

This new version of the late-Restoration comedy, which is rarely performed today, comes from three theatrical voices: George Farquhar, who wrote the original shortly before his death in 1707; Wilder, who was asked to adapt the play by producer Cheryl Crawford in 1939 but abandoned the project after completing half of Farquhar's story; and Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy for You," "Leading Ladies"), who was asked to finish Wilder's version by Tappan Wilder, the writer's nephew and the literary executor of his estate.

For Ludwig, the chance to "collaborate" with Thornton Wilder was irresistible.

"This was an extraordinary opportunity," Ludwig says. "Thornton Wilder is a god to any living playwright and is certainly in the pantheon of the three great American playwrights of the 20th century [with Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams]. I was flattered beyond belief. Then I read it and realized this is Thornton writing at his best."

Tappan Wilder was also struck by the quality of the piece when he first read it about five years ago. He decided it was too good to leave sitting in the Wilder archives at Yale University.

"I started to laugh like crazy," Wilder says. "I got chastised for making too much noise" in the Yale library reading room. "I wanted to find a playwright who could judge the quality, because I'm too close to it."

Although Wilder can't say for certain why his uncle never finished it, he says that in 1939, Thornton Wilder was heavily involved in the film version of "Our Town" and also had an idea for a farce of his own, "The Skin of Our Teeth."

Tappan Wilder met Ludwig in 2004. After Ludwig confirmed his high opinion of the script, Wilder asked him to finish it.

As his uncle's literary executor, Wilder has pored over many boxes of material and has "about 10,000 of my uncle's letters in the basement." He has found fragments of other plays but says one has to be cautious about bringing unpublished material to light. "You don't want to be scraping the floor, as some other literary estates have done," he says.

Ludwig completed the second half about a year ago. He sent it to Shakespeare Theatre Company's artistic director, Michael Kahn, who decided almost immediately to produce it. Kahn is directing the production.

The beaux of "The Beaux' Stratagem" are Aimwell (Christian Conn) and Archer (Christopher Innvar), who have depleted their fortunes and are on the hunt for heiresses: object, matrimony. They meet Dorinda (Julia Coffey), daughter of Lady Bountiful (Nancy Robinette), and Dorinda's sister-in-law, Kate (Veanne Cox). There are, naturally, obstacles to wedded bliss.

One might ask, why adapt this classic at all? Something wrong with the original?

"Thornton was an amazing scholar of European literature and European drama, so he must have known the play," Ludwig says. "I think he wanted to make it more attractive for modern audiences. There are at least two or three characters that make no sense today and that we wouldn't find funny at all -- the funny Frenchman, the funny Irishman, the funny maid. And the speeches go on and on and on. Restoration comedy can be a crashing bore if not done with great finesse. Even though Farquhar was a master, it's still darn hard reading.

"What Thornton did was to streamline the play, cutting out chunks, getting rid of some characters and adding a couple of his own and making it more fun and lively, more like the later, more accessible plays of the 18th century, plays like 'She Stoops to Conquer.' "

More than editing was involved. Wilder and Ludwig have written new speeches, in some cases having actors address the audience directly, as characters do in "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth."

"The Beaux' Stratagem" remains a work in progress as the adaptation has moved into production. Director Kahn has suggested changes that have required rewrites, including revisions of Wilder's material.

"We couldn't treat my uncle's work as something in a museum," Tappan Wilder says. "Theater is a living and breathing thing."

Ludwig adds: "You rewrite plays in rehearsals and again in previews. You roll up your sleeves and adjust and adjust and fix and fix, all the while trying to maintain the spirit and integrity of Farquhar's work." These production changes will be included in the final version of "The Beaux' Stratagem" that will be included in a new collection of Thornton Wilder's translations and adaptations. Wilder's original script will be included, as will Ludwig's completed version, which, Ludwig says, reflects Wilder's career-long celebration of the theater itself.

"Wilder was interested in truth onstage, but not in reality," Ludwig says. "This is a great time for this kind of play. We really need something that is exuberant and that makes us laugh, that gives us a sense of the joy of the world. That's what the 18th-century plays like 'She Stoops to Conquer' do, and that's what we hope this play does."

The Beaux' Stratagem Shakespeare Theatre 202-547-1122 Tuesday through Dec. 31

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