Remarks by Ken Ludwig at the Shakespeare Theatre Press Conference Announcing the 2006-07 Season, to include the Wilder-Ludwig adaptation of The Beaux' Stratgem
Remarks by Ken Ludwig
for the Shakespeare Theatre Company Press Conference
February 27, 2006
First, I’d like to thank Michael Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre Company for this rare opportunity. It isn’t often that a playwright gets to work at this place unless he’s dead; and I greatly appreciate it. I also want to thank Tappan and Robin Wilder for making this whole project possible.
I first met Tappan Wilder about two ago, by chance, at the Alley Theatre in Houston. We became friends, and a few days later, after we returned to our homes, I got a call from Tappy asking me if I would be interested in completing a play that Thornton Wilder had begun in 1939, but was left unfinished at the time of his death.
About an hour later, the doorbell rang and the manuscript of the play arrived on my doorstep. There it was, in Wilder’s handwriting, with lines scratched out, and little balloons filled with changes. I felt like a combination of Columbus, holding a new world in my hands, and the luckiest archaeologist that ever lived.
For the next two weeks I dug into the manuscript non-stop. I realized that I’d need to know it backwards and forwards if I was to complete it. To my delight, it contained not only the best of Farquhar, but was also filled with all of the virtues we associate with the work of Thornton Wilder: the humanity, the insight into human potential, the craft, the structure, and the wonderful humor that made Wilder unique among 20th century playwrights.
And best of all – for me, at least – it stopped abruptly about half-way through the story.
Coincidentally, I recently came across a newspaper article from December 1940, which reported a speech Wilder had just delivered to the Modern Language Association in Boston in which he said that he “preferred a good burlesque show to a second-rate high-brow play;” that “realism is repugnant to the fundamental nature of the theatre;” and that his test for a good play is one “at which the audience don’t cough.” I remember thinking as I read it, “This is my kind of playwright.”
The Beaux’ Stratagem is an adaptation of an early 18th century Restoration Comedy by George Farquhar, first produced in 1707. Now one of the things that Farquhar did – and why I personally love his work so much – was to take Restoration Comedy out of the drawing room and out of London.
His two best plays, The Beaux’ Stratagem and The Recruiting Officer, are set in the countryside, and there’s something muscular and vigorous about them, providing a sort of link between Shakespeare’s comedies on the one hand, and She Stoops to Conquer 170 years later. Think Fielding’s Tom Jones as it might look on stage and you’re not far off.
Yet The Beaux’ Stratagem is performed only very occasionally in England. And it’s rarely ever performed at all in the United States. I think Wilder understood why this was so and seized upon it.
Unlike, say, The Way of the World and The Country Wife, The Beaux’ Stratagem is heavy-going for a modern audience. If you just pick it up and start reading, you’ll get bogged down pretty quickly. Wilder, however, recognized the innate brilliance of the piece and wanted to make it accessible to a contemporary audience.
Now normally, when a playwright writes an adaptation, the underlying work is in a different language or a different medium. Right now, on this stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is presenting Moliere’s Don Juan. It was written in French. It has to be translated, and therefore to some extent adapted, in order to be presented on an English-speaking stage.
We’re all familiar with stage adaptations of novels and films. Even if they’re in English to start with, they have to be changed radically to be presented onstage because they started out in a different medium.
But Wilder did something different. He broke the mold.
In deciding to adapt The Beaux’ Stratagem for a modern American audience, I imagine that Wilder must have said to himself something like this:
"Here is a great piece of theatre with really remarkable comic exuberance and unusually wonderful characters, and it goes unperformed for decades at a time because it’s too long, too dense, and has too many complicated sub-plots.
So why don’t I shake things up a bit? I’ll keep the exuberant story-line, 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, ready to stand beside its only 18th Century peers in the same genre, "She Stoops to Conquer," "The Rivals," and "The School for Scandal."
I think that’s what Wilder said to himself. And I think that’s why he was a genius.
I’d like to make one last point:
I think it’s important to recognize that the Wilder Estate has taken the view – which many estates do not – that the works which they hold in trust are living and breathing works of art, and not something that should go into a museum.
So, in finishing Wilder’s adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem, while I’ve done my best to stay true to Wilder’s spirit, and to the letter of what Wilder had already written, I’ve also taken the kind of liberties and excursions that Wilder took in adapting Farquhar. 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?”
We’ll all find out the answer to that question, me included, in about 8 months’ time.
Thank you very much.