Work in Progress: An Interview With Ken Ludwig Concerning "The Beaux' Stratagem"
by Lincoln Konkle
for The Thornton Wilder Newsletter
Work in Progress: The Beaux’ Stratagem
The Beaux’ Stratagem, as adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig from George Farquhar’s 1707 comedy, will have its world premiere on November 7, 2006 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. We appreciate the cooperation of Ken Ludwig, Tappan Wilder, and Michael Kahn, director of the production, in preparing this piece.
After the failure of The Merchant of Yonkers on Broadway in early 1939, Thornton Wilder decided on spending a year doing odd jobs rather than launching a new novel or play. His plate filled up quickly, but most of these assignments bore fruit.
The outcome of The Beaux’ Stratagem is a different story. For no advance payment, he embarked on the task at the invitation of two well known figures in the theatre world, the producer Cheryl Crawford and the actor Brian Aherne. From Wilder’s correspondence we learn that Beaux’ got off to a good start. By the end of October 1939 he reported to his family that he had "completed a first act, weaving in lots that Farquhar never tho’t of, and whole new twists in the plot." But a month later, with approximately half the play completed, he appears to have become increasingly distracted by the coming of war in Europe, as well as some other ideas of his own. In early January 1940 he wrote his mother that he had "called Cheryl Crawford and told her he was ‘stuck’ and must give it up."
Thornton Wilder’s 1939 unfinished adaptation of George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem is housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. It is a sixty-page handwritten document together with an early typewritten version. Theatre Communications Group Press will publish a volume of Wilder’s translations and adaptations in late 2006 or early 2007. This book will offer students and admirers of Wilder an opportunity to discover a forgotten chapter of his life as a playwright. While it had been planned for some time to include Wilder’s adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem as an appendix to this volume, it will now include the completed play together with a detailed note about how it came to be started and finally finished by Ken Ludwig, and how this adaptation fits into the larger story of Thornton Wilder’s passionate interest in and prodigious knowledge of farce and satire – and his desire for great art to reach as broad a public as possible. In his foreword to the adaptations volume, Ken Ludwig writes, “On a personal note, I owe the Wilder Estate a large debt of gratitude. Completing the Farquhar-Wilder play – in effect, writing an adaptation of an adaptation – was one of the most enjoyable excursions of my life as a writer. I was given the freedom to complete the play however I thought best; accordingly, I set out with two models in mind: the collective spirit of Sheridan, Goldsmith, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar; and the singular spirit of Thornton Wilder. I hope that I did honor to both of them.”
The Thornton Wilder Society spoke with Mr. Ludwig about his adaptation of Wilder’s manuscript, which we offer for our members’ enjoyment.
TWS: How did it come about that you would finish Wilder’s adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem?
KL: I first met Tappan Wilder about two years 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. 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 who ever lived.
TWS: What appealed to you about Wilder’s manuscript?
KL: 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 twentieth-century playwrights. I read once that for Wilder the test of a good play is one “at which the audience don’t cough.” I thought, “This is my kind of playwright.”
TWS: What makes The Beaux’ Stratagem worthy of adaptation?
KL: It’s an early eighteenth-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.
TWS: What was the challenge for Wilder and you to adapt Farquhar’s play?
KL: 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. 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 eighteenth-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.
TWS: Do you think Tappan Wilder will be happy with what you’ve done with Wilder’s manuscript? Would Thornton Wilder?
KL: If Wilder would be unhappy with what I’ve written, then I’ve clearly failed. And if Tappy – who, in my view, understands his uncle’s work as well as anyone on the planet – were unhappy with the final result, then I’ve failed equally. I think it’s important to recognize that the Wilder Estate, thanks to Tappy, 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. And, Tappy believes because they are living works of art, they should be used as a springboard for other works of art (which is a view of literature that Wilder himself believed in strongly). Thus, we’ve lately seen the enormous success of Our Town as an opera. 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 a month’s time.
In the following excerpt from Ken’s manuscript, the exuberant characterization and hilarious wit of this collaboration across three centuries are readily apparent. In the first scene of Act Two, we find Lady Bountiful, her unmarried daughter Dorinda, her daughter-in-law Mrs. Sullen, and her servant Scrub in a contest of lethargic ennui versus ebullient altruism. Lady Bountiful is the eighteenth-century equivalent of what we would call a quack; with no training whatsoever, she prescribes an assortment of absurd home remedies for the townspeople’s various ailments and injuries.
(Lady Bountiful’s house, Sunday morning)
(Mrs. Sullen and Dorinda are stretched out in attitudes of complete boredom. Enter Lady Bountiful followed by Scrub carrying two large trays of medicaments)
Scrub, Scrub, are there many patients waiting for me this morning?
Yes, Milady, – There are two jaundices and a phlebotomy to my certain knowledge, –
Indeed! Did you hear that, my dears? It is not every morning that we have a phlebotomy, Scrub.
No, Milady, your phlebotomies are become monstrous rare. And Goodman Hodge is here again –
Ah, that will be a pepper poultice, I think. Daughter Sullen, you must come and see me make a poultice, it is the most diverting sight in the world.
To tell the truth, Madam, I could not rise from this chair to see an amputation, for all the pleasure in’t, could you, sister?
These Sunday delights are become so frequent here that the edge of pleasure is somewhat dulled.
Is everything ready, Scrub? You have not forgot anything? The vinegar? The flour? The bone saw?
Do not your patients object a little to the sawing of their bones?
Oh, I only use it in extreme cases. Gangrene. Leprosy. Severe headache. Scrub, you have not one-fourth the hydrophil and binding we will use. And don’t we have a delivery today? Where is that new head clamp? I’m most anxious to try it.
(aside to Dorinda)
It makes one rather glad to have been born already.
Remember, ladies, men with fortunes may come and go, but a good head clamp lasts a lifetime. You are quite well, daughter Sullen? You look a little drawn.
I am in excellent health, Madam, to no purpose.
My son, your husband, is not stirring yet. We must take care not to disturb him.
He is drunk, madam; or was so when last I saw him.
You are severe, daughter Sullen. He drinks entirely for his health. He has a poor constitution and finds that spirits restore his blood.
In that case, he must be the healthiest man in England.
He will be up before long and will amuse you till church-time.
And to the same degree.
Come, Scrub, we must to work. Two jaundices, you say?
Yes, milady, ’twill e’en do your heart good to see them. They are as yellow as oranges.
(Exeunt Lady Bountiful and Scrub)
The farcical humor of the Wilder/Ludwig collaboration is what drew renowned director Michael Kahn to directing the world premiere of The Beaux’ Stratagem: “It’s very funny. Ken has done a wonderful job; it makes some social comment about marriage and how you can get stuck in it, but basically it’s an entertainment.” Mr. Kahn sees many similarities between Beaux’ and Wilder’s The Matchmaker: monologues delivered directly to the audience, charming characters, and the ability to write farce and still make it human. “I’m looking forward to it,” Kahn said, “and I’m very glad Tappy sent it to me.” As everyone who has read the script will testify, the Wilder/Ludwig adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem is laugh-out loud funny on the page; surely it will be even more hilarious on the stage in the hands of a brilliant director and skilled actors. Don’t miss it!