Maxwell Anderson's Winterset
on February 3rd, 4th and 5th 1948

[KES Mag March 48]

Brave Experiment

A FTER many weeks of the ultra-discreet activity which characterises the School Dramatic Society, the Assembly Hall was prepared for the performance of the American Maxwell Anderson's Winterset on February 3rd, 4th and 5th, heralded by the extremely effective macabre posters of G. I. Ramsay.

The choice of this play was startling, and sent many of us to the text to estimate the chances of a successful production. The reading of it gave little ground for reassurance. The author's oven misgivings, expressed in the Preface-" Winterset is largely in verse and treats a contemporary tragic theme, which makes it more of an experiment than I could wish, for the great masters themselves never tried to make tragic poetry out of the stuff of their own times "-seemed well founded. With a plot centring round crimes of the New York underworld, characters speaking verse bespattered with American idiom of a particularly lurid, earthy type, and a waterside slum at the foot of Brooklyn Bridge as setting, the hopes of the author to "reach occasionally into the upper air of poetic tragedy" seemed optimistic. Perhaps the only hope of treating this material with success lay in a classical treatment, stripping the action of all but the bare essentials, the characters of all but their universal humanity, and the setting of all but a stylised symbolism.

Apposite, too, was the author's own yearning-" Under the strain of an emotion, the ordinary prose of our stage breaks down into inarticulateness, just as it does in life. Hence the cult of under-statement, hence the realistic drama in which the climax is reached in an eloquent gesture or a moment of meaningful silence." Of the author who expresses Esdras's grief over the dead lovers by "Come, take her up; they must not lie here" (which has all the poignant simplicity of Marlowe's "Cover her face-mine eyes dazzle--she died young ") we might have expected better than the overlarded, verbose commentary, placed in the mouth of Esdras, concerning "this star-adventure," and

"The devils locked in synod
Shake and are daunted when men set their lives
At hazard for the heart's love, and lose.
This is the glory of earth-born men and women,
Not to cringe, never to yield, but standing,
Take defeat implacable and defiant,
Die unsubmitting."

This not only detracts from the tragic simplicity of the "grief too deep for tears," but stimulates "sales-resistance." If the action of the play has made its effect, it seems wholly unnecessary to dilute it with verbosity of the ingenuous and over-emphatic type which is the particular American weakness. (The relaxed interest and slight impatience of the audience during these passages seemed to support this criticism).

A further lapse on the part of the author from his own wish to "outgrow the phase of journalistic social comment" appears to be in the scene involving the Orator, when the theme of" one law for the rich, another for the poor," already inherent in the main plot, is unnecessarily over-emphasised. One feature stands out from the reading; this is American writing, based on American speech-rhythm, with its peculiarly timed delivery and emphasis, depending largely on drawl. For instance, the opening lines—
"You roost of punks and gulls! Sleep, sleep it off!
Rot out your pasty guts!"
will have the correct emphasis only if delivered in "American."

Interest in the production was intensified by a fore-knowledge of the difficulties and weaknesses of the play, together with the confidence, now firmly established, in Mr. Watling as producer to accomplish the "impossible." The plot is a strong one, and the players, after a hesitant start, warmed up well to it. The attentive silence of the audience during the greater part of the play was sufficient testimony to the power of the plot and the effectiveness of the players. Partly, no doubt, from deference to a "school"  production, probably even more from a sure artistic instinct, the producer's blue pencil had been active, pruning away the grosser or irrelevant dialogue, with an effective gain in condensation.

* * *

The characters resolve into the Unjust (Troth and his gunmen); those compromising with Injustice and Evil (Judge Gaunt, Esdras, Garth, Shadow), with resultant mental strain in uneasy consciences and the sense of guilt and failure; and the uncompromisingly Just or Idealist (Mio, Miriamne). The first and last categories are strongly defined, with corresponding opportunities for the actors. As Troth, T. Buchan made a suitably dapper, sinister figure, the full flavour of his anti-social malevolence being weakened, however, by the speed of his delivery and a frankly Yorkshire accent, which resulted in many of his lines, particularly on his first appearance, being thrown away. D. P. C. Pearce, as Shadow, made a consistent effort at an American accent and created a more satisfying character. His reappearance from the river was very well done. B. J. Hague and S. D. Binks were convincingly sinister gunmen.

M.A. Rothwell and G. S. Finlayson in "WINTERSET"

In the part of Mio, G. S. Finlayson deserved unstinted praise. His long, loose-limbed physique was perfect for the part, and his rather stooping bearing and taciturn, smouldering thirst for vengeance, followed by courageous resignation, were as authentic and well-sustained as his accent and effective use of pause, which extracted full value from every line. He was supported well by M. A. Rothwell as Miriamne, whose clear voice and diction won general approval. Perhaps the full wistfulness and pathos of the part were beyond his youthful powers, but the fierce intransigence, the frankness and courage, were not. A somewhat uneasy-looking wig and sooty-eyed make-up rather worried me, although perhaps I am being difficult, since an impartial observer expressed surprise on learning that all four female roles were not taken by imported members of local girls' schools, but by our own boys. This is praise indeed.

What I have called the " compromise " characters were much more complex, unrewardingly passive parts (with the exception of Gaunt), demanding restraint. As Esdras, L. May gave a mature performance of a difficult part, conveying well the dignity and fortitude, the patience and self-knowledge born of suffering, of the old Jewish father. D. W. Swallow, as Garth, found difficulty with the passivity of the role, and gave an angry, buzzing performance, in which the pathetic impotence (and incidentally, many of the lines, delivered in a staccato Yorkshire accent) were lost. H. R. Windle, as Gaunt, had the most complex part of all, an aged character in whom every contour is blurred by the incipient madness of the old man, constantly changing from dignified authority to crazed irresponsibility, from sane, reasoned argument to lewd babblings. This seems the most tragic character in the play, and was very sensitively performed, with the polish we have come to expect of Windle. Very occasionally, in the effort of portraying both age and madness, a slight tendency to over-act appeared (and was registered by the audience) but, against the difficulty of the portrayal and the distinct success of the whole, this served only to emphasise the skill of his performance.

Among the minor characters, P. W. Cross, as the Italian music-man, infected the audience with his 'own obvious relish in the part; J. B. Brown as the Orator, W. Ferguson as the Irish policeman, and G. M. Macbeth as the Hobo, gave convincing performances, the result of skilful casting; while J. M. Dawson did perhaps as much as could be expected with the rather colourless part of Carr. The crowd scenes were the least successful of all, largely owing to the cramped stage-space, which converted a haphazard assembly of odd loungers into the semblance of a well-drilled chorus, and the distant menace of shadowing gunmen into the matey shoulder-rubbing of a football crowd. Excepting Mio, Gaunt, Esdras, and the Musicman, who all "filled the stage," movement and gesture were the rawest feature of the production. The tiny stage may account for many of the cramped gestures during the crowd scenes, but cannot explain those on a comparatively clear stage. Garth, the two minor Girls, and the Boyfriend, were particularly bad in this respect.

After the hard work, ingenuity and very competent scene-painting of G. I. Ramsay, it is a thankless task to criticise the setting. But however much the physical limitations of the stage may dictate the solution, the problem of the setting seemed particularly important here.

"WINTERSET," Act I. In the Street

The single set, with its attempt at realism in the peeling wall-paper and painted stove, was a desperately inadequate substitute for the author's vision of " the gigantic span of the bridge, appearing to lift itself over the heads of the audience and out to the left "; the restricted, sordid locale here strangled any transcendental significance, for me at least. Moreover, the convention of the stage seemed unduly stretched by the demand that we ignore, during an outdoor scene, a background of chairs and table which we have previously seen in the interior of the tenement. The discriminating choice of incidental music, provided by L. J. O. Holmes, certainly helped the play and considerably heightened the emotional effect of the climax, although tending, on rare occasions, to interfere with the audibility of the dialogue.

While some of the above criticism may seem severe, it starts from the premise that for these performances the School does become a public theatre, not the scene of a domestic entertainment before an invited audience. This was a bold experiment, flirting with the possibility of a monumental failure. That the latter did not materialise is largely due to the skill and experience of the producer. It nevertheless remains true that, if the Dramatic Society is to develop along sound lines, it must, when the domestic felicities and mutual congratulations are over, when the audience has departed after an evening's enjoyment (which it certainly had), be prepared to estimate the experience, discover its own limitations and weaknesses, in order, for future productions, to exploit its limitations and eradicate its weaknesses.

E. V. B

"WINTERSET." Act II. In the Tenement


This is not an easy play to produce. It is a mixture of poetic thought with sordid underworld scenes, of high ideals and depraved morals, making it a play which must be treated symbolically and realistically at the same time. This presents a problem to the producer which must inevitably result in a series of compromises, and his chief concern must be to use his art to conceal the fact that compromise is taking place. This requires some very smooth joining up of things which do not meet. Inconsistencies there must be, but we must be kept unaware of them, and the general effect on our minds must be of something which we have probably never seen nor heard, but of which we have somehow been made aware.

In this production the producer started with almost every conceivable handicap. His actors were young and. one must presume, largely inexperienced; his stage was very shallow and totally inadequate; his lighting possibilities were meagre; and to crown all. some of his players were even of the wrong sex. I have no hesitation in saying that he triumphed over these difficulties in a way which no one who had not seen this production would have thought possible.

The set was brilliantly conceived. It gave us the right mixture of symbolism and reality, in proof of which every member of the audience accepted it and became unconscious of it except as a background both stimulating and in some way exciting; and this on a stage the size of a pocket-handerchief, where such a set inevitably encroached on the available area, and restricted movement to such an extent that the producer was obliged to think almost in terms of the static. This was an achievement, a full appreciation of which was probably quite beyond the non-theatrical members of the audience; they were conscious of the result without being aware of the skill which went to produce it.

This is not a play of movement-that is, of physical movement-but some movement there must be. It was obvious that on this stage it must be kept to the irreducible minimum, but the effect must never be so static as to become tedious. That it did not become tedious was due to the sensitive appreciation on the part of the producer—with quick response on the part of the actors-of the essential value of repose. Without it, the small movement which meant so much would have gone for nothing.

Without attempting to write any appreciation of the actors individually, I would like to pay tribute to them as a team. Some of the parts were of course played with greater feeling than others, but the general effect, as it must be in every good production, was one of conscientious teamwork. This teamwork was really integrated sensitivity. It was obvious to me that the producer knew, and the actors fully appreciated, that the play could never have got over without it.

This is not just a fulsome write-up in order to encourage a school production. Most school productions are beneath contempt except as fun and games for the children. This was a serious and highly intelligent production of what may or may not be a good play. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to see it.