Monday, 28 August 2017
by John Galsworthy
Through A Glass Darkly
What a curiously engaging patchwork of a play John Galsworthy's Windows, first performed in 1922, turns out to be!
It starts out as an obviously self-censored Edwardian drawing room London melodrama set in the aftermath of the First World War about a young woman, a figure of pathos, deflowered out of wedlock and the consequences of her pregnancy.
Yet it finally shifts to a more caustic tone before transforming into a play as symbolist as Chekhov's The Seagull and focussing on the mistress of the household and an international outlook.
The March family live in Highgate: father Geoffrey (David Shelley) is a newspaper pundit and otherwise a freelance writer and idealist given to muttering about "the government".
Mother Joan (Carolyn Backhouse) takes on the practical duties of running a household with a firm grasp of reality. Son Johnny (Duncan Moore) writes poetry and dreams of chivalry, a disappointed idealist and tormented veteran of three years' in the trenches while his sister Mary (Eleanor Sutton) keeps a level head and confers with her mother.
The family employs an in-house cook (Janet Amsden), as well as another outside blue collar tradesman. Joe Bly (Vincent Brimble), an ex-seaman turned window cleaner who seems to owe something to G Bernard Shaw's Alfred Doolittle.
He has a philosophical bent and turn of phrase. This includes mulling over imperial concerns about Ireland and India. Yet closer to home, he also has a daughter Faith (Charlotte Brimble), newly released from prison after escaping hanging for smothering her baby. .
Windows, like Just To Get Married, the Finborough's previous success, deftly weaves together the personal with national and state-of-the-world concerns, but keeps its own distinctive voice.
Geoffrey Beevers directs a measured and sure-footed production with strong performances from the cast of nine.
As Faith Bly, Charlotte Brimble is a tough cookie who eventually shows a glimpse of vulnerability but somehow, intriguingly, knows she must live up or down to a literary and newspaper stereotype.
As the men of the house, David Shelley and Duncan Moore, father and son respectively, are pipe-smoking would-be reformers in their different ways.
Yet there are sly satiric hints about both father and son in Windows, for all their high ideals about social change, just reparations and their wish to give pretty Faith a fresh start in life as a live-in parlourmaid for the March family.
Carolyn Backhouse's Joan March assumes the role of fierce gatekeeper and bears the brunt of responsbility for most matters, principally protecting her husband and son. Yet there are moments when a veil is almost drawn back. Geoffrey, and Johnny are sharply ambivalent figures even if a more tawdry undertow remains a subtle subtext.
This feels like a play sometimes more interested in weaving together issues with some unexpected combinations of the personal and the political than with the characters which are deliberately drawn as literary stereotypes.
Galsworthy in his more famous series of novels The Forsyte Saga, as far as was possible in the era in which he wrote, often had a subtext touching on contentious subjects in a male dominated society.
Here there is a strange, deliberate scene when after an incident causes disquiet, Mrs March lets the young woman go and appears, highly unusually for a married woman at that time, to swiftly write out a cheque for Faith.
Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House revolves around financial restrictions on wives but Mrs March appears to have her own cheque book and seems to believe the ex-parlour maid can cash the cheque. She also promises the young woman more money if necessary.
Faith eventually reverts to the role of a stock melodrama bad 'un who cannot break out of the legal personality and character the law and literature have created for her.
In so doing, she keeps the play within the bounds of the censor - but her comments retain a sharp, barbed, satiric tone which lift the play away from conventional melodrama.
There are other clues planted throughout that all may not be what it seems. When Mr Bly reveals his daughter has never divulged the name of the baby's father, he thinks "the better of her for that".
Mr March replies, "Shake hands, Mr Bly. So do I. Loyalty's loyalty - especially when we men benefit by it."
And as the short three acts continue (unusually for plays now there are two intervals), there's also a further very pleasing modern self-conscious sensibility about theatrical conventions.
The action of the play revolves around family meals and periodic window cleaning or, as Bly says, "Ah! Food and windows! That's life" or Mr March remarks in the final act, "We always seem to be eating!".
Intrigued? We certainly were, and, even if writer John Galworthy was no political radical, our interest was certainly piqued after seeing the play and reading about the circumstances surrounding Galsworthy's own marriage.
Rightly or wrongly, it planted in us a suspicion the Nobel Prize winner's wife, who had a chequered past, may herself have been unfairly characterised by others to fit a feminine and legal stereotype.
Windows sardonically examines a gamut of social and political issues, not least how women's roles are often defined by literature and the law feeding into each other. It's a green light for a surprisingly worldly and sprightly artistic experiment with form played out over two days in a Highgate drawing room.