The first pleasure of Waste is simply listening to it. Nowadays, when the dialogue of popular drama is driven by the unloading of emotional baggage or the superficial bantering and overly precious wit of the self-absorbed, it’s deeply satisfying, almost giddying, to encounter the intelligence and verbal grace of a play like Waste.
Written in 1906 by the formidable actor/director/dramaturg/critic Harley Granville Barker, the play, which deals frankly with sex, cynical politicking, and abortion rights, was denied a license by the British censor and not publicly performed until 1936. Then it was virtually forgotten. Theater for a New Audience has unearthed a treasure, and offers a sparkling production under the sure direction of Bartlett Sher.
Not that Waste is a great play. The well-made mechanisms grind ever louder as it approaches the predictable denouement, and vestiges of Victorian melodrama (an incriminating letter and suchlike) seem even more quaint now than they must have even at the premiere. But it’s a truly interesting play: You actually lean forward and listen to the arguments the characters make in their never-too-didactic debates, feeling that their outcomes will have real consequences.
The title refers to the rather Ibsenite decline of the hero, Henry Trebell (played with just the right balance of intellectual charm and emotional coldness by Byron Jennings). An independent politician, Trebell sets out to disestablish the Church of England and to divert its considerable funding into education. Seizing on some sympathy within conservative ranks, he allies himself with the party in power and slowly wins their support. One of the most engaging scenes is Trebell’s persuasion of the church’s cabinet minister, Charles Cantilupe (a quietly expert performance by Richard Easton, whose lips pucker into a perfect expression of dour disapproval). “As the modern state scarcely reflects my heart’s desire,” Cantilupe reasons, “I have come to think that the Church can best serve it, and best save her own soul, by breaking partnership.”
Trouble is, there’s another partnership literally waiting in the wings during this exchange, one that will matter more to Trebell’s career, though he cares far less about it: an affair with a married woman, Amy O’Connell. Ibsen may be felt in Waste‘s plotting, but in exploring the interplay between public policy and private conduct, Barker owes most to his mentor, George Bernard Shaw. Barker, of course, lacks Shaw’s genius, but he learned well not to paint his hypocrites too crudely.
Hearing of the scandal that ensues between O’Connell and Trebell (which I’m loathe to give away, despite its obviousness), the party hacks drop Trebell faster than you can say Chappaquidick. Yet even if we don’t fully sympathize with Trebell, we are made to see the calculations of the politicians as even more morally suspect. It’s the blowsy ultraconservative Blackborough who most forcefully demands their abandoning Trebell. Early in the play, describing himself as “no more of a democrat than I need to be,” Blackborough sums up his political philosophy: “The statesman’s task is the accommodation of stubborn fact to shifting circumstance, and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man.” If expelling Trebell contradicts that cynical scheme, it’s only because Blackborough never really embraced the disestablishment plan to begin with.
Pompous or callous or both, the men wield all the power, but Barker is also concerned with showing how the women in their shadows employ age-old strategies for claiming a share in it: conniving in their own backroom deals on behalf of their husbands’ advancement; flirting; giving over their lives to the service of men.
Trebell’s sister, Frances, falls into this last category—an unmarried former schoolteacher who has kept house for her brother for years. Despite the sentimentality that starts to take over as the play nears its end, Barker offers a sharp if subtle critique of male entitlement when he gives Trebell the nerve to explain to Frances, “It’s a dreadful joy to become part of a purpose bigger than your own.” The waste in this play’s world—and beyond—is enormous.