Mary Annette Beauchamp (1866-1941), Katherine Mansfield’s Australian cousin, married the Count von Arnim-Schlagenthin, of Pomerania, whose prestigious family connections were regrettably not accompanied by a family fortune of equal stature. (The Beauchamps were well-off, but “May,” as they called her, was the youngest of their several children.) After a few years of marriage, the Countess, who had a scribbler’s gift, found she could increase her household income by transforming her experience into publishable work. Her first attempt, Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1894), made both her personal fortune and her literary reputation. Something like the spiritual autobiography of an upper-class Continental housewife (its male equivalent would be Gissing’s Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft), it went through dozens of printings; you can still find copies cluttering the shelves of used bookstores, though its intended readership—”ladies” rather than women—is almost an extinct species. The Countess’s subsequent books were published as authored by “Elizabeth” or “Elizabeth of the ‘German Garden.’ ” The Count died in 1910; after World War I, his widow found it simpler to conflate her nom de plume with her married name and became, on her title pages, “Elizabeth von Arnim.”
Some people found her cold. Critics like Rebecca West often found her books glib and savorless—though, as she and West both had extended affairs with the highly promiscuous H.G. Wells, an element of personal resentment may have been involved here. The likelihood is that, raising three children while gouging some 21 books out of her comparatively sheltered contact with life, she was just too busy to pay others much attention. Then, as now, people of both genders who wrote for a living were bound by habit as well as by need to turn out a constant stream of product. Inevitably, some of it is trivial, effortful, far-fetched, messy, or predictable. Mary Annette Beauchamp was well brought up, so the results are never messy—the Victorians had standards—but the other strictures might well apply to The Enchanted April (1922), a good way down the chronology of her works. By this time, “Elizabeth” is a practiced hand. She knows what her readers want, knows how to provide it, and knows how to vary it from her previous attempts in ways that will make it fun for her and for them. As proof of her sagacity, Enchanted April has persisted through multiple editions (the one currently available, from Virago Press, is in its 14th printing) and two film versions (1935, 1991) before surfacing on Broadway in Matthew Barber’s stage adaptation directed by Michael Wilson.
What the Countess von Arnim was up to here, at least to gauge by Barber’s rendering of it, was simple tears-and-laughter romance for ladies, dressed up for 1922 topicality with a touch of post-war manic depression. A solicitor’s neglected wife sees an ad offering an Italian castle for rent for the month of April, and immediately sets about renting it, behind her husband’s back, and finding the three women in England least likely to be compatible with each other to share the expense and the adventure with her. Having thus provided character contrast, an exotic setting, and a degree of dramatic tension, “Elizabeth” needs only to manufacture two contrasting romances, one good and one misfortunate, and to tickle the audience’s sensibilities until it’s time to resolve everything harmlessly. She does this, as you would expect of a smart Australian girl long experienced in the ways of hochgeboren Europeans, with efficiency, carefully doling out her professional charm, and making only the briefest polite nod to credibility. But what’s to complain? The unhappy find happiness, the straitlaced loosen up, the married rediscover each other, and the shaky discover their strength. Did I hear someone whistling “Be Italian”?
The actors have to do all the work in keeping a piece like this afloat, and my only complaint is that Barber’s script, by devoting its entire first half to the ladies’ preparations for the journey, makes it the stage equivalent of a long slog in the rain (with premonitory thunder arriving regularly on cue) before anyone gets to look good or have any fun. In particular, the excellent Jayne Atkinson, as the irrepressible organizer of the party, has to do 10 minutes of expository heavy lifting before anything happens at all, which is surely unfair to this fine actress.
Once things get rolling, though, Atkinson and her female colleagues do very well: The comedy dowager whom Elizabeth Ashley has become plays with much stronger clarity, and better timing, than the overly neurasthenic tragedienne of her middle period; Molly Ringwald shows unexpected power as well as pathos in the bleak-spirited pieties of unhappy Mrs. Arnott (Arbuthnot in the novel); and Dagmara Dominczyk makes the burnt-out fast-lane ingenue exactly convincing enough for this crepe-paper context. The men’s roles, lesser and more clichéd in the writing, are all incarnated with a thorough efficiency matching the author’s: Michael Hayden’s shell-shocked young artist is tremulous and effetely artsy by turns; Daniel Gerroll’s adulterer is suitably melancholic and flighty; and Michael Cumpsty’s stuffy solicitor is straight out of a Punch cartoon. The scene in which Cumpsty, having been victimized in the bath by an exploding hot-water heater, tries to be cordial to female strangers while concealing his naked self with a towel and a bowler hat, is a brilliant piece of physical comedy, an unexpected highlight for a work otherwise given to lip-trembling and moody stares.
The most annoying part of Barber’s taking so long to arrive in Italy is that you yourself only get half an evening to stare at Tony Straiges’s truly charming set, which, drenched in yellow light by Rui Rita, makes the crumbling castello look like a giant floral-pattern stationery box. Against this festive backdrop, Jess Goldstein’s costumes smartly aim to match the characters’ psychology, rather than offering the knock-your-eyes-out fashion parade for which this kind of ladies’ play always used to be a pretext. All in all, once you’ve noted that Enchanted April does not impinge on dramatic art in any particular way, there’s really nothing about it to object to. The only question, in this millennium, is whether there are still any ladies left to see it. “Elizabeth” ‘s books, having been produced for an audience that existed in her time, belong to women’s history. But the plays women were writing then, next to Enchanted April, would seem scarily avant-garde; don’t look for a Broadway staging of Alan’s Wife or The Verge anytime soon.