The past is a peculiarly American problem.
We preserve it in tidied-up, explained forms, or demolish it and then landmark its site; we ritually restage its famous battles and fail to teach our kids why and how they happened; we spend millions in grant money cataloging its great works of art, but rarely partake of them. The word revival implies that something dead is being brought back to life; in the theater as in born-again Christianity, the new life often carries a zombie blindness to old realities. Nobody wants a theater that’s historicist and pedantic; what all genuine theater lovers want is a viable past—meaning a theatrical present in which the past is a living force, and not just a few items from the 10-best list occasionally dragged out as star “properties.” Properties, as any Victorian-theater scholar will tell you, are objects that you pick up and put down onstage; plays are either living things or dust.
The discovery that a previously unfamiliar play from the past is still a live thing shouldn’t really be as big a shock as we tend to make it. Experience and literature prove, after all, that human nature hasn’t changed appreciably since Athens, circa 450 B.C. People’s smug assumption that it has (for better or worse, as you choose) merely demonstrates the same era’s notion, vociferously bewailed by Socrates, that we tend to emphasize the superficial rather than the eternal. You might view this, philosophically, as one way we cope with with the misery of existence: That an old play can seem brand-new, because we’ve forgotten an entire world of old plays that it came from, is surely the kind of surprise that makes life worth living. W.S. Gilbert’s Engaged will be 127 years old this fall. Despite its buttoned-up frock coat of antique phrases and now-quaint stage conventions, it has a startlingly contemporary ring; in its bluntest moments, it suggests something as edgy as the smiling brutality of Joe Orton.
This is unsurprising because Gilbert’s wit, like Orton’s, is the cynicism of an insider who feels himself an outsider, and turns his sense of isolation into a joke on those from whom he feels estranged. Orton’s sexuality was his distancing element; the heterosexual Gilbert, though a proper Victorian Englishman, had spent a part of his childhood in France, and as an adult committed the un-Victorian impropriety of failing at his chosen profession (the law). Unconscious of belonging, both writers are free to laugh at what their people hold most dear. The Victorians paid great lip service to ideal love and the bliss of marital stability; Gilbert accordingly wrote a play about a man whose passion is to propose to every pretty girl he meets. When he does so before two witnesses in Scotland, complications result: As with us today, Great Britain’s marriage laws then varied across state lines. Knowing, as a cynic should, the real basis of middle-class marriage in fiscal arrangements, Gilbert took pains to make the complications economic as well as emotional. Both the comedy and the dramatic tension in Engaged‘s giddily evolving plot come from the characters’ constantly being compelled to show which they value more, money or love; fans of Joe Millionaire may find themselves stung by the steady stream of sardonic barbs that Gilbert lets fly on both subjects.
Producing Engaged presents special problems. The standard wisdom that an old text should be taken on its own terms doesn’t quite apply: Gilbert began in the theater as a parodist, writing rhymed burlesques of popular operas (L’Elisir d’Amore became The Little Duck and the Great Quack), and Engaged is full of parodies: of the heightened language of Romantic melodrama; of stock Victorian stage types and stage sentiments; of the everyday platitudes of 1877’s received wisdom and social conversation. Most dangerously, it features a first act set in Scotland, awash in thickly dialected talk of bairns and mithers and laddies wi’ bonnie blue een. The opening scene is shaky, but bear with it: The Londoners will be arriving momentarily, and with them Doug Hughes’s production takes off for the lunatic stratosphere, rarely pausing to touch ground till the curtain falls on the multiple couples’ final embrace.
Rather than using stylization to put the action cutely “in period,” Hughes exaggerates it into a source of contemporary energy. John Lee Beatty’s painted-canvas parlor suggests the playfulness of Raoul Pene du Bois gone manic; John Christopher Jones plays the hero’s nemesis-cum-confidant, Belvawney, as a black-caped mesmerist out of Wilkie Collins. (Catherine Zuber’s costumes supply pointed comment as well as period grandeur.) The generally strong performances display a smartly modern sense of disconnection, slipping with ease from lofty phrases to brass tacks and back. John Horton and Nicole Lowrance, as the hero’s uncle and his intended, handle this maneuver particularly well. Best of all is Jeremy Shamos, who turns the promiscuous proposer into a joyous human corkscrew, his body spiraling from one emotion to the next; this is a classic comedy performance. Rightly so, too, because what Hughes’s production makes clear is that Gilbert’s play belongs in the classic line of English comedy. Wilde pillaged this piece for ideas: To see it onstage is to watch The Importance of Being Earnest discovering its long-lost father, and the works of Noël Coward their dashing, bewhiskered granddad.