Theater archives

The House of Mirth: Mrs. Wharton’s Business School


Even 107 years ago, entertainment producers’ eyes lit up at the thought of getting their hands on a bestselling novel, and the Broadway eminence Charles Frohman must have thought he’d hit the jackpot when he acquired the rights to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), as dramatized by Mrs. Wharton herself, in collaboration with the era’s go-to guy for commercial play construction, Clyde Fitch.

Fraught with frustration on both sides, much of it over the novel’s bleak ending, the result of their partnership left neither happy. Audiences found the overdose of chloral hydrate that concludes the life of Mrs. Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart, a glum finish for an evening out, and the show closed in a few weeks. The eminent novelist William Dean Howells, Mrs. Wharton’s opening-night guest, cracked bitterly that what Americans always wanted was “a tragedy with a happy ending.”

The Wharton-Fitch script, published in 1981 in an edition by theater scholar Glenn Loney, had never been fully retested until the Metropolitan Playhouse’s current revival (through May 20). The results are, in their way, remarkable. Though much of the novel’s depth is gone, along with its wonderfully nuanced sense of the plushy, upper-crust reality in which the bulk of the action occurs, the characters and their interlocking dilemmas come off sharp and clear. The dialogue spits arrows, which reveal, as they whizz toward their targets, the queasy hidden motives that aimed them.

Born to the privileged class but penniless, Lily (the demurely pretty Amanda Jones), gifted with both a good brain and a true heart, louses up all her best chances through her inability to decide between snagging a rich spouse and settling for genteel poverty. The hypocrisy of the social game the former requires revolts her, as does the humiliation of settling for less. Alienating those around her, unfit for the actual work then available to women, she drifts quickly downward, to despair and that fatal overdose.

Alex Roe’s production, dry, taut, and matter-of-fact, matches the script’s astonishingly stark preoccupation with the monetary facts of Gilded Age life: Marital and extramarital affairs alike are conducted on a strictly-business basis, with the genders held to a strict double standard that parallels the double-column bookkeeping. Though not always grasping how funny Fitch and Mrs. Wharton intended this hardheaded view of social cost accounting to be, Roe’s proficient, well-spoken cast lays out its summation of wealthy America’s giant moral deficit with immaculate lucidity.