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About a century ago, spurred on by the twin examples of Ibsen and Shaw, a school of playwrights flourished in Manchester, the industrial center of northwest England’s vast cloth-manufacturing trade. Realism and sharp social observation were the core of their craft; Lancashire plainspokenness, with its accompanying gruff comic sense, was their style. Their understanding of British class stratification was complex: The region’s wealthy elite contained a large number of self-made men, many of whom indignantly declined to conceal their lowly origins. The playwrights themselves came from the area’s educated upper echelons: Stanley Houghton’s father was a cotton merchant; Harold Brighouse’s managed a cotton-spinning mill. Allan Monkhouse, their doyen, served as an editor of the area’s largest newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, still nationally influential. All three had at various times worked in the cloth trade.
And though they were all male, their gender awareness —again spurred on by the perceived feminist advocacy of their twin theatrical models — was likewise deep and complex. The wealthy patron whose takeover of a local theater called the Gaiety gave them their earliest opportunities was a woman: the remarkable, forward-looking Annie Horniman (who had also been an early supporter of both Shaw and W. B. Yeats). In their plays, as in working-class Manchester’s daily life, women may not always be right but they are always forthright, speaking their minds and making sure the menfolk know that their opinions matter. This awareness emerges sharply in Houghton’s best-known play, Hindle Wakes (1912), to which the Mint Theatre is currently giving its first New York production since 1922, in Theater Row’s Clurman Theatre. Though somewhat sleepy-eyed, the revival, directed by Gus Kaikkonen, reaffirms the play as both well worth knowing in itself and particularly resonant in today’s political climate.
Even Houghton’s title shows his defiant regionalism — though presumably most Britons in 1912 knew that “wakes” in Lancashire were the three-day weekends caused by England’s quarterly bank holidays. The one at the end of summer, analogous to our Labor Day, was often a mill town’s excuse for a week-long holiday: vacations at nearby coastal resorts like Blackpool or Llandudno, just across the border in Wales. Hindle, Houghton’s imaginary mill town, has been celebrating just such a “wakes week” when the play starts. But the holiday has brought on a tragedy — a local factory girl has been drowned at Blackpool when an excursion boat sank — and that tragedy has exposed a lie: Fanny Hawthorn (Rebecca Noelle Brinkley) has not been with her now-deceased friend at Blackpool, as she claimed. She has gone off for an illicit fling in a Welsh hotel with a young man.
Fanny’s parents (Ken Marks and Sandra Shipley) are horrorstruck: In this small Edwardian town, a lost reputation can wreck a girl’s prospects. Worse, Fanny’s partner in crime turns out to be Alan Jeffcote (Jeremy Beck), son of the richest local mill owner (Jonathan Hogan), a self-made man who, adding insult to injury, happens to be one of papa Hawthorn’s oldest friends. Jeffcote senior is, if anything, angrier than the Hawthorns at his son’s indiscretion; his more suspicious wife (Jill Tanner) thinks Fanny has planned the whole thing to make herself a rich marriage. But such a scheme could prove tricky: Alan already has a wealthy fiancée, Beatrice (Emma Geer), whose father (Brian Reddy) is both an influential local pol and a rival mill owner who, like Jeffcote, has envisioned the prospective alliance as the prelude to an ultimate merger of the two firms.
Like a good stew, the plot keeps thickening as Houghton stirs it, and with each turn another set of conflicting social attitudes bubbles up. Since the mill owners were once working proles themselves, the issue of class differences comes across nakedly as a matter of money, in which the upper class, when challenged, sometimes trusts and sometimes doesn’t. Similarly, the moral issue of what’s right or wrong behavior for a woman as opposed to a man gets kicked around in ways that might bring a knowing smile to many a member of the #MeToo movement. Thanks to Beatrice’s piety, religion gets thrown into the argument, with drolly unexpected results. And ultimately there’s Fanny, whom no one has thought to consult during all the vociferation about whether Alan must now marry her. When she finally speaks, supplying a new generation’s outlook, matters really begin to crackle — and a sudden leap into the politics of the time generates the evening’s biggest laugh. Fanny, though often silent, is revealed as the comedy’s protagonist. (Understandably, for the 1922 Broadway revival, the title was changed to Fanny Hawthorn.)
Apart from Beck, doing another of his chipper if slightly stiff-backed turns as an eligible young gent, Kaikkonen’s cast weighs in most strongly when the females come to the fore, particularly Shipley and Tanner, who offer a smart study in contrasts as the warring mothers of this problematic couple; Brinkley’s sweet forcefulness and Geer’s delicacy supply a similarly elegant balance. A slight air of cautious earnestness hangs over the whole production, though, as if everyone involved were concerned to make sure either that we knew this play was more than a century old or that all its issues had been clearly spelled out. They needn’t have worried on either count: The play has aged charmingly, while its contentious topics of discussion have marched back into the headlines of today’s news. Fanny Hawthorn is not a sexually harassed or victimized woman, but she speaks for women’s right to make their own sexual decisions, which is a central point of the debate.
Regrettably, Hindle Wakes was Houghton’s finale as well as his artistic peak: An illness caught while traveling in Europe after the play’s London success brought on meningitis, of which he died at age 32. He did not live to see the triumph of the women’s suffrage movement, the sexual liberation of ’20s flappers, or the early labor-movement campaigns to guarantee women equal pay for equal work, all of which Hindle Wakes foreshadows. That it does so while engaging our interest in the lives of a set of complex, conflicted, and endearingly believable people — and while allowing us to laugh at them without condescension — makes a handsome monument to Houghton’s memory.