Thursday, June 18, 2015


The Foundations (An Extravagant Play), written by John Galsworthy (1867-1933), opened in London at the Royalty Theatre in late June of 1917. This most unusual play ran for only twenty-three performances. It was a bold drama to write and have performed while the war was still raging, since the play is set in London “some years after the Great War.”  The problem is the theme of the play does not bring a message of social and political consolation for the years following the conclusion of the war.

Galsworthy, a social activist, was able to write a prophetic satire with great wit and boldness so the play’s message was heard while the audiences enjoyed the humor and the characters that provided it.  The play depicts London in revolution sometime after the British and Allies have won World War One.  The masses, many of them laborers in sweat shops, are parading in Mayfair to protest their deplorable living and working conditions. The aristocrats are in the process of giving speeches rather than taking helpful actions.  These two groups had been comrades in the trenches during the war, but once peace was declared the promises made to the people were not fulfilled.  Issues such as poverty, starvation and unemployment plagued the poor citizens while the wealthy returned to their privileged lifestyle. This hardly sounds like material to generate laughter!

The entire play takes place between 8 and 10:30 PM on a summer evening.  Act One is staged in the wine cellar of Lord William Dromondy’s mansion at eight o’clock in the evening, just prior to his guests arriving for an anti-sweated dinner charity event.  A bomb is discovered in the cellar sitting near the foundations of the mansion.

Act Two takes place in Mrs. Lemmy’s small house sometime after eight o’clock.  She is a delightful elderly woman, in the tradition of the old English cottage woman, who sews trousers as a “sweated” or non unionized home worker. Her son is the person suspected of placing the bomb in the Dromondy’s wine cellar.

Act Three begins during the final hour of the evening’s anti-sweated dinner at the Dromondy’s mansion.  There is a mob outside calling for revolution to end the established class system.  While Galsworthy does not offer his credible characters a ready-made solution to their significant problems, he does provide the audience with a rollicking final act.

Many of Galsworthy’s plays prior to 1917 opened on Broadway following their London performances; however, The Foundations was primarily created for a British audience rather than one without established class distinctions.  The Foundations never had a Broadway production, but it was presented by the Brooklyn Institute Players for three performances October 6, 7, and 8, 1921. The New York Times reported that in 1925, The Lennox Hill Players of New York City also performed this play. 

When the play was published in 1920 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, the New York Times reviewer believed The Foundations was the most successful play in the volume: "Speeches are most amusing”  “Delicious protagonists and their interchanges of comment on society decidedly amusing.”

The Foundations was also presented in England by Little Theatre groups after the London production closed.  The Western Daily Press reported on March 8, 1927 that Bristol’s Little Theatre presented The Foundations. The review was a positive one mentioning the play as “deliciously satirical, but never with a directness that could cause the most sensitive witness of it to be hurt.”  The reviewer claims that “almost every condition of the present day is brought into prominence.” He cites four issues that the play discusses: “cry for red revolution, power of the press, unfulfilled promises of politicians and desire for the extinction of class distinctions.”  This is a good brief summary of the issues and shows that the problems Galsworthy outlined in 1917 still existed ten years later. The reviewer concluded his article:“ ‘The Foundation’ is well worth seeing.”

I was impressed the first time I read this unique play.  I was amazed that Galsworthy courageously shared his concerns about civilian life after the war, while the war was still raging on many battlefields.  Furthermore, he did this with such aplomb and wit that it is amusing and clever, as well as being somewhat prophetical.

·       *  Designation as “An Extravagant Play” indicated to the British audiences that the play is a satire and the implied criticism in the piece is a vehicle for high spirits and puns. 

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