Saturday, March 12, 2016

PINERO’S THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE



Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934) wrote The Enchanted Cottage: A Fable In Three Acts during the years 1919 to 1921.  This play’s creation came toward the end of Pinero’s very successful career as a playwright with nearly sixty plays to his name. Throughout his long playwriting career (1878-1928) he mastered several styles of comedic drama that include farce, sentimental comedy and comedies focused on social foibles or manners. He also wrote plays about contemporary social problems that might include comedic moments and situations.  He knew how to entertain audiences while encouraging them to think. 

The Enchanted Cottage is exactly the type of play that can make a reader wince at the situation, understand it emotionally, laugh at a funny incident and be charmed by the extravagance of the moment.  Pinero blended unusual dramatic elements together to bring the entire situation to a happy conclusion for the characters and to create an uplifting dramatic event for the reader/theatre goer.  With The Enchanted Cottage, Pinero created a theatrical “smoothie”. 

The play was topical when it was produced in London during the 1922 season. The leading male character, Lieutenant John Bashforth, was crippled and disillusioned by World War One.  His main intent was to live out the remainder of his life alone in an isolated English village, even though he was probably in his twenties.  Another ex-soldier in his mid-thirties, who is visiting the area, had been entreated to visit Bashforth.  Major Murray Hillgrove, who is blind, arrives at Bashforth’s cottage one spring morning guided by Laura Pennington from the village, a very poor, very plain looking young lady, but extremely kind and thoughtful. The scene between Bashforth and Hillgrove during their first meeting effectively shows not only how each man was dealing with his disabilities, but also the empathy that was established between them.

While I was personally taken with the scene, it hardly reflected the mood of the play’s title.  Act One, titled “Relics of the War” then takes its comedic turn when Bashforth is besieged by his mother and her plans to organize his life.  In order to avoid her plans, Bashforth asks Laura to marry him for his convenience. 

Act Two: “Strange Happenings, and a Dream” occurs a month later than the previous act.  It is evening and the set is “the inner hall of the cottage.”  Major Hillgrove has been summoned to visit the newlyweds.  When the couple return to the cottage, it is evident that Bashforth has been transformed to his prewar state of health and Laura is beautiful.  Hillgrove feels the couple’s exuberance and their delight in their new physical state. They request Hillgrove to come the next day and prepare their visitors for the couple’s new appearance. Once Hillgrove leaves and the couple goes to sleep, there is a wedding pageant/ballet that represents a dream sequence.  

Act Three: “Eternal Truth” occurs the following afternoon. After Hillgrove announced the miracle that has occurred, the couple emerged to realize that Bashforth’s family as well as the local reverend and his wife do not see their miracle. The witchcraft of the housekeeper, the romantic magic of the cottage, the comedic characters and the spectacle of the ballet are not part of this plot sketch. I hope the bare bones of the storyline illustrate that there must be other diverse character types that make the play enjoyable and many comedic moments mixed in a delightful, magical manner to make this play highly entertaining. 
 
This play portrays a serious situation in a comic manner and delivers the message that “love is blind.”  That appears to be what many reviewers thought after that saw opening night at the Duke of York’s Theatre on March 1, 1922.  The success of The Enchanted Cottage lifted Pinero’s declining reputation as a “has been” playwright who had lost his creativity.

The rights for the play were quickly acquired for a New York production to star Richard Barthelmess (1895-1963).  It opened on Broadway at the Ritz Theater on March 31, 1923.  This production also featured a young Katharine Cornell in the role of Laura. It ran for sixty-five performances.

The play was published in 1922 by William Heinemann, London. Then the play was made into a 1924 silent film starring Richard Barthelmess as Bashforth. It was made under the direction of John S. Robertson at a New Jersey studio.  It was described as a film “of rare charm and one which weaves a spell of enchantment” in many reviews.  The film did not seem to stem the enthusiasm for audiences who wanted to see the play since it continued to be presented on stages across Great Britain and America. 

 In 1945, the play was once again fashioned into a film.  Dorothy McGuire played Laura and Robert Young starred as Bashforth. This Hollywood version had its premiere in February, 1945.  It was released in Europe and Japan between September, 1945 and June, 1947.  Once again it spoke to a new generation following a horrific global war.  On November 27, 1949 “Theatre Guild of the Air” presented a one hour radio version of the play. It starred Ray Milland and Margaret Phillips.

The play had many community theatre and college productions in the United States throughout the entire 1950s.  Its mixed treatment of a serious topic wrapped in a confection of comedy, sentiment and fantasy seemed to sustain its popularity.  The latest revival of the play has been in the form of a musical. The Enchanted Cottage, the musical emerged early in 2000. The book is by Thomas Edward West, lyrics by Alison Hubbard and music by Kim Oler. It is based on Pinero’s play rather than the 1945 film script. The musical made its debut in 2002 at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) Festival of New Musicals in New York. It has had several productions since that time.

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