Saturday, August 29, 2020

J. M. BARRIE’S SEVEN WOMEN

 

On September 4, 1913 J.M. Barrie’s three act play titled The Adored One opened in London at the Duke of York’s Theatre with Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940) playing the leading role. Act One received excellent reviews calling this act “delicious,” “exquisite” or “delightful.”  Unfortunately, the remaining two acts did not delight either audiences or reviewers.

Barrie quickly revised the script and The Adored One continued playing in London before opening on Broadway at the Empire Theatre in January 1914 under the title The Legend of Leonora. The popular American actress, Maude Adams (1872-1953) starred in this production and it played for 136 performances. After the production closed in New York, Maude Adams toured The Legend of Leonora to many cities throughout the United States.  Her tour played until the middle of 1916.

On April 7,1917, a revised first act of The Adored One appeared on stage at the New Theatre in London as a one-act play titled Seven Women. This play shared the bill of one-acts with Barrie’s The Old Woman Shows Her Medals and A.A. Milne’s Wurzel-Flummery.  Irene Vanbrugh (1872-1949) played the role of Leonora. This program was popular with audiences and it played for eight weeks.

Seven Women is set in a drawing-room in Chelsea that is decorated in the Adams style. This is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tovey who have invited Captain Rattray to dinner so he can meet Leonora. The play is set in 1913. Captain Rattray, a hero who earned his reputation chasing   unauthorized submarines near British waters, arrives at eight o’clock which is a half hour early. Mr. Tovey, who twenty years earlier went to school with the Captain, tells him about the other dinner guests by describing seven different personality traits. Rattray believes there will be seven different women for him to meet. Another guest named Leonora arrives early and is left alone with Rattray while Tovey leaves the scene to dress for dinner.  As the scene progresses, Rattray tries to decide which one of the seven traits represents Leonora.  Eventually he realizes that she is seven women in one—no sense of humor, too much sense of humor, politician who wants males to treat her as an equal, old-fashioned clinging kind as well as obedient, motherly type, murderess and coquette.  He is beguiled by Leonora and delighted to learn she is a widow.

You may be wondering why I selected to write this post about Seven Women since the comic plot sounds like the beginning of a love story. When Barrie reworked this piece as a one-act play, he included details that clearly illustrated aspects of London life in 1913. These specific moments illustrate how the British government and its citizenry were gearing themselves for the possibility of a war. The male lead, Captain Rattray of the Royal Navy, is a celebrity due to his naval achievements against foreign submarines. Prior to the start of World War One, the British were extremely concerned about German submarines blocking access to their ports as well as endangering ships in and near their waters.

When Leonora tells Rattray about her fifteen-year old son, she states that he is away at school and “He is in the O.T.C.” This would have been a junior division unit of the Officers’ Training Corp at the secondary school level.  Universities had O.T.C. senior division training. Obviously, Leonora is proud that her son is involved in this activity and it indicates that Britain was introducing adolescent males to military discipline.

Barrie is very specific about the setting for this play since it clearly establishes the period before World War One. He specifies that the décor of the drawing-room is “in the Adams style.” While this style originated in the eighteenth century and was replaced after 1795 by the Regency style, the Adams style with its light and elegant furniture style and specific color choices for walls as well as furniture went through a revival in the late nineteenth century. It became an extremely popular style with the expanding middle class prior to World War One. The Adams style lost its popularity in Britain by the end of World War One.

Leonora is a woman who is not dependent on having a male in her life. She is capable, intelligent, persuasive, and charming. She is a prime example of how women could prove themselves to be productive individuals during difficult times. This play is also a delightful, nostalgic reminder for audiences about their lives just prior to the war.

After Seven Women closed at the New Theatre, it opened in July,1917 at London’s Coliseum Theatre which was the city’s largest theatre with 2,359 seats. There were several other short plays that shared the same bill. Seven Women was a success and several actresses play Leonora during the run which was still playing during the fall season of 1918. Lillah McCarthy (1875-1960) played Leonora prior to Diana Wilson (1897-1937) who took over the role in August,1918. These actresses had a heavy schedule since the Coliseum offered three matinee performances a week in addition to the evening performances.

In Great Britain, Seven Women has a long stage history and it was popular through the late 1950’s. It gained additional fans when it was produced several times by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio. There was a March 7,1941 radio presentation. BBC aired a new radio production on June 5, 1948. Leonora was played by Scottish born actress Madeline Christie (1904-1996). A third production mounted for BBC radio aired on September 21, 2005. It featured Benedict Cumberbatch (1976-    ) as Mr. Tovey.

This delightful one-act play is still charming and amusing. I read the 1928 Acting Edition of Seven Women published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. I was unable to access copies of The Adored One, which I understand Barrie never allowed it to be published, and The Legend of Leonora. I am curious about the revisions as well as how The Legend of Leonora differed from The Adored One.

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