22 September 2006: Goetz and Goetz, The Heiress

Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Royal George Theatre. Adapted by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz from Henry James’s novella Washington Square. Directed by Joseph Ziegler

There are continuing speculations as to why Henry James, who loved the theatre so well and wrote about it critically in so astute and committed a way, was never able to write plays with even moderate success — and why other, usually much lesser dramatists (though sometimes first-rate composers such as Benjamin Britten) were able to adapt James’s novels so successfully to the stage. One of the prime examples of this conundrum is the Goetzes’ The Heiress, adapted from James’s Washington Square into a rather old-fashioned but distinctly playable full-length play about a young woman, an heiress, who falls in love with a poverty-stricken young man, is jilted by him because she is willing to forgo a large inheritance from her disapproving father in favor of a small inheritance from her dead mother and a love match, and, when he comes back after her father’s death and she is now in full possession of both piles of money, turns the tables on him and bolts her door against him forever more.

There is something very unsubtle about this. I don’t just mean the action, which is nicely distilled into a neatly functional two-act drama and progresses smoothly from beginning to end. There’s something about the dialogue, which sounds terribly un-Jamesian — much too meat-and-potato-ish, functional to a fault, and happily unencumbered by the heavily adverbial modification and syn­tactical mazes that characterize a Jamesian narrator’s cobweb paragraph. It is all quite clearly and simply articulated. When the father, Doctor Austin Sloper, admits to Lavinia, his sister, that he still is mindful of the fact that his daughter Catherine killed her mother coming into the world, he says just that, in so many — or few — words. Linguistically it is very much an un-Jamesean, workaday world.

What saves the play, then, from the irredeemably prosaic are two things, both much to the point: James’s clear idea of an action culminating in that very satisfy­ing, though sadly final, bolting of the door against the adventurer, and James’s own astute insights into the psyches of his characters. If you can construct a clear, flowing dramatic action no longer than two-and-a-half or three hours in playing time out of a novel that requires a day or more to read, and if in addition you can translate those sharp, penetrating insights into character by a combination of lin­guistic and physical means, then you will produce a highly interesting and, on a basic level, satisfying play that people will pay to come to see. That is what the Goetzes did, and the history of the play in the theatre, on both sides of the Atlan­tic, tells the story of that success.

I was held by this play, and the actress playing the title character, Catherine Sloper, did her job almost unobtrusively but very well. There was almost nothing Jamesean about the performances of the production as a whole — and finally it didn’t matter a jot. Such is the magic of the theatre.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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