Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
A Servant to Two Masters (& One Man Two Guvnors) – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on A Servant to Two Masters and One Man Two Guvnors include a cast list of Commedia dell’Arte characters, notes on the harlequin’s hunger and cross-dressing for power in a patriarchal world.
The Commedia Characters
The cast list of a Commedia dell’Arte production consisted of the same stock characters, whose costumes, characteristics and part in the plot were consistent and readily recognisable by their audience. The main stars were:
The zanni: a clown or servant character. The Harlequin being one version. Truffaldino / Francis in our plays.
• He has a strong survival instinct
• Lives in the moment
• Has a poor ability to plan
• Is emotional rather than rational
• Is faithful, but plays a part in breaking up or restoring relationships
• Is stupid but also scheming and manipulative
• Is always hungry – see below for more on the origins of the harlequin’s hunger.
The Vecchi: Pantalone – Pantaloon / Charlie, and Il Dottore, Dr Lombardi or Harry Dangle
• Traditionally a wealthy and greedy old man. A Master, representing money.
• An old fool, with a large ego, self-absorbed, who becomes the butt of tricks.
• Because of his wealth he has the leisure time to meddle in other characters’ lives.
• Usually the father to one of the lovers.
• Usually single or a widower.
• Central to the plot – starts the play.
• the decadent erudite (doctor or lawyer)
* a foil to Pantalone.
• Pompous – loves the sound of his own voice
• Spouts ersatz Latin or Greek.
Inamorati: young lovers: Clarice and Silvio, Pauline and Alan
• Over-dramatic in everything they do, but completely sincere.
• Plot of the play revolves around their love and the obstacles that are put in their way before they are finally united. They are in love with the idea of love.
• Obstacles include the parent’s desire for another outcome.
• Selfish and childish.
• Reliant on assistance from the Zanni or servants to help them fulfil their destiny, because they are conceited but not wise or experienced enough in love or the world to succeed on their own. The servants act as go-betweens and speak on their behalf.
Colombina: – Smeraldina and Dolly
• Meaning “little dove”, A comic servant
• She is often the Harlequin’s mistress; her costume complements the Harlequin’s.
• She is down-to-earth in character
• She can always see the situation for what it is.
• A braggart, soldier who often has no real rank and makes up stories of military heroism.
• Cowardly, amoral
• Accepts assignment from Pantalone, while playing off all opportunities.
• No direct equivalent but Silvio and Alan display some of the puffed-up but toothless bravado.
Literally the leading lady. The leading female character in the Masters group of characters (as opposed to the servants).
In the podcast we talked about the fact that the Harlequin character is commonly characterised as consumed with hunger. In general the character reflected a time when the peasant population could not take the over supply of food for granted. In fact the origin of the Harlequin character is even more specific than that, because he was usually attributed with being a peasant from the particular province of Bergamo, as Truffaldino declares in A Servant to Two Masters. During the 15th century the people of Bergamo were facing a famine due to cheaper imports from Greece after their region was conquered by the Venetian army. They flooded in to the cities such as Venice, offering themselves for whatever work they could find and eeking out a living in anyway they could. The Commedia audience would certainly have recognised themselves in the character of the hungry servant in search of work and food.
A woman in a man’s world
When we talked in the podcast about the female perspective that Goldoni offers in A Servant to Two Masters we focussed initially on Smeraldina as a spokeswoman for her sex in the patriarchal world of 18th century Venice. But Beatrice also presents a suggestive symbol of the potential power of women in a man’s world. As a character she is certainly a force to be reckoned with, having the initiative and courage to pursue her plan to secure the dowry and rescue her lover. Let’s not forget that in the course of doing so she also gets the better of Silvio in a sword fight.
It is telling of course that she achieves her success by dressing and behaving as a man. Her independent strength and spirit is foreshadowed early on when Brighella recalls that in Turin she “often dressed like a man to go riding”, and when at the end of the play Florindo expects her to revert to type and “pop yourself into a blouse and bodice”, she defies him, preferring to retain her manly attire. I think we can take this as a literal indication of who will be wearing the trousers in their relationship.
The idea that the only way that women could succeed in a man’s world was to behave like a man was echoed for our time in One Man Two Guvnors when Dolly predicts that “in twenty years’ time there’ll be a woman in ten Downing Street, … and she won’t be doing the washing up. Then you’ll see exactly what women can do. You’ll see a more just and fair society. The feminine voice of compassion for the poor will be the guiding principle of government, and there’ll be an end to foreign wars.” Knowing irony of course. As it happened Mrs Thatcher’s power was deemed by some to have been achieved by her mimicking macho postures rather than revolutionising political values. And it could be argued that many still thought that Hillary Clinton’s ambition betrayed her sex. Perhaps we still await a world where it is not necessary to dress and behave like “the cock of the midden” to progress, to quote the wise servant Smeraldina again.
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
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