The Royal George Theatre - Niagara-on-the-Lake
by Mike Keenan
Nicole Underhay as Belinda Treherne, Diana Donnelly as Minnie Symperson and Gray Powell as Cheviot Hill in Engaged. Photo by David Cooper
"Do a loony-goony dance / 'Cross the kitchen floor, / Put something silly in the world / That ain't been there before." - Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic
At the beginning of this three-act farce at the Royal George Theatre, Shawn Wright, Mary Haney and Diane Donnelly sing three short pre-emptive silly tunes concerning the intertwined themes of theatre and courtship. And when the curtain opens on Ken MacDonald's amusing set of high school-like giant cardboard thistles, aka the "garden of a humble cottage, near Gretna on the border between England and Scotland," we are well into a parody of romantic comedy wherein the main character, Cheviot Hill (Gray Powell) expresses his love for anyone wearing a skirt (a dangerous practise in Scotland) while utilizing the most grandiose language possible, and asking each for their hand in marriage.
"I'm a man of few words," says the understated Powell. "I feel and I speak. I love that girl, madly, passionately, irresistibly. She is my whole life, my whole soul and body, my Past, my Present, and my To Come. I have thought for none but her; she fills my mind, sleeping and waking; she is the essence of every hope - the tree upon which the fruit of my heart is growing - my own To Come!"
The "tree" metaphor is used so many times by Cheviot that the audience has it memorized by the third act, but what makes it even sillier are the accompanying unmanageable movements of Powell's limbs as he propositions each and every woman. His wayward appendages seem to quiver like Elvis Presley holding a diving rod, and the combination of the two hilarious items - the pompous speech and uncontrollable gyrations had the audience laughing throughout the play. A tiny octogenarian lady in front of me almost fell off her seat!
Meanwhile, the inventive Scottish rogues (Julia Course as Maggie McFarlane, Mary Haney as her mother and Martin Happer as Angus Macalister) eke out a living by derailing trains and then charging the passengers for room and board. The play gets sillier and sillier, and like a Monty Python sketch, it's often just what we need when real life such as Brexit and another potential Scottish referendum project so much gloom into our world.
Jackie Maxwell, Shaw's outgoing Artistic Director defines Engaged as "a comic look at love, marriage and money from one half of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan. We're in Scotland as yet another train is "derailed" (by some locals) and the passengers have to stay the night. They include a wealthy bachelor who can't see a pretty girl without proposing to her and within minutes he's gotten engaged - twice! What's worse is, he's already engaged! Written in 1877, a year before Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, the celebrated team's librettist created a sensation of his own with this satire that went on to inspire the comedies of Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward."
In this play, Gilbert's preeminent concern is with money. Everyone's primary motive is "Deep Throat's" advice: "Follow the money." Thus, the action involves Belvawney (Jeff Meadows), Cheviots's friend, who is paid £1000 a year by the father to keep the wealthy son from marrying anyone he proposes to, but this cash reverts to Cheviot's uncle, Symperson (Shawn Wright), if Cheviot either marries or dies. Thus, Symperson's works hard to match Cheviot with daughter Minnie (Diana Donnelly) after Cheviot is smitten merely by her photo.
During these shenanigans, Parker (Claire Julien) a sexy maid servant, complicates the multiple marriage proposals which include Belinda Treherne (Nicole Underhay) whose vocabulary is as romantically flamboyant as that of Cheviot. "Belvawney, I love you with an imperishable ardour which mocks the power of words. If I were to begin to tell you now of the force of my indomitable passion for you, the tomb would close over me before I could exhaust the entrancing subject. But, as I said before, business is business, and unless I can see some distinct probability that your income will be permanent, I shall have no alternative but to weep my heart out in all the anguish of maiden solitude - uncared for, unloved, and alone!"
Gilbert has nothing good to say about the financial and romantic underpinnings of marriage. "Marriage is a very risky thing; it's like Chancery, once in it you can't get out of it, and the costs are enormous. There you are - fixed. Fifty years hence, if we're both alive, there we shall both be - fixed. That's the devil of it. It's an unreasonably long time to be responsible for another person's expenses. I don't see the use of making it for as long as that. It seems greedy to take up half a century of another person's attention. Besides - one never knows - one might come across somebody else one liked better - that uncommonly nice girl I met in Scotland, for instance".
Director Morris Panych employs the rich and often incomprehensive Scottish accents themselves to elicit much humour. Course is wonderful to encounter as she gravitates between her betrothed, Angus (Happer), a thick-headed type who brandishes an axe yet is easily moved to tears and Cheviot, the wealthy bachelor from the city. In the process, Underhay easily holds her own in the superfluous language displays.
After the opening over-sized Scottish thistles, Ken MacDonald employs the English rose for his later sets, both cleverly exaggerating the mood and thereby abetting the comedic theme.
The audience loved the performance, akin to a "Three Stooges" sketch with vocabulary replacing slapstick. I recommend Engaged, a refreshing gin and tonic for the summer scene.
Engaged plays until October 30 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The informative program notes are as follows -
Director's Notes by Morris Panych
This is not a well-known play. One would think it would've died of neglect. But no, somebody with too much time on their hands dusted it off and cracked open its yellowed pages. Why? It has no redeeming qualities; it satirizes social order and the capitalist imperative, which is hardly relevant these days. It makes fun of marriage, which needs no making fun of. Added to which, the author is supposedly a misogynist, because his female characters are as nasty and self-serving as his male ones. And he clearly thinks the Scots are to be ridiculed. But period comedies can be tremendously entertaining historical artifacts, nonetheless; they not only give us a glimpse of our sorry past - through characters, story, action and pratfalls - they can resonate with us still, giving us an incontrovertible connection with our forebears; with their laughter, their antics, their beating hearts that beat no longer.
What we find interesting in these comedies changes over time, reflecting who we are and where we have come since a play was written and first performed. But comedies that can still make us laugh, still move us and surprise us, do something more; they breathe life into our past, and bring it into being, making us recognize that we are all the subject of the ongoing farce. Like ghosts, albeit impish ones, they inhabit our hallways and our imaginations, giving us a connection to what exists beyond the present. We are more than what we are; we are all those things that made us, and all those things we will make of ourselves and hand over, as we must, to posterity. We are history moving forward, unraveling, stumbling; a sight-gag. How we reconfigure the things around us in the present is not immaterial because it matters to us now, but it's a temporal configuration, which time's long shadow will pass over. But the characters in this play will exist forever, slipping on the banana peels of time, reinterpreted, replayed, their words re-spoken by generations of actors to come; not from some sense of duty or academic curiosity, not from a desire to disappear into the past as an exercise in nostalgia, not because there was nothing else to put on so we put on this, but because they're funny, and life is not.
The Serious Business of Victorian Nonsense by Bob Hetherington
When little W.S. Gilbert was only two, his parents took him on holiday to Italy, where Neapolitan pirates prevailed upon his simple-minded nurse to remove him from his perambulator and hand him over to them. Ransomed for a paltry 25 pounds sterling by a predictably furious father, the episode stayed with Gilbert's imagination for years: The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Gondoliers all feature stolen babies and confused nannies. The Gilbert we meet as the author of Engaged, however, demonstrates that the real lesson of this childhood abduction was not the addled nanny but the embarrassment of the low monetary ransom. In Gilbert's comedy the importance of being earnest is always about money, with friendship and love awarded in relation to it.
Best known as the lyricist of the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, the continued popularity of the dozen or so musical theatre pieces, very much through the present day, have had the effect of obscuring his merits as a dramatist in his own right. His nearly fifty non-musical dramatic pieces display his considerable talents as a professional social
critic of the stodgy hypocrisies of the Victorian era, divorced from Sullivan's beautiful choruses. "I know only two tunes," Gilbert once boasted. "One is 'God Save the Queen.' The other isn't." Somehow satire isn't so cynical when it is set to music.
As with the novels of Charles Dickens, the other product of the era with which they can profitably be compared, they have survived their age because they have transcended it. With its cynical frankness, unsoftened by Sullivan's music or the amusing rhymes of his earlier "Bab Ballads," Engaged is a savage satire on a society devoted to the pursuit
of money where everyone is thoroughly venal to the core all the while spouting the utmost
romantic and ethical nonsense. The disruptions of society caused by unprecedented increases to the population of London, the relocation of labourers to the city, and what Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now (1874) called "the commercial profligacy" which had
helped bring on a worldwide depression in 1873, drove people to seek financial security at
any cost. (The financial institution in Engaged is optimistically named The Royal Indestructible Bank.) Walter Houghton's Victorian Frame of Mind identifies conformity, moral pretension and evasion as the hallmarks of Victorian hypocrisy: "The motive was not virtue but the appearance of virtue and the evasion was patently hypocritical." Self-interest masquerading as self-sacrifice is the hallmark of Gilbertian humour.
Engaged has no "good" person with whom the audience can identity because, Gilbert implies, there cannot be one in such a world. Money is the only absolute - the characters all base their identities on it and will sacrifice their feelings in pursuit of it. So Belinda can say she loves Belvawney "with an imperishable ardour which mocks the power of words," but will not marry him because "business is business, and unless I can see some distinct possibility that your income will be permanent, I shall have no alternative but to weep my heart out in all anguish of maiden solitude - uncared for, unloved, and alone!" Our apparently irrepressible rogue, Cheviot Hill, still single at 32, is the only one with money but is desperate for love. Like money, people change hands in the play several times - they become a kind of paper currency engaged in business rather than love.
The scene begins in Gretna, a village of uncertain identity since it lies on the border between Scotland and England. At the time of the writing of the play, many eloping English couples went there to be married. Cheviot Hill's name confirms his divided nature. Like Gretna, the Cheviot Hills lie on the border between England and Scotland. True to his name Cheviot divides his love by turns among Minnie, Maggie, Belinda, the servant Parker
and even (for a moment) Mrs Macfarlane. He finds that the implacable legal entrapments of a "Scotch marriage" an awkward entanglement between love and money.
Engaged ends with something akin to the marriage celebration of romantic comedy, but money is the thing celebrated instead of love. Rather than a truly happy ending we get a financial settlement which looks both backwards to the earlier era of arranged marriages with dowries, and ahead to the divorces of our own era where the affections of the participants take a back seat to the division of property and finances. Comparing Gilbert's dramaturgy to his own, Bernard Shaw would carp: "It is a positive element in my philosophy that makes Arms and the Man a genuine play about real people with a happy ending and hope and life in it, instead of a thing like Engaged."
The typical structure of the Savoy operas is auditioned here in Engaged: 1) the invasion premise - an intrusion by one group into alien territory; 2) a resulting crisis where someone confronts a legal absolute; and, 3) a resolution marked by weddings en masse. Fans of the later operas will recognize many Gilbertian turns of phrase. Like Yum-Yum in The Mikado, the narcissistic Minnie asks "Am I really beautiful? Really, really beautiful, you know." The effect of Belvawney's satanic stare would resurface later for Ruddiqore's Mad Margaret who fears that Sir Despard Murgatroyd "gave me an Italian glance - thus - and made me his. He will give you an Italian glance, too, and make you his." Cheviot falling in love with the next woman he sees recalls the end of the first act of The Sorcerer, which would be written only one year after Engaged. His ridiculous proposal of suicide to Symperson sounds suspiciously like Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko's dialogue on "how to do it up right" on the same topic in The Mikado. (And if you listen very closely you will hear references to "dickey bird," and "tom tit," which we remember from the song "Titwillow.") And doesn't Cheviot's line "I love women. They are good; they are pure; they are beautiful - at least many of them are," sounds suspiciously like Donald Trump's controversial campaign speech about Mexicans?
Why have these works survived when so much of Victorian drama is now in mothballs? Perhaps the answer is that they were never really contemporary in their idiom. Gilbert's world, from the first moment, was obviously not the audience's world, it was an artificial world, with a neatly controlled and shapely precision which has never gone out of fashion precisely because it was never in fashion. Its characters exist in a self-contained, make-believe world where, on the whole, order prevails and virtue is indeed triumphant - the same is true of the world of Sherlock Holmes and, arguably, the Harry Potter stories. They are all a reminder of the confirmation expressed so eloquently by The Mikado that we live in "an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances."
The enjoyment of Gilbert's writing, a century and an ocean away from their original time and place suggests a legacy with greater impact than we may have first supposed. Possibly we are now reaching the time when, as G.K. Chesterton prophesied, "it will be found that this Victorian nonsense will prove more valuable than all that was considered solid Victorian sense... And it may be that in the remote future that laughter will still be heard, when all the voices of the age are silent."
Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) was a British playwright, satirist and librettist best known for his collaborations with composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Growing up, Gilbert's family life was tense and his relationship with his parents only became more strained following their divorce in 1876. A failed military career was followed by a short stint as a barrister but Gilbert soon found that writing was, for him, far more lucrative.
Under the pen name 'Bab', Gilbert began writing comic poetry that was frequently published in Victorian weekly magazines like Fun and Punch. "Bab Ballads", as they came to be known, would later provide inspiration for several of his operas. His first professionally produced play was Uncle Baby, which debuted at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, London in 1863. He then collaborated on several pantomimes but when a friend recommended him for a job to write a panto in 10 days, Gilbert wrote Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and The Great Quack (1866) a burlesque of Donizetti's opera L'Elisir d'Amore. Its popularity prompted Gilbert to pursue writing full-time and he left behind his career in law, though his fascination with a farcical justice system is evident throughout his work.
Known for his satirical cynicism, his plays explore themes of justice through the fantastic, as Gilbert was convinced that there is a primal connection between law and humour. Professor Jane W. Stedman, perhaps Gilbert's most prolific biographer, refers to him as the "standard by which the young George Bernard Shaw was measured". As with Shaw, Gilbert took comedy seriously. The director of many of his own plays, Gilbert insisted that the key to humour is sincerity in the face of absurdity. He was an excellent wordsmith and a master of complex rhymes.
Gilbert is a renowned librettist, but is also singularly responsible for nearly fifty non-musicals and dramatic burlesques like Sweethearts (1874), Engaged (1877) - which later inspired Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest - and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1891). His partnership with Sullivan, which began in 1870, resulted in comic operas such as Trial by Jury (1875), H.M.S. Pinafore (1877) and Pirates of Penzance (1879). These originated the "Savoy Opera" style, named after the Savoy Theatre which was built in 1881 specifically for G&S productions by director Richard D'Oyly Carte who the pair often worked with.
Works including Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889) followed, but disagreements between the two split them up. They would eventually come back together to collaborate on two final operas: Utopia Limited (1893) and later The Grand Duke (1896).
Knighted in 1907, Gilbert was the first British playwright knighted for his writing alone. His last play, The Hooligan, was written in 1911 - the year of his death. He died of a heart attack brought on by his attempt to rescue a woman from drowning in a pond on his estate.