A Nineteenth-Century Marriage Manual For Young American Ladies of the 1%
Our Betters playing at the Royal George Theatre
George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman reminds us: "You can be as romantic as you please about love, but you mustn't be romantic about money."
Our Betters by
Somerset Maugham currently playing at the Royal George Theatre in NOTL is frivolous, vacuous and at times, outright silly, but it is staged perfectly, and the audience loved it. Chalk up another hit this season for Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell. The only thing that's missing is
Billie Holiday singing " for sale, Appetising young love for sale. Love that's fresh and still unspoiled, Love that's only slightly soiled, Love for sale."
As usual, there is a wealth of material in the program notes to help enrich our theatre experience. From Carol Wallace, we learn: "When the curtain goes up on the first act of Somerset Maugham's Our Betters, we're in a grand Mayfair drawing-room at the start of the London Season. A group of fashionable ladies has gathered for tea: the hostess is Lady Grayston (Claire Jullien) or Pearl to her friends. She is American. The Duchess of Surennes or Minnie (Laurie Paton) is American. The Princess della Cercola or Flora (Catherine McGregor) is American. Why aren't they in New York or Cleveland, founding art museums and terrifying social climbers?"
Pearl, Minnie and Flora are representatives of a small but entertaining historical episode whereby, for a spell of some 30 years, over 100 American heiresses found husbands in the European aristocracy. So when the visiting American Fleming Harvey (Wade Bogart-O'Brien) asks Pearl's sister Bessie Saunders (Julia Course) if she's going to marry a lord, he's not just making a wild guess. Marrying a lord is exactly what Bessie has come to London to do.
Say you're Bessie and you're twenty-two. You're charming and pretty and you have thirteen million dollars. Your sister, one of London's foremost hostesses, is married to a baronet. As her protégée you've met cabinet ministers, ambassadors and princes. One of the young men you see often during the parties that make up the Season is a handsome, pleasant diplomat named Lord Bleane (Ben Sanders). He is very, very attentive. You could be Lady Bleane without batting an eyelash. (Actually, there might be some eyelash-batting involved.) Whereas the American alternative distinctly lacks glamour: as Bessie tells Fleming Harvey, "Before Pearl married George Grayston she was engaged to a boy who was in business in Portland, Oregon."
An awful lot of American women, between 1874 and 1914, opted for the title and the coronet instead of the businessman in Portland, Oregon. The phenomenon of the Anglo-American match came about almost by accident. New York City stockbroker Leonard Jerome had three pretty daughters who, in the late 1860s, could not get invited to the best Manhattan parties because their father was a little too publicly fond of horse racing and opera singers. Mrs. Jerome thus took the girls to England where the prettiest, Jennie, fell in love with
Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough. The young pair married and as Lady Randolph Churchill, Jennie joined high society. (Jennie also produced a son named
Winston, whose half-American pedigree was later held responsible for everything people disliked about him.) It was Jennie's dollar dowry that kept the young Churchill family solvent, because aristocrats, by definition, did not work."
Such fascinating history! And from the 'Director's Notes,' Morris Panych adds this, "When Our Betters was written, a British pound was worth about 42 times what it is today, adjusted for inflation. In other words, when Minnie says she's had her house redecorated for £7000, she means £295,000. Likewise, when Minnie wonders how Pearl can possibly manage on £8000 a year, she is actually wondering how Pearl can possibly manage on £338,224 a year. Also, according to online currency inflation calculators, young Bessie's dowry would be worth about $13,500,000 today. These are not your 99%; these are definitely Our Financial Betters. Moral judgments aside, the characters occupy a lofty position, socially."
With their fortunes, these heiresses can buy anything, even ancient noble titles which for centuries had been secured by the British gentry through more noble means such as inheritance, cronyism, and murder. These chatty interlopers expose a chink in the peerless armour of English nobility; that it can be bought and sold. Rent boys have nothing on these Lords and Ladies of the upper class. Maugham exposes the privileged for what they are: hustlers.
The numbers have changed, adjusted for inflation, but are we Better Off than we once were? The Golden Age of American philanthropy has all but disappeared; in some ways, we might be worse off; our sense of civic and social responsibility seems to have evaporated, and in its place, the idea that rich or poor, we deserve what we get. Of course, there is nothing to compare to the class system of a hundred years ago; and yet, the notion of privilege is so socially ingrained, that our free-wheeling, everybody can make it if they try hard enough market system creates glaring social inequities. In other words, even without class being enshrined in law, a law seems to exist, call it 'one percent'. Only so many can have so much. History cautions, though, that nothing is forever; while the lucky few occupy their exalted position, one can only hope, in some significant way, they can better us all.
Ken MacDonald's sets are beautiful as are the costumes from Charlotte Dean, and Alan Brodie's lighting complement Panych and his remarkably strong cast. Laurie Paton steals the show as the aging, lonely Minnie reduced to desperate bargaining yet extremely funny in her sharp turns from glad to sad and back.
Claire Jullien, Wade Bogert-O'Brien, Catherine McGregor, Julia Course, Charlie Gallant, Ben Sanders, Lorne Kennedy, James Pendarves and Neil Barclay with a southern twang are all convincing in their roles. Our Betters plays until Oct. 27 at the Royal George Theatre and it's worth a viewing.