Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Enid Bagnold - The Chalk Garden

I finished reading The Chalk Garden and A Diary Without Dates and I'm pleased I spent the time, although for different reasons.

The Chalk Garden in play form is slightly different than the movie version (and I did go back and watch the movie).   Maitland, the manservant played by John Mills in the movie version, is less of a stable character than he is in the film.  In the movie version he is a voice of reason who we think is concerned for the best interests of Laurel but who doesn't have the power to do much more than he does.  His only quirk is his interest in criminal trials.

In the play, he's more quirky, just as caught up in the psychological games that the household is caught up in as the rest of them and with the same touch of instability.  Where there is a hint of romance between Maitland and Madrigal in the film version, I caught no hint in the play.  Maitland is portrayed as one of those sexless characters who is vaguely camp. 

Mrs. St. Maugham is also more batty than she is in the movie; we meet her as she shouts from the garden wondering where she has left her false teeth.   But the biggest difference is the presence of two more characters who are not in the movie version - Mr. Pinkbell the butler (who is an invisible character and hovers unseen over the cast sending directions down from his bedroom where he is dying) and his nurse who delivers his directions when he isn't directing things personally over the house telephone.:

Mrs. St. Maugham:  You made me jump.  He's my butler. Forty years my butler.  Now he's had a stroke but he keeps his finger on things.  (Rings handbell. Keeps bell)

Madrigal:  He carries on at death's door.

Mrs. St. Maugham: His standards rule this house.

Madrigal: (absently) You must be fond of him.

Mrs. St. Maugham: Alas no.

More so than the movie, this is a play about the death of a way of life.  Mrs. St. Maugham is living by the standards of the butler, the standards of another age, and the tension is whether she will ever have to acknowledge that, in the modern age, things may be done differently.

The most obvious tension over this is over the handling of the garden.  Pinkbell directs the gardening from his window and the garden is dying.  Madrigal brings her own knowledge in and the garden begins to thrive. 

This is also seen in the tension between Mrs. St. Maugham and her daughter.  In the movie there is an allegation that is never really rebutted that the first marriage of her daughter, Olivia, might have been caused by Olivia's unfaithfulness.  Olivia is certainly portrayed as a glamorous figure in the movie.  In the play it is clear that Olivia was a quiet girl who had no wish to "marry into society" and did so on the arrangement of her mother.  The marriage was a failure for reasons other than any unfaithfulness.  And the husband appears to have died long before Olivia met her new husband.

(Olivia enters from front door.  Madrigal rises)

Olivia:  (shakes hands) Judge!  I remember you! You used to be so kind to me when I was little!  What was that odd name Mother had for you? Puppy?  I used to wonder at it.

Judge: (Smiling, taking her hand) You were that silent little girl.

(Madrigal crosses down right)

Olivia:  Yes. I was silent.

As in the film version, the dramatic tension comes to a crisis when Olivia arrives to take Laurel away and when Madrigal's past is revealed and she sets herself in opposition to Mrs. St. Maugham over Laurel.  But the key moment of the play, the moment of the butler's death, comes immediately after Mrs. St. Maugham discovers who Madrigal really is, realizes that under the butler's rules Madrigal would be unacceptable in her household and would be a scandal and yet the Judge does not seem concerned, Olivia is not concerned, and Maitland is in awe of the fact that a real convicted murderess is among them. 

Mrs. St. Maugham:  Heavens!  What an anti-climax! What veneration!  One would think the woman was an actress!

This moment when celebrity outweighs propriety is the very moment when the Butler dies.  We have entered the modern age.

I enjoyed reading this play as much as I can enjoy reading plays.  I'm not very visual, my mind doesn't work that way, so the stage direction didn't give me a clear idea of the action.  Just reading the description of the set confused me and the stage directions (moves down right) meant nothing to me.  My imagination just isn't that specific. So even though I love going to plays, I don't think I'm going to spend my time reading a lot of plays.

Oh.  One last thing.  I particularly enjoyed this note at the beginning of the script:

By the Lord Chamberlain's wish, and in all places within his jurisdiction, the word "violated" on p. 24  Act One, must be played as "ravished," though it should remain "violated" on the printed page.

Showing that, even in 1953, things weren't quite as modern  as they could be.