Stooping to Conquer
On February 10, 2009
On February 10, 2009
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Alfred Hitchock once famously stated that to him actors were cattle in steering them from scene to scene and ensuring they said the lines precisely the way he wanted. David Mamet has argued that the job of an actor is simply to recite their lines in the simplest and most straightforward manner as possible without a lot of excess.
And while both of those masters knew precisely what they wanted from performers for their material, I must say that with all due respect and with definite understanding that there is such a thing as going way past go and directly to jail without collecting two hundred dollars in the "Monopoly" that is contemporary acting-- I still get chills when an actor dazzles me whether it's in the way they pause surprisingly during a line, make a strange gesture or seemingly stun their costar with improvisation. Granted, of course, everything starts with the writing but ultimately it's the humans embodying the words upon which a work's success is gauged.
So with this in mind, the next time you marvel at the charm of an actor launching into a role with such tenacity and force that they possibly go a bit too far in chewing the scenery for effect such as James Dean yelling "You're Tearing Me Apart!" in Rebel Without a Cause to Marlon Brando's pained, lustful cry of "Stella!" in Streetcar to Peter Finch's Network call for everyone to go to their windows, open them, stick their heads out and yell "I'm as Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take this Anymore" to Jack Nicholson exclaiming "Here's Johnny!" in The Shining, you should be aware that quite possibly the earliest and biggest supporter of hams and broad acting was the talented playwright Oliver Goldsmith.
Of course-- like most egomaniacal writers, he didn't want actors to change a single line of dialogue but this certified "actor's writer" was opposed to the overly reserved and stiff performances of his era. Goldsmith instead promoted "energetic playing" at all costs to go against the refined and polished performances of the United Kingdom and move more towards the style of free acting evidenced in other cultures and on other continents.
With a desire to "explode [the] current theatrical" trends of the late 1700's-- although Goldsmith has been mercilessly critiqued for centuries as not being especially substantive and also rather "shamelessly" lifting plots directly from other sources, the native Irishman's work or more precisely his most famous play She Stoops to Conquer is as Acorn Media noted in their press release "one of the few plays from the 18th century still regularly performed" and studied in both British and American literature and theatre courses.
In this visually stunning and most recent adaptation in a long line of televised and/or cinematic interpretations, filmed in just sixteen days completely on location at Norfolk's seventeenth century English manor Wiveton Hall--director Tony Britten made the decision not to change a single word from Goldsmith's original 1773 text.
Originally debuting on Britain's Sky Arts television network and now releasing in a gorgeous DVD transfer from Acorn Media--thereby introducing the work to those of us in the United States-- this five-episode fast paced roughly 145 minute production Conquers two DVDs in a high quality box set that boasts Dolby Digital sound, a 16x9 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions and subtitles to help us absorb all of the rich language that's admittedly a bit hard to get a handle from the start.
Filled with the same trademark misunderstandings, mistaken identities, love triangles, secrets, and culture clashes that surround so many works of that era from Shakespeare to Wilde, She Stoops to Conquer uses a modern cinematic approach with voice-over narration, musical openers to each episode that sums up the increasingly complex (and definitely dubiously illogical) plot in its lighthearted romance surrounding two suitors who come calling and the family whom they visit.
When the snobbish Charles Marlow (Mark Dexter) who-- easy with barmaids and women of a lower station and impossibly nervous around women of his own class-- is forced to visit a friend of his father's with the hopes that he'll be matched with the fellow's daughter Kate (the miniseries scene-stealing newcomer Susannah Fielding), his journey is sabotaged by Kate's uncouth prankster brother Tony who tricks Marlow and his friend Hastings into thinking that his home is an inn.
Treating Kate's father as though he were a lowly servant with ridiculous demands, She Stoops to Conquer takes awhile to build up as the tongue-twisting poetic language employed throughout complete with many era specific slang terms throws us initially off balance but by the end of the second episode as Marlow tests everyone's patience and more characters begin getting in on the action, it soon becomes entertaining and addictive.
Decidedly, it's elevated by its terrific supporting cast whose complete sincerity and passion for the material helps hide some of the play's admitted shortcomings as we're never exactly sure we buy into the improbable proceedings or fully understand the motivations behind many characters' actions as it's all crammed together in the course of one convoluted and over-crowded day.
And while the female characters don't have the same depth as the males (as noted in the wonderfully informative documentary A Gooseberry Fool: Oliver Goldsmith Stoops to Conquer which is included in the set), one of the most fascinating performances and characters is Miles Jupp's Tony Lumpkin. Initially dubbed the ultimate "blockhead" and depicted as a spoiled, drunken, trouble making buffoon-- throughout the work, it's Tony whose character continues to surprise, showing that beneath his bad behavior, there's much more to the man than meets the eye as again and again, a recurring theme of Stoops is that first impressions are often misleading and he's a gentleman at heart.
While I'm not entirely certain I fully identify with Kate's motivation and sheer devotion to Marlow right off the bat nor her decision to-- similar to her brother-- trick the man in an opposite fashion by going from upper class to lower class and posing as a barmaid to "conquer" the man she deems is "well enough... for a man," it's great fun as a production.
And indeed, while vowing to remain completely true to the text is entirely noble-- sometimes the Achilles heel in doing so is in the realization that plays and films are completely different animals and not interchangeable but by adding life, a sprawling manor and great cinematography, it sheds its claustrophobic stagey pretensions quickly, therefore achieving both the typically unreachable feat of offering us a terrific night at the theatre disguised as an exceptional made-for-television production.
Thus, despite the fact that more than two hundred years later the shamelessly arrogant Oliver Goldsmith who always aspired to be the center of attention and suffered due to his double-meaning laced Irish humor in a world of "literal" English wit-- is still considered to be a "whipping boy" for highbrow theatrical critics as stated in the documentary A Gooseberry Fool and his work is definitely not as rich as that of Wilde's-- the former journalist turned poet and playwright wisely learned at a young age that you can overcome any sort of adversity with creativity.
In deciding to "write what you think, regardless of the critics," Goldsmith didn't let others affect his output and-- much like his She Stoops to Conquer alter-ego Tony Lumpkin proved throughout that first impressions were indeed deceiving as his play has managed to outlive most of that era in its ambition to do away with "sentimental popular comedy" as well as help foster the belief that actors should do whatever they can to enliven material and engage an audience.
So, in the end-- although I'd probably fail a trivia test if you tried to get me to tell you exactly what happens and why in Goldsmith's widly freewheeling "comedy of errors," I can tell you that despite the nonsense, its significance in the realm of acting cannot be understated. So crank up the ham and cheese, get those teeth ready for chewing scenery, and have a little fun watching twenty-first century actors impersonate wealthy well-bred eighteenth century Englishmen and women who Stoop to Conquer your sense of humor.