Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Reduction, Not An Elevation

In October 1908, George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old Royal Navy cadet at Osborne Naval College on the Isle Of Wight, was accused of stealing and cashing a five-shilling postal order (worth roughly $20.00 today). The only evidence against the young Archer-Shee came from an elderly postal clerk at the Osborne post office, who proved unable to identify Archer-Shee among other cadets when given an opportunity to do so.

Nonetheless, Archer-Shee was expelled from Osborne—without an opportunity to defend himself—and unceremoniously shipped home.

Archer-Shee’s father, Martin (grandson of the noted portrait painter, for whom he had been named), believed his son’s passionate protestations of innocence, and sought counsel to clear his son’s name. At great expense, the elder Archer-Shee engaged one of Britain’s most acclaimed barristers, Edward Carson. Carson, too, had a son at Osborne, and Carson was at first skeptical about the boy’s denial of the theft. Carson extensively, even cruelly, questioned the young Archer-Shee before accepting the boy’s innocence—and accepting the case.

Thus was set into motion one of the great dramas of the pre-war period, a drama that was to fill the pages of London’s newspapers for the next three years: an upper-middle-class family, at considerable risk to its reputation, was to take on the British government—against which legal recourse was normally impossible—in hopes of finding redress.

Since Osborne Naval College was an arm of The Admiralty, a civil action was not possible: the Crown was not amenable to suit. Only a “Petition Of Right”, for which Parliamentary approval was necessary, would allow the matter to be heard in special proceedings in the High Court.

For two years, Carson marshaled all of his skills with Parliament and the London press to pressure the government to relent and to allow a “Petition Of Right”. Carson was ultimately successful: the petition was granted in 1910.

A trial before the High Court convened shortly thereafter. On the fourth day at trial, the Solicitor-General, witnessing Carson’s demolition of The Admiralty’s case piece-by-piece, halted the proceedings and publicly acknowledged the young Archer-Shee’s innocence. The boy’s name was cleared at last.

But the matter was not at an end: the Archer-Shee family wanted compensation for its gargantuan legal bills—and Parliament, once again, was its only recourse.

Parliament proved sympathetic: in 1911, a resolution was attached to a Naval Bill, which as a practical matter forced The Admiralty—at risk of seeing its funding delayed—to concede to a private hearing to resolve the issue of compensation for the Archer-Shee family.

At the hearing a few weeks later, The Viscount Mersey sat in judgment. (The following year, The Viscount Mersey was to head The Board Of Inquiry investigation of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.) The Viscount Mersey awarded the Archer-Shee family the sum of 7210 Pounds—worth roughly $600,000 today—which The Admiralty promptly paid.

Having been vindicated, the young Archer-Shee went on to complete his education, after which he moved to New York to work on Wall Street.

With the advent of World War I, Archer-Shee returned to Britain to be commissioned into the British Army. He was to die only weeks later: he perished in October 1914 during the First Battle Of Ypres.


In 1946, playwright Terence Rattigan wrote a play inspired by the Archer-Shee affair, “The Winslow Boy”.

In creating his drama, Rattigan took many liberties with the real-life scenario, surely the prerogative of any dramatist—yet Rattigan’s liberties ultimately transformed such rich material into melodrama: Rattigan had not elevated the material, he had reduced it.

In Rattigan’s play, the father’s health and spirit are broken by the lengthy battle with the British government. An elder son is forced to withdraw from Oxford because the family can no longer afford the expense. A daughter’s engagement is terminated, her fiancĂ© no longer wishing to be associated with a family whose name is under a cloud (yet the daughter quickly develops a romance with the powerful barrister hired to clear her brother’s name). Of most importance, the family in the play is much less financially secure than the Archer-Shee family, and receives no compensation from the British government at the conclusion of its travails.

“The Winslow Boy” is Rattigan’s most-produced play. It is a well-crafted drama, albeit old-fashioned and too inclined to tug at the heartstrings. The play is thought to merit revival from time to time.

On Sunday afternoon, October 13, we attended the current Broadway production of “The Winslow Boy” at American Airlines Theatre. The performance we attended was a preview performance; the production was to have its official opening four nights later.

The production had originated at London’s Old Vic in March. The New York director and the New York design team—the latter’s work was appalling—were the same as at the Old Vic, but the New York cast was a new one.

Lindsay Posner was the director. I had encountered Posner’s work before: a 2005 London production of David Mamet’s “A Life In The Theatre”; and a 2011 London production of Simon Gray’s “Butley”. My previous experience had revealed Posner to be a workaday director.

The current “Winslow Boy” is not a distinguished production. My mother described it as “pure summer stock”, and I cannot disagree with that assessment. The production is minimally competent, not particularly embarrassing—and utterly devoid of imagination and freshness.

Roger Rees—who had directed last season’s Guthrie production of  “The Primrose Path”—portrayed the father. His portrayal was one of excess. Rees’s overplaying induced discomfort, especially his overplaying of the character’s physical deterioration: Rees began the play with a limp, soon began using a cane—and ended up in a wheelchair. Toward the end of the play, we were expecting him to produce an oxygen mask.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio played the mother. She barely registered in the part.

Charlotte Parry portrayed the sister. Parry cannot carry off period drama, as we had observed in 2011 when we had seen Parry in the Broadway production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest”. In “The Winslow Boy”, Parry was—once again—far too contemporary in tone and manner to be convincing.

The flamboyant barrister was played by Alessandro Nivola. Of all the cast members, Nivola came off best—but the role requires more bravura than Nivola could provide. (Curious jurisprudence note: in real life, barrister-playing Nivola is married to the daughter of the creator of “Rumpole Of The Bailey”—a fact that should have been mentioned in the program booklet, or so I would have thought.)

At the center of the play was the young actor playing the Winslow boy. He was much too old for the part—he looked and acted as if he were 25 years old—and such blatant miscasting fatally unbalanced the play and raised the play-killing question: since this strong, healthy, vibrant young man—he was anything but helpless—is so clearly able to take care of himself, why is everyone in his family getting so torqued up over a five-shilling postal order?

And therein lies one of the problems with Rattigan’s play: its overarching theme is the portrayal of a family falling apart, emotionally and financially, because of a dreadful external event—yet its protagonist/victim is the character least affected by the play’s events, and the one character prepared to move on with his life. It leads one to ask: perhaps the family would have been well-advised to drop the matter rather than destroy itself by taking on the British government?

I think Rattigan made a mistake in basing his play so closely on a real-life event from the past, and yet not allowing the triumphant final outcome that the real-life family had enjoyed. In changing all the particulars, what, fundamentally, was Rattigan’s point, other than the creation of weepy melodrama?

And weepy melodrama was precisely what the Broadway production of “The Winslow Boy” offered. In this sentimental, sappy staging, totally unconvincing and totally unmoving, the audience was invited to shed tears for the Winslow family, what with its reduced circumstances, ailing father, worried mother, jilted daughter and education-deprived older son. I found everything about the production uncomfortable; I squirmed.

The production made me rethink the play. Until two weeks ago, I had always admired the play because of its craft and its few moments of genuine drama. The New York production caused me to lose much of my admiration; where before I had seen some merit, I now see sentiment piled upon sentiment piled upon sentiment—and nothing redemptive.

I must not be the only one who disliked “The Winslow Boy”: the production—a limited run—is not selling. Now that it has officially opened, “The Winslow Boy” has been the subject of special discount offers everywhere—including on non-theater discount websites such as Travelzoo.

When a production is forced to enlist the aid and assistance of Travelzoo, it signifies that New York theatergoers are staying away in droves.

And when New York theatergoers are staying away in droves, there is a reason . . .

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