The first reading of The Provoked Wife was a riot. The second took my breath away with its frankness. The third left a little shard of ice in my heart. The fourth reading made the ground shift beneath my feet. That feeling when you encounter great dramatic writing - the play had no bottom. Its insight into what drives us went a long way down. Vanbrugh had taken a walk round my head and sent me correspondence from the furthest, darkest edges.
But every time I read the play - and it became a troubling compulsion to do so - I also had a strange sense of déjà vu.
When people asked me what it was like, I’d say it made me feel like seeing Pinter’s Betrayal1 for the first time, or Nina Raine’s Consent: that sense of standing before a mirror that simultaneously draws you to it and makes you want to run away. But I’d eventually settle on saying that the closest experience to it was like reading Private Lives. Not the cliched stage Coward of smoking jackets and clipped Kensington RP, but the modernist Coward that heralded Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter2, the Coward where, in a reverie, Elyot tells Amanda “My grandmother had a wonderful seat on a camel”. The Coward where absolutely nothing happens.
On reading it, The Provoked Wife had a savage brittleness when anatomising the longing of the human heart and its single-minded, often destructive pursuit of what it wants (and the realisation that the characters did absolutely nothing with their lives but talk about it). ‘Yes’, I said, ‘It’s a lot like Private Lives’.
But the more time I spent with The Provoked Wife, the more I became convinced that this was not mere déjà vu, but that it might actually be one of the most quietly stolen from plays in theatre history. There was no doubt that The Provoked Wife was a big success, from its opening in 1697, it stayed in the English repertoire consistently for the next hundred years. The play went through a number of iterations and rewrites to stay one step ahead of censors and keep it on the stage in one form or another. One of the most famous portraits of Garrick3, who we are remembering in this anniversary year, is painted by Zoffany and depicts the great actor playing Sir John Brute dressed in his wife’s dress in 1768. So it’s possible that anyone with a keen interest in the great dramatists might have encountered the play, and if they had read it with acuity, unlocked its secrets and been inspired by its implications.
The world of The Provoked Wife is a world of unreliable narrators, self deceivers, contradictors, obsessives who live on the edge of their own nightmares. A world of uncanny pauses, elasticity of meaning and people for whom conversation is a moment by moment strategy to cover their own nakedness. A world of unknowable people who don’t much know themselves or what they want. Much like the world of Pinter. Funny enough, much like the world I inhabit. Of course Pinter’s language is considered by some to be wilfully obscure, in a deliberate attempt to obfuscate meaning, even borderline surreal. I consider him our most realistic playwright. I am much more worried by plays in which people walk on to a stage start talking and can immediately explain themselves and their actions clearly. There’s nothing naturalistic about that. Pinter and Vanbrugh set up, and then give you access to private codes that exist between people. In both Pinter and Vanbrugh conversation itself and the shifting, fragile notion of the self are not incidental to the drama but its central point of focus.
Vanbrugh’s approach to psychology and language are4 sharp and unsparing, they come first and shape the structure of the play - not the other way round. His plays frustrate some because they don’t adhere to the received ideas of stage comedies. It’s interesting to compare the following statements:
In 1697 Vanbrugh attacked “the crowding of a comedy with a great deal of intricate plot. I believe I cou’d shew, the chief entertainment, as well as the moral lies much more in characters and the dialogue, than in the business and the event”.
Pinter writes 250 years later: “A play is not an essay, nor can a playwright under any exhortation damage the consistency of his characters by injecting a remedy or apology for their actions in the third act, simply because we have been brought up to expect rain or sunshine, the third act ‘resolution’.To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent and dishonest”.
As all the great playwrights understand; life is not lived generically, it’s lived specifically, and it is in the ultra specific that the universal is found. We at first encounter this as strange. Why isn’t this sex comedy behaving like a sex comedy, we ask in frustration?5 At the climax to The Provoked Wife a husband discovers that his wife has been (sort of) cheating on him by discovering the lover (who is his friend) in a closet. So what happens? Surely the husband stabs the man in question, or challenges him to duel, fights him in the street, or strangles the wife, all while having full poetic possession of his verbal facilities as he does so - you know, like in EastEnders or Othello. In act five of The Provoked Wife, there’s no final resolution. Sir John stands almost dumbstruck, not knowing what to say, he utters
“Gentlemen, I am your very humble servant, I give you many thanks…”
His friend, the lover, leaves quietly, reminding the husband that he possesses a sword. The husband doesn’t understand why the lover reminds him of that fact, as he’s not been terribly disagreeable. Sir John repeats this over and over again and falls asleep, drunk.
Critics talk of the ‘problematic’, ‘anti-climactic’ act five of The Provoked Wife, where the climax isn’t even the climax, and when it arrives it is utterly banal. One can imagine Vanbrugh reading and watching a lot of drama of the time6 and thinking, ‘That’s not what happens when affairs are discovered’. He observes the complicity of the wife, the husband and the lover in an interweaving play of deception, self deception and ignorance, wilful and otherwise; as all three dance around the discovery of the thing that’s staring them in the face.
In Pinter’s Betrayal (1978) the discovery of the eponymous ‘betrayal’ comes half way through the play.7 Robert, having intercepted a love letter from his friend Jerry, confronts his wife Emma in a hotel room in Venice with a measured calmness8.
Emma: We’re lovers
Robert: Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something along those lines.
Emma: When did you think?
Robert: Yesterday. Only Yesterday. When I saw his handwriting on the letter.
And nothing happens. But everything has happened.
Neither playwright goes for dramatic fireworks, but rather for the agonising piecing together in grim minutiae of how an affair is conducted and discovered. In both plays the husband likes the lover rather more than he likes his wife. In both plays, the lover might think he’s been given tacit permission by his friend. In tragedy we rush to the climax, and in comedy we ascend the stairs of our own house having come home early to hear our wife talking dirty to our best friend with the increasing dawning realisation of what’s going on as we climb each step. And at the top we all see each other in our psychological nakedness and it feels like a terrible dream and we just get on with living in the new complicated reality. Because we have to. And it's bloody horrible. But it doesn’t destroy us. We just live. I guess that’s what a comedy is.
Both plays follow what the characters need to do. They don’t impertinently make the characters cohere to what the genre needs to do. So critics get confused; because it’s easier. The universal in the specific. The familiar made strange. You can see why Pinter might have been excited by the drama of this period9 and The Provoked Wife in particular.
Ibsen too, the great influencer of the English stage, I’m convinced, was familiar with The Provoked Wife and excited by how Vanbrugh structured the poem of his play. Brute (the coward husband), Constant (the passionate lover), and Heartfree (the sceptical realist) are a trifurcated representation of a man in love. In Hedda Gabler (1891) we have Tesman, Eilert Lovborg and Judge Brack in the same arrangement. For Hedda (and Vanbrugh) there is a tragic realisation that all of these qualities will never live in balance in one man. The dialogues between the men and the women shed light on the paradoxes and contradictions of what we appear to want in love. Hedda and Lady Brute are caught in the no man’s land between what they desire and their images of what it means to be a faithful wife. Even though the husband in both cases is not fit for purpose, and the women only married him for his status.
But it’s in the highly wrought, highly coded, highly conceptual negotiation between Hedda and Judge Brack of the specifics of how they might go about conducting their affair that put me in mind of act three scene one of The Provoked Wife. Knowing that there is no way out of the marriage, and that they can never be together publicly, Brack posits a way in which they can continue their assignation without the husband (who doesn’t want the wife (much) anyway) exactly knowing. What is psychologically fascinating about both scenes is the way in which the husband is crafted in to the fantasy that the wife and her putative lover create together. In both cases this fact appears to be the thing that makes the assignation palatable. In Hedda Gabler,10 Brack and Hedda weave the following
Brack: The honeymoon’s over.
Hedda: It’s not you know. The train has only stopped at the station.
Brack: So jump off and stretch your legs.
Hedda: I’m not the jumping sort.
Brack: In the dark vault of their hearts all women are jumpers.…..
Hedda: I’ll stay in the compartment… Too frightened to jump; terrified of scandal
Brack: Suppose a friend were to join you in the compartment. A trusted friend, one of a small group?Hedda: That’s very different… yes, that would be different.
In The Provoked Wife the image is that of Lady Brute’s honour as a precious jewel
Constant: … since you are already disposed on to one who does not know the value of the jewel you have put in to his hands. I hope you would not think him greatly wronged, though it should sometimes be looked upon by a friend, who knows how to esteem it as he ought.
Lady Brute: If looking on it would serve his turn, the wrong perhaps might not be very great.
Constant: Why what if he should wear it now and then a day, so he gave good security to bring it home again at night?
Or to put it another way: ‘I am happy with the idea that you can still be his wife to the world and my lover in private’. The lover intuits that it’s the appeal to her morality that will finally convince her to be immoral. Both Vanbrugh and Ibsen understand - as John Gray in his book Straw Dogs posits - that morality is something of an aphrodisiac.
DH Lawrence deserves a special thief’s mention for his play The Widowing Of Mrs Holroyd (1911), in which Mrs Holroyd is married to a brutish, drunken, whoring miner. She wishes him dead. He dies! She and her lover, the school teacher Blackmore, then discuss in tortured detail how they’re going to be together over the expired body of her husband, which is laid out on the kitchen table. This is a conflation of two scenes from The Provoked Wife, act three scene one between Constant and Lady Brute (as mentioned in the previous paragraphs), and act five scene three in which Lady Brute and Bellinda plot their futures in hushed tones as Sir John Brute is passed out through drink in his armchair. It’s Lawrence’s sympathy for all three parties that most closely ties Mrs Holroyd to The Provoked Wife, particularly in the daring depiction of Holroyd, a man whose brutish behaviour is mitigated by the fact that he loves his wife far more than she loves him. Her simultaneous deep hatred and deep connection to her husband is a feature of both plays, along with the impossibility of society ever allowing the lovers to be together. Bellinda and Lady Brute’s muted duologue is one of the many moments of The Provoked Wife that appear to emerge very naturally from the situation of the drama, that arrive on stage by tiny increments, but leave a shocked audience thinking: “Did I just see that? Did THAT just happen?”
But the great plunderer of The Provoked Wife however, must be Tennessee Williams. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) he imagines what happens when Lady Fancyfull comes to the French quarter. The similarities between Lady F and Blanche DuBois are striking - complete with a fruity use of la langue Francaise. Both have constant manic need for the comforting lies of flattery and reassurance. With both there’s a gossamer thin sense of self which is cruelly wiped away when each falls in love with the very man who takes the trouble to tell her what he and the rest of the world really thinks of her.
Let’s begin with Heartfree’s assessment of Lady Fancyfull
“[Nature has] made you handsome; it gave you beauty to a miracle, a shape without fault, wit enough to make em relish and so turned you loose to your own discretion…there is not a feature in your face but you have found a way to teach it some affected convulsion, your feet, your hands, your very fingers ends, are directed never to move without some ridiculous air or other”
And now Stanley Kowalski’s of Blanche
“There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination…all lies and conceit and tricks… And look at yourself! Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit rented for fifty cents from a rag picker…what kind of queen do you think you are?… I’ve been on to you from the start! Not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes…”
And all this leaves both characters in a kind of madness, because of the lies they’ve told to the world and most importantly to themselves leave them without the ability to tell the difference between truth and lies and therefore unable to navigate themselves out of their crises.
With both Lady F and Blanche there is much comic enjoyment for the audience in the characters' preposterous fantasies. In the male admirers who probably don’t exist and their detailed back stories for them. There’s even a comic routine in both plays where Blanche and Lady Fancyfull sit down to write a letter and then persuade themselves to abandon it, then to write it again, and then to abandon it, with increasing mania, while a close female companion watches on, bemused.
In one of the most famous episodes of A Streetcar Named Desire, (and to my eye one of the most frequently misunderstood in recent productions), Blanche desperately wields a broken bottle at Stanley (her sister’s husband) in an attempt to stop him from doing to her the very thing that she wants him to do. Lady Brute takes great pains to express the same thing to Constant in the Spring Garden in act four
Lady Brute: [Aside] Poor coward virtue, how it shuns the battle - [To Constant] Oh heavens! Let me go -
For both women, as Mademoiselle says in act one of the The Provoked Wife her ‘nature makes [her] merry and [her] reason makes her mad’.
Williams sees desire as a streetcar, a clunking great object which runs inexorably on rails between Elysium and the Cemetery and woe betide anything that gets in its path. Once you’re on that particular form of dirty public transport, that anyone can ride, it takes a strong person to get off before the cemetery. Vanbrugh sets his action in a more rarefied world but he’s offering the same observations.
After the trauma of nearly being discovered in Spring Gardens, the lovers don’t just go home to bed, they go back to Lady Brute’s house (it’s almost as if the idiots want to be caught) with their nerves on edge, not knowing what to do, the four lovers sit down opposite each other and play cards. Each looking at the other, wondering what the other has in their hand. It’s a moment of playwrighting genius, where the specifics of the dramatic moment takes on a huge metaphorical and universal significance. The poker game as metaphor for how we relate to each other in our love lives runs throughout A Streetcar Named Desire. As Blanche is being carted away to the madhouse and her life falls apart, the men sit down to cards and this funny, cruel and strange play is concluded with the line
‘The game is seven card stud -‘.
There’s every chance I’m wrong. This might not be the most plundered from play in theatre history. None of these playwrights may have come across Vanbrugh in their lives. They might never have picked up a copy of this under considered play. The advantage of being a director rather than an academic is that you can express wild hunches and nobody pays too much attention. But at the very least there’s some strikingly similar insights, observations and metaphors that link some of the best dramatic writing on sex and marriage in the English language. Vanbrugh was too busy revolutionising architecture to leave us with a great body of dramatic work11, but his great play deserves to be considered in the very highest company. We should look beyond the facile decoration of the received notions of ‘restoration comedy’12, beyond the wigs, and frocks and the fans to the heart of the matter. Vanbrugh’s brilliance as a comedian draws us to the stage, but it’s his ability to reflect our most complex drives and desires that keeps us there, horrified and comforted by our own face in the mirror, riveted by a play in which nothing happens.
1 In Terry Hands’ definitive Theatr Clwyd production of 2003, designed by Provoked Wife designer Mark Bailey.
2 When funding for the 1963 feature film of The Caretaker (directed by Richard Donner and starring Donald Pleasance) ran in to trouble a cheque arrived from Coward himself; among other unlikely admirers.
3 There’s a lot of competition, Garrick was the subject of at least 56 painted portraits.
4 I nearly wrote ‘strikingly modern’. Christ! Save us from the idea that that we are more sophisticated than our forbears. And from theatrical bunkum like ‘strikingly modern’ and ‘never more relevant’. As if these great playwrights were predicting our own unbelievably sophisticated golden age, rather than seeing the world that surrounded them.
5 SPOILER ALERT
6 Let’s take The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Othello as two examples where marital infidelity (either real or imagined) ends up in dramatic fireworks, one way or another.
7 The plot of which is presented backwards, in which the final scene is the beginning of the central affair.
8 I once heard a story of an Israeli actor who was convinced that Betrayal was an absurdist comedy, because he could not understand why Robert didn’t immediately ‘throw Emma out of the window’ on the discovery of the affair.
9 I'm convinced that like Vanbrugh, Pinter was also inspired by the end of Otway’s The Soldier’s Fortune (1680) in which its lead character is so traumatised by the events that he loses the power of speech. This is Stanley’s fate at the end of The Birthday Party.
10 I’m using Brian Friel’s brilliant 2012 translation.
11 Who knows what buildings Harold Pinter might have bequeathed us had he been given a set square and a spirit level for his tenth birthday, instead of a pencil and a notebook?
12 The Provoked Wife, is not strictly a ‘restoration’ comedy anyway. It’s strictly speaking, ‘early Williamite’.