Saturday, September 27, 2014

De Monfort

Yesterday I got a mailing from the Red Bull Theater Company announcing their new season, and to my delight and surprise, I saw that they will be doing a reading of Joanna Baillie's play De Monfort on November 3rd at Playwrights Horizons.

Baillie was a Scottish playwright who in the 1790s started writing a series of plays based on the "passions" of the human heart. Her plan was to write one comedy and one tragedy for each of the major passions (love, hate, fear, etc.) and publish them all in a series of books. By the time her first volume came out in 1798, it was clear her ambition was to have her plays not just published, but performed.

De Monfort, a tragedy of hatred, became her first play to get a major production, opening at Drury Lane in 1800. Baillie clearly wanted the title character to be played by John Philip Kemble, and she got her wish, as Kemble took on the role to great public acclaim.

Less commonly noted is that Baillie seems to have written an even more interesting role for Kemble's elder sister, the actress Sarah Siddons. Baillie gives De Monfort a sister, Jane, who like Siddons attracts all those around her. In the first scene of Act II, before Jane enters, a page describes her as:

So queenly, so commanding, and so noble,
I shrunk at first in awe; but when she smil'd,
For so she did to see me thus abash'd,
Methought I could have compass'd sea and land
To do her bidding.

In 1800, Siddons was mid-way through her 40s, but still striking in her looks. When asked if the lady is young or old, the page replies:

Neither, if right I guess, but she is fair;
For time hath laid his hand so gently on her,
As he too had been aw'd.

This praise for a woman of a certain age was clearly meant for Siddons, who also had some of the best acting moments in the play. Knowing she was dealing with pros like Siddons and Kemble, Baillie could sometimes dispense with speech entirely and give her actors moments of silence on stage. For instance, the first scene of Act III ends with the stage direction:

Jane and De Monfort look expressively to one another, without speaking, and then Exeunt, severally.

De Monfort is an odd little play, but it thrilled audiences in 1800, and was strong enough to lead Edmund Kean to revive the piece in 1821. It will be interesting to see what Red Bull does with this strange and exciting tragedy.