The third and final act of Widowers’ Houses opens with beautiful Blanche in a long and shimmering white dress. Though she’s at home with her father rather than standing on the altar, her clothes foreshadow her fate. Whatever hope the audience might be reserving for her former fiancé to prove he has a backbone begins to dissipate.
The young man in question, Harry Trench, made a show of his morals in the previous act. When he found out that Blanche’s father was a massive slumlord, he asked her to give up her family’s wealth and live off his small income as a condition of their marriage. But she denied him out of both pride and her dominating love of money.
D.C.-area theatergoers should see Widowers’ Houses with their eyes open to the present. George Bernard Shaw’s play about London in the 1890s rings true for D.C. in 2017—not in feeling, but in fact. Widowers’ Houses is hardly a love story. In swaths of London people were living in desperate slums while others—namely the characters of this play—were either getting rich off the backs of the poor or unknowingly earning interest off said slum properties.
I do not know whether those getting rich off of D.C.’s slums are indulging in romance among their set, but I do know that many District residents live in conditions comparable to what Lickcheese, a character in Widowers’ Houses, describes.
Veteran Washington Stage Guild performer Steven Carpenter plays Lickcheese, who first comes on stage as a destitute property manager desperate to squeeze an ounce of mercy out of Sartorius, Blanche’s father and “the worst slum landlord in London.” Lickcheese has spent 24 shillings to repair stairs that were so broken, three tenants fell and hurt themselves.
In reporting on D.C. landlord Sanford Capital this year I had a similar conversation with tenants regarding a set of stairs at Tivoli Gardens, a property near Fort Totten. They cited injuries and said they called an ambulance for one child who fell on the stairs. Those residents didn’t have a Lickcheese to fix the problem.
In the fictional case, Sartorius castigated Lickcheese for the expenditure, fired him, and turned him out of his mansion. But Lickcheese rebounds by the final act, and returns to the house of Sartorius in new togs and as a new man. He has monetized his knowledge of the slums and gone into business as consultant and a scout. He comes back to Sartorius with a business proposition.
Sartorius’ own story informs his actions. He grew up in a slum, and his mother “stood at her wash-tub for 13 hours a day and thought herself rich when she made 15 shillings a week.” When Sartorius sees that Lickcheese came out of poverty he is happy enough. And perhaps he’d be happy enough for any man or woman strong enough to rise out of the horror houses he maintains. “Oh, I hate the poor,” his daughter Blanche says. Sartorius doesn’t hate the poor, though he doesn’t mind them suffering for his benefit.
Or his daughter’s. Madeleine Farrington plays a convincingly tempestuous Blanche. Scott Harrison plays a convincingly good-hearted Harry, at least for the first two acts. But their relationship is convincing only on the level of lust. Maybe that’s appropriate, given that it’s the love of money—not life—that dominates Widowers’ Houses.
By the end of the story the slumlord himself is the only person who proves to be operating under a clear moral code, however repugnant that code may be. Trench, it turns out, has been unknowingly making interest money off of Sartorius’ property. He agrees to marry Blanche, signaling his willingness to let his wife, his money, her money, and 1892 London itself dominate him.
In D.C., the tenants of Tivoli Gardens organized with the help of an organization called Housing Counseling Services. Nonprofit developer MANNA, Inc., whom the tenants chose as their preferred purchaser through D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, bought the buildings from their slum landlord Sanford Capital in August. Emergency repairs are underway.
At Undercroft Theatre to Oct. 22. 900 Massachusetts Avenue. $25–$60. (240) 582-0051. stageguild.org.