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It looked, for a minute or two, like The Children’s Hour might get abbreviated.
Representatives of playwright Lillian Hellman‘s estate, alarmed by a Washington Post review that detailed what seemed to be aggressive alterations in the Washington Shakespeare Company‘s production of the grand old melodrama, contacted the troupe last week threatening a withdrawal of the show’s performance license.
But, um, most of those changes, replied company chief Christopher Henley (who’s also starring in the show), weren’t WSC’s. They were Hellman’s.
Here’s how things broke down:
Post reviewer Nelson Pressley (a good guy and a fair critic) came armed with a copy of the play from his own library—and came away startled by how much of what was onstage wasn’t in his script. And vice-versa: Pressley’s review cited “a steady stream of alterations … major cuts … radical recalculations”—including the casting of male actors in two important female roles—adding up to a “textual makeover…pronounced enough that it is surprising to see no ‘adapted by’ credit.”
Cue the alarm bells: The chop-shop treatment is a pretty big no-no in the theater, at least when authors (or their heirs) are around to take issue. Locals still converse in horrified whispers (and sometimes in loud rants) about the liberties the Studio Theatre took a few years back with Kit Marlowe—which did get shut down after playwright David Grimm saw it. “[U]nethical behavior…total disregard for its contractual obligations…shoddy administration and artistic ineptitude” were just some of the barbs Grimm hurled at Studio in a letter to the Post—which just indicates how seriously theaterfolk take the issue.
So the Dramatists Play Service, which licenses The Children’s Hour on behalf of the Hellman estate, was predictably peeved about what director H. Lee Gable had apparently done at WSC.
At least until Henley pointed out, in an exchange with Dramatists’ licensing official Craig Pospisil, that the “original” language Pressley quoted in his review seemed to be from a 1930s-vintage script—and that the version Dramatists had licensed to WSC was a 1950s revision updated by Hellman herself. The line about musicals that so startled Pressley? Hellman’s language. The swap of a Shakespeare quote from Portia for one involving Cleopatra? Check.
Sure enough, Pressley reports, his copy of The Children’s Hour is the 1930s version, and a Hellman biography on his bookshelf references a ’50s production revised and directed by the playwright herself. He’s planning to include a clarification in his review of Two-Headed, another WSC show currently running in repertory with The Children’s Hour.
But Gable and his cast haven’t escaped entirely unscathed. It was the broad scope of the seeming changes Pressley described that most worried Pospisil and his colleagues initially, but cuts are a thorny question, too, and the cross-gender casting wasn’t exactly a nonissue. WSC sees it as a way to reenergize a slightly musty play’s once-electric ideas about what goes on, and what should go on, among nice men and women. (And for some it works: “What could be more to the point,” asks Bob Mondello in a City Paper review due out Thursday, “in a play that hinges so crucially on touches, kisses, and lies?”)
Such gambits are common enough among adventurous theater companies—Henley was part of an all-male version of Dangerous Liaisons at another local company last season—but “it does represent a change from the intention of the text, figuratively and literally,” says Pospisil. “So we have to find out what the authors or the authors’ estate will allow.”
A tense weekend followed, with WSC panicky about the financial disaster a shutdown would entail. But Monday afternoon brought word that Gable’s production would be allowed to continue—with a kind of public slap on the wrist. Dramatists, on behalf of the Hellman estate (whose trustees include the playwright Jon Robin Baitz), has decreed that Henley & Co. must post a notice in the lobby of the Clark Street Playhouse before their next performance:
The casting for this production was done without prior authorization from the Hellman estate and does not reflect their wishes, but they have graciously allowed the production to continue.
“They had concerns,” Pospisil says of the Hellman trustees. “That language … was a way to allow it to continue while sending a signal that it wasn’t how the script was originally intended.”
Henley, for his part, hopes that both Dramatists and the trustees it represents understand that his company didn’t mean any disrespect to Hellman or to her play. “We’re not a museum-piece theater company,” he says, “and part of what we do is to try to allow a little breath of fresh air into the classics.…But we always hope to do that with respect for the heart of the material, and not in any way to subvert it—just to illluminate it in a slightly new way.”