Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Easy Virtue - the play

Last night I mentioned going to see Easy Virtue, the movie. I thought it would be interesting to see what the original play was like, so got it out of the library today. Crikey. The first and most interesting thing is that the movie is far better than the play. The departures from the original are so considerable that only things that are similar to Coward's play are the following:
  • A butler called Furber, who is a real person in the movie; in the play he has no existence except buttling.
  • A strikingly good-looking woman who's married the heir in a very uptight family. However she isn't American in the play - and she's some years older than John; they go on about it all the time.
  • An extremely repressed mother, who doesn't, however, have any concerns about the family property, though she's so uptight about life in general from the moment the curtain rises that she would act as an appetite suppressant to anyone silly enough to try and eat in front of her (actually, that's not dissimilar to the movie!).
  • A father who's remote, but who likes his new daughter-in-law. He's not only remote in the play, he's utterly boring, and would probably have been played by an aging matinee idol who had relied in the past on his charms rather than his acting skills to sway the public.
  • Two daughters, one serious and one scatty. Except in the play the serious one is a bit of a religious nut, and the scatty one is exceptionally catty with it.
  • John, who's naive and callow. At least in the film he also has some charm.
  • The neighbouring girl who would have married John if the outsider hadn't come in. She's much the same as in the film: wiser and warmer than the cold-hearted family.
The story is roughly similar: callow youth brings home gorgeous, slightly older woman, to the horror of the family. Woman has something in her past, and at the end has to leave for the sake of her sanity, even though she actually does love the boy.

But there the similarities end. Notice that I didn't say anything about the humour in the play; in fact, there's almost none. The funniest lines come in the author's introductions to his characters; their speech is seldom more than a little amusing - there's no laugh-out-loud humour here. Mrs Whittaker (the Kristin Scott Thomas character) is described thus: The stern repression of any sex emotions all her life has brought her to middle age with a faulty digestion which doesn't so much sour her temper as spread it. She views the world with the jaundiced eyes of a woman who subconsciously realises she has missed something, which means in point of fact that she has missed everything.

And what actress would be excited by this description of Marion, the older sister?: She is largely made and pasty, with big lymphatic eyes. Hilda, the younger sister, 'possesses all the vivacity of a deficient sense of humour.'

Which means that most of the humour and wit and nifty one-liners in the film are the film's scriptwriters, not Coward's. In fact, there's almost nothing of Coward in the movie, as far as lines go, at all. Furthermore, Coward doesn't provide us with the hay fever, the Picasso painting, the vicious chihuahua who gets squashed to death by being sat on, the motorcycle amidst the Hunt, the tango at the end with the father (nor the running away with him), the butler who's a bigamist, the can-can at the local cultural evening, the boyfriend with the broken leg, the other girl's wealthy father who's not only buying up the land but also has his eye (goodness knows why) on Mrs Whittaker senior. And the father has never been to war, been sullied by it, nor wandered about France living in brothels.

In other words, most unusually, the film is infinitely superior in almost every way. It would take a cast of considerable skill to make anything of the play as it stands; the movie even manages to remove the sense of datedness.

On top of this, Coward asks the impossible of the average modern producer: he asks for nine characters for the first two acts (plus adding in, during the second act, a young man of no importance who will appear unimportantly in the third, and an elderly bloke who appears for about a minute and is never seen again) and then in the third brings on another eight characters, plus several unnamed extras. These people have come to the ball that's taking place in the next room, and wander in and out randomly during the scene making inane remarks, or, to a degree, building up a bit of tension when the heroine doesn't appear on cue. So that's some dozen actors who do nothing for two acts and then do very little in the third.

I thought When We Are Married was a bit oddly constructed in terms of its usage of some actors: Dyson the reporter appears in the first and second acts for about three minutes apiece and then disappears; Rev Mercer comes on late in the second act for two minutes, is hussled off and then gets another couple of minutes towards the end of the last act; Lottie turns up very late in the second act but at least gets some stage room; the niece gets five minutes early in the first act, another half minute a bit later on, and then a couple more minutes at the beginning of the third act. She's totally forgotten otherwise. Even the young man who sets everything in motion in the first act, where he's a major player, is dumped almost completely after that (he gets a couple of minutes at the beginning of the third act too). My character, Ormonroyd, appears with Dyson early in the first act, and then vanishes for well over an hour before he becomes a major character later in the piece. I suppose in the thirties actors were a lot cheaper, and they could be tossed on and off like this without consideration!

Of course, with the Coward, it makes a big difference, after two acts of constant talk (and very little action - another difference between the play and the film) to have lots of people bobbing in and out, and women and men in pretty dresses and evening wear. It gives the last act some additional lift (and it certainly needs it).

Well, there you go. A relatively straight play turned into a successful comic movie: wonders will never cease.
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