The first play on our 2013 Shaw Festival agenda is Our Betters. The playwright, W. Somerset Maugham, is better known as a novelist and short-story writer. I now find that a surprising having learned he wrote 30 plays. This one is very good. On one level Our Betters is an ideal candidate for production at a festival. The play is dated. The subject matter sets it in a very specific place at a very specific time and I am not sure it would work in any other context. Also, the play is written in three acts. That form seems out of fashion to contemporary audiences.
Directed by Morris Panych, who has become a favorite of mine in the years I have come to the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, Our Betters is comedy of manners set among the American expatriate community in England before World War I. In those years, it was common for young American women of fortune and ambition to marry young Englishmen of title. The most famous example of this is Jennie Jerome, later the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston. This play captures that era; the wealthy & dissolute marrying the titled & destitute.
The Festival is promoting the play by focusing on the popularity of the television program Downton Abbey. There are similarities but they are somewhat superficial. Both are period pieces set at about the same time & place. Both are stories of English gentry continuing to enjoy a privileged life-style with the aid of wealth brought to the marriage by wealthy American women. Where they differ, and the difference is huge, is in the attitude toward the Americans. The tone in Maugham’s play fluctuates between patronizing and outright contemptuous.
There are elements of the play that feel derivative but I don’t think they are. The play is simply not as well-known. For example, I am hard pressed to differentiate between the character of Minnie, the Duchesse de Surennes in Our Betters and the character of the Countess De Lage in Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women. It is important to remember that, while The Women is better known to American audiences, it was written 20 years later.
It is always easy to generate a list of the things that any play is not. What matters to someone in the audience is what it is. In this case, what it is, is very good theater. As is always the case with shows at the Shaw Festival, the sets are beautiful. The costumes are remarkably beautiful even by Shaw standards which sets the bar pretty high. The performances were universally good.
So it’s a good play produced exceptionally well. I can’t ask for much more than that for my entertainment dollar.