It is quite an interesting adventure to direct a show that is both a period piece and a “comedy of manners”. This is a wonderful phrase because, inherent in it, is the fact that the manners – the social rules – of the play are essential to its identity. And in order to be able to participate in this grand adventure, it is necessary to understand, well, the manners. That entails learning everything about 1895 and the Victorian period that is possible.
It is imperative to delve into the world of the playwright and not impose our modern standards upon his world. In order to capture the style, we have to portray the world as truly as possible and to the best of our abilities.
How do these differences reveal themselves?
Well, it’s mid-summer 1895 in London. I can assure you they weren’t wearing shorts and sneakers. So, how did they dress? Top hats and canes for the men, gloves and parasols for the women. Long dresses, and special mourning clothes. Three piece suits and cutaway jackets. What a beautiful world to discover.
Then, how do they speak? With a variety of accents, both within London and around England, differentiated either by class or by geographic location, it is important that we SOUND like the period. We have to decide where each character is from, what their background is like, what their class is. It makes the difference, for example, of the word girl sounding like “gall” or “gehl,” the latter being the most upper-crustedy of the upper-crust.
Wit was a most important part of society in the Victorian Era. Language was a practiced art, and wit the rapier sword of the tongue. Lines like “In married life, three is company and two is none” or “It’s like washing one’s clean linen in public” pepper the English gentleman’s daily conversation.
Society. How did they stand? How did they walk? How does a cane change both of those things? How did men and women interact and what was acceptable in terms of physical proximity? When it says “they kiss” in the script, it really means “he kisses her on the cheek” and it’s important to note the difference. Humor can be found by understanding these things, for example playing with the fact that a man is not supposed to sit if a woman is standing. All of these things contribute to creating a world that is both accurate and truthful.
But the most difficult thing to learn about, it turns out, is the muffins.
In Act II, for example, the character of Algernon is availing himself of Afternoon Tea. The script indicates tea and sugar, and a plateful of goodies which include bread and butter, muffins and tea cake. We thought it was pretty easy to understand all of those things. Anyone who’s ever been to “High Tea” (which was actually called Low Tea and served at 5pm) at the Ritz understands most of those things. Tea cake is pretty easy to google. But what are muffins? Well, our first job was NOT to assume that they meant “muffins” in the way we think of the large carbohydrate-filled masses we get at Dunkin Donuts. So, what were “muffins” in the Victorian era? And did that change according to class? Or according to geographic location? The woman at the “tea room” insisted they were something like English Muffins…crumpet-like delights cut into triangles or strips. Our first foray into “English Muffins” left the only Englishman in the cast saying they had no business being on the plate and that they should be cakey things more like scones. The bottom line is, if WE had to do this much research, probably nobody in the audience will really know the difference or actually care, but it is important to try to represent every detail as accurately as possible, otherwise, why bother?
Somebody pass the clotted cream.