Widowers’ Houses – January 2015

Experience: 7/10

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Paul Miller

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th January 2015

First of the year, and it’s another good start at the Orange Tree. We learned from the post-show that this was Shaw’s first play and while it certainly isn’t his finest work, there was a lot to like. Sadly, the theme of slum landlords is still relevant today.

This time we were sitting at the far end of the far right front row. The floor was covered with a large £20 note, the old-fashioned white kind, with just a border of grey carpet round the outside. There were two round covered tables in opposite corners, each with three wooden chairs, all painted grey. This suggested a café location, and the program confirmed that it was a garden café at a German hotel. Around the balcony was a strip showing sections from the Booth maps of London, with houses coloured to show what class of people were living there. Labels had been added, telling us who was where: “Lowest Class, Vicious, semi-criminal” and “Middle class. Well-to-do.” etc. We were in a section entitled “Very poor, casual. Chronic want.”

The opening scene introduced us to two young men, Cokane and Trench. Cokane was elegantly dressed for travelling, and he both moved and spoke with a degree of affectation which was very funny. His companion, Trench, was a doctor, and had a much more relaxed approach to life. He became a bit more tense when another pair of travellers arrived, however; it was obvious that he was extremely keen on the young lady, and his friend Cokane soon engineered a conversation with her father which led to introductions all round. When Cokane and the father, Sartorious, left them alone for a short while, their attachment to each other soon came out, and before long Trench was asking Sartorious for permission to marry his daughter, Blanche.

Sartorious’ main concern in these negotiations was clear: he wanted his daughter to be accepted by Trench’s upper class relatives, especially his Aunt Maria who was a duchess (I think). Trench agreed to write to his relatives to inform them of his intention to marry Blanche, and if the replies were sufficiently welcoming towards his proposed bride, the match was on. Money was no object, as Sartorius was extremely well off, and would basically be keeping the couple in a very lavish lifestyle. Trench delegated the letter-writing to Cokane, and his conversation with Sartorius, as each negotiated the delicate area of the source of Sartorius’ wealth, was very entertaining.

For the second act we moved to Sartorius’ office in his Surbiton villa. The furniture now consisted of a writing desk on the left side with accompanying chair, a couple of other chairs and a set of library steps in the right corner. Trench was due to arrive with the replies he’d received to his letters (as drafted by Cokane), and Blanche was all of a dither as her father told her the news. There was another visitor as well, this time for Sartorius himself – Lickcheese – and he was shown in first while Blanche was off to prepare for Trench’s visit.

Lickcheese was Sartorius’ agent, and had brought his employer the money which he’d collected from the tenants of his various properties in London. Somewhat tender-hearted, Lickcheese confessed to having spent some money – over a pound! – on repairs to the staircase in one of the buildings, and was roundly taken to task by Sartorius for such a waste of money. They argued, with Lickcheese pointing out that he got more money out of the tenants than anyone else could, and that Sartorius could be at risk if someone died, etc., but it was no use; Sartorius sacked him.

Immediately after this, Trench and Cokane arrived. They had been waiting in the hall, having brought Lickcheese with them on their journey from the station. Trench was carrying a huge bundle of letters, all apparently expressing very warm sentiments about the proposed union, but he only had to show Sartorius two of them – Aunt Maria’s and the letter from Trench’s father – to clinch the deal. Sartorius wanted to be the one to break the news to his daughter, so left the men alone for a short while. During this time, Lickcheese made an attempt to appeal to the men to plead with Sartorius to let him have his job back. As a result of their conversation, the source of Sartorius’ wealth came out, and Trench was so shocked by this discovery that he resolved not to touch a penny of his future father-in-law’s wealth.

As a result, when Blanche came in, all delighted with the situation, he suggested that they could live off his annual income of £700. This was money which he received from a mortgage, so presumably his work as a doctor amongst the poor of London didn’t earn him much at all. She was horrified that he would expect her to give up the comforts she was used to, and since he wouldn’t explain the reason why he refused to accept her father’s money, she called off the marriage.

Misery was piled on misery for Trench when, during a subsequent confrontation with Sartorius, he discovered that the £700 he received from the mortgage each year was in fact being paid by Sartorius from the rent money he took from his impoverished tenants. The rest of Trench’s family were also receiving a large part of their income from Sartorius as well, so he left the house feeling absolutely dejected. We also had a glimpse of Blanche’s darker side when she physically abused her maid towards the end of the act, so although she’d been kept in the dark about her father’s source of income, I suspected she would accept his arguments very quickly and become supportive of his exploitation methods.

During the interval, the £20 note was lifted up to reveal a large section of the Booth map underneath – Soho, Bloomsbury, etc. There were quite a few workhouses in the area, which surprised me. Several chairs were placed around the outside of the stage, and there was a small round table in the middle of the far left side with some coffee accoutrements and a framed photo of Blanche. These chairs were also painted, only this time they were a rather unpleasant mustard colour.

Sartorius and Blanche were alone together at the start, and Blanche was determined not to discuss her feelings for Trench at all. Lickcheese turned up, only now he was smartly dressed and wearing a fur coat – life had been good to him. His explanation was a bit long-winded, but basically he had taken advantage of some snippets of information and made a good deal of money as a result. He had come to see Sartorius because there was another chance to make a killing, and it involved some of his former employer’s properties.

Parliament had been investigating slum landlords, and there were changes coming. There were also several developments going on in London (plus ça change…), including a new road which would flatten a row of houses. Compensation would be paid to the owners in proportion to the value of the property. The scam was to tart up the dilapidated houses quickly to make them appear more valuable, even getting in some higher-paying tenants, and then rake in the dosh when the scheme went through. There was also an option to sell off the rest of the slums to a company of which Lickcheese was a shareholder, in order to get out of the business before the inevitable legislative crackdown.

Once he got over his dislike of Lickcheese, Sartorius was only too keen to discuss the plan. They went to another room for this, so that when Blanche returned to the sitting room she was alone. A copy of the report on slum landlords had been left on the floor, and Blanche was soon having a nose into it. At long last she’d found out how her father made his money, and while she was a bit upset, she wasn’t nearly as bothered as Trench had been. She was, however, relieved to discover that he wasn’t just trying to get out of their marriage with his refusal to take any of her father’s money, so marriage became a possibility again.

In order to take advantage of this business opportunity, Sartorius needed the approval of his mortgagee, i.e. Trench. Lickcheese went out and brought him (and Cokane, who was now working for Lickcheese) back to Sartorius’ house, and there was quite a change in the young man. No longer carefree and happy, he was hunched into his overcoat and seemed totally disillusioned and cynical. At first he preferred to leave things as they were, until the others explained the down side to him – he could end up with no income at all.

After Trench had a brief conversation with Blanche, or rather she lectured him on how badly he’d behaved and why she wouldn’t consider ever marrying him, it became absolutely clear that they both still cared for each other. And so the situation resolved into an apparently happy ending, with Trench agreeing to let some of the properties be done up to gain a greater level of compensation and selling off the rest, while he and Blanche would marry and live comfortably on Sartorius’ money.

It was a rather sudden resolution to the play, perhaps reflecting Shaw’s inexperience, and it was also strange that there was no more mention of the poor folk who were about to be turfed out of their appalling accommodation at a moment’s notice; how easy it is to salve a conscience with lots of money. Even so, with the young couple getting together again it felt like a positive ending, and it was only later that I found myself wondering why Shaw had given so little emphasis to the plight of Sartorius’ tenants, both in terms of the state of the buildings they were expected to live in and the summary way in which they were going to be evicted before the refurbishment. Sartorius’ arguments were given plenty of airtime; not just that everyone was doing it and that everyone was relying on the income, etc., but the allegation that the poorer folk would strip a building bare if there was anything half-way decent in it which they could flog or burn. The question of how to house those people who have little or no money was also raised in passing, but these aspects were never thrashed out in the manner of Shaw’s later plays, where some topics can be virtually bludgeoned to death in front of the audience. Trench’s attempts to speak up against this exploitation of the most helpless in society were rather wishy-washy, although his initial anger, based on his experiences as a doctor in the poorer areas, came across strongly. The overall effect was to suggest that slum landlords are a necessary evil in society, and that while most people condemn such activities, most are also happy to take the benefits themselves.

It almost goes without saying that all the cast did a fine job, and it was good to see some fresh faces at the Orange Tree. The post-show discussion was fairly lively. Paul Miller took this one himself, not having a writer handy to pass the buck to. Apparently he enjoys first works by writers because of the freshness of the work; a first-time writer has so much energy and a passion to express themselves in new ways. This play also has such resonance with today’s world that he was keen to stage it in his opening season. The language of the play took some work to get right, and it’s the most important part of any Shaw play. Cokane’s mannerisms were commented on – positively – and there was naturally some discussion of the relationship between housing issues then and now. Someone asked about the play’s title, and Paul informed us that it was reference to some part of the Bible, which talked about widows’ houses. [Matthew 23:14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.]

I didn’t catch all of the questions, but the responses were very interesting, and as we left there were quite a few people staying behind to study the map on the floor, probably the most attention-grabbing piece of set design we’ve seen at the Orange Tree.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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