A Note on The Wilder-Ludwig Adaptation of The Beaux’ Stratagem
After a delay of sixty-seven years, audiences will have an opportunity to witness a “new” adaptation of a theatrical classic by a team of gifted American playwrights who stand tall for Restoration drama, Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig, who both separately and now as one explore ways to stage this classic drama for the 21st century audience.
BEAU: A man who gives particular, or Excessive, attention to dress, mien, and social etiquette. “You’re a perfect Woman, nothing but a Beau will please you!” (1687) – OED
STRATAGEM: An operation or act of generalship; usually, an artifice or trick designed to outwit or surprise the enemy. A device or scheme for obtaining an advantage. “For her own breakfast she’ll project a scheme, Nor take her tea without a stratagem.”(1728) -OED
Once upon a time, two penniless beaux are forced to flee their creditors in the expensive beau monde of London and roam about the countryside seeking salvation by marrying women of great beauty (if possible) and fortune (without question). They fetch up in Lichfield and put their stratagem into play. It all works out wonderfully well, although not before many a diverting moment involving such matters as highway robbery, life in an inn owned by a rogue, mistaken identify, much sexual innuendo played out in front of and behind beautiful and not-so-beautiful women, sword play, heavy drinking — and lively comment on the nature and destiny of the genders, separate and together.
Welcome to the world of The Beaux’ Stratagem, the late Restoration comedy by John Farquhar (1677/78? – 1707), a smashing success when it opened several weeks before the playwright’s death on May 23, 1707.
In England and Ireland the play, known in the trade as The Beaux, has had a long and honorable history on the page and in an occasional production. It is a different story on this side of the Atlantic. Those who love the theatre will recognize its title, and some may recall that it resides in an anthology stored at the top of the stairs with other college texts. But as the work is rarely performed outside of university and conservatory settings, few can claim to have attended an actual performance of this minor classic. The play’s professional history in New York underscores the point: down to the present it has been performed only once each century — in 1751, 1843 and a brief Broadway run in 1928.
The determined and energetic producer-director Cheryl Crawford (1902-1986) undoubtedly knew these facts when she asked Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) to adapt The Beaux in the late spring of 1939 for a projected Broadway date that same December. The record of what now occurred is sketchy. What we do know from Wilder’s correspondence is that Crawford developed the scheme for the well-known British-born stage and film star Brian Aherne, no doubt slotted to play the part of Archer. We also know from the same source that Crawford had two distinguished British actresses in mind for key roles: Edith Evans for the part of Lady Bountiful, and we believe the younger Shakespearean actress and director Margaret Webster for the part of Dorinda.
In addition to Wilder’s established interest in adaptation and translation, the offer appealed to him for three reasons. First, he adored farce and comedy and thus Restoration theatre. (As a student he had once even tried to write a faux Restoration drama.) Second, he had free time—at last. It puts The Beaux in a broader context of his career to note that Wilder had been on a dramatic tear from 1937 through the summer of 1939 because of three principal projects: his stage adaptation of A Doll’s House for Ruth Gordon, which was a Broadway hit; his fabulously successful Our Town that had opened on February 4, 1938 because of three projects as awarded the Pulitzer Prize that May; and a farce freely adapted from a comedy by the nineteenth century Viennese actor-playwright Johann Nestroy, The Merchant of Yonkers, a play that failed soon after it opened at the end of 1938. On top of all this, in the summer of 1939 he devoted himself to the challenge of acting the part of the Stage Manager in three summer stock productions of Our Town.
The third reason that Crawford’s offer appealed to him had to do with the threat of war in Europe during the spring and summer of 1939. It was time of great uncertainty and the questioning of priorities. In early October, with war declared after the invasion of Poland on September 3, Wilder painted his situation this way to a close friend:
What with the war dinning in our ears work is the only thing to save us from growing savage or trivial; I’m locked up with a preface to Limited Edition Club’s edition of the Oedipus Rex [completed but not published until 1955.] Again, because of the War I doubt whether I’ll embark out on a novel or play this year –this year will be my non-fiction year, long postponed ventures into the essay and into criticism; but I will do a touched up version of Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem for Broadway.
Wilder worked resolutely his adaptation in October and November 1939, writing into it (as reported to his family) “lots that Farquhar never tho’t of, and whole new twists in the plot.” He also met at least once with Crawford (joined by Margaret Webster) who felt confident enough with his progress to select a theatre by early November. (“Wouldn’t it freeze you. They’ve picked the theatre and everything!!!” wrote Wilder to his home front on November 4.) But in late November or early December, he lost his way and confidence in the piece, and by the end of the year had to tell Crawford that he was “stuck” and “must give it up.” Reporting this news to his family early in the new year, he added that “she didn’t seem downcast and I guess she’s given it up too.”
Despite a fifty-seven-page handwritten draft and a related typescript, so ended one of those good ideas that don’t work out. Soon, however, Wilder fell under the spell of a new idea for a play, inspired by his search for a way to bear witness to a world at war. He titled it The Skin of Our Teeth. It received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1943.
In 2000 Tappan Wilder, his uncle’s literary executor, rediscovered the unfinished Beaux manuscript – representing in length about half the play– in the reading room of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. He laughed so hard reading it that he was reprimanded sharply by a scholar working on Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts at the next table. In May 2004, Tappan Wilder met playwright Ken Ludwig and discovered that he was not only deeply indebted to Restoration Drama as inspiration for his own work but had studied this literary period at Cambridge University in the 1970s.
Given this background Mr. Wilder asked Mr. Ludwig to read Thornton Wilder’s unfinished manuscript and, if he found it worthy, to consider completing the play. Mr. Ludwig agreed to do so. As his appended note indicates, he found Wilder’s Beaux an exciting and most unusual adaptation, and went on to complete the play in the summer of 2004 and early 2005. It was with no less enthusiasm that Tappan Wilder approved Mr. Ludwig’s work in finishing the play, including the careful cuts and revisions that Mr.Ludwig applied to Wilder’s portion of the script in order to address inevitable questions of balance and length.
And the result? After a delay of sixty-seven years, audiences will have an opportunity to witness a “new” adaptation of a theatrical classic by a team of gifted American playwrights who stand tall for Restoration drama, Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig, who both separately and now as one explore ways to stage this classic drama for the 21st century audience.
KEN LUDWIG ON WHAT THORNTON WILDER DID:
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Wilder’s adaptation is the animating idea itself. When a dramatist chooses an underlying work to adapt, it is commonly a piece that will, by its nature, give the writer the scope he needs to create a new work of art. Thus, usually, the underlying work is in a different language; or it is in another medium altogether, be it a novel, a poem or, lately, a movie. Thus, normally, the underlying work is not a play in English, to say nothing of a minor classic.
Wilder, however, broke this mold – and he may well have been the first to do so. In agreeing to adapt The Beaux’ Stratagem, Wilder must have said to himself: “Here is a great piece of theatre with remarkable comic exuberance, gloriously funny characters and an abundance of genuinely witty dialogue; and it sits on the shelf, unperformed for decades at a time, because it is too long, contains many turgid, unedited passages (it was written and performed shortly before Farquhar’s death in 1707), and features two minor characters who are given far too much stage time and whose 18th Century stereotypes (the funny Frenchman and the funny Irishman) leave us cold today. So why don’t I pick this piece up and shake it a bit. I’ll keep the exuberant story-line, the major characters and the great speeches and I’ll cut out all the boring bits. And to make up for the cuts, I’ll add some new plot twists and write some new scenes. Then, perhaps, I can restore this play to the glory it deserves as a true classic of the 18th Century, ready to stand beside its only peers, She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals, and The School for Scandal.”
I believe this is what Wilder did. And this was Wilder’s genius.
BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE FARQUHAR
An Irish actor turned playwright, Farquhar is most celebrated for two Restoration comedies, The Recruiting Officer (1706) and The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707). These plays introduced a more realistic and humanistic approach to comedy that was further developed by Goldsmith and Sheridan. Farquhar’s original The Beaux’ Stratagem was read as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ReDiscovery Series reading in 2001, while Wilder and Ludwig’s adaptation was read as part of the series in 2005.
BIOGRAPHY OF THORNTON WILDER
This famous American author won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction (The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928) and drama (Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943). He also translated and/or adapted dramas by Ibsen, Sartre, Otto Indig and Andre Obey. In the fall of 1939, at the invitation of producer Cheryl Crawford, Wilder began adapting The Beaux’ Stratagem. In early 1940, distracted by the outbreak of war in Europe, he abandoned the project. Wilder had completed about half of the “new” Beaux’ at the time. The work is further testimony to Wilder’s fascination with farce and comedy as theatrical and literary forms – witness his own The Merchant of Yonkers of 1938 (later The Matchmaker of 1954), his 1935 novel Heaven’s My Destination and The Skin of Our Teeth.
BIOGRAPHY OF KEN LUDWIG
An American playwright and director who studied Restoration drama at Cambridge University in the 1970s, Mr. Ludwig is the author of several Broadway and London hits and has won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award from the Society of West End Theatres, earned two Helen Hayes Awards and received two Tony nominations. Included among his musicals, comedies and adaptations are Lend Me a Tenor (1989), Crazy for You (1992), Moon over Buffalo (1996), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (2001), Twentieth Century (2004) and Leading Ladies (2004). Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, received its world premiere at Arena Stage in September 2003, and won the Helen Hayes Award for Best New Play of the Year. Mr. Ludwig first read the unfinished Beaux’ Stratagem in May 2004.