Like Virginia Woolf’s, the life of George Eliot is one of those defining, literary-feminist archetypes: the woman whose creative genius and independent spirit could not save her from deep self-doubts about her own physical appearance. Yet she also overcame hurdles put in her way as an unconventional female writer with an unconventional sex life (Woolf’s bisexuality and Eliot’s long-term relationship with a married man).
Woolf’s life has received at least some stage-or-movie time in Eileen Atkins’ superlative one-woman show, A Room of One’s Own, and the less-than-superlative novel-turned-film, The Hours. But it’s only with Echo Theatre’s new production, A Most Dangerous Woman, that Eliot gets anything similar. Too bad playwright Cathy Tempelsman seems to have followed Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss as a model: It’s far too long and has an ending so clunky one seriously starts re-considering what came before it.
That’s the bad news; the good news is that with some smart pruning, Dangerous Woman could be an effective bio-drama.
Tempelsman fails at the central trick of the stage biography: giving a creative person’s messy life and art the compelling shape of drama. That’s why some playwright’s concentrate on just a pivotal moment or relationship (the way John Logan’s Red, for instance, treats the painter Mark Rothko). Otherwise, they can end up with a story that sings and dances and wanders on like Will Rogers’ Follies because, well, so did Rogers — until his abrupt, meaningless plane wreck. That’s how a chronological life goes, one thing after another until it stops. Not the best formula for drama.
Marian Evans-turned-George Eliot confronted two connected issues of identity throughout her life. Born and raised a country girl in Warwickshire, she up-ended mid-Victorian literary proprieties by writing about ordinary country people. In an era when Dickens and Thackeray extolled Londoners (Dickens’ creation of London may be his greatest fiction), Eliot argued for the moral and political value in village clerics, social outsiders and Calvinist sects. Her finest novel, Middlemarch, is pointedly sub-titled, A Study of Provincial Life. So she fought simultaneously to be accepted as a serious female writer — period — but also as a “regional” social realist (one of Templesman’s best touches is her inclusion of Eliot’s life-changing, put-up or shut-up essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”).
Hence, the awkward irony of Evans’ decision to take a masculine nom de plume. She wished her work to be judged not by gender, yet disguised like this, no one would know she was a female novelist. So she didn’t actually score any points for the cause until the mask was lifted.
But the decision was also motivated by her (non-) marital status: She’d fallen in love with writer-philosopher George Henry Lewes and lived with him, although he was married to another woman. Lewes had an open marriage, but because his wife’s children were legally designated as his, he was tacitly agreeing to her adultery and could not divorce her. Even so, Eliot and Lewes considered themselves married, and Evans even took his name. But it was not a name (nor a relationship) she was prepared — yet — to reveal on the cover of a book.
All of these conflicts are laid out promisingly in Dangerous Woman‘s first act. The play is an ambitious project for Echo, requiring dozens of characters and scene changes, interspersed with front-of-curtain set pieces from Eliot’s novels. All of which they handle very capably. Kudos to Tempelsman and director David Meglino, by the way, for not sticking with ordinary stage realism: Occasionally, critics or “society” are amusingly represented by a cluster of caricatured types loudly gossiping about Eliot or objecting to her latest scandalous action.
In that first act, Emily Scott Banks, who plays Eliot, also establishes herself as formidable and tightly-wound, eager and pained by what Eliot must do, while Russel Schultz impresses as the driven, defiant but charming Lewes (Tempelsman is admirably even-handed in dealing with their marital struggles). We watch a smart, spirited young woman from the sticks maneuver her way through London literary life and find a man as nonconformist as herself, even if, so far, her success and her sex life are furtive matters. If, somehow, Dangerous Woman had managed to wrap things up, it might have been an intelligent and satisfying piece of theater.
Instead, we get the second act — in which all the conflicts are re-stated and re-stated. Nothing really advances, except Eliot’s eventual artistic acclaim and social acceptance. Her sketchy marital status gives her no legal rights, she still has to play games with names, women are still not equals but she’s not sure she wants what complete equality might entail. Her character becomes increasingly humorless. It’s as if every scene involves her haranguing someone on a topic that’s already been thoroughly hashed over — and one that’s never really going to be resolved except by legal fiat.
Or by death. Yes, Tempelsman follows chronology all the way to the end — which pushes her into a post-mortem corner. She has to have another character (Eliot’s friend Barbara Bodichon, played by Jessica Cavanagh) step in to wrap things up. The sudden appearance of a voiceover in a film is often a sign that a problem in writing and editing couldn’t be resolved or that the creators didn’t trust the material and couldn’t agree (see, for example, the added-on narrative voice in the theatrical release of Bladerunner). A character suddenly stepping out of character at the end of a drama to explain things carries the same import. Is this really necessary?
The bio-drama is a middle-brow, Masterpiece Theatre-sort of achievement — condensing an artist’s life and work into a life-like package that lets us think we’ve grasped both life and work. I don’t mean to belittle it; I happen to think some of Masterpiece Theatre‘s shows are terrific. But all of Dangerous Woman‘s central conflicts — and most of Eliot’s own literary and feminist achievements — are actually tied up with the central relationship of her adult life, her soul union with George Henry Lewes. It’s that relationship which forced Marian Evans to create a literary pseudonym while also passing herself off as “Mrs. Lewes” — the intertwined questions of identity that are the heart of the play. Everything that comes before and after in Dangerous Woman is mostly intro or repetition.
Eliot got better than Mill on the Floss. Here’s hoping Tempelsman can, too.