Assistant Director Tommo Fowler talks about all-female casts and Brexit in the third of our A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur rehearsal diaries.
Whenever a director or producer is about to put on a particular play, one of the things they’ve got to consider is ‘why now?’. The question applies to new plays, but it’s especially pertinent for those written some time ago. Of course, lots of people would argue that A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur should be staged simply because it hasn’t been before – a sort of curio from the lesser-known ‘late period’ of a theatrical giant – but that kind of rationale isn’t the most creatively satisfying for those tasked with bringing it to life. Drama functions best when audiences see themselves onstage – something pretty much universally agreed upon, from Aristotle’s theory of mimēsis (‘imitation’), to Hamlet’s instruction “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature”, to the contemporary idea of ‘psychopoetics’. Our job as artists, then, is to put on work which engages the audience in that moment and speaks to their present experience, no matter what period of history the play is set in. We seek, in the words of one psychologist, to “[evoke] the power of the analogical, the way in which consciousness finds analogies of its experiences in other forms of narrative” .
With our play, there are two stand-out themes that resonate strongly with the current socio-political climate: the place of women in society, and the integration of immigrant communities.
Williams is known for having created some of the strongest and most memorable female characters in the Western theatrical canon, but A Lovely Sunday is unusual – even today – in having a cast comprised entirely of women. And not just their sex, but their unmarried and childless status is worthy of remark. In the late 1930s, when the play is set, “women [were] coerced into bearing children by religious teaching, prescriptive literature, Freudian thought, and the like – all of which idealise motherhood while denigrating childless women as selfish, immature, and maladjusted” . We may think we’ve moved on, but the same rhetoric has been evident in the Conservative leadership elections, media coverage of the Olympics, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the US presidency. It’s depressing enough that Williams seemed radical in the ‘70s for simply by having four women onstage for a couple of hours, so what does it say about our society that this is still just as unlikely an event?
But that’s not to say that A Lovely Sunday is a piece of feminist agit prop – far from it. Williams is too subtle a writer for that, giving us characters who are a maelstrom of contradictions. Dorothea, for instance, rails against “the limits, the boundaries of a woman’s life”, yet seconds later can – without irony – declare that “Without romance in my life, I could no more live than I could without breath”; she revels in her own sexual awakening (something thoroughly radical for the time), yet her calisthenics are for increasing physical allure rather than physical health.
Issues of gender and sexuality are close to the surface of this play and inform much of its action, so we’ve had that in our minds throughout as we find the most effective ways to tell Williams’ story for a modern audience. However, there’s something sinister bubbling away beneath the surface which could easily have been entirely ignored, but which has been given renewed importance in our production. Recently, we started the day’s rehearsal with a discussion about the ‘Brexit mindset’ of the play. 1930s St Louis had a huge German population, complete with its own section of the city, and the play is replete with (usually negative) references to Bodey’s Germanness – not to mention Miss Gluck, whose difficulty speaking English is dismissed as “lunatic babbling”. Probe only a little, and there’s something deeply divisive lurking here.
In the UK, many of us have grown up relating to Germany almost as a sibling: someone to tease fondly, masking a grudging respect. However, In the years immediately prior to and during WW1 (i.e. Dorothea, Bodey and Helena’s politically formative years), a strongly anti-German mindset was rife in the USA. Along with state-sponsored propaganda, German businesses and homes were vandalised, and President Wilson spoke of “hyphenated Americans” whose loyalty he felt was divided according to heritage. In the words of America’s Ambassador to Germany, “Every citizen must declare himself American – or traitor!” . With government-sponsored vans bearing the monicker “go home or face arrest” only a recent memory, the most-read newspaper in the country printing an article comparing refugees to cockroaches, and a presidential nominee whose incipient foreign policy becomes more extreme by the day, the question of how we respond to those outside our immediate tribe is an urgent societal issue. Since our rehearsal-room conversation, we’ve turned our attention more to those themes, with the actors all considering what national identity means to their characters, and the beliefs / prejudices they carry into the scene. As a result, we’ve sharpened the distinct ‘otherness’ of German culture that sits underneath this play, hopefully tapping into unexpected reservoirs of post-Brexit feeling.
Williams, of course, couldn’t have intended these particular messages to be at the heart of any performance of A Lovely Sunday, but that’s what makes theatre so thrillingly unique. Given the impossibility of not reframing a work of art to reflect the present reality of the person experiencing it, we’re just going for it. It’s hard to envisage another production of this play that comes hot on the heels of a seismic secessionist event and consequent female prime minister, so A Lovely Sunday’s blend of themes won’t ever resonate in this way with audiences again.
Whatever audiences make of this bafflingly rare show, there’s no denying that there’s a strikingly good answer to the question of ‘why now?’
 Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “Mimesis, Neurology, and the Aesthetics of Presence”. Psychological Perspectives 56 (2013): 268-88 (271).
 Davis, Nancy J. “Childless and Single-Childed Women in Early Twentieth-Century America”. Journal of Family Issues 3 (1982): 431-58 (445).
 Gerard, James W. “Ambassador James W. Gerard Encourages German American to Be Loyal to the United States – Or Else!”. In Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll, eds., In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century. New York: Washington Square Press, 1999. 46-7 (46).
A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur | 12 Sep – 7 Oct | More Info