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In Praise of Feisty Women

Steven Sutcliffe as Adrian Blenderbland and Nicole Underhay as Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga in "The Millionairess." (photo by David Cooper)

George Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan at the Shaw Festival

The appeal of George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess (1936) and Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears (1935) largely comes from the alluring charm of their central female characters. Both are spirited, attractive, and entirely self-absorbed examples of the kind of women who began to dominate the stages and films of the English-speaking world during the Great Depression. These are fictional women who dared to break the boundaries and shake the social conventions that dominated the lives of real-life British and North American women.

Robin Evan Willis as Diana Lake in "French Without Tears." (photo by Emily Cooper)

The typical middle-class adult woman of the 1930s was a married housewife, struggling financially. Before the 1930s, the typical middle-class adult woman had been a married housewife who was not struggling financially. Thanks to global economic collapse, she found, to her eternal disappointment, that men could not be depended upon. This would be solidified during the 1940s when she learned that she could do his job, but until then, she flocked to see women in the plays and films of the period who were wealthy, single or divorced, free to entertain any caprice—and not really dependent upon men.

Shaw’s heroine, Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga, is the richest heiress in England. Despite being overprivileged, shallow, and abusive, she is irresistibly charismatic. (She’s Absolutely Fabulous, but with better education.) In this play, Epifania seeks to shed the athletic husband who has disappointed her, but must fulfill a pledge she made to her father at his deathbed that she will only wed a man who can turn £150 into £50,000 in the space of six months. For her part, she accepts a wager to begin with the equivalent of 35 cents and live for an expanse of time in order to marry an Egyptian physician she fancies.

In French Without Tears, Rattigan gives us deliciously capricious and manipulative Diana Lake—a woman who loves any man she’s near and drives the young men in the French coastal villa where they are all staying absolutely bonkers. We learn that she flirts with all the men, because she secretly desires one of them.

The decade was brimming over with such women. Neither “New Woman” nor “flapper,” these gals of the 1930s were a free-spirited variation on many familiar types, but represented the arrival of something decidedly original.

By the time Epifania made her entrance in 1936, the world had seen Mae West’s Diamond Lil saunter onto the scene. A working-class dame who parlayed good looks and good sense into good money, Lil was feisty, unmarried, in control of her men. Amanda had run out on her honeymoon with her second husband to reunite with her first in Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 1930. Tracy Samantha Lord, the divorced socialite who reaches the day of her second wedding only to find that she must decide among her fiancé, her ex-husband, and an attractive journalist, would appear three years later.

Often, these women flirt with social unacceptability to such a degree that it requires actresses who can match them in spirit and attractiveness to prevent them from becoming monsters. The male characters in French Without Tears openly opine that Diana Lake is a bitch. In response to the opinion that the lady is a cow, one gentleman concedes, “I happen to like cows!”

The men of The Millionairess similarly grouse and grieve that Epifania is too domineering and selfish. In fact, Shaw wrote the role for Edith Evans (yes, she was actually young once), but Evans refused to play such an odious character. Politically conscious Sybil Thorndike saw potential in the role and successfully tamed the monster.

Yes, the characters may be repellent. But the women themselves? Luminous and irresistible!

Either by luck or of necessity, the Shaw Festival specializes in charismatic actresses. Nicole Underhay is a devilish delight as imperious, impulsive, and ruthlessly capitalistic Epifania. Robin Evan Willis is delectable as impetuous yet calculating Diana Lake. These ladies line up with a long legacy of great and engaging actresses who have embodied these characters before them. To be appealing is not enough by half; these are demanding roles that require acting prowess in abundance.

There were actresses of the 1930s who made careers of playing such women: Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Cornell, Gertrude Lawrence, Sylvia Sidney, Jane Cowl, Tallulah Bankhead, Ina Claire—all of whom began in the theater, and most of whom stayed there.

left: Katharine Hepburn; right: Kay Hammond

Katharine Hepburn enjoyed success in the role of The Millionairess and also played Tracy Samantha Lord (both on stage and film) as well as any number of feisty gals. Such women were the foundation of the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I find it fascinating that Kay Hammond, who originated the role of Diana Lake, also originated the role of Elvira—the ghost who comes back to reclaim her remarried husband in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

In Miss Underhay’s portrayal, Epifania’s intellect, wit, and innate ability to make her most unsavory opinions sound somehow compelling easily overpower her disagreeable qualities. In this regard, she is a familiar Shavian type—a female Henry Higgins or Mr. Undershaft. It seems that Shaw’s antagonists are almost always more engaging than his heroes.

Shaw takes a long and meandering time before arriving at the decisive wager of his play. It is not until the final moments before the intermission that Epifania accepts the challenge to live for a year on the equivalent of 35 cents, and the high-minded Egyptian physician who strikes her fancy becomes aware of her father’s decree that she only marry a man who can turn a small sum into a fortune in just a few months.

Seeing the agreeable 1972-television version starring Maggie Smith is instructive. To begin, Dame Maggie’s overly theatrical interpretation of the role is scrumptious, but in addition, the script has been cut, giving her a decided advantage. In particular, the opening scene in which Epifania bursts into her solicitor’s office, demanding that he write up her will in anticipation of her imminent but unlikely suicide has been streamlined. Miss Underhay must navigate this treacherous sea of act one dialogue without such an editorial lifeboat, and she does so skillfully. (Seeing Dame Maggie also makes me yearn for the crisp British pronunciations that serve Shaw so well, which have been sacrificed in favor of flat North American speech for this Canadian production. The memory of diminutive Sarah Orenstein performing the judo scene in the stylish 2001 Shaw Festival production still makes me laugh; the same sequence has been staged beautifully for statuesque Miss Underhay.)

Robin Evan Willis (who also appears as the lady companion of Epifania’s ex-husband in The Millionairess) is similarly appealing as Diana Lake. For all her evil intent and manipulative antics, we root for her and yearn for her to land whichever man she desires.

The gentlemen of these plays artfully support these performances with a deft array of engaging characters, memorably performed. In French Without Tears, Ben Sanders is delightful as cynical yet sexy Alan Howard, imbuing the strident man with a disarming streak of endearing helplessness; Martin Hopper offers compelling comic punch as Lieutenant Commander Rogers; Wade Bogert-O’Brien is especially winning as adorably vulnerable Kit Neilan. Julie Martell is tremendously compelling and perfectly cast as Jacqueline Maingot, the brunette the men want to marry in this tale of the blonde the men prefer.

In The Millionairess, Miss Underhay is similarly supported by a superior performance by the unerring and comically perfect Steven Sutcliffe as Adrian Blenderbland, “the Sunday husband.” Martin Happer is hilarious as long-suffering and none-too-clever Alastair Fitzfassenden, who despite his failings is wise enough to escape Epifania.

Robin Evan Willis showcases her acting chops by offering a character as far removed from Diana Lake as possible, with her appealing performance as Polly. One of the great joys of the Shaw Festival is to see actors as impressive as Wendy Thatcher and Michael Ball play tiny roles, as they do as Joe and Joe’s Wife in The Millionairess. Within the context of this daft 1930s world, all of these actors make veritable cartoons seem real.

How ungrateful I would be to take the Kate Lynch’s skillful and lovingly light-hearted direction of French Without Tears, or Blair Williams adept, energetic and firm-handed direction of The Millionairess for granted. Cameron Porteous’ design of The Millionairess, which must move a potentially cumbersome play from location to location with lithe grace in alternately severe or luxurious fashion while giving the production unity of tone, is especially strong. The tricks he has devised to keep us amused are enchanting, but the overall facility of the design is striking without being distracting.

I adore curtain calls at the Shaw Festival. In many theaters the bows at the end are an afterthought, an ill-conceived and perfunctory stumble to the edge of the stage. But at the Shaw, a curtain call is an event in itself, a clever and expertly staged nod to theatrical tradition in which the actors strut out in crisply choreographed formation, perfectly and appropriately ranked by role and reputation, to remind us how lucky we are to be alive, to be at the theater, to have seen such a splendid production, and to allow us an opportunity to express our appreciation.

Miss Underhay’s bows are especially enjoyable. She strides onto the stage with confidence, strides down center stage and paces back, demonstrating how a star should walk in a smart 1930s frock (courtesy of Mr. Porteous). Her bows are a happily vivid reminder that we’ve spent a joyful evening with one feisty dame. Dame Maggie herself couldn’t have done better!