BBC Play of the Month: Season 7, Episode 9

Trelawny of the Wells (13 Aug. 1972)

TV Episode  -   -  Drama
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Lally Bowers ...
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Roland Culver ...
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Moira Redmond ...
Elizabeth Seal ...
Elaine Taylor ...
Anthony Ainley ...
Lila Kaye ...
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A Forgotten 19th Century English Dramatic Giant
15 February 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

In 1972 there was a British series that was shown (and has not been shown since) of plays and dramatizations every month. They were well produced, and acted. I now recall two of them: this play and a dramatization of Voltaire's CANDIDE (which had Frank Finlay as the narrator - actually Voltaire himself - and managed to successfully maintain the dry cynical humor of the original novel).

I think the reason that I recall TRELAWNY OF THE 'WELLS (which is a reference to the Sadler Wells Theater) is that the playwright chosen to represent 19th Century British theater was not Wilde, Shaw, or even William Gilbert, but Sir Arthur Wing Pinero. I'm sure most of you don't know who Pinero was, but in his day (which lasted from 1885 to 1934 when he died) he was one of the top five dramatists on the west end. His reputation today is rather odd. He is remembered for one play from 1893 which helped shock British audiences out of a prolonged period of sentimental sludge like EAST LYNNE. It was THE SECOND MRS. TANQUERAY. Paula Tanqueray is the second wife of a successful upper middle class professional man, and has gotten the enmity of his daughter by the first wife. When a secret about Paula's past comes out, the malicious step-daughter allows it to slip out, and it slowly destroys the woman. Now this sounds very melodramatic to us, and thirty years earlier it would have been built up differently (Paula would have been a "wicked" conniving schemer, who met just deserts). Pinero was different. He took the position that Paula's youthful mistakes were her own business, not anyone else's (including her husband, and certainly including the step-daughter). So he maintained the audience sympathy with Paula until her (spoiler coming up) suicide. The audiences of 1893 London never had heard of the possibility that a one-time fallen woman could be sympathetic. Soon Oscar Wilde would be following suit in LADY WINDIMERE'S FAN, and then Bernard Shaw would top both of his rivals with MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION (where he pointed out that successful prostitution could become big business indeed).

TANQUERAY is still produced in the U.S. from time to time, but more often in Great Britain. The British are also more willing to bring back other Pinero plays (he wrote about fifty of them) despite some creakiness in them. One problem was pointed out by the drama critic Max Beerbohm. Beerbohm, a master of English style in his own writings, hated that Pinero was considered the most elegant of dramatists. He pointed out that Pinero's use of English was prolix and overblown. However, he did give Pinero his due about his one great strength - he is one of the few British dramatists who wrote a first rate concluding act every time he wrote a play. Even Shaw can flub it occasionally in trying to get his messages across (such as the conclusion of MAJOR BARBARA - which is too long and long winded).

Which brings us to this unusual production: TRELAWNY OF THE 'WELLS was Pinero's salute to a critical moment in the development of modern British theater. In 1868 - 1871 the melodramatic claptrap that engulfed the British stage was brought to a halt by a young man named Tom Robertson. We don't recall him today, but Robertson got tired of plots about stolen heirs, hidden wills, and snickering villains. He strove (in his weak way) to create realism on stage. In plays like CASTE he looked at British society, creating relatively real, if quiet stories. They were called "tea cup" drama because the characters are frequently talking over tea. After three or four successes, Robertson died prematurely in 1871. A small career - barely recalled outside of theater historical circles - but it was important. His independent view influenced (in a wildly different direction) his friend William Gilbert to do his "topsy turvy" plays and his Savoy operetta librettos with Sullivan, and were a model to Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, Wilde, and Shaw.

Robertson is represented in the play by Tom Wrench (John Alderton) who is struggling recognition for his work in the stultifying theater of the 1860s. Alderton (who was married to Pauline Collins, and appeared with her in UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS about this time), is appreciated by his fellow actors, but is trying to get his new dramas produced. One of his leading supporters is the young actress Rose Trelawny (Elaine Taylor) who is romancing Arthur Gower (Ian Ogilvy). But Gower's grandfather is a wealthy nobleman Lord Gower (Roland Culver) who is not very happy with his heir being attached to an actress (the social rise of stage people at this time is also involved in the story). It is not until the conclusion of the play that Tom does get his play produced (starring Rose), and that she wins over his Lordship, when it turns out that he actually did have one favorite actor - the great tragedian Edmund Kean.

For bringing a work by a dramatist who is rarely revived to American television, and for a good general production, I give this a vote of 7 out of 10.


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