It is rare at Yale to see the “revival” of a play that means just that— a new life for an underperformed work. Most revivals here lay claim to the obviously undead; Shakespeare and Shepard, Wilder and Wilde, are the favored corpses of campus theater. But a performance on Wednesday afternoon was a clear exception.
For the 14th of its annual staged readings, the English Department presented 18th century playwright Hannah Cowley’s A School for Greybeards; or, The Mourning Bride. Directed by English and Theater Studies Professor Murray Biggs, the reading took place in Linsley-Chittenden with a lively ensemble of nine: English professors Lawrence Manley, Stefanie Markovits, Christopher Miller, and Catherine Nicholson; Sarah Mahurin GR’10; Christopher Grobe GR’12; Brian Earp ’10; Danielle Frimer ’10; and guest artist Bruce Altman, DRA ’90.
The reading was only the second known performance, since the 18th century, of Cowley’s original version. The first had been arranged in New York by Melinda Finberg ’78, who transcribed the original School for Greybeards from the Huntington Library manuscript; it was Finberg who offered the typescript to Yale for Wednesday’s reading.
Written by Cowley (pronounced Coo-ly) in 1786, “A School for Greybeards” is based on Aphra Behn’s 1686 play The Lucky Chance. It is an instance of literary inheritance by one successful female playwright from another (an occurrence almost as rare in 2009 as it was in 1786). “A School for Greybeards” also tips its hand to Molière’s L’École des Femmes (School for Wives), another play that satirically brutalized an old man’s arrangements to marry a young bride. Set in Lisbon, Greybeards is the story of the young and dashing Don Henry’s attempt to save his beloved Antonia— who wrongly believes him to be dead— from her impending marriage to the much older Don Gasper, whom she abhors.
The play was baptized in controversy. Cowley’s original version was deemed excessively risqué, garnering multiple excoriations in the London press— a fact that forced Cowley to retract and rewrite the play, even as it fanned the flame of popular interest. The comedy was a hit in Drury Lane, emboldening Cowley to later publish her original version with a lengthy and confident author’s preface.
The English Department reading on Wednesday had a relaxed and festive air. Spritely violin music played over the speakers as a sympathetic audience took their seats in LC 101. The nine cast members, smartly dressed, sat in a row facing the audience and rose gamely from their chairs to give their scenes. Professor Manley, resplendent in a violet shirt and bow tie, led the way as the conniving but deeply goofy Don Gasper. Mr. Altman, the professional actor, strove to keep up in his role as Gasper’s friend and colleague Don Alexis, sometimes sawing the air with a cane, sometimes delivering his lines with a colloquial gusto that made Lisbon seem a very Brooklyn.
In a mob cap and canary-colored apron, Professor Markovits performed double duty as two maids in two different households— a feat achieved with great charm, and the aid of a Southern drawl. Professor Nicholson was smart and snappy as Seraphina, Don Alexis’s young wife who holds a dim view of her elderly husband’s wit, and does the honors with regard to the play’s acid premise:
“It would be hard, indeed, to marry an old man, and not make him do as one likes,” she says serenely. “Young husbands we are content to submit to, but when we marry GREYBEARDS, it is with the pious design to have our way in every thing.”
The line drew both chuckles and sighs from the audience. Apparently Cowley’s 18th century send-up of ‘May-December marriages’ hasn’t lost its essential tang.