How it’s (New York) New Jersey: Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is in Madison, and presents not only Shakespeare but classics and new works. Playwright Cathy Tempelsman lives in NYC, and worked on earlier versions of this play at Primary Stages, in the city.
How it’s (Irish) English: George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, was a celebrated Victorian novelist. Many of her books have been dramatized in film and on Masterpiece theatre. And, she’s played by Aedin Moloney, the talented Irish actress who runs Fallen Angels Theatre company.
Boy, did she ever “lean in.” That phrase, used by Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” refers to a woman going after what she wants and deciding to have a full career and a full life (formerly described as “having it all,” although nobody can, which is why that expression’s dropped out of fashion). Mary Anne Evans had a big brain– so big she thought it might leave lumps, and sought the opinion of a phrenologist about it (who sought to determine character by the shape of the head). She wrote, she thought, she edited. Her books, including “Silas Marner,” “Adam Bede,” “Middlemarch,” have been filmed and televised.
She also had a big heart, and wanted to be loved for her self. Unfortunately for her, she was notoriously plain, which is the polite Victorian way of saying fugly. Or was it unfortunate? It meant that if she did find love, it would have to be for herself alone. In her play “A Most Dangerous Woman,” Cathy Tempelsman explores Evans’ life as an unsung editor of a London journal, who faces her brother’s disapproval for her somewhat unconventional single life, and then unexpectedly does find love– with a married man. Along the way, she begins writing stories and novels that counter the debased “women’s fiction” that she abhors (she even loathes “Jane Eyre”), focusing on the ways of country people that she knows well, rather than titled and glamorous characters. In the title role, Aedin Moloney is so strong that she almost, though not quite, makes you believe she’s the awkward, galumphing Evans. She shows us the yearning in Evans’ heart and the genius too (while also showing Aedin’s own charm and appeal, but never mind).
Full disclosure: I was in a workshop with Tempelsman at Primary Stages, when she was working on this play. It was a very different play then, and included a frame in an academic environment, which no longer exists. I had not read this version prior to seeing it.
Tempelsman says in her author’s notes in the program that she was inspired to write about Eliot when she realized that feminist critics disapproved of her, because, “While she flouted social convention in her own remarkable life, Eliot’s novels ‘deal with the status quo, with life as it is rather than how it might be.'” It’s an interesting thought that 20th-century critics loved Eliot for the very thing that was problematic for Victorians: her unconventional love life. It could also be argued that 20th-century critics turned against Eliot for the same reason they turned against Dickens and Austen: the beguiling simplicity in the prose. Eliot’s books, serialized in magazines like those of Dickens, are plainly written and plot-driven. But, as Tempelsman points out, there is a subversive streak in her books, too. That streak expressed itself in often a rather gloomy fate for many of the characters. But back to the play, because it’s a given that when one watches a drama based on a Famous Person that the Person’s accomplishments are worthwhile. In Tempelsman’s compelling drama, lit up by Moloney’s passionate performance, Eliot’s time at center stage feels completely natural.
“A Most Dangerous Woman” takes us from Eliot’s days as an unappreciated editor, quickly discarded by a man she hoped would marry her, through her finding love with George Henry Lewes (Ames Adamson, a big bear of a lovable guy), who encourages her to write her own fiction. There’s familial trauma along the way as her brother Isaac (Rob Krakovski) disowns her, several times, and finally she discovers, after her identity is revealed, unexpected fame. Along the way, Tempelsman shows us scenes from some of the famous books, including “Middlemarch,” Silas Marner, “Daniel Deronda,” “Adam Bede.” While it’ss an interesting conceit to have these characters appear, it takes too long to figure out that they are not characters in the drama we haven’t met yet, nor flashbacks, but a character’s inventions. This would all be so much more satisfying if we heard the titles of the books as she was writing them– it would help orient us to how much time was going by, and also give us that smug satisfaction of knowing more than the characters on stage, “aha! That’s George Eliot, you fool you.” Kind of like writing a play about Dickens and not pointing out that that book he’s pouring his heart into is, oh, “Oliver Twist.” Because Eliot isn’t regularly taught in schools today, it’s a mistake to think audiences will recognize disembodied scenes. But kudos to Tempelsman for trying to incorporate what goes on in a writer’s mind, even if it doesn’t work perfectly yet: it’s notoriously difficult to stage, since watching someone write is even less interesting than watching a painter paint (one reason why stories about artists usually focus on their sex lives).
That some of the exposition is given by a chorus of Victorians, sometimes men, sometimes men humorously in drag as gossipy women, also blurs this conceit– since they are not characters in Eliot’s fiction (though it’s suggested they may be in her mind). Director Richard Maltby, Jr. pulls beautiful performances from his leading actors, but gets a little carried away with some of the business. One exception, however, was when we saw Eliot crafting a scene about someone drinking a cup of tea; this one worked because the fictional conceit, i.e., the actor onstage doing it, was completely grounded in the character’s invention. When the audience is let in on it, it works as it should, a device that shows us the brilliance and the freshness of Eliot’s own work. At times, the play sprawls– judicious trimming would help (in particular, the final scene tends to undercut the powerful scene before it). As Isaac, Krakovski never convinces as having ever had any intimacy with his sister, and the scenes hammer the point home without developing it in any interesting way. We get it: she was hurt, and she wrote people alienated from their families. That writers draw on their own experiences is just ultimately not news, and finding parallels between a writer’s life and her fiction is dangerous territory for biographers and dramatists. Happy people write sad love songs. And vice versa.
Far more interesting is just the journey of this self-conscious young woman who finds a true partner. The scene in which she goes from feeling rejected, to accepting the advances of Lewes, at the opera, is enchanting. Adamson’s bluff, blustery charm wins her, and us, over, and it’s absolutely refreshing that he doesn’t then fall into the trope of “ne’er-do-well dreamer” or “cad” that she, and we, expect. A subsequent scene in which Eliot panics, believing that he has abandoned her, also works brilliantly. As Eliot, Moloney rages, shouts, inspires, cringes and completely commands every scene in which she appears. The rapport between her and her common-law husband is compelling and intimate, and one can see just how dependent she was on his support. In the reversal of the breadwinner-nurturer relationship, theirs was a truly modern one.
The play has a fierce power to it, and left me wanting to find out more about Eliot, which to e, is usually the mark of a biographical fiction doing its job. The run at Shakespeare Theatre of NJ ends tonight, but the play deserves a wider audience.