Two seasons ago our friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse put on a fantastic staging of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787). At the time I wrote a couple posts about it. Since we’re spending a week with the play here for #vWNY I thought this might be a good time to go back to the Metropolitan’s artistic director, Alex Roe, with a couple questions about his experience with that production. The Metropolitan Playhouse is located at 220 E. 4th St, between Avenues A and B. Alex describes their current play, Charles A. Taylor’s From Rags to Riches, (1903) as “a fascinating late melodrama that I see as a purposeful send-up of the genre, something like Airplane was to disaster movies, or the Scary Movie series is to horror.” In January the theater will center its annual Living Literature Festival on the nineteenth-century American author Horatio Alger. Submission deadline is September 30.

PWHNY: The Contrast: A) A Sheridan rip-off? B) An early American play? C) A New York play? D) A Boston play about New York? E) All or none of the above?

ALEX: Of these, I’d have to say an early American play — as it captures the spirit of a new country trying to define itself socially, politically, ethically, and philosophically. It parodies Massachusetts AND New York, but without siding with either. Really, it uses these as much as philosophical and cultural signifiers as actual places, and the two poles represented by them neatly stake out extremes of the infant nation’s concerns. As to its debt to Sheridan, to use its inspiration as a critique is trivial at best, to me, for it misestimates what the play is. If anything, Tyler makes a more interesting social satire than, say, The Rivals. One could draw numerous parallels to Tyler’s advantage, I think, and find that a hero like Manly is a combination of Falkland and Absolute — both a leading man and a buffoon; Dimple is malicious and vain, like O’Trigger and Acres; Maria an affected Julia; Charlotte an edgier Lydia. But in the end, what is interesting is these characters articulating American aspirations and foibles. In this, the play more closely resembles the Restoration comedies than the Georgian.

PWHNY: One of your key decisions in staging the play was to drop the period costumes and dress your actors in tanktops and jeans. Can you tell us what prompted this call and what you think its effects were?

ALEX: Well, not jeans, which would have worked against us, I think. We sought a look that would show the bodies of the actors as unadorned as possible, without revealing them as sexual objects (which would have been distracting) or tying them to a particular fashion tradition (so grey slacks and skirts instead of jeans, work pants, tights, or formal wear). Of course, the audience had to draw some fashion connection, and the look to me most evoked either a ballet or gymnastics squad — either of which was suitable, as it suggested an acting “team” presenting the show — or perhaps school children in uniform, which was also apt for a satire that reduces our behaviors to adolescent affectations.

But why? The Contrast is concerned with social affectation and signs of status. To present it in full period regalia would surely have been a treat for the audience, but might have obscured some of the satire. We sought to underscore how insubstantial is the obsession with the right hoop skirt, or for that matter, the right manner of courtship, the right conversation at a reception, the right reverence for the Father of the Country, etc. In our production, every character, whatever the identification, is as vain as Malvolio. That is not to say that there are no virtues, but rather that one must choose values when all are equally ephemeral. In our production, the emperor truly had no clothes, and characters were obliged to identify contrasts based on merit and integrity, not their outward show.

PWHNY: The Metropolitan stages work, for the most part, from the century following Tyler’s play, from the 1780s into the nineteen-teens. What do you think are the key changes over that century in how American theater worked?

ALEX: What may be most remarkable is how durable themes and conventions prove to be, in fact! Consider three plays from our repertoire: The Contrast, of course, Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (from 1845), and our production now running through this October 16, of Charles A. Taylor’s 1903 play From Rags to Riches. Each play presents characters rather plainly written to embrace opposing or sympathetic current attitudes towards the world and its inhabitants; confront them with one another through a plot in which money, status, and sexual appetite drive their interactions; challenge the Machiavellian pursuits with appeals to honor and generosity; and follow those interactions to their illogical conclusion. Each play functions by presenting these characters in a self-consciously theatrical medium, and allowing us to embrace them even while we preserve our distance. And ultimately, each offers a lightly satirical but loving vision of American culture.

The specifics of setting change, but rather strikingly, the same interactions take place: duplicitous wealthy characters with European affectations or connections prey on a naive but infatuated maidens and their deceived but willing guardians; stiffly pure righteous characters oppose on grounds of dignity and virtue; successful merchants are in danger of losing their wealth to the follies or machinations of a younger generation; the specter of legal obligations and actions, in the form of wills, contracts, and lawsuits, alternately threaten and abet the heroes’ progress; and everything works out well enough in the end for the naive and selfless … though the evildoers are not punished. The description of American life is much the same from play to play.

Are the mechanics of the plays very different? Each establishes characters in the time honored tradition of actors pretending to be other people, liberally violating that pretense with asides to the audience, but essentially offering a degree of exposition at the start, followed by a foreshadowing of characters and dilemmas to come, and then a portrayal of those dilemmas through climax to denouement. Then each resolves with a scene that brings all the characters onstage for a final reckoning.

An historian might note the more complicated technologies that enhance the staging, so The Contrast plays largely in intimate scenes of a few characters, while Fashion presents a fancy dress ball to dazzle its audience, and From Rags to Riches brings firearms, breakaway furniture, dogs, and a demolishable wall onto the stage. In this case, the entertainment becomes increasingly more sensationalistic, as the public appetite changes over the century, but the central conceits for communicating with that audience are much the same.

One might note the introduction of musical diversion into stage performances, achieving its height in the melodramas of the mid- to late-19th century, but here too is a matter of degree, not kind, for indeed, The Contrast calls directly for two songs sung by its actors.

It is true that for these examples, I choose three satires. But to some degree, representational theater is always satire in that presents an imitation of life for an audience’s examination and reflection. In this light, a play like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of comic scenes, but hardly meant as a comedy, follows nonetheless the same rules of presentation.

What does change is the play’s acknowledged relationship to itself, as it were. In the beginning of the 20th century, plays flirt with new levels of self-consciousness. One result is a play that parodies its own form. The latest of the plays above, From Rags to Riches, includes sensational action and audience asides in the melodramatic tradition. But this play goes so over the top in broadly stereotyped characters, absurdly contrived plot coincidences, and frequent allusions in the lines to its own contrivances, that I cannot believe the author was not sending up the genre as he celebrated its popular appeal. By the end of the first half, an entire melodrama has played out, taking poor characters from rags to promised riches, just as the title suggests. In the later half, when the naive heroine falls in love with her tormentor, legal actions prevent any of the heroes from receiving their riches, and the plucky boy hero begins to squander the money he finally receives, one sees the melodrama asking what would really happen if these whimsical tales played out in the ‘real’ world. Here, the self-conscious play asks us to doubt its reality entirely.
The opposite request seems another result of a growing self-consciousness in the theater.

In the later part of the 1800s and particularly in the early 1910s, plays begin to want to abandon their theatricality entirely. After the rise of the sensation scene that flourished in melodramas, plays began to achieve more personal, less incendiary climaxes. Additionally, they do away with prologues and epilogues, and audience asides and soliloquies drop from the text. This change asks for the audience to have a more private interaction with the play, though it is still experienced as a public event. From our repertoire, William Vaughan Moody’s The Faith Healer and The Great Divide, James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, and Clyde Fitch’s The Truth and The City, all work on this more intimate level, however much theatrical pathos they may still seek to exploit. Perhaps they seek to reach an audience’s deeper, more complicated emotional life by asking that audience to forget they are in the theater. It certainly seems to be the assumption of an audience today that the older, more theatrical styles are shallower and more naive … though I am not convinced that that verdict is just.

PWHNY: Is The Contrast a play for our times?

ALEX: So long as we are encouraged to judge our leaders, families, friends, and neighbors by their outward displays of wealth, patriotism, power, and savvy; so long as we are dedicated to seeking admiration, influence, and love through our command of fashion — that is, for the foreseeable future of humankind — The Contrast is undoubtedly a play for our times.

PWHNY: Thanks for this exchange!

From Rags to Riches plays at the Metropolitan Playhouse through October 16.