Thursday, August 09, 2007

Crossed Messengers

The device of the letter is an important one in the business of dramatic writing, and it can sometimes hold very important threads together. In the hands of the playwright the epistle gains an awesome centripetal power depending on how it is wielded. Messengers can greatly affect the outcome by coming in too late, too soon or just in time. Here is Steve Vineberg in this week's Boston Phoenix:

Scholars have often debated whether ROMEO AND JULIET deserves to be called a tragedy or is only a glorified melodrama. (The linchpin of the latter argument is that if Friar Laurence’s letter to Romeo had not miscarried, his scheme to help the lovers escape Verona would have worked and they would have survived.)

I recently discovered that Zola Gale's 1921 Pulitzer Prize Winning Play, Miss Lulu Bett had an alternate ending which hinged upon the receipt of a letter.

In the text I originally encountered, an upbeat ending follows the unfurling of a serious social dilemma in the life of a protagonist living in a Midwestern town, but I wasn't reading the original drama Gale wrote.

In the original play, Lulu, a single woman, lives with her sister Ina and Ina's husband Dwight. Lulu gets her board in exchange for keeping the house for the married couple. At rise, we start to see that the long, slow grind of their condescending manner, pity, and irritation at any deviation from their expectations has just about done in Lulu.

However, an unexpected visit from Dwight's brother Ninian results in emancipation for Lulu through a fast courtship and quick marriage to this wealthy and handsome brother-in-law.

By Act II though, Lulu returns suddenly to the house, with a story of how Ninian, not wanting to live a life of lies with Lulu, reveals to her that he is married to another woman from whom he is estranged. Lulu can't take this and now has come home, but she finds no comfort there. Dwight and Ina try to persuade Lulu that possibly Ninian had lied and that he wasn't really married to somebody else. After all, Ninian showed no proof, and the scandal Dwight's brother in-law being a bigamist would ruin the family. Selfishly, they force Lulu to not push the issue and not discuss it with anybody.

This proves to be untenable for Lulu. If Ninian was telling the truth, Lulu believes he really cares for her and wanted her to know everything, if he was lying, he is a cad. She pressures Dwight to write Ninian, demanding proof of the marriage.

LULU. Dwight, you write that letter to Ninian. And you make him tell you so that you'll understand. I know he spoke the truth. But I want you to know.

DWIGHT. M–m. And then I suppose as soon as you have the proofs you're going to tell it all over town.

LULU. I'm going to tell it all over town just as it is–unless you write
to him.

INA. Lulu! Oh, you wouldn't!

LULU. I would. I will.

DWIGHT. And get turned out of the house as you would be?

INA. Dwight. Oh, you wouldn't!

DWIGHT. I would. I will. Lulu knows it.

LULU. I shall tell what I know and then leave your house anyway unless you get Ninian's word. And you're going to write to him now.

DWIGHT. You would leave your mother? And leave Ina?

LULU. Leave everything.

INA. Oh, Dwight! We can't get along without Lulu.

DWIGHT. Isn't this like a couple of women?...Rather than let you
in for a show of temper, Lulu, I'd do anything. ( Writes.)

Later in the second act, the return letter comes while Dwight and Ina are away, and the contents of Ninian's reply create the textbook case of an achieved objective creating a new obstacle. Her husband has provided proof positive of the previous betrothal in the form of newspaper clippings announcing the nuptials and a photograph of the bride. Lulu is ecstatic..Dwight and Ina are less so...

DWIGHT. You'd rather they'd know he fooled you when he had another wife?

LULU. Yes. Because he wanted me. How do I know–maybe he wanted me only just because he was lonesome, the way I was. I don't care why. And I won't have folks think he went and left me.

DWIGHT. That is wicked vanity.

LULU. That's the truth. Well, why can't they know the truth?

DWIGHT. And bring disgrace on us all?

LULU. It's me–It's me–

DWIGHT. You–you–you–you're always thinking of yourself.

LULU. Who else thinks of me? And who do you think of–who do you
think of Dwight? I'll tell you that, because I know you better than any one else in the world knows you–better even than Ina. And I know that you'd sacrifice Ina, Di, mother, Monona, Ninian–everybody, just to your own idea of who you are. You're one of the men who can smother a whole family and not even know you're
doing it.

DWIGHT. You listen to me. It's Ninian I'm thinking about.

LULU. Ninian....

DWIGHT. Yes, yes...Ninian!...Of course if you don't care what happens to him, it doesn't matter.

LULU. What do you mean?

DWIGHT. If you don't love him any more....

LULU. You know I love him. I'll always love him.

DWIGHT. That's likely. A woman doesn't send the man she loves to

LULU. I send him to prison! Why, he's brought me the only happiness
I've ever had....

DWIGHT. But prison is just where he'll go and you'll be the one
to send him there.

LULU. Oh! That couldn't be.... That couldn't be....

DWIGHT. Don't you realize that bigamy is a crime? If you tell this
thing he'll go to prison...nothing can save him.

LULU. I never thought of that....

Now, the very answer Lulu has sought, now prevents her from being with her lover. In the original production of the play, the third act brings another letter from Ninian. This missive is a little more depressing, not only was Ninian married, but the first wife is now reaching out to him:

LULU: Nobody must know. It was bad enough for the family before, but now... here it is: "... just want you to know you're actually rid of me. I've heard from her, in Brazil. She ran out of money and thought of me, and her lawyer wrote to me...." ... He incloses the lawyer's letter. "I've never been any good–Dwight would tell you that if his pride would let him tell the truth once in a while. But there isn't anything in my life makes me feel as bad as this...."
... well, that part doesn't matter. But you see. He didn't lie
to get rid of me–and she was alive just as he thought she might be!

Lulu, feeling free from the situation, decides to leave the depressing environment of her indentured servitude to her brother in-law. This ending, which seems to be the ending which was responsible for garnering the Pulitzer Prize for Zale, is reminiscent of other movements in the theatre of the previous decades. The New York Times, in a review of the Mint Theatre Company revival in 2000, called the play, "little more than an American provincial copy of A Doll's House."

However, to accommodate the outrage of the audience, this tougher ending was revised by the playwright shortly after opening. The devastating second letter is replaced with the return of Ninian in the last moments to herald the news that he has found his original wife is dead. In one stroke, all obstacles, perceived and real, are wiped away. Rather than a provincial Ibsen, we now have a Broadway cash cow complete with the happy couple.

When I first read Lulu Bette, I read the upbeat, revised ending. For a while I didn't realize that there had been the original version, and had always thought the Pulitzer seemed excessive praise for a play that dissolves into sentimentality so easily.

Many companies who revive the play stick with the original Nora-like ending, but Rogue Theatre company in Chicago recently decided to do both endings, alternating them on successive nights.

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