Keeping in touch with Edith Wharton

Thursday August 9, 2012

LENOX -- As a child, she would make up stories by the hour. Walking back and forth across a room, holding a leather-bound book upside down, she would tell stories aloud, alone. Sometimes, someone listened at the keyhole.

When she was 11, she first tried to write a novel.

Her mother stamped on that first attempt, and Edith Whar ton would struggle to keep from writing until her late 30s. She made herself ill. And when she let the will to write come back to her, she returned to it cautiously. She wrote that a woman was like a house, and in her innermost room the soul sat alone.

Normi Nöel asks what would happen if, for the first time, people walked into the room.

Nöel, who will direct this summer's play from the Wharton Salon. In honor of Wharton's 150th birthday, this summer the Wharton Salon will present Wharton herself in "The Inner House."

"What happens when she begins to want to write down (her stories) -- they're no longer just the dream -- they become anchored to words that can be handed to someone else to read," Nöel said.

"That doesn't happen for a writer, and certainly not in this way," said Tod Randolph, who will play Wharton. "What if Edith's consciousness came down to incarnate here for awhile: What does she want to say?In a way I'm playing her essence, her being, saying ‘here are the people who read my books.'"

"If Edith did appear, it would be in the interests of asking ‘what are your questions now," Nöel agreed. "It seems to me the first question would be, ‘What are you? How did you get here?'"

And Edith would answer, Nöel explained,"well, the first thing I remember, I was little, in New York on a winter day. ..."

"The Innermost Room" has kept almost entirely to Whar ton's own words.

Dennis Krausnick -- founder and director of training at Shakespeare & Company and starring this summer in their production of "King Lear" -- adapted it from Edith Whar ton's memoir, "A Backward Glance," and from her letters and poetry.

Nöel and Randolph have kept almost entirely to his adaptation, expanding sensual passages with Krausnick's blessing, and expanding their own understanding of Wharton's character with Hermionee Lee's biography and Wharton's unpublished memoir, "Life and I."

Wharton's memoir, they said, is guarded about her life's dramas. In her fiction, she tackles controversial and sensual stories -- like Charity Royall's pregnancy in "Summer," and Charity's complicated relationship with her adopted father. But in writing publicly about her own life, she chooses to share her passion for writing and the friends it won her. If she wrote privately about her passion for people, she tried to keep that writing private.

In her later years, she recovered many letters she had sent to the people closest to her, Nöel said, and she burned the correspondence -- including all of her letters to Walter Berry, the man she called the love of her life.

A few letters have remained from her love affair with Morton Fullerton.

"He was a sexual awakening," Randolph said.

When she met him, Wharton was in her 40s, in a childless and increasingly painful marriage, and beginning to find her voice and her feet as a writer. She was, in fact, at about the age she is in this play. Fullerton stepped in when she was straining at the bounds of her life.

But other men became closer and more intimate companions.

"As time went on, she could see Morton wasn't the man she needed,"

Nöel said, "and Berry could --"

"-- Meet her," Randolph said, "rise up to her level of being."

"She sees (her friends) as having saved her," Nöel said. "She attributes her happiness to them."

Wharton would leave behind the closed New York circle she was born to, and the people "so propped up by the society they lived in that they didn't know how to live," Randolph said.

This play is set at this turning point in her life. When she left the Mount, she sailed for France to write her greatest novels, revel in her friendships and turn her back on the circle that had turned away from her.

"No one in her family ever talked with her about her work," Randolph said.

Henry James and other male literary friends gave her encouragement to write.

"She has courage and skill in reviewing what many women of her age would be skewered for," Nöel said, and she had few women as role models: Jane Austen, George Sand, George Eliot. "She saw, and she let herself see, and she had the courage to speak."

What: Wharton Salon presents ‘The Inner Room'

Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox

When: Wednesday through Aug. 26

Admission: $35

Information: (800) 838-3006,


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