The Mount: Play cycle mines Edith Wharton's times


LENOX >> It's 1907 in New York City. Edith Wharton is 45. She is moving from Park Avenue to Paris and looking forward to the publication of "The Fruit of the Tree," the novel following her best-selling debut with "The House of Mirth." And she is about to meet Morton Fullerton, a passionately intelligent, selfish, experienced player. Her three-year affair with him will help to end her increasingly unhappy marriage.

The Mount will celebrate Edith Wharton's 152nd birthday on Saturday, Jan. 24, with events across Lenox, and on Sunday host a staged reading of "Leisure," part one of a three-part play cycle, a work-in-progress performed in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Last summer, the Mount received several scripts for plays drawing on Wharton's life and work, said Kelsey Mullen. This one, unusually, is not adapted from a novel or taken directly from Wharton's life, but it draws on her experiences, her writing and her times.

"Edith Wharton is my favorite novelist," said playwright Sara Farrington.

She wanted to write a turn-of-the-century drama about women, she said, and when she discovered Wharton's affair with Fullerton, it felt familiar — a woman of powerful intellect mythologizing a man who did not return what she felt.

"It's compelling to investigate how this affair may or may not have fueled central tensions in her novels and in her life," agreed director Marina McClure.

Invoking Wharton, they have given their leading woman a strong intellectual and emotional intelligence.

"I'm excited by that," McClure said, "how intellectually hefty she was, how savvy."

In "Leisure," two women will play a range of characters — Grace, a New York socialite; Lucy, her Irish maid; Harry, Grace's husband, suffering from mental illness; Delancey, the conniver who attracts Grace — and will prove to have deep ties to Harry as well.

To bring 1907 New York to life, Farrington has drawn on photographs and documents, the women in Wharton's novels and her own research. It was a time of scientific innovation, she said, with a sense that what people knew kept changing rapidly. But what they did not know could shock her.

She discovered treatments of mental illness, some as brutal as electric shocks and the removal of teeth. In contemporary writing, including Jacob Riis' "How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York," she is learning about life on the lower East Side, less than a mile away from Wharton's fashionable New York — the illness, the cholera, bad water and poor food and lack of plumbing, people densely packed in unhealthy buildings.

Lucy, Grace's Irish maid in the play, comes from the tenements.

Wharton did have recent Irish immigrants in her service, Mullen said. Two young sisters worked at the Mount. Mullen has not yet found many records of their experience, but she has been looking.

With the Backstairs tours the Mount began last winter, it has reached out to the community for oral histories, and they have looked through Wharton's records and through her writing for servants as characters. In her fiction, servants do not stand on their own, Mullen said. They act as backdrops and mirror the feelings of main characters.

But in Wharton's life, in her autobiography and her letters, she has long and lasting relationships with some of her staff, her governess and companion, her butler. They probably knew her better than anyone, Mullen said.

Lucy's story will expand in the second play, Farrington and McClure said, and Delancy and Harry's stories in the third. The first part is Grace's story.

And Grace channels some of Wharton's shrewdness and some of her soul.

"I can't believe how good [Wharton] is, the way she mines the psychology of the human heart," Farrington said. "She's so knowledgeable."

The play moves freely in time, she said, as the heart does.

It draw on themes in Wharton's writing, Mullen said: choice and consequences, constraint. She has spent time this winter defining these themes.

"As we're preparing for our summer exhibit," Mullen said, "we're trying to distill all 40 of her works into four themes. 'What does Wharton write about?' is a question we get all the time, and it has many answers."

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Often people try to answer by talking about Wharton's style, she said, and Wharton's style inspires her — muscular, cunning, compassionate, a voice difficult to replicate today. But they want to show what thought and feeling Wharton lays bare.

Wharton's leading women often embodied certain perspectives, she said, Grace also shares "an independence of spirit, a strident worldview, a passion."

These independent, far-seeing women suffer in Wharton's stories. A creative and powerful mind can be a strength, Farrington said — but fantasy can be a weakness.

"To put passion, art and romance into your life" can derail it, she argued. "Grace has spun her world out of the romance inside her," she said. "In play writing, it's great. In life, it can ruin relationships."

She sees loneliness in Wharton. She had brilliant friends, and in "A Backward Glance," a memoir structured around conversations, she suggests by 1907 she had begun to make her name as a writer, to find and gather people she could talk to about her work and the life of her mind, as with her family she could not.

Farrington felt Wharton could not talk about some things openly with anyone she knew.

"She would re-enact scenarios in her journal," she said. "That sounds useful when you feel alone. She would remember encounters with Fullerton."

Mullen said the circle of people Wharton was close to knew about Fullerton, and he was not separate from the rest of her life.

She recalled a real scene in the last days of Wharton's marriage. Teddy Wharton, about to set sail on a cruise to "take a cure," is asleep in a railway station, and Edith Wharton, Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton sit at dinner while he sleeps.

She wishes she could hear them talking: "What tensions and what alliances must have been there?"

If you go ...

What: Edith Wharton's 152nd birthday celebration

Where: Through Lenox

When: Saturday, Jan. 24

Bagels and Books 10 a.m. at The Mount, 2 Plunkett St.

Dramatic reading of 'Xingu,' 11 a.m.

National Read-a-thon, "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver, 12:30 to 4 p.m. at Lenox Library, 18 Main St.

Poetry readings 4:30 p.m. at The Bookstore, 11 Housatonic St.

What: Staged reading of 'Leisure,' part 1 of a three-play cycle

Where: The Mount

When: Sunday, Jan. 25



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