“In a thousand years man will sigh just the same, ‘Ah, how hard life is,’ and yet just as now he will be afraid of death and not want it.”
– Anton Chekhov, The Three Sisters, translated by Constance Garnett
Ventfort Hall, as it is struggling to become fully refurbished and functional as The Museum of the Gilded Age, is finding success as a bijou theatre venue, hosting a variety of one or two person shows, generally about women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Last year they had great success with Morgan O-Yuki: Geisha of the Gilded Age about the Japanese Geisha, Yuki Kato (1881-1963), who married George Dennison Morgan, second son of George Hale Morgan and Sarah Spencer Morgan, builders of Ventfort Hall.
This year’s offering, Dancing with the Czar combines the letters of Mary Alsop King Waddington* (1844-1923), the American-born wife of William Henry Waddington, who was the French Ambassador to England, describing their trip to Russia 1883 for the coronation of Czar Alexander III (yes, she does get to dance with the Czar); and the Russian-born revolutionary Vera Nikolayevna Figner (1852-1943), who was instrumental in the plot to assassinate Alexander II, as a result of which she was in prison under sentence of death in 1883. (Her sentence was commuted and, despite many years in exile, she lived to the ripe old age of 91!) Both women are portrayed by actress Virginia Ness Ray.
The bulk of this playwriting debut by noted area actress Corinna May (who will appear in Two-Headed at the Berkshire Theatre Festival next month) focuses on Waddington, and Ness Ray stays in costume as Waddington throughout, using facial and vocal inflections to delineate character. Obviously, in real life Waddington spoke English with an American accent and Figner spoke Russian, here represented by Russian-accented English. Ness Ray also speaks as William Waddington, using a French accent, and various other Russian and French folks of both genders.
Ness Ray does not offer up as brilliant an acting job as Ikuko Ikari managed last summer as O-Yuki, but May and director Normi Noel have crafted an interesting play that grants a fascinating peek into the lives of two very different women. They render Waddington, who published many books of letters and memoirs, as a woman well aware of the impression she makes and the impression she is meant to make as a representative of the French government. Behind the talk of clothes and carriages (the Waddington’s traveled to Russia with three vehicles and nine horses) is her very real fear of going into a terrorist state. Figner is exactly the kind of terrorist Waddington dreams will kill her, her husband, and her young son.
There is no proof that Waddington and Figner ever crossed paths. The conceit that Figner sent correspondence covertly with Waddington during her 1883 visit to Moscow is a dramatic fiction invented by May to bring the Russian perspective into what would otherwise be a fairly xenophobic point of view. It works well, especially since, in 1914 at the age of seventy, Waddington became extremely active in work with the refugees that flooded into France during World War I, something that seems unimaginable listening to her narrow-minded upper-class view of society in 1883, when, at 39 and given her life experience (her father was President of Columbia College from 1849-1864 and her grandfather was the second Minister sent to England by the United States after the adoption of the Constitution) one might have expected her world-view to be slightly broader. Having her read and sympathize with Figner’s descriptions of her work as a physician’s assistant with the peasants in the villages around Samara and Saratov from 1877-1879 makes it plausible that this Mary Waddington would some day launch the “Mme. Waddington Relief Fund.”
Of course whether or not she ever encountered Figner, she did indeed start the Relief Fund which cared for a constant influx of refugees, provided schooling for their children, shipped packages of clothing items to soldiers at the front, and managed a clinic for the ill and wounded. Something must have happened to the Mary Waddington of 1883 to turn her into the Mary Waddington of 1914, and having her read about Figner’s work is a credible explanation for the start of that change.
The Great Hall of Ventfort Hall, built by the Morgans in the 1870’s, offers the perfect setting for this play. Waddington would have felt right at home in any of the Berkshire Cottages. But Carl Sprague has built a little Victorian world for Ness Ray’s Waddinton on a small raised stage in an alcove. Govane Lohbauer has dressed Ness Ray in a softer version of the cumbersome gown Waddington would have worn. It is a becoming dress, and the train, which Ness Ray wields cleverly, is about as much “baggage” as a modern actress can handle. Boning, corsets, multiple petticoats and the like are too constricting for the stage.
Like last year, this play begins with the actress descending the beautiful front staircase of Ventfort Hall. As Waddington enters she is reading from an English translation of “The Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov, the passage in Act II in which Vershinin and Tuzenbakh imagine what life will be like a few hundred years in the future, of which I have quoted a snippet above. It is a lovely way to set the audience thinking of how life changes, and how it stays the same, with the passage of centuries. Figner and Waddington were both agents of that change over the course of their lives, and while, Lord knows, we still have many troubles in our modern world the ideas and causes for which these women worked have made in-roads into some of the suffering and despair.
Dancing With the Czar will run through September 2 at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox. Tickets cost $25 and reservations are strongly recommended. The show runs an hour with no intermission. The subject matter is too dense and the production too static to be of interest to young children, but historically minded teens will probably enjoy it very much. For reservations and information please call the box office at 413-637-3206
* Mary Alsop King Waddington published many books chronicling her life as a diplomat's wife. Her books Chateau and Country Life in France and My First Years as A Frenchwoman are available as free e-texts from Project Gutenberg. Sawyer Library at Williams College has her Letters of a Diplomat’s Wife and Italian Letters of a Diplomat’s Wife in its collection, as well as two different English translations of Vera Figner's Zapechatlennyi trud or Memoirs of a Revolutionist. And, of course, you can buy these books second hand online. I recommend ABEBooks.com. copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007