Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
Richard Burton (1925-1984) was born in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, the 12th of 13 children of a coalminer. Burton showed a talent for the literary arts in elementary school, and an inspirational teacher took him under his wing and prepared him for the theatrical career that allowed him to escape a life in the mines. His first stage performance was in a play penned by Emlyn Williams (1905-1987), who also was the screenwriter on Burton’s first film. Like Burton, Williams was a young Welshman in whose early life a teacher played a pivotal role.
Now Burton’s grandson, Morgan Ritchie, is playing Morgan Evans, the orphaned son of a Welsh coalminer, in Williams’ semi-autobiographical 1938 play The Corn is Green at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. His mother, Kate Burton, is playing Miss Moffat, the teacher who takes Evans under her wing and prepares him for Oxford and a chance at a life away from the mines. Making this a true family affair Charlotte Ritchie, Kate Burton’s daughter and Morgan Ritchie’s sister, also has a non-speaking role in the production.
This is clever and interesting casting, and director Nicholas Martin has made the most of the opportunity. Both Burton and Ritchie are fine in their leading roles. Actually I think Burton is just about perfect as the uber-intellectual Miss Moffat. I was raised and educated by that type and class of woman, and Burton nails her on the head without making of her a caricature.
Ritchie is no quite perfect, but he is not yet twenty and considering his youth and inexperience he does a fine job indeed. Particularly impressive is his solid Welsh accent and the qualities of a simple but honest young man that he brings to the role. I remember seeing Gwyneth Paltrow on the stage in Williamstown with her mother when she was a teenager and thinking that this young woman had a future. I was pleased to see another mother and child team on that same stage, another family with a long history in Williamstown, and have similar feelings.
The Corn is Green is that rare play without a romantic storyline. There is no loving embrace at the final curtain, in fact Miss Moffat is alone on the stage at the close, preparing to undertake the next phase of her educational project. And yet this is satisfying theatre about interesting people in a time and place (late 19th century Wales) that we seldom consider.
“They jabber away in that funny lingo, but bless their hearts, it’s a free country! But puttin’ ‘em up to read English, and pothooks, and givin’ ‘em ideas – if there were more people like you [Miss Moffat], y’know, England’d be a jolly dangerous place to live in! What d’ye want to do, turn ‘em into gentlemen?”
– Emlyn Williams, The Corn is Green
The Corn is Green was a great success initially because it was seen as a shining example of English largesse to the underprivileged Welsh. Miss Moffat refers to Wales as an “uncivilized countryside” and pinpoints her determination to use the house she has inherited from her uncle as a school from the moment she learned that “this part of the world was a disgrace to a Christian country.” Luckily the central relationship that develops between Miss Moffat and the very gifted Morgan Evans is more than just a conquering nation’s efforts to force their “superior” culture and language on a minority. Evans really does have what it takes to succeed at and benefit from an Oxford education, and Miss Moffat’s efforts to help him get there are genuinely motivated by his best interests.
Two characters provide threats to Miss Moffat’s efforts to help Evans – the Squire, deliciously played by Dylan Baker as a sure thing to win the Upper Class Twit of the Year Games, who attempts to prevent the school from opening at all; and no good Bessie Watty (Ginnifer Goodwin), a churlish Cockney girl, the daughter of Miss Moffat’s housekeeper, who deliberately tries to sabotage Evans’ chances to escape the coalmines. Everyone loves a bad girl, and Goodwin is obviously having a whale of a time playing Bessie to the hilt. I can’t tell you have often I longed to storm the stage and slap her across the face. Bessie never does get what’s coming to her (Boo! Hiss!) but Miss Moffat sees to it that her schemes don’t succeed in the end.
Also turning in fine supporting performances are Rod McLachlan as John Goronwy Jones, a “saved” Baptist touchingly willing to do the right thing in any circumstance, and Becky Ann Baker as Mrs. Watty, whose light-fingered past comes in handy from time to time even as she keeps on the straight and narrow as an officer in the Militant Righteous Corps (the Salvation Army).
Somehow I missed the raison d’être of the character of Miss Ronsberry and therefore Kathy McCafferty’s performance also left me cold. If there was going to be a romance in this play, it should have been between Miss Ronsberry and Mr. Jones. I would have liked to have seen one or both characters develop and move forward in their lives through the course of the play.
While English educators like Miss Moffat had the best of intentions, their efforts nearly succeeded in erasing Welsh as a living language. To me, one of the saddest moments in this production was at the start of the second act when, as the house lights dimmed, the wonderful sound of a Welsh men’s choir singing Ar Hyd y Nos was played, only to be replaced, when the lights came up on the stage, by the cast singing the same hymn in English. Even the politically correct “multi-cultural” hymnals of today, full of “world music,” the ones that are so careful to print the Spanish or Chinese or Hawaiian words to many hymns, never print the Welsh lyrics to such standards as Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) or Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer/Jehovah).
It was a treat to hear Welsh spoken and sung in this production, and many of the actors managed viable Welsh accents in their English lines as well as Ritchie. Someone asked me what Welsh sounded like and I replied that it sounded very beautiful, but printed on the page it looked like nothing you had ever seen before. There are few other languages using the Arabic alphabet that look so foreign. On the day of my high school graduation a bit of chaos ensued when the administration decided there was a terrible typographic error on my diploma. I was consulted and assured them that that was my Welsh middle name, spelled correctly. It just LOOKS like a typographic error.
What I didn’t like about this production was the set* by James Moore, which was just plain too big. What should be a cozy Welsh cottage feels more like a soaring Gothic cathedral. Yes, it would have to be a sizable “cottage” if it doubles as a schoolroom, but it is the ceiling height rather than the floor space that feels excessive.
I liked most of Jeff Mashie’s costumes but every now and then one felt slightly out of period, particularly some of Bessie’s get-ups. Even very loose women would not have publicly bared their ankles in rural Wales in the late 19th century. And delightful as it was to see postmistress Sarah Pugh (Amanda Leigh Cobb) in the Welsh national dress, she looked a little like a souvenir doll since she was the only one so attired. When I saw that wonderful Welsh hat all I could think of were W.W. Denslow’s illustrations of the Munchkins in the original edition of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and that is not the connotation Martin and Mashie intended.
Major minor complaint: That bicycle! If the folks currently in charge at the WTF don’t know who in Williamstown to call for the loan of an appropriate period bicycle then things are a LOT worse there than even I had imagined. It is only on stage for a split second, and would be much less noticeable if the WTF hadn't put a feature piece in the program about the role of bicycles in women's liberation.
The Corn is Green runs through August 12 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
* But I did love those acres of books lining the soaring set walls. They are courtesy of my friends Lois and Mike Daunis at Papyri Books, 45 Eagle Street in North Adams. In return for the loan, the WTF has donated some exciting newer books to the shop's inventory. Hooray!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007