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Staging Edith Wharton’s ‘Autres Temps’ in her Berkshires Home

By Simi Horwitz

AUGUST 11, 2011

Rehearsing Edith Wharton’s “Autres Temps” in her 19th-century Massachusetts drawing room takes site-specific theater to a whole new level. The room offers ornate ceilings, a marble fireplace, and murals depicting scenes from Greek mythology, and beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, a terrace overlooks formal Italianate gardens, Laurel Lake, and the rolling hills of the Berkshires. Wharton’s mansion, the Mount, designed to celebrate symmetry, order, and scale, serves as a perfect backdrop for a story written 100 years ago about the stigma of divorce in a seemingly harmonious society that’s just beginning to feel the rumblings of change—though in this version, directed by Catherine Taylor-Williams, the scene has been updated to 1962.

“I have always said Mrs. Wharton was ahead of her time,” says Taylor-Williams, producing artistic director of the Wharton Salon, now launching its third season. “When I was preparing to do the play, I was also reading two books: ‘When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present’ by Gail Collins and ‘A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s’ by Stephanie Coontz. There seemed to be something similar between Mrs. Lidcote in Wharton’s 1911 story and the women I was reading about in the other two books about the early 1960s. My audience was alive in 1962, obviously not in 1911. So I decided it would open an interesting dialogue by setting the play in 1962, on the cusp of great change for Americans, and American women in particular. And I thought it would stretch us all: the actors, the designers, the audience, and myself as a director.”

The Wharton Salon is Taylor-Williams’ baby and in many ways represents a homecoming. A former actor with the Lenox, Mass.–based Shakespeare & Company, she left the troupe in 2007 to take a graduate fellowship in arts management at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., followed by a stint in the development department at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. She felt the time had come to move on, cultivate new skills that would boost her income, and give herself the means necessary to forge a theater company should she decide to do so.

As Taylor-Williams tells it, she was haunted by the actors she had performed with at Shakespeare & Company, its bucolic surroundings, and the Mount, where Shakespeare & Company resided for more than 20 years before being forced out in the wake of a convoluted controversy and much ill will on all sides. But the Wharton Salon is a totally separate entity, and the board of directors has largely changed. The formerly decaying and dilapidated house has been restored, and the administrators are more than open to producing Wharton’s stories in the house or in the stable on the premises.

“We are delighted to be partnering with the Wharton Salon again this year, as their performances add another very important way for people to experience the power of Wharton’s writings,” says Susan Wissler, the Mount’s executive director. ” ‘Autres Temps’ is arguably one of Wharton’s finest pieces.”

For Taylor-Williams, staging Wharton represents the perfect marriage between wonderfully complex and nuanced roles for women of “a certain age” and the gifted, mature actors she has recruited for “Autres Temps” and her two previous productions, “Summer” and “Xingu.” Her current cast includes mother and daughter Diane Prusha and Rory Hammond (playing a mother and daughter), Corinna May, and James Goodwin Rice. All are, or have been, affiliated with Shakespeare & Company and have performed in a roster of Wharton dramatizations written by Shakespeare & Company founder Dennis Krausnick. “Autres Temps” is also adapted by Krausnick.

To date, the Wharton Salon has enjoyed sold-out runs with enthusiastic audiences who are eager to discuss the plays they’ve seen, other stories they’ve read and recommend, and their personal connection to Wharton’s work, Taylor-Williams reports. Much of Wharton’s writing explores the lives of conflicted upper-class women who are torn between society’s restraints and their own convention-defying impulses. Wharton’s best-known novels are “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “Ethan Frome.”

Acting Wharton

The actors are excited by Wharton as well. May, who has more than a dozen Wharton dramatizations to her credit, is continually drawn to the author’s depth and “a kind of mysterious inner life that she did not express,” says the actor. “All of her heroines are complicated and full of paradox. There is nothing straightforward about any of them. There is so much subtext. That makes for the best drama.”

Prusha, a 20-year Wharton actor, also talks about “the unspoken beneath the surface.” As an actor, the pleasure and challenge are the layer upon layer of emotion that need to be subtly hinted at, she says. Rice notes that a male actor faces the same daunting tasks in tackling Wharton’s men. “A larger challenge is the little aspects of language and syntax that reflect the time in which it was written,” he adds. “It’s wordy to a contemporary ear, though Dennis has simplified the language. But I enjoy solving the problem of the language and interpreting it. Why one word as opposed to another? Acting is sleuthing.”

As real-life mother and daughter, Prusha and Hammond bring an added dimension to the performance. They’ve performed together in the past and share a good personal and creative relationship. “Working with my mom is fun, though we’ve had artistic differences,” Hammond says, laughing. “Neither of us can get away with anything if it’s false. We know each other very well and are honest with each other. We can’t phone in a performance.”

Still, the material’s archaic view of ostracized divorced women would seem problematic for modern actors, despite Taylor-Williams’ ’60s updating. “I’m fascinated by setting it in ’62,” says Rice. “I was a junior in high school and very much aware of social norms and the double standard for men and women, girls and boys. Divorce was still viewed as shocking, and kids whose parents were divorced were seen as different.”

May insists that the attitudes in the story are not removed from her experience either. As a young woman, she watched her mother’s misery as a divorcée. “I can put myself in 1911 or 1962 because of my mother,” she says. “Divorce is a huge deal, even though the culture pretends it’s not. We know it’s very damaging to children, and there’s still the issue of who gets invited out with friends after a divorce. Edith Wharton’s culture is in many ways like contemporary Hollywood. When you’re married to the right person, you’re in. When you’re not married to that person, you’re out. The two worlds share a great deal in terms of status and hierarchy. Exclusion and banishment from the group exists.”

Informed by the Space

No one has any doubt that the extraordinary space, overflowing with the author’s presence, informs the acting. “I feel like I’m in that world, literally,” says Rice. “This is the kind of country home these characters would visit or occupy. This is a little bit like acting in a film’s locale. The site-specific surroundings inform the content and make the connection that much easier.”

May points out that humans, like animals, instinctively and biologically respond to their environments. The relationship with one’s space is intuitive. “In a theater, a set designer creates part of the world and the actor has to create the rest,” she notes. “But if you’re in the actual room, talking about looking out at Laurel Lake and actually looking out at Laurel Lake, the room then becomes the greatest scene partner. When we’re performing in the stable, the relationship is a little different. We have to work a little harder, but it’s still Edith’s place.” The authenticity of the scene also makes the suspension of disbelief that much easier for the audience, the actors say.

May lived at the Mount in the fall of 1989 while completing a work-study program with Shakespeare & Company. Prusha and Hammond say their connection to the house is far more personal. When the house was owned and run by Shakespeare & Company, Prusha and her then-husband, Michael Hammond, lived on the premises as members of the theater commune for 10 years. “I came here when I was 23,” she says. “This is part of my growing-up process. My daughter was conceived here. I feel I’m almost channeling Edith: to work in her place, a place where she was really happy. The Mount was her pride and joy. She created it and wrote amazing things here. To keep her words alive in this place gives it such resonance, especially for me as a woman.”

“It was my home; it was Edith Wharton’s home,” adds Hammond. “Working in this environment must inform the acting on levels that I’m not even aware of.”

New Roles, New Plans

All the actors are looking forward to future productions at the Mount. Hammond is eager to try her hand at the desperate Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth.” Rice toys with the idea of playing Wharton’s friend and colleague Henry James in a piece not yet written, though a dramatization could be based on their letters. May wants to play Ellen Olenska in a full production of “The Age of Innocence,” a spirited woman who is shunned by a society threatened by her freedom or the freedom they believe she embodies. “That otherness she brings and her struggle are so fascinating to me,” May says. “Who am I and who does the culture want me to be? Who do I want to be? Do I know who I am? How do I get to be who I am?”

Taylor-Williams’ dream production is a dramatization of the novel “The Custom of the Country,” the adventures of a savagely ambitious and much married social climber, Undine Spragg. “I can’t think of another female character in literature like Undine Spragg,” says Taylor-Williams. “What ambition! What a fun role for an actress! And what a challenge for a producer and director! To do it, we would be increasing cast size from our current maximum of seven or eight actors to more like 10 or maybe even 15. I can’t begin to imagine how many costumes and set locations we’d need, since the story takes place on two continents. It would probably run about three hours with edits and require at least six weeks of rehearsals to cover the material. I also think a character like Undine, whose story spans from her 20s into her late 40s or early 50s, would be better played by more than one actress. Ideally, we would do it in three parts and run each part during the week and the cycle on the weekend. It’s a Herculean task. It would be enormous fun, though, and I know the audience would love it.”

Taylor-Williams also talks about branching out to include dramatizations of stories written by Wharton’s contemporaries or playwrights from that time: “Edith Wharton was a New Yorker. How lovely it would be to find a location in New York City to adapt a New York story. There’s a lot of exciting things to work towards.”

“Autres Temps” will be performed Aug. 17–28 (at various times) at the Mount.

Tickets: www.whartonsalon.org, www.edithwharton.org, or (800) 838-3006.